Have you been watching Legion on FX? It’s a TV show based off of an obscure X-Men character of the same name, but if you are tuning into Legion to get the typical mutant on mutant violence, straight-forward plots, and the fast-paced entertainment of the movies, than you will be disappointed. The show may live in the same universe as the X-Men movies, but it certainly does not occupy the same type of space as them. It is TV show -like so many of our time- that is completely different than the summer-popcorn-fest cinema that we have come to know. Legion is admittedly “trippy,” but it is also striving to tell a long form and memorable story, rather than just the typical 120-minute saga of Blue Jennifer Lawrence and Old Hugh Jackman. That got us thinking: you see, in Legion there is a character with the ability to swap-bodies, and we have to wonder if maybe that is also what happened to movies and television. Maybe when we weren’t looking they switched bodies…
There was a time when television was regarded as frivolous entertainment. 30-minute irrelevant stories about Wally and the “Beave” interlaced by commercials for the latest car or soap product. By the time the credits rolled everyone watching knew that life for the characters on their small screens would go back to the status-quo. There was never any danger of worrying that someone on Star Trek might die -unless of course, they were a disposable red-shirted background actor- There was also no danger of complex multi-episode plots -unless of course, it was a “special” TV event- For the most part, a person could sit down in front of their TV, watch a show, and never care about the episode that came before or after it.
Movies on the other hand were where the real drama took place. People went to the movies to watch epics of massive proportion where “real” actors poured their heart out as Atlanta burned behind them and they just didn’t give a “damn.” No character in the movies were safe, and there was no telling who would live, who would die, and who would be irrevocably changed for the experience. Movies were ambitious with casts of thousands, filmed in far off locations, as opposed to fix television studio sets. Movies told stories of sorrow and triumph, with budgets to match their scale.
Yet, things have changed. Don’t get us wrong, ,ovie budgets are even more massive than ever, but only so far as the studio can guarantee a return on their investment. After all, that is all that matters. Nowadays, it is the cinema that has become predictable and irrelevant entertainment. We watch an X-Men movie and we are pretty sure most of the characters we like are going to make it out alive. After all, Fox needs to make six more movies and they want people to keep coming back. Really, that is what the movie industry is about now, episodic blockbusters aimed at guaranteeing a lucrative cash flow. It’s the reason most Michael Bay movies have more product placement in them than an infomercial at 3 am. It’s also the reason why studios have started heavily investing in recognizable and predictable names from comics, video games, and even old TV shows. It guarantees them a nostalgic audience and a steady revenue of profit. For audience members it guarantees a few hours of forgettable entertainment.
Television on the other hand, has started taking risks. Long form storytelling means that you are no longer tuning into single stand-alone episodes, but one part of a longer story. Characters are no longer safe, not on Walking Dead, not on Breaking Bad, and especially not on Game of Thrones. TV has now become more analogous to books, where each episode is a chapter in a longer story. So characters come and go as appropriate to the plot, not the profit margin. There is a reason that movie directors and producers -like Bryan Singer and James Cameron- are flocking to the small screen. It has become a medium where people are taking risks, making small but noteworthy stories, and creating memorable moments and performances from actors of all talents, popularity, and ranges of British-ness.
After These Messages…
So how did we get like this? Well two trends really had a lot of impact on the way we view television, and like any good story it was a slow build up. To examine the rise of TV, first and foremost, we need to examine the idea of the story-arc or the TV serial. It is what we now sometimes refer to as long form television. The idea of the “serial” has been around since radio. Back then people would tune in every week to hear the ongoing adventures of The Shadow, or to “Look up in the sky. It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s Superman.” Yet, during the age of television the idea of multi-episode story-arc fell out of favor, except in the form of daytime soap operas, but that was not considered a serious medium. TV shows like V and Dallas attempted the idea to varying degrees of success, but they were hard to stay with. If you missed an episode there was no way to catch up until reruns.
The idea of story-arcs made a comeback in the 90’s thanks -in no small part- to The X-Files. Their mix of “monster of the week” and “mythology” shows meant that audiences could still miss some episodes and not feel lost in the overall plot of the series. It was a formula that The X-Files -more or less- stumbled into, but it was replicated by other shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and even Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Thus, in the 90’s television started becoming a little bit more than just momentary diversions. Shows started becoming longer and more involved stories. This really picked up in the realm of sci-fi and fantasy TV, like with Battlestar Galactica, but it soon went mainstream with shows like Lost. The introduction of Netflix and on-demand TV really skyrocketed the market. People could watch shows at their own pace or watch episodes they missed. Streaming TV was the final missing piece in the long form formula. Fast forward to today’s world and we now have TV shows made entirely to be binge-watched. There is no longer a need for “Monster of the Week” fillers, just chapters and layers of the same ongoing story that audiences can consume at their own pace.
