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5 Great Series With Criminally Underrated Craft Work, From ‘Big Little Lies’ to ‘Transparent’

Here's five great shows, from Netflix to network, that aren't usually considered for their craft — but man, they should be.

"Big Little Lies"

“Big Little Lies”


When it comes to awards, below the line nominations often go to the boldest and most obvious examples of craft. The inventive red robes are the iconic image of the dystopian world of “The Handmaid’s Tale.” The lavish sets and intricate set dressings of real locations capture the grandeur of royal life in “The Crown.” The evocative fantasy world and epic battles are VFX creations that make “Game of Thrones” like no other show on television.

All of these are elements of craft that are worthy of recognition – except, this year “Game of Thrones” won’t be back until July and that means someone else will take home a VFX trophy. More importantly, there are plenty of other examples of below-the-line artistry that are less obvious by design, and play an equally important role in storytelling.

READ MORE: How ‘The Americans’ Turns Brooklyn Into an ’80s World of D.C. Espionage, All on a Basic-Cable Budget

Here are five hidden craft that are worth considering:

“Big Little Lies”: On the Edge of a Cliff

Big Little Lies

“Big Little Lies”

Screen Shot

With each new episode of HBO’s limited series “Big Little Lies,” the tension mounts and a sense of doom becomes more imminent. Literally and figuratively, the characters live perched on a cliff. Director Jean-Marc Vallée’s compositions keep the ocean in the frame. He even delineates each character’s home and their story based on its relationships to the sea.

It’s a nice visual motif that’s incredibly effective, but for anyone who has ever pointed a camera outside at the ocean while standing indoors, it is incredibly difficult to expose for both. Low-budget films that try this are often forced to rely on second-unit shots as cutaways, or staging exterior scenes to establish an oceanside locality. And yet this limited series, one that required a fast-moving production and needed lighting schemes to support a hefty drama with big stars in the foreground, managed to keep the gorgeous wind-spurned bay everpresent.

Obviously, green screen and visual effects were used, but in talking to the show’s VFX supervisor Marc Cote I was surprised how wrong I was about which locations are real versus CGI. His collaboration with cinematographer Yves Bélanger in figuring out how to map out and control light is remarkable. Each scene has a real sense of a time of day and mood created by exterior light. The results are seamless and incredibly evocative.

READ MORE: ‘Documentary Now!’: The Secrets to Recreating Film History the Right Way

The Technological Futures of “Black Mirror

Bryce Dallas Howard in "Black Mirror."

Bryce Dallas Howard in “Black Mirror”

David Dettmann/Netflix

Each of the six episodes of the third season of “Black Mirror” has its own look. Each is a different world, location, cast, director, cinematographer, and production team. Beyond the two showrunners, Charlie Brooker and Anabel Jones, the only connective tissue between episodes is the production design team — ironically, to ensure that each episode has its own distinct look, which is the exact opposite of what’s normally asked of a designer.

Series designer Joel Collins and his team created a mansion that becomes a trippy haunted house for “Playtest,” the campy rose-colored world of “Nosedive,” and the blue-pink sun-drenched ’80s beach party town of “San Junipero.” In essence, they designed six different movies, doing an incredible job with each, in the time it take to shoot six episodes of a television show.

At the center of Black Mirror’s future world is how technology wreaks havoc. The trick for the design team is to create devices that seem like they are part of a tangible future, but robust enough to drive the sci-fi plot.

Take Bryce Howard’s translucent iPhone-like device in “Nosedive.” Her social-media obsession is the crux of the story, and both the user interface and device are something you can completely believe Apple would produce in 10 years.

READ MORE: ‘Black Mirror’: Why Charlie Brooker Wrote ‘San Junipero’ To Screw with His Netflix Critics

The Intimate Camera of “Transparent” and “I Love Dick”

Kathryn Hahn "I Love Dick"

Kathryn Hahn in “I Love Dick”

Amazon Studios

Both of Jill Soloway’s Amazon shows have an incredible sense of intimacy. The flawed characters are often fully exposed in emotionally messy situations. It is a testament to the risk-taking cast, unique writing, and collection of great directors — which includes people like Andrea Arnold and Kimberly Peirce – that it works so well, and is funny to boot.

Next page: The rhythms of “Rectify” and the ensemble grace of “This Is Us”

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