Critic's Notebook: The Rise of the TV Auteur? No Thanks

If the style-over-substance shortcomings of 'Maniac' are any indication, the writer's medium should stay that way.
Courtesy of Netflix
Justin Theroux in Netflix's 'Maniac.'

I started having worries about the current state of television's newfound love of auteur directors in the very first episode of Netflix's Maniac. In short order, I watched the first four episodes of Amazon's upcoming series, Homecoming, and that's when things solidified a bit more. 

Television is a writer's medium. Always has been. Film is a director's medium. Always has been. Are there instances where fantastic directing is the most memorable thing about an episode or three of television? Of course. Just as there are films in which the script has been brilliant, memorable and arguably the central sustaining element of the project.

But mostly the rules hold, for a simple reason. Great dramatic television is serialized; the stories are ongoing, often from season to season, weaving a vast, multiple-hour tale. It is the novel to film's short story.

And in television, the actual telling of the story is everything — the narrative flow of that story and the character development within that story solidify greatness, if present. The reliance on flashy cinematography isn't really necessary, though it can help if it's in service to the story and doesn't detract from it. Visual flourishes, breathtaking cinematic canvases and artfully composed frames that speak volumes are primarily the driving forces in how film expresses itself, though they are present in television as well — in service of the script, not as the essential take-away.

Recent series might be testing that theory. Even though it's a small sample and very early, people who worry about such things (raises hand) might be concerned that an emerging trend will widen.

(That is less true for anthologies like Black Mirror, where directors are encouraged to put their visual stamp strongly on each effort — though I would argue that writer Charlie Brooker's work and Annabel Jones's consistency of vision as a producer can withstand whatever a director dreams up.)

I happen to love what the director Sam Esmail did with Mr. Robot. Although plenty of directors have experimented with form and the execution of visual ideas on television — going back to the 1960s, really — nobody did what Esmail did within the first season of Mr. Robot, which was to cast off rules of composition and scene structure (to the point where the entire crew had to be re-educated about his visual desires, since they ran counter to accepted norms). Heads floating in the lower corners of the frame? Yep. Mid-angle shots adjusted upward a full quarter-tilt so you saw people framed from their belts — or chests, even — with banks of lighting or mundane ceilings clogging up the upper portion? Oh, yeah. 

For the uninitiated viewer, the sense was that something was off, but it wasn't so readily apparent. And that is precisely what Esmail was going for — a sense in the home viewer that something was out of whack, which corresponded nicely to the worldview of his main character in Mr. Robot, Eliot, who suffered not only from dissociative personality disorder but was also a drug addict. It was Esmail's way to get viewers inside of Eliot's head, or at least give them a sense of what was making him "off" — and it also hid one of the big thematic reveals of the series (which you should absolutely watch if you haven't).

Not everybody was thrilled with this technique. Some viewers didn't like it. Some critics thought it was too much of a conceit — too artsy by half. At the Vancouver International Film Festival last week, where I moderated two separate panels with nine different show runners, I brought up this idea of the rise of the auteur director with all of them. The reaction was universal — no thanks.

Graham Yost (Justified, The Americans, Sneaky Pete, etc.) recalled first seeing that unique framing on Mr. Robot and thinking, "That's interesting. Please don't do that again."

(The sold-out theater laughed uproariously.)

Canadian showrunner Dennis Heaton (Motive, Call Me Fitz), who just got a 10-episode straight-to-series deal from Netflix called The Order, said that a good director is someone who adds something to the series and a bad director is one who comes in looking to create something for their reel — that he then has to recut. David Shore, currently with the ABC hit The Good Doctor (and, of course, known for House), was hilariously dismissive and, if this is possible, quietly apoplectic (you had to see it) about the idea of a director showing off to the point where he, as a viewer, has stopped thinking about the story and is pondering instead what the hell is going on visually.

Right about then is when I told the story of Homecoming, Esmail's new series for Amazon starring Julia Roberts (I reviewed the first four episodes as it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival: I loved its quirk and mysterious story, was riveted by its boldly jarring directorial flourishes, but also desperately want to know how that holds up over the next six episodes and if it ends up distracting from the writing of Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg, who penned the series based on their own narrative podcast of the same name).

This worry is well-founded given the style-over-substance failure of Netflix's recently released Maniac. More on that shortly, but it's important to explain what Esmail does in Homecoming that drew such a profoundly sour look from Shore and another laughter-inducing "Sounds great!" joke from Yost.

Set in 2018, Homecoming has a short time-jump forward to 2022 embedded in the story — and Esmail rather stunningly shifts the aspect ratio from the now-standard 16:9 of HD to 4:3 (the old school near-box of standard definition television from the old days) when the story jumps forward. Granted, it stays in HD even with the 4:3 aspect change, but the jolt is so bizarre that I actually had to ask Amazon if that was on purpose and, more important, if that's how it was going to look when it airs (I was watching a link on my computer and many screeners are unfinished when sent to critics).

