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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”

HBO

Between the direction and performance is the agile camera of cinematographer Jim Frohna, who has shot virtually every episode of both shows and has worked with Soloway since her feature debut, “Afternoon Delight.” Frohna lights the scenes to allow improvised movement, and his instinct for moving the camera to become an organic part of the scene is remarkable. These are skills that often are not rewarded in the same way as complicated camera moves or dramatic lighting; he also brings a level of intimacy and empathy to his work. Having created a bond with material and cast, he is part of the creative process in a way other DPs usually aren’t.  “Dick” star Kathryn Hahn once referred to him as the show’s “emotional script supervisor.”

READ MORE: The ‘Mr. Robot’ Experiment: Can a TV Show Be Shot Like an Indie Film?

The Ethereal Rhythms of “Rectify”

BTS, Aden Young as Daniel - Rectify _ Season 4, Episode 8 - Photo Credit: James Minchin/Sundance TV

“Rectify,” Season 4, Episode 8

James Minchin/Sundance TV

There’s a reason TV can feel repetitive. Making seven to 20 hours of a story at breakneck pace sometimes requires leaning on convention to keep a show moving forward and engaging. With audiences having over 400 scripted shows to choose from, boring is not an option. Therefore, it’s natural to rely too much on music cues to pull emotion, or over color-graded images to give a distinctly unified look, or standard coverage and cutting patterns to delineate and clarify story beats. Even if the stories being told are incredibly challenging, the film language needs a familiarity and comfort in its presentation.

In its this light, it’s important to take a moment to appreciate the rarity of the quiet, stripped-down, arrhythmic grace of “Rectify,” which ended with its fourth season this winter. The story of Daniel Holden’s (Aden Young) return to the world after 19 years in jail takes its formal cues from a damaged soul struggling to find a place in this world. With indie film-like direction from the likes of Keith Gordon, Jim McKay, Seith Mann, and David Lowery, scenes are allowed to naturally develop to find truth. The editing embraces awkwardness – placing us in Daniel’s headspace – and is allowed to be slow, using music (composed by Gabriel Mann) minimally and effectively. The cinematography of Patrick Cady is naturalistic and, when called for, embraces an ethereal, sunbathed moments to allow the show’s sense of hope and faith shine through when needed.

“Rectify,” which aired on SundanceTV, is like that quiet, offbeat indie gem you might find at the Sundance Film Festival, but somehow maintains that patience and trusts the story to maintain our engagement over 30 episodes, not 90 minutes.

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“This Is Us”: A Sense of the Family

"This Is Us," Episode 109

Sterling K. Brown, Chrissy Metz, Justin Hartley in “This Is Us”

Ron Batzdorff/NBC

There’s a moment at the end of the pilot where there is a surprising reveal about the how the episode’s three stories are interrelated. It’s a make-or-break moment for the show, because it’s then the audiences need to instinctively believe these people are family.

When we talk about casting, we often put too much emphasis on the quality of individual performance (“Mandy Moore is fantastic”) and matching physical traits (“they totally look like brother and sister”) than we do on the art of the ensemble. Constructing a group of actors who can both complement each other and establish a familial rhythm is one of the hardest jobs for a casting director. This is particularly difficult for network TV, where the emphasis is often on getting recognizable faces willing to make long-term commitments. “This is Us” also presents unique challenges of trying to build family from a diverse array of archetypes: the sister struggling with obesity (Chrissy Metz), the brother actor struggling with soap-opera good looks (Justin Hartley), their Type-A adopted brother (Sterling K. Brown), his down-and out-biological father (Ron Cephas Jones) and the earthy parents whose story is set in the past (Milo Ventimiglia and Mandy Moore).

The alchemy by the show’s original casting directors Tiffany Little Canfield and Bernard Telsey is remarkable because it works despite there being little on the surface we can associate with a family bond.  There are individual performances worth considering from this show, but it’s the ensemble that needs rewarding.

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