Marvel miniseries and the TV formatting challenge

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Form follows function, the saying goes. First invented by architect Louis Sullivan in his 1896 essay “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered,” the slogan has since broadened into a whole design principle: whatever purpose you want. that an object serves, its aspect and its form must serve objective above all; factors like aesthetics or novelty, it is implied, should be secondary at best. Sullivan was talking about fitness, but the same concept applies to more intangible ideas like art media.

For most of the history of television, there simply weren’t many shapes to choose from. But with the rise of cable and streaming, there has been both an explosion of formats and a drastic shift in incentives. Mini-series and TV dramas are long-standing media staples, but for the most part, traditional TV series are designed to last as long as possible, to better serve as a vehicle for commercials; the longevity of a show is usually a function of audience and budget, not the intention of the creator. With cable channels and subscription-funded streaming services, the math for starting or ending a show is different, driven by the buzz for a global brand rather than the performance of specific titles. (The two are certainly related; they’re just not as synonymous as they used to be.) And especially on streaming services, which don’t have strict time slots to fill, the possibilities of a story’s eventual structure. are endless. Form follows function, yes. But what happens when there is a virtually limitless supply of forms a narrative can take, from feature films and continuing series to everything in between?

This open-ended question and its many answers led to a phenomenon that I have come to consider as “formal confusion”. As a reviewer, I’m used to asking if writing, acting, and directing a series helps achieve its overall goals. But in the last few years I’ve lost count of the times I’ve watched a limited series that would work better as a movie, or a movie that would work better as a limited series, or a season that could use a few more episodes to fill its sound. bow. However, length is also a subjective variable, as subject to evaluation as any performance. It’s a trend intrinsically linked to the broader collapse of film and television as separate fiefdoms, as streaming eats away at theatrical exclusivity and television becomes increasingly saturated with finite, stand-alone series. Television has never had so many options for how and for how long to tell its stories, an exciting array of possibilities that also leaves room for error.

There is no better case study for the confusion of forms than the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the now slightly misnamed Leviathan which recently included two limited series (WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier), a recurring series (Loki), and a feature film (Black Widow) released simultaneously in theaters and the Disney + service, which also houses the television shows. In just six episodes, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was overloaded with ambitious themes that it inevitably did not serve; like a posthumous return of a barely drawn heroine, Black Widow shouted for more details on the character he was supposed to provide. The MCU has long echoed the serialized structure of television in its blockbusters, but by storing The Avengers in the same virtual space as shows like the next one Hawk Eye, Disney + highlights how many tools Marvel now has and invites debate on how it chooses them. Would like The Falcon and the Winter Soldier has he benefited from a few extra hours to flesh out his argument on race and patriotism? Would like Black Widow Would it have served its purpose better if we had seen more of Natasha’s life as an assassin in training?

But with its deep pockets and cultural dominance, the MCU is not subject to one of the main confusing market forces: the decline of mid-budget film and the subsequent migration of projects that might otherwise make one into television, where they are reborn as a series of glitzy events. One of the most successful miniseries of last year, chess drama The Queen’s Gambit, is essentially the seven-hour version of an inspiring sports flick, the genre that made countless successes in the ’90s, but has since all but disappeared. (The previous Netflix show from creator Scott Frank, Impious, had a similar transplant feel, but for the old-fashioned western.) The Queen’s Gambit was a huge success, earning a rare press release touting its audience and, most recently, 18 Emmy nominations. The saga of besieged prodigy Beth Harmon, played with startling intensity by Anya Taylor-Joy, nevertheless lingers in places; all those sequences of Beth looking at the ceiling tend to add up, and the in the media res the opening feels artificially inserted – a “wait and see” for viewers who won’t see Beth in her prime for hours on end. The rhythm of the series is not a fatal flaw. It simply highlights a common problem in what has become the most crowded space on television.

