Drama has found its true home

The definitive Fargo is now a TV show. Hannibal, too

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For decades, television was the poorer, younger sibling to film. There were lines that simply weren’t crossed: a film actor slumming it on CBS? One would surely hope one’s career never reached that kind of shame-inducing nadir. TV was, on a good day, B-movie territory. Film was the real work; the serious storytelling.

And for a long while it would have been difficult to argue that this wasn’t self-evident. 50 million people may be tuning in every week, but that was just television. It was just a distraction that ran in the background while the family ate dinner. It wasn’t The Godfather.

Flash forward to 2015. To the oft-repeated Golden Age.

We’re in the middle of an experiment, of sorts. Two much-loved works – Hannibal and Fargo – from the 90s are being adapted for TV (keep Hannibal in the present tense. Never give up hope). Silence of the Lambs won an Oscar for Best Picture. Fargo is considered one of the Coen Brothers’ early masterpieces.

Here’s the thing, though. The TV adaptations are both better. Mads Mikkelsen is the best Hannibal we’ve ever seen. TV’s Dr. Lecter is a masterclass in restraint that conjures more menace than even Anthony Hopkins could manage. Combine that with some of the best production design and cinematography ever seen on (any) screen, and you have the definitive Thomas Harris adaptation.

But it’s not just the performances, or the look of the show, that set it apart. It’s the very DNA of television. The thing that film, in all its largesse and glory, can never ever match.

Time.

Bryan Fuller had 13 40-minute episodes to tell his story in the first year. Then he had a season two, and a season three. We’ve been treated to 39 episodes of Hannibal so far. Tally up all the different film adaptations (Manhunter, Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal, Hannibal Rising), and you don’t even total the first season. And those movies aren’t telling one continuous story; they’re separated by decades, and actors, and interpretations.

Film simply doesn’t provide the same opportunity as serialised television in 2015. The original films feel like CliffsNotes versions, Hannibal-lite, a two-hour toe-dipping versus the deep dive of a multi-season exploration.

Maybe this was always the natural endpoint

Fargo is the same. As beloved as the original film is, Fargo the show lets us spend more time with the characters, and the world, and the weirdness. It’s a looser adaptation than Hannibal, existing in the Coen universe rather than retelling their story, but it takes everything that worked in the film and expands on it. Now as the second run winds its way to a conclusion, Noah Hawley is proving it was no fluke. It’s an anthology show – everything changes, give or take – and yet it’s undeniably Fargo. He’s expanded the universe in ways the Coens couldn’t possibly have conceived.

The one thing that TV can’t do is match the scale of film. No model, not even HBO, can support TV shows that cost per-hour what a film would. TV drama budgets sit in the low-mid single digit millions per episode, and even Game of Thrones taps out before you get to eight figures. Standard tentpole budgets have crept upwards from $150 million closer to $200 million. Spectre was budgeted at somewhere north of $250 million before you add on marketing costs in the nine figures. Spectacle will remain the domain of film for the foreseeable future. TV can give us Gotham, but it can’t give us The Dark Knight. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., but not The Avengers.

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Anything under that level though, and it’s fair game. It’s no coincidence that David Fincher, and Steven Soderbergh, and Cary Fukunaga, respected auteurs all, are making some of their best work on the small screen. House of Cards: The Movie is probably still great, but we’d lose out on much of the detail and the minutiae. We wouldn’t be able to live in the Machiavellian mind of Frank Underwood to anything like the same degree.

As TV budgets have increased, as the best actors flit back and forth between mediums, as home screens get larger, the audience ceases to make a distinction. Good storytelling is good storytelling, and right now TV is the better medium for much intelligent, character-based drama.

Maybe this was always the natural endpoint. Maybe TV was always the best medium for this kind of storytelling. Perhaps it was just obscured behind unwieldly 24-episode seasons; the constraints of appealing to a mass-market, network television audience; and the limitations of technology.

Film is still the right home for certain stories, and the big screen will always hold a certain allure for directors, writers, and actors. But that TV occupies such a dominant space in the cultural conversation is no aberration. This is just TV realising its potential.

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