September 2020

Arts & Letters

‘Cinematic’ television: ‘ZeroZeroZero’

By Shane Danielsen

Forget comparisons to cinema, TV is developing its own compelling aesthetic

Before I even knew what ZeroZeroZero was, I was assured that it was excellent. Tightly plotted, gripping, superbly crafted. Friends were emailing me: Have you seen it yet? Let me know when you’ve watched it. In the space of a fortnight, it moved quickly to the top of my to-watch list (which a few weeks ago passed Overwhelming, and is now firmly in the realms of the Actively Discouraging).

From the little I managed to piece together (trying as best I could to avoid spoilers), it certainly sounded promising. A globe-hopping limited series about the international narcotics trade, adapted from a book by Roberto Saviano, who wrote Gomorrah, with an original score by Mogwai. CoolCoolCool. Yet appended to all this praise, I noted, were minor variations on the same descriptor: “It’s really cinematic.”

Which gave me pause. Partly because I was no longer quite sure what that term meant anymore – but also because I didn’t know why this qualification should even matter.

After watching the show (now screening on SBS On Demand), I understood a little better. For one thing, it’s shot in anamorphic widescreen, so it superficially resembles a movie. And a number of its set pieces – a religious procession in Calabria, a journey across the desert in northern Africa – are of a scale that make most small-screen dramas seem paltry and under-resourced. You could compare it, I suppose, to “serious” movie dramas such as Syriana or Traffic, the kind of character-driven, mid-budget films that Hollywood is increasingly disinclined to make. But even then, the praise seemed faintly misguided.

What does the word “cinematic” mean, these days? Right now, admittedly, with movie houses shuttered around much of the planet and production largely suspended, it’s a synonym for “extinct”. But even considered from the perspective of pre-COVID Hollywood, it’s not exactly a glowing recommendation. If we’re talking about mainstream filmmaking, about what we generally acknowledge to be the dominant cinema, the word could be said to evoke a slew of negatives: corporate timidity, commodified output, substance subordinated to spectacle. An industrial medium that discourages innovation, rewards mediocrity and blithely ignores a huge swathe of its audience.

Yet none of these terms apply to ZeroZeroZero, which represents a bold and substantial investment on the part of its production companies (Amazon, Canal+, Sky), and a rare instance where a production’s sleek surface is matched by its depth and detail. Over the course of eight one-hour episodes, it lays out a story across three separate fields, divided more or less evenly between the Mexican cartels (the sellers), the Italian mafia (the buyers) and an American family of shipping brokers – the Lynwoods – who act as intermediaries between the two. The narrative follows a single consignment of cocaine, and the convulsions that ensue when individuals at either end of this chain attempt to upend the hierarchies to which they belong. Billed as a crime drama, it’s actually – like David Simon and Ed Burns’ The Wire – a study of macroeconomics, of an illegal industry that simultaneously sustains and deforms communities. All that’s missing is the end-user, the recreational or habitual consumer, who intriguingly is never glimpsed or even alluded to.

In terms of its theme – generational rivalries, the blurring of loyalties when family and business overlap – it’s scarcely different to other recent underworld tales: NarcosSnowfall, even Ozark. What makes this series remarkable is the intricacy of its plotting and, perhaps above all, the magnitude of its execution. There’s barely a moment, watching it, when at least 3 per cent of your brain isn’t thinking, Jesus Christ, how much did this cost?

There’s also little in the way of humour, which usually would annoy me, yet here the absence seems entirely appropriate. The world ZeroZeroZero depicts is purely transactional, and its storytelling demonstrates a similar grim efficiency, shifting between locales and characters almost as ruthlessly as its subjects move their cargo. Structurally, though, it deploys one interesting quirk: each episode, at some point, flashes back to follow the action we’ve just seen from a different, and often clarifying, point of view. No mere gimmick, this device tacitly reinforces the series’ central premise: that the milieu it depicts is too vast and intricate to ever be fully comprehensible from any single perspective.

The dialogue is terse and economical, mostly utilitarian. The real showcase here is for its trio of directors (Italy’s Stefano Sollima, Denmark’s Janus Metz and Argentina’s Pablo Trapero) and its extensive cast – in particular Gabriel Byrne as the family’s ageing patriarch, and Andrea Riseborough as his daughter Emma, whose initial reluctance to deal with criminals yields first to acceptance, then to something like enthusiasm, as she discovers, shall we say, a talent for improvisation. Boasting the coolest haircut of 2020, she’s never been better.

Best of all, though – the real standout in this ensemble – is Harold Torres as Manuel Contreras, a Mexican special forces operative who sees an opportunity in the carnage consuming his homeland, and turns a small band of equally corrupt soldiers into a private army bent on conquest. (A sequence at their training camp, in episode six, feels almost apocalyptic, like jihadis being equipped for the End Times.) Pitiless and fiercely ambitious, Manuel is an extraordinary creation: an evangelical Christian with the soul of a nihilist, craving salvation while at the same time knowing himself to be unworthy of it. Torres, a gifted actor, manages to hint at the conflicted soul beneath his character’s impassivity; rarely has a performer communicated so much, so economically.

