The Sopranos almost single-handedly created the model for the critic-friendly modern TV drama, and it’ll be years before we stop feeling the effects. More recently, Mad Men and Breaking Bad, carrying its stylistic mantle, were unlikely successes, leading companies to believe that their cable channel and streaming service could contribute critically adored content, and compete with HBO. Thus, a golden age of endless television drama was ushered in.
Let’s-have-a-good-hard-think shows are available no matter where you’re surfing. We wade through a dearth of them every time we scroll through recommended Netflix titles; when we review past GChat conversations, we see friends endlessly proselytizing about new binge-able titles. We can measure our life out in prestige TV premiere dates.
The more you get into the habit of watching the Next Big Thing, the more you recognize more subtle isomorphisms — familiar feelings arise in you at carefully marked moments. This character has made a fatal mistake, this character has crossed a line he or she can’t step back over, this character recognizes that karma is real (is there a God?), this character marvels at his or her own significance in a vast, disordered universe.
There is room for minor expansion in the lane of Must-Watch Drama in television, and it is happening — though not enough. Thrillers like Fargo, the first season of True Detective and even Mr. Robot distinguished themselves from other comparable thrillers by drawing eccentric characters, expertly ramping up tension and tastefully employing compelling stylization. These elements were crammed effectively into familiar but rigorously structured exoskeletons of plots. These shows did not aim too high, using familiar spaces as a playground. In some recent coverage of new TV on this site, we’ve theorized about the endless droves of new shows, and their increasing mediocrity. The problem arises primarily when it comes to dramas aiming for an unspoken “prestige programming” designation.
We can’t expect true Originality in film and TV; also, that concept is nonsense, for reasons too numerous to list here. Some vanguard directors and writers get close to breaking some mold or other; There are shows like The Leftovers which truly feel like they have little precedent. But for the most part, new shows with lofty aims even up feeling deathly familiar. “I’ve seen this movie too,” Elton John sings, deep in the TV addict’s conscience, and “that movie” is that episode where Tony goes into an alternate universe during his coma in season six of The Sopranos.
A-list films seemed to be lagging well behind the quality of television just a few years ago, plagued as the film industry is by new superhero films (which rarely hold on their own terms, relying on the prepossessed knowledge of the audience — i.e. fanboy boners — and nonsensical but thrilling action sequences), generic period-piece Oscar-ready fare (by now, definitely stereotypes — thanks, The King’s Speech) and any number of other adaptations and reboots. With shows, people could put up with subtlety across longer expanses of time; after all, the slow burn keeps people watching. The rise of dramas like Mad Men meant that more studios were willing to give show runners wiggle room to try weirder things, but the same didn’t apply to film.
But in the past couple of years — as high-drama TV has become a numbing agent in itself — we can look back to film for good examples of where generic-ness is being circumvented. I’m not referring to overtly experimental work, but to smart projects with modest aims. In these films, aesthetic stylization and overt playing-against-expectations is left out of the picture. The language of filmmaking is not exploited to eccentric ends. This is an under appreciated classification: Let’s call it “hands-off.” Forget the hundreds of show runners and screenwriters scrambling over each other to chisel out archetypal mood profiles and poetic subtexts. Let’s embrace people just looking to channel everything toward giving a great consummate experience to the viewer, and leave their egos out of it.
Two movies that exemplify the best yield of this very general approach — in very different ways — are this month’s newsroom drama Spotlight, and last summer’s surprise hit The Gift.
Spotlight, in particular, made the perfect vessel for visceral and emotional subject matter: The movie focuses on the Catholic church’s institutional support of sexually abusive priests. The film is a rare “message” movie that is not interesting solely because of the issue it is taking on. Naturalism and hyper-realism is an old-fashioned concept, and for academically-minded film obsessives it’s a bad word. But here, we get a powerful mirroring effect — the horror mixed into a familiar and mundane “real” world that feels palpable.
But with Spotlight, one doesn’t have to get into that high-school-English-class issue of “Oh, I thought that wouldn’t really happen” or “I didn’t like this character.” Some might call it unambitious, but it takes great skill to make us forget that we are looking at skilled work. Spotlight sticks to its modest plan, and allows us to get lost in a story — which takes place in drab rooms, with simple, non hyperbolic banter, no romantic plot line, and only the drabbest costumes possible. Soon, we’ve almost forgotten we’re watching a movie.
Then there are films like well-known actor Joel Edgerton’s directorial debut and creepfest The Gift, which weaves a very unusual plot and morphs into a cryptic morality tale. A “weirdo” from dislikable protagonist Jason Bateman’s past returns to haunt him with odd presents and surreptitious appearances, and we expect house invasion — an attempt at revenge slaughter. Instead, Bateman becomes the bad guy, and “weirdo” Gordo exacts his potent revenge in a more metaphysical way.
A stalker is seemingly always around the corner, the camera suggests his eye is always watching. The Rosemary’s Baby trope of the woman stuck at home, scared, and a boorish husband who turns out to be the worst person of all time is familiar raw material. But the smoothness of Edgerton’s execution exalts The Gift. Writing it off as a “genre” movie would be sheer prejudice; it’s hard to liken this movie to any particular thing that’s come before it (some vestiges of art film like Luis Buñuel and Michael Haneke come across in its most unusual moments). Its control and razor-sharp sensibilities make it a real contender for being one of the best films of this year.
You might be tempted to overlook mid-tier movies like these on principle, assuming that they are part of this pervasive just-okay sameyness I am comparing about. But Spotlight is not empty Oscar fare, and The Gift is not a souped-up psychosexual thriller you are too good for. Each of these is better than many of the movies you are Supposed to See. Give me The Gift over something like Sicario, which cashes all of its chips in a sleek, grandiose aesthetic, and doesn’t do much outside of shock.
Once we recognize our current situation, and remember that every movie and TV doesn’t have to be Important or Campy Fun/Bad, we can seek out unusual gems that we’ll actually remember — that will stick with us. There’s plenty of art that feels full of gravitas in the moment, but in the end it feels functional — filling a void. A week later, it’s forgotten. I’ll remember Lifetime’s UnREAL for a lot longer than Narcos. Despite the very effective scares of the latter, I preferred The Gift to the pseudo-Lynchian gambits and nagging self-awareness of It Follows.
Give me humility in art, or give me a bottomless pit into which to throw my Roku. It’s in troubled times like these that we can truly appreciate the extent to which aiming for Good can be better than Great. Increasingly, attempting to will the latter into being leads to the Just-Okay.