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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Beyond True Detective: 17 TV long takes worth your attention

Illustration for article titled Beyond True Detective: 17 TV long takes worth your attention

1. True Detective, “Who Goes There”
The fourth episode of True Detective has brought new attention to a TV necessity: the long shot, often taking the form of a tracking shot. Such shots are frequently celebrated in film—think of Martin Scorsese’s use of tracking shots over the years, or the self-parodying opening of Robert Altman’s The Player—but critics rarely call attention to them on TV, perhaps because TV is more of a writers’ medium, or perhaps because they’re simply not as showy as others, often blending into the background. The True Detective shot is neither of those things. Director Cary Joji Fukunaga is the sole director for all eight episodes of the series’ first season, and the shot is a long, intricate piece of action choreography that feels lifted straight from a Michael Mann film. It’s an impressive accomplishment, but it’s not unprecedented in television history. For example…

2. The X-Files, “Triangle”
In terms of sheer technical achievement, the TV crown might still go to this sixth-season episode of The X-Files, masking cuts to make it seem as if the episode were filmed in around a dozen consecutive very long takes. The one in the episode’s last act, in particular, is impressive, as it positions via splitscreen agents Mulder and Scully (separated by decades thanks to a time vortex) in the same space, with almost 60 years of time separating them. It’s at once a surprisingly romantic moment, given how much the series had bought into the two eventually pairing off by this point in its run, but it’s also a funny one, as modern Scully casts a look back at her 1940s counterpart, who’s palling around with Mulder on the ship in the past. “Triangle” is pure spectacle, but in the hands of series creator and episode director Chris Carter, it dazzles.

3. Climax!, “South Of The Sun”
Newly hired to direct CBS’ live dramatic anthology Climax and handed an initial script so bad that the producer walked off the show for a week, 24-year-old prodigy John Frankenheimer came up with a daring plan. He cast a ringer (Broadway actor Robert H. Harris) as a private eye who roams the hotel lobby setting eavesdropping on the other characters’ conversations, and staged 24 pages of exposition without a cut. (A script page equals roughly a minute of screen time.) Live television cameras were limited in their mobility by an anchor—the power cord—and on this show, Frankenheimer blocked the action so that the cameraman (Bob Stone; decades later, the director still sang his praises) wrapped the cable around a fountain in the center of the set four times during the first half of the shot, until it was taut, and then unwound it in the second half. If nothing else, it’s proof that complicated long shots didn’t just arrive on TV in the last 20 years.


4. So You Think You Can Dance, “Top 20 Perform”
At first glance, a reality talent show seems like an unlikely venue for risk taking. But So You Think You Can Dance isn’t like other reality shows, having built its reputation and considerable fan loyalty upon championing innovative choreography and lesser-seen dance styles. This inventive spirit paid off handsomely in season 10’s top 20 performance show opening number, a three-minute, one-take dancing tour de force that takes the dancers on a romp around the entire SYTYCD backstage area, eventually culminating on the performance stage. Choreographed by longtime show contributors Tabitha and Napoleon, set to Herb Alpert’s version of “Puttin’ On The Ritz,” and featuring dancing cameos by judges Nigel Lythgoe and Mary Murphy along with a handful of the show’s regular choreographers, the number perfectly captures the joyous and carefree feeling of the show itself. Tabitha and Napoleon originally created the concept for Alpert’s music video, but adapting the number for television resulted in a routine that will be tough for the show to top.

5. Community, “Intro To Knots”
One of Community’s most ambitious experiments is also one of its lesser episodes: the “gas leak year” Christmas installment that’s simultaneously an homage to Alfred Hitchock and John McClane. Unfortunately, the attempt to replicate Hitch’s famed “one take” approach to Rope is dropped like a hot Yuletide potato in the middle of the first act, the victim of production limitations, according to the episode’s writer, Andy Bobrow. (It also couldn’t have helped that the episode had to be rewritten following Chevy Chase’s departure from the show.) Director Tristram Shapeero still managed to work a few long shots into the opening scenes, most notably the opening tracking shot that establishes the episode’s stage-bound nature while making the most of the small amount of space at the director’s disposal. For a few fleeting moments, the camera swoops and darts through Casa De Winger, offering a brief glimpse of what could’ve been—and providing cannon fodder to detractors who see Community as nothing more than pop culture references disguised as jokes  and stylistic gimmickry propping up weak characters.

6. Mad About You, “The Conversation”
Not all long shots are hugely complicated, but for sheer volume, it’s hard to fault “The Conversation,” an episode in the sixth season of Mad About You (directed by later-season regular Gordon Hunt) in which the central 20 minutes is a continuous shot. Given the multi-camera studio sitcom limitations, it doesn’t maneuver much—just tracking down the hall to the couple’s daughter’s bedroom door, where it moves just enough to keep Paul and Jamie in frame as they argue about how to get their daughter to sleep. But the style suits the medium, as they realize just how disparate their parenting styles are and get increasingly trapped in their own expectations. By the sixth season, the show’s central couple had nearly divorced prior to Mabel’s conception, bringing some self-aware weight to the arguments over how to raise the kid long-term. And the claustrophobia of the shot illustrates that nicely, as well as bringing real-time tension to waiting for that damn kid to fall asleep. With its two actors essentially delivering a one-act play with every take, this shot might be less kinetic than some, but it remains an interesting sitcom experiment.

