The Falcon and the Winter Soldier doesn’t want to be a television show

falcon winter soldier anthony mackie sebastian stan malcolm spellman kari skogland captain america movies tv

There were plenty of criticisms to make of WandaVision, but there was also at least always the sense that showrunner Jac Shaeffer and director Matt Shakman wanted to make a television show, and on some level knew what they had to do to do that. There hasn’t been that same sense with The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, which – five episodes in and nearly finished – doesn’t seem to want to be a television show at all.

The contrast between the two is striking. Where WandaVision was consciously and deliberately episodic, each week evoking a different era of sitcom history, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is entirely serialised: episodes of the former felt distinct from one another in terms of style and aesthetic, while also having their own discrete plotlines too, but episodes of the latter have tended to blur together. The end of each episode of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier feels less like the conclusion of an individual, coherent whole that might stand on its own terms, and more like an act break in a particularly long movie. (Or, rather, that’s how it feels when it works – just as often they’ve felt much more arbitrary than that, a case of having reached the fifty-minute mark and not much else.)

At its best, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is built around a handful of big moments and individual ideas. Sometimes that works: the slow pan around John Walker, the new Captain America, his shield drenched in blood, onlookers filming him with their mobile phones, is one of the more striking images the Marvel Cinematic Universe has ever offered. But for the most part, though, the series struggles to take advantage of the strengths of its medium. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is built around those big moments, yes, but otherwise it’s formless – there’s an emphasis on plot but little momentum, always moving forward but rarely going anywhere. The middle stretch of the series is sluggish and lethargic, spinning its wheels to fill the runtime and little else; the fifth episode, the strongest of the show, is the one that most feels like an actual episode of television, rather than fifty-minutes of moving pieces around the chessboard to set up for next week. In fact, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier often feels like the rare show that’d be improved by binge-watching it, with the weekly release schedule imposing breaks where it’d almost be better to let one episode lead straight into the next.

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It’s meant to be that way, of course.

Anthony Mackie described the series as “instead of a two-hour movie, a six or eight-hour movie […] cut up into the show”. Meanwhile, director Kari Skogland made a similar comparison, saying they “made it like a six-hour movie” then “kind of sliced it up at the perfect moments”. Part of that is just marketing. (Much like, presumably, showrunner Malcolm Spellman’s distinction between “regular TV” and “top-shelf, Marvel” content.) These comments are a statement of intent as much as anything else – a way for the debut series to emphasise its similarity to its parent cinematic universe, differentiating itself from television almost as a mark of prestige. But they’re also revealing about a lot of the structural choices made by The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and explains why the series is struggling to make an impact – it’s caught between two mediums and not doing an especially good job of being either. That six-hour movie feeling isn’t a fault, it’s a feature.

In fairness, it’s also possible, as has been widely rumoured, that The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was heavily edited prior to broadcast to remove a storyline about a viral outbreak. That’s the sort of rewriting that could leave any show feeling formless, especially one already intended to be quite heavily serialised. Equally, there’s a sense that some of the structural choices the show made wouldn’t have helped much anyway: pandemic storyline or not, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier still left a lot of its character work to that fifth episode, with most of the series feeling like a preamble before getting to the story it seemingly promised. It’s the rythms and pacing of a film applied to the structure of a television show, without much thought devoted to how they’re different, and the distinct ways in which each medium works.

Eventually, there’s going to be a fan-edited version of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier that turns it back into a two-hour movie. More likely than not, it’ll rely quite heavily on the closing episodes, and condense down the opening three into something much sharper and more concise. That doesn’t speak to a television show that’s conscious of its medium, that takes advantage of what its medium can offer – both in terms of what longer-form storytelling can do, and what more distinct episodes can let the series do. Maybe the series would’ve benefitted from an episode more explicitly from the perspective of Karli Morgenthau, clarifying the Flag Smashers’ beliefs and motivations; maybe the series would’ve benefitted from a flashback episode about Isiah Bradley, akin to the HBO Watchmen episode This Extraordinary Being. Of course, it wouldn’t necessarily have to commit so wholeheartedly to that kind of discrete storytelling – but it would have been improved by taking advantage of what an episodic structure allows that a film doesn’t.

Ultimately, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier suffers for its structural choices. It’s never quite as entertaining as it could’ve been, it never feels quite as coherent or invested in its themes as it otherwise might’ve been. You get the sense that’s why the show hasn’t been a television phenomenon in the same way WandaVision was: week to week, it just doesn’t want to be a TV show.

Related:

WandaVision is an escapist fantasy, but there’s no escape from the Marvel machine

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The Resident is a medical show that hates the medicine industry, and there’s something weirdly captivating about that

the resident fox review medical drama hates medical industry matt czuchry manish dayal emily vancamp bruce greenwood shaunette renée wilson

In almost every episode, there’s one clear villain. It’s not illness or disease, or even really medical malpractice exactly – it’s the profit-seeking motive. People die because hospital administrators emphasise finances over patients, or because they don’t have the right insurance, or because they end up on the wrong side of a cost-benefit analysis. In one episode, Conrad performs an expensive, expressly forbidden medical procedure to save someone’s life; in the next, people die because the hospital is understaffed as a result of trying to balance the books after that operation. There’s a real vein of cynicism and disdain for what The Resident describes as the “questionable ethics” of its setting – in short, The Resident is a medical programme that pretty openly hates the medical industry.

It’s not that it’s entirely unique in addressing the failings of the American medical system – but, rather than it being the Act 4 obstacle in occasional episodes, the damage wrought by the profit-seeking motive is an inalienable fact of The Resident’s status quo. That’s what sets it apart, and why I’m still watching; if nothing else, I’m curious about where exactly it’s going to go. There’s a sense that the show is grappling with a problem it’ll never solve, albeit for obvious reasons; I can’t imagine any of the characters ever leaving to become universal healthcare lobbyists, or The Resident ever breaking with reality by depicting the sweeping reforms needed to resolve its central obsession.

So, this is an article that had a little bit of an interesting journey to it.

As I outline at the start of this piece, my plan initially was to liken The Resident to House, given the show itself seemed to beg such a comparison. Essentially, I was going to write a sister article to my earlier piece on how The Good Doctor moves on from House – discussing all the ays in which The Resident doesn’t, and how it struggles to do anything interesting with the ‘abrasive medical antihero’ format even as it tried to deconstruct it.

However! The people working on The Resident clearly realised there were some flaws with the pilot, and shifted focus to move the show in a different direction, meaning The Resident became something a little weirder: a medical show that openly hates the American medicine industry. It still wasn’t very good, and had a lot of weird stuff going on (the finale, because I ended up watching it for that long, had a very eek line about how doctors are the same as cops) but it was, as I said, weirdly captivating.

What you might also notice about this piece is that it’s in first person, which isn’t something I typically do with this type of article. (I do do it with reviews, though this isn’t the time to explain my internal review vs article distinction.) Mostly I just wanted to try somethign a little new. I’m not convinced it… not that it didn’t work, but I suppose more that it didn’t really make a difference. Which is either a good thing or a bad thing, because I don’t quite remember what the idfference I wanted it to make was, if indeed there was any.

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