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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SouthLAnd: “Thursday” — Moment Of Truth

SouthLAnd excels at forcing its characters into moments of truth.

Time slows down and a crossroads opens up before them: will they walk the righteous path, or sell their souls?

This entire season, Officer Ben Sherman has been following a path that lead him to the deadly decision: what kind of cop is he going to be? Each choice he’s made so far has taken him deeper into the darkness. By the end of God’s Work, he didn’t recognize who he was any more. Without that self-knowledge, his moral markers were gone, and no matter how hard Sammy tried, Sherman really had gone past the point of no return.

And in this episode, writer Jonathan Lisco and director Chris Chulack went full Taxi Driver to make sure Sherman went all the way over the edge.

Lisco’s script was flint-sharp and ruthless. Always an extremely emotionally and conceptually precise writer, here Lisco was even more ferocious with his dialogue and action. Every line had urgency; every beat ratcheted you closer to the end. The scenes were sharpened to deadly points and lethal edges. Such was the intelligence underlying the script that by the time Lydia walked into that hospital room where the burned child lay helpless, no dialogue was even needed as Lisco and Chulack gave us one of the single most upsetting images we’ve ever seen on this show.

SouthLAnd will devastate you with an almost casual ease.

While Sherman was off choking hookers for information, Cooper had to endure Tang’s frankly unendurable “last day on patrol” smugness. Much as I can’t disapprove of any reference to Nicki Minaj’s far-too-awesome Superbass, it was tough to watch Tang torturing that kid. If ever a Cooper “hey numbnuts” was needed, it was here. Likewise with getting Cooper to take her picture in front of the Hollywood sign. So the showdown near the end where Cooper lost it on her was a great SouthLAnd moment. Cudlitz deployed his emotional gravitas to punishing effect, while Lucy Liu gave it right back — she has done a tremendous job this season, holding her own scene for scene with an unfussy, powerful, stripped-back performance.

It was an episode of heavyweight performances.

Regina King broke our hearts, again. She does it so well, so simply. “What we do, it’s hard enough to not let it get to you… now it’s like it’s going in too deep. And if it is, where’s it going?”

Shawn Hatosy did incredible, soulful work. Even confined to a hospital bed at the start, and a deckchair by the pool at the end, he harnessed his “raging bull” energy and radiated it throughout both scenes. I pointed out a few weeks back that Hatosy has a unique way of prowling around a scene with restless, hungry energy; as SouthLAnd superfan Deb @bluegrassbabe3 pointed out today, even when Hatosy is sitting down, he’s still prowling; such is his presence. He’s a great, great actor.

But there’s no doubt that the episode belonged to Ben McKenzie. His portrayal of a man whose soul is being steadily stripped away was bleak, raw, understated and unflinching. He showed us an officer who shattered his previous self, and now has to find his way through the fragments of what he used to be. By the time that the episode closed with Sherman sitting back at the pool party as the Stones’ Street Fighting Man played on the soundtrack (spot-on song choice, and only the fourth or so time the show has used a song), it was as though he was settling in to his new existence. I’m not sure what’s more terrifying/devastating — that he lost himself to the darkness, or that he’s actually getting comfortable with it. Either way, it’s brilliant writing, setting up some great Bryant/Sherman story possibilities for season five.

Throughout the episode, Chris Chulack directed with a ruthless eye, as Jimmy Muro gave us a bleakly lit, cloudy, steely L.A. Chulack’s visceral style was honed to an even sharper edge than usual. If Sherman went racing round a corner, the camera would steadily follow him, like a shark, deadly and unstoppable. Everything was stripped back to an absolute purity of purpose. There were no skateboarding interludes in this episode. Just a ferociously relentless commitment to the truth.

Which is what this show has always been about. It’s why we love it.

It’s why SouthLAnd is one of the greatest TV dramas of our time, of any time. It’s why TNT has to renew it for an extended season 5. It’s why Warner Bros. really, really needs to release a deluxe Blu Ray box set with extended directors cuts, commentaries from writers, cast and crew, behind the scenes and the like — trust me, WB and TNT, if that box set comes out in enough time for new viewers to watch all four seasons prior to the season five opening episode, your ratings will be extraordinary. Can you imagine The Walking Dead or Game Of Thrones or Mad Men not being on DVD?

