Critic's Notebook: The New Era of the Television Director

Long considered a writer's medium, TV is currently dominated by series-defining work from directors — many of whom are women and people of color.
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Reed Morano won the Emmy this year in drama directing for Hulu's 'The Handmaid's Tale.'

In the first three episodes of American Gods, the acclaimed Starz series adapted from the Neil Gaiman book, director and executive producer David Slade — a huge admirer of the book and a man who had wanted to get his hands on what many considered a roaring tale that was completely unfilmable — had his work cut out for him. He had to set a visual style for the series that incoming directors could replicate in their own fashion, and he had to immediately take on some of the obstacles in the story that seemed impossible to film or translate from the page.

Like, say, how the goddess Bilquis, aka the Queen of Sheba, devours her lovers, male and female, by absorbing them into her vagina. Slade filmed it, convincingly. Once that and a few other surprises (a man with no face is kicked in the balls and his skeleton shoots out of the top of his head) were tackled, all the other oddities — a buffalo wanders with flames for eyes, a man floats through the starry universe with a hard-on, ancient warriors get one of their eyes stabbed out with a fiery knife — seemed to flow together with ease, though there was nothing easy about it.

Perhaps more daunting than filming the previously considered "unfilmable" elements was giving visual life to Gaiman's book, which sits on the high altar of revered weirdness — producing something the hard-core fans would immediately bow down to because it could set ablaze their imaginations and capture the writer's fine-tuned sense of outlandishness.

It's also telling, for me, that it was Slade's wildly ambitious directing that helped, on second viewing, bring into focus what I found distinctly challenging as a newbie who watched the first four episodes and felt it was a series geared toward readers of the books (and presented a big conceptual challenge to nonreaders). If the look of American Gods hadn't been so spectacularly audacious, it would have been more difficult to press forward in what was a narratively confusing setup; my own unfamiliarity with Gaiman's American Gods tome — part fantasy, part history, part pop-culture, poetry-slam gumbo, with genre-poking allusions all sprinkled in — would have been an obstacle. 

It's in instances like this where the rising importance of the director in television, which is first and foremost a writer's medium, is increasingly evident — and laudable. In the past decade, directors have been given more and more license to truly have an impact on a scripted series and not just be hired artists/refugees from the film world who bring some respectability to what a very skilled series creator imagines in his or her head.

Directors were never exactly marginalized — at least not in the cable world, but they had yet to achieve the same level of cache as the series creator/writer. The divide — film is a director's medium and TV is a writer's medium — was firmly established.

It's difficult to know when that was effectively, convincingly chipped away, but I'd say decidedly so within the last five years. (I'm interviewing Slade at the Vancouver International Film Festival on Wednesday, representing THR yet again at VIFF and its VIFF Industry offshoot keeps including television in the festival; I'll ask him.)

I can remember when film directors started jumping over to Showtime, which at that point was still primarily making TV movies and not series, because Showtime allowed them to make quality, grown-up movies when Hollywood was resistant to tackling either tough or unsexy stories with any intellectual heft. They'd go back to the big screen, of course, but those early-days crossovers went a long way toward destroying the myth that TV wasn't worthy of a director's talents.

Not long after that, more film directors started doing TV pilots — with lots of ink dedicated to the bigger ones like Martin Scorsese on Boardwalk Empire (2010) and Vinyl (2016) for HBO, or David Fincher for the first couple of House of Cards episodes on Netflix in 2013. (Fincher is returning to Netflix later this month with Mindhunter, where he also directs four of the 10 episodes.) When, in August of 2014, Steven Soderbergh committed completely to television with The Knick for Cinemax, it was something of an eye-opener since he directed all 20 of the series' episodes. Now, film directors gleefully coming to — or even preferring — television isn't much of a story (David Lynch directing 18 hours of Twin Peaks for Showtime this year barely raised an eyebrow, though his idiosyncratic visual style certainly got people talking).

But the bigger movement has been the burgeoning creative reputations of a phalanx of outstanding TV directors who were making names for themselves previously on The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men and Breaking Bad and any number of outlets. They are a big part of the reason the the medium has toned down its "the writer is god" sensibilities. In the subsequent years, there's been no end to the beautiful incarnations we've seen across the board, but particularly on cable and streaming services. The number of outstanding directors — calling them "film" or "TV" directors seems like a ridiculous clarification these days — has increased exponentially.

And as television makes an effort to diversify, many of those directors have been women or people of color. Last week, the Directors Guild of America made headlines by announcing that the number of first-time women and minority directors in television had increased sharply and that having those directors "in the pipeline" — being trained, shadowing and getting work — would create countless more opportunities going forward (the DGA had monitored incoming directors in the 2009-10 seasons and reported that since that time, the percentage of first-time episodic TV directors who are minorities has double and those who are women has tripled).

The report comes not long after Reed Morano won an Emmy for drama series directing for Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale pilot. She had never directed a pilot before (she was also nominated as a cinematographer for HBO's Divorce). Morano was the first woman to win an Emmy for directing a drama in 22 years (Mimi Leder won in 1995 for an ER episode). On the comedy side, Donald Glover won for Atlanta this year, following Jill Soloway who won the year before for Transparent.

Television directing is certainly getting more and more inclusive (Lesli Linka Glatter, a legend, Michelle McLaren, whose work on The Deuce this season is really something, Cary Fukunaga, Ava DuVernay, etc.), and fresh talent emerges every season (Glover, Aziz Ansari, Melina Matsoukas, Hiro Murai, Pamela Adlon, etc.). You can race across so many prestige series and find a bevy of directors who, like Noah Hawley in Fargo and Legion or Slade in American Gods and Black Mirror next season, just trip a switch in your brain. You come away in awe.

And we've said nothing of the stalwarts who've been doing the work with artistic grace well before directors were being given the credit they currently are for shaping a writer's medium.

So, as television continues its Platinum Age evolution, rejoice at the directing revolution happening along with it.