Contrast that with movies. In days of yore, movies were an event. Going to the movies was something that people talked about before and after the experience had passed. It was a treat that pulled you away from your humdrum life doing the sock-hop, or whatever it was people did before wifi. The movie industry was a growth industry for the few monopoly studios who could afford to produce content. Of course people were going to go see Ben Hur, or the newest World War II epic or John Wayne western. What else did people have to do? Studios, writers, and producers could afford to make unique stories. They could afford to take risks and produce original ideas. Star Wars, for example, probably sounded like a crazy-man’s dream -It was in fact a crazy man’s sellout dream- but someone still took a risk. Maybe because in those days there was not a lot of competition.
Don’t get us wrong. Studios still competed, but nowadays movie making is not exactly an exclusive art. Cameras are -comparatively- inexpensive. Any NYU student with a bag blowing in the wind can attempt to make a movie. Small studios rise and fall in a matter of years. Yet, it was the invention of the Internet that was the final nail in cinema’s Golden Age. Suddenly, people didn’t need to go to the movies to find their entertainment. Movies could come to them, via streaming, via piracy, or not at all. The Internet also provides a plethora of distractions: music, angry Facebook rants, and even some YouTube movies, which are better made and better quality than anything you might find coming out of Sony. Thus, in 2008 when Iron Man hit the theaters it created a new sort of buzz. It was a recognizable superhero, and both the devout and the curious came to see what it could offer. The movie was good, but the real bell of this new modern age was rung after the credits, spoken by Samuel L. Jackson while wearing an eye path. Suddenly, all the movie studios began to have visions of “expanded universes” or “connected content.” Suddenly, the way to attract audiences from their iPads and Playstations was through recognizable and over-hyped movies. Suddenly, anything with even a tiny bit of brand recognition: toys, video games, comics, etc… all became something to churn out for the blockbuster season. Sure, studios still take some risks and make some new independent movies, but only at much lower budgets and with more than a few caveats.
Next Time On…
Take for example Inception. Most people agree that it was a decent movie and it even did well at the box office. Yet, the only way that movie got made was because Christopher Nolan paid his dues and made a movie about an orphaned rich person who dresses like a bat. Meanwhile, there is another Pirate of the Caribbean movie, and another Transformers movie coming out… even though most people stopped paying attention a decade ago? -Did you know Mark Wahlberg is in them now? Yeah, neither did we- Admittedly, studios always did everything they could to follow money-making trends, but these days movies are no longer the guaranteed cash cows they were back in the fifties and sixties. That means studios are taking less risks. Sure, you’ll always have your Oscar movies, but most of those are now based on books with at least some name recognition. Studios only want big stars playing characters we at least have an awareness of, because that means there is a higher probability that audiences will actually come sit in the seats and watch them. So, that is what movies have become: momentary, irrelevant, and attractive entertainment, and there is no sign of that changing anytime soon.
Television, however, has become the medium of the storyteller. Character driven plots and long form conflicts are propelling the once episodic medium to new heights. TV is becoming less about safety and more about quality. Sure, we still get your standard sit-coms, and even the same sort of name-recognition pandering to things like comics, franchises, and even books. For example, like Neil Gaiman’s American Gods will be debuting soon, but there is an assurance of quality behind it. Long form streaming TV offers the time that is needed to tell stories right, and at the viewers own pace. Just look at Marvel’s Netflix versus Marvel’s movies. They are both entertaining, but which of them stays with you longer? Which of them tells a more complete and satisfying story? Much like the trends of movies, this trend of television also shows no sign of stopping.
Thus, we once again come back to Legion vs X-Men. Both have high points and low points. Both are not perfect, but there is something to be said about the meaningful and mindful approach of television compared to the flash-in-the-pan-summer-blockbuster-hey-look-here-and-give-us-your-money approach of modern movies. Admittedly, we tend to take a more critical approach to movies, but neither medium is inherently bad. It is worth pointing out that movies are entertaining and we love them, but we need to recognize that TV and movies have basically switched places. One is still serious and meaningful, while the other is now fun and forgettable. Either way, it is good to know that our pop culture remains in equilibrium.