Film critic Scott Renshaw recently tweeted about his love that Wormwood comes introduced to viewers as a “Netflix Original Story” instead of a movie, documentary, or series. Thank God that it’s just a STORY, free from stuffy things like “form” or “medium,” because those things are secondary to its cause. Shut up.
Renowned documentarian Errol Morris’ six-episode docudrama is TV. End of story. Not just because of its credit sequences, episode breaks, structure, or length. It’s because of all those things, plus its presentation and aesthetic desires. We don’t call things “TV” or “movie” for fun, or because of the individuals that created them. Words have meaning.
By shoving a season of TV by your favorite auteur (looking at you, Lynchians) onto your Best Films list, you’re undermining an entire medium’s unique powers while playing Calvinball with the English language. Even if Mark Frost and David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return was excellent TV that incorporated many traits of the latter’s filmography, that doesn’t make it a very long, oddly distributed movie. It is an artist creating in two separate media with themes and flourishes carrying over between the two.
This ridiculous debate, which feels like a tedious thesis defense during which a scraggly-goateed grad student stretches an argument like his life depends on it to please an even more scraggly-goateed professor (it’s no mistake that both sides of this debate are men), seems to suck in all TV made by filmmakers, with specific confusion around the genre of documentary. Now, the Morris-directed Wormwood is its latest subject.
Wormwood is about the death of CIA scientist Frank Olson (who was secretly dosed with LSD and later met his demise by falling out of a hotel window), as seen through the investigations of his son, Eric. The unsolved mysteries surrounding the dramatic event are never solved, and more versions of the truth seem to appear with every talking head. Whether it was depression-driven suicide, a cover-up murder, or some combination of these resulting in an accidental (but still deadly) compromise remains unclear, but the search for the truth is indeed that: a search.
This is a longform narrative with pushes and pulls in every episode, taking us through various interviews and dramatizations in balance with each other to make each 40-odd minute interval feel like a small arc rather than an unsatisfying line segment taken from a larger one. Still, its segmented state was reconfigured to be considered more cinematic: Seeking eligibility for Best Documentary Feature at this year’s Academy Awards, the series was recut into a continuous feature to fall in line with Academy rules. Even then, it was rejected from the category for being too odd a hybrid, and will remain eligible for the Emmys. So, a few points for TV so far.
That said, Wormwood was also screened in theaters at film festivals, so that seems like a point in favor of the “movie” designation. (Of course, TV episodes are now regularly shown at film festivals.) In Wormwood’s case, though, only the first few episodes were shown consecutively, with the others spread out over multiple days. The series contains built-in, formal pauses that make its intense story manageable and its storytelling more pointed. This isn’t a scheduling problem or a muddled in-between medium—it’s intent. You don’t want your LSD docudrama to feel similarly psychotropic and torturous, stuck in an endless moment.
Another long documentary that this debate has touched was O.J.: Made in America, which followed the opposite formal pattern. This was a feature screened in its full 467-minute runtime with but a single intermission, and one that appeared on cinema screens before airing on TV. It was initially pitched as a feature, accepted as a feature, and shot as a feature. When its intimidating length was cut apart for TV, it was out of strategy and not formational creative desire. The film, which won last year’s Oscar for Best Documentary Feature and prompted the Academy to disqualify future multi-part docs, welcomed the debate between film and TV.
Netflix, Wormwood’s streaming home, blurs the (already blurry) line even when its content isn’t as provocative. Since its inception, the streaming service has given audiences the option to “binge,” which in turn has allowed the sort of TV consumption once reserved for DVD-hoarding fanatics to become the new paradigm—and Netflix continues to wield this immense power haphazardly when it comes to form.
Even though Wormwood’s episodes often pick up immediately where the previous left off, they still provide breathing room in a series based on progressive disillusionment. To paraphrase the series, when a child talks with an adult wearing a mask, it can be fun, like a game. When that mask is removed to reveal yet another mask, the result is panic. That is Eric’s experience investigating this mystery, and our experience watching it.
This panicky instability is the link between Wormwood and the constantly churning nature of television. Every episode of TV either works its way back to the status quo (as in a sitcom or heavily episodic drama), or it adapts and moves forward with its new reality (as in a more serialized drama). A TV series is always in a state of upheaval and reorientation, constantly redefining and figuring out a story through its flashbacks and speculative futures. The psychology of Wormwood’s protagonist and its ideas about truth are equivalent to the storytelling structure of serialized TV. It is revisionist, it is seasonally reconstructive, and it is defined by its length and potential complexity.
While this may not be an entirely satisfying conclusion to an increasingly complicated debate— much like Wormwood’s pervasive bitterness, after decades of fruitless fighting for a single truth—the embrace of form in art is one that should be liberating rather than limiting. Both Morris and Lynch, primarily defined as filmmakers, nonetheless understand the medium of TV for what it is, respect that, and are willing to use it to his particular narrative ends: They’re doing exactly what a great artist does, which is adapt. We don’t have to call their offerings a “movie” (as if calling it “TV” would be some sort of insulting sacrilege), because these creators know TV series can do things movies can’t. Until we’re able to take the medium on its own terms, and not as a cheap substitute for cinema, we’ll never understand its power as well as they do.
Wormwood is now streaming on Netflix.
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages, and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.