This article contains major spoilers for the Prime Time ending.
Usually, the purpose of these articles is to explain a film’s ending — the clue’s in the title, I know. And this can be for several reasons; sometimes there are surprise twists to unravel or implications to unpack. Prime Time, now streaming on Netflix, is different. It spends its entire runtime building towards a payoff that never comes. There’s no ending to explain.
What’s the point of this, then? Well, it’s worth trying to figure out what the film was trying to do since I’m sure there’s a point there, even if it isn’t necessarily one worth making. And sometimes it can be just as interesting exploring why a film doesn’t work as why it does. So, let’s see what we can do.
The premise is that an aggrieved young man named Sebastian takes over a Krakow TV station on New Year’s Eve, 1999, and while Y2K paranoia grips other news networks, this one is forced to broadcast Sebastien’s pre-prepared statement to the nation — except it isn’t, since he never gets that far, despite having a couple of hostages in the form of security guard Grzegorz and long-time on-air personality Mira.
Throughout Prime Time, we get little snippets of development for both Mira and Sebastian, the latter particularly when his father is brought in by an out-of-ideas police force in an effort to talk him down. But what we never get is a sense of why Sebastian is doing what he’s doing. We know he’s annoyed, and that his so-called “sick lifestyle” might have something to do with it, but nothing beyond that. The notes he has written for his speech are treated as something of a MacGuffin, a device that we build towards all throughout. We keep watching to see him read those words aloud, so we can finally find out what he’s hoping to achieve, or at least to say, but that moment never comes.
Why not? Well, a big part of the Prime Time ending is constantly delaying Sebastien’s chance for 15 minutes of fame. Each time it looks like he’s going to have his statement broadcast, he figures out that the station and the police are trying to dupe him. This keeps happening until we realize, late on, that he’s never going to get the chance to give his speech. Eventually, he burns the pages, which is symbolic for him but frustrating for us.
But there’s a more crucial element, I think. When a defeated Sebastien realizes that his opportunity has been lost, he’s seduced by the disembodied voice of the station’s director into pre-recording his message to be played later. Knowing he’s once again being manipulated, Sebastian instead puts his gun to his head and pulls the trigger.
Of course, the gun’s empty. He was never a threat. But during his perceived “suicide”, the conversation revolves entirely around ratings. In many ways, Sebastian is being encouraged to off himself for the good of the station, for the sake of blockbuster television, which is a clear point about the cynical and predatory nature of the business. But it’s a weird point to make since Sebastian doesn’t commit suicide. He’s rather unceremoniously arrested. His mission is a failure.
Is this in itself a commentary on the impossibility of trying to take down “the man”? Of trying to get some semblance of fairness in a culture that only craves sensationalism and drama? Nobody cares about the truth when the lie is more entertaining, after all, which is why the other news networks are running conspiracist stories about the changing millennium. You’ll recall that nothing happened that night. Maybe that’s why nothing happened in the film either.