Television was a bad joke in the early 90s. Predictable sitcoms… procedurals… bad used car commercials. But today, it’s mind blowing how different television has become as an artistic medium.
AMC and HBO have led the way with original programming that is more like watching a 50 hour movie than television. I was just re-watching “Boardwalk Empire” with a friend and was keenly reminded of this fact. Every single episode is shot just like a movie. So every season is a lot like watching a great, in depth, 12 hour movie where you get a chance to explore the world’s of a variety of characters much more so than you ever would in a 2 hour feature.
The biggest thing to notice is the shooting style of a show like “Boardwalk” versus a Network show like CSI. Network shows look like television. They are shot very quickly, with relatively fast 2 shots and some moving shots. But for all intents and purposes they are filmed stage plays that are very predictable. Someone gets murdered, we see the crime scene, then the lab, etc. And there’s a lot of back and forth. It’s very engaging to the “puzzle solving” aspect of the mind but not to the part of our mind that gets engaged into a cinematic experience.
In a show like “Boardwalk”, you are first transported into a different time and place, back into the 1920s. The amount and quality of production design on the show is obscene. Even the post office where the Federal agents work seems authentically old, even though it just consists of a few chairs and desks. The attention to detail required to pull of this illusion is absolutely astronomical.
But beyond that is the shooting style, which should be noted by any aspiring filmmaker. “Boardwalk” episodes move like movies. There are moments of quiet and introspection mixed up with moments of grotesque violence. The camera is constantly moving. Dollies, Steadicam… strange and interesting shot compositions. The Boardwalk itself is traversed in so many different ways that it appears brand new almost every time, versus a typical television show in which a set becomes a lifeless piece of background filler.
What’s most notable to me is the care that is put into every scene by the creators. Every camera movement is carefully orchestrated to hit just the right emotional note in the story. It’s a level of craftsmanship you can’t find on a Network show with those kinds of deadlines. And it’s the very same style as is done in the cinema. So if you haven’t checked out “Boardwalk Empire”, make sure to do so, and study every episode like you would a great movie.