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Is It a Movie or Is It TV? And Does Anyone Really Care?

After nearly a year of watching everything on the same damn screen, four critics attempt to talk through an unkillable debate. Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Photos by Showtime, Amazon Prime Studios and Marvel Studios

The is-it-a-movie-or-is-it-television wars have been raging for years now — for decades, if you want to include early category-defiers like Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 15-hour Berlin Alexanderplatz, which aired on German television in 1980 and played in U.S. theaters in 1983. But it took Peak TV to turn this argument into what feels like an annual phenomenon. ESPN’s O.J.: Made in America won an Oscar in 2017, but also prompted a rule change barring multipart documentaries from the awards going forward. Last year, the venerable French magazine Cahiers du Cinéma declared Twin Peaks: The Return the decade’s best movie, adding fuel to one of Film Twitter’s most reliably annoying debates. This fall gave us Steve McQueen’s Small Axe, which is either a series of five thematically related standalone films or an anthology miniseries, and feels almost engineered to be unparsable by the terms of this discussion that won’t die.

And it probably should die, given how pedantic it can feel, especially at a time when everyone is watching everything at home on the same damn screens. But the fact that it keeps flaring up (thanks, Obama) feels like there must be something important at its core that critics can’t quite let go of — and, frankly, neither can some of the people who make film and television. Here, four of Vulture’s staff writers — two film critics and two TV critics — attempt to figure it out.

Alison Wilmore, film critic: This month, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association — one of the groups whose annual vote helps kick off award season — announced its choice for the best film of the year. It was … Small Axe. And not just one installment, but all five parts of the Steve McQueen anthology that may or may not actually be television. (It premiered at the 2020 New York Film Festival before airing on BBC and streaming on Prime Video.) It was proof that not only is Small Axe discourse not going away, but that the movies-versus-TV debate is unkillable, immortal, and one that we should — that we must, even — have out. So let’s talk basics, Bilge, Jen, and Kathryn, and try to get at what the essence of these mediums might be beyond the size of the screen they play on.

My first question: Is this mostly a war being waged by a film crowd that just wants to lay claim to whatever small-screen work they like? Are there examples you’d bring up of this idea going the other way, and of anything that generally gets thought of as a movie but that actually feels more like it belongs to TV?

Jen Chaney, TV critic: So I’m going to get super-reductive here and define movies and TV shows this way: a movie is an isolated story with a beginning, middle, and end told intentionally in a two-to-three-hour time span. A TV show is told in episodic form over at least one season, maybe more. How one views them is completely irrelevant. By this logic, the only instances in which I have seen movies and thought, “This is really a TV show,” was when the movies stemmed from TV shows. The Sex and the City movies, while technically movies by the definition I just offered, feel a little bit more TV-ish simply because that medium is where Sex and the City was born. But Twin Peaks season three: that’s a TV show by any definition, I am sorry! And Small Axe: it is a collection of films that are thematically connected!

What undergirds so much of this argument, and why I get so pissed-off about it, is that so much of it stems from this long-held notion that film is the superior, true art form and television is for garbage people who do not understand cinema. (I am both hyperbolizing and oversimplifying here, yet I stand by these statements.) When a creator says, “I am really making a ten-hour movie,” or whatever, maybe they mean that they’re telling a story on a broader canvas. But what it winds up sounding like is, “I am making something that is above the level of mere TV.” God bless HBO, but their old tagline — “It’s not TV, it’s HBO” — was an expression of that same idea. I find that thinking outmoded. Tell me a good fucking story that works for the format the artist intends and I’ll think it’s great, no matter what.

Kathryn VanArendonk, TV critic: Woo, love to catch the hot potato! We’re talking about two different things. On the one hand, there’s “Is it a movie or is it TV, and that’s primarily a question form or structure,” and on the other hand, “Is it a movie or is it TV, and that’s mostly a question of classiness.” I do think there’s a way those two things have overlapped. Movies, because they are generally whole in and of themselves, sometimes carry that sense of Betterness, because they are presented as entire works. By the time an audience sees them on whatever screen they watch, the thing in front of them is not subject to the whims of whatever happens next year — an actor quits, the one director who really got the show dies, the studio fires the showrunner and hires someone crappy, etc. The incompleteness of TV (or the fact that shows often finish entirely differently than their creators would’ve wanted) has often been levied against TV as an inherent formal weakness.