Exactly.

It’s been an amazing season four. The writers, the cast, the crew — they’ve all excelled themselves, raising the bar yet again, like this show always does. SouthLAnd is better than its ever been — which is rare for a fourth season. It’s rolling hard. And it leaves no doubt that season five would be the greatest yet.

Thank you to everyone involved with the show. I was fortunate enough to meet the cast and crew in L.A. recently; they are an incredibly smart, humble, hardworking, talented bunch, all utterly commited to making this show the best on TV.

It’s working.

I can’t wait to to tune in next year and hear once more, this is A36, show us handling.

SouthLAnd takes a “Risk”

It’s a testament to the unmatched greatness of SouthLAnd that in its 32 episodes to date, it has raised its quality bar to a dizzyingly brutal degree.

When this show blows up and comes at you, it’s identical to none.

So when the occasional scene doesn’t quite get it done, you feel it. And, brutal truth (SouthLAnd style), there were some scenes in Risk, early on, that felt somewhat more perfunctory than usual, that didn’t seem to grab us emotionally, or propel us forward. Some of the dialogue didn’t zing like it normally does, and moments that should have been impactful felt discarded too soon.

But it all came together brilliantly at the end, when Jimmy Muro wreaked havoc at the intersection of Elysian Park and Sunset. Those final few scenes with Lydia, Ben and Sammy were a devastating gut punch followed by a massive right hook to the head that left you on your ass seeing stars.

Like only SouthLand can.

Muro was truly the MVP of this episode: the climactic car chase/shooting/traffic collision was as off the hook and heart-poundingly, breathlessly visceral as anything the show has ever done. You thought Cooper’s throat-savaging was intense — you weren’t even ready for the crushingly sudden, shocking action here.

Time and time again, the show has shown us that all cops live in constant state of unknown trouble — anything can happen at any time. SouthLAnd will slam your expectations off the street and total them as quickly and easily as the SUV took out Sammy’s patrol car. This scene was a masterpiece. Most of the time, the show likes to obliterate its characters’ belief systems with brutal emotional collisions: this time it did it literally, totaling the patrol car in a devastating, terrifying way. It took your breath away and flooded you with adrenaline.

It left you shaking.

Give Muro any and all awards you can find please.

He did great work with Risk: the backdrop to Lydia and Ruben’s case — that mountain range of cranes against the steel sky — was beautifully, almost philosophically, bleak and austere, and fully deserved the multiple shots and angles. It was absolutely a commentary on the action: a sense of hopelessness, of things never changing.

Elsewhere, Muro found numerous ways to give us glimpses of downtown L.A. through the mid-afternoon haze, like a monster looming through the mist. And he broke out what felt like lesser-used angles for SouthLAnd: putting the camera on the outside of the passenger side looking squarely in on the driver, or hanging out the back window to look along the left side of the car during extended driving scenes. These were new textures to the show’s visual language, and they worked. He also gave us the sheer rush of skateboarding down an empty road at 40 mph — from the unfiltered clarity of the lens to the endless blue sky. It was a simple moment of euphoria.

But nothing can compare to the simpler shots of Regina King doing her finest, rawest acting of the season to date (so good and so distressing that it really messed with the viewer), and that car crash — and unlike what happened after Integrity Check, this time the promo for next week gave nothing away, leaving us in agonizing suspense about Sammy’s fate.

Let’s be clear: SouthLAnd will kick your ass. Every time. Because it’s a beautiful, brilliant show. When it’s flawless, nothing can beat it. Even when it doesn’t quite get there some of the time, you know it’s gonna sock you upside the head by the end, and when it does, there’s nothing you can do about it.

TNT, you gotta renew this m***erf***er. It’s truly phenomenal television. You knew it when you saved it from NBC. You knew it when you gave us this amazing season 4.

You still know it.

So please — give this show a 20-episode season 5, and incredible things will happen. SouthLAnd is your Mad Men, your Walking Dead, your Game Of Thrones.

Treat it that way, and it will become something unprecedented in TV. Even more than it is now.

Respect to the cast and crew: bring on that season finale!

Random observations:

  • Kudos to Chitra Sampath for contributing the “she didn’t say the safe word” elements of the  S&M domestic dispute — adding the perfect spin to one of the show’s more awesomely insane highlights.
  • Some of the other situations were kinda beautiful in their oddball charm — who couldn’t love drunk golf ball guy?