7. Cheers, “Sam At Eleven”
For an early example of the multi-camera sitcom trying a long, tracking shot, check the master, James Burrows. Burrows was fond of not cutting much in the early days of Cheers, but the shot that closes the show’s fourth episode, “Sam At Eleven,” is particularly impressive in its technical ambition (if not as long as most of the shots on this list). As the episode ends with Sam Malone’s place at Cheers established as his true home (after a dalliance with TV news), the camera pulls back and back and back from the pool room (where Sam and Diane chat), through the rest of the establishment, back into the main bar, where Harry The Hat entertains the patrons with a magic trick. It’s both a great way to establish the place’s geography for new viewers and a fancy way to show off.

8. Scrubs, “My Student”
As one of the first major successes of the modern era of single-camera sitcoms, Scrubs was fond of pushing the boundaries of its format. This generally meant goofy cutaway gags, but the show occasionally constructed shots that made the most of the fact that the series was actually filmed in the disused North Hollywood Medical Center. The entire pre-credits sequence of the first-season episode “My Student” takes the form of one continuous shot, following the show’s main characters from the parking lot to the second floor, complete with an extended sequence hanging around inside the hospital elevator. The sequence suggests that Scrubs’ universe is more than just a television set, and it serves as an emphatic visual illustration of the authenticity to which the show aspired in its early seasons. The scene works on a character level, too, as the directorial self-assurance of the shot echoes the medical interns’ overweening confidence as they embark on their first day supervising medical students. Episode director Matthew Diamond—a jobbing television lifer who would also go on to helm The Oogieloves In The Big Balloon Adventure—was helped by the fact that the most technically demanding moment was right at the beginning of the tracking shot: By all accounts, Donald Faison couldn’t sink a three-pointer on cue to save his life.

9. How I Met Your Mother, “Ten Sessions”
As a technical feat, the two-minute date at the conclusion of this third season episode of the CBS sitcom is fairly basic: While filming Ted and Stella’s whirlwind dinner-and-a-movie in one shot requires some slick choreography from director Pamela Fryman and the production crew, and strong performances from Josh Radnor and Sarah Chalke, the cinematography is less of a technical feat than other examples on this list. However, the sequence is a reminder that the goal of a long and intricate shot is not only to marvel at the work of the director, but also to allow a scene of particular significance to connect with the audience. Eschewing the traditional edit-heavy style of the multi-camera sitcom, the sequence lets the characters’ harried attempt to fit dinner-and-a-movie into the two-minute timeframe register with audiences, the subtle camera moves letting the characters’ energy—rather than the camera’s—provide the momentum. Although the show would eventually squander Ted and Stella’s chemistry as it did with all matriarchal red herrings, the choice to shoot the scene in a single take makes their date one of the show’s iconic sequences.

10. Downton Abbey, “Season Two, Episode Two” 
This long shot from director Andy Goddard in Downton Abbey’s second season stands out for being so remarkably different from Downton’s typical style. While most of the show relies on framing each individual character in a particular way, this shot wanders from character to character, starting with Cora and Robert in their foyer and following them outside to greet new visitors. Taking place during World War I, this episode shows the residents of Downton opening up their houses as hospitals for convalescing officers—and the script makes much of how this aristocratic family feels their old life of privilege slipping away in the face of modernity. The camera follows the lord and lady outside, and then circles a tableau of soldiers, all wounded. The camera would normally stop and look at each one of the characters intently, but in this shot, it sweeps by Carson, who is standing at the door, looking out of place; passes Isobel, too, and Edith hovering in the background; then finally picks up on Sybil, who is professional and calm in her nurse’s uniform. It’s her—the representative of what the modern aristocracy could be—that we follow back inside the house, which is now full of wounded men in uniform. Sybil goes one way, and we another—to see Thomas greet a captain, and Mary come downstairs, slipping into the foyer to help. It’s rare for the show to be so subtle with its many stories under one roof—and rare, too, for it to use the space it films in so well.

11. ER, “Love’s Labor Lost” 
It’s tempting to point out that nearly every episode of ER made use of long shots, some even longer than True Detective’s tracking shot, but the finest came from Mimi Leder’s Emmy-winning work in the first season’s “Love’s Labor Lost.” With a pregnant woman and her baby in grave danger after Dr. Greene (Anthony Edwards) badly misdiagnoses her, things go from bad to worse to even worse throughout the course of one long night. At all times, Leder’s camera follows the action, culminating in a heroic and horrifying moment, when the chaos in the emergency room gives way to an instrument tray spilling over, and Greene has to tell everyone to take deep breaths, then issue his frantic instructions as calmly as possible. It’s the kind of long shot that buries itself in the subconscious; indeed, the viewer might not realize just how thoroughly Leder put them in Greene’s head by using the shot until hours later.