If a miniseries is successful, it is also tempted to dilute its own success. The most infamous example is, of course, season 2 of Big little lies, an unforced error of a follow-up that turned the poster child of the new era of celebrity-led television into a source of Meryl Streep GIF and nothing else. Not all expansions of what was initially sold as a standalone series are disastrous. Perry mason once was a case show of the week; now it feels more like the case of the season, slowed down proceedings instead of just an origin story. There are also cases like Kill Eve, the spy drama that proved unable to maintain its cat-and-mouse game after creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge left, and admitted it three seasons too late. Kill Eve may not have been billed as a miniseries from the start, but it increasingly seems like it would have worked better in hindsight.

The understanding that a series is as limited as its network and talents want is now so ingrained that speculation about a renewal is practically a badge of honor – a sign that a show has left fans wanting more. The last beneficiary of such rumors was Easttown mare, whose creator, Brad Ingelsby, gave an answer just ambiguous enough to keep the possibility in play. (Mare, too, might have the impression that he was developing his central mystery to fulfill his order of seven episodes; a shorter version could have had fewer red herrings.) The natural corollary of whether a show will be getting a second season, of course, is whether he should. NXIVM Docuseries The wish already stretched his found images in endless nine hours. Do we really need more of Keith Raniere’s noxious rants?

Not all the factors of the duration of a series are creative, nor even purely financial. The coronavirus pandemic has caused production to drop, prematurely canceling series like GLOW and force some to change formats on the fly. Unable to film its second season, HBO’s Euphoria instead, he turned to a pair of special episodes that took the series forward without summoning the full cast again. the Euphoria specials made for inadvertent contrast to the Netflix movie Malcolm & Marie, director Sam Levinson and star Zendaya’s other quarantine project. Both projects were updates on long-term relationships at a critical juncture, but where Euphoria the fans had the advantage of already knowing the protagonists well, Malcolm & MarieThe pair of s headlines felt barely drawn, lacking in nuance and context.

Could Malcolm & Marie worked better as a mini-series, to better blend in with a complicated push-and-pull? Perhaps; maybe not, since Master of Nonethe new abnormal season of (subtitled Moments of love) took a similar concept, split it into five episodes, and also failed. In fact, my own response to Moments of love was to lament that it looked like an artificially stretched feature in a piece of television. It’s not that there is a foolproof formula for determining which quick-disintegrating box is the best house for a fledgling idea; life would be much simpler if there were. The point is, confusion of forms is everywhere, and easy answers are not.

The length does not always depend on the format of a story. The concept also applies to how a person is posted and over what period of time, a question that applies widely to multi-part series on flexible streaming services. Netflix may have popularized the frenzy, while one episode per week remains the preferred rollout of conventional networks. But there are now many options in between: a “half-frenzy” of a few episodes followed by a weekly release, a strategy favored by Hulu and Apple TV +, or HBO Max’s decision to drop out. Hacks‘episodes in pairs, or Netflix turning the Fear street films in a three-week event. Like the Marvel series and Easttown mare have shown that a weekly outing can still develop word of mouth; a frenzy can also bury shows fantastically ill-suited to marathon viewing, like Barry Jenkins’ scorching adaptation of The Underground Railroad. And yet, there is always a certain ubiquity in a drop of one hit that hits a nerve. For a few days at the end of June, the Netflix melodrama Gender / Life was anything but inescapable, as silly as its twists were.

History is full of shows that survive their welcome or fail to keep their promises; Showtime, for example, is notorious for letting hit shows take their time. The difference is that in the age of streaming, such decisions aren’t always made in the name of a particular project. Sometimes a show controls its own destiny, with all the responsibilities that come with it. Between medium, duration, and release strategy, there’s more leeway than ever to make choices that don’t suit the material or condemn it to be ignored by an audience it doesn’t connect with. (The answer to The Underground Railroad was oddly muted given the fame of its director and the source text.) But sometimes the confusion of forms takes on a simpler form. The sitcom Girls5Eva looks and feels like the best kind of network sitcom, even though it airs on the Peacock streaming service. Considering its style, one would expect a series longer than eight episodes, a batch short enough to inhale in an afternoon. The show fits perfectly into its abridged series, and a season 2 is already in the works. You just, selfishly, there were more.


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