Breathless Reads Tour Recap

I was recently very fortunate to attend one of the dates on the Breathless Reads tour. This was Penguin Teens awesome lineup of YA sci-fi authors Marie Lu (LEGEND) and Beth Revis (ACROSS THE UNIVERSE), and YA fantasy authors Jessica Spotswood (BORN WICKED) and Andrea Cremer (NIGHTSHADE). I’m pretty sure you won’t find a smarter, more talented or more charming group of writers anywhere else. These ladies kept the crowd entertained and engaged as they talked about YA, writing, their inspirations, being writers, and their books. It was a great event for fans and aspiring writers alike.

It’s always interesting to hear what inspires great writers. Unsurprisingly, they all have great taste in TV — there’s a serious overlap between the breathless, fast-paced, what’s-going-to-happen-next qualities of the best YA, and the greatest TV dramas. Marie Lu singled out Game Of Thrones and Breaking Bad, while Andrea Cremer & Beth Revis both gave props to Doctor Who (Harley in ACROSS THE UNIVERSE is based on David Tennant), and Joss Whedon (Revis credits him with teaching her how to kill characters, while Cremer says he taught her how to write dialogue). Revis is a huge fan of Firefly and Serenity, and via Nathan Fillion, she loves Castle too. Cremer is a devotee of Buffy. Jessica Spotswood namechecked a pretty awesome mashup of Downton Abbey, Revenge, and The Vampire Diaries.

With their genre credentials firmly established, the writers talked about why they like writing in the YA sci-fi and fantasy genres. Lu and Spotswood made the great point that this kind of fiction really allows you to explore issues without coming across as preachy, while Revis and Cremer dig the fact that you can transcend the usual boundaries of “boy books” vs. “girl books”. As Revis put it, “there should be good books, and everyone should be able to read them.” Lu praised Penguin for marketing LEGEND based on its sci-fi content, rather than directing it at boys or girls.

They all take different approaches to writing:

Revis — “I laugh wickedly when I kill off my characters.”

Cremer — “I cry a lot when I write my books.”

And they all picked different “theme songs” for their books:

Lu — Europe, “The Final Countdown”

Revis — Chameleon Circuit (a Doctor Who fan band), “Everything Is Ending”

Cremer — Florence + The Machine, the entire “Lungs” album

But they all feel blessed to have the opportunity to be published:

Spotswood — “It’s amazing.”

Revis — “Even after two books it’s still shiny and new.”

Cremer — “It’s extraordinary to be able to do this… I’m still trying to keep close to how extraordinary this is.”

Revis in particular has cause to still feel enthralled about the process of being a published author: prior to writing ACROSS THE UNIVERSE, she’d written 10 novels over 10 years, and had nearly 1000 rejections. Her will to make this happen was a testament to believing and following your dreams. Marie Lu had a similarly long path, having received her first query rejection at the age of 15 (for “a book that was basically LORD OF THE RINGS, but not good”). Cremer was at the other end of the speed spectrum: she had her third novel published a year after she started writing her first. It seems traditional publishing has two speeds: geologically-paced slow motion, and warp factor 8. But there’s only one type of attitude for writers: unflinching dedication to the dream.

Cremer had great advice for aspiring writers: “stop chasing new ideas — pick one and finish it.” Revis’s advice was possibly more lighthearted, but no less practical: “you need a spinning chair.”

And it was Revis who gave the best description of how YA should be seen: “YA isn’t a recommended reading level, it’s a style of writing: interesting characters, interesting setting and a fast-paced plot.”

What came across from all these inspiring and talented women was the belief that good books are good books, regardless of genre or gender. Writing is about creating great stories that reach people and move them, take them to different worlds (sometimes literally), and change how they see our world.

Many thanks to Marie Lu, Beth Revis, Jessica Spotswood and Andrea Cremer for taking part in the Breathless Reads tour, and kudos to Penguin Teens for organizing it, and for bringing writers and readers together.

Torchwood: Rendition / Dead Of Night

Following on from Russell T. Davies’ powerhouse opener, episodes two and three of Torchwood: Miracle Day continue the blazing momentum, alongside the steady and terrifying extrapolation of the series’ central conceit: no-one is dying, but no-one is healing either.