12. Band Of Brothers, “Why We Fight”
The penultimate hour of this 10-episode World War II series (directed by TV and movie vet David Frankel) opens with a long, slow tracking shot, pulling out from musicians playing mournful music, across a decimated town in which villagers are trying with liturgical solemnity to salvage things—bricks, broken tables, mismatched chairs—from the rubble of home. We pan, at last above it all, to a handful of Easy Company men watching stonily from on high. The visual impact is one of futile struggle out of total devastation, a deliberately overwhelming introduction that sets the tone for an episode involving Easy’s discovery of Landsberg concentration camp. While the opening shot is the longest, at just over two minutes, much of the episode is composed of tracking shots and lingering takes. This is of particular significance at the camp, with Easy Company moving through and around knots of emaciated prisoners with a sense of inescapable dread, the camera swinging from one horror to another like the first-person gaze of a staggered soldier, unable to look away. The episode feels the way the very first shot intended everything following it to feel: hopeless.

13. Peyton Place, “Episode 204” 
A nighttime soap isn’t the place you’d expect to find some of television’s most daring imagery, but gonzo director Walter Doniger (aided by cinematographer Robert Hauser and camera operator William Cronjager) routinely turned Peyton Place into a test tube for intricately lit and choreographed long takes. His magnum opus was an otherwise routine party scene, staged in only two shots, one of them three and a half minutes long, the other a mere ninety seconds. The frustrated efforts of the folksy Eli Carson (Frank Ferguson) to find a glass of champagne became the light-hearted structuring device that linked various groupings and regroupings of the performers, who numbered 15 cast members and dozens of extras. Stunts like this one left Doniger vulnerable to the charge that he was just showing off, but he contended that cutting interfered with the camera’s proper role as a “secret observer” of the action.

14. The Alcoa Hour, “The Stingiest Man In Town” 
Many programs in the Golden Age Of Television were filmed in long takes for one simple reason: Filmed live as they were, editing had to be kept at a minimum, and anything too complicated (such as a massive musical number that also wanted to give close-ups of the singers) had to be carefully choreographed, the actors and cameramen moving in tandem with each other to achieve the maximum effect. Few of these programs still exist, but a good example is this Christmas Carol adaptation, where all of the musical numbers are handled via long takes. The one below is fairly basic—the camera makes minimal movement, and the actors create most of the illusion of things swirling around (with the director using a close-up of an actor playing a bum to allow for background transitions)—but others in the hour move the camera through the background scenery and occasionally involve dozens of dancers.

15. Battlestar Galactica, miniseries 
In reimagining Glen A. Larson’s much-loved, but undeniably cheesy ’70s space opera, executive producers Ronald D. Moore and David Eick were keen to break away from the stagy, even stately camerawork that typified most televised science fiction. The updated Battlestar Galactica leaned heavily on handheld shots to bring a sense of realism to the potentially preposterous story of humanity’s last survivors fleeing the evil Cylons in search of Earth, the fabled lost colony. But this gritty visual aesthetic was never an absolute rule, and one of the most famous exceptions occurs within the first 10 minutes of the show’s opening miniseries, as a lengthy Steadicam shot follows several characters through the corridors and command center of the titular starship. The shot offers viewers their first glimpses of Katee Sackhoff’s hotheaded fighter pilot Starbuck and Edward James Olmos’ weary Admiral Adama, while a roving tour guide offers useful, contextually appropriate exposition about the universe of Battlestar Galactica. More than anything else, miniseries director Michael Rymer uses the shot to show off the sheer scale of the Galactica set, creating the illusion that the actors really are walking around on a vast working starship.

16.  I, Claudius 
This 1976 BBC2 miniseries, adapting Robert Graves’ historical novels on the lives and endless machinations of Rome’s first imperial dynasty, still stands as one of the towering achievements of British television. In bringing I, Claudius to the television screen, producers Joan Sullivan and Martin Lisemore faced the challenge of how to recreate ancient Rome on a modest budget that allowed for no location shooting. I, Claudius benefited from terrific performances and impressively detailed sets—Derek Jacobi and Siân Phillips both won BAFTAs for their work as Claudius and Livia, while Matt Harvey won the award for his design work—and director Herbert Wise made the most of both through his use of long takes. The set-bound nature of the miniseries gives it an unavoidable theatrical quality, but Wise counteracts that by using his camera to explore the space. The camera rarely moves far from its initial position, but it swivels and zooms to reveal every perspective available from its chosen vantage point. What could be static scenes of endless dialogue take on a dynamic, almost balletic quality, making the miniseries feel like something more than mere reenactment.


17. The West Wing, full series 
The long shot that TV uses most often is the “walk and talk,” which lets TV series convey lots of exposition in a more visually interesting way than two characters sitting around and shouting exposition at each other. The master of the form is director Thomas Schlamme, and his work with Aaron Sorkin on Sports Night and The West Wing is typical of how exposition can be easily trumped up by making it seem more exciting thanks to two actors hurrying down a hallway side by side, talking about whatever’s going on at a speed that creates an illusion of movement all its own. West Wing used these shots so often that it would be easy to assume there were tracks laid down right there on the soundstage that were never removed. But with Sorkin’s crackerjack dialogue and Schlamme’s direction, such a thing was probably a workplace necessity.