Alternate Emmys: A Look Back on The Year in Cable TV

I did not watch Sunday night’s annual Emmy ceremony. The Oscars take up all my live-award-show frustration, and the choices of Emmy voters baffle me even more than the Academy’s  (Jeff Daniels over Jon Hamm and Bryan Cranston? What?). But glancing at the list of nominees —specifically in the Drama category—and reflecting on the wealth of amazing series I’ve compulsively binged on this season (Sept. 2012-Sept. 2013), it occurred to me that this may in fact be the best year of television ever

The creative revolution in cable TV content , that began in 1999 with The Sopranos, has reached such a deafening pitch in quality, that for the first time in my movie-obsessed life, I’m uncertain which medium I’d pick if given a choice: this year’s offerings on the big screen…or its smaller, once-thoroughly-minor-but-now-kicking-all-kinds-of-unholy-ass cousin. Now, I’m not saying this year contains the best shows ever made. Arguably, that would be 2004, which—surfing the first great wave of cable TV—contained The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood, and Six Feet Under, all airing a few months apart on HBO. I like to think the second great wave began in 2007, when AMC took a piece of the premium pie with Mad Men, followed by Breaking Bad a year later.   

And this year, with Netflix changing the game by releasing entire seasons of original content at once, I believe the third great wave of the cable revolution has kicked off, with HBO now fighting for the quality crown amidst a whole host of contenders, including Sundance, Showtime, and F/X, with many, many more about to leap into the ring to join them. All this to say that the sheer breadth and diversity of essential cable series has now resulted in the first Top 10 list I’ve ever made for TV, with last Sunday’s Emmys providing the perfect excuse to share it.  

 

Game of Thrones – Season 3 (HBO)

Combine the scope of Lord of the Rings with the character complexity of The Sopranos, and you’ve got the most addictive show on television, which hit a shocking dramatic peak with its now infamous "Red Wedding" episode at the climax of the third season. Marginally lessened by its smattering of laughably gratuitous sex scenes and one particularly un-necessary torture sub-plot, HBO’s medieval fantasy epic is nevertheless top-tier stuff, and a case study in great book-to-screen adaptations, despite the millions of angry nerd cries  bemoaning changes to GRR Martin’s beloved novels. The sheer confidence with which it juggles its sprawling cast of characters and storylines, while consistently subverting  and twisting expectations, has provided some of the most devastating and instantly iconic moments of the current pop culture landscape.

MVP: Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, for turning what began as a hiss-worthy villain into the shows’ most complex and strangely sympathetic character, Jaimie Lannister.  

 

Mad Men – Season 6 (AMC)

Every year, Mad Men assumes a familiar cycle, as people complain that the show isn’t "going anywhere" for its first four or five episodes, then subsequently watch in astonishment as each season aspires to—and attains—the artistic heights of great American literature. And with 1968 as its backdrop, the petty ambitions, jealousies and affairs of Sterling-Cooper’s ad agency culminated in one of the most moving, thematically satisfying season finales of its six season run.  

MVP: Jon Hamm, for taking Don Draper’s sixth cycle on the self-destructive merry go round to its darkest depths, and emerging with unexpected, redemptive grace.

   

Boardwalk Empire – Season 3 (HBO)

This criminally underrated show, which many gave up on during its first, feet-finding season, finally became the great, classic gangster epic it’s been building towards for the last three years. Every single character in its impressive cast was provided with a fantastic arc, as the over-arching narrative—the birth of organized crime in America —coalesced into its most mythic season, bringing its young Capones, Lanskys and Lucianos in direct conflict (or collusion) with Steve Buscemi’s semi-fictional head of Atlantic City, Nucky Thompson.  

MVP: Bobby Canavale, for providing an electrifying season villain, by turns funny, charming and psychotic – often all at once.

   

Top of the Lake – 6 Episode Mini-Series (Sundance)

Fusing the moral twilight of (the original) The Killing with the eeriness of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, this six episode mini-series is by far the best thing Jane Campion has directed since The Piano. Elizabeth Moss slightly fudges her New Zealand accent, but gives a committed, nuanced performance as the detective investigating a young girl’s  disappearance in a poor, mountainous region of New Zealand. As the case entwines itself with the secrets of her own past, each episode unflinchingly takes the audience to disturbingly dark places, but with Campion’s unique perspective on the toll it takes for strong-willed women to forge their way through male-dominated social hierarchies (police and criminal alike). Haunting, nail-bitingly tense, and ultimately profound, Top of the Lake is pure cinema in TV clothing.  

