The Golden Age of TV: Rise of the Television Auteur

Contributor Jim Breslin examines the evolution of television over the past fifteen years and the expanded role showrunners and creators have had in shaping it.  

Gone are the days of terribly-written sitcoms, generic cop shows, and mind-numbing reality TV!

Who are we kidding, that’s still the majority of what’s on the air. However, there is no denying that we are currently living in an era many have dubbed “The Golden Age of Television” due to the rise of premium cable and streaming networks like HBO, Showtime, Netflix, and Amazon over the past decade and a half. We have been given complex and thought-provoking dramas like The Wire, genre-busting shows such as Orange is the New Black, as well as blockbuster-style epics like Game of Thrones. With the rise of these game-changing new series, the line between cinema and television has begun to blur.

Running the show

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Many would say that the major reason for this renaissance is the larger creative role showrunners and creators have expressed, often becoming just as famous or influential as the programs they produce. From this, names like Martin Scorsese, Jean-Luc Godard, Werner Herzog, and Joel and Ethan Coen have begun to mesh with the likes of Louis C.K., Lena Dunham, Aaron Sorkin, and Shonda Rhimes. And while film purist may call it “blasphemy,” many of these showrunners have begun to fall under the umbrella of “the auteur.”

And it makes sense why many would use this term. Before the year 2000, how many influential showrunners could the general public name? Maybe Norman Lear and Larry David? However starting in the early 2000s, we began to see the rise of more sophisticated character-driven dramas like The Sopranos as well as faster-paced and serialized comedies like Arrested Development from creators whom film critic Scott Timberg describes as “mavericks and intellectuals who compressed all their experience, all their neuroses, into their storytelling.” And while this may not specifically validate the use of the term “auteur” in many people’s minds, it is clear that the role of the showrunner has vastly expanded over the past fifteen years, thus begging the question “what exactly defines a television auteur?”

Indie filmmakers and television 

Master of none

Many purists would be quick to answer this question along the lines of “only creators who write and direct every episode.” And while this is a fair answer, it is important to remember that television is an entirely different beast from a traditional 90-minute film. Critic James Poniewozik emphasizes this in a recent Time Magazine article, stating, “TV is historically a collaborative medium, because it has to be: there are too many moving parts and too many hours to fill for anyone to do it all.”

Despite this, there have been several examples of these “one-man” or “one-woman” shows since the early 2000s, with people like David Simon writing or co-writing almost every episode of The Wire as well as Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant writing and directing the entirety of The Office (U.K.). However, in the last couple years we have seen a much wider onslaught, particularly with dramas like Fargo, Top of the Lake, The Knick, and True Detective, as well as comedies such as Louie, Girls, and Master of None. In fact film critic Adam Sternbergh even compares our current period of auteur-driven television to the 90s boom in independent cinema. He states, “The same swashbuckling energy that gave rise to the indie-film movement has migrated to TV programming online. By this analogy, Netflix is Miramax, Amazon is Fox Searchlight, and your laptop is the Sundance Festival.”

Duplass Bros

And Sternbergh’s comments have a lot of validity, as many of the shows mentioned above just have the feel of an independent film, because most of the time they are made by independent filmmakers. For example, Jay and Mark Duplass’ romantic comedy-drama Togetherness has the same look and feel as Cyrus or Jeff, Who Lives at Home, but it just happens to be four hours long and broken into eight parts. Similarly with the success of several independently produced Amazon series like Transparent and Mozart in the Jungle, as well as Louis C.K.’s new series Horace & Pete (released directly on his own website) the idea of having a legitimate world of independent television akin to independent cinema is becoming more of a reality each day.

Are all showrunners auteurs?

However the fact still remains that while we may want all of our shows to be like Master of None or Fargo, the truth is, they aren’t. As we know, most shows, even many of the good ones are not run as independent films. Their showrunners do not write or direct every episode, so would you still consider them auteurs?

Many would say yes. As film critic Gary Rusak discusses, “Typically on a big network series, a showrunner will be responsible for more than 100 employees, and everyone from the line producer to the camera operator and makeup artists look to the showrunner for instruction and inspiration.” Think about it, doesn’t this sound exactly like a Wes Anderson or a Quentin Tarantino production? Both have a pretty large crew that they are in charge of, yet still have final say in all creative decisions the various departments make. Showrunners even have complete autonomy over the directors and other writers on the series. Now, does that mean all showrunners can be considered auteurs? Well, that depends on who you are. If you consider all writers and directors auteurs, then yeah, sure.Flight of the Conchords

Really, what it comes down to is the showrunner and the project itself, just as we would find in most major films released in theaters today. While Breaking Bad and Mad Men may have utilized a large amount of writers and directors, it is hard to deny that their showrunners, Vince Gilligan and Matthew Weiner, respectively, had solid visions for their series. The same goes for more unique and original comedies like Arrested Development and Flight of the Conchords. Essentially one can equate a show like these to a studio-produced film by a major director/auteur such as David Fincher’s Gone Girl or Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies. Therefore, you can consider a more generic series like CSI: (Insert Major City) or The Big Bang Theory as a form of what many call “vulgar auteurism,” which is essentially the equivalent to a studio film by Michael Bay or Roland Emmerich.   

