Once upon a time, television was the realm of poor acting and disenchanted directing and producing. It is said that long ago there was a Golden Age of television when wonderful shows as I LOVE LUCY, BONANZA or THE TWILIGHT ZONE actually changed the landscape, but that time had passed without much trace. All we had, then, was a bare scenery of superficiality and empty imagination. In those days we used to look at movies as the place for real dramatization and the home of talent. Very few actors with more than an ounce of self-respect and any ambition whatsoever would be caught playing for the small box and directors would get a better reputation creating video clips or commercials than working on television episodes. But then, something happened. Some would say that it was the advent of cable TV with its millionaire pay-offs or the prophecies of multiple channels and platforms in digital. However, another event comes to mind: suddenly, Writers became important. The figures of the Showrunners, Writers most of them, became warlords and noblemen. And then, as if by magic, the chains of mediocrity were destroyed and another Golden Age of television brought us a myriad of incredible and immensely talented shows. Legendary series as THE SOPRANOS or WEST WING surged from the shadows. And binge-watching was born with the likes of 24. Brilliant organizations as HBO and Netflix made history. Inevitably, as more and more shows target narrower and narrower niches, the Golden Age will slowly fade away. But let us enjoy its remnants while we can. As is my tradition, let me speak of a few shows I love, arranged in no particular order. I hope you like them as much as I do.
- GAME OF THRONES – I already talked about this incredible phenomenon here. I was already in love with this amazing story and characters well before it became a TV series. George R.R. Martin’s genius is apparent to anyone who passes their eyes through his texts. He dwarfs the likes of Tolkien or Rowling, in my view. And the series, worldbuilding in a massive unbelievable fashion, propelled him to stardom. It is a pity, of course, that Martin’s masterpiece wasn’t finished in the five years it took the series to catch up to the book’s storyline – I believe that as the screenwriters slowly replaced Martin himself, the quality of the plot diluted a bit. Maybe a lot. We still had brilliant writing, brilliant production design, and acting and directing until the end, but without the structure of Martin’s books, the producers were left to make poor plotting decisions that almost killed the series in the end. Still, it will be forever a phenomenon of the medium and the first of several HBO hits on this list.
- SHERLOCK – Steven Moffat, arguably one of the greatest TV writers of all time, signed what is perhaps the best adaptation of the novels of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle ever produced. The series design and Benedict Cumberbatch’s rendition of the sociopathic but genial detective overwhelm us with intelligence, balanced with the superb Watson of Martin Freeman and overshadowing forever the pathetic attempts of other movies and TV series to portrait these classical iconic heroes. Rarely have I seen genius so well represented and it is very difficult to keep your jaw from falling as you pursue the mysteries and conspiracies that come out of this series. And even if you feel obligated to focus on the brilliance of Cumberbatch and Freeman’s performances, and on the wonderful writing, we cannot miss the ever-talented directing that comes with it. We feel constantly one or two or ten steps behind Sherlock Holmes – as we should. And even the translation of the Victorian detectives to the modern age, with the clever adding of modern technology, does not break the link to Doyle’s novels. The different seasons, in the British tradition, are composed only by three or four movie-length episodes – but even if we spend only a few hours with this series, we will cherish every minute. Do not miss it.
- MR.ROBOT – The American response to the brilliance of SHERLOCK, Sam Esmail’s MR.ROBOT breaks some kind of mold. Extremely clever and profound, this series about a talented hacker involved in a powerful conspiracy to end the reign of oppressive massive corporations will blow your mind. The unbelievable Rami Malek gives life to this troubled and isolated hacker vigilante who always has a surprise up his sleeve. At each turn of the screw, we are left with more questions than answers but there is something extremely perturbing and relatable about the whole absurd story of Elliot Alderson, along with the surprising performance of Christian Slater. Still, what makes this show really powerful is the inspiring, creative and talented directing by Esmail. I really believe his name will become a household name in the near future, especially if he crosses the line into the realm of movies. He has a touch of Kubrick in him and his shots and solutions always feel a bit off and yet incredibly adequate.
- BAND OF BROTHERS – Here’s another show for the history books. Literally. It tells the true story of WWII’s 101st Airborn Division’s Easy Company as this group of ordinary men become extraordinary by doing their job in the intense theatre of the European War, from the invasion of Normandy through to Germany itself. Sponsored by the capable and iconic hands of Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, these 10 movie-length episodes use filming solutions we recognize in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN. The series is amazingly powerful, featuring also testimonies from the survivors of Easy Company themselves. With very few women through the whole thing, it is, however, one of the best war stories ever produced. It’s incredibly solid in every way. The directing, the music, the acting, the design, the producing, the cinematography: everything is top-notch in this 2001 HBO series.
- TRUE DETECTIVE – It is widely noted that this is a series that has been decreasing in quality since the outset. Each season is an isolated detective story and I do think that the third season, with Mahershala Ali and Stephen Dorff, is the lesser of the three so far. I liked the second season with Colin Farrel, Rachel McAdams and Vince Vaughn – the ending much better than the beginning, I must say. However, the season that made this series a legend was the first one: 2014’s season with Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson enacting a story by Nic Pizzolatto with the solemn and inspired directing of Cory Jojy Fukunaga. This first season was tense, heavy, challenging and finally extremely cathartic. An example of the exciting and fulfilling range of incredible TV shows of the current Golden Age.
There are a lot more shows that deserve mention, of course. It has been a privilege to witness this era of creativity in television, as we suffer the relatively bland products of the Hollywood movie business. As I said, let’s enjoy it while it lasts. There are already signs that the time of greats is passing. And this is all I have to say for tonight. See you around the next campfire, fellow travelers.