MVP: Peter Mullan, as the terrifying leader of a homegrown drug ring, equal parts menace and tragic pathos.  

 

Parade’s End’ – 5 Episode Mini-Series (BBC America/HBO)

This adaptation of a classic novel is British TV drama at its finest, a stunningly scripted labor of love by Tom Stoppard, with astonishing performances by Benedict Cumberbatch, Rebecca Hall and newcomer Adelaide Clemens. Charting a love triangle that evolves over the course of Britain entering the First World War, it’s a rich, fascinating exploration of the values different people cling to, or shed, as the world changes around them—as well as one of the most genuinely romantic stories you’ll ever see.  

MVP: Adelaide Clemens, for embodying what could have so easily been a fantasy of purity and innocence with grounded intelligence, vulnerability and strength.  

 

Breaking Bad – Season 5.1 (AMC)

Only eight episodes long, the first half of Breaking Bad‘s final, devastating conclusion is mostly set-up for its currently airing conclusion, which is possibly the single most riveting season of television in history. While perhaps less satisfying as a stand-alone season—especially compared to its previous arcs—5.1 is still an essential chapter in the saga of Walter White, described by its creator (Vince Gilligan) as one man’s journey "from Mr.Chips to Scarface." The amazing train heist episode ("Dead Freight") is a clear highlight, and the seamless mix of comedy, tragedy, and thriller elements against New Mexican suburbs and deserts, still combine to create one of the most utterly unique shows around.   

MVP: The best soundtrack choices of the year, bar none.  

 

Enlightened – Season 2 (HBO)

Tragically under-seen, this small gem concluded its two-season story arc, perhaps in the knowledge that it would inevitably be cancelled. Show-runner Mike White’s portrait of an idealistic narcissist waging a one woman war against the evil corporation she works at, is sharp, wickedly funny character-based satire, but with a deeply compassionate heart. Laura Dern gives the performance of her career as Amy Jellicoe, as frustrating and cringe-inducing as she is ultimately heroic. By both tearing down easy new age philosophies, while also examining the complex and profound yearnings for harmony and truth beneath them, Enlightened never gives in to pat, easy answers, but rests in its questions with intelligence, humor and grace. I especially loved how the show allowed itself to sometimes give entire episodes to a supporting character’s point of view, which often produced the most affecting highs of a great final season.    

MVPs: An incredible roster of guest directors, including Jonathan Demme, Nicole Holofcener, Todd Haynes, and David Michod.  

 

Rectify – Season 1 (Sundance)

Another criminally under seen gem, this small, well-observed drama about a man emerging from 20 years on death row, is well worth catching up with. Like its main character, it takes the time to soak in the tiny, telling details that we so often take for granted in our "free" lives, as well as the deep questions that result from a world view created behind bars. It’s a slow burn, but always an immersive one, and over the course of its short six episode first run, an incredibly moving journey into a man’s damaged, but endlessly curious soul. And the good news is that it’s been renewed for a second season, so catch up now while you have the chance.  

MVP: Aiden Young, for saying more with his eyes than most actors do with entire seasons of dialogue.  

 

Orange is the New Black – Season 1 (Netflix)

Adopting a similar comedy-drama tone to her previous show, Weeds, Jenji Kohan’s second stab at cable TV is a real grower, and paints its world of a women’s minimum security prison with well researched insight and depth. What’s most surprising is how elements that are initially off-putting, such as the very white middle class heroine’s cutesy relationship with her straight-laced fiancee, ultimately work in service to the story itself, as Piper Chapman’s world and sense of who she is are gradually stripped away, piece by piece. And while she serves as an effective identification window for the audience, it’s the show’s dedication to exploring its large supporting cast of characters that makes this something special.  

MVP: the casting directors, for filling the prison with real, believable women instead of Hollywood starlets.  

 

Girls – Season 2 (HBO)

Lena Dunham’s divisive, controversial, look at the lives of four young women navigating life in Brooklyn, is in many ways the anti-Sex and the City, more interested in ugly truths than easy trend-setting. Her characters are often selfish, tactless, insecure and hurtful, yet always compelling, and often very, very funny. It’s perhaps the most accurate account of what being young and broke in New York City is like, and how painful and confusing it can be to figure out our own identity while we’re so busy presenting one to a world that demands us to be fully formed in order to meet it. And it’s fascinating to watch such a young writer-performer develop her voice, sometimes stumbling, but always bravely reaching to create art that rings true.  

