Bunnies, jumpsuits and clones: TV’s ongoing golden age, 2013 edition

It’s interesting that three of of the greatest seasons of TV in 2013 were all debut shows, two of which came from non-traditional sources.

While Masters Of Sex, a richly nuanced telling of William Masters and Virginia Johnson’s pioneering 1950s sex study, is as burnished and high-quality as you would expect from Showtime, the other two shows came from a DVD rental shop and a cable network not known for original programming. Orange Is The New Black (privileged white girl gets sent to prison for transgressions in her younger life) was a breakout hit for Netflix, while Orphan Black (a twenty-something mother trying to get her child back discovers she has multiple clones) was a phenomenal success for BBC America. They tell very varied stories, but they all share a key quality: an immersive, kinetic, almost urgent sense of emotional turmoil and evolution.

Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan

Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan

Masters Of Sex, from showrunner Michelle Ashford, has a beautiful, gleaming quality reminiscent of Robert Redford’s Quiz Show. It’s shot and directed in a gloriously low-key yet detailed manner that still finds time to be transcendently visual. Even though it focuses on a groundbreaking study about people having sex, it’s really about the journeys that Masters and Johnson go on, which requires many conversations about methodology, belief systems and statistics. Ashford’s genius is making this an incredibly dynamic and fascinating show, scene after scene, episode after episode. It dives deep into its characters, and elevates their struggles to a mythic level, even as it grounds them in the most fundamental of human needs and desires. Lest that sound too weighty, it’s a very funny show, shot through with a dry, sly wit that emerges not just in dialogue, but also visually (the greatest visual moment of television in 2013 may well have been the sight of a post-coital male rabbit collapsing into sleep the second it, uh, “finishes”).

Coitus not pictured

Coitus not pictured

The writing is always smart, the acting is revelatory across the board, and it all looks amazing.

Taylor Schilling

Taylor Schilling

Orange Is The New Black is a deliberately scrappier affair, as befits the chaotic nature of its subject matter. Piper is a WASP-y character who ran wild during her early twenties, carrying out all kinds of illicit and illegal activities at the behest of her girlfriend and lover, Alex. Eventually, Piper gave it all up, and got engaged to NPR-worshipping, brunch-loving Larry. Years later, Piper’s name is given to the authorities, and she is arrested for her crimes, and sent to prison. What follows is Piper’s fraught, emotionally charged journey through prison life. It’s upsetting, terrifying, moving, hilarious and horrifying in equal parts, and never less than utterly gripping. Showrunner Jenji Kohan nails the tone of the show, keeping every episode flying with emotional energy, humor and conflict. It’s a natural fit for Netflix, as it is literally impossible to resist binge-watching this show. The prison is full of vastly different women, all of whom have their own pasts and arcs; it’s a rich and diverse source of stories, all fueled by human beings on the edge, desperate to survive, to make it through, to make it out.

Tatiana Maslany

Tatiana Maslany

Masters Of Sex and Orange Is The New Black deal in realism. Orphan Black, developed by Graeme Manson, has different DNA; it’s a sci-fi thriller with a bleakly beautiful contemporary feel. Very quickly, lead character Sarah Manning discovers that she is not alone; there are young women out there just like her. Not just demographically, but literally: there are identical clones running around and bringing the ruckus (including, notably, a terrifyingly feral assassin clone, although even she is somehow overshadowed by the antics of the soccer mom). The show unfolds its techno-thriller plot with the verve and emotion of Fringe, and the relentless grip of Homeland. The conspiracy widens and the truth evolves. These fantastical elements are grounded in some jaw-dropping performances. The two leads, Felix (played by Dylan Bruce) and Sarah (played by Tatiana Maslany) are originally from Brixton, in the south of London. This is one of the most specific British accents there is; Bruce and Maslany are both Canadian, but both deliver flawlessly authentic and thrillingly naturalistic performances. But it doesn’t stop there, because Maslany also plays the clones, all of whom are wildly different, in character and mannerisms. It’s an acting showcase and masterclass that weaves breathlessly around the ferociously unfolding plot. It’s highly engaging, and never lets up for a second.

