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Over the last few years, an incredibly, disturbingly common refrain has arisen from the cast and crew working on a slew of big new TV series, from Big Little Lies to Stranger Things – “It’s really a 6-hour movie”. (Feel free to fill in a larger number to account for shows that have eight or nine episodes per season instead of six.) The war of film and television feels especially foolish to fight as we wind down from a pandemic that kept so many of us away from movie theaters, essentially turning everything into television whether it was intended that way or not.
Marvel’s latest show for Disney+, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, is no different, with star Anthony Mackie saying that the show would be like “a six- or eight-hour movie” last summer, and director Kari Skogland emphasizing it again during an interview with /Film. Leave aside any amount of eye-rolling you might muster at seeing that comment again. Maybe a six-hour Falcon movie appeals to you. That appeal would be more intriguing if Disney+ was treating The Falcon and the Winter Soldier like a movie, instead of…well, a weekly television show.
When Disney+ opened its virtual doors in the fall of 2019, it zigged where services like Netflix or Amazon Prime zagged when it came to new programs. Yes, Disney+ had a buzzworthy new show with The Mandalorian, but episodes weren’t released all at once, instead being treated the way HBO would treat Game of Thrones or any of its many other boundary-pushing shows. By the end of the first season, it was clear that The Mandalorian had received an immense benefit by being the rare streaming show that was released week to week, instead of being immediately binge-able. (I wrote this two episodes into the first season, and while I’m still fairly unimpressed by the story of Baby Yoda and friends, I allow that I’m very much in the minority on the idea that the show should’ve been released all at once.)
After the similarly massive success of WandaVision, it’s easy to imagine that Marvel’s next TV venture would be just as compelling, as strange, and as capable of drawing week-to-week interest among even those of us who aren’t incredibly comic-book-literate. But halfway through the season (maybe Marvel has a second Falcon and the Winter Soldier season planned, but nothing’s confirmed), Anthony Mackie appears to have been right. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier does feel like a six-hour movie. And releasing its installments once a week is a terrible way to build its momentum.
WandaVision was more dramatically interesting in its first stretch of episodes, but the braintrust at Marvel made a wise decision of leaning into the roots of the medium. Even paying lip service to the idea of how television used to look allowed WandaVision to notably feel appropriate to getting a weekly release. If Wanda Maximoff was going to find herself in the middle of sitcoms from different televisual eras, it made more sense to give her and the audience a week in between to wonder what might happen next. Only on the premiere date did Disney+ break its own rule, releasing the first two installments of WandaVision, allowing for audiences to get a better grasp of how quickly things could change for the Scarlet Witch.
That technique would’ve been extremely beneficial to The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, considering that its first episode ends before Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes have…met up. It’s risky, to say the least, to name a show after the two former best friends of Captain America, advertise said show based on these two guys teaming up, and then…not have them team up in the first episode. (The premiere episode also barely offers up any hint as to why Sam and Bucky would even team up.) This isn’t the first show to brag that it’s really like an extended movie; the problem is that most of those shows are released all at once…like a movie. As Sam and Bucky try to take down the Flag Smashers, recruiting the villainous Baron Zemo to their cause temporarily, it’s becoming more challenging to get invested in a show that truly feels like it was meant to be watched in one fell swoop. This is the inherent problem with advertising your show as being like an extended movie: people may be best served by watching it that way.
And The Falcon and the Winter Soldier isn’t the only such Disney+ original struggling through the weekly-release strategy. The streamer also has The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers, a revival of the 90s film series in TV form, starring Emilio Estevez once more as Gordon Bombay, the formerly grumpy lawyer who has to teach kids hockey who is now…a currently grumpy ice-rink owner who will have to teach kids hockey. (Everything old is new again.) Game Changers is just two episodes into a ten-episode season, with some basic conceptual roles reversed. This time, it’s the Mighty Ducks themselves who are the bullying team in town, who inadvertently inspire a single mom (Lauren Graham) to start up her own ragtag team simply to offer a less aggressively prepared and scheduled version of the sport to a grab bag of goofball kids.
It is, in essence, a 21st-century version of The Mighty Ducks (which was itself a cuddlier version of The Bad News Bears). You know. A movie. And just like Falcon and Winter Soldier, Game Changers is being released once a week, a decision that only saps whatever momentum the sports-focused show might try to accrue. It’s not just that this show is inspired by a movie (thus raising the question of why this wasn’t a movie too, or at least released all at once). It’s that Game Changers feels like Disney+’s response to another streaming service’s TV revival of a sports-focused film series. First on YouTube, and now on Netflix, Cobra Kai has taken the basic concept of The Karate Kid, flipped it on its ear (originally positioning the formerly villainous Johnny Lawrence as a new kind of hero, with Daniel LaRusso as the thorn in his side), and become pretty damn popular in the process.
Cobra Kai isn’t perfect, sometimes avoiding the real-world consequences of the violence being perpetuated in the community of the show. (And like a number of 80s movies, it’s a show that basically ignores the idea of parents in the community being infuriated at their kids being in violent karate attacks.) But Cobra Kai has the benefit of having its seasons released all at once, and by creating punchy enough cliffhangers on an episode-to-episode basis that encourage immediate viewership of ensuing episodes.
Game Changers is, like Cobra Kai did in its first season, slowly following the template of the underdog sports movie. In the second episode, the Don’t Bothers (the team Graham’s character starts) have their first game and play horrendously. By the end of the episode, we get more hints that the tetchy Bombay will soften and coach once more (because of course he will). And it’s easy to imagine that by the end of the ten-episode season, the Don’t Bothers may yet be victorious. But where shows like Cobra Kai allow you to watch the full journey of the underdog in the course of a few hours, treating Game Changers like a traditional TV show is only serving to highlight its creative inefficiencies. Watching a five-hour underdog sports movie is one thing; watching it over the course of three months in dribs and drabs isn’t terribly rousing.
This plea isn’t intended to echo Veruca Salt, begging for something now, just because. The issue is more fundamental than that: not all streaming shows are created equal. Though it’s kind of funny to watch streamers like Netflix and Disney+ talking about creating a new paradigm of releasing their shows – by which they mean they’ve recreated how broadcast networks have always released their shows – some of these shows don’t benefit from a weekly release. WandaVision – whatever its creative faults were – became a much bigger water-cooler show precisely because it wasn’t released all at once. But some shows need that binge-able strategy. The more that creators are encouraged to treat their shows like overlong movies, the wiser it is to release them like movies.
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