MVP: Lena Dunham, for her fearlessly authentic nudity onscreen, to the dismay of internet body fascists everywhere.  

 

Honorable Mentions

Homeland S2 was a ton of compulsive fun, if guilty of a few ridiculous plot twists too many (Wi-Fi dispensed heart attack? Come on now). Treme S3 was as enjoyable and affectionate a trip to New Orleans as ever, if a tad meandering. House of Cards was compelling and entertaining, if not quite as smart as it wanted to be. Veep S2  was a blast of great satire, but more of a dessert than a main course.

HBO’s ‘True Detective’ Should Make Winter Extra-Gritty

With Breaking Bad and Dexter both on their way out for good, and True Blood nearly wrapped up as well, premium cable is going to be hurting for both outlandish crime potboilers and a dose of Southern Gothic ooze. By all indications, HBO will be filling the void with True Detective, a drama series starring Matthew McConaughey alongside Woody Harrelson—one cool thing about the “Golden Age of TV” is that every A-lister seems to want a show of their own. 

Yes, it’s another of those unraveling-an-unspeakable-secret-in-a-rural-or-small-town stories, somewhat in the tradition of Top of the Lake, as well as The Killing, the Red Riding trilogy, BBC’s The Edge of Darkness, and Twin Peaksgoing back finally all the way to The Wicker Man, whose cultish overtones are apparent in the creepy Blair Witch­-like folk art we see dangling from trees in this clip. But we ought not to let this clear lineage—nor the reality of McConaughey being out of his depth against an actor like Harrelson (only one of these guys would show up in a Coen brothers movie)—depreciate our love for gory, unsettling mysteries.
 
 
And there does seem to be a promising twist on this familiar material: the two leads are pursuing their Louisiana serial killer over the course of seventeen years—well, actually, think Zodiac—and the show will have the multiple timelines to flesh that out. In the preview, for example, we see what appears to be a flash-forward to a slightly drunk McConaughey telling other cops the whole sordid story. A promising framing device, we hope, and not some more Lost-style shenanigans. Either way, we’re in for a TV show’s TV show.     

‘Top of the Lake’ Is Top-Notch

Can’t wait till cable’s titillating Sunday primetime? Run out of things to stream on Netflix? Not if you haven’t torn through BBC miniseries Top of the Lake yet. And don’t get turned off by the news that it’s about a detective pushed to her breaking point in investigating a mysterious crime that tears a small, rural community apart—I made it exactly one episode into The Killing before ditching that borefest, so this show must have done something right.

 
It doesn’t hurt that it’s set in New Zealand, either—that accent! Even the American star, Elisabeth Moss (you may remember her from that other TV series that went horribly off the rails halfway through its run? What was that called again? Mad Money?) is flaunting the regionally appropriate vowel sounds, thanks to a full-time dialect coach. Also, I’m still creeped out by almost every scene, especially those featuring the menace of Trainspotting‘s Peter Mullan. Also: pretty mountains to look at.
 
Oh, and how often is a suspenseful, chilling crime plot intercut with scenes at a makeshift women’s commune that operates out of a bunch of shipping containers? With a brutally non-mystic cult leader, played by Holly Hunter, sitting a rocking chair of judgment? That’s what I thought. All in all, it’s a bit like Red Riding 1974, only you keep expecting someone to walk into the Black Lodge from Twin Peaks: enough to keep you busy until Walt and Nucky and Dexter come back.

Jane Campion Talks About Her New Zealand-Set Mystery Miniseries, ‘Top of the Lake’

In a world full of Law and Orders and CSIs, the story of a pregnant twelve-year-old’s disappearance and the female detective obsessed with finding her isn’t a particularly shocking premise. What is surprising about Top of the Lake, a seven-part miniseries that premiered on Sundance Channel on Sunday evening, is the woman behind the project: Jane Campion, who is best known for films like The Piano, for which she received an Oscar for Best Screenplay and a nomination for Best Director. Campion, who co-wrote the series with longtime collaborator Gerald Lee, brings the mystical vibes of her native New Zealand to the West, and along for the ride are American actors Elizabeth Moss and Holly Hunter.

