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Lost Cause

Plenty of film critics will tell you that movies based on TV shows are a prime example of modern Hollywood's cynicism and creative bankruptcy, yadda yadda, etc., etc., blah blah blah. Well, I'll grant you there's not much to be said for The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas, or that Dukes of Hazzard atrocity. But if you're going to tell me that those bloated, tedious Lord of the Rings movies are great art because they're based on some moldy old books, while the Star Trek movies are mindless pop culture trash because they found their origins on the small screen, then, sir, I'm going to have to ask you to step outside so we can have a nerd duel with our slide rules.

Once upon a time, there was a vast gulf between the stuff you'd pay to see in theaters—movies directed by guys like Welles and Hitchcock and Ford—and the fluff you'd see for free at home—Father Knows Best, Leave It to Beaver, and like that. But in recent years, as movies have gotten crappier and crappier, and TV has gotten better and better, we've reached a point where most of the really good stuff is on the small screen. The movies rarely thrill us anymore, they don't make us laugh and they don't make us wonder. But 24 will give you an ulcer; The Simpsonswill have you busting a gut; and Lost will have you tearing out your hair by the clump, trying to figure out what the heck is happening on that damn island already.

Nowadays, there are rumors about upcoming movies circulating around seemingly dozens of canceled TV cult hits, and these rumors have become a kind of coping mechanism for fans who just can't let go. Even now, some poor schlub is probably updating his Wonderfalls movie petition website. When these rumors do pan out, the resulting films—Serenity, Strangers With Candy, etc.—tend to feel stretched and strange, like lost episodes of the TV show all plumped up with steroids. But at least they can provide some narrative closure for shows axed before their time, so the fans can get on with their lives.

The situation is much riskier for hit shows that are still going strong. Increasingly, such shows are falling prey to X Files syndrome, where they rush a film into production while the show is still on the air. The X Files wasn't the first to do this—Dark Shadows did it all the way back in 1970, and I'm sure there are plenty of other examples that somebody who wasn't on a deadline could find with three minutes of Googling. But The X Files is the one everybody remembers, and not because it set a standard that can never be equaled.

After years of the-best-show-on-TV hype, in 1998 the producers of The X Files set out to make a movie that would be set between seasons, essentially part two of a three-part episode. I suppose it looked good on paper, maybe. The resulting film did okay at the box office, but it marked the beginning of the end for a once seemingly unstoppable cultural phenomenon. The audience soon became burned out on the show's confusing mythology (keeping up with the conspiracies within the conspiracies started to feel like something we should've been getting college credit for), while the cast and crew, having tasted that big movie glory, became increasingly restless, and the show noticeably suffered for it. By the end, David Duchovny was a reluctant guest star on his own show, popping in and out of the action like the Ghost of Franchises Past.

When Lost debuted, it was hailed as the new X Files, and, perhaps inevitably, people are already complaining that they're losing track of Lost's endless plot threads. (I'm still hanging in there, but let's just say I'm not sad to see the "tailies" getting picked off one by one.) The show's producers have announced their intentions to shoot a film shortly after the series wraps in a couple of seasons, which has left fans in a major tizzy for two reasons: 1) The show is slated to end . . . in a couple of seasons?!, and 2) They're doing a movie set on the island, but after the show is over? Does this mean Jack and Co. aren't going to get off the island at the end of the series? (Perhaps it won't be an issue: Matthew Fox has already been making noises about moving on, so don't be surprised if Dr. Shepherd gets eaten by a polar bear.)

But for all the vexing questions this announcement opens up (Questions upon questions! Damn you, J.J. Abrams!), the Lost film at least bears no risk of killing off the series that spawned it. The same, alas, cannot be said for the upcoming film based on 24, which will be shot between seasons and will dispense with the show's real-time gimmick. Jack Bauer could be facing his greatest danger yet: If Kiefer is running around with a gun and that digital clock isn't there relentlessly bleeping down to the hour of doom, won't this movie basically just be The Sentinel II? I'll be first in line, but I smell a franchise killer. There's also a Simpsons movie in the works, but whether it hits or flops, it won't affect the series. They'll still be airing new episodes of The Simpsons when our robot nurses are feeding us oatmeal in our suborbital nursing homes.

As a Gen-X kid, I inevitably watched way too much TV growing up. (We were still better off than these little freaks today, who fall to pieces if they have to go 14 minutes without an episode of Codename: Kids Next Door.) Over the years I've learned to be selective about what I watch, and I don't love TV or hate it; TV is like the moon, or trees, or the air that I breathe. I run into these people who dogmatically insist that all TV is worthless, who boast that they haven't owned a TV since 1966 or whatever, and I feel a mixture of pity and disgust: it's like they're proud of not having read a book since One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish. Sure, TV is mostly crap. Books are mostly crap too. Movies are mostly crap. Your kids are mostly crap. If you walk around dismissing things because they're mostly crap, there won't be anything left. Life is mostly crap.

So you can try to pretend that TV is the devil and movies are still where it's at . . . but when that Buffy movie finally comes out, I'll save you a place in line.


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