But just because there’s an overlap between the form versus prestige argument doesn’t mean it’s a Venn diagram that’s actually a circle. They are two basically separate ideas, and I completely feel Jen’s rancor at the prestige side of it. From a TV perspective, it is infuriating to hear these guys (it’s mostly guys, in my experience!) manage to ignore the entire history of TV as a form, or worse, chuck it under a rug and claim it has nothing to do with their, uh, ten-hour episodically presented story that tells a long-running narrative. Hmm!

The form question, though, is fascinating! And it’s where I think Small Axe is really tricky and interesting to dig into. What do we gain by thinking of it as a collection rather than five separate films? What would we lose by nudging it more toward the TV side of the equation? What parts of Jen’s definition of TV feel like a bad fit for this project, something that isn’t fully representing McQueen’s work? What are we clinging to when we insist on it as a “collection of films” that’s really important to keep?

A scene from Lovers Rock, which is either an episode of a TV series or an installment in a film anthology. Photo: Parisa Taghizedeh/Amazon Prime Video

AW: Well, Lovers Rock is on my top ten list for the year, while if it could only be taken as a whole, I’m not sure if Small Axe would be. Or to put it in terms of this debate — I guess I’m not sure if, for me, Small Axe is great television, in that there are thematic ties across the five installments, but I’ve found its greatest resonance comes from certain films as they stand alone. What’s interesting about this whole debate to me is that it’s asked us to define what movies and TV shows are as formats rather than platforms. The latter has always made the big screen/small screen divide pretty clear cut — if something is made to first play in a theater, it’s cinema, and if it’s intended to premiere on your set-up at home, it’s television. Cable changed that some, streaming changed it a lot, but for me, what’s lost in there, especially in terms of that innate snobbery you both mention, is that television has its own pleasures and strengths that film can’t replicate. When someone says that what they’ve made is really “a ten-hour movie,” that usually has me braced for something that isn’t all that good! Almost no one knows how to make a good ten-hour movie, and cutting something long up into arbitrary hour-long chunks doesn’t tend to do much justice to the idea of an episode as a discrete entity as well as part of a larger whole.

I was reading a recent interview with the Russo brothers, who essentially set the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s house style in terms of directing. They were talking about the giant spy movie they’re making for Netflix, one that’s going to star Ryan Gosling and Chris Evans and cost a bundle, and that they’re planning on having it launch a franchise. Joe Russo talked about how their plan was to not tie up everything in the course of the first feature: “I think that’s one way to break the model a little bit, is to not give the audience everything in one film. Don’t have a close-ended narrative. Have an open-ended narrative that’s [like] a chapter in a book.” Seeding for sequels isn’t actually that groundbreaking, but also — isn’t he just talking about a television show? And don’t get me started on Kevin Feige’s deranged description of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier during the Disney+ announcement deluge as “a Marvel Studios movie played out over six episodes.” A.k.a. … a miniseries?

Bilge Ebiri, film critic: It sounds like even the Russo brothers are snobs about this whole thing. The dude can’t even say “it’s an episode of a series.” He has to say “it’s a chapter in a book.” Because books, you see, are for smart people. For the record, I’m also not entirely crazy about the great documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman thinking of his films as “a novel.” Actually, in terms of the snobbery — I think this idea has changed a bit. To Jen’s point, I think that in the past there certainly seemed to be a divide in artists’ minds about “movie people” (smart) and “TV people” (dumb) but I think everyone today understands that these are all the same people (and I think prestige TV has largely done away with the smart-dumb differentiation, though not entirely). For some, they probably think that TV has a different place in their lives than movies. And they might be responding to that, for better and for worse.

