It’s not unfair to say that we’re living in a golden era of television. With companies like HBO, AMC, Sky, Netflix, and Amazon all raising the budgets for flagship TV shows every year, an interesting conflict has risen. TV shows can often afford to have the same production values as films and yet at the same time, many shows consider jumping to the big screen when their stories conclude, making the lines between TV and film increasingly blurred. Recently, for example, the Coen Brothers’ Ballad of Buster Scruggs had initially been rumored to be a TV show, which the directors subsequently dismissed. Despite the fact the film was never planned as a TV show, it easily could have been released as one due to the episodic nature of the stories within.
Naturally, hundreds of TV shows have been adapted into films over the years, but the number that successfully conclude in a theater-run are far fewer. Historically, this could be attributed to a variety of factors; the budget required to make a feature-length project, the difficulty of adapting a season length story and character arcs into a shorter runtime, and the fact that many potential box office goers may not have finished the show, or started it at all.
El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie avoids all of these problems. Long hailed as one of, if not the greatest television show ever made, Breaking Bad received both critical and commercial glory during its five-season run. For five years, you belonged to one of two groups: the group that would ask others if they’d watched Breaking Bad yet, or the ones being asked the irritating question. Part of its eternal clout lies in the iconic and definitive ending.
So, when a Breaking Bad film was announced with much of the original cast either confirmed or rumored to star, the reaction was “cool…wait, what?” Never had a show been so satisfyingly concluded, yet poised to enter theaters. To fans of the show, the excitement of possibly revisiting such beloved characters was tempered by the fear that the shows legacy could possibly be tainted. Interestingly, critical reception of El Camino seems less divided on how well-written, well-directed or well-acted the film is, but on how necessary it was. To long-term fans of the show—including myself—the film feels like an extended epilogue episode that lovingly splices fan service with a prolonged look at the personal consequences that Jesse’s five-season odyssey has caused. To other critics, El Camino doesn’t feel like a necessary extension of a show that felt like a perfect closed loop.
This is the challenge for flagship shows moving forward; not whether a show can successfully transition into a convincing cinematic experience, but whether the jump to the big screen amplifies the storytelling potential of the show. In the case of El Camino, it…doesn’t. My opinion changes every day. But with a precedent like Breaking Bad, a film that feels like an extended episode is no bad thing. Let’s all say thank you Vince Gilligan. For shows that don’t carry the status hat Breaking Bad does—which is most shows—the jump to the big screen may be a mistake. BBC’s Luther returned recently with its fifth season, which garnered mixed reviews. Prior to its release, creator Neill Cross stated explicitly that a Luther film was in the works. Idris Elba also suggested that season five acted as a “segue” to a cinematic version of the show. While there’s no indication that this type of production trajectory will become the norm, the idea of television shows queuing themselves up to end in feature-length outings is an increasingly popular option.
One title that has charmed audiences this year is the cinema outing of BBC darling Downton Abbey. With a comfortable box office—still counting—and positive reviews, Downton Abbey shares similarities with El Camino—a sentence I never thought I’d write—in that both films benefit from continuity with their respective TV shows. The fact that both films feel like comfortable extensions may provide a formula for other shows to replicate. The question for audiences and critics alike remains: should more shows end this way? The desire for big-budget shows to resemble films has reached an apex point. The final four episodes of Game of Thrones each ran for roughly 1 hour 20 minutes, with an average episode budget of $15 million across the season. While avoiding a cinema-bound send-off which again was rumored to have been considered, Game of Thrones set the bar in terms of how flagship TV shows are financed and produced, regardless of how good the final product was… Yikes.
Equally, with streaming services increasingly resembling Hollywood studios in terms of production and distribution, new blockbuster releases are being streamed—El Camino and The Irishman among the latest for Netflix—and the hottest TV is showing on big screens. It’s safe to say there’s never been more to watch at home or in the cinema. The question for consumers in coming years is whence the two shall meet and whether it’s worth the price of admission.
El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie is now streaming on Netflix