With The Coen Brothers and Nicolas Winding Refn about to drop shows, we look back on five genre-spanning TV shows that demonstrate movie directors flexing a different muscle
For many decades, the majority of TV shows were treated as mere entertainment fodder; something to collapse in front of after a hard day’s work. Of course, there were the occasional exceptions – a Sopranos or a Seinfeld – but when it came to motion picture art forms, cinema was the holy grail. However, the past few years have seen the medium enter a groundbreaking new era, thanks largely to Netflix and other on-demand services and the binge-watching culture they’ve cultivated. Where once television creators found themselves restricted by the need for simple plotlines to ensure that irregular viewers could keep up to speed, they now have a much broader spectrum for considered, in-depth storytelling without the fear of diminished audience figures.
Unsurprisingly, this revolution has seen an increasing number of filmmakers flock to the small screen, their interest piqued by the opportunity to expand upon their craft in fresh, unforeseen ways – and with much bigger budgets. This year alone has seen the announcement of forthcoming shows from The Coen Brothers and Nicolas Winding Refn, among others, while May marks David Lynch’s long-awaited return to TV for the third season of Twin Peaks. That said, there is no dearth of ingenious, filmmaker-helmed TV shows from the past with which to wet your appetite while waiting for the latest additions to arrive, and we’re not just talking about The Wire and True Detective. Here, we’ve picked five genre-spanning gems that demonstrate film directors at their long-form finest.
TOP OF THE LAKE
New Zealand filmmaker Jane Campion had her eyes opened to the possibilities of television in 2009 when she stumbled upon the HBO western series Deadwood. “[I thought], ‘This is the most exciting thing I’ve seen anywhere. There’s a revolution going on,’” she told The Telegraph. The Oscar-winning writer-director behind The Piano decided to take the plunge herself soon after, teaming up with Gerard Lee to script the acclaimed mystery drama Top of the Lake, which aired in 2013 and was directed by Campion alongside Garth Davis. Set in a small mountainside town in New Zealand, the masterful series tells the story of Detective Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss) who returns home to visit her dying mother and becomes embroiled in the investigation into the disappearance of a pregnant 12-year-old. In true Campion style, eerie, atmospheric cinematography and wonderfully complex female characters abound in what proves an unforgettable watch. Stay tuned for the second series, coming later in the year.
Olivier Assayas’ biopic of notorious terrorist “Carlos the Jackal” originally screened as a three-part television series in the Clouds of Sils Maria director’s native France, with an abridged version released in cinemas thereafter. While the five and a half hour, full-length version requires a bigger investment from its viewers, rest assured it’s well worth it. An incredibly stylish production, set to a brooding post-punk soundtrack, it stars a mesmerising Edgar Ramirez as the self-appraising assassin-turned-cultural-icon. The series paints a gripping and dynamic portrait of Carlos and his many facades, spanning his early days as a leftist activist newly recruited to the Popular Front for Liberation of Palestine; his infamous hijacking of the OPEC headquarters in Vienna (decked in a beret and leather jacket), and the extensive worldwide escapades he embarked upon thereafter, right up to his arrest in Sudan in 1994.
When visionary American director Robert Altman decided to turn his hand to television, it was always bound to be brilliant, but his 11-part mockumentary Tanner ‘88, conceived with Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau, exceeded expectations. A searing satire of media-age American politics, it follows liberal Democratic politician Jack Tanner (Michael Murphy) on his bid to secure his party’s nomination for President. To make the “behind-the scenes” series, Altman went guerilla, following the primaries to six different cities and shooting Tanner among the genuine candidates as if he were a real-life hopeful. The boundaries between fact and fiction are further blurred by appearances from political and media figures such as Jesse Jackson, Gary Hart, Bob Dole and Gloria Steinem, who comment, with straight faces, on Tanner’s campaign. A radically experimental work that is miles ahead of its time, Tanner ‘88 offers shrewd and witty insight into the machinations of the presidential elections, with many of its observations on the fictional nature of democracy more poignant today than ever before.
Cult Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro has dipped in and out of the television sphere since the early 00s, from his 2004 tele-documentary Miradas 2 to his most recent offering, the animated, fantasy series Trollhunters (2016). But arguably his most compelling work for TV is The Strain, a horror series based on his book trilogy of the same name, co-penned with mystery author Chuck Hogan. Del Toro is the show’s executive producer and co-creator and, although the only episodes he directed personally are the pilot and the season two prologue, each of the show’s three seasons thus far – the fourth and final one airs this summer – boast many of the traits that have earned the director his monster maestro status. It thrusts us into a world of contagion whereby a mystery virus has gripped New York City, masterminded by the descendents of an ancient vampiric line whose retractable proboscis shoot out from their mouths to insert capillary worms beneath their victims’ skin. Drafted in to investigate is epidemiologist Ephraim “Eph” Goodweather (House of Cards’ Corey Stoll) who must work to fight the vampires before it’s too late. Suspense, slime and bloody gore abound: this is not one for the squeamish but it sure makes for addictive viewing.
James Cameron’s first (and only fictional) foray into television was the brilliantly noughties sci-fi series Dark Angel, starring a young, black-leather-clad Jessica Alba as brooding heroine Max Guevara. Guevara is a genetically enhanced super-soldier who was born and raised in a secret military facility, codenamed Manticore, from which she, and a number of her peers, escaped as children shortly before a terrorist-triggered electromagnetic pulse plunged America into turmoil. Fast forward ten years and we find Guevara, now in her late teens, working for a messenger service in a post-apocalyptic Pacific Northwest. Her mission is simple: to avoid capture by the government agents determined to track her down and to seek out her fellow Manticore escapees, but its realisation proves far more difficult – even with the help of similarly aesthetically blessed cyber-journalist Logan Cale. Yes, the series feels a little dated 17 years on, but Dark Angel’s all-encompassing cyberpunk world (meticulously realised courtesy of a vast budget), feisty and quick-witted female protagonist and, for its time, daring plot line make it well worth the watch for fans of Cameron’s fantastical, futuristic conjurings. NB: The was cancelled after its second season, and season one is definitely the one to watch.