Smaller screen, bigger potential

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

NO sane person with a bladder would argue that “There Will Be Blood,” which runs for 2 hours and 38 minutes, should be longer.

But what if it were, in fact, 62 hours and 22 minutes longer, because instead of being a movie, “There Will Be Blood” was a television show on HBO or Showtime or some cable outlet with a bazillion dollars and a liberal language policy?

That was what I thought as I watched it at the ArcLight recently, dehydrating and too scared to drink more water.

We all know that the quality of television has spiked in the last 10 years, as cable channels such as HBO arose to lead the whole industry, networks included, through a creative, competitive boom. And how did it get to this apex? Through stealing from movies, of course. The best dramatic television of recent years, the shows that cause critics to write that we are in a golden age of drama -- “Dexter,” “The Shield,” “The Sopranos,” “Mad Men,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Friday Night Lights,” “The Wire,” “Battlestar Galactica,” “Lost” and others -- have lifted storytelling, cinematography, character development and, often, actors from movies. Before the writers strike, it was physically impossible to keep up.

Duh, you might say.

But there’s a certain kind of story, and in particular a certain kind of antihero -- one who is profane and morally compromised, yet righteous and magnetic -- who now belongs to television. Daniel Day-Lewis’ Daniel Plainview, with his rage-filled ambition and tiny cracks of humanity and love, is exactly that guy. And “There Will Be Blood” proved to me that movies can’t have him back.

I think that, by the way, because I very much liked “There Will Be Blood.” Paul Thomas Anderson and Day-Lewis created a heart-attack-inducing world in its opening minutes, and I wanted to know everything about it.

I mean, where have you gone, Paul Sunday? (Warning: The crazy “There Will Be Blood” spoilers start here.) Paul, the character who sets the story in motion, who tells Plainview about the oil in Little Boston, is a mystery to us. Not only do we never see him again, but we barely hear his name until Plainview calls him “chosen” and “the prophet” in the movie’s final moments to Paul’s twin, Eli -- words that hit Eli nearly as hard as the blows from Plainview that end his life.

On “There Will Be Blood” the TV show, boy, would we have found out all about Paul Sunday. We would also know why Fletcher Hamilton, Plainview’s assistant -- played by Ciarán Hinds, who was given so much to do as Julius Caesar in HBO’s “Rome” and did it artfully -- is so loyal and stoic and, well, flat. We would also find out the back story of Plainview’s actual brother, and more about the impostor he kills.

And if “Deadwood’s” Al Swearengen said to another character, as Plainview says to the Standard Oil executive who tries to buy him out, “One night, I’m gonna come inside your house, wherever you’re sleeping, and I’m gonna cut your throat,” you can bet that throat would be cut.

Most important, we would see the apparently sinful breakdown of Eli Sunday’s life that causes him to come to the now wholly vicious Plainview, causing both of their (final) ruin. What a gift it would be for viewers to see Day-Lewis play Plainview’s descent in more intricate detail than the rich-crazy-guy-in-a-mansion-shooting-at-stuff vignette. This is a man who can literally act with his foot!

Sunday and Plainview’s last confrontation, however, would have made a great series finale. If “The Sopranos” had ended with Tony berating, torturing and beating A.J. to death -- the kind of violent, decisive conclusion most viewers expected -- critics and fans might have been far happier.

Perhaps this back seat carping is why fan fiction exists -- to imagine the whereabouts of Paul Sunday and the other things I wish I knew about the expanded universe of “There Will Be Blood.” And maybe somewhere on the interweb Daniel Plainview and Al Swearengen are engaged in an “Alien vs. Predator"-like blood bath. It would be greasy-haired and heavily accented, and it could go on forever, or until one of them said, “I’m finished.”