IMHO: Cinematic TV Shows that Pushed the Boundaries of Story Telling (That Aren’t Game of Thrones)

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Ask anyone about a “cinematic TV show” and the first thing that pops into everyone’s mind is Game of Thrones. Rightfully so, the show has seemingly defied the boundaries of television and has made itself feel less like a TV series and more like a blockbuster fantasy movie franchise.

But despite its well-deserved applause, other TV shows have also displayed the kind of cinematic approach to television that GoT has.

True Detective Season 1

Part classic whodunit, part Southern-gothic tale, True Detective season 1 was one of those genre-blending instant-classics that took the weirdness of Twin Peaks and the darkness of Luther and created amazing television. It’s these influences that gave the show its unique cinematography that was atmospheric and brooding, perfect for its metaphysics-driven story and dialogue. Rusty Cohle’s ramblings of arcane philosophical concepts were strange at first, but the show’s unique, slow-burn storytelling adjusted the lens one episode at a time, putting everything into focus by the season’s harrowing end.

The visuals of this show were simply breathtaking. Adam Arkapaw, the show’s genius DOP, was able to bring out a raw and visceral nature to a Louisiana summer: oppressively hot, with an unpleasant humidity that permeated through your denim shirt to give you pit stains. Meanwhile, Cary Fukunaga’s approach to action can put most modern action films to shame. Simultaneously explosive and elegiac, sharp but nauseating, True Detective Season 1’s action scenes were dazzling without sacrificing story. Combining Arkapaw’s cinematography and Fukunaga’s direction gave the show a timeless feel, a kind of fever dream that is both unsettling and disorienting, just how mysteries ought to be.

Show creator Nic Pizzolatto crafted the story carefully throughout the years, with every movement on-screen done deliberately to set into motion plot points in the coming episodes. His use of pulp fiction tropes was made fresh with the use of occult imagery and ideas, giving new life to a tired genre. Don’t be fooled by the first episode’s typical-dead-girl storyline; it’s all a ruse to hook you into a careful unraveling throughout eight episodes that explores the tedium of police work and the fragility of Man itself.

Everything about this show’s first season is cinematic: from its novelistic storyline to its visual storytelling, True Detective Season 1 wouldn’t be out-of-place in the visual library of Cinema’s greatest hits.

Black Mirror

One of the main reasons why technology is now giving me major heebie-jeebies, Netflix’ Black Mirror is the perfect example of contemporary sci-fi translated into the small screen. A bit of a bold statement, but there is perhaps no show out there right now that is as stylistic, unpredictable, aesthetically stunning, and as disturbing as Black Mirror.

It’s hard to pin down a specific episode that embodies cinematic visuals, although San Junipero’s take on the 80’s aesthetic comes very close, but every self-contained episode in the series deftly blurs the genre-defining qualities of horror, technothriller, science fiction, and satire into each other, creating uniquely styled episodes that defy a strict definition.

The eclectic nature of the episodes, however, is unified by a single theme: digital technology and how it affects not just our daily life but our society as a whole. The term “Black Mirror” is itself a reference to an unlit computer screen, forcing us to see ourselves through a mirror darkly within the context of a digital landscape that is redefining our humanity.

In as much as the science fiction sought to incorporate the technological advances of the industrial revolution as positive changes to society, Black Mirror seeks to do the opposite: it questions the digital revolution as a detriment to humanity using our contemporary experiences to project possible futures.

This type of anthology story-telling is nothing new, with The Outer Limits and Twilight Zone prefacing Black Mirror by a few decades. The creators of Black Mirror, however, are aware of this, and use the older shows as a reference point, a north star, that they can steer to, and occasionally from. Where The Outer Limits and Twilight Zone questioned present anxieties like communism and the evolution of the nuclear family, so Black Mirror seeks to delve further into the current disquiet brought about by social media, digital currencies, and the increasingly complex technologies that are dominating our lives.

Breaking Bad

In the future, I will personally lobby for dictionaries to add Breaking Bad into their definition of suspense. No other show has the ability to put together scenes, episodes, and even entire story arcs, of sheer, suspenseful action that is almost unbearable, if not for its satisfying pay-offs. Indeed, Breaking Bad’s cinematic approach to suspense has been one of its defining legacies, and an aspect that has kept viewers loyal to the show despite its ending.

Beyond the suspense, however, lies Breaking Bad’s finest creation: Walter White. The high-concept treatment of Walter’s story arc from mild-mannered high school teacher to extremely dangerous drug lord has been praised over and over again for its meticulous attention to detail, dramatic turn of events, and a tragic narrative that makes people side with a mass-murdering villain. The slow transformation is bolstered only by the show’s sloth-like unraveling of White’s plans, the slow pacing broken only by cascading catastrophes that range from poolside massacres, drug overdoses, plane crashes, a run-in with Mexican cartels, and more (yes more!).

It’s this perfect balance between glacial buildups and pedal-to-the-metal climaxes that set a gold standard for cinematic storytelling in television today. Along with that, Breaking Bad also delves deeper into the psyche of the anti-hero, crafting a character so painfully human, it makes viewers guilty for cheering on Heisenberg. It also explored the idea of the “Angry White Man” trope, but above celebrating it, Breaking Bad chose to dissect it. Where once the AWM was victim, here Breaking Bad showed him as anamoral villain of his own making, a victim of his own machinations against an equally oppressive system.

Breaking Bad combines meticulous story-telling, expert pacing, and sheer human tragedy to bring audiences through a rollercoaster of emotions that will leave them cheering, gasping, condemning, celebrating, oohing, and aahing Walter White in the breath of a single episode.

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