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At Bryn Mawr Film Institute, TV on the big screen

The BMFI courses for adults on classic TV shows are believed to be the first such offerings at any art house in the country.

Paul Wright gives a lecture on television phenomenom "Seinfeld" at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute.
Paul Wright gives a lecture on television phenomenom "Seinfeld" at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute.Read moreKRISTON JAE BETHEL / For the Inquirer

Late last month, two decades after its final episode aired on NBC, Seinfeld made a debut of sorts: On the big screen.

Andrew Douglas, director of education at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute, believes the BMFI courses for adults on classic TV shows may be the first such offerings at any art house in the country.

Starting about two years ago with The Wire, Cabrini University's Paul Wright has taught courses on Breaking Bad and The Sopranos. Sometime in 2019, he plans a course on Mad Men.

"It brings our courses to new audiences," Douglas said. "A lot of films and filmmakers we teach are older and more traditional.

"The Wire and Breaking Bad cross generational lines in ways that Woody Allen and Ingmar Bergman don't. And the line between TV and film is getting blurred all the time with Netflix and all that."

Wright, assistant provost for international affairs at Cabrini, grew up in Chicago in the 1970s on a TV diet that meandered from Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers to The Beverly Hillbillies and Petticoat Junction before taking off with Hill Street Blues in the 1980s.

"It was a lonely oasis," he said. "The stories were amazing.

"They were interconnected. There was narrative complexity, daring visuals, a daring story to tell. All the things we take for granted in 'prestige television.' That's when I started looking at it as a craft."

But as much as the lines between the media are blurred, Wright is intrigued by a key difference, with films still director-focused with luminaries such as Martin Scorsese, Paul Thomas Anderson, and the Coen brothers, and TV's stress on vivid writing with teams of writers under a "show runner."

"Television has always gotten a bad rap," he said, citing an unwritten rule that a writer or producer could not go from film to TV and expect to return to film.

Now, he said, "No one cares. … You have [Sopranos creator] David Chase going from wanting to make New Wave films to The Rockford Files.

And to Wright, TV in a theater is an entirely new experience.

"People love watching the shows on the big screen," he says, "how much more attention they can pay to cinematography and visual choices. There's a visual style that becomes more evident.

"Now, with the hi-def TVs we have, we expect folks will go back and freeze-frame."

Wright came to BMFI in 2006, the year after Douglas arrived to start the education program. He was brought on to teach film courses — which he still does. But he had always been eager to teach TV as well and approached Douglas about it.

"I thought about it early on," Douglas said. "But I didn't think it was smart to begin TV at the beginning of this organization." It was, of course, establishing its identity as the Bryn Mawr Film Institute.

But when he approached the board and then-president  Juliet Goodfriend, he says, "There really wasn't any pushback."

It's sometimes said that TV has replaced film as the main supplier of cutting-edge visual work.

"If you're talking world cinema, that's not necessarily true," Wright said. "There are so many great filmmakers around. I do think American television trumps Hollywood.

"The best of American television is more interesting to me than the blockbuster [movie] cycle we're in. Television is the place where the best work is possible now that we've moved away from the three-network model.

"Television has always been a writer's medium, anyway," he said.

And the genius of Seinfeld's creators, Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, led him to pick that show as the first sitcom offered as a course after three dramas.

"What Larry David did with all the building blocks was quite special," he said, "interweaving plots within a sitcom in a medium used to dumbing it down. It doesn't condescend to your intellect;  it assumes your intellect."

Despite its clichéd description," Wright said, "It was never 'A show about nothing.' "

Wright is intrigued by the ways David and Seinfeld used verbal agility to deal with sensitive subjects such as masturbation and orgasms without actually mentioning the words.

"When you're censored," he says, "you have to be creative.

"We associate the show with words as much as anything else," including "Sein-language" words and phrases such as regifter, sponge-worthy, shrinkage, and "not that there's anything wrong with that," the latter immortalized in an episode dancing around the theme of  homosexuality.

BMFI's earlier TV courses used the big screen to draw  greater attention to cinematography than is possible on home-size sets: The vastness of the New Mexico desert on Breaking Bad,  the grittiness of North Jersey and inner-city Baltimore on The Sopranos and The Wire.

Seinfeld is painted on the more limited canvas of New York's Upper West Side (although it was mostly shot in Hollywood). But Wright said its comedic aspects make Seinfeld-watching a different experience in the theater.

"A lot of people appreciate the physicality more. Watching it together and laughing at it together …. We have our own laugh track going and the laughter gets contagious as the night wears on. That's the argument for theaters in general."

Course member Marge Brown Kalodner agrees.

"It's fun watching with a group of people and seeing them laugh at the same things," she said.

The BMFI TV courses, which have been attracting audiences numbering close to the institute's maximum of 50, are taught the same way as film courses.

Students, who pay either $100 or $125, depending on whether they are BMFI members, hear a lecture in an upstairs classroom and then adjourn to one of the four theaters to see several episodes of the show. (Douglas says the institute's 2012-13 expansion and renovation was designed to allow theaters to also be used as teaching spaces.)

Afterward, they return to the classroom for a group discussion. Wright recently experimented by dissecting a Breaking Bad episode frame by frame.

The courses are usually offered in four sessions, with two courses spanning the show's history, although Seinfeld is being taught in just one four-session course.

"Now," Wright said, "I don't think the BMFI curriculum will ever go back."