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Not a Movie, Not Quite a TV Show: ‘Escape at Dannemora’ and the Limited Series Limbo

When a project can be any length, on any platform, then … what is it, exactly?

Showtime/Ringer illustration

If future media historians were to pinpoint the exact moment when the formal distinctions between movies and television finally collapsed, this past weekend would be an entirely credible candidate. On Friday, Netflix released The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a six-part Western anthology film from Joel and Ethan Coen initially announced as a TV project and, despite a one-week theatrical window, meant for home viewership. And on Sunday, Showtime broadcast the first of seven episodes of Escape at Dannemora, a miniseries that, at virtually any other point in time, almost certainly would have been a movie. A film that looks like a series meets a series that looks like a film, a perfect 48-hour case study in the collapsed boundaries market forces hath wrought.

Even by the wildly overused standards of the term, cinematic parallels abound in Dannemora, a retelling of a real-life 2015 prison break in deep-upstate New York from writers Brett Johnson and Michael Tolkin. There’s the letterboxed aspect ratio, meticulous process montages set to big-budget music cues (Elton John!), and, in Benicio Del Toro, Paul Dano, and Patricia Arquette, a central trio of movie stars. But not only are its actors pulled from a roster of film idols — so is its director, Ben Stiller, perhaps warming up for his adaptation of Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, also on Showtime. And Arquette, as civilian prison employee turned criminal conspirator Tilly Mitchell, gives a transformative performance straight out of the Oscar-nominee playbook: prosthetic teeth, colored contacts, regional accent, bare skin.

A story of modest scale featuring three flawed, regular people and an unspectacular conclusion — no spoilers here, but the title, and a simple Google search, gives it away — Escape at Dannemora is exactly the kind of narrative observers frequently note is missing from the multiplex these days. This gap between micro-indie and mega-budget is also an opening that cash-flush, buzz-hungry Peak TV has been eager to exploit, which means projects that would otherwise have worked their way into a theater settle into a different medium. Nearly a decade ago, Succession’s Jesse Armstrong wrote a feature script about the Murdochs that remains unproduced. In its place, he’s made a TV show with unmistakable traces of Rupert and his clan (a right-wing news network, warring siblings), plus dashes of fellow oligarchs (the Kochs, the Trumps) thrown in for good measure.

Escape at Dannemora doesn’t feel entirely at ease in its eventual format. As a woman trapped in the hollowed-out industrial shell her family’s lived in for generations and desperate for excitement wherever she can find it, Arquette is a stand-out. So, too, is Del Toro, whose character Richard Matt is the closest thing this story has to a mastermind, cannily exploiting Tilly’s vulnerabilities and recruiting Dano’s David Sweat to assist him. But at seven hours, the story is noticeably slack and stretched out, lacking the tension and urgency one craves from a sort of reverse-heist tale. Some of the extra time television affords is put to good use, adding texture to Tilly’s life outside the prison, especially her unhappy marriage to fellow prison employee Lyle (Eric Lange). Much of it, however, is simply squandered; with the eventual climax right there in the name, some detours in the middle stretch feel more like procrastination. We’ve got Michael Imperioli as Andrew Cuomo to get to!

To be fair, distended length and slow-drip pacing are hardly problems exclusive to the big-name miniseries. These days, they’re largely hallmarks of the streaming drama, that “X-hour movie” that’s become the bane of critics and impatient viewers everywhere. And sometimes, the confusion between ideal and actual length runs in the opposite direction: Some of my Ringer colleagues have argued that many problems with Netflix’s historical epic Outlaw King — a wasted female lead, a shortage of crowd-pleasing action elements relative to obligatory exposition and shuffling of chess pieces across the board — could have been addressed with more room to expand, and a freedom from the need to cram a complex world-historical event into two hours.

Instead, Escape at Dannemora feels like a particularly acute example of the paradox of choice. When new platforms — and competition-induced flexibility by traditional ones — mean that any story can be virtually any length, there’s widespread difficulty in settling on precisely the right duration. Earlier this year, FX released Trust, a 10-part series created by Battle of the Sexes writer Simon Beaufoy and directed in part by Danny Boyle, with whom Beaufoy had previously collaborated on such features as 127 Hours. Beaufoy and Boyle’s retelling of the Getty kidnapping saga from 1973 had stylistic flair, yet also felt far too long relative to the depth of its subject. On the other hand, All the Money in the World, Ridley Scott’s film centered on the same true story released just months before, felt comparatively slight. The ideal version of the Getty saga likely exists somewhere between the two, with enough space to give the eccentricities of supporting players like cowboy fixer Fletcher Chace their due, but also enough brevity to preserve the countdown feeling of a kidnapping.

Lately, I’ve started to hear increasingly regular complaints that TV series with perceived indulgence issues “should have been a movie.” It was the principal objection I heard to Jean-Marc Vallée’s Sharp Objects, though I would reply the leisurely crawl of information and haunting repetition were crucial to the show’s mood; it was my own response to the first half of Succession’s debut season, before the show successfully sharpened and broadened its worldview at once. Prescriptive mandates like these are rarely useful as criticism, a work of art’s self-imposed standards being a better metric for its success than a viewer’s personal preferences. But the prevalence of this sentiment does feel rooted in a broader anxiety about excess and unraveling definitions. At a time when the difference between movie and TV show is less legible by the day, it’s only natural to crave some clarity.

Escape at Dannemora wouldn’t have to change its medium to solve all its problems. I, for one, enjoy that there’s space for Tilly and Lyle to bicker about her affection for Nick Jonas on their way into work. Nor do all its problems come from its medium: The script doesn’t always stay on the right side of the line between honestly portraying Tilly and indulging in Matt’s Machiavellian contempt for her. The show simply feels emblematic of its time, a designation that can be a burden as much as a boon.