True Detective and The Hunger Games are the same thing. This claim may seem bold, and of course it is in large part reductive and untrue. When looking at the way the two stories function, however, it becomes easier to see the common ground that exists between them. True Detective is essentially an episodic movie. It tells one story over eight hours, and stars Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, two bona fide movie stars. The Hunger Games is telling a narrative of roughly the same length, and has a cast that includes House of Cards’ Mahershala Ali and Game of Thrones’ Natalie Dormer. So, what exactly is the difference?
The Hunger Games series is telling us a single narrative, truly, and its latest installment, Mockingjay—Part 1, told what is really half of a complete story. What it is, in its simplest form, is an episode. While the prior two installments in the series covered an entire book in the trilogy, and thereby had some semblance of self-containment, the latest film is half of its source material. This is not to say that the film is of low quality, per se, but the criticism of incompleteness has been leveled, and not inaccurately. While the film takes time to explore the series’ heroine Katniss as a character, it also ends somewhere in the middle, which is something that many critics and fans took note of.
True Detective may have had twice as many “episodes” as The Hunger Games series, and they may have been aired on HBO instead of in theaters, but it’s really just a long movie. It explores the impact of a single murder investigation on the lives of its two primary investigators, and spans an incredible seventeen year period. During this period, viewers are treated to remarkably choreographed fight sequences, bold narrative structure, introspective character struggles, and many other incredibly inventive story-telling devices. While it is certainly true that the existence of a second season for the show lessens its relationship to film, the fact that this season will tell a completely different story than the first seems to strengthen it. Through this lens, these seasons could be something akin to installments in the Bond franchise, with each season representing a different and unconnected narrative, just as the Bond films do.
Thus far, this allegory is limited and may represent more of a strange coincidence than a real discussion about merging media, but it seems as though more than just these two stories are bridging the once wide gap between film and television. Look at the Marvel Universe. Apart from Agents of SHIELD and Agent Carter, both of which are actual TV shows, the Marvel films are essentially just long episodes that are all leading up to season finales in the form of The Avengers films. True, they all tell their own self-contained stories, but so does each episode of House, even though they seem to be building those individual stories into larger arcs, which one can call phases in Marvel’s case, or seasons on TV. Either way, there are certainly similarities between the handling of Marvel’s universe and TV shows.
Conversely, True Detective is not the only show on the air that is telling self-contained narratives much like long-form cinema. Fargo follows an incredibly similar format and, though it is based on a world created in a film, the show expands this world in order to tell a story similar to True Detective‘s. Both are noir films presented on TV networks. Their tones may be entirely their own, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t both just really long movies. Even American Horror Story is telling a series of one season stories that are related only by a title and an eerie, infectious tone. These series could easily be converted into film franchises, if it weren’t for the fact that it may be more difficult to get people to watch them if they were forced to go to a theater to do so.
This may be why the blockbuster exists in such full force these days. If people want smart, consistently engaging entertainment, they know that there is a plethora of it on TV. What is more difficult to come by on TV (though that gap is closing too) is spectacle. You can’t turn on the TV and watch giant things hit other giant things and wreck cities for two plus hours, but you can get that for $10-12 at your local theater. That’s the niche that the film industry is forcing itself into, and its one that it might have trouble digging itself out of. Conversely, the movie making industry likely knows that, with the incredible creativity that exists on television, the only way to get people to come to the theater is by providing this spectacle.
This does not mean, of course, that movie-making as a whole is dying. There will always be exceptions to this rule, filmmakers who, for whatever reason, are capable of making art and selling it. There will always be films like Gravity or American Hustle, both of which managed to be financially successful and meaningful. With the movement towards a kind of merger between the two mediums, though, it becomes easy to wonder whether this group is becoming smaller. Quality entertainment is quality entertainment, after all, but it’s scary to think that all of the creative minds might be moving towards TV, a medium which, 50 years ago, was thought to mean the end of film. Maybe those theorists weren’t wrong after all, they were just off by half a century.