The enormously entertaining seventh film in the Fast & Furious franchise, Furious 7, hits theaters on Friday, April 3, and the most interesting thing about it is how much it feels like a TV show's season finale — one of those episodes where the promos breathlessly promise that "everything will change!"
Some of this has to do with the untimely death of series star Paul Walker, who had completed enough of the movie to be in it throughout but is written out by the end. (His character, as promised frequently by those who make the films, doesn't die, and he gets a terrific sendoff from a cast and crew who obviously adored him.)
But much of it also has to do with the way this franchise is now structured — as a giant serialized melodrama, with plot twists in every chapter. So many of them are brought to a head by the end of Furious 7 that it's easy to feel as if this is an ending, if not the ending.
It's just one example of how the serialized TV model is taking over the entertainment world.
Dracula and the Wolf-Man have a writers room now
Or consider this: Universal is turning its iconic monsters — Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster, the Wolf-Man, etc. — into a "shared cinematic universe," à la films based on Marvel or DC Comics. To do so, it has recruited writers Alex Kurtzman, Chris Morgan, Noah Hawley, and Aaron Guzikowski to serve as an informal team of collaborators for the project. All four writers have had considerable success with other projects, and will now turn those talents toward making sure nothing goes wrong when Dracula fights the Wolf-Man.
But that's not what's interesting here. What's interesting here is in the second paragraph of this Hollywood Reporter article on the deal:
The plan is for these "Monster Men" to act akin to Pixar's brain trust, or more aptly, like a well-oiled television writer's room, where all will have a hand in each other's movies and offer help as needed as they work on a model of serialized storytelling.
That mention of a writer's room isn't just a casual mention, either. It's a sign of the future. Everything is television now.
Other media are copying TV
Quite a bit has been said about how Marvel entrusted its most recent films to a creative vision largely overseen by Avengers and Avengers 2 director Joss Whedon. DC is doing something similar with Zack Snyder, who directed Man of Steel, as well as the upcoming Batman v. Superman. And even more has been written about how Marvel's chief creative official, Kevin Feige, runs the studio.
But the connection that I hadn't quite drawn yet was how similar these jobs are to that of a TV showrunner, overseeing a massive, multipart enterprise and trying to get all of those parts to fit just well enough together that the whole will appear cohesive. The Hollywood Reporter's reference to a writer's room — where a group of writers gathers together to bang out the episodes of a show's season — is completely apt.
And, really, so much of what's big in pop culture right now has these sorts of ties to television. Many popular books unspool in long series, each book in the series functioning as something like a "season" of the show (a trend Game of Thrones has literalized). Giant movie franchises construct their individual movies less like discrete installments and more like episodes of a larger story. The immensely popular nonfiction podcast Serial borrows much of its storytelling style from complex cable dramas, while fellow podcast Welcome to Night Vale evinces a great sense of place that suggests a TV small town. Even somewhat popular bands like the Hold Steady create long sagas featuring recurring characters who pop up in album after album.
Indeed, if one wanted to, one could easily say that all of pop culture is increasingly becoming more and more like television in the wake of that medium's seeming dominance of cultural discussion over the past decade and a half. Is it any wonder these giant, cinematic franchises increasingly turn to TV directors, like Whedon, or the Russo brothers (of Captain America: The Winter Soldier), or Michelle MacLaren (rumored to be the top choice to direct Wonder Woman)? No. These directors know how to put their own personal stamp on something that has to remain recognizably a part of some larger world.
(As an aside, it's interesting to consider how influential Whedon has been on all of this. His TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, though low-rated, proved immensely influential to many shows that followed — and its groundbreaking storytelling was heavily inspired by Marvel comics like X-Men.)
Why the television model is taking over
Now, it's not as if people have suddenly started publishing book series or concept albums because television exists. Indeed, serialized TV has learned much from the publishing world. But the level of complication of all of these things is now often just sort of assumed, and the idea that serialization is something audiences will be completely comfortable with is no longer odd to anybody in any part of the cultural sphere. And that can be directly traced to TV, which took the idea of a long, continuing story told across many parts and normalized it.
What's more, television has shown that viewers who get lost in these serialized stories are often more obsessive about their preferred shows, which drives conversations in the media — and ultimately potential for marketing. A series like Mad Men or even Game of Thrones has fewer viewers than NCIS, but those viewers are more likely to discuss the show endlessly online or with their friends, creating the feeling of a cultural event. It's, in essence, free, word-of-mouth marketing, and it's much easier to start with serialized projects than episodic ones. Plus these sorts of obsessive fans are far easier to monetize in other ways — as all of that Game of Thrones merchandise would suggest.
It is also impossible to overstate the importance of the internet to all of this. Not only does it work as a kind of perpetual marketing machine for projects of interest, but it also lowers the cost of fandom. You don't have to subscribe to obscure fanzines or travel long distances to conventions to meet fellow fans. Now they're as easy to find as a comments section. TV was the first medium to truly exploit this, thanks to its "on every week" nature, but other media are catching up rapidly.
So it would be more accurate to say that TV just made it safer for pop culture to embrace this sort of complex storytelling. It didn't get there first. But it certainly made it hugely popular.