BY BRIAN LOWRY
Blame David Lynch. When Twin Peaks
premiered in 1990, people (and especially critics, who vaguely resemble people) were energized by the distinctive look and feel a director could bring to a television program. Then the show slid into incoherence, and auteur chic lost some of its luster.
It’s a truism that movies are a director’s medium, whereas episodic television largely belongs to writers. Directors often complain that TV critics don’t regularly acknowledge their contributions, just as the Writers Guild gripes that movie critics neglect writers in their reviews. Since I straddle that line as I occasionally review movies as well as TV, I’ve been on the receiving end of brickbats from both sides.
Critics generally don’t preoccupy themselves with keeping everyone happy (indeed, we recognize that we’re going to call people’s babies ugly more often than not), but the better ones among us try to be fair. So a bit of history might help explain why directors often feel slighted in television coverage—and why this imbalance should at least be exhibiting modest signs of improvement.
For the purposes of this conversation let’s confine the discussion to scripted series, which—even allowing for the rating success of so-called reality fare like American Idol and Dancing With the Stars—remains TV’s pre-eminent creative genre.
Some issues that blunt critical acknowledgement of directors are due more to logistics than an intended slight. These days, for example, networks frequently send out multiple advance episodes of new programs. This is an especially common practice with the pay channels, which, say, distributed four episodes of True Blood and United States of Tara. That means diligent critics who don’t fear sleep deprivation will see more than one director’s work before writing initial reviews—a welcome development in fairly evaluating a show’s episodic merits, but one that reduces the likelihood of singling out the direction.
Even so, I’d argue that directors have and should receive more credit in TV—particularly regarding dramatic programs, whose more intricate storytelling bears scant resemblance to dramas of yesteryear, where directors could parachute in and out with impunity.
In those olden days, TV directors were dismissed as guns for hire, whose main job involved articulating scripts in workmanlike fashion. Among critics, this perception largely took root as conventional wisdom about TV’s division of labor.
Granted, TV directors haven’t been completely devoid of attention. It’s just that breakthroughs ascribed to them are generally limited more to commercial than artistic milestones—from James Burrows’ reputation shepherding hit comedies to David Nutter’s enviable track record presiding over roughly a dozen drama pilots (among them Smallville, Jack & Bobby and most recently The Mentalist) that were subsequently picked up as series.
Nor did it help, really, to have marquee feature directors start making pit stops in primetime. Although this lent sizzle to projects when they were announced in the trades, the ability of such directors to create what was supposed to approximate a feature look didn’t markedly improve their survival rate, and the prevailing view among jaundiced TV reporters and critics—fairly or not—is that the services of elite feature directors are too heavily in demand to let them linger for long in an active, hands-on capacity on their TV endeavors.
Nevertheless, the evolution that TV series have undergone over the last 15 years has placed more of a premium on the director’s craft, both creating and maintaining a consistent look and tone on serialized dramas—elaborate high-wire acts with sprawling casts and plenty of moving parts. Programs like ‘24’, Lost and Heroes also rely on the crispness of their action and intensity of their performances, frankly, to help gloss over the occasional bouts of absurdity that infect their ornately woven story arcs.
Of course, what makes such series especially interesting is their latitude to gradually develop characters and exhaust huge swatches of story—which is why writers, as the maestros juggling those plots, remain TV’s top guns.
That said, more challenging projects augur in favor of directors receiving their due. Take ABC’s too-short-lived Pushing Daisies, distinguished as much by the colorful look established by director Barry Sonnenfeld as the whimsy of Bryan Fuller’s scripts. Or the way that Thomas Schlamme’s kinetic camera seamlessly meshed with Aaron Sorkin’s rat-a-tat dialogue on The West Wing.
As a critic, I’ve also noticed that budgetary constraints are forcing even action programs to be more constrained, emphasizing character over special-effects pyrotechnics. This too places a premium on the director’s skill in wringing more out of less.
Finally, technology is equalizing the way in which content is consumed, and hastening a blurring of arbitrary lines between filmed content. Both movies and TV shows are now watched on TV or downloaded as often as not. Indeed, the ABC TV Group now makes its advance press screeners available exclusively online, meaning when directors slave over fabulous tracking shots in a pilot, odds are that I and other critics wind up seeing them on a 15-inch computer monitor instead of a 46-inch TV. Proof positive that fear of piracy screws us all.
None of this means directors are destined to achieve full parity in TV, any more than writers will in movies. I firmly believe, by the way, the studios savor this tension, hoping that it fosters a modicum of discord between the guilds when contract negotiations arise every few years.
Yet even without a big "Kumbaya" moment, the directors’ role in what’s rightfully being heralded as a second golden age of dramatic TV becomes more difficult for critics to overlook and ignore. Some day, in fact, even in television you might hear somebody say, "But what I really want to do is direct."
Brian Lowry is a media columnist and critic for Variety. He was previously a TV reporter and columnist for the Los Angeles Times and has been a contributor to National Public Radio.