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The Most Stunning TV Shows That Deserve the Emmy for Cinematography — IndieWire Critics Survey

From the genius of David Lynch's "Part 8" to the moodiness set forth by "Atlanta" and "The Handmaid's Tale," these are the most beautifully shot TV shows.

Twin Peaks Part 8

Suzanne Tenner/SHOWTIME


Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Tuesday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best show currently on TV?” can be found at the end of this post.)

This week’s question: Which series should win for best cinematography at the Emmys? This includes nominated series or anything you think had been snubbed. All genres apply.

Allison Keene (@KeeneTV), Collider

There are many wonderful nominees in all of the cinematography categories this year, including the work done on “Atlanta’s” exceptional “Teddy Perkins”, “Mozart in the Jungle’s” meditative “Ichi Go Ichi E,” and of course the rapturous “Blue Planet II.” But for me, “Twin Peaks'” “Part 8” towers above them all. Even if you didn’t know what to do with the rest of “Twin Peaks,” or even actively disliked it, “Part 8” stood on its own as an exercise in gorgeous, strange, scary, haunting imagery. The visuals were the thing here — it mattered less what they meant than how you felt when experiencing them. It was more of a Rorschach test than an episode of television, but as an episode of television it was unlike anything ever seen before. Most of the season’s most memorable moments came from that hour, rightfully so, because those bizarre and sometimes beautiful figures will be burned into your mind forever. We have had so much good TV to celebrate in the past year, but “Part 8” was truly a special, singular experience.


Clint Worthington (@alcohollywood), Consequence of Sound, Freelance

While the critical adoration around FX’s “Legion” has justifiably cooled (that second season was a mess), it’s hard to deny that Noah Hawley’s superhero mind game remains one of the most visually daring and experimental shows on TV. There’s a quirky sense of humor to “Legion’s” bold, Kubrickian formalism, especially when it contrasts with moments of pure music-video pop like David’s psychic dance-offs with the Yellow King, or the sight of a giant pink drain plug in the middle of the desert. The show’s cinematographers (including “Fargo” alum Dana Gonzalez, Polly Morgan and others) play brilliantly with color and choreography, always going for the most interesting frame, or the most playful disorientation of the viewer’s senses. In every single frame, “Legion” pushes the envelope for what genre shows can look and feel like. For Season 3, let’s hope the show’s writing and characterization catches up to that sense of experimentation.

Liz Shannon Miller (@lizlet), IndieWire

There were some really beautiful moments in the latest season of “Westworld” — the way in which the finale played with aspect ratios and reality to capture all these different levels of reality was fascinating. That’s not the episode nominated this year — instead, voters chose to recognize “The Riddle of the Sphinx,” which, fair. But there were a lot of visual delights to accompany the violence of Season 2.

Kaitlin Thomas (@thekaitling), TVGuide.com

It’s not even eligible this year, but the answer is “Better Call Saul.” The answer every year is “Better Call Saul” because that show is visually striking. It is the most beautifully filmed show on the face of the planet. I mean, have you seen “Better Call Saul”? This is a genuine question for everyone, because I don’t think Emmy voters have seen “Better Call Saul.” Sure, it’s been nominated for a number of Emmys, but it’s never won. That is outrageous! The show is just as good as “Breaking Bad”! Why is no one pouring Emmys down the throats of the folks who work on “Better Call Saul”? I guess this is the point in my rant where I have to point out that the Emmys never rewarded “Breaking Bad” for cinematography either, and how that might be the single most egregious snub in Emmys history. Is everyone blind? IS EVERYONE INSANE?

"Better Call Saul"

Alan Sepinwall (@sepinwall), Rolling Stone

It’s “Better Call Saul,” obviously. Wait, what’s that you say? It’s not only not nominated, but wasn’t up for this year’s Emmys because it didn’t air any episodes during the eligibility window? Okay, fine, but the Academy’s failure to even nominate it during the three years in which it was eligible — on top of Emmys’ staggering inability to award “Breaking Bad” in this category — is absurd and disappointing. If it takes honoring the show in a year in which it’s technically ineligible to right this historical wrong, so be it.

