The Rewatch

'The Godfather' Was Actually the First Great Prestige TV Show

the godfather
Paramount pictures

What's your favorite episode of The Godfather?

If you're like many viewers, the pilot ("I Believe in America") and its you-are-there depiction of a Corleone family wedding remains a sentimental favorite. Others prefer the show's masterful road-trip episodes, featuring Tom Hagen's California vacation (Episode 2: "Khartoum") or Michael Corleone's romantic Sicilian getaway (Episode 8: "The Thunderbolt"). Of course, this is a mafia show; as fans of The Sopranos some three decades later could tell you, there's always gonna be a chunk of the audience that just wants to see people get whacked, whether villains (Episode 6: "Louis") or (anti)heroes (Episode 9: "Causeway"). For my money, though, nothing tops the finale (Episode 12: "The Godfather"), with that magisterial baptism/massacre montage and Michael's final bloody betrayals. Watching his goons close the door on his wife Kay's face, I couldn't help but feel I'd seen the best that prestige TV had to offer. (At least until the flashback-heavy Season 2 rolled around two years later.)

All right, please don't send me "A Sicilian Message" (Episode 4) over calling The Godfather a TV show -- I'm kidding. But also kind of not?

the godfather
Paramount Pictures

The Godfather is the Oscar-winning masterpiece from 1972, yes. But seen from our era of movie-like TV series, TV-like movie franchises, and moving picture stories that push at the boundaries of their mediums, it’s a sign of things to come. We could call The Godfather "prestige TV" because the hard rules about how different movies, television, and other visual mediums ought to work are entirely arbitrary.

If you watch director Francis Ford Coppola's landmark of American cinema enough times, you start seeing the episodes within. The film's first two major sequences, the wedding and the trip to California, feel like you stopped watching one movie and started watching an entirely different one. Individual segments, which can range from the length of an Adult Swim short to a cable sitcom, end with mini-climaxes that indicate "OK, this part of the film is over": the horse's head, the hit on Don Corleone, the executions of Sollozzo & McCluskey or of Sonny Corleone.

Some segments, like the Hollywood and Sicily ventures, are almost entirely self-contained. Forget the "three-act structure" analyzed by screenwriting professors and by know-it-all film buffs -- you could expand the running time of each section and stick it on FX or AMC or Netflix tomorrow and no one would bat an eyelash.

the godfather
Paramount Pictures

None of that diminishes The Godfather’s status as a film, or Coppola’s status as a filmmaker, in the slightest. No one complains when The Godfather shows up on lists of the best films ever made. No one accuses Coppola and co-writer Mario Puzo for being uncomfortable with the fact that they're making a movie instead of an episodic drama. No one insists the movie would have been a better, more memorable, more cinematic story without the horse's head sequence. Why should they?

Episodic structure or no, it's awfully fucking good -- superbly acted by its iconic leads, ably supported by a uniformly memorable stable of supporting players, scripted with gut-punch ruthlessness toward even its most endearing characters, and gorgeously shot by cinematographer Gordon Willis, who earns his "Prince of Darkness" with inky indoor compositions that put even modern-day prestige TV's somber palette to shame. The fact that it's unconventionally structured tells us nothing about the movie, good or bad. Segmentation is a tool, and in this case, a very effective one.

the godfather
Paramount Pictures

It's not a difficult exercise to come up with other examples of movies that do un-movie-like things with their storytelling. Stanley Kubrick made at least two classic films, 2001 and Full Metal Jacket, that each feel like (at least!) two separate films in and of themselves. Coppola did the same thing with The Godfather Part II, a prequel-sequel hybrid that's miraculously even better than the original. My personal pantheon includes David Lynch's '90s noir-horror Lost Highway, yet another two-for-the-price-of-one movie with a moebius-strip structure that confounds and fascinates, and Todd Haynes's glam-rock love letter Velvet Goldmine, a tangle of flashbacks and news reports and visions and voiceovers that deliberately defies linear writing in favor of twisty, glittery artifice. (A trick it largely borrowed from no less a movie than freaking Citizen Kane.)

