Last month after a screening, even as the lights came up in the theater, I could feel "Zero Dark Thirty" fading, its images and impact already softening in my head. No, no, wait: not fading — mingling. If our cultural experiences rub shoulders at a kind of cocktail party in our brains, then "Zero Dark Thirty," as soon as we were done chatting, as much I admired its company, slipped away quietly into the cultural crush.
I lost sight of it behind "Downton Abbey" and "Breaking Bad," and almost immediately I could not distinguish it within the forest of long-form TV series vying for real estate in my head, angling for my free time.
In fact, by coincidence I had recently begun a flirtation with "Homeland," and while watching "Zero Dark Thirty" it was hard not to be reminded of this other complex, time-consuming conversation I was having with a TV series.
To put it another way: A movie kept reminding me of TV.
And this time, TV, not the Oscar-nominated behemoth, for better and worse, won out.
This is not a trivial thing.
For roughly a decade, at least since "The Sopranos" debuted in 1999, kicking off what TV critic Alan Sepinwall refers to in his recent book, "The Revolution Was Televised," as the "new golden age of television," the accepted wisdom is that TV series became more cinematic, nuanced. And, of course, it's true.
Less discussed is that a decade on, movies remind us of television.
Consider this Oscar season: "The Impossible" (albeit made on quadruple the budget) had me picturing the standard human-interest TV movies. The boozy anti-hero of "Flight," played by Denzel Washington, could be the basis of a Showtime series. "Hyde Park on Hudson" had me thinking not of "Gosford Park" but "Downton Abbey." And even before "Zero Dark Thirty" was reminding me of "Homeland," "Silver Linings Playbook" was reminding me of "Homeland": The latter comparison was more superficial — Claire Danes' "Homeland" CIA operative is bipolar, Bradley Cooper's "Playbook" basket case is bipolar — but a decade earlier I never would have imagined TV and film at the same party in my head.
I respected the natural order:
Film is better than TV.
TV aspires to film's stature.
And this is a one-way street.
One decade and many Netflix marathons later (of "The Wire," "Battlestar Galactica," "American Horror Story," "The Shield," "Mildred Pierce," et al.), an awards show as historically questionable as Sunday night's Golden Globes, in which achievement in film and television stand on equal footing, seems less questionable.
Said producer Mark Mylod of the Chicago-set Showtime series "Shameless" (returning Sunday for its third season): "I just saw 'Zero Dark Thirty,' and it's a perfect example of what you're getting at. It's a perfect example of a movie I hugely admired even as I had some of those same thoughts, that this was TV-like in an odd way. The shot selection alone — incredibly tight shots for a 21/2-hour movie, few wide shots — reminds me of cable TV. But, again, the lines are completely blurred now. Even if no one quite notices yet."
He added: "But I do think this is healthy in the long run. Being a producer, I'm incredibly grateful that the snobbery you once saw, where television was treated like film's red-headed stepchild, is harder to justify now."
Said Farhad Safinia, creator of "Boss," another Chicago-based cable series (recently canceled after two seasons by its network, Starz): "The last few months especially, that feeling of the movies becoming TV, it's something in the water right now. I've actually had this conversation with a few TV and movie people."
He described a recent meeting at HBO to discuss potential shows. "An executive said to me, half-jokingly, that HBO had adult drama to themselves for a decade, and that not even movie studios were going there. But when a movie like 'Lincoln,' which is basically a 21/2-hour congressional debate, makes $100 million, everything's different. They see 'Lincoln,' 'Zero Dark Thirty,' and suddenly the field looks crowded."
Let us pause to consider what was just said: A TV executive sees large-budget, multi-Oscar-nominated movies as directly infringing on his turf. If you love the theatrical experience, that's depressing. If you're not as fussy about the medium, it's hopeful.
Either way, that executive is astute: Despite receiving 12 Oscar nominations and being directed by Steven Spielberg, a man once described in the New Yorker as the first American filmmaker so born to the medium that he "doesn't think in terms of the proscenium arch," "Lincoln" plays like great TV. Which, if you've ever taken a deep dive on "The Wire" or "Mad Men," does not speak badly of "Lincoln."