There were two McConaugheys broadcast on Sunday night. One was the McConaughey honored for his portrayal of a real-life AIDS victim turned treatment advocate, for which he shed fifty pounds and (symbolically) years of critical bad will. It was a comeback story as predictable as any Hollywood ending. The other, far more interesting and less predictable McConaughey was tucked into the premium world of HBO in the form of True Detective’s Rust Cohle, where each week he delivers free-form philosophical jargon at just above a whisper and performs oh-so-calculated-yet-mesmerizing actorly business with only the end of a cigarette and a six pack of beer.
The hive mind has credited True Detective for making an invisible supporting push toward McConaughey’s win in the form of a “reverse Norbit effect,” legitimizing him as a strong performer outside the clichéd obviousness of a recognition like this. But as critical and fan communities show a much stronger collective love for True Detective than they did for the supposed apex of McConaughey’s well-heeled comeback, I’m not convinced that True Detective and work like it is simply another gear in the machine of an industry’s collective good will for a once-dismissed actor.
There’s been plenty written about this supposed golden age of television (even, regrettably, by myself). Although we hesitate to admit so in a hyperbolic, Netflix-binge-enabling TV culture that sees Breaking Bad’s lionized status as an opinion-of-fact, quality television has been growing tiresome.
Quality TV has become exactly what it formerly relieved us from: formula. You can choose one of the following: stories of morally ambiguous to morally vacant men easily emasculated in their regionally-and/or historically specific environments, an elaborate supernatural world that extends and reinvents a familiar fantastic genre, or an initially engrossing mystery that quickly runs out of steam as showrunners sheepishly admit they never had answers in mind to the compelling questions they posed.
Organized as miniseries or a threaded high concept not beholden to a season-spanning narrative arc, programs like True Detective, Top of the Lake, and American Horror Story instead reside comfortably somewhere between a feature film and a television series, allowing their narratives to expand outward while remaining selective in scope. This prevents such shows from falling into a great many traps that befall seasons-long series, like the pressure to always amplify the stakes or tell a story well past its natural conclusion. In regards to the mystery arc alone, True Detective is poised to avoid wholesale the problems of The Killing by admitting that, yeah, perhaps a single mystery shouldn’t last past one season.
This would mean nothing to cinema or cinephiles if so many new serial programs weren’t helmed from start to finish by notable filmmakers. Under the gaze of Sin Nombre and Jane Eyre-helmer Cary Fukunaga for all eight of its first season episodes, True Detective has already been credited as the most cinematic show on TV, employing stunning aerial shots and other complex technical maneuvers like an ambitious long take, all typically alien to the more streamlined economic schedule of television shooting. (The show has even been labeled too cinematic.)
While House of Cards staged a prestigious coming out of television after television, inaugurated with David Fincher’s legitimizing presence for its first two episodes, True Detective devotes its entire season to the co-authorship of one director and one writer (creator Nic Pizzolatto). And the serial format itself makes room for the film actors’ schedules, allowing the occasional movie star or character actor to see a narrative through without worrying about the potential 100-episode prison of success.
It sounds cliché, but serial TV can often feel like long-form cinema. Jane Campion’s 7-part miniseries Top of the Lake, for instance, is an unmistakably Campion work, complete with a complex female lead slyly laboring opposite a labyrinthine male dominated system. Set in her native New Zealand, Top of the Lake is arguably Campion’s best work since the Oscar-nominated The Piano, an accomplishment complete with a strange, beguiling performance from Holly Hunter as the esoteric overseer of an idyllic women-only camp.
One thing is certain about Top of the Lake that distinguishes it from the TV landscape around it: it sports the authorial signature of a movie director, not a showrunner. This is not a qualitative distinction, but an observation about how Campion uses the medium of television differently from, say, Vince Gilligan and Matthew Weiner. Top of the Lake is unquestionably the best film of last year that never screened in theaters.
Kevin Spacey, whose career accompanied so many great movies of the 1990s, struggled in the 21st century until he found a renewed, revitalized home on a show meant for your computer. While not embracing series, perhaps talented filmmakers are likewise moving to serial television because therein lie possibilities that they can’t—or can no longer—achieve in film. Such certainly seems to be the case with the extended retirement of Steven Soderbergh, whose forthcoming 10-episode Cinemax miniseries The Knick sports Clive Owen, a score by Cliff Martinez, and more than enough blood from early 20th century medical care to make any movie studio head wince.
Awards make a lot of arbitrary distinctions in terms of what does and does not qualify for consideration. The Oscar’s Foreign Language category is a paradigm for the bureaucracy of accolade season. But perhaps in future years, it might even seem that by defining movies as self-contained projects that show in theaters, we’re missing some of the best work of cinematic imaginations. This isn’t without precedent. Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander, whose three-hour US release took home four Oscars thirty years ago, originally aired as a four-part, six-hour production for Swedish television.
And with titles like The Perils of Pauline, Fantomas, and Les Vampires that had audiences returning to the edges of their seats each week, serial filmmaking itself predated the existence of feature films, much less television. It was simply no longer quite so central to the filmmaking experience by the time awards ceremonies became an established annual custom.
Perhaps it’s time we make room for the fact that, occasionally, the best movies come in parts.