The “Slow TV” movement has been around for a while. In 2009, the good people of Norway were riveted by a seven-and-a-half-hour long real-time recording of a train’s journey from Bergen to Oslo. A few years after that, the same country aired an eight-and-a-half-hour broadcast of Norwegian wood burning in a fireplace, and it was a ratings smash. There are plenty other examples of the genre out there, and even some that aren’t even from Norway. Just ask Andy Warhol, who once filmed the Empire State Building for eight straight hours and called it art.
But for the most part, the Slow TV craze never really took hold in the United States. That is until Friday, when House Speaker Paul Ryan debuted the strangest binge watch of the season: snow. Or, as Ryan’s official site put it more precisely, “a pure, uninterrupted livestream of the snow falling on the National Mall, as seen from the Speaker’s office in the U.S. Capitol.”
The livestream, titled Snowfall at the Capitol, has been airing on Ryan’s site. It comes with a gentle suggestion: “Give your Netflix a break and check out the snowfall for a few minutes. Or a few hours. It’ll be here all weekend long.”
But is it any good? In this Peak TV era, a weekend is a long time to commit to any program, whether it’s on Netflix, HBO, or a Republican congressman’s website. So is Ryan’s unexpected entry in our increasingly crowded winter TV season really worth the binge?
Let’s start with the music, which is, without a doubt, the most immediately striking aspect of Snowfall. The show’s entire soundtrack is backed by an endless, continuous, nonstop, another-repetitive-synonym-here loop of “Gold Skies,” a light and funky techno track from artist Liam Aidan. To more helpfully describe the song, The Washington Post has offered such phrases as “Icelandic neosoul” and “intro video that plays when you opened a brand new Dell in 2005.” Whatever you want to call it, it’s easily the best part of the program. Aidan will no doubt be a worldwide star come Monday.
But that’s not to take away from Snowfall at the Capitol’s other many charms, of which there are many — particularly in the visual department. At many points during the day, the livestream borders on gorgeous. The gentle and compelling beauty of a historic national landmark blanketed by snow becomes starkly evident thanks to Ryan’s masterful sense of cinematography.
There are even some unpredictable twists and turns along the way, like when a person walks into the frame, or when a person… walks out of the frame. These rare flits of action add to the suspense: What will happen next, and when? Is that man who walked through the frame going to come back again? And what motivates The Walking Man, anyway? Where is he going? Intentionally or not, Ryan leaves many of these questions unanswered, not unlike the celebrated series finale of The Sopranos.
Of course, it’s hard to talk about Snowfall From the Capitol without talking about what is Washington, D.C.’s most well-known Slow TV program: C-SPAN. That network’s famed congressional livestream is arguably TV’s original binge watch, a pioneer in the Slow TV genre (and, at times, more exciting than House of Cards). But despite all that historical prominence, C-SPAN is rarely, if ever, able to reach the artistic heights seen in Ryan’s directorial debut.
However, one major issue that it seems Ryan hasn’t accounted for is how completely dark the show becomes during the late hours. Add it up over a weekend, and that’s about 36 hours of a virtually blank screen, with nothing but a few distant lights, the reflection of Ryan’s own office lamp, and, of course, Aidan’s unstoppable sick beats.
Now, one could argue that perhaps this is all by design, and that the House Speaker’s decision to let his camera — and thus our gaze — focus on a black screen for hours is his Werner Herzog-esque method of getting us to confront and accept what we know will eventually come for us all: death. After all, Ryan spends his daylight hours addressing that other unpleasant certainty in life, taxes. So perhaps it’s not a stretch to think he likes to spend his tortured nights ruminating mankind’s mortality?
But then again, you can still see the “@SpeakerRyan” branding in the video, so he probably just didn’t really care one way or another. And in fact, that glowing Twitter handle is a little obnoxious in its own right. Would something like, say, Carol have resonated as much with viewers if it had “#ToddHaynes” emblazoned on the screen the entire time? Doubtful.
Yet despite those and other directorial missteps, the Snowfall at the Capitol still has more than enough charms to make up for its flaws. Indeed, it is hard to deny the hypnotic power and surreal, binge-worthy pleasure of House Speaker/Slow TV Auteur Paul Ryan’s bold artistic vision. So we won’t. Let’s just hope Walking Man gets more screen time in season 2. B+