The two best shows–and the most visually stunning–I saw in 2014. From top to bottom, left to right: (1), (3), (5-7), Les Revenants (2012). (2), (4), (8-10), True Detective (2014). Both are getting second seasons in 2015. Both combine great storytelling with beautiful cinematography. Listen to Mogwai’s haunting soundtrack for Les Revenants while you look at these pictures. I wrote about the latter in March. It was originally aired in France in 2012, but picked up steam internationally in 2013 and began airing in Norway in early 2014, and the first episode hooked me and had me binge-watching online. I did the same for True Detective, watching all the episodes in quick succession shortly after the last one aired. I didn’t write anything about the latter, as I felt everything had already been said. It had one remarkable character in Rust Cohle, played to perfection by Matthew McConaughey, a strong supporting cast and a great mystery that I felt was perfectly resolved: leaving exactly the right kinds of threads dangling, the way real life works, while giving answers to the most pressing questions it conditioned the viewers into seeking. Very much unlike the quintessential modern show built around a mystery of some sort, Lost, which kept dangling loose ends and then tying them together not like a masterful weaver, but just someone who sort of bundles together a long piece of string and puts it away in a closet when they can’t work out how to untangle it.
Les Revenants had an ensemble cast of great characters, some more intriguing than others, each with their own episodes as the main point of view. Perhaps none as great as the nihilistic philosopher-cop turned hermit bartender in True Detective, but taken together I can’t say either series is lacking in character development. Its central mystery was only partially resolved, setting up for a season two, unlike season two of True Detective, which will work as an anthology series with different stories in each season. I feel like the mystery remaining unresolved, dangling, like a relationship that is not quite love and not quite friendship, is essential to that show keeping afloat, though, and I hope they don’t screw that up in season two.
What sets them apart from everything else, though, is their fantastic visuals. I briefly tried my hand at film this fall, but quickly found that my heart still remains with the still image. I draw a lot of inspiration from film and television, but I think in terms of still images, which is perhaps why I like the static camera or the slow pan with long cuts, instead of the camera moving all the time and the quick cuts often found in modern film and television. Both had their distinctive visual styles–although I’ve snuck in a still of Cohle/McConaughey lighting a cigarette in his apartment all bathed in blue among the stills from Les Revenants, just because it fits. Les Revenants takes place mostly in the night-time, at dusk or dawn, and is bathed in blues. Many of the stills look like Gregory Crewdson photographs, although Crewdson hardly has a patent on exploiting the ominous atmosphere of the blue dusk palette and the half-empty landscape with mysterious figures doing mysterious things. What Crewdson, and photography in general does, is hint at a story; that is the medium’s strength and weakness. But Les Revenants does what Crewdson cannot and actually provides that story, while still keeping the mystery alive.
Meanwhile, True Detective manages to suffuse the warm Louisiana light with an underlying darkness. Many of the shots are in broad daylight, while many exploit the golden hour before dusk; Les Revenants seems to be shot almost entirely in the blue hour after the golden hour, when the warmth of the sun has just gone but the black of night is yet to come. Both are visual marvels, although they may look plain at first sight. Critics rave about a six-minute tracking shot, which I suppose is the sort of thing that impresses tv critics; as I am not a tv critic but a photographer, I tend to think in single images, and I love it when a show manages to convey mood through shots that remain strong when you hit pause.
When a show allows this to become the norm, not just the impressive still in an establishing shot but a series of impressive tablaux even as the narrative progresses, that’s what inspires me as a still photographer.
I would probably not make a very good moving picture maker, although I’d like to think I can make a still picture maker. And if you haven’t seen both of these shows you should do that as soon as possible.