We used to despise television – do you remember? I recall all too clearly the bad old days of terrestrial telly, nights spent reading in my bedroom or drawing at the dining room table, so as to avoid the dismal likes of Magnum P.I. and The Dukes of Hazzard and Kingswood Country. Occasionally something good might appear and break the monotony – The Prisoner felt pretty remarkable (and still does), and Brideshead Revisited and Smiley’s People seemed like transmissions from a distant, more advanced civilisation. But for the most part, TV was what might charitably be termed a wilderness of shit.

But then The Sopranos appeared, and everything began to change. Not immediately, of course, and never completely: even now, there’s a lot of crap out there, both overt and disguised, good-enough-and-barely-that shows wearing the mantle of “prestige TV”. Nevertheless, a certain cinephile snobbishness persisted for a long time – far longer than it should have, really, given the mounting evidence for this upstart medium’s worth. One friend, a veteran film critic, maintains to this day he has no interest in television whatsoever. (“What about Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz?” I asked him. “Or Altman’s Tanner ’88? They were made for TV.” “Oh,” he replied airily, “those are completely different things.”)

Along the way, some fairly specious arguments were advanced in cinema’s defence – notably, that no TV show had ever produced a truly great or enduring sequence, a moment comparable to the best of Tarkovsky or Kubrick or Hitchcock. For a long time I wondered about this. Whether it was true and, if so, why. And like a number of other commentators, my eagerness to prove otherwise led me to some false conclusions. What about that famous heist-gone-wrong sequence in the first season of True Detective, playing out in a single, lengthy tracking shot? Or the Massacre at Hardhome in Game of Thrones? Surely those were cinematic?

But more recently I found myself thinking, why? Just because the former breaks with the montage-based storytelling of normal TV? Because the latter recalls the pictorial extravagance of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings? We’re applauding degrees of difficulty and depth of resources here – not actual achievement vis-a-vis the overall series. We’re celebrating isolated moments in a medium ostensibly dedicated to longform storytelling.

Is cinema Lawrence of Arabia or Tokyo Story2 Fast 2 Furious or My Dinner with Andre? And while we’re defining terms, what exactly constitutes a “TV aesthetic”? Time was, the answer was clear: a 4:3 ratio, overlit interiors, perfunctory blocking. It looked (and often played) like televised dinner theatre. Now, of course, it can be anything. It can be everything.

More to the point, why must television resemble cinema in order to be taken seriously? Fleabag happens to be one of the finest examples of storytelling of the century thus far. Yet, one audacious structural conceit aside, it’s actually a fairly conventionally made British sitcom. It’s not reinventing the wheel; it’s part of a lineage, the refinement and culmination of groundbreaking UK shows such as Carla Lane’s Butterflies, which premiered way back in 1978 – seven years before Phoebe Waller-Bridge was born. But that doesn’t make her achievement any less remarkable.

Then you watch something like The Leftovers, or Michaela Coel’s recent HBO series I May Destroy You – something genuinely new in tone as well as style, something that feels sui generis – and realise that TV is in fact evolving an entirely new aesthetic of its own. Neither indebted to its old self nor beholden to cinema, but entirely self-sustaining and independent. Going far deeper into character and setting, playing with perspective and tone, confounding our expectations of how a story might be told. Aesthetically, too, it’s demolishing our preconceptions. In 2018, the excellent Showtime series Escape at Dannemora culminated in an episode that featured its protagonists moving silently, for extended periods, through landscapes captured in extreme long shot, images as mysterious and evocative as a James Benning video installation. Directed by Ben Stiller, and superbly shot by Jessica Lee Gagné, it was like nothing I’d ever seen on television… or at the movies, for that matter.

Every so often you read articles wailing that the golden age of “New TV” – the era of The Wire and Mad Men and Breaking Bad – has passed. That we’re presently in a period of glut and decline. I couldn’t disagree more. For one thing, this is a considerably more diverse and vital era. To see people like Michaela Coel or Donald Glover or Issa Rae making television about their own culture and drawn from their own experiences, and to have ready access to shows from non-Anglophone cultures, is to be reminded of how many important creative voices were stifled for decades, and of how laughably limited our options once were. If the TV screen truly is a window onto the world, as BBC founder Lord Reith once claimed, then our outlook today is far broader than it ever was.

But TV is also giving us work that’s doing everything that cinema used to do, back when it was a truly democratic medium: satisfying us aesthetically, emotionally and intellectually, while making something that, at its best, feels bracingly, unabashedly new. The lockdown is both tedious and depressing, but if I’m honest, I haven’t missed going to the cinema one bit. I’m too busy working my way through that to-watch list, and seeing a medium – once dismissed, and long under-utilised – finally come into its own.

Shane Danielsen

Shane Danielsen is a screenwriter and former artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

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