I do think that how something was conceived matters. This question often devolves into debates over popular entertainment, but we can look at film (or “film”) history, too: Jacques Rivette made Out 1 as a TV series, which is why it’s 13 hours long. Not because he wanted to murder his audience. But no sane TV station in France wanted it so it became a movie (and he cut it to a four-hour version, which is not nearly as good as the 13-hour version). But we can also look at the great TV dramas of the 1950s and ’60s. I mean, 12 Angry Men was originally a drama produced for TV before it became a movie. Or go further back — to serials, which existed even before TV. And yet those serials, whether it’s something elaborate and novelistic (uh-oh, I did the thing) like La Maison du Mystere or frivolous and episodic like Flash Gordon to me feels like TV now — with cliffhangers and everything. Even though TV, at least as a mass medium, didn’t even exist back when they were made. So maybe there is a different conversation to be had here, beyond issues of format and technology. Maybe TV and movies fulfill different needs that people have had long before the formats even existed. And they aren’t always the same need.

JC: That’s a very good point about serials. My definition of what constitutes TV is based on the kind of scripted programming that was commonly thought of as native to television when the medium became a mass phenomenon, and that was, generally, shorter form storytelling. I think the reason these distinctions matter to us, as critics, is because of something you said, Bilge: how something was conceived matters. If television is, by nature, episodic, then it should feel episodic. A movie can end on a cliffhanger, especially when it’s already apparent that a sequel is forthcoming, but if it’s done well, it should feel like a contained, satisfying story on its own.

We’ve acknowledged the problem of bloat in a lot of current television; like Alison, I also brace myself when someone who made a TV series says they actually made a ten-hour movie. But the bloating of individual episodes has also contributed to this movie vs. TV confusion, in my view. When you watch a 90-minute episode of TV, it often can feel like a movie. Most of the time, though, what you’re actually watching is TV that would have been better if delivered in more concise form. That’s not always the case, but more often than not, it is. I think the less stringent adherence to consistent running times — every week, it’s a roll of the dice as to how long The Mandalorian is going to be — has blurred the lines even further by not adhering to the traditional TV structures of half-hour or an hour.

Quickly, I want to bring in a quote from Hugh Grant from an interview he did for the LA Times about The Undoing: “There are several things that have put me off television apart from pure snobbishness. The idea that different directors direct different episodes — I always worry about consistency. And actors don’t necessarily get all the scripts before they start a series, so they don’t know where their character’s going. But neither of those were the case with this. I regard it as a film. I refuse to even admit to it as television.”

So, as he admits upfront, there is snobbery all over these comments. But he also gets at something else about TV that has changed and that Kathryn alluded to: a lot of television isn’t made in the traditional “let’s make a season and see if we get picked up again, and if we do, we’ll make another” mode. Limited series like The Undoing exist in abundance and appeal to actors like Hugh Grant, who usually do films. But thanks in large part to Lost — do you like how I managed to work Lost into this? You thought I couldn’t do it, but once again, I came through — even shows with multiple seasons sometimes (not always) get to be crafted with the idea of an arc with a beginning, middle, and end that will play out over a specific number of seasons. That doesn’t make them films, IMO. Not at all. But it speaks to the way television has evolved in recent years, attracted talent who may have been more likely to work in film before, and also muddied the waters a bit about how we define each medium.

KVA: As always, Jen, I am impressed but never surprised by your ability to work Lost into any conversation. Is it weird for me to say that Hugh Grant can suck my dick? Probably. Probably that’s not great. Probably I should thank him, because that’s a primo example of the kind of snobbery we’ve been talking about, which manages to assess one of TV’s great strengths (its flexibility, its multi-vocality) as a weakness instead. It also, as Jen correctly points out, is quite far from a kind of TV that’s always existed. Limited series, Hugh! They’re great! I’d be happy to recommend some more for you to watch! (Also I’m so sorry I was rude to you; please be in Paddington 3.)

This is my not-smooth transition back to Small Axe, which, were we to talk about it as TV, would belong in exactly this category — a limited series, driven by one creator. I’m not saying I’m advocating for this rather than “collection of films,” but I do think it’s worthwhile to drill down into exactly what kinds of things about Small Axe make it a more rich text when seen as a collection than as a set of standalone films. (“Standalone,” of course, being another concept that is completely comfortable and historically rooted within TV as both a form and medium. CC: The Twilight Zone!) For one, I was struck watching “Alex Wheatle” and “Education” by the way McQueen echoes not just themes but images. The camera holds on Alex wrapped in a straight jacket for a deliberately, painfully long time. It lingers similarly on Kingsley, submerging himself in a bathtub. It’s the kind of image that works better because of its relationship with its echo, which is to say, because of its existence as one of a collection rather than as a standalone film.