The counterexamples are in some cases the very films I'm citing favorably. Lots of viewers feel that Lost Highway is a confusing mess, a dry run for Lynch's tonally similar masterpiece Mulholland Drive a few years later. And it isn't hard to find arguments that Full Metal Jacket's bifurcated structure led to a major qualitative drop-off in its Vietnam-set second half. But the issue here is execution, not something inherent in the structural decisions being made; if it were, you'd hear these same complaints about Mulholland or 2001, which use similar tricks. Again, the structure is a tool, nothing more; it's what you do with it that counts.

That's a distinction our water cooler talk would do well to heed. In the years since David Chase's The Sopranos inaugurated a new Golden Age of TV, showrunners have frequently taken to comparing their series to the cinema. Sometimes those quotes are taken out of context: When the makers of Game of Thrones referred to their show as "a 73-hour movie," they did so not out of pretense or embarrassment regarding their small-screen medium, but simply because they're telling one big-ass story from start to finish, adapted from novels that are doing the same.

the godfather
Paramount Pictures

In other cases, these really do deserve to be taken as statements of intent, like when Westworld's Jonathan Nolan said, "The truth is, what we're doing there is a 10-hour movie. It's not really a TV series. When they say 'It's not TV, it's HBO,' they're really not kidding." (Whatever you say, man.) And for every show with a heavily serialized, it's-all-one-big-thing approach that clicks -- The Wire, Twin Peaks Season 1 -- there are three more that don't. Many are Marvel-Netflix series. Even acclaimed shows can't make every "one long movie" work; see The Wire Season 5 and Twin Peaks Season 2.

But what's really the problem here? Is the "10-hour movie" approach to blame for Westworld's dorm-room philosophy and arguably inert twists and reveals? Is The Wire's final season bad because David Simon saw it as a novel, or because he used it to grind his axe against his old newspaper editors? Did Twin Peaks Season 2 sag in the middle because no television show is meant to be heavily serialized, or because co-creators David Lynch and Mark Frost split to make movies after the network forced them to solve the show's central mystery, returning just in time for a finale for the ages? Is Netflix's trademark binge-viewing model -- you really can watch its shows like a gigantic movie if you want! -- the issue with its Marvel series, or is it that the dialogue isn't sharp enough, or the shots spend too much time tracking characters as they stroll from place to place, or the tendency of the writers to polish off their major villains midway through the season and then come up with five or six episodes' worth of excuses to keep the story going?

the godfather
Paramount Pictures

Not to get all Beavis and Butt-head about it, but bad shows suck because, well, they suck, not because they are insufficiently episodic in structure. This is why calls from the critical community, leading many of the fan conversations on these shows, to eschew unified, serialized storytelling in favor of tight arcs and standalone episodes feel like a misdiagnosis. For one thing, they fail to consider that noticeably self-contained installments of series like Game of Thrones and Girls are as memorable as they are precisely because those shows don't usually work that way.

These claims fall into the same trap of cinematically minded showrunners who insist that "it's not TV" by agreeing with them, setting up a false dichotomy between what constitutes the proper use of the medium and what doesn't. In its maturity, television has proven capable of countless things: TV dramas alone can be as densely serialized as The Wire Season 4, as memorably episodic as Mad Men Season 5, as sweeping as Fargo Season 2, and as sensation-driven as Empire Season 1. Sometimes they can be several things at once; Black Mirror, like its groundbreaking antecedent The Twilight Zone, tells a different story with a different set of characters every single episode, making it simultaneously one of the most movie-like and most episodic shows on television. Saying any of these series is closer or farther away from The One True Way to Make TV obscures the fact that there's no such thing.

In fact, this array of options, this wide-open landscape of different structures and tones and techniques, is the truest indicator that "prestige TV" is not a contradiction in terms. Problems with the execution aside -- and problems with the execution is all they really are -- television can do whatever you want it to do at this point, and declaring one approach or the other superior is a procrustean blunder -- like arguing The Godfather is less great a film because you can break it down like a television series, if you're feeling particularly perverse (ahem). If that means some showrunners get to declare their series a double-digit-hour movie, so be it. The proof will be in the pudding, or the cannoli. You can have it both ways. Why wouldn't you want to try?

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Sean T. Collins has written for The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Vulture, Esquire, Pitchfork, Decider, the New York Observer, and others. His book Mirror Mirror II, a horror-comics anthology he co-edited with Julia Gfrörer, will be out from publisher 2dcloud this summer. He and Julia live with their children on Long Island.