There are several revolutions that have occurred within the realm of television over the past decades. Many of those that have been documented come from the creative realm, specifically in terms of the types of show that people produce and the types of shows that networks greenlight. The pop-culture media has done a good job at highlighting both the individuals responsible for bringing these shows into existence and the production companies/networks that support their creative visions.
While the latter are largely amorphous entities only known by those within the entertainment beltway, certain showrunners are akin to rock stars at this stage of the game thanks to coverage that emphasizes the importance of these figures in relation to the product we see on screen each week. And while these figures are no less important as we head into the fall season, there’s another group of creative individuals that feel their contributions should be acknowledged as well: the small-screen directors, who have come into relative prominence over the past 12 months for their part in the overall process. The question before us today: will there ever come an Emmys in which the outstanding director categories have as much weight and prominence as their kindred awards at the Oscars?
To be clear: This is NOT a “television” versus “film” debate, so let’s shut that down immediately. This isn’t about comparing two different media but rather looking at the relative importance of the position of director within each. Currently, the director is paramount and central in terms of the final creative product in film. The writer has little, if any, direct input relative to the director. For decades, the reverse has been true for television, where visual composition stood a distant second to the mechanics of producing seasons’ worth of television. And to be sure, long before high-definition and flat-screen televisions were commonplace, making a show look “good” wasn’t all that important in the first place. For both the creators and viewers of televised entertainment, how it looked wasn’t terrifically important. Compelling characters trumped cutting-edge shot composition.
That’s a gross oversimplification, but it contains enough truth to make today’s landscape stand out as different. Simply filming “Lost” on location in Hawaii might have been enough to make it seem visually different from other programs on ABC at the time. And the simple advent of high-definition might have further pushed it away from the mean. But the involvement of director Jack Bender really pushed that show into new levels of visual and narrative sophistication. Bender inherited the visual template established by J.J. Abrams in the show’s pilot and was soon considered by showrunners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse as an equally important creative voice during the show’s run. Bender didn’t simply know how to translate the written word and execute the scripts: He understood how to tell the story of “Lost” in a way that augmented the scripts.
The difference between execution and augmentation is a tricky one, fraught with peril on several fronts. On one level, it’s almost impossible for anyone on the outside to watch an episode of television and deduce what part originated in the script and what part originated on the set. Furthermore, many shows have writers of specific episodes on set during filming in order to alter/improve aspects of the script that aren’t working for technical or creative reasons. Lastly, and perhaps most crucially to our discussion today, the rise of small-screen directors getting the light shone upon their contributions to the medium has met with some resistance from certain pockets of the television writing community that bristles at the thought of any praise being shifted away from their part of the process.
“Movies are for directors. Television is for writers.” That’s an axiom that has held sway for quite some time, even if its accuracy is rarely actually challenged. The history of both media is littered with stories that make that succinct pair of sentences null and void. The point is, it’s been repeated so often and often so thoughtlessly that it’s essentially accepted, and anything that suggests otherwise seems ludicrous. Directors ruled over the big screen, while writers were happy to engage in the freedom that television provided.
Where the interaction between the two on the small screen becomes sticky revolves around the concept of “authorship” in television. In a May piece on Vulture that kicked up and amplified a lot of discussion around this topic, Matt Zoller Seitz offered up a reason why most analysis of television has historically ignored the director’s input.
One explanation is that movies have a half-century head start on TV, so there’s been more time for critics to settle on terms and definitions. I like to tell people that TV, as both business and art, is at roughly the same place in its development as cinema was in the late fifties, around the time that the French floated the auteur theory. We’re still figuring out who the “author” is on TV shows.
Anything that hints at authorship being removed from the writers’ room will be met with some resistance. I’m not even sure such resistance is bad. But this resistance also seems to imply there’s a finite amount of praise to be given to any episode of a show. “To’hajiilee”, the latest episode of “Breaking Bad,” was directed by one of the few directors (Michelle MacLaren) whose name in the credits adds to the excitement of the moderately engaged television viewer (that’s her behind the camera in the photo above). It is a prime example of how there’s a limitless amount of praise that can be placed on a scene/episode/season/series. As many words that were spent praising Bryan Cranston‘s acting were also spent on George Mastras‘ script as MacLaren’s direction. In fact, many critics not only tried to include room for all three in their analysis, but many went directly to MacLaren, not showrunner Vince Gilligan, in order to get more insight into certain aspects of the episode.
Perhaps, as Seitz suggests, the problem lies with a half-century gap in agreeing upon terms and definitions. But quite frankly, most television critics don’t have an eye for the shot composition, framing, and the other dozens of technical elements that directors use to seamlessly transport the audience in the world of these shows. Film critics have to learn these techniques in order to perform their jobs well. Television critics haven’t had this as a necessary part of their critical analysis. That isn’t to say that none intuitively understand what a director brings to the table, nor are they unwilling to bring such intuitions to light. But they also haven’t needed such knowledge until the past few years, and with a few notable exceptions, we note that shows “look great” and largely move on.
That doesn’t mean that understanding the writing process that produces television is any easier; it just means critics and journalists have more exposure and experience covering this aspect of the medium. And it doesn’t mean that writing is “easier” than directing by any conceivable metric. It simply means that writing has been the de facto point of entry for anyone analyzing why a show works on a creati
ve level behind the scenes. While that’s still a valuable area of analysis, there are so many more we could and should be looking at as both critics and consumers. Seitz was the perfect person to articulate how directors impact television, thanks to his work as a film critic over the years.
Over on their self-named blog Tom & Lorenzo, Tom Fitzgerald and Lorenzo Marquez produce two “Mad Men” recaps every week. The first is a standard (albeit insightful) close reading of the text, similar to hundreds of other recaps the night after an episode airs. But their “Mad Style” entries, usually published midweek, are stunning analyses of the same episode through the prism of the show’s fashions. Fashion design, not unlike directing, is not always considered as part of the overall narrative whole. But Fitzgerald and Marquez do incredible work in demonstrating how authorship extends far beyond the written word.
Circling all the way back around: It’s unlikely that directors will even see equal prominence on the Emmys stage as they do on the Oscars stage. But maybe that’s OK, so long as all creative forces as a whole are elevated in the proceedings. That involves not only the TV academy recognizing the achievements of these individuals, but those who write about and consume television also working toward understanding how all the pieces fit to make a whole. This isn’t about tearing down the importance of the writer in the world of television, but paying attention to the other aspects that also help provide the entertainment we watch each week. It’s not just about spreading the wealth. It’s about taking the time to understand all aspects of the medium in order to more fully understand it. Only then can we more fully enjoy it.