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No, “Twin Peaks: The Return” is Not a Movie

It is December.

As tradition dictates, the major publications are rolling out their “best of” lists. One of the more interesting trends of the “best of” season in 2017 has been the repeated suggestion that David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return should be considered an eighteen-hour movie. It made the Sight & Sound and Cahiers du Cinema polls, and even got a write-in vote at the Los Angeles Film Critics Awards. This is interesting on a number of levels, because it suggests that labelling The Return as a feature film is not a lone act of contrarianism, but something of a minor trend.

Of course, there are grey areas between film and television. There always have been, given the similarities in the technology and mechanism. Film can be shown on television, and television can be shown in cinemas. There are television movies and film series, and it is often possible for stories that start in one form to transform into the other. The boundaries are not as absolute as they are with theatre or prose, where the technical form is so fundamentally different that any comparison is ridiculous. After all, consider the debate over movies released on Netflix, or films edited for television.

The Return is not an ambiguous area, though. It is a fairly simple case. It is a television series. And there is nothing wrong with that.

The case for The Return as a television series is so self-evident as to barely bear repeating. The series is eighteen episodes long. It was released on television in a weekly schedule. Each of these episodes was a self-contained unit of narrative, despite carrying over plot threads and arcs in the way that serialised television tends to do; think about the musical numbers that separated each episode, or the way in which each built towards something within itself. The eighth episode of the series is clearly a distinct narrative unit. It is not an eighteen-hour movie arbitrarily split into chunks.

The repeated efforts to label The Return as a feature film seem to exist as an attempt to elevate and legitimise it, implying that The Return is somehow more worthy if it is a feature film and more disposable if it is television. This is an interesting and long-standing sentiment, but it is particularly intriguing to see it repeated in the second decade of the twenty-first century. It reveals how little perceptions and attitudes of changed, and how dismissively certain institutions think of television.

Television has always suffered in comparison to film. There are various reasons for that, but a lot of it comes down to the fact that television is younger. The early years of television involved a lot of experiments and uncertainties, as those working in the new medium tried to figure out what television was supposed to be. These years are equivalent to the early years of cinema, of which a staggering amount of material is lost and of which a significant portion of material was effectively churn produced to fill release bandwidth.

As much as audiences and critics (rightly) venerate classic cinema, it had a lot in common with early television. A lot of its storytelling was rudimentary, and a lot of its content was disposable. In its early years, cinema felt like a constant churn, as studios released wave-after-wave of content to fill cinemas on a weekly basis and as a lot of the content was deemed disposable. However, cinema had an opportunity to grow and develop into its own entity with a unique identity. Criticism evolved with it, as filmmakers and audiences came to think of cinema as art more than cheap entertainment.

Early television was similarly clumsy. A lot of it is lost to history. A lot of it is torn between two extremes, unsure whether it belonged to the cinematic or theatrical tradition. A lot of early content reflects this. The theatrical influence shone through in the loose theatrical set design and the emphasis on broad performance choices designed to be appreciated by audiences who would be watching on small screens with variable signal quality. The cinematic influence could be seen in the medium’s enthusiasm for anthology television series that would offer a new setting and premise each week.

The production of television further contributed to the sense that it was somehow not “art.” Early cinema had been a process of churn, of producing content to fill cinemas in order to sell seats. Television amplified that, with production teams often tasked with producing dozens of episodes in a season. Operating under that kind of pressure, quality was a secondary concern. Deadlines were a priority. The key was to fill the airwaves, with little thought given to posterity. As such, it is no surprise that television was seen as a “vast wasteland.”

Film discourse has developed to appreciate the history and development of the medium, with most critics having an understanding of the medium’s history and cultural context. In contrast, the reality of modern television is largely divorced from its historical context. Television coverage today is largely governed by “recaps” and “discussions”, with more and more newspapers and websites moving away from the type of reviews and cultural coverage that they afford to film and theatre.

There is very little avenue for discussing classic television in its historical context, or for charting the evolution of the medium. The A.V. Club has been scaling back its T.V. Club Classic coverage, which had provided a forum for discussing classic series like The Twilight Zone. It is possible for a writer working in television to cover the medium without having any direct experience of some of its defining moments, from Alfred Hitchcock Presents to Homicide: Life on the Street. While film studies has developed a “canon”, television has no such widely-accepted body of history deemed essential to its appreciation.

Even up to the new millennium, television seemed to exist in the shadow of cinema. “Cinematic” was an adjective towards which production teams aspired. In the nineties, shows like The X-Files proved that it was possible to produce what was effectively a movie on a weekly basis, with blockbuster mythology episodes during sweeps. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, shows like 24 proved that it was possible to attract bona fides movie stars to work in the medium to lend it some legitimacy.

When the revolution came with the new millennium, it involved disowning a lot of television history in favour of prestige. Inherent in the promise “it’s not TV, it’s HBO” was the idea that shows like The Sopranos and The Wire were somehow transcending the limitations of television rather than exploiting the narrative potential inherent in the medium. Television production moved towards more artistic considerations; producers and writers came to be sold as “auteurs” equivalent to film directors, production orders were cut to increase quality, release schedules were allowed to slip.

However, there was always a sense that television’s inferiority complex was lurking in the background. Critics and writers were quick to describe television by other formats, as if to suggest that these formats were more legitimate. Prestige dramas were compared to novels; Deadwood, Mad Men, True Detective, Hannibal. Pulpy television series were likened to extended films; Daredevil, Iron Fist. There was seldom a sense that television was an artform of itself, and could only be artsy when it pretended to be something else.

To be fair, some of these comparisons are valid. Netflix and streming services have changed the idea of what television could be, no longer wedding television series to the once-a-week-in-forty-minutes-plus-ads format. Television series could be released in their totality, for audiences to appreciate at their leisure. There was no longer a need to structure each episode as something to hold audience attention for a week, as the next episode would start playing automatically. There is a credible argument that these series were closer to hyper-extended movies.

The first season of Daredevil, for example, is effectively the format of Batman Begins extended over thirteen hours, a testament to the robustness of Christopher Nolan’s first blockbuster. Of course, it is debatable whether this transition towards a more cinematic approach to narrative was inherently a good thing, as individual episodes of series like this tended to be unstructured messes and overall season struggled to maintain a consistent arc through this form. The television episode was arguably a feature of the form, rather than a limitation.

There is a beautiful irony here. As television aspired to be more literary or cinematic, film was becoming more like television. The Marvel Cinematic Universe established the template for various “shared universes” in blockbuster storytelling, whether the “Dark Universe” or the “DC Extended Universe.” These models often felt like television series with very expensive episodes released once or twice a year; Marvel even hired television directors like Alan Taylor or the Russo Brothers. The Transformers franchise had a television-esque writers’ room.

This anxiety about the status and legitimacy of television is reflected in the debate around The Return, a reminder that every bold step forward for the medium seems to be prefaced with a disavowal. “It’s not television…” Well, The Return very clearly is television. And it need make no apology for that.

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