There is no doubt that television is currently in a ‘golden age’ that only seems to improve year on year. With the influx of new streaming channels and ever more content, this Issue we take a look back at some of the defining shows of the last fifteen years that have either influenced others or set a bar so high they have yet to be replicated.
By Dash Wilson.
LOST – Lost was one of those television shows that became a worldwide phenomenon. Unless you lived under a very large rock, you had either seen or heard about the show. Much like Twin Peaks before it, Lost became the must binge watch series and was arguably one of the most interesting shows of the last two decades.
Created by J.J Abrams, Jeffrey Lieber and Damon Lindelof and with an all-star cast including Matthew Fox and Terry O’Quinn, Lost was essentially a story about a group of plane crash survivors and the mysterious island they find themselves on.
Shot on the islands of Hawaii, the vast majority of the episodes were filmed by cinematographer John Bartley ACS CSC (The X-Files). Airing on the ABC in the United States, each episode was shot like a feature length film – high production values and large casts – which before Lost, hadn’t really been done before. Especially not on network television. From astonishing acting to non-stop action and intriguing storylines Lost quite simply had it all and finally proved just how good television could be.
BREAKING BAD – Breaking Bad changed television. Vince Gilligan’s layered, slow-burn story about a school teacher who is diagnosed with cancer went from a show that was nearly cancelled after season one to one of the most watched and beloved shows of all time by the end of its five season run.
Starring Bryan Cranston as Walter White and Aaron Paul as Jesse Pinkman, Breaking Bad was set in New Mexico, USA. Using this sparse and bleak landscape to full effect, cinematographer Michael Slovis (Game of Thrones) created a world that got under viewers skin and wanted to return to week after week. Winning numerous Emmys and Golden Globes this show created a blueprint of what dramatic television could be.
Arguably one of the best television series of all time, what Breaking Bad proved is that a series could not only be highly believable but also incredibly intelligent, poignant, darkly funny and most importantly, concluded exactly when and how it should.
LOVE MY WAY – I still remember watching Love My Way the first time. It affected me in a way that few things ever had. Love My Way is a raw and honest exploration of the love that binds us, the relationships that define us and the choices that ultimately make us who we are.
Originally airing on Foxtel, Love My Way was one of those shows that not that many people watched at the time or airing but slowly and surly, it has become a beloved classic. These were flawed human beings in every way and yet each one of them was relatable. Claudia Karvan, Asher Keddie, Dan Wyllie and Brendan Cowell all did career-defining work and paired with cinematography from the late Louis Irving ACS, the show created a beauty and atheistic that was as real as it was moving.
While Love My Way only ran for three short seasons and won pretty much every industry award there is, there is one particular episode from season one that people still talk about today. It is something that really has to be seen to be believed. Importantly too, it was something that Australian television had never seen before.
HOMELAND – Much content has been produced in response the political climate in United States. No series however has ever looked at it like Homeland. About to air its eighth and final season, Claire Danes stars as Carrie Matheson, a bi-polar CIA operative who is as remarkable as she is unpredictable.
Whilst the first two seasons were critically lauded, it has since sat under the radar for its remaining seasons quietly achieving what most series never do – continued quality. Written and directed by Alex Gansa and Howard Gordson, and memorably shot by David Klein ASC and others, Homeland wasn’t pro-America and it showed a side of their political system that simply wouldn’t have been allowed twenty years earlier. Homeland is a series that could essentially re-invent itself every year and still retain its core identity
With standout performances – particularly Mandi Patinkin – globetrotting sets and intense plot twists, this was and still is super-smart television that really hit the mark from the very first episode.
CRAZY EX-GIRLFRIEND – Winner of the Golden Globe for Best Actress in its initial season, Rachael Bloom and Aline Brosh Mckenna’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is a hidden classic. Particularly its first and second seasons, this comedy series was so self-aware that it struck a cord with the few people that actually watched it.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend told the story of Rebecca Bunch (a brilliant Rachael Bloom), a young woman who leaves her law firm life in New York in an attempt to find happiness in the small Californian town of West Covina. With memorable musical numbers such as ‘Sex with a Stranger’ and ‘The Sexy Getting Ready Song”, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend wasn’t afraid to be brutally honest but did it in such an original and self-referential way that there really wasn’t a subject matter that was out of out of bounds. With the majority of episodes shot by Todd Dos Reis ACS (Longmire), this small budget show had more passion and heart than most things currently on air and most importantly it had something to say.
Whilst the third and fourth seasons felt repetitive and less addictive, they should be mentioned in that they portrayed mental illness in an admirably honest way and suggested that whilst having a crazy ex-girlfriend is funny, it is also deeply sad – and when you think about it that hasn’t been seen on the small screen before.
THE HANDMAID’S TALE – The very first streaming series to win best drama at the Emmys, The Handmaid’s Tale is motion picture television of the highest quality. Based on Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel published in 1985, and created by Bruce Miller, The Handmaids Tale is as bleak as it is unforgettable.
Starring Elizabeth Moss as June Osborne, this is a series that got people talking again. Whether it was for the brutal theocratic dictatorship of Gilead or its alarming parallels to society as we know it today, The Handmaid’s Tale knew what it wanted to be from the very first shot and it succeeded in a way that has rarely been seen before.
Garnering near universal acclaim for its first season, it is a season that is honestly hard to fault. Shot and lit to perfection by primary cinematographer Colin Watkinson ACS and others including Australia’s own Zoë White ACS (see our interview with White in Issue 78), The Handmaid’s Tale is a creatives dream. It is beautifully crafted, deeply affecting drama that continues to create a conversation that is chillingly close to home. Now, if that isn’t defining television, then I don’t know what is.
Dash Wilson is a film lover based in Brisbane and ongoing contributor to Australian Cinematographer Magazine.