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.

ARROW: The Huntress Returns

Since its pilot first aired last year, Arrow has transcended its case of the week set-up, morphing radically in the manner of a previously regular citizen becoming a fully fledged superhero (see what I did there?). The pilot was a sure-footed, highly confident piece of TV drama, loosing its arrow and hitting with breathless precision the massively hard-to-hit target that is the perfect combination of dark, gritty, pulpy, pleasurably comic book-y, hyper-stylized, charismatic, compelling, funny, kinetic, and thrilling. And it’s only gotten better.

The Hood, the Huntress and the cop; tragic denouement not pictured

The Hood, the Huntress and the cop; tragic denouement not pictured

All the elements were there from the start: the hint of mythology (what really happened on that island?), the thrills and the action, the CW glossy / pleasing to the eye / highly entertaining veneer, the uniquely sharp and intelligent visual style. In the early episodes the show leaned on a case of the week structure (Oliver Queen’s father’s notebook of names) more than anything else, which did raise some concerns of repetition and longevity. It was obvious the show contained much more than that, was meant to be much more than that.

Fortunately, exec producers Marc Guggenheim, Greg Berlanti and Andrew Kreisberg did a tremendous job of elevating the show rapidly beyond the original format into something harder, faster, more resonant, more powerful, more gripping; into a show that could easily last multiple seasons. They opened up the mythology, burned through story more quickly and thrillingly, and, crucially, started bringing more characters into the bat cave, as it were (hey, it’s a DC-based analogy, so it’s OK). First in was John Diggle (David Ramsey), creating a great buddy comedy pairing, which has proven to be an enduring relationship that sparks much gripping, compelling conflict between him and Stephen Amell’s Oliver. Several episodes later, the producers made the genius move of bringing in Felicity Smoak, played by Emily Bett Rickards. Her absolute ease with a snarky one-liner proved a perfect match for the show’s aesthetic; the episode that brought her into the Hood’s world (The Odyssey) was one of the best of the season. Rickards doubled down on her promotion and showed just why she needs as much screen time as the writers can give her, with an excellent performance in the subsequent episode, Dodger.

Felicity Smoak in mortal danger. Spoiler: she makes it.

Felicity Smoak in mortal danger. Spoiler: she makes it.

The overarching conspiracy (the Undertaking, brilliantly led by John “Captain Jack” Barrowman, AKA the Dark Archer) is gathering momentum, future Hood sidekick Speedy, currently known as Roy and played by Colton Haynes, has been successfully introduced in a manner that can only be described as,well, speedy, and Oliver has a now well-established nemesis in the Huntress, played with astonishing verve and electricity by Jessica De Gouw.

Which brings us to the most recent episode, The Huntress Returns.

It was a fantastic example of everything that’s great about the show: deep, resonant relationships that leap off the screen and grab you, making you feel them; mind-bogglingly original and intense action sequences that race past you; and a gloriously geeky joy in the dark angles of its comic book origins. It had zingy one-liners to spare, clashing relationships with ultimately high stakes, secrets, heartbreak, and a pulse-quickening chemistry between its core cast.

The always excellent Willa Holland, the sharply wonderful Katie Cassidy, and the ever-essential Colin Donnell. And a shitload of lens flares (Jimmy Muro would be proud!)

The always excellent Willa Holland, the sharply wonderful Katie Cassidy, and the ever-essential Colin Donnell. And a shitload of lens flares (Jimmy Muro would be proud!)

Guy Bee did a phenomenal job directing it. He’s one of the greatest directors working in TV today, having directed some of the best episodes ever of SouthLAnd, Supernatural, Revolution, The Secret Circle, The Nine Lives Of Chloe King, Kyle XY, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and many, many others. He has an unerring eye for this kind of gritty, thrilling “YA” genre TV (which is one reason why I think he’d be perfect to direct an adaptation of Altered). His true skill lies in blending a soulful, character-based approach with an extraordinarily intelligent visual eye for the depth of a shot. The visual architecture in his shots is remarkable, while always serving the characters in a scene.

Look at the incredible architecture in the composition of this shot; a lesser director would be close on the two characters; Mr. Bee shoots it Nolan-style, with the surroundings as character

Look at the incredible architecture in the composition of this shot; a lesser director would be close on the two characters; Mr. Bee shoots it Nolan-style, with the surroundings as character, bringing Starling City to life

And he shoots the shit out of Arrow‘s fast-paced, adrenalized action sequences, bringing an extra level of style. With that combination of visual structure and futuristic style in urban situations, he’s like the Michael Mann of TV, in the most original way.

Oliver's club, Verdant. Man's got style.

Oliver’s club, Verdant. Man’s got style.

He’s one of the show’s key creative forces, so he was well placed to bring us the tragic return of Oliver’s intense, possibly unhinged, nemesis, who may also be the love (or at least lust) of his life. It was a dangerous episode, with more than a hint of SouthLAnd‘s constant state of “unknown trouble” lurking in every scene; you knew bad shit was going to go down, you just didn’t know when or how.

Jessica De Gouw was magnificent as the Huntress, clearly relishing every second of her time on screen, fully occupying the wounded heart (and consequent vengeful fury) of her character.

Jessica De Gouw: in this life or the next, she will have her veangance

Jessica De Gouw as the Huntress: in this life or the next, she will have her vengeance

She held her own throughout, bringing a furious energy to her scenes with Amell; they are truly a heartbreaking couple, in their own way. Her revenge was brutal; and the scenes between Amell and Janina Gavankar (playing Queen’s current girlfriend/a cop who is hunting down the Hood) were beautifully played out by the pair of them.

Arrow is a show that, like Person Of Interest, is an outstanding genre show that has easily overhauled its case of the week structure and steadily infused it with gripping and compelling mythology. Both these shows have far outstripped their beginnings, while also retaining the ability to manipulate and return to more focused episodes when necessary. Arrow‘s momentum is increasing exponentially; its levels of excitement are following suit.

It’s basically brilliant, hypnotically good appointment television, powered by a hard-working and ridiculously talented cast and crew.

Just watch it. Or the Hood will put you on his list.