If you follow enough TV or movie critics on Twitter, you’ve spent much of this week wondering why they’re all (usually jokingly) arguing about whether Twin Peaks, Showtime’s summer revival of the classic small-town mystery, was a TV show or a movie.
I got in on the fun (which I’ll freely admit depends heavily on your definition of “fun”), too:
Look, I'm happy to give all film critics access to Twin Peaks for their top 10 list if they also retroactively add Vinyl to their top 10 list for 2016.— Todd VanDerWerff (@tvoti) December 5, 2017
If I ever become a major TV writer/director, when I finally make an OSCAR-WORTHY movie, I will describe it as "really just a short TV show," and then walk away from the burning wreckage I leave behind.— Todd VanDerWerff (@tvoti) December 5, 2017
So just what’s going on here? To those of you not intimately steeped in what we in cultural criticism call “the time of year when we all throw together a top 10 list and pretend it’s objectively true,” it might seem weird to have a big debate about whether Twin Peaks, which aired on TV, over 14 weeks, and was divided into 18 hour-long episodes, is actually a movie. And to be clear, I’d agree with you. As a TV critic, I am loath to allow film critics to “take” Twin Peaks just because it’s from beloved auteur David Lynch (behind such films as Blue Velvet, Mulholland Dr., and, uh, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me).
But the debate gets at something fascinating happening in the film and TV world right now. As the classic distinction between movies and TV shows collapses, as all of our screens increasingly become the same thing, the idea that movies are something you go to see in a theater, while TV is something you can watch at home, increasingly seems alien to many. Why is the Netflix film Mudbound a movie at two hours and 20 minutes, while Amazon’s Fleabag is TV at just under three hours?
The major distinction — movies are made to be consumed in one big gulp, while TV is consumed episodically — still mostly stands. But as more and more projects occupy a weird in-between space, this conversation will only continue to grow, and it will expand to include even casual fans of film and TV. A question like, “What is a movie?” or, “What is a TV series?” is becoming harder and harder to answer with every passing year, and it has huge implications for how stories are told onscreen. So let’s look at it through the lens of Twin Peaks.
The case for Twin Peaks as a film
The debate over Twin Peaks’ status kicked off thanks to the annual top 10 lists by two of the most prestigious film publications out there. Both the UK’s Sight & Sound and France’s Cahiers du Cinema, which have reputations as being among the most intellectually rigorous film journals, placed Twin Peaks: The Return within their top two. (We’ll just have to wait and see how the American Film Comment responds when its top 10 list is published.)
The foremost argument Sight & Sound has advanced for the placement of Twin Peaks on its list is that it didn’t ask the critics it polled to limit their list to only movies. Instead, it asked them to vote for what they most loved on a screen of any size — “screen things.” The publication tweeted out a wide variety of non-films, from short online videos to video games, that received solo votes. Yet the publication still dubbed its list the “best films” of 2017, and the labeling is what kicked up the kerfuffle.
Another argument both publications could make is that while putting a TV series or TV episode on a list of the best films of the year is unusual, it’s not unprecedented. The original Twin Peaks made a fair share of lists, while former Time critic Richard Corliss routinely peppered his lists with Simpsons episodes in the early ’90s. Cahiers also found room in its top 10 for the first season of 24 in 2002.
Meanwhile, lots of projects that began their lives as TV shows in their native countries, from the Polish Dekalog to the German Berlin Alexanderplatz, are commonly viewed as films in the English-speaking world, because they were released in theaters here first.
But the biggest argument in favor of Twin Peaks as a movie boils down to Lynch, and it goes beyond the fact that the director is known for making films primarily (though Twin Peaks is almost certainly the work of his that’s been seen by the most people). The miniseries’ strange, unfiltered vision makes it feel like no other TV series out there: It’s loose and experimental in form, with storylines that go nowhere and episodes that seem structured more by emotional mood than any sort of narrative cohesion. It’s hugely groundbreaking for television — but it would be slightly less groundbreaking for film, where this sort of experimentation is more common (though it’s not like it’s happening every day).
Lynch himself also claims Twin Peaks is an 18-hour movie, and even though lots and lots of TV producers use “This is really just an X-hour movie” in their promotional tours, Lynch really did shoot and assemble Twin Peaks as if it were an 18-hour whole. There’s care spent on each individual hour, and each entry has a rough episodic structure that helps viewers distinguish one from the other. But in the process of making the series, Lynch was mostly focused on the macro, not the micro. Twin Peaks wouldn’t be shown in theaters, but it was shot, funded, and edited like a film.
The case for Twin Peaks as television
Not to tip my hand too much here, but c’mon. Twin Peaks is a TV show. Matt Zoller Seitz advanced this argument best in a great Twitter thread:
THREAD: 1. Believe me, I'm aware that David Lynch said he's making an 18-hour movie. But I got news for folks who don't write about TV regularly: every single person of any ambition who's ever worked in series TV says they're making "a long movie" or "a bunch of little movies."— MZS (@mattzollerseitz) December 5, 2017
The things that seem to set Twin Peaks apart as more film-like than TV-like actually aren’t all that unusual. Lots and lots of heavily serialized TV shows (like Game of Thrones first and foremost) go into a season with a rough episodic plan, then mix and match scenes among those episodes to make sure the season has the right flow. The idea of a season of TV just being a long movie is quite common in the industry and has arguably hurt TV drama in the past five years more than any other idea. (Say what you will for most TV showrunners, but they’re not David Lynch.)