Dark Angel, Smallville and House writer Doris Egan grabs the narrative baton from Davies for the second episode, Rendition, and doesn’t miss a step or a beat. Egan presses the pedal to the metal from the very beginning, and only cranks it up from there. With the barest of outlines — the Torchwood team are on a flight to America, the conspiracy begins to emerge, the consequences of the miracle continue to unfold — Egan busts out a breathless, frantic and engrossing hour of TV. Her screenplay is nimble, dancing furiously between the strands and keeping them all flowing. Whether it’s the desperately improvised cure for Captain Jack, which is a masterclass scene in itself (blending highly technical dialogue with massively high stakes and a relentless supply of quips and one-liners for the cranky as hell Rex Matheson, and geek goddess Gwen Cooper), or the evolution of Oswald Danes, or the CIA conspiracy, Egan keeps it moving, energetic and alternately entertaining and chilling as hell. Egan also gives Gwen multiple hero moments, and verbal punches that hit as hard as the real punches that Gwen throws, including the standout line of the episode, delivered with awesome style by Eve Myles: “I’m Welsh.” Cue right hook.

By the end of the episode the team have landed, fought their way out of a trap, and escaped. In a Mini Cooper. (And to think some fans have been complaining about Torchwood being too American — (a) duh; and (b) trust me, Davies has made this even more Welsh than it was in seasons 1-3. Which is a good thing.).

From there, it falls to geek TV writing legend Jane Espenson (Buffy, BSG, Game Of Thrones) to take us into the Dead Of Night. For the first time this season, the show pauses to take a breath. It’s an interlude of sorts, although, being Torchwood, all kinds of crazy shit still happens. The change in pace is a good thing: it allows the viewers to really catch up, and lets the devastating implications continue to unravel and sink in. Espenson gets lots of juicy scenes to sink her brilliantly geeky teeth into: the bumpy integration of the new Torchwood team as they learn to work together for the first time (which, as Espenson has noted, could serve as a metaphor for the transatlantic writers room that Davies established for this season), the revelation of PhiCorp’s involvement, and Oswald Danes’ disturbing revelation of his true, dark self.

And an eye-popping double sex scene.

Espenson handles these pivotal moments with skill and gravitas, saving her humor, unleashing it sparingly but in the most brilliant of ways. She deserves an Emmy just for Jack’s “you should see the other guy” (it’s all in the context), which may be one of the greatest one-liners in sci-fi TV history. She also does a wonderful job with continuing Gwen Cooper’s ascendancy far beyond official Legendary status. Eve Myles has never had such great lines, has never had so many brilliantly moving, cool and geeky moments as she has in this season. Myles attacks every scene with subtlety, relish, tongue in cheek when need be, and flat-out heartbreaking acting when necessary.

Espenson, as you might expect, weaves the melancholy and the thrilling both expertly and seamlessly. In midst of it all, in the darkest hour of the night, Jack’s lonely phone call to Gwen was a beautiful piece of dramatic writing. Around that, the heavy lifting of the plot was done elegantly, with the haunting, silent march of the masked soulless, and the great reveal of the scale of PhiCorp’s involvement (done with a huge warehouse vista and Espenson’s other Emmy-worthy, geek-legend line of the episode, “bigger on the inside than the outside”). Espenson also made time for Esther and Gwen to discuss the poet Robert Frost, which provided great shading in the episode, and allowed Alexa Havins to develop her tremulous and vulnerable portrayal of Esther.

Mention must be also made of Bill Pullman and Lauren Ambrose, whose characters’ involvement with the miracle and its chaotically unfolding ramifications has been separate and enigmatic thus far, though their paths and significance have been beginnging to entwine. Pullman is truly extraordinary as the insane child murderer, and Ambrose is deliciously deceptive and shady in her apparent role as PhiCorp’s PR, Jilly Kitzinger. Both of them fully inhabit their roles, investing them with magnetism that is both horrific and hypnotic.

Horrific and hypnotic sum up this season so far: the huge, escalating crisis dreamed up by Davies and his team expands with every episode. It’s an incredible story engine, full of mind-blowing, exhilaratingly scary possibilities. From the writing perspective alone, Torchwood: Miracle Day is a masterclass on many levels.