Television Takes on Cinema

in 31st Torino Film Festival

by Anne Brodie

Is Today’s Television Better Than Movies?

Popular wisdom these days holds that television has surpassed films in storytelling, quality and cinematically. There are a number of reasons for the seismic shift in the power balance held in a vice grip by film for decades. Television offers flexible scheduling, a longer window in which nuances of character and finely detailed elements add richness a two hour film could  never hope to offer. Also unfortunately for the theatrical film industry, television is available right at home.

Television has taken on a rich new life with successful dramatic series in unusual formats emerging from various countries. No longer using the standard Movie-of-the-Week or hour long weekly instalment formatting, new television series vary greatly in episode length and number. Many of these series focus on a single event or crime, leaving plenty of space for character development, atmosphere and subplots.

Locations have suddenly become special and familiar, like characters, the huge cliffs of “Broadchurch”, the rural flatlands of “Southcliffe” and the pumped political maelstrom that is Washington D.C. in “House of Cards”. “Top of the Lake” is set against the majestic danger of New Zealand’s mountains. The time accorded these series allows audiences to live the story’s life in vivid, gripping, enveloping detail.

Highly respected filmmakers are taking part in the new television, around the world. England has produced remarkable stand-alone series primarily in the police procedural genre, “The Fall”, “Broadchurch” and “Southcliffe”, Canada has the rural mystery “Durham County”, the US the split world of “The Bridge”, the remote and chilly “The Killing”, as well as the hugely popular series “Breaking Bad” and “Game of Thrones”.

Turin Film Festival showed its savvy by running a series of internationally celebrated TV programmes in its Big Bang TV retrospective. They included David Fincher’s American series “House of Cards”, Britain’s “Southcliffe” by Sean Durkin and Jane Campion’s New Zealand project “Top of the Lake”.

Fincher’s “House of Cards”, a smart, acerbic political series starring Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright, Kate Mara and Corey Stoll.  Fincher’s films “Seven”, “Zodiac”, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and “The Social Network” indicate Fincher’s unerring grasp of the human condition in dramatic situations and his ability to help shape the new face of television. A congressman and his wife plot against well, everyone, when he is passed over for a big Cabinet job.  It dares to move slowly and grind exceeding small.

Durkin’s debut feature “Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene” showed his ability to express the underlying anxiety of life, of people in difficult situations. His terrific television series “Southcliffe” features a small rural English coastal town targeted by a serial killer (Sean Harris) as its citizens begin to crack, revealing the deadly flaws in their seemingly peaceful community.  “Southcliffe” won’t make you feel safe at night.

Jane Campion’s superb series “Top of the Lake”, shot in New Zealand begins with the attempted suicide and disappearance of a young pregnant girl who grew up with backwoods hyenas with guns and evil hearts. A detective from the US (Elizabeth Moss) returns home to find the girl. Meanwhile a strange guru (Holly Hunter) has set up a commune for bewildered midlife women. Strange immersive stuff.

Torino’s enlightened decision to feature the new crop of stellar television series indicates that it knows what’s what in popular global culture. The screenings, some lasting four hours, were packed. That’s good programming and speaking personally, great viewing.

Edited by Demetrios Matheou