The danger of the TV auteur: Running out of ideas

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Now, going back to the words of Time’s James Poniewozik from earlier, we do have to remember that television is, at its core, a much more collaborative process than film. For example, while Lena Dunham was able to write and/or direct most episodes of Girls’ first three seasons, in its most recent seasons we have begun to see the series utilizing many other writers and directors. This really comes down to one simple fact: TV is hard to maintain. While films can “easily” find characters and stories to support a 90-120 minute running time, television can be a bit more difficult. There are only so many plotlines and character arcs you can think of – which is where teamwork comes in.

A great example recently of this “danger” to auteurism on TV and the idea of collaboration was last year’s second seasons of True Detective and Fargo. Both are very similar shows that had a single writer in their first seasons (Nic Pizzolotto and Noah Hawley, respectively). They are both critically acclaimed anthology-crime dramas that premiered in 2014 with an Oscar-winning southern lead actor and set in an environment other than a major city. However, in his second season Hawley decided to hire a staff of four writers to help him craft and write the season, while Pizzolotto, for the most part, went in alone.

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In the end, Fargo came out on top, with most critics and audiences calling it one of the best shows of 2015. On the other hand, True Detective’s second season has been considered a major disappointment by most, with many calling it over-indulgent, confusing, and unfocused. And while there may have been other reasons for True Detective’s decline (particularly the loss of director Cary Fukunga), many point to Pizzolotto’s inability to “share the wealth.” However, isn’t that the point of auteurism? For every 2001: A Space Odyssey or Pulp Fiction, you can get Heaven’s Gate or last year’s The Sea of Trees. Therefore, if we are going to allow television under the umbrella of the auteur, doesn’t a True Detective Season Two come with the territory?

Teamwork makes the dream work

Therefore, just like we’d tell a fourth grade basketball team, teamwork really is everything, particularly when it comes to film and television. Even major film auteurs have their go-to producers, cinematographers, editors, etc. Scorsese has Thelma Schoonmaker, the Coens have Roger Deakins, and every good showrunner has their team of writers and directors to help express their particular vision in the best possible way. Since we have established that television is a different kind of beast, would it be out of the question to extend the definition of an “auteur” to a smaller group of writers and/or directors working on a particular series?

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Shows like Game of Thrones, Veep, Silicon Valley, and Transparent all have a group of about four or five writers and four or five directors that work together to create the best possible product. For example the writers of Veep and its British counterpart The Thick of It, headed by Armando Iannucci, often work on a script together in the same way that they would write a film like their Oscar-nominated In the Loop. On the script-writing process of In the Loop, writer Jesse Armstrong states, “Armando holds it together in the middle. Simon Blackwell, Tony Roche and I meet him then come up with the story line. Us three go away and do the storyline then send it to Armando to be okayed and do the initial drafts. Then Ian Martin does additional material and rewrites as well. So it’s a five-man team but all broken down into different compartments. It never feels unwieldy.” Because of this, we can start to see that film and especially television often require the creative power of more than one person to be most effective, and so why shouldn’t we extend the definition of auteur when looking at a writing or directing team?

Overall, we have seen that there are many different ways one can define a “television auteur” but what is very clear is that the potential in the world of television is expanding greatly, with it offering the same, if not more opportunities for artistic expression and the creation of interesting and involving stories/characters as cinema has to offer. And this is clear when we see major directors like David Fincher, Martin Scorsese, Steven Soderbergh, and even Woody Allen transitioning to the format. As Fargo showrunner and television auteur Noah Hawley stated in a recent issue of the Los Angeles Times, “It’s not a new medium, but it is an unexploited medium and we don’t know yet everything we can do with it. So we have to put it through its paces. We have to experiment.”

Author: Jim Breslin is writer who has also produced several short films. He is currently a junior at DePaul University double-majoring in Digital Cinema Production and Business Marketing. He is also currently the Social Media and Marketing Intern at Facets.

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