When we speak of prestige television, of this golden age we’re in, we tend to think of novelistic storylines, of morally ambiguous characters who have hours and hours over which to evolve or devolve, of troubled men who are both the protagonists and the antagonists of their own stories (think Walter White, Frank Underwood, Tony Soprano) and of glossy production values that highlight the money spent on sets, lighting design, spectacular locations and costumes.
But cinematic television means so much more than just high-end production values. Throughout its short history, television has rarely trafficked in visual metaphor and abstraction. The staples of the broadcast medium have been soap operas and sitcoms – worthy artistic formats in their own right – along with news, sports, talk shows, factual programming and telemovies. More recently, reality TV has embedded itself in programmers’ repertoires, though this genre tends more towards the conventions of soap opera than documentary. Highly conceptualised, cast, produced, scripted, plotted and characterised – reality TV, soap operas and sitcoms tend to be plot-oriented, following the everyday dramas of romances, breakups, career scandal and family intrigue.
But the wave of television led by the likes of The Sopranos and Six Feet Under introduced us to something different: moments of storytelling that departed from the needs of the plot, and anchored us to emotional junctures deeply sensitive to place and character, evolving our understanding of those places and people rather than relentlessly pushing forward the story.
Throughout its short history, television has rarely trafficked in visual metaphor and abstraction.
When I think of cinematic television, I think first of the moment in season five of Mad Men, in which anti-hero Don Draper hits a new rock bottom. Leaving his office, Don farewells his second wife Megan, who, not sensing his distraction and disconnection, kisses him fully, steps back into the elevator and waves goodbye. He hits the ‘down’ button, and waits, adjusting his cuffs. A second later, the doors slide open with a ‘ding’ and we watch as Don steps forward, only to pull back slightly. From the low-angled shot from inside the elevator shaft, we watch Don peer downwards: a new shot from his viewpoint shows that the elevator shaft is empty, an abyss. Don reels backward, and the elevator doors close again. Visibly rattled, he looks around to see if anyone else has shared the moment, but he’s alone.
Many viewers wondered if the moment, so tangential to plot, so abstract in its sensibility, even happened outside Don’s mind. It was a moment that got right to the core of Don’s character trajectory, and to the essence of Man Men itself. It is difficult to craft a story about disappointment without becoming a source of disappointment for the audience. Mad Men could have settled for being a pristine period piece, or an advertising industry version of CSI: Miami, every week a new ad campaign and a glib, manipulative answer to a corporate client’s needs. But at the moment of the empty elevator, we were reminded that Mad Men was in fact an incisive political history of 1960s USA, told from within the microcosm of an advertising agency, and inherent to that decade was the falling away of faith in the establishment, and the floating, untethered feeling of emptiness that went with that.
How can storytelling represent an emotional state through audiovisual subtlety and subtext rather than the literalness of dialogue? These stretched-out spaces, beyond plot, beyond story, are key, and they’re key to understanding cinematic television today.
These stretched-out spaces, beyond plot, beyond story, are key, and they’re key to understanding cinematic television today.
I hoped for a few of these cinematic moments of abstraction and metaphor in Geoffrey Wright’s new teleseries Romper Stomper, a tale of the rising Australian far-right that premiered on Stan in January. Wright’s original 1992 film is neither subtle nor flawless, but it has its own weirdness and a kinetic energy that makes it distinctive and memorable. The story is told fully from within the down-and-out world of skinheads living on Melbourne’s fringe – the city glimpsed only ever in far-off silhouetted skylines – and the film has a psychological intensity owing to that insular setting. Scenes are edited to end brutally a beat or two ahead of where you expect them to; one scene bleeds into a wordless video-clip-esque sequence of thrashing movement and punk rock at a skinhead warehouse party.
Much of that maverick sensibility has been ironed flat in the new TV version, which expands the storytelling viewpoints to a more panoramic (and therefore less specific) view of society in which characters are picked for their demographics: a couple of Muslim students, a far-right TV shock jock, some anarchists playing their own role in society’s political polarisation. Rather than the eye and the pulse of independent cinema, the new Romper Stomper has the knack of a telemovie (indeed, co-director Daina Reed also helmed such commercial telemovies as Paper Giants: Magazine Wars and Howzat: Kerry Packer’s War.) Wright has worked at university psychology departments, filming reenactments of forensic crimes, but that sensitivity is absent from Romper Stomper, as is any meaningful subversion of the crime genre. Rather, it plays like a dramatisation of the kinds of things we see on the news every night, and what kind of genre is that? That simplicity, that lack of ambition in what episodic storytelling can achieve audiovisually and metaphorically, undermines the complex critique of the mainstreaming of inflammatory politics that the production aims for.
[Romper Stomper‘s] lack of ambition in what episodic storytelling can achieve undermines the complex critique the production aims for.
The Kettering Incident (2016) had its own interesting orientation to the sci-fi mystery genre with its Tasmanian Gothic setting, which I hope is developed in future series. And Josh Thomas’ glorious go-nowhere millenial sitcom, Please Like Me (2013–2016), followed in the great independent cinema tradition of neurotic people bumping into each other in urban places – Josh’s job (a laughably pointless degree in creative industries) was mentioned just once, the series focusing solely on its character studies, and the feeling of floating around contemporary Australia, unmoored, in your youth, with your chosen queer family, today.
Lately, I’ve seen classic stretched-out cinematic moments in Stan’s SMILF. The sitcom has traditionally been about the sanctity of the nuclear family, but SMILF’s writer and lead actor Frankie Shaw has gently pushed the form toward her own life experiences as a single, underemployed mother, neogitating her own type of hyper-extended family with her ex-partner (Miguel Gomez) and her manic mother Tutu (Queen Rosie O’Donnell), in the working class area of South Boston. The dialogue whips along, but the best moments are beyond words. How easy it would be to miss the show’s softer spaces: Shaw’s Bridgitte Bird drying her son after a bath with paper towels, when she can’t afford to launder her towels; or when for several languid moments, we linger in the golden light breaking through to Tutu’s tiny, dusty brownstone – modest and cramped, but undeniably a home.
These mini-scenes didn’t push forward the plot, nor did it follow the tight rhythmic storytelling beats of sitcom storytelling. But in that moment, I knew exactly how it felt to be there, struggling and alive, with those characters, in that time and place – and as far away as possible from my laptop screen at home. And perhaps it’s not surprising that the direct-to-streaming model – only just maturing in Australia after years of lagging behind Netflix’s launch in the US, and immune to the commercial pressures of box office scrutiny and difficulty getting distribution – is delivering these slippery plateux of affect. Ways of thinking leap beyond formats. If the new streaming giants of Australia can engage some clever creatives at the top to commission, mentor and nurture bold, experimental storytelling in the online sphere, we may see some more of those moments on our laptop screens yet.