Thursday, May 18, 2017

Small-Screen Swagger: Six Shows Stretching the Boundaries of TV

Aubrey Plaza going bonkers in FX's "Legion"
Television used to be a safe space. It was a repository for the comfortable and familiar: the family sitcom, the police procedural, the doctor show. After a long day, we settled on the couch to bask in the routine pleasures of our favorite weekly programs—chuckling along with the laugh track, racing to uncover the killer, wagering on the survival of the patient. We didn’t watch TV to be challenged or jostled. We watched it to be soothed.

Here’s a decidedly cold take: TV has changed. Over the past several decades—the point of origin is a matter of dispute, but most critics cite the launch of The Sopranos in 1999—television has transformed into a multi-headed hydra of prestige entertainment, teeming with hard-bitten dramas and historical epics and anarchic comedies. (It’s also grown more cinematic, but don’t worry: This is not one of those insufferable think-pieces declaring that TV is better than movies, or vice-versa. (For the record, the only correct answer to the question of “Which is better, movies or TV?” is “Yes”.)) As competition expands and delivery options multiply, showrunners are capitalizing on this land of digital opportunity, developing series that are bigger, costlier, and riskier than anything we’ve seen before on television.

This can only be a good thing. Not every huge new TV show is a huge success—for every Game of Thrones or The Americans, there’s a Vinyl or a Bloodline. But there’s a heretofore untapped vein of possibility to the medium now, the sense that the next mind-blowing series is just one click away. What’s particularly gratifying is that creators are seizing the moment and pushing TV into uncharted territory. Emboldened by their compatriots’ achievements, showrunners aren’t just telling bigger and better stories; they’re telling them in new and exciting ways.

What follows are a half-dozen programs that are especially noteworthy for their ambition: the way they use the classic format of the TV show—a series of individual episodes that gradually accumulate a greater and more cohesive power—for breathtakingly novel purposes. These aren’t necessarily the best shows on TV, but they are among the most audacious.

American Gods (Starz). As of this writing, Starz has only aired three episodes of American Gods, so it’s too early to assess its overall quality; thus far, the show is out-of-the-ordinary but not necessarily extraordinary, supplying a collection of astonishing vignettes that burnish a pedestrian central story. But even if American Gods never progresses beyond its current status as a glitzy and exotic head trip, it’s already a rewarding experience on several levels. To begin with, each of the first three episodes has opened with a seemingly isolated set piece that has no apparent connection to the main plot, instead introducing a new deity and exploring the strange relationship between gods and men. These short films—involving a warring clan of Vikings marooned on a barren spit of land, a band of Africans chained below deck on a slaver, and a recently deceased woman ascending to the afterlife with her cat—have all crackled with excitement and delirium, efficiently establishing specific predicaments while nourishing the show’s larger, more mysterious tone.

Beyond that, though, is the sheer visual panache accompanying that mystery. Before its untimely demise two years ago, Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal was the most lush show on TV, and he’s again making a claim on that title. American Gods has a heightened style that suits its pulpy material (the show is based on a popular Neil Gaiman novel), and Fuller is routinely going for broke, treating us to abstract montage, saturated colors, and hammers of rain that seem to pelt your living room floor. There’s a sex scene in the pilot that starts out as your typical premium-cable T&A, then morphs into something monstrous and beautiful. Going forward, American Gods will need to nestle that kind of flamboyance within more interesting storytelling, but right now, it’s impossible to look away.

Yetide Badaki in "American Gods"

Black Mirror (Netflix). Fear of technology is nothing new, in life or in art. But over 13 narratively distinct, thematically unified episodes, Black Mirror has given terrifying voice to the dystopian notion that we serve our machines rather than the other way around. It’s a richly imaginative series whose most terrifying trait is its realism. Every episode takes place in a different fictionalized universe that nevertheless feels like a logical extension of the digitized age, such as a world where people can constantly replay and obsessively dissect their own memories (think TiVo, but for the brain), or a society that has turned Yelp ratings into the ultimate form of currency. The anthology format yields creative dividends—showrunner Charlie Brooker can recruit terrifically talented actors who need only commit to a single episode—but it’s the sense of recognition that truly alarms. With each new mind-tickling hour—which we of course consume on our tablets and smartphones—Black Mirror starts to feel less like a TV series than a prophecy.

