That the new Golden Age of Television coincided with huge advancements in computer-generated effects can't be a coincidence, right? Sure, celebrated shows like The Wire and Deadwood were maaaybe better known for their writing than they were for CGI, but these days it's hard to find a classic show that doesn't somehow include seamless special effects. Most of the big genre hits have effects that rival or surpass those found in summer movies, but even dramas like Breaking Bad and Mad Men use computer imagery in such crucial ways that these shows may have been prohibitively expensive to produce in earlier eras. So let's give all those unheralded tech whizzes their props: Special effects have never been better or more crucial to the shows we love.
Below are some off-the-top-of-our-heads picks for TV shows with the best effects work. Which show's visuals are YOU constantly amazed by?
Falling Skies is a great example of a show where viewers can debate the quality of the writing, but the special effects are unimpeachable. Seriously, they look expensive! Whether it's the nightmarish Skitters, the lumbering Mechs, or those tall skinny alien dudes (or are they ladies?), the effects alone are worth tuning in for.
Effects gurus Gregory Nicotero, Robert Kurtzman, and Howard Berger formed the KNB Efx Group in the late '80s but have steadily become the industry gold standard for horror effects. Their zombie work on The Walking Dead, a mixture of CGI and practical effects, holds the high honor of being probably the most disgusting imagery ever broadcast on cable. In this case that's a compliment!
One can point to the various creatures of Fringe (human porcupines! Ribcage burrowers! Genetic hybrid abominations!) as examples of the show's top-notch effects work, but some of the most impressive CGI on the show is what you may not notice. Specifically all the split-screen work where characters must interact with their own doppelgangers on a regular basis. It's a deadly tricky thing to do and Fringe nails it every time.
Not to get nerdy about it, but Falling Skies only has three creatures to worry about. That's three CGI models already saved to a hard drive just waiting to be copied and pasted into new scenes. (I know more goes into it than that, but still.) A procedural like Supernatural has to deal with dozens of new creatures and scenarios all the time. It's frankly amazing how much Supernatural pulls off and how good it frequently looks despite its CW budget.
Doctor Who seems to benefit greatly from its limited series format. The whole thing looks expensive probably because the average budget is more expensive than a show with 22-episodes a season. I've heard from people who enjoy the older doctors but prefer the Matt Smith series specifically for their production values. Looking at this trailer, it's pretty hard to disagree with that.
Game of Thrones is another show that uses effects in both ostentatious AND subtle ways. There's no debate about how straight-up incredible the wildfire incident was, but Season 2 also gave us Dany's haunting hallucination scene, plus the now-CGI direwolves looked just as organic and normal as their real dog predecessors. And those baby dragons looked so real that I'm pretty sure everyone in the world wants one now.
[VIDEO NSFW] A show that doesn't tend to do subtle well is Spartacus, but that's by design. Whether it's violence or sex or, you know, just scenery, everything has a heightened vibe to it. But where running every frame of footage through a computer might seem like a way to rob it of soul, Spartacus uses its CGI to pack almost every moment with emotion, horror, and splendor all at once.
It can be hard to get a conversation going about Lost these days, that's how still-controversial its ending was. But let's not forget what a fabulously beautiful show it was and how excellent its special effects were. From the black smoke monster to the plane crash to all the subtle scenery-related CGI seeded throughout each episode, Lost was epic in a way we may never see again.
It's pretty ironic that the cable network most notorious for its awful special effects pulled off this stunner: Syfy's Battlestar Galactica reboot contained some of the best effects ever seen on TV. From its newer, sleeker Cylons to those handheld-camera space battles, the style and quality of BSG's effects were not just great for its time, but have had an obvious influence on many of the sci-fi effects we're seeing in movies these days (Battleship's shaky battle footage being a recent example).
Perhaps no show will ever be able to top the stunning special effects work of Ringer. Sorry, all other shows! Ringer nailed it.
YOUR TURN! Which TV shows do YOU think have the best special effects?