Yep, that's how it's going to look. By then, I'd figured it out anyway, since Esmail also flattens the colors in the 4:3 jump and marks each time-shift with purposefully overwrought music. I'm certainly intrigued about whether this hangs together and if there are six more episodes of solid writing to bring the story home, so maybe it all works. I'm very much looking forward to more episodes.

But yeah, that description to a bunch of series writers didn't go over very well for one simple notion that has been true forever: Television should be about the story, as written. Once you're pulled away from the grip of the story for visual tricks that take priority, they are going to have an issue.

Now, part of the reason I'm willing to give Esmail the benefit of the doubt is that he's a writer — and a very good one. With Mr. Robot, he's dealing primarily with a mental health issue at the core of the story. So, too, does Homecoming deal with soldiers and PTSD and then layers on some more ominous implications about drugs to heal the mind. He has proven willing to take mental illness seriously and, though the story of Homecoming is that of Horowitz and Bloomberg, I'm guessing Esmail is sensitive to the importance of the core issues, given his track record.

Unfortunately, the same can't be said for Maniac, which uses both schizophrenia and the crippling effects of depression brought on by grief as the jumping-off point for its two main characters, but mostly lets the talented director Cary Joji Fukunaga spin out from there with a trippy, visually eclectic thrill ride. Fukunaga is immensely skilled — he was announced as the new big-budget director of the next James Bond film almost simultaneously with the release of Maniac, which got mostly rave reviews from critics and was even more warmly embraced by viewers. The trouble with Maniac, which became quickly evident as the episodes unrolled, was that this was always Fukunaga's vehicle, and less about the words of creator and writer Patrick Somerville (The Leftovers, The Bridge).

That might explain why the series inadequately dealt with the schizophrenia of Jonah Hill's character, Owen, and barely did better showing how Emma Stone's character, Annie, learned to manage her depression and grief. Contrast that with both Esmail's Mr. Robot for USA and Noah Hawley's Legion for FX, each finding a way to creatively use visual techniques to illuminate the interior struggles of mental illness, and Maniac comes up wanting.

Owen and Annie's stories were mere platforms for grandiose visual theatrics; what actually plagued them and how they traversed through the narrative was, at best, of secondary concern to the show's makers. In the end, Maniac was visually quirky but hollow as a story because it was always and unquestionably a director-first effort.

It's not like Fukunaga needs a defense here — his Emmy-winning full-season directing of season one of HBO's True Detective was haunting and beautiful and memorable. It was essential to the success of that first season and worked within the confines of the story while making it better and more effective.

But I wonder if television isn't going to suffer the growing trend of more showy directorial efforts going forward (these above-mentioned examples, by the way, are not all-inclusive — there are plenty more vehicles out there that opt for style over substance). 

Weirdly, the era of the director is still relatively new for television. The late '90s and early 2000s saw lots of filmmakers coming over to make more personal movies for the small screen just after a plethora of movie star actors began to make the jump to TV. The stigma of "Oh, it's television" soon faded and the medium's robust possibilities and heightened reputation obliterated the old belief that film was more prestigious. Now actors and directors cross over with such regularity it's not a story (though Netflix and Amazon as new outlets for launching films still is).

Results are a mixed bag, however, probably because it's dependent on project and outlet. Someone like Steven Soderbergh has proven to be exceptionally adept at this, directing with precision and unforced style all 20 episodes and two seasons of Cinemax's The Knick, HBO's political series K Street, its movie Behind the Candelabra and many other one-offs, while also executive producing Amazon's Red Oaks, Starz's The Girlfriend Experience, Netflix's Godless and the upcoming Starz comedy Now Apocalypse (with Gregg Araki). He's irrefutably comfortable in both realms.

On the other hand, while Showtime got tons of much-needed ink with David Lynch returning to direct and write Twin Peaks, his unmatched visual creativity and weirdness clearly overwhelmed his writing and plotting skills on that one, reducing it to a muddle meditation on ... whatever. The point is, Twin Peaks was all about the freaky, not the story.

HBO has also successfully used Jean-Marc Vallee (Dallas Buyers Club) to bring limited series (Sharp Objects, Big Little Lies) to the channel.

More famously, HBO used Martin Scorsese to set up Boardwalk Empire, and his lush direction certainly created the visual template and mood of the series (the show ended up being a top-tier drama, but not in the same stratosphere as, say, The Sopranos). Much less effectively, HBO used Scorsese to launch Vinyl, and you could make an argument that his directing of the pilot hindered more than helped the series, because his stylistic flourishes couldn't be sustained (or, in some instances, endured) week-to-week. That said, Scorsese has also worked successfully on two PBS projects. He, too, shows no fear of television when the right project is there.

Ultimately, what television does best with directors is attract exceptional ones (and it has been instrumental, especially lately, in showcasing female directors who have had a harder time getting a shot with films) who know how to work to enhance and improve the written word, not upstage it.

Let's hope that continues and holds back the incursion of the "director-first" trend we're starting to see.