Quick Takes: TV at the Movies

Sometime around the prestige TV era of shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and The Wire, there was a lot of inane, hyperbolic discourse about how the boundary between television & cinema had become irreversibly blurred. I never bought the argument that modern Event Television had somehow surpassed the artistry of traditional filmmaking, nor do I believe that should even be its goal. My favorite TV shows tend to be the kind of disposable, episodic entertainment that can only exist in that medium: reality competition shows like Project Runway, animated sitcoms like Tuca & Bertie, clips-of-the-week roundups like The Soup (R.I.P.), etc. I will concede that the modern straight-to-streaming movie distribution model has blurred the distinction between television & cinema, though, if only by making it so the old made-for-TV, movie-of-the-week format now outnumbers how many traditional films get theatrical distribution on a weekly basis. It’s the non-stop need for fresh streaming #content that’s making movies more like television, not some new Golden Age of high-quality TV shows that take 30 hours to tell a decent, self-contained story that could be wrapped up in 100 minutes or less.

If there’s any clear sign that the boundary between television & cinema has become blurred, it’s in the mundanity of modern “The Movie” versions of TV shows. When I was a kid, it felt like a major event when popular TV shows like Pokémon, The Simpsons, and Jackass graduated from the small screen to grander, theatrical “The Movie” versions of their formats. In 2022, the distinction feels arbitrary. In the past month, I’ve seen three “The Movie” versions of TV shows that I love, and none felt especially ceremonious, or even worthy of a standalone review. I did enjoy all three, but they all felt more like good television than great cinema. Here’s a quick review of each, with some thoughts on how they blur the line between the two mediums.

The Bob’s Burgers Movie

Unquestionably, The Bob’s Burgers Movie is the most convincing, traditional “The Movie” version of a TV show I’ve seen this year. Not only was it exclusive to theaters for months before popping up on HBO Max & Hulu (where it has since transformed from TV at the movies to regular TV), but the Loren Borchard-led creative team behind it put in great effort to make it feel like an Event. Throughout the latest season of the show, background characters have been tripping over a dislodged chunk of sidewalk in front of the titular burger restaurant, teasing the giant sinkhole that opens the main conflict of the film. A lot of money was also poured into ensuring there was more depth & detail in the actual animation of the movie to distinguish it from the show, even if most of that effort was just adding shadows to its usual look.

I expected The Bob’s Burgers Movie would escalate the show’s occasional song & dance numbers to a full-blown movie musical, but instead it stays true to their usual rhythms. Structurally, it feels just like a 100min episode of the animated sitcom, stretching the special-occasion ceremony of a season finale to a night-long Event. Everything I love about the Bob’s Burgers show is sharply pronounced in the film; it delivers rapid-fire puns & punchlines, its sprawling cast of oddball characters are universally loveable, and it can be surprisingly emotional to watch them fail & grow (especially Louise’s arc in this super-sized episode). A lot of what justifies its graduation to movie-scale pomp & circumstance is just its length and that added layer of shadows, but both really do go a long way.

Downton Abbey: A New Era

If there’s any film that challenges my snobbish distinctions between film & television, it’s Downton Abbey: A New Era, the sequel to 2019’s Downton Abbey: The Movie. While The Bob’s Burgers Movie justifies its medium jump from television to the big screen in the quality of its animation, there is absolutely nothing that visually distinguishes the Downton Abbey movies from their seven seasons of televised build-up. The main draw of these films is that you get to revisit all of the Upstairs/Downstairs characters you love for another couple episodes of wealth-porn soap opera, except now with a theater full of likeminded costume drama nerds who laugh & sniffle in unison instead of watching it under a cozy blanket (assuming, again, that you caught the latest installment in theaters instead of waiting for it to pop up on the Peacock app, where it has been downgraded to TV again).

As much as the Downton Abbey movies feel like more-of-the-same episodic television, I still have to admit that A New Era was one of my most emotionally satisfying trips to the movie theater all year. I was either laughing or crying for the entire runtime, so there’s no reason why this shouldn’t land near the top of my “Top Films of 2022” list, except that I consider it more TV than cinema, which makes me a bit of a snob. I would be fine with the series ending with A New Era, since it’s come full circle to just being Gosford Park without the murder mystery again, but I’ll keep tuning in forever if it keeps going (if not only to see the continued adventures of John Molesey, the unlikeliest of late-series MVPs). It’s good TV.

Beavis and Butthead Do the Universe

The new Beavis and Butthead movie knows exactly where it falls on television/cinema divide. It pretends to scale up its usual airheaded slacker premise with some sci-fi gimmickry at its bookends (joining the multiverse craze headlined by Everything Everywhere and the new Doctor Strange), but everything in-between those brief scenes is just more-of-the-same retreading of the original show. When it’s not a sci-fi action comedy starring the galaxy’s two unlikeliest heroes, Beavis and Butthead Do the Universe mostly plays like a less funny version of the (excellent, underrated) 2011 reboot season of the show, where our favorite knuckleheads adapt to a world of smartphones & “woke” politics. It’s still very funny, though, and its disinterest in growth or change is obviously a large part of the joke.

Beavis and Butthead already had a proper “The Movie” escalation of its premise in 1996’s Beavis & Butthead Do America, so there’s really nothing a straight-to-Paramount+ follow-up to the show needs to accomplish except to be funny. It was the least rewarding film out of this trio for me, but it’s also the one that best understands the function of movie addendums to television shows in the modern streaming era. “The Movie” versions of TV shows don’t need to elevate their medium to the holy mountain of cinematic prestige; they just need to give their fans a little more time with the characters they love, and to deliver a few solid laughs.

-Brandon Ledet