With big and small-screen sensibilities merging, where does that leave film?

'The Sopranos,' starting in 1999, revolutionized the way television shows were made.
'The Sopranos,' starting in 1999, revolutionized the way television shows were made.

CHICAGO — After a screening, even as the lights came up in the theater, I could feel Zero Dark Thirty fading, its images and impact already softening in my head. No, no, wait: not fading — mingling. If our cultural experiences rub shoulders at a kind of cocktail party in our brains, then Zero Dark Thirty, as soon as we were done chatting, as much I admired its company, slipped away quietly into the cultural crush.

I lost sight of it behind Downton Abbey and Breaking Bad, and almost immediately I could not distinguish it within the forest of long-form TV series vying for real estate in my head, angling for my free time.

In fact, by coincidence I had recently begun a flirtation with Homeland, and while watching Zero Dark Thirty it was hard not to be reminded of this other complex, time-consuming conversation I was having with a TV series.

To put it another way: A movie kept reminding me of TV. And this time, TV, not the Oscar-nominated behemoth, for better and worse, won out. 

This is not a trivial thing.

For roughly a decade, at least since The Sopranos debuted in 1999, kicking off what TV critic Alan Sepinwall refers to in his recent book, The Revolution Was Televised, as the “new golden age of television,” the accepted wisdom is that TV series became more cinematic, nuanced. And, of course, it’s true.

Less discussed is that a decade on, movies remind us of television.

Consider this Oscar season: The Impossible (albeit made on quadruple the budget) had me picturing the standard human-interest TV movies. The boozy anti-hero of Flight, played by Denzel Washington, could be the basis of a Showtime series. Hyde Park on Hudson had me thinking not of Gosford Park but Downton Abbey. And even before Zero Dark Thirty was reminding me of Homeland, Silver Linings Playbook was reminding me of Homeland: The latter comparison was more superficial — Claire Danes’ Homeland CIA operative is bipolar, Bradley Cooper’s Playbook basket case is bipolar — but a decade earlier I never would have imagined TV and film at the same party in my head.

I respected the natural order:

Film is better than TV. TV aspires to film’s stature. And this is a one-way street.

One decade and many Netflix marathons later (of The Wire, Battlestar Galactica, American Horror Story, The Shield, Mildred Pierce, et al.), an awards show as historically questionable as the Golden Globes, in which achievement in film and television stand on equal footing, seems less questionable.

Said Farhad Safinia, creator of Boss, another cable series (recently canceled after two seasons by its network, Starz): “The last few months especially, that feeling of the movies becoming TV, it’s something in the water right now. I’ve actually had this conversation with a few TV and movie people.”

He described a recent meeting at HBO to discuss potential shows. “An executive said to me, half-jokingly, that HBO had adult drama to themselves for a decade, and that not even movie studios were going there. But when a movie like Lincoln, which is basically a 2½-hour congressional debate, makes $100 million, everything’s different. They see Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty, and suddenly the field looks crowded.”

Let us pause to consider what was just said: A TV executive sees large-budget, multi-Oscar-nominated movies as directly infringing on his turf. If you love the theatrical experience, that’s depressing. If you’re not as fussy about the medium, it’s hopeful.

Either way, that executive is astute: Despite receiving 12 Oscar nominations and being directed by Steven Spielberg, a man once described in the New Yorker as the first American filmmaker so born to the medium that he “doesn’t think in terms of the proscenium arch,” Lincoln plays like great TV. Which, if you’ve ever taken a deep dive on The Wire or Mad Men, does not speak badly of Lincoln.

An epic this wordy and demanding of an audience’s patience and ability to process a lot of complex, unfamiliar information would not have appeared out of place on HBO as, say, a more rigorous, detail-minded cousin to John Adams.

Even a film as seemingly removed from the television experience as The Hobbit: Knowing that it’s actually three films that will eventually extend to a probable 10-or-so-hour tale (or roughly the length of a single season of Game of Thrones), “you can kind of feel the rhythm of serialization working throughout,” Safinia said. “What happened to single, defining movies that do one thing in two hours? That’s not really a criticism. I sat through The Hobbit, it didn’t finish, and that’s OK. People expect that. I made a movie with Mel Gibson named Apocalypto, and people actually asked if there would be a sequel.”

If blockbuster movie franchises have helped establish an internal episodic clock in audiences, a decade or so of intricate, risky HBO and Showtime series have installed expectations of open-endedness, ambiguity.

As I watched The Hobbit, I made a mental note to return soon to Game of Thrones. Just as while watching Zero Dark Thirty, I couldn’t help but picture an HBO series of identical material looking very much like this, a mash-up of The Wire and Homeland, with multiple storylines spilling over multiple seasons, a parallel plot line following the Navy SEALs from their training right up to their raid on Bin Laden’s compound.

Even the film’s somewhat ambiguous final image would probably work, albeit after, oh, seven seasons.

It’s important to note that this cross-pollination of aesthetics and expectations is not necessarily an issue of quality — in particular, to see Zero Dark Thirty after Homeland is to be reminded of what great movies often do well (compression) and what even the best long-form television series struggles with (editing). Television, Mylod said, tends to attract writers who “want to do a Ph.D. on a character, not a 1,000-word nugget.”

Safinia said there have been discussions of a Boss movie, but he would prefer more than two hours to conclude what he started. Intentions are fluid, however. Last fall, I asked David Chase, creator of The Sopranos, why his follow-up to his landmark show was a movie (Not Fade Away, now playing), not a series. He said the material — the life of a small-town rock band in the 1960s — was too thin for the weight of a TV series.

I doubted this.

He replied, “For a series to stay on the air, a show needs sex and death, basically, and that’s too much to put on these kids.” Then, in almost the same breath, he added that, on the other hand, he had considered a TV series of similar material tied to the Rolling Stones catalog, with each new episode named for a Stones song. Later, in Sepinwall’s book, I learned that the pilot of The Sopranos turned out so well that Chase harbored hopes of HBO rejecting it, thereby freeing him to shoot a second hour and release it as a feature.

No matter how a Sopranos movie might have turned out, to have not had that series would have been a cultural tragedy: What The Sopranos and its cable children provided in the past decade were substitutes for the kind of thoughtful, modestly budgeted movies that studios mostly have stopped making. Mylod said that Shameless was never produced with any intention “of filling a hole in the film market,” but its slightly grubby, class-conscious milieu carries the definite marks of Sundance indies.