In the first podcast Dan Fienberg and I ever recorded, I said perhaps the dumbest thing I ever have as a critic: “TV is not a visual medium.”
The point I was very clumsily attempting to make was that, while TV very clearly was and always will be a visual medium, the fast-paced nature of television production meant that few directors had the time, resources, or motivation to aim for anything but the most basic images: master shot, two shot, close-up, close-up, two shot, end scene, as quickly and as painlessly as possible. Don’t worry about anything fancy; just get it done so we can move onto the next one. Occasionally, a show like Miami Vice, Twin Peaks, or X-Files would have a more ambitious visual style, but it really wasn’t until The Sopranos, Mad Men, and, especially, Breaking Bad (the show Dan and I were discussing when I made that dumb comment) that the floodgates opened and TV as a whole aspired more consistently to visuals beyond the bare minimum.
We’ve come so far in so short a period of time, thanks to both a wave of feature directors moving to the small screen and TV veterans being given permission to try shots they once fantasized about. Remember how nuts everyone went over the True Detective oner (a long scene either shot in a single take, or edited to look like it was) back in 2014? It feels like half the dramas on cable and streaming did oners this year — including an entire Mr. Robot episode done in that style — and in many cases they were barely noticed, because people have come to accept that this is a thing TV does now.
One of my favorite pop culture commentary traditions of late has been Kris Tapley’s annual look at the year’s best movie shots. (His 2017 piece is in progress; this is last year’s.) After I mused recently on Twitter about a shot from the finale of Godless, and where it fit in a continuum of remarkable TV images from 2017, I realized there was an opportunity to do a TV version of that list.
This won’t be quite as strictly about cinematography as what Kris covers so eloquently each year. Many of the images chosen below are there for the beautiful composition, but others owe as much to the visual effects, or to make-up and costuming choices. Some are still frames; others are gifs. And even at 15 shots (not presented in any particular order, other than which ones came to mind first), this only scratches the surface of a year that proved, over and over again, that not only is TV a visual medium, but a visually adventurous one.
(Many spoilers obviously follow.)
From The Leftovers‘ “G’Day Melbourne”
Director: Daniel Sackheim
Director of photography: Robert Humphreys
Carrie Coon described the amount of water it took to pull off this shot, where a hotel sprinkler system created the tears that Nora Durst couldn’t shed over the end of her relationship with Kevin Garvey, as feeling “like getting hit with a firehose.” Sometimes, you have to suffer for art this beautiful.
From Twin Peaks: The Return‘s “Part 8”
Director: David Lynch
Director of photography: Peter Deming
I limited myself to only one shot per series, or else a good chunk of this list would be images from The Return, which even when it was driving me up a wall narratively always looked amazing. Heck, Lynch and Deming managed to make an establishing shot of the Manhattan skyline — among the most cliche images in all of cinema — look alien and disturbing! For that matter, an atomic bomb’s mushroom cloud has become pretty familiar over the years, yet this sequence — which runs over four minutes as we push closer and closer into the cloud in search of the evil at the center of it — looked like nothing ever shown on TV before, with the monolith sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey being its closest spiritual ancestor.
From Better Call Saul‘s “Chicanery”
Director: Daniel Sackheim
Director of photography: Marshall Adams
Sackheim had himself a pretty great year, didn’t he? Saul, like Breaking Bad before it, is always one of TV’s best-composed series, and always in a way where the visuals are supporting the characters and theme. Case in point: at the end of a courtroom hearing where Jimmy McGill not only exposes his brother Chuck’s alleged electrical allergy as a mental illness, but that Chuck has been pursuing a petty vendetta against him, the room’s exit sign (the one electrical item that couldn’t be turned off for the hearing) looms incredibly large over this once-mighty man who has been revealed to be very small and powerless.
From Legion‘s “Chapter 7”
Director: Dennie Gordon
Director of photography: Dana Gonzales
The first of two Noah Hawley shows on this list, and one of many series from the list where I could have thrown a dart at a wall covered with still frames, blindfolded, and hit something remarkable. Ultimately, I settled on this shot from the “Bolero” sequence (that season’s creative peak) of Aubrey Plaza’s Lenny in full silent horror movie regalia, advancing on the prey she has trapped in the astral plane. Looking at it still gives me goosebumps.
From Godless‘s “Homecoming”
Director: Scott Frank
Director of photography: Steven Meizler
Frank’s better known as a screenwriter, but most of what was striking about his Netflix miniseries was on the visual side of things, where he and Meizler presented a series of lush, classically-composed Western vistas. He leaned a bit too much on lens flare at times, but when that led to this image from the climactic shootout, can you blame him?
From Mr. Robot‘s “Runtime Error”
Director: Sam Esmail
Director of photography: Tod Campbell
I spoke at length with Esmail about how he pulled off an episode-length oner. This sequence, where the camera tilts up 90 degrees to follow Angela as she’s pursued by rioters, was among the most challenging, and most impressive.
From Halt and Catch Fire‘s “Who Needs a Guy”
Director: Tricia Brock
Director of photography: Evans Brown
Please pause while Halt fans reach for the tissue box. Gordon’s death is designed to sneak up on the audience as being exactly that, and it’s not until we see the light flickering over his shoulder — his life literally flashing before his eyes in the last moments before his neurological condition takes him — that the devastating truth of it becomes so painfully clear.
From I Love Dick‘s “Ilinx”
Director: Andrea Arnold
Director of photography: Jim Frohna
The female gaze in action. Whenever Dick star Kathryn Hahn appears in her underwear, or less, it’s presented matter-of-factly, where the camera positively drools over Kevin Bacon no matter what he’s wearing or doing — in this case, shearing a lamb in the middle of the street, as part of one of Hahn’s erotic fantasies — to better convey the hold he’s taken over her imagination.
From Girls‘ “American Bitch”
Director: Richard Shepard
Director of photography: Tim Ives
Shepard shoots much of “American Bitch” in tight compositions, focusing on the cat-and-mouse game between Matthew Rhys’ celebrity author and Hannah Horvath, who suspects him of sexually harassing women. Rhys reveals his true, disgusting self before the episode’s over, and for this final metaphor of a shot, we pull way back to see just how many women have walked right into his trap.
From Better Things‘ “White Rock”
Director: Pamela Adlon
Director of photography: Michael Alden Lloyd
Sam Fox takes her three obnoxious daughters up to Canada to visit her aunt and uncle, and the scenery provide a calming influence on all four of them, even as Sam is uncovering a dark family secret and youngest daughter Duke finds herself in the middle of a ghost story. The visuals have to do a ton of the heavy lifting to establish the changing mood of the piece, and this shot of Duke — reacting to what may or may not be the spirit of the aunt Sam never knew she had — beautifully conveys a lot of it.