But the fact that Twin Peaks was specifically crafted so each hour had a specific tension and release and concluded in roughly the same way (with a new musical performance each week) is what makes the best case for it as television. As Seitz points out in his tweet thread, the season’s justly acclaimed eighth episode (which goes back to the detonation of the first atomic bombs to trace the roots of the series’ greatest evils) has power precisely because the series is structured like a TV show. Because Lynch and collaborator Mark Frost have structured the show to make viewers think we know what to expect, they’re better able to pull the rug out from under us with a black-and-white flashback in that eighth hour.
The mention of Frost keys in to another way that Twin Peaks is fundamentally TV: Though Lynch’s name almost always comes first when discussing Peaks, it’s also Frost’s show in a way that auteurists rarely acknowledge, and Frost’s involvement is part of what makes the series as good as it is. Lynch, from the world of film and visual art, gives the series an unusual grandeur, while Frost makes sure it coheres in ways we expect from television. The two push each other to newer, more intriguing places.
This sort of thing happens in all collaborative arts, including film, but it’s especially fundamental in television — which, after all, was produced for most of its history at a breakneck pace that meant no one person could be in charge of everything. The idea of the director as auteur is a very, very old one in film. Television has a similar cult of the showrunner, but it’s only arisen very recently, and it doesn’t have the same weight.
But even if I accept Sight & Sound’s framing of “screen things,” the way these polls are structured is designed to tilt toward movies. It’s primarily film critics who are invited to vote, and film critics are going to be most heavily invested in film. Thus, they very likely haven’t seen as much television as a TV critic such as myself has.
But that cuts both ways: Were I to turn in a hybrid list of my favorite “screen things” of 2017, it would have movies and TV shows, as well as the 45-second video of the bus blocking the demolition of the Georgia Dome, but it probably wouldn’t have some of the more obscure film releases favored by many Cahiers or Sight & Sound voters. This is not to say I wouldn’t like those films — I probably would! But it is to say that as someone who’s primarily a TV critic, I don’t have time to seek them out.
That leads to an inevitable sense of cherry-picking. Film critics have seen Twin Peaks both because it’s great and because it’s directed by David Lynch, a figure revered among film critics. But there are far more TV shows than Twin Peaks, even if you limit entirely for TV projects that are the products of TV auteurs, who write or direct almost all of their series and sometimes even star in them. Why Twin Peaks and not, say, The Young Pope (from Italian auteur Paolo Sorrentino)? Or Top of the Lake: China Girl (from New Zealand’s Jane Campion)? Or Better Things, in which every episode was directed by Pamela Adlon? I could list dozens of examples from 2017 alone.
To me, the most persuasive argument against this creeping definition of what constitutes a “film” is that it seems designed to elevate some TV (namely, TV directed by people who are already beloved in the film world) and keep the rest of it in its place.
Imagine if I tried to place Get Out — which was written and directed by Jordan Peele, previously best known for his TV work — on my best TV of 2017 list. I’m sure it would provoke a bigger backlash because we still have this inherent sense that TV is “less” than the movies, and by putting Get Out in the company of really great TV shows, I would somehow be doing a really great movie a disservice. But would that be true? Even I, as big a TV booster as you can find, recoil a little at the idea of doing this. Similarly, placing something like Mudbound on my TV list would feel wrong because it’s structured and made like a movie, even though it’s on Netflix.
And that, ultimately, is the best argument to me for keeping movies and TV separate for such silly purposes as making year-end top 10 lists: The two media are similar, sure, but they’re designed to do very different things, and keeping that in mind is important.
What we’re really talking about is the collapse of divisions between media altogether
This whole debate provokes a certain amount of anxiety. The more everything we watch is consumed on a TV after it hits a streaming site like Netflix — or, worse, consumed on a phone during the morning commute — the more erosion there is of seemingly fundamental practices like watching a movie in a theater or waiting a week between episodes.
TV critics — who’ve been watching the traditions of TV evaporate rapidly for about a decade now — are more used to this than film critics, but it’s happening to all of us, and seemingly all at once. Podcasts are increasingly structured like TV shows, just without pictures, and YouTube series grow ever more ambitious. Many video games are now presented like miniature movies, in which the player has input but is also invited to be more swept along by the story than create said story.
There are some divisions that will probably always remain. Even in the grip of full Hamilton fever, few film critics tried to argue that a stage musical was a movie, even if it adopts certain cinematic conventions and tries to put them onstage. And a great pop album or a great novel will always be its own thing, simply due to the method of delivery.
But everything else — the great, mushy mass of stuff that we consume on screens of some size or another — starts to blend together. The upcoming documentary Wormwood, for instance, is a multi-part Netflix miniseries from Oscar-winning documentarian Errol Morris, one of my favorite directors. Except it’s only four hours long and is also being screened in movie theaters. What does that make it? A movie or a TV show? Most people will experience it as a TV series, but you can make a much more persuasive argument for it as a movie than you can for Twin Peaks, I would argue.
And this is only going to keep happening. The fights over Twin Peaks are, ultimately, all in good fun, but they point to the very real fact that we’re rapidly heading toward an age when ironclad distinctions will start to become helpful suggestions and then will disappear altogether. I’ll make a list of the best TV shows of 2017, yes, but will I make a list of the best TV shows of 2027, or even 2022? It’s hard to say. Maybe Sight & Sound is right — maybe it’s “screen things” all the way down.