Sam Esmail is hardly the first person to bring a little visual panache to television. In the decade after The Sopranos debuted—and especially after high-definition TVs became standard—more directors began exploring the possibilities of low light and sophisticated tracking shots. A couple of decades earlier, in the ’70s and ’80s, crime shows aped the immediacy and grittiness of Sidney Lumet and slam-bang drive-in fodder. In the ’60s, the likes of Mission: Impossible and The Avengers played with the kind of pop-art expressionism that was sweeping through world cinema at the time. Heck, even in the ’50s live television era, future filmmakers like John Frankenheimer tried to choreograph their shows to look like movies.
But something definitely shifted when Esmail’s Mr. Robot debuted in the summer of 2015. Steven Soderbergh—no slouch as a visually oriented storyteller himself—has hailed the show for how it’s bent the formal elements of television to the breaking point, using extremely off-kilter compositions to mirror the protagonist’s own disordered mind. In the years since, series like Atlanta and Legion have kept pushing the boundaries of subjectivity on the small-screen, viewing everything from mundane daily life to superheroes through a distorted lens.
Esmail, meanwhile, has just moved in a somewhat different direction with Amazon’s excellent adaptation of Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg’s podcast Homecoming. While jumping back and forth between the routine at an experimental Florida veterans’ care facility and the aftermath of its closure—and while showing how both affect one deeply lonely woman, played by Julia Roberts—Esmail shoots the action fairly squarely and cleanly, aside from two unmistakable recurring bits of flourish.
For one, he differentiates between Homecoming’s two timelines by shooting the past in widescreen, and the present in a noticeably narrower frame. He also indulges in several dialogue-free sequences where he uses overhead shots and tricky multi-axis camera moves to explore the maze-like corridors of bureaucracy.
My friend (and former A.V. Club film editor) Scott Tobias astutely commented in Vulture that Homecoming is a little like Stranger Things, but for movie buffs more obsessed with Alan J. Pakula than Steven Spielberg. There’s undeniably a ’70s paranoid thriller vibe to the show, echoing not just Pakula classics like The Parallax View and All The President’s Men, but also Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, Brian De Palma’s The Fury… even Spielberg’s Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. In the post-Watergate era, some of the best American films and filmmakers examined the disillusioned and conspiratorial mood of the country from the inside out, holding the camera tightly on heroes and antiheroes who saw the comforting familiarity of the world they once knew slipping away from them.
Yet with Homecoming, Esmail isn’t setting a trend so much as hopping onto one. The cinema of the 1970s has lately become an apparently common inspiration for prestige TV dramas. Maybe it’s a coincidence, or maybe it’s just that writers, directors, and producers who grew up watching those movies see within them a visual grammar and storytelling approach that describes life in our own anxious, angry era.
This past Sunday night, for example, Showtime started airing Escape At Dannemora, a seven-part miniseries directed by Ben Stiller, detailing a real-life prison break, hostage situation, and love triangle involving two convicted murders (played by Benicio del Toro and Paul Dano) and the civilian supervisor at their tailor shop (Patricia Arquette). Though set in an upstate New York penitentiary in 2015, the series looks at times like a lost artifact from 1975, replicating the grayness and grime of movies like One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and Dog Day Afternoon.
Stiller and his crew go a little overboard with the uglification—in particular in the way they lumpen up Arquette’s character, a bored working class married woman who’s depicted as somewhat grotesque. There’s a huge gap in compassionate understanding between this character and, say, the out-of-control heroine of Barbara Loden’s recently restored and re-released 1970 slice-of-life Wanda. Still, on the whole, the murk in Escape At Dannemora serves a purpose, showing how even two relatively well-positioned prisoners like the ones played by Dano and del Toro are still living in misery—the kings of a squalid realm.
Tonight, meanwhile, AMC begins airing another miniseries, The Little Drummer Girl, directed by the Korean genre film specialist Park Chan-wook (best-known for The Handmaiden and Oldboy) and based on John le Carré’s canonical 1983 spy novel. A six-part, six-hour series—running over the course of three nights in the United States—The Little Drummer Girl stars the remarkable Florence Pugh as a spunky English actress who’s recruited by a pair of Israeli intelligence agents (Michael Shannon and Alexander Skarsgård) to infiltrate a Palestinian terror cell.
For cinephiles, the show’s real star is Park, who’s developed a reputation for telling unflinchingly violent stories with healthy amounts of wit and pathos. He definitely brings his style and his influences to bear on The Little Drummer Girl, which is set at the end of the ’70s but resembles a greatest hits collection of the decade’s many films about international spies and assassins, sampling little bits of The Day Of The Jackal, Three Days Of The Condor, The Conversation, The Conformist, and The Passenger. It’s a mature cat-and-mouse thriller, which overcomes its over-deliberate pace with images that break a complicated world down into a series of superficial choices, rooted in one question: What looks appealing?
This ’70s fetish isn’t limited to shows about killers and shady government operations. As a horror filmmaker, Mike Flanagan has often called back to the past, in movies like Oculus and Ouija: Origin Of Evil; and he does the same in his Netflix adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting Of Hill House, which is like The Amityville Horror crossed with Ingmar Bergman’s Cries And Whispers. The Netflix western Godless (written and directed by two-time Oscar-nominated screenwriter Scott Frank) draws on the mythopoetic Americana and unapologetic brutality of ’70s Sam Peckinpah. And if you look closely at Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina, you’ll see some of the spooky atmospherics of classic ’70s “devil movies,” like The Omen.
Some of the above series (like Sabrina) reveal the limits of trying to recreate the “New Hollywood” era for television. Too many modern TV cinematographers are trying too hard to be Gordon Willis, cloaking every scene in deep shadow, even when it’s ill-suited to the location, the story, or the theme. Willis favored darkness in movies like The Godfather and Interiors, but not for every minute of screen-time, and not in such a way that the actors’ facial expressions and gestures were hard to register.
It’s interesting too that Martin Scorsese—an actual 1970s director who was behind the camera in recent years for the series premieres of Boardwalk Empire and Vinyl—has made his TV efforts look more like the kinds of films he’s making today, eschewing the earthiness of his ’70s movies Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. The retro-leaning directors tend to be people who grew up watching Scorsese, not the man himself.
Still, it’s easy to see the appeal of using the images and attitudes of ’70s cinema to tell stories that resonate with today. In one of the best episodes of this most recent season of The Deuce, “We’re All Beasts” (directed by Susanna White), a sex worker-turned-pornographer played by Maggie Gyllenhaal takes her cameras illegally out onto the streets and vacant lots of a decaying, depraved Manhattan. Just the look of that city at that time carries a lot of the thematic weight of her movie, which is about the erotic allure of danger.
Collectively, some of the best films from that era sketched out a blueprint for how to describe the kind of profound alienation that many are experiencing right now. The critic Robert Kolker named it perfectly in his book about the decade’s great filmmakers: A Cinema Of Loneliness. A few years from now, someone could write another book just like it, subbing in the word “TV.”