Why Are We So Sure ‘Prestige’ TV Looks Like a 10-Hour Movie?

Game of Thrones’ creators recently described the show as a “73-hour movie.” Photo: HBO

At the Los Angeles PaleyFest on Saturday, Jonathan Nolan described writing the second season of Westworld as “a ten-hour movie.” Just a few weeks ago, the showrunners for Game of Thrones noted that they considered their entire series “a 73-hour movie.” It’s a claim that’s become increasingly common in the past several years, and it’s linked to a whole host of related terms about what we should be valuing in TV, and how we define “prestige.” The 10- or 13- or 73-hour-movie idea rises out of the same impulse as “novelistic” TV, or television that treats its episodes as “chapters,” or even from the urge to reframe an entire first season as a “pilot.” While the connotations of those terms may differ slightly, the underlying message is the same — one episode of TV is not enough. To really appreciate what this series is doing, and to really tell a serious, worthwhile, complex, and important story, you can’t judge a single episode. You need lots. Ideally, you can’t fully judge it, can’t weigh its success or value, until you’ve seen all of it.

There are countless ways this is frustrating, many of which have been addressed in the several waves of this particular idea about prestige TV that have cropped up in the past 20 years, and the several matching waves of criticism about them. Many of those critiques focus, correctly, on how frustrating it is that, for some reason, TV can’t stand on its own as a “prestige” narrative. For TV, prestige means getting reframed as something else and basking in the reflected glow of another art form’s cultural currency. This, from Philip Maciak, is one of my favorites: “Why do we need to constantly repackage our broad-scale critiques of art in the form of cage-match battles to the death? Can’t art forms co-exist?”

Even if we set aside the cultural baggage and acclaim that come with terms like “novelistic,” “cinematic,” or “x-hour movie,” even if we can look beyond the “novelistic” = “not-trashy” part of the puzzle, we’re still left with the underlying understanding of what serious, important stories look like — they’re long. They’re complicated, and they require you to pay attention and to hold your judgment. They are not interested in your current pleasure, because good, worthwhile narratives are about delayed gratification. That’s why it doesn’t matter that Westworld’s first season was deliberately, gleefully impossible to parse until you saw the final episode. Nor is it a problem that, as Todd VanDerWerff recently posited on Twitter, Legion’s and True Detective’s first seasons both follow a structure where you have to sit through “cinematic showcase with only minor bearing on the plot” episodes and “breather” episodes before you get to “the one where everything’s explained.” Because this, according to the novelistic, ten-hour-movie theory of TV storytelling, is how you achieve depth and prestige. This is what serious looks like.

There are two pieces to why this is such an irritating and frequently troubling way to think about what constitutes important, worthwhile, serious television. The first is that in emphasizing length and hyperserialized complexity over episodic structure, TV can so easily be bad. Alan Sepinwall has made the case for the episode more than once, writing first in 2015 that series without a strong emphasis on the episode as a worthwhile narrative unit can easily suffer in quality: “those formless units intended as episodes become a real drag: necessary viewing to understand the overall plot, but not interesting viewing in the meantime.” And then again, after the GOT writers described the show as a 73-hour movie, Sepinwall produced a list of questions for TV storytellers, including “Is there a way to structure this episode so that it feels distinct and memorable?” and “Even if someone is going to watch six episodes in one sitting, how can I make this one stand out?”

Sepinwall’s primary point here is a vital one. An episode can either be treated as an artificial barrier that stops one piece of storytelling from flowing smoothly into the next, or it can be greeted as an opportunity, a regular and reliably renewing chance to tell a story, to sketch a theme, or to experiment with form and structure on a self-contained canvas. And if given the opportunity, why wouldn’t you want each episode of your story to be gratifying and meaningful and purposeful in some way, rather just a glorified bookmark? It’s also useful to remember that the best TV of the last decade has proven that the two opposing poles of TV narrative, with “serialized” on one end and “episodic” on the other, are actually an entirely false binary. It’s no mistake that Mad Men, one of the most slow-burn shows imaginable in terms of plot and character development, was also gloriously, reliably, joyfully episodic in how it treated theme and premise. Neither is it a mistake that one of the best shows of the last year, The Good Place, is built on rock-solid episodic footing, and also pulled off a wallop of a twist at the end of its first season. The big-picture narrative and the episode-length structure are frames that support one another, not diverging tasks. It’s not “means to an end” versus “end in and of itself” — it can be both.

