In a 1999 essay about The Sopranos written after its first season, Vincent Canby suggested that the show was an example of a relatively new form of television, the megamovie.
“Berlin Alexanderplatz,” “The Singing Detective” and “The Sopranos” are something more than mini-series. Packed with characters and events of Dickensian dimension and color, their time and place observed with satiric exactitude, each has the kind of cohesive dramatic arc that defines a work complete unto itself. No matter what they are labeled or what they become, they are not open-ended series, or even mini-series.
They are megamovies.
That is, they are films on a scale imagined by the big-thinking, obsessive, fatally unrealistic Erich von Stroheim when, in 1924, he shot “Greed,” virtually a page-by-page adaptation of Frank Norris’s Zola-esque novel, “McTeague.” Stroheim intended it to be an exemplar of cinematic realism.
Megamovies take television seriously as a medium. They have dramatic arcs that last longer than single episodes or seasons. Megamovies often explore themes and ideas relevant to contemporary society — there’s more going on than just the plot — without resorting to very special episodes. Repeat viewing and close scrutiny is rewarded with a deeper understanding of the material and its themes. They’re shot cinematically and utilize good actors. Plot details sprawl out over multiple episodes, with viewers sometimes having to wait weeks to fit what might have seemed a throwaway line into the larger narrative puzzle.
Episodes of these megamovies, Canby argued presciently, are best watched in bunches, so that the parts more easily make the whole in the viewer’s mind. For many, bingeing on entire seasons on DVD or downloaded via iTunes has become the preferred way to watch these shows. If stamina and non-televisual responsibilities weren’t an issue, it would be preferable to watch these shows in one sitting, as one does with a movie.
Since The Sopranos kick-started things in 1999, the megamovie has become a far more common occurrence on TV. Virginia Heffernan recently stated that the creators of nearly all hour-long dramatic series are aiming to make megamovies. I’ve collected a few examples of megamovies accompanied by their total running times below. The list is incomplete but represents several of the best-known and -appreciated megamovies out there.
The Sopranos, 81 hours 46 minutes
Lost*, 61 hours 59 minutes
Mad Men*, 18 hours 6 minutes
Six Feet Under 57 hours 45 minutes
Deadwood*, 36 hours
The Wire, 60 hours 45 minutes
The West Wing, 111 hours 56 minutes
For The West Wing, that’s 4 days and 16 hours of continuous watching. An asterisk marks megamovies that are as-yet incomplete. In the case of Deadwood, it’s as if the film projector broke about halfway through the movie, only no one got their money back and eveyone left the theater pissed.
Update: In his review of the third episode of Mad Men this season, Andrew Johnston talks about the two dominant forms of TV drama and how The Sopranos and Mad Men fit in. (thx, stephen)