I spoke with Campion over the phone recently about her process as a director and how working in an unfamiliar medium allowed her room to explore a longer, full story.

What drew you to the medium of television to tell a story rather than a feature film?
It’s pretty simple: time and space. I think the current situation… I wanted to tell a story that would take about six hours, and I wanted the space to develop those characters and have longer scenes. The novel is probably my favorite form [of storytelling], and the idea of a six-hours series is as close to a novel as I can imagine. I also think there’s a lot of freedom right now in telling stories on television; we were commissioned by BBC 2, whose charter is to work with filmmakers and take risks and be adventurous. They kind of said to me, “Do it if you want and make it as long as you like!” So I told my writing partner [Gerald Lee], “We better do something wild!”

I know you’ve worked in television before at the beginning of your career. Did you worry, after dedicating your work to feature films, about returning to this format? Was it an easy transition?
I certainly felt more relaxed. I knew that what we were going to do, if we did our best, would be pretty good television, and I say that knowing that the bar is very high for TV these days. The most difficult thing for me, really, was the schedule. We had to do ninety minutes in about four and a half weeks, so it was very fast going. I’m used to taking twice as long. [Laughs] But my crew definitely helped me move along. We were just, like, running the whole time. I didn’t have time to chat with the crew; we worked together for several weeks and I have no idea what was going on in their lives!

Was it the same amount of time you’d usually spend on a two-hour film project, only with a seven-hour series?
What was interesting to me is that we were pretty divided and working on different parts. My co-director, Garth Davis, was there doing his episodes, which gave me some time off. Even though there was a fast schedule, we still had time to take breaks. What really puts me off doing television in general is the horrible schedules and the fact that you can’t produce anything interesting in that time because you’re trying not to fall over. I think that’s the problem with most TV—shooting is so fast, that’s the standard.

The strange thing with television is that there’s a very broad idea that a series creator wants to pursue, but a story can go all over the place in such a collaborative environment. Was having a second director working with you a challenge?
It was a bit scary! [Laughs]

To put your story in someone else’s hands like that?
Yes. But the thing with Garth is that he’s a very enthusiastic, great director. I learned a few lessons from him. I’d watch him and think, “Oh, that’s awesome!” He loved the material, and that made me feel great, and he also said in such plain terms, “I’ll do anything you want. Tell me how to divide the work up and I’ll do anything you tell me.” There was no ego. I did want to look after him, as well; he hadn’t done much drama. But I do think he’s one of the best commercial directors in Australia. He’s got a great personality and sensibility. He is also a fantastic photographer—we gave him a lot of landscape work because no one can do it better. To answer your question more directly, I was a bit nervous about how he might handle the more complicated tones of the piece. But we workshopped quite a bit and I was comfortable that he wouldn’t make it too broad and keep it very real.

The setting became its own character in a way. In American culture, there’s not much of an awareness for New Zealand beyond The Lord of the Rings, in which it’s more of a stand-in for a more fantastical world. Did you want to bring an awareness for New Zealand to a wider audience, to see it existing as the way you see it?
In a way, yes. I thought Peter Jackson did a great job with those films. I certainly love the wilderness and that area of the world—it’s sort of the end of the earth. I’m very affected by it, the atmosphere of being there. I think a lot of the crew even felt a culture shock when they got back to the rest of the world. I’ve been to Iceland, too, and there’s a similar feeling there. It’s quite a similar culture.

It reminded me a little bit of the Pacific Northwest, even with a bit of a Twin Peaks vibe to it. I thought it was an interesting place to set the series since it sets a tone even for the characters’ personalities, as well.
They’re people on the edge: people who like to run the world themselves. They’re outsiders. It’s also the mentality of grasping for a paradise. Everyone is very sensitive to the beauty of the place, no matter how raw or rough it is.

After working on a larger narrative like this, do you plan on doing more longer projects? Do you want to balance this sort of work with shorter, feature-length films?
I’m ready to get back to those shorts. [Laughs] In terms of directing, yes, it’s a lot of work. I don’t know how to do things at half-pace. Even a three-hour film is a lot of work, because once you’re done shooting you have to do all the post-production. But I was thinking that I would love to work with Gerald again. We had so much fun writing this, and I’d love to work on another project together, and maybe I wouldn’t direct it or would only direct one episode. I also enjoyed working with Gus, and I can see the opportunity of working with other directors quite happily. But for now I’m really thinking of taking a break. [Laughs]

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