Three brilliant seasons, three brilliant shows.

There were many other great seasons of TV in 2013 too: Almost Human, The Walking Dead, Person Of Interest, Arrow, Nashville, The Tomorrow People, The Blacklist, Shameless, Game Of Thrones (which delivered the year’s most talked about episode of TV, the Rains of Castamere), Homeland (which seemed to nosedive for three episodes before revealing that it was in fact its most ruthlessly brilliant season yet),  as well as the UK hit The Wrong Mans, a brilliantly off-kilter and kinetic “action sitcom” about being an ordinary man caught up in a Bourne-style conspiracy.

Special shout out: the fifth and final season of SouthLAnd, one of the greatest TV dramas of all time, which inexplicably received the worst DVD handling of any TV show in history (barely getting a release, appearing as “DVD on demand”, then bundling odd groups of seasons of the show together, never once releasing a prestige blu ray set, even getting its theme music replaced on some DVDs and digital downloads). The lack of options undoubtedly held back its ratings (binge-watching catch-ups are a key part of keeping shows alive in later seasons), and although the show ended on a typically intense and emotional high, it’s a shame it isn’t easier for fans or newbies to own it in a quality format.

All these shows featured compelling characters, gripping emotional journeys, killer banter, and dynamic pacing. TV is going through a continuing golden age that only seems to deepen as shows start emerging from unexpected venues. There are more channels greenlighting more shows year-round, instead of the usual handful during the more typical pilot season. Now fantastic shows are constantly springing up and demanding great acting and writing talent. It’s an astonishingly fertile, lively, beautiful time for television drama. It’s hell on my DVR and my writing schedule.

Long may it continue.

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Almost Human: Pilot Episode

That Fringe-shaped hole in your TV world is about to be more than filled with ALMOST HUMAN, a show that might just be the purest display of high-octane sci-fi ever to hit the small screen.

The pilot episode, penned by former FRINGE showrunner J.H. Wyman and produced by sci-fi uber-titan J.J. Abrams (FRINGE, PERSON OF INTEREST, REVOLUTION, SUPER 8, STAR TREK, STAR WARS), is a fiercely gritty introduction to the police procedural world in 2048. Cops are partnered with androids, and programmable DNA is the target of choice for the future-tech criminals they chase down.

Almost Human

The pilot accomplishes more than most first seasons. Wyman’s world-building is precise, deep and always on the fly. It’s a world of constant motion. This is kinetic sci-fi of the highest order. And it’s all driven by character and emotion, memory and loss; every piece of tech, every cool idea, is serving the story. Wyman’s great skill is to introduce us to multiple strata of the world, as well as our two lead characters: Kennex, the embittered cop struggling with the continued fallout of a mission gone wrong, and his partner Dorian, a “synthetic” who is programmed to feel. They both have something to prove, and almost certainly something to hide.

Their relationship is the cornerstone of the show; it all depends on their arcs, their dialogue, their chemistry. Wyman’s script does a stellar job making all this completely naturalistic, and the two actors, a fantastically grizzled Karl Urban and a smoothly assertive Michael Ealy, trade hard-bitten noir-ish lines with ease.

That combination of sci-fi noir and androids programmed to seem human unavoidably calls to mind the ur-text of this genre: BLADE RUNNER. To its extreme credit, ALMOST HUMAN is never derivative, but doesn’t shy away from the resonances either. Indeed, it richly plays with our expectations by giving us just enough to wonder if Kennex is as human as he seems (read EW’s excellent breakdown of this theory).

The sci-fi in the show serves the story entirely; and simultaneously the story couldn’t exist without the tech that drives it. That’s why this is pure sci-fi, the very best kind: emotion, action, concept, heart and character are all the same here.

It’s an outstanding pilot episode, one that holds a tremendous amount of promise for the rest of the season.

Call to arms: saving the Fringe universe

It’s time for a rallying cry to save one of the most inventive, emotionally rich, beautifully geeky and intensely genre-busting shows on TV right now: Fringe.