As for the actual nominees, there’s a lot of great work here, from the colorful late ’50s look of “Mrs. Maisel” to the continued horrible beauty of “The Handmaid’s Tale.” (There’s also the muted, visually bland “Ozark,” but that’s a rant for another day.) But I’d love to see the award go to Dana Gonzales for the way he kept bringing Noah Hawley’s trippy “Legion” imagery to such haunting, vivid, and somehow real life. On a story level, I had a lot of complaints about “Legion” this year, but I kept with it because Gonazales and the show’s directors made sure it was never less than fascinating to simply look at.

Jacob Oller (@JacobOller), Paste

It has to be “Atlanta.” You could pick any episode of the dark comedy’s second season and the Donald Glover show would bring so many staggering images that half the time you forget you’re only on the hook for half an hour of late night comedy and not a two-and-a-half hour piece of arthouse surrealism. But the episode it’s been nominated for – the spooky “Teddy Perkins” – captures a grim, floral, pastel take on a shattered fantasy living inside a shadowy mansion. Cinematographer Christian Sprenger paints the inside of the Michael Jackson-esque Perkins’ manor with the same amount of unreality as Glover’s porcelain whiteface makeup. The different rooms all escalate the fear while existing in the same nightmare – which is briefly and hilariously hammered home when the episode cuts outside the bubble to the rest of the cast, discussing Sammy Sosa. It’s a weird and wonderful episode in a lot of ways, but the look and feel of it put it in a category of its own.

ATLANTA Robbin' Season -- "Teddy Perkins" -- Season Two, Episode 6 (Airs Thursday, April 5, 10:00 p.m. e/p) Pictured: Teddy Perkins as Himself. CR: Guy D'Alema/FX

“Teddy Perkins,” Season Two, Episode 6

Guy D'Alema/FX

April Neale (@aprilmac), Monsters & Critics

My picks are cinematographer P.J. Dillon, who blew me away with Showtime’s “Penny Dreadful” for the current work on TNT’s “The Alienist,” one of my top shows of the year. The emotions that “The Alienist” evoked was thanks to his lensing and eye, as he made me feel like I was immersed in that world. His shots were profoundly moving, disorienting and horrific. Dana Gonzales, the cinematographer of FX’s “Fargo” and “Legion” is astounding me this year too. Those series are stylistically chalk and cheese yet mind-blowing in their visual storytelling. His lensing gives “Fargo” that intense connection to the characters with his wide-angle close-ups and those forlorn frigid vistas. For “Legion” his work makes you feel the narrator is unreliable in his recall, a huge plot point within the story. Both efforts are an artistic visual feast and grand in their execution.

Daniel Fienberg (@TheFienPrint), The Hollywood Reporter

The snubbed shows seem to be the same in every category, so I’d want to salute the chilly alt-European mood of “Counterpart,” the all-around excellence of “Halt and Catch Fire” and “The Americans” and the gritty ’70s style of “The Deuce,” all of which should have been nominated over the underexposed murkiness of “Ozark.” But really, this is an easy one for me. No show since “Hannibal” has blended the painterly and cinematic as flawlessly as “Handmaid’s Tale.” Every shot is perfectly composed, popping with well-chosen color and precisely introduced light. The world is a nightmare, but the series is full of beauty. [“Twin Peaks” would be my pick in the limited/TV movie category and would be my co-answer here. The submitted episode, “Part 8,” is as close as mainstream television will probably ever come to Buñuel-style surrealism and it’s an absolute masterpiece.]