So this is the first, more concrete reason why the “ten-hour movie,” “novelistic TV” idea is so insanely frustrating. It almost always sacrifices good storytelling now for the perceived benefit of good storytelling later, and too often results in neither coming true. The second reason goes more to the point of why we’re so insistent that “episodic” TV is less serious, less worthwhile fluff, while our endless slogs through featureless, indistinct stories are the stuff of prestige narrative. It also probably says more about ourselves as viewers than about the TV we’re trying to describe.

Embedded in our assumptions about what “prestige” looks like — assumptions that also tend to include visual darkness, humorlessness, and incomprehensibility — is the implicit suggestion that things that are serious must also be hard. I mean “hard” in several senses of the word; serious stories are difficult to grasp, they require time and attention, and they tend to be violent and merciless and unflinching. They are about cold-eyed glances and “hard” truths; they are not about hugs or hope. And so serious stories are also the ones that do not please you right away. They withhold and obfuscate, preferring to dismiss the value of any aesthetic appreciation of the episode right in front of you for some promised payoff down the road. And if you’re impatient or frustrated that a show is taking too long to get to the goods, you’re the problem. You judged it too soon! You can’t say it’s bad because this one episode wasn’t good — you shouldn’t judge it like TV! It’s a novel!

Never mind, of course, that this too often leads to a narrative Ponzi scheme, where the real payoff is always just one more episode or one more season away. Never mind, also, that this is not really how novels or movies work, either. When you read a long novel that takes forever to get to anything gripping or appealing, you don’t retroactively forgive the filler up front. You think, Huh, that really needed more editing.

But especially when it comes to TV, we’re trained to believe that the stories that please us immediately are “trash” or “guilty pleasures,” and so we’re also happy to extend credit to a show that’s constantly kicking the narrative can down the road. A show like One Day at a Time, which deals with identity and immigration and family and posttraumatic stress, and which tells those stories inside immediately accessible, funny, episode-centric pieces, is great, “familiar and fresh,” although a little sitcom trope-y. At the same time, the new season of American Crime, which deals with many of the same questions but which only allows its plot to become clear slowly, and lets details “filter out” slowly, “scene by scene, person by person,” is “brilliant, powerful,” and, by the way, novelistic.

It’s admittedly dumb to put American Crime and One Day at a Time into the same box and have them fight it out for which one is truly “serious” — it reduces all the nuance and distinction of their respective projects, washing away their individual features in an attempt to point out some underlying truth. And nuance, specificity, and complexity are the stuff of serious arguments (and serious television). But there’s no rule that says that brevity, episodic structure, or narrative pleasure is inherently inimical to nuance. Nor is there any reason why a show that makes you slog through an undifferentiated middle is accomplishing anything more powerful or complex than one with tightly edited episodic arcs and a thoughtful serial structure.

We’re sure that long stories, and longform TV, are “prestige.” They challenge us, and reward our intelligence, and require our trust. But this understanding of “prestige” can easily shift into something not so different from a bad boyfriend, one who’s very serious and mysterious and emotionally withholding, and ultimately a little careless of your feelings. He doesn’t bring you flowers on Valentine’s Day because that’s what unserious, clichéd boyfriends would do, and that’s not what he is. He’s important. He’s complex. He’s “prestige.” You can’t judge him by this one event; you have to wait until you can really get all of him. This date may seem terrible at first, but hang in there. It’s really a ten-hour movie.

Why Are We So Sure ‘Prestige’ TV Looks Like a 10-Hour Movie?