The show has risen mightily from its X-Files-esque beginnings, with an unorthodox FBI team working on strange phenomenon-based cases of the week. It has built a beautifully detailed, richly atmospheric and resonant architecture for itself as it heads towards the end of its third season. However, with Fox having moved Fringe to the “Firefly” slot on Fridays, and ratings slipping, the outlook for the Fringe-iverse may not be so positive: cracks may be appearing in the future of the show, just as reality is starting to fragment within the show itself.

The show has a core team of three, serving in the FBI’s “Fringe Division.” Special Agent Olivia Dunham (played by Anna Torv), the uptight, fiercely intelligent and emotionally unflinching leader. Peter Bishop (Joshua Jackson), the man who was a boy from another universe and is now a troubled but fundamentally sincere and decent “special consultant.” He happens to be the son of the team’s resident genius, Walter Bishop (the legendary John Noble), a Harvard-based scientist who devised countless reality-defying experiments, spent 20 years in an asylum, and now struggles to connect his genius to the real world. These three, with the assistance of agent Astrid Farnsworth (Jasika Nicole), report to Phillip Broyles (Lance Reddick), the enigmatic senior agent with mysterious connections.

Fringe has grown in scale and ambition since those early days investigating unexplained and terrifying creatures and occurrences. Now, it deals with nothing less than the fate of our world, and that of the Other Side, the alternate version of our world, intimately tied to ours as the fabric of both begins to rupture and come apart. The details of that off-kilter alternate world are perfectly drawn, creating the same-but-different feel: for example, there is no such thing as coffee there, the Statue Of Liberty is cast in bronze, and airships float through the high-tech skies. With the conflict between the worlds played out like a war in the making, the show has built a powerful narrative momentum as the stakes are driven higher, and the emotional impact gets deeper, and more intense.

The show is geek heaven, with its critical recurring role for Leonard Nimoy as William Bell, Walter Bishop’s former partner (and founder of Massive Dynamic), and its immaculately chosen guest stars, including Back To The Future‘s Christopher Lloyd, and Robocop‘s Peter Weller. The stories themselves have become more resonant, more richly emotional — feelings play an intense and devastating role in this show. It’s not just abstract science that fuels the tales of the two universes, it’s deeply powerful stories that tear at you with their implications. They are primal human stories: a father losing a son in one world, and stealing his alternate version from another; a love triangle between a man, and the two identical women from each side, told in the most emotionally devastating and real way possible; experiments on children to develop and enhance special abilities, dealt with through the lens of the disturbed, haunted adults they become.

But it isn’t all about darkness and fear. Fringe is one of the funniest and wittiest one hour dramas currently on the air. It’s a true stablemate to other such intense yet bitingly funny shows produced by Warner Bros. Television, including True Blood, SouthLAnd and The Vampire Diaries. They all share deep and compelling traits: they approach emotion, drama and humor with equally savage and sustained enthusiasm and energy. They are all derived from the minds of some of TV’s finest showrunners: J.J. Abrams, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, Jeff Pinkner & Joel Wyman (Fringe), John Wells, Ann Biderman & Christopher Chulack (SouthLAnd), Kevin Williams and Julie Plec (The Vampire Diaries), and of course, Alan Ball (True Blood).

These shows share an emotional intensity, the furious whipping up of wild and hard-hitting narrative arcs, a beautiful awareness of genre and how to play with it, honor it, and transcend it. They all build worlds real and imagined, and they all push the boundaries of their creations.

Now one of them is in trouble. Maybe two, but SouthLAnd is discussed in other posts on this blog. This post is for Fringe. Because quality storytelling is important. Writing of this caliber must be supported. Great acting needs to be cherished. With its ability to filter emotional stories through “strange science”, alternate universes, and complex relationships, by playing with the tropes of TV sci-fi, Fringe is truly unique in its genre, and in the world of TV drama. It has a powerful engine driving its ideas, and its cast and crew is populated with artists and visionaries, beautifully executing the ideas in a manner that is always highly entertaining, intense, gory sometimes, emotionally powerful all the time.

