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The year in TV: The rise of single-director television seasons

The year in TV: The rise of single-director television seasons
Clive Owen and Michael Angarano in The Knick

Clive Owen and Michael Angarano in The Knick

From the apparent death of the romantic sitcom to the resurgence of superhero shows, there have been a lot of developments in television over the year. But if there is one trend that has defined 2014 in television, it has been the migration of directors to the small screen for season-long projects. While not an idea that’s unique to the year, as the Jane Campion-helmed first season of Top of the Lake signalled the trend in 2013, this year’s television firmly established the migration as something more than a novelty.

Of course, big name directors hopping in for an episode or two of shows they are executive producers on is nothing new. Martin Scorsese’s direction in the pilot no doubt convinced some people to give Boardwalk Empire a chance, as did Neil Marshall’s work on the pilot of Constantine and Michael Mann’s helming of the pilot of Luck. However, the key aspect of 2014 television was that directors began to treat shows not as pit stops, but as season-long endeavours on which they could make their mark. The first example to burst on the scene this year was HBO’s True Detective, a series which owes a large amount of its acclaim to director Cary Fukunaga, who left his distinctive stamp on each episode, and was a large contributing factor in the season’s cohesiveness. However, he’s not the biggest example; that honour goes to Steven Soderbergh, who helmed every single episode of The Knick’s first season, helping elevate the Cinemax show in the process. The latter’s retirement from feature filmmaking meant his involvement in the tv show was a special treat for fans of the director. The message is clear; directors are no longer there to draw in viewers before handing off the reigns. They can be as involved in the television show as everyone else, and their presence would be evident.

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As we go into 2015, the overwhelming question is what this bodes for television. The issue is two-fold; what does this mean for other new series, and what will happen in the subsequent seasons of shows already following this model? With regards to the first question, it’s clear that this trend is not going away anytime soon. David Fincher and David Lynch, both of whom have previously only dipped their toe into television waters, are both set to take the plunge. Fincher will direct all 10 episodes of HBO’s Utopia, while Lynch will return behind the camera to helm every episode of the third season of Twin Peaks. The big question, of course, is what this means for established television directors. With more and more film directors taking over season-long duties for shows, where does that leave the numerous immensely talented directors who aren’t tied down to a show? While some of them, most notably Michelle MacLaren, have made the leap to the other side by becoming film directors themselves, others have not. The key to continued quality will be in allowing both film and television directors the opportunity to get full directorial control over shows. If television freezes out those who understand the medium in favour of prestigious big screen names, then this trend threatens to become nothing more than a gimmick to draw viewers in, with only the occasional glimmer of merit. If, however, it gives veteran directors of both the big and small screen the chance to mould the stories that come their way, the possibilities are truly exciting.

Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson in True Detective

Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson in True Detective

The second question, as mentioned before, is what happens to shows following this model in their subsequent seasons, and this is what will prove the success or failure of this trend. Examining the two key shows of 2014 yields no real forecast, for while Soderbergh will be returning for the entirety of The Knick’s second season as well, True Detective will be making its return sans Fukunaga. To further muddy the waters, much like other shows, the HBO series will cycle through multiple directors in its second season, with Justin Lin kicking things off first. In addition, the upcoming Starz show The Girlfriend Experience offers yet another possibility, with Amy Seimetz and Lodge Kerrigan splitting directing duties over the first season. If the True Detective model becomes the standard operating procedure for directors and tv shows, what will that say about the commitment directors have towards their series? Will directing an entire season simply replace the current model of directing the pilot as a way to bring in more viewers? Even if the commitment of directors is beyond questioning, would any show still be the same with such a defining characteristic taken away? If subsequent directors tried to mimic the choices of those who came before, that would not only rob the show of impact, it would also be stifling to the directors as well. The alternative, then, would be to have directors onboard for the duration of the show, as Soderbergh seems intent to do with The Knick, which in turn may limit the longevity of a show, or give directors pause before they take on a series.

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However things proceed from here, this is undoubtedly a wonderful development in the television landscape, and one that’s full of potential. With Fincher returning to television following one of his most commercially successful outings, and Soderbergh firmly planted on the small screen, it’s clear that television is no longer considered a lesser medium to cinema. This, in turn, may open the door for other directors to come through. The possibility of Michael Mann returning to helm a complete season of a show, or Wes Anderson deciding to make the leap, or even Rian Johnson, who already received acclaim for his work on Breaking Bad, becoming the sole director of a show’s season, opens up some ideas that don’t seem so far-fetched, and are exciting to contemplate. The other aspect of this trend is the writing. Without a good writing staff, a show can never be great, and how this trend affects writers will also be key in determining the trend’s future path. With True Detective, Nic Pizzolatto wrote the entire season, while Gillian Flynn will be reteaming with Fincher for the entirety of Utopia’s first season, with Kerrigan and Seimetz already set to co-write all of The Girlfriend Experience’s first season. Could a writerly migration be the next big shift in the cards? Or would the directorial move lead to teamups with well-regarded existing television writers such as Damon Lindelof and Shawn Ryan? The continued success of television will lie in giving established film voices a chance to express themselves in the medium, while still giving new and old television voices a chance to shine. If television is able to strike that balance, then the possibilities are truly endless.

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– Deepayan Sengupta