I totally understand your feeling, Alison, that “Lovers Rock” stands out as a Best Film of the year, in the way that maybe Small Axe as a whole does not rise to. This is another familiar feeling from TV, that sense that one episode is a glorious, face-burning epiphany while the rest of a season is simply meh. I think most of Small Axe is much better than meh, for what that’s worth, but I’m still trying to find ways to push against what exactly makes it valuable to think of Small Axe in the movie category rather than in TV. Or maybe rather than “valuable,” the word I’m looking for is “helpful.” For me, the distinctiveness of the project and the stuff that makes it most interesting is in its collection, rather than in any one of its installments. But also I’m a TV person, so probably I’m seeing the things I’m already primed to care about?

David Lynch himself classified Twin Peaks: The Return as “a feature film in 18 parts.” Photo: Screen Grab

AW: Oh, God, Kathryn, “helpful” sent a chill down my spine, I wouldn’t dare prescribe how someone should think of Small Axe. Or anything, really — if someone feels driven to classify Small Axe as a sandwich, they have my blessing! I can only speak for my own feelings about it, a lot of which have to do with the relationship that Lovers Rock — which I noticed you put in quotes like an episode while I italicized it like a movie title, this divide extends all the way down to punctuation — has with the rest of Small Axe. Small Axe is made up of four installments based on true events, and one, Lovers Rock, that’s entirely fiction, and that plays in the context of the whole like it’s intended to be a counterbalance for the surrounding films. They are explicitly about structural issues while Lovers Rock is about a house party, and they are marked in different degrees by a dutiful sense of seriousness that Lovers Rock is untethered from, freed to be sensual and lushly cinematic, from the a cappella singing to the humidity dripping down the wall. At the same time, it’s just as much about the themes Small Axe contends with as the other films — it just shuts Britain’s racist realities outside for a night, and in doing so, ends up commenting just as eloquently on what it’s like to live with them. I don’t, by any means, consider the other films a write-off — Mangrove is very good, and I enjoyed John Boyega’s performance, and its meta-context, in Red, White and Blue. But I do feel like Small Axe was made with an implicit sense of which of its parts are showing and which are telling, and I don’t find myself in accordance with it.

All this said, I also think of Lovers Rock as a movie because … it behaves like a movie? In that there just aren’t many episodes of television that I’ve seen that feel so non-narrative-driven, and that lose the nominal leads they’ve been following for long, ecstatic stretches on the dance floor driven by images and movement rather than characters. TV is much more writer-driven than film (there’s a reason there aren’t that many celebrity screenwriters in Hollywood, it is tough going), and it’s the nature of serialized storytelling to emphasize, well, story. And, to cite that lovable elitist Hugh Grant, it’s normal for a series to have a slate of different directors trying to recreate a particular visual style. It’s not uncommon for filmmakers to go back and forth between directing TV and movies these days, but none of the ones I’ve talked to about this would describe those gigs as the same. One critical darling I spoke to, who I won’t name because I can only approximate what she said to me, compared directing an episode of television to making the trains run on time. There are obviously exceptions, but I don’t feel like it’s that radical to generalize that film is more visuals-driven than television — or am I being the snob, now?

BE: We’re opening up a whole new can of worms here, but this is something I firmly believe: that movies and TV are very different forms, and that one is a lot more narrative than the other. I mean, if I look at a list of my favorite films, it’s clear that they’re not there because of their stories. Which is why I get annoyed when, in the ongoing debate over the theatrical experience (a different debate that we need not go too deep into here, otherwise we will never get out), I inevitably see a take that’s like “Even without movie theaters, there will still be great movies, just relax.” I don’t think that in a world without movie theaters a film like The Tree of Life gets made. Or She Dies Tomorrow. Or Bacurau. Or Martin Eden. Or, for that matter, Lovers Rock. (Yes, even though it was made by and for Amazon. I’m not talking about this world — I’m talking about the world to come, or rather the world I hope never comes, in which the theatrical experience itself is a distant memory.) Similarly, in a world where TV didn’t exist, we wouldn’t have gotten The Wire, we wouldn’t have gotten Veep, we wouldn’t have gotten Fawlty Towers or The Golden Girls or Breaking Bad or Lost … I mean, that’s self-evident.