The Leftovers (HBO). The premise of The Leftovers alone—based on Tom Perrotta’s novel, it examines the aftermath of an unexplained supernatural event in which two percent of the world’s population suddenly disappeared—could qualify it for this list. But as the series has progressed, Damon Lindelof has grown bolder and more experimental in terms of structure. He continues to incrementally deepen the show’s mythology (all while raising far more questions than he answers), yet he also shifts point of view throughout, turning a sprawling serialized narrative into a chain of powerful, insular episodes. By design, The Leftovers can be maddening, because so can faith, grief, and life. By burrowing deeper into his characters—and by sharing the spotlight among them—Lindelof keeps his audience invested rather than exasperated. We’ll likely never know where the victims (the chosen?) of the Sudden Departure went, but what matters is that we know far more about those left behind.

Legion (FX). The superhero saga reached its saturation point long ago, so it’s fair to greet cries of “This isn’t your typical superhero show!” with skepticism. But seriously, this is not your typical superhero show. The brainchild of Noah Hawley (also the creator of the amazing Fargo), Legion is less an origin story than a weird, trippy mindfuck, exploring the psyche of a man who’s both gifted and diseased. It can be overwhelming in its early hours, with Hawley’s talent for memorable imagery rendering the narrative incoherent. But with its fourth episode, everything snaps into place, and Legion becomes the best of both worlds: a tense and disturbing character study that’s also a thrilling and dynamic adventure. There’s a fight scene in that episode that’s brilliantly choreographed, only one of the combatants actually shares some sort of mind/body meld with another character; as she cracks skulls, he finds himself pantomiming kicks and punches in a distant laboratory like a possessed dancer. On Legion, that kind of inspired lunacy is just another day at the superhero office.

Mr. Robot (USA). There are two levels to Mr. Robot’s uniqueness. The first is content. This is a strange, bracing, intently topical show, tapping into our collective fears with a precise combination of insight and paranoia. It’s the kind of series where James Comey’s name gets tossed around, where Bitcoins become gold, where amoral heads of malevolent corporations meet in secret to watch the world burn. This commitment to timeliness is refreshing and provocative. It could also be tedious, were it not for the second level: craft. Even if you roll your eyes at Mr. Robot’s manic anxiety and pseudo-profundity, you will be struck by Sam Esmail’s commanding sense of style. This series is a pure passion project, and Esmail is putting his creative stamp on everything, from the angular framing to the propulsive music to the long-simmering twists. It may be an emphatically modern show, but it also reinforces the age-old power of authorial vision.

Sense8 (Netflix). The other five shows on this list are all revolutionary to a certain degree, but Sense8 makes them look like downright orthodox. This is a show of truly staggering ambition, both in its concept and its execution. Watching it, I frequently marvel at just how the hell it was made, and I mean that both figuratively (“Who in their right mind green-lit this?”) and literally (“How the hell did they film this?”). Its premise is kind of simple and also completely insane: Eight different people around the world discover that they are somehow biologically connected, meaning they can “visit” one another at any time and even take control of each other’s bodies. This means that many scenes actually take place in at least two different locations simultaneously, with the editing flawlessly moving back and forth as the sensates (get it?) interact with one another and ponder the meaning of life or the question of identity or just how to get out of that cell. Virtually every scene on this show features some sort of bravura accomplishment, whether it’s a frantic action sequence where the characters constantly trade places or a quiet moment on a balcony where two women discuss the nature of love.

Perhaps the strangest thing about Sense8 is that it channels its incredibly imaginative conceit into a central storyline that isn’t very interesting. There’s a creepy villain called “Whispers”, and a nefarious corporation with lots of henchmen in Hazmat suits, and a dead Daryl Hannah who keeps popping up to deliver ominous warnings. I rarely understand exactly what’s going on. But I also rarely care. The characters’ individual predicaments may be dull, but whenever they interact with one another, Sense8 transforms into a downright giddy experience. I rattled off a number of these exceptional sequences back when I wrote up Season 1, but Season 2 ups the ante, bringing us an assault in a prison that has all of the characters scrambling for breath, or a trip to a pride parade of absolute jubilation, or a shootout in a restaurant where our heroes battle a different cluster of opposing sensates. Yet perhaps the moment that best personifies this show’s casual genius is a simple static shot of a single character pacing back and forth; one minute, she’s alone in the room talking to herself, and the next, as she strides across the frame, the camera reveals seven more bodies standing in the room with her, like it’s pulling away an invisibility cloak. Sense8 delivers stunning moments like that with startling regularity. It’s a show that might never make sense, but it also proves that, with the right combination of audacity and technique, nonsense can be glorious.

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