"The Handmaid's Tale"

Damian Holbrook (@damianholbrook), TV Guide Magazine

Of the nominees, I would give it to “Atlanta” for always making it feel like we’re there, in the humidity and heat of Georgia. I don’t know if it’s the long shots of abandoned lots or the sweaty vibe of the interiors, but every time I watch this show, I end up thinking that I spent time not just with the characters but actually inside their world. Of those snubbed, the fact that “Gotham” has been overlooked again blows my mind. For a show that films in New York and is set in a city based on New York, they have been able to shoot around some of the most iconic areas without it looking like we’re in Manhattan or the boroughs. The decrepit glamour, gooey-slick alleys and dark-knight of it all help it play more like a comic book than any other comic-book show, in large part because the visuals are consistently creative and extreme. We should all be lit and shot like Robin Lord Taylor in Penguin’s dingy-but-opulent nightclub.

Joyce Eng (@joyceeng61), GoldDerby

Of eligible contenders, my vote goes to “Godless” for capturing the wild, wild West’s gorgeous, sprawling vistas that dwarfed whatever was in the foreground. Now if we’re talking about ineligible shows, it is blasphemous that “Better Call Saul” has never even been nominated for cinematography. Are you guys drunk? “BCS’s” deliberate compositions, use of light, color and shadows, angles and dimensions, and off-kilter framing are unparalleled, and its whole visual palette is arguably better than “Breaking Bad’s” also swoon-worthy — but very different — look. “Breaking Bad” inexplicably never won cinematography despite six nominations, which is equally criminal (pun intended) and offensive. Yeah, the show that gave us this and this and this never won, but don’t worry, folks, at least “CSI” got one. (No shade — Michael Slovis DP’d both.)

"The Terror"

“The Terror”

Aidan Monaghan/AMC

Todd VanDerWerff (@tvoti), Vox

Boy, did you know the Emmys have six different categories for Cinematography? I mean, I’m sure I knew that somewhere in the recesses of my brain, but there really are six of them! Here are the winners I’d love to see in four of them!

I’d like to see “Atlanta’s” “Teddy Perkins” win for the half-hour single-camera comedy. There are few episodes of television from the past year that made as much of a meal out of the interplay of shadow and light than ol’ “Teddy,” and the final horrific moments of the episode would not have worked nearly as well without perfectly balanced shadows. The episode’s final moments, set outside the haunted mansion that houses its titular character, are almost garish in the depiction of natural light.

For the multi-camera half-hour category, I’m going to pick “The Ranch,” because “One Day at a Time” and “Carmichael Show” weren’t nominated, and “The Ranch” has a surprisingly robust, naturalistic look for a multi-cam.

For the hour-long single-camera category, I’ll probably go with “Handmaid’s Tale” again, though I was sorely tempted by “Westworld“ (which submitted one of its better episodes and another hour that made use of some unorthodox light sources). Still, there’s pretty much nothing visually that “Handmaid’s Tale” can’t do, and that extends to its already Emmy-winning cinematography.

But who am I kidding? The real winner should — nay, must — be “Twin Peaks” in the limited series/movie category, for the jaw-dropping work in “Chapter 8,” an episode that offered up a beautiful black-and-white vision of America’s slowly fraying image of itself. Go, “Peaks”!

(In the shoulda been nominated bucket, for each category, I call out “The Good Place,” “One Day at a Time,” “The Magicians,” and “The Terror.” Wow!)

Ben Travers (@BenTTravers), IndieWire

When it came to “Twin Peaks,” the Emmys messed up a lot this year — no nod for Kyle MacLachlan and they let in the freaking “Alienist” over “TP” for Best Limited Series — but they did get one thing exactly right: Peter Deming is nominated for Outstanding Cinematography for a Limited Series or Movie for “Part 8.” What a beauty; a largely black-and-white nuclear bomb of deep blacks blended with sudden pops of gold and silver. Even the way he captured the Woodsman elevated those creepy characters to instant cult HoF status; “Got a light?” turns wickedly sarcastic when directed to Deming’s gorgeous framings, and he better take home a gold statue to go with his gold orb come September 17.

Q: What is the best show currently on TV?*

A: “Better Call Saul” (seven votes)

Other contenders: “Sharp Objects” (two votes), “Big Brother,” “Detroiters,” “Making It”

*In the case of streaming services that release full seasons at once, only include shows that have premiered in the last month.

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