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5 Signs Your TV Show Should Be a Movie, and 2 Signs It Shouldn't

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Recently, I watched the premiere of a new show on a streaming platform. At various points, it was sloppy, self-satisfied, junky. But it closed on a tantalizing cliff-hanger. Against my better judgment, I got hooked. Then I navigated back to the menu to see how big a commitment I would be making if I stuck with it. I knew it was a limited series: Surely it couldn’t be more than three episodes—four, max. You don’t need to imagine my shock and horror to learn there were seven. You, dear reader, have probably had this experience yourself, as more and more TV platforms have come into your life, each of them crammed with new shows vying for your limited time and attention. And you’ve probably also had the experience of finishing a season of serialized TV—five or eight or 13 episodes—and thought, Those five or eight or 13 mediocre episodes might have made a pretty tight movie.

These days, the canny agent is probably telling clients that their feature screenplay ideas would be easier to sell as a series, and the math bears it out. In 2021, viewers potentially had access to 559 original scripted series, according to FX Content Research—a new record high—compared with 403 movies. The film tally is less than half of 2018’s high of 873, and was, of course, affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, thanks to production challenges as well as caution around audiences’ willingness to see movies in theaters (even though the last time I checked, streaming platforms had exclusive movie releases, too).

But agents have their agenda, and I have mine. And as an avid viewer, I can report that a lot of ideas that have made it to my TV seemed like two hours’ worth of solid story painfully stretched to 10. And it has to stop. With this goal in mind, I’ve created a checklist for creators to use as a guide during the development process: How to Tell If Your Show Should Actually Be a Movie.

(Light spoilers ahead for The Watcher, The Undoing, and Severance)

1. It’s in a genre your audience has already seen many times…in movies.

Last week, one of the top TV titles on Netflix was a new limited series called The Watcher. It’s a fictionalized take inspired by a true story about a family in New Jersey who bought a century-old home and, before they had even moved in, started receiving unsettling letters from an apparent stalker. “Psycho makes family’s dream home a nightmare” is a reliably unsettling quasi-horror setup in movies from Pacific Heights to Panic Room to Lakeview Terrace. Dennis Quaid has even been on both sides of this conflict onscreen, in Cold Creek Manor and The Intruder; and The Watcher‘s own Naomi Watts previously costarred in 2011’s Dream House.

Aim! The Watcher also falls under another genre movies frequently mine: It’s about a long con. The Brannock family at the center of The Watcher is surrounded by devious strangers trying to sell fantastical stories (literally surrounded, in that many of them are their nearest neighbors). It’s clear that someone is trying to get the Brannocks to move out of the house, but they don’t know who or why; all we know, as viewers, is that they probably shouldn’t trust anyone they didn’t know before they bought the house.

Both of these genres work in movies because they promise catharsis—the family will triumph over their antagonists; the details of the con will be revealed, and viewers will either marvel at its intricacy or congratulate themselves for having figured it out already. Movies, generally, deliver. The Watcher is based on an unsolved case, so there isn’t any real resolution to be had. Since the show diverges from true events in many instances, though, series creators ryan murphy and ian brennan could have made one up, but they didn’t. Instead, they left at least one viewer feeling insulted to have been jerked around for seven hours.

And so it doesn’t seem as if I’m just picking on The Watcher (even though I’m not quite done with that one), HBO’s The Undoing also falls into this category. A woman has been killed. Whodunit? There is a very obvious suspect, but as the series unspools over six episodes, more and more possible culprits are presented, only for the murderer to be finally revealed as exactly who you probably thought it was in the pilot. This is entertainment malpractice.

2. You’ve padded out your running time with plot that goes nowhere.

One more knock on The Watcher: As I already wrote above, it’s about a con, so any viewers who have watched movies before will be on their guard not to take any shocking new detail gold seemingly empathetic new friend at face value. The Watcher leaps pretty quickly to preposterousness: In the second episode, homeowner Dean (Bobby Cannavale) is sent by his private investigator, Theodora (Noma Dumezweni), to meet Andrew (Seth Gabel), who owned the house before Dean did. Andrew’s story escalates quickly from the strange occurrences Dean has also observed—receipt of creepy letters; music mysteriously playing on the house’s intercom—to his young son reporting a ceremonial blood sacrifice by the retirees across the road. If Dean does not believe that aging neighbors Mitch and Mo (Richard Kind and Margo Martindale) are routinely consuming juvenile blood for the adrenochrome, a theory that is earnestly presented, then he should probably question everything Andrew has told him; if he does believe it, and continue living in the house, then how can we possibly care about every other bad thing that subsequently happens to him?