At about two to three hours of your movie’s running time, the movie ends. (Andy Warhol’s Empire, the obvious exception, of course.)
That is where a serialized television show beats movies. And this where moves beat serialized television. Because while a TV show running hundreds of hours offer unprecedented opportunities for character development and growth. Characters can change in a subtle, gradual, realistic way that they couldn’t in a brief movie rush.
Yet, many serialized TV shows – the sort with ongoing plots instead of simple cases-of-the-week – have a problem. Some stories aren’t meant to last 100 episodes. Some stories deserve to be a movie, or a miniseries, or a two season arc.
And as TV producers increasingly try to turn well-worn movie genres into television series, they run into a major problem: TV’s the wrong medium. It’s not just a matter of finding enough plot, it’s a matter of following the arc the story demands be told.
Sunday’s Walking Dead had a sequence, that, had it aired in a movie, would be justly remembered as one of the most tense movie sequence ever. Right up there with the raptors chasing the kids in Jurassic Park. Our caravan of heroes must hide underneath cars, not saying a word as zombies shuffle past. Nearly silent, impeccably directed, it boiled down suspense to its essence: Anything, at any time, could go wrong. And sometimes, it does.
But here’s the problem: Zombie stories, generally, are about attrition. They’re about our heroes surviving, being picked off one by one, then either being wiped out totally by the zombies or saved/slaughtered by the military. In TV critic Zack Handlen’s review of the season premiere he makes that point precisely.
“…for a television series or an ongoing comic book, the relentlessly downbeat nature of the genre is more difficult to negotiate,” Handlen writes.
But it’s not just the mood that’s problematic. It’s the inevitability of it all. We generally know the ending. we’re just treading water until we get there. It’s the same problem American Horror Story has. Fear, different from suspense or excitement, is an emotion that – based on genuine threat to a character’s well-being – can’t last forever. Either the character is always okay (the fear isn’t genuine after a while) or the character dies (his story is over.)
Both zombie and horror stories center around endings. And television never works well when it focuses too much on endings. Television focuses on character, and problematically, serialized shows don't succeed by making the villain a force of nature. Zombies aren’t characters. They’re forces of nature. The same, really, goes for a spooky-ooky haunted house, a major problem with American Horror Story.
Serialized television shows only work, ultimately, when they make the villains characters. They can either have a character fight with himself (Mad Men), fight with other characters (24), or fight with both (Breaking Bad.) Characters can change, characters can surprise, they can get into all sorts of twisty back-stabbing drama. But when characters are just fighting forces or nature of the idea of inevitability, inevitably, viewers begin to stop care about why they’re fighting.
Give zombies enough time. They’ll get boring. Horrible conversationalists.