But back to Lovers Rock and Small Axe in general. As much as I loved Lovers Rock and Mangrove, I actually did think they worked together, in the way that Alison outlined above — “[Lovers Rock] just shuts Britain’s racist realities outside for a night, and in doing so, ends up commenting just as eloquently on what it’s like to live with them” — which was why I put them together on my Top 20 list. (At the time, those were the only two Small Axe films I’d seen.) And I think it’s okay to argue that McQueen’s work can exist in two realities. I’d have no problem with someone putting Small Axe or one of the movies on their list of the best TV of the year, and obviously, I have no problem with anyone putting it on their movies list, as we all did. (I also didn’t have any problem with people putting Twin Peaks season three on their movie lists, because I grew up reading J. Hoberman’s Top 10 lists, where he’d put, like, baseball games and stuff like that on his lists. But I agree it’s obviously TV.)

I really do think that how their creators position these things can have a huge impact. I don’t recall anyone during the initial run of Twin Peaks in the 1990s claiming that it was a movie — maybe I missed it — even though there are episodes that clearly feel like David Lynch movies. Lynch himself calling season three a movie probably did more damage than people realize. But then again, David Lynch has a right to be pissed about TV. He shot Mulholland Drive as a TV pilot, and when it got rejected he rejiggered it and turned it into one of the greatest films of all time. TV rejected him and cinema reclaimed him at a pretty low point. Maybe he’s just getting his revenge. As for Small Axe, a lot of us were influenced by the early word that went out from its company that this was a series meant to be taken as a whole and that they weren’t even going for Oscars and that it was an Emmy play. I remember for months, before seeing any of it, I just assumed it was a TV series for precisely that reason — the people who made it told us it was. Otherwise, it obviously would have been thought of as movies: Made by Steve McQueen (who makes movies), premiered at film festivals, etc.

The reason I feel like the debate kind of rages among a small community of writers and awards-giving bodies is also because there are literally procedural issues of who gets to write about what, who gets to vote for what, etc. And these kinds of hybrids are hard to categorize. But luckily, humans are not spreadsheets and our brains can handle that kind of complexity. There’s a lot of wonderful stuff to be found in the idea of mixing TV and movies. I actually think that what Marvel is doing right now, with its fairly complicated, interlocking superhero and superhero-adjacent narratives, is pretty fascinating — regardless of some of the shit I like to give them. The problem is when something becomes so dominant that entire artforms are threatened, which is when we break the emergency glass on the little box containing Martin Scorsese.

Hugh Grant on The Undoing: “I regard it as a film. I refuse to even admit to it as television.” Photo: NIKOTAVERNISE.COM

JC: I would argue that TV may be inherently more narrative-driven. But the bulk of mainstream, Hollywood movies — please note that I said mainstream and Hollywood — are pretty narrative-driven, too, and designed to hit incredibly recognizable marks in each act. And those are the kinds of films that the majority of American theatergoers see. I also think television, particularly in the streaming and cable realm, has become just as visually ambitious as film, to the point where there is no significant difference between the two, except in terms of the behind-the-scenes of it. Specifically: movie directors tend to have much more time in production than TV directors, who are much more run-and-gun because there are so many episodes to finish. Some TV shows are not as visually ambitious as others, especially in the network TV model. But the same can be said of some movies. The King of Staten Island is most certainly a movie, but its visuals are maybe the fifth or sixth thing that come to my mind when I think about it.

