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.

Homeland: Changing The Game

I can’t believe it’s taken me all of season one and five episodes into season two to write about Showtime’s adrenaline ride Homeland, a show that can only be described as the greatest drama on television. It’s up there with SouthLAnd, but in a different way. SouthLAnd is resolutely anti-plot, existing intensely, almost existentially in the moment, while Homeland is the absolute pinnacle of tightly-plotted, brutally ratcheted series-spanning conflicts and tensions. Where they meet is in their equally brilliant treatment of character; the brutal paring back of psychological layers, the unflinching dismantling of everything their characters believe.

Everything in shadow… Damien Lewis as Brody

Homeland really does have it all. Gut-wrenching tension and reversals, compellingly real characters who wear their complexities and contradictions lightly and naturally, an insanely suspenseful master plot that is apparently constructed from a thousand insanely suspenseful moments that have you on the edge of your sofa, on your feet, shouting at your TV, and watching it over again to make sure that DID just happen. The writers of this show are obviously masters of furiously fast pacing, throwing down HUGE story revelations and dropping massive story bombs in the earliest episodes – already, in just five episodes of season two, we’ve had at least three monumental GAME CHANGING scenes, any of which would be another series’ season finale (or even series finale). But the writers of Homeland have almost casually taken us to these extreme places, with SEVEN episodes still remaining. This is how you know: they must have some extreme shit planned for the rest of the season. And they’ve shown us we can trust them. Trust is key to long running dramas: are the writers just bullshitting their way through, or do they have a plan? The Homeland writers have the tightest grip on their story, from the “in the moment” beats, to the arc of each season. The beats, scenes and episodes of this show are solid and interlock tightly. There are no gaps, no wobble in the construction. Just a series of emotionally and cerebrally detonating storylines that power through an ever-escalating sense of suspense.

As writer Alexander Cary has said, “if we have a good story idea, we go there, and we don’t delay it, we don’t bank it. We write ourselves into corners.” The way they write themselves out of those corners is always exhilarating; high-wire writing, executed perfectly, every time.

Anything can happen… Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison

This writers room, led by 24‘s Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon, gives us everything.

There are small, breathless character moments (Dana and Finn in the Washington Monument, their reflected faces held suspended in the dark glass above the glittering city lights); bad-ass moments of all kinds (“The Smile,” the snarky banter between Carrie and new analyst Peter Quinn, Saul’s gruff awesomeness, terrifying chase scenes); gripping psychological arcs; deep wells of emotion; characters pushed to their absolute limits; and, of course, THAT PLOT… that vertigo-inducing sense of WHAT THE HELL CAN THEY POSSIBLY DO NEXT?!

The nature of threat: any scene can explode at any time. Rupert Friend as Peter Quinn.

In Homeland, character revelations and plot vertigo moments happen at the exact same time; plot and character are the same thing in this show. The interrogation scene in episode five, where Carrie and Brody are both utterly raw, her with love, him with the collapse of everything in his world, is one such example: it’s staggeringly riveting, finely-detailed, deeply soulful, and, in its most extreme, extraordinary, series-changing, character-revealing moment, utterly quiet and low-key. One simple word after the LONGEST pause in TV history changed the game. AGAIN.

The loudest of truths in the quietest of moments

That’s something I love, and it has changed the shape of my own writing. You can’t truly love something without it changing you. This is definitely one of the joys of being a writer: when other writers show you amazing possibilities and just make you want to get back to the laptop and write something new, something better. This beautiful hybrid of powerful, engaging character work and OMG WHAT HAPPENS NEXT plotting is something I was aiming for with ALTERED; and, now I’m writing book two of that series, I’ve essentially got a sticker above my desk that reads WWTWOHD (What Would The Writers Of Homeland Do… not exactly catchy, but damned effective). It’s a show that any writer of any kind can learn from – and should learn from. It’s an extraordinary example of brilliant storytelling.