The fifth and final season of the best show on television premiered on Sunday. Like season two’s infamous teddy bear, this season’s cold opening gave us a glimpse of what’s to come before immediately returning to where we left off. The episode was dramatic, darkly funny, intense, visually interesting, brilliantly paced, and full of characters making decisions that propel the story forward. It looks like we’re in for another brilliant season of television. As the Breaking Bad hype was building someone asked Bryan Cranston if he thought Breaking Bad could be a good movie. His answer? No. Wait, What? He went on to say something I’ve heard over and over again the last few years, “Television has usurped movies’ standing as the home for serious storytelling for adults.” With brilliant shows like The Wire, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and Homeland it’s easy to understand where he’s coming from, but I believe Cranston (and others like him) are wrong. These shows do not prove television is better than film. Instead, Breaking Bad and The Wire prove television is a better medium for their specific stories.
Watch the amazing recap of the first four seasons of Breaking Bad above. What’s the first thing you notice? Yes, Requiem for a Dream‘s “Lux Aeterna” is an amazing musical companion, but let’s dig deeper. Pay attention to the plot within the recap. It’s immediately obvious that there is too much story for a film, and this recap doesn’t even include the vast amount of subplot that involve secondary characters. If someone tried to pack everything that happens in this show into a 90 minute film there would be no room for the brilliant slow burns this show has become so good at. The subtle, quiet character moments would disappear, and the story would lose its nuance, power, and intensity. When a story is never ending, overwhelming intensity an audience becomes numb to its effect. This is why a show like Breaking Bad or a film like Black Swan needs the slower moments. The television medium gives Breaking Bad’s story the room it needs to breath.
But this doesn’t make television better than film. For example, Black Swan would be a terrible television show. Aronofsky quickly and brilliantly tells Nina’s story in less than 2 hours. He could add more scenes, but they wouldn’t be necessary. There just isn’t enough story to occupy the 10 or so hours of a material an AMC or HBO show requires for a season, let a lone 5 of them. And let’s not forget, a lot dramatic television isn’t good and can be just as constrained by it’s format as film is. A show like Dexter has been run into the ground because Showtime is more concerned with making money then telling a story. The recent season of The Walking Dead kept a little girl lost for half a season so we could discover her fate at the mid season finale. No one cared anymore because the storyline had become annoying, but the show just had to have a crazy episode there. Lost fell apart because it was a show thriving on mystery and questions, but they were making it up as it went a long. Even TV shows can run out of time to tell the story.
I do not believe television is better than film or vice versa. But I do believe their are better mediums for telling specific stories. For example, the past couple years I’ve been developing a film about a basketball player. The film was going to follow him from high school all the way to the end of his career because I want to show how a professional athlete’s life changes and what kind of stuff they have to deal with. I believe professional athletes are consistently vilified by the media and fans and I want to explore that idea. I figured it’d be a 2 and a half to 3 hour movie, but then I began asking myself, “How am I going to fit everything into that time frame if I want to devote a lot of time to different times in his life?” When I found out Sean Durkin was going to make The Exorcist into an 8 hour mini series it hit me. This story isn’t a film, it’s a mini-series. Does this mean I prefer mini-series to film? No. It’s just the right medium for this specific story. Instead of arguing over which medium is better we should really develop the stories we want to tell and figure out what’s the best way to tell them.