And that’s not a knock on it particularly; I think a lot of movies fall in that category, just as a lot of shows would be nothing without the directing behind them. What Sam Esmail did on Mr. Robot or his season of Homecoming was the work of an auteur, and as crucial to dissect as anything the characters said or did. The same thing is true of many episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale. Every single episode of Better Call Saul is directed with as much, if not more, subtle mastery than I see in a lot of contemporary movies. And not to make this all about David Lynch, but episode eight of Twin Peaks: The Return — particularly the nuclear bomb blast and the wild montage of imagery that follows — is hypnotic and disturbing in ways I still cannot articulate in the English language, and that’s entirely because of the visual vocabulary. It nearly abandons narrative entirely. I realize Lynch and Twin Peaks are anomalies in certain ways. The point I am making is that the separation between TV and movies on visual terms used to be much greater and it’s not anymore, to the point where I don’t see it as a distinguishing factor.

I want to come back to two things: one is what Bilge said above about Small Axe being an Oscar play versus an Emmy play. Let’s be honest: that’s the reason why the movie versus TV debate has become such a big issue for many. People want to know how to categorize a project for that reason, and I think the Oscar still carries a tiny bit more prestige than an Emmy — hi, snobbery, you’re back again! — and that makes something like the O.J. documentary want to reach for Oscar when it’s more accurate to call it a work of television.

The second thing I want to address is Kathryn’s question about why it’s helpful to think of Small Axe as a collection of movies versus episodes that are interconnected. The truth is that in the wide scheme of things it doesn’t matter, as Alison noted. Although please don’t think of Small Axe as a sandwich because come on: we all know it’s a hot dog, which is not a sandwich. Seriously, though: the reason it’s helpful to me to think of it that way is because I do believe each piece stands on its own the way that a movie does. Looking at it through that framework makes it more powerful because, in that context, it’s clearer what Steve McQueen’s ultimate point is: that the Black experience in England during a certain time period was so vast, albeit interconnected, that there are at least five separate movies to be made about it that each say different things. A TV show invites us to find those connections from episode to episode. A collection of movies invites the audience to make the connections themselves. Both experiences are valuable, but they serve a different artistic purpose.

KVA: As I’m sure we all knew would happen when we embarked on this voyage, we’ve managed to straighten everything out! Now we all shake hands and take a commemorative photo as we sign the TV Versus Movies Definitive Treaty!

In the interest of wrapping up, some top-lines. First, it feels like no matter how much I would love to forget about award-granting bodies entirely, at least in the context of how we define a work, I’m aware it’s never going to happen. As all of you have pointed out in some way or another, all of these definitions draw essentially arbitrary lines, and if the Academy chooses to draw its own arbitrary lines about what to call a movie, it’s not like I can say “well, my arbitrary line is much better and more reasonable, though.” (I mean … I can and I will, but that doesn’t make it law.) Second, it feels like so much of what we’re plucking at is essentially more of a spectrum than it is a dichotomy. Movies aren’t episodic except for when they sometimes are. TV is often more narrative but sometimes astoundingly gloriously visual — to Jen’s list I’d add Better Things! Parts stand alone, but sometimes they do it right next to something else in a way that makes the bigger picture look entirely different.

None of this makes me want to throw out the definitions, though. The fuzziness of it all has become more pronounced and more fascinatingly rich in the last several years, as theater/at-home divides have collapsed, run times are now meaningless, the idea of format and formula bleeds across mediums, and even the old prestige markers have finally begun to crumble. But rather than say it’s all the same thing now, all a messy slosh of #content, this just makes me find categorizing and sorting and offering up different possible interpretations to be more interesting, and more worthwhile — at least for me! I’m not sure that it matters all that much for viewers who just want to enjoy the thing in front of them. And this is not to say that we should all agree what those definitions and interpretations are! I find the process of trying to think through why I lean more toward calling something TV to be messier and more rewarding and oh God I’ll say it, helpful. And fun! This is me, a person who does legitimately think “is it a movie or is it TV” counts as a fun discussion.

With that I’ll sign off, knowing that I can look forward to having this entire debate again when another famous filmmaker releases a “bag full of long episodes” or a “grouping of video” or what have you. Next time I will try to refrain from saying such awful things to Hugh Grant.

Is It a Movie or Is It TV? And Does Anyone Really Care?