Sunday, August 31, 2008

8/31/08 Playing the self

I never used to watch much TV, but with the advent of Netflix and TV on DVD I've been conducting a kind of one-show-at-a-time cream of the crop skimming, picking up only those shows that have been close to drowned in critical plaudits: Six Feet Under, the Sopranos, Firefly, the Office, the Wire.

One thing that this TV viewing has done is given me new appreciation for the difficulties successful TV actors face when making the move to film. This was something I never did understand when I was younger, when I didn't really watch TV, when magazines like Entertainment Weekly would publish breathless articles about "Can Jennifer Aniston escape Rachel?" Big deal, I thought. Plenty of movie stars just play variations on a theme - it's not like Tom Cruise really disappears into the skin of his characters, unless those characters are tightly wound yuppies in need of comeuppance/life lessons/just a little lovin'. Harrison Ford, Schwarzenegger - surely if movie actors can get away with the same persona, then TV stars wouldn't have such a hard time. Plus, if they could actually act then, well, theoretically the sky's the limit.

What I failed to account for, though, was the way that the longevity of a TV series lends deeper and deeper imprints of a character in a way that movies do not. It's a cliche at this point to label televsion novelistic (in its best forms), but what is true is that some of the unique strengths of book-length narrative are present in long-running TV series. It's interesting to me that Hollywood is always adapting novels to the screen, when really movies are the narrative equivalent of short stories - in fact, the list of great movies adapted from short stories is a longer one than you would think:

In The Bedroom

Brokeback Mountain
The Birds
Rear Window
The Shawshank Redemption
Of course, there are plenty of duds in the bunch, but what's notable about those movies, as with other movies adapted from short stories, is that they don't have that curious truncated sensation common to movies adapted from novels. Adapting a full-length novel to film is by necessity transforming one form of narrative to another - cuts are required, mandatory, characters are lost or assimilated, plot is compressed - obviously, because a novel that may span centuries with multiple protagonists (Everything is Illuminated, say), becomes a Cliffs Notes version of itself by necessity.

Television, though, can work with the same long build and payoff of novels, when it is operating on all cylinders. Characters can cycle to the forefront and leave, long time periods can be explored, in general there is just so much more time available that the narrative universe is much larger and expanded - longhand to shorthand of the movies. Because of this long build, and the deep imprinteur the fictional universe can leave, actors in television series become much more locked in as their characters. Harrison Ford is Indiana Jones, but only for a grand total of 6-8 hours of screentime. Contrast this with, say, Josh Holloway as Sawyer on Lost: at 4 seasons of 22 episodes a season, that's ~100 hours and counting. In the popular perception, it's much more difficult to wrench one's mind around the fact that Holloway is NOT Sawyer than it is to accept Ford as NOT Indy.

This makes it difficult to watch prodigiously gifted actors like Isiah Whitlock, Jr. of the Wire appear in bad TV commercials - a work that has a purity of artistic voice and vision should be able to fully own Sen. Clay Davis, not share him with Virgin Atlantic or whoever. If anything, Whitlock should get the cream of the crop - let him work his way out of the Clay Davis groove with something meaty, not at the level of the Mac Guy. Such are the vagaries of the life of the actor, but it seems cruel for TV actors to be punished merely by the medium in which they work.

1 comment:

mike brotzman said...


Al Bundy (can't even remember the dude's real name)
Wayne Knight (oddly, only as Newman, despite his a long tenure on Third Rock)
Jason Alexander
John Lithgow (kinda)

Also note how the cinematic success of popular actors from SNL supports your conclusion, owing to the sound-byte-ness of the characters they portray; in fact the SNL format is an ideal breeding ground for movie stars - it is very equivalent to minor league professional sports. The biggest movies stars embody a certain personality across movies, and not a specific character (as television stars do), and SNL skits are perfect for sketching personality independent of character at a small scale.