Hand-wringing over what constitutes the difference been movies and TV shows has become commonplace in the streaming era. (Some, led by Martin Scorsese, have even begun arguing over what films constitute cinema — but that’s a whole other conversation.)
This parsing tend to be meaningless at best. It usually represents anxiety over a changing marketplace, one in which Scorsese’s 3.5-hour epic “The Irishman” only appears in a few theaters and movies primarily found on streaming services are competing for Academy Awards.
Despite these tiresome arguments, the distinction between movies and television has always seemed obvious. For one, movies tell a self-contained story (at least, they did before the rise of the Marvel Cinematic Universe) and television tells a story over multiple installments. But, of course, that’s not what most people are actually debating. They’re generally discussing the quality of production, storytelling and acting. The better a TV show is in this regard, the more likely it is to be referred to as a multi-episode “movie.”
Though many have come close, no show has really achieved a level of quality that fits that designation. No show until, perhaps, “The Mandalorian.”
The series, which represents the shiniest bait Disney Plus is using to lure people to click “subscribe,” is Lucasfilm’s first live-action “Star Wars” TV show. Though that world has appeared on the small screen in the past, it has been in cartoon form, making it immediately distinguishable from the movies. Walk in on someone watching “The Mandalorian” on their TV or desktop, however, and you might think they’re watching a rerun of one of the films.
Yes, it looks that good.
The show follows a bounty hunter as he pursues a particularly intriguing target. To say more would be to enter spoiler territory, so just know it’s full of everything you expect from a “Star Wars” tale. As The Washington Post’s TV critic Hank Stuever wrote in his review, the show is “visually intriguing, amusingly adventurous and light on its feet, a space-Western comfortable with the tropes of cinema culture and common reference points.”
Thanks in part to all of that, it looks and feels like a feature film. It doesn’t hurt that it stars names like Pedro Pascal, Nick Nolte, Taika Waititi and Werner Herzog (really). But it also features production values on par with any “Star Wars” movie that’s come out in the past few years.
And that’s a big deal. Television has been trying to reach this point for some time. “Game of Thrones” came close, after bumping up the budget for each episode from around $6 million to a reported $15 million for the final season. Each one of those supersize episodes ran around 80 minutes or so, and while they were visually stunning at times, ultimately they wouldn’t stack up against most things you’d see on the silver screen. “The Battle of Winterfell,” one of the show’s most important episodes, was so dark that fans complained they couldn’t see it. An errant Starbucks cup appeared in another episode.
“The Mandalorian” boasts a similar budget, reportedly costing $15 million per episode. But the pilot episode, the only one now available, clocks in at 40 minutes — half the length of those “GoT” epics.
Throwing money at a TV show isn’t all that’s required, of course. If it were, then “The Morning Show” on Apple TV Plus, which reportedly also costs $15 million an episode, would be just as good. Instead, it’s fine-to-enjoyable at best. Stuever wrote it “is hardly what I would describe as a car wreck, at least judging by the first three episodes. ... It is, however, a conspicuous fender bender, in which ambition has been rear-ended by self-importance, causing it to bump into a dump truck full of cliches.”
It helps, then, that “The Mandalorian” is helmed by veteran film director Jon Favreau, who has directed such big-spectacle hits as “Iron Man,” “Iron Man 2” and the live-action remakes of “The Lion King” and “The Jungle Book.”
That the show is arguably indecipherable from the films in term of production, acting, sound and more raises some interesting questions. It will continue to air weekly through December, being doled out like the TV shows of old, likely meant as a ramp-up to get fans excited for the next big-screen installment of the series, “The Rise of Skywalker,” in theaters Dec. 20.
But as we all know, not doing things is always easier than doing things. If fans get accustomed to feature film-quality production from their television shows, and if they enjoy watching them curled up on the couch at home, who’s to say they’ll be willing to head out on a cold winter night to drop upward of $10 for a movie ticket?
That’s exactly what frightens Scorsese and everyone else arguing about what constitutes a movie. “The Mandalorian” might be the first show to justify that fear.