What Walter White Knows and Hollywood Just Won't Accept

As PolicyMic’s movie fellow, part of my responsibility includes making sense of the conversations and controversies surrounding the film industry. However, on the heels of a buzzed-about-if-bizarre Emmys, and in the looming shadow of Breaking Bad’s finale, movies are struggling to make so much as a peep in our current, cultural moment. This is hardly a singular phenomenon. For the better part of the last decade, television has surpassed film in artistic achievement, dominated our cultural conversation, and now exists as the most exciting storytelling medium. Until Hollywood starts to emulate the formerly humble television set, audiences will continue to tune it out.

Hollywood itself recognizes its fading fortunes. If you’ve attended a Regal cinema in the last two years, you may have seen this bit of self-promotion before the trailers run.

The advertisement’s argument is fairly straightforward: the experience of the big screen trumps the convenience or frugality of our multiple, smaller screens. Regal’s implicit acknowledgement of Hollywood’s anxiety over our growing preference for television is as unprecedented as it is justified. At the same time, it fails to accurately diagnose our own ennui with the current state of film. We don’t tune into television shows like Breaking Bad or Mad Men hoping to find spectacle and bombast on par with the latest Hollywood release, we tune in to escape it, and instead find the challenging, robust narratives that seem missing from theaters.

In the last decade, TV producers and creators have grown their medium to unprecedented heights. By contrast, most mainstream films seem content to stay within the boundaries established by other commercially (not artistically) successful films. And while TV channels like HBO and FX make it their mission to green light dramas sure to reflect our current zeitgeist, studios like Disney and Warner Brothers insist on producing “tent-pole” films, which is film executive-speak for a movie that maximizes profits by appealing to the lowest-common denominator. Certainly, I would not suggest that the bottom line does not motivate television executives, but many (not all) have figured out how to turn a profit while delivering a quality product. Unquestionably, this general emphasis on quality has paid dividends for television production companies, both in terms of dollars and prestige.

Of course, this trend reverses more than half a century of conventional wisdom that situated the big screen as the bigger, more prestigious brother to television. The two mediums may share a common antecedent in the moving picture, but they certainly haven’t shared equal consideration from both producers and critics. This is why, for instance, casting directors have traditionally seen TV as the farm leagues for actors. Bruce Willis, George Clooney, and Jennifer Aniston all had to toil away on multi-cam TV shows until some enterprising scout recognized their potential and called them up to the major leagues. Yet if you caught any coverage of the Emmys (or in a fit of masochistic mania, actually tuned in to watch it), you’d have noticed as many luminaries of the silver screen among the nominees as “traditional” television stars. Kevin Spacey and Laura Linney did not accept roles on TV because they’re hard up for cash (I can’t say the same for Jeff Daniels), but rather because they saw their respective projects as true challenges.

The word “challenge” is key to understanding this shift, and also exonerates Hollywood from total culpability in its fading fortunes. That is to say, the serialized format of television provides unique opportunities to probe and question social and political hierarchies in ways that the medium of film simply does not allow for. Films can certainly deconstruct archetypes and genres (see: the oeuvre of Martin Scorsese), but that deconstruction is limited by a two-hour runtime. By contrast, shows like The Wire, Sopranos, or Mad Men can delve into, problematize, and above all, challenge audience perceptions of gender, race, or morality over the course of entire seasons. While films will never have the same substantial narrative space to explore as TV shows, Hollywood’s most damning flaw is its general unwillingness to utilize even its modest allotment for anything other than bland popcorn films.

Nowhere will this disparity be more crystalline than Sunday, when television’s strengths as a medium may well reach their zenith in the series finale of Breaking Bad. No other series has managed to so deftly meld the sophisticated storytelling of televised drama with the spectacle of modern cinema. Yet filmmakers would be hard pressed to transform Breaking Bad into a successful feature film. Part of Breaking Bad’s success derives from the show’s readiness to alienate its audience, by pushing its initial antihero far beyond any semblance of heroism. This is exactly the type of dramatic risk Hollywood has pathologically avoided for fear of losing a ticket sale, but audiences clearly crave it.

So although I’m loath to offer Walter White as any sort of role model, if movies want to regain their cultural prominence, they may well have to pull a Heisenberg and break bad.