John Noble, Anna Torv and Pacey himself, Joshua Jackson, do a tremendous job as the heart and soul of the show. They portray heartbreaking, hilarious, darkly complex characters: they have the richness of Shakespearean creations, filtered through the fast-moving, wisecracking lens of 21st century TV. Noble, Torv and Jackson are an essential, compelling team, with truly fantastic chemistry and comic timing, and dramatic, heartbreaking depth.

As they fight to save our world and the alternate world that threatens it, so the fans of Fringe must also mobilize to save the universes. Without regular live viewings, the show will slip through the cracks in the TV drama universe and disappear forever. Watch it, and it will endure.

True Blood: Trouble

It’s true: this week’s episode of True Blood was the best yet in the show’s three seasons. Why? Because Alan Ball and his writers are perhaps the finest team in the business right now (with SouthlandCalifornication, GleeFringe,  Modern Family and Nurse Jackie).

With ‘Trouble’, they  took everything great about the series, and punched it the f**k up.

The show has fully grown into its core strengths: utter insanity, and a visceral, joyous sense of combustibility. True Blood now deeply revels in the possibility that any given moment on the show could violently explode into beautiful, raw, sexy chaos. The show thrives on this constant state of danger, handling it with an intense stare and crazed, high-velocity humor. The dialogue snarls, rips and tears through every scene like one of the wolves amped-up on Vampire blood. The writers throw lines like Jason Bourne throws punches: this is writing like Krav Maga – the  brilliance reveals itself with dizzying speed, line after line after line.

All this has been richly surrounded in this season by the growing depth and complexity of the vampire political and power structures, which has proved to be fascinating source of menace, conflict and fascination, and a chance for the actors to play some great scenes.

The energy from the actors in this particular episode was fantastic, and they had awesome writing to work with, to play with. Watching James Frain access pitch-perfect, utterly unhinged madness as the crazy vampire Franklin Mott (interesting in itself as the show hadn’t shown us vampires who were truly insane), or Stephen Moyer and Denis O’Hare as Bill and Russell playing their diabolically subtle power games, or Anna Paquin continuing her raw, edgy emotional makeover. In many ways, it was Franklin and Tara that propelled this episode with the show’s signature blend, its seamless, unholy and explosive mix of “what the f**k?!”, genuine danger, and sick, literally twisted humor. When Bill and Lorena had their vampire hate sex at the end of episode three, this writing team delivered their TV game-changer: as Lorena’s head slowly turned around, so did the television landscape.

That’s what Alan Ball and his writers (and the stellar cast and crew), have done with this season: changed the landscape, with each episode, with each scene, with each line sometimes. They are charging the show with plummeting rollercoaster velocity into completely unpredictable territory: we have no idea which insane left turn it’s going to take next, and that’s an extraordinary feat of story-breaking. Not only that, these writers deliver some truly nuanced emotional and psychological arcs, accessing the existential sadness of the vampire’s existence, and the many kinds of desire, the endless different ways we can lust after each other.

If there’s anything to criticize, it’s that Jason’s arc seems to be far away from the rest of the converging stories, Sam’s story is unfolding at a slower pace than the other arcs, and for now, Jessica appears to have been abandoned in Merlotte’s. This last is particularly upsetting since, as one character put it, Jessica is a “smokin’ hot vampire, in the majors.” Yes, she is. Therefore it would be great to see her brought into the monumental clusterf**k that is undoubtedly awaiting the rest of the characters by season’s end.

However, if there’s one thing we’ve learned from watching this show, it’s this: trust the writers.

Firstly, they know how to amp shit up: they salvaged the relative smallness of Jason’s story (compared to the high drama of the others) by pulling out a “classic Jason” moment, giving Ryan Kwanten an actor’s dream entrance to a scene: they were duly rewarded with ‘Jason Stackhouse’ being the number one trending topic on Twitter the next day.

Secondly, simply, they always weave their complex plot strands together in the end, as amply demonstrated by the previous two seasons.

Each episode so far this season has roared through the TV stratosphere, and the deep, dark power of the wars to come is looming. This is one of TV’s most purely thrilling experiences, and this episode took it further still.