Sunday, September 16, 2012

Emmy Week 2012: Direction takes DramaticTelevision to a New Level

Last year when talking about the Emmy Awards and their actual nominees I cited the fact this branch of the Academy tends to reward the best, for example this year Parks and Recreation, Community received nominations.  Before I go off on a tangent on why the writers know good writing, let me stick the task at hand.

Television direction, either with or without an Emmy nomination, has gone to a new level.  Throughout the years television series have rarely attracted major motion picture directors, used styles and techniques from major films, which could cost a show lots of extra money, or used beautiful exotic foreign shooting locations, and so much more. That's not to say that there weren't landmark television directors throughout the years who directed both comedies and drama series that broke barriers, or helped with the evolution of television.  (Shows that pushed the boundaries)

Yet when I think about the larger span of television, the most famous television director that always comes to my mind first, resides within the world of directing comedic television, and that person is James Burrows.  Burrows represents the old school style of comedic direction, the typical sitcom with the laugh track, camera styling, and so on.  Throughout most of television history dramatic television had a different persona then it does today, the style and format were more formulaic.  Shows like Hill Street Blues, started to break the barriers.  Yet to my knowledge there were not major directors who were power players the way Burrows was in the comedic world.  This started to change when dramatic series like ER, NYPD Blue, The X-Files, hit the television landscape.  These television shows emphasized a more realistic, grittier side of the television drama that had never been seen before.

Smaller names (but big within the industry) started to pop up in these grittier shows,  like Paris Barclay, Thomas Sclhamme, Vince Gilligan, Alan Taylor, and Laura Innes, to name only a few.  Once shows like ER, NYPD Blue, and many of the other 90s dramas started to fade into the background these directors and many more continued to push the envelope, while the major networks became stagnant.  Many major directors became producers and brought their material to basic and pay cable networks like HBO, Showtime, AMC, and F/X.   These networks were ready to step out on a limb, and to push the envelope even further.

HBO started to pave the way, and their first dramatic series within this realm was Oz.  Oz was a dramatic series about the reality of a maximum security prison.  The show was harsh/realistic, and did things that network television series could do.  HBO started a smart trend with their shows including Oz, which was to release a smaller number of episodes stretching the possibility for more quality programming along with making it possible to do more with their budget.  The show also breaks the fourth wall using Augustus Hill, an inmate as the narrator who addresses the audience, and narrates the underlying tone of the episode.  This show's success proved American audiences had a desire to see more realistic television programming.

HBO took things a step further in 1999.  David Chase created a show about a mobster name Tony Soprano who not only bumps people off, but has panic attacks.  The show and its direction provided episodes that felt like nothing that had ever been on television before.  Men like Tim Van Patten, Allen Coulter, and the above mentioned Alan Taylor made episodes like "Pine Barrens" some of the most memorable for avid fans of the show.  These three men continue to be some of the greatest working television directors today, they have set the tone with their work on The Sopranos, and not only forced other cable/pay cable networks to get on board, but they have also created their own worlds.

In the years after Oz and The Sopranos other networks have caught up to the legacy HBO started.   Using a more realistic undertone to guide a dramatic series.  Showtime started with Queer as Folk (2000) and Soul Food (2000), two dramatic series focusing on minority characters, providing something networks did not offer.  Moving forward the create The L Word (2004), Dexter (2006), The Tudors (2007), and Homeland (2011).

Queer as Folk and The L Word, may have been hyper sexualized, but Showtime was one of the few networks willing to create two different dramas about LGBT folks.  Dexter's dark undertone was too dark for parent company CBS, but the series direction highlights some of the most tense moments as the main character takes the the lives of criminals who should be punished.  As Showtime moved forward with their true dramatic series, having a series like The Tudors proved the period drama could be handled well by a television series, and that the key to this series, and series like this were skillful directors who created the right look and tone.  The same can be said for Homeland, one of the most gripping dramas on television to date.  Homeland pushes further than the network drama 24 did, making the concept of counter terrorism more powerfully formulated than most films have done in recent years.  Homeland is the perfect example of how strong direction has changed the landscape of television today.

AMC has done something similar to both HBO and Showtime, but is not a pay cable network.  While many networks jumped on the reality series band wagon AMC (which does have some reality television) challenged HBOs authority in the world of creating realistic dramas, with strong direction.  The fact that people have to pay for Showtime and HBO provides them with opportunity to show people swearing, show nudity, and show more graphic scenes of any nature.  AMC challenged this notion.

In 2007 AMC launched the series Mad Men about 1960s advertising executives.  The show was an instant hit with critics, and became a series that was can't miss television.  What makes Mad Men different is the fact that it feels like a great film, but is a great emotionally packed television series. Mad Men used the foundation laid by The Sopranos, and took television direction to a whole new level.  After Mad Men came Breaking Bad (2008), which has also challenged the norm, and the most recent season ender is one of the best directed hours of television I have ever seen.  Breaking Bad's Vince Gilligan, a director from the 90s uses his dark vision to create a tone when he directs his show he created.  Realism is a trend that breaks in AMCs The Walking Dead about zombies.  Zombie movies have either seemed hokey, or not well written, while this graphic novel turned television series is the exact opposite.  Writing is an important reason for this, but film director Frank Darabont's creation/direction helped make this small screen drama have a big screen feel.

More and more today big screen director's are going to the small screen, and creating or directing for television series, and providing television viewers with more quality programming than ever before.  Frank Darabont (Shawshank Redemption) created and Directed for The Walking Dead (2010), Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver) is an executive producer, and directed the pilot for Boardwalk Empire (2010), Patty Jenkins (Monster)  has directed two episodes of the AMC drama The Killing (2011),  Gus Van Sant (Good Will Hunting) directed the Starz pilot for the Kelsey Grammer drama Boss (2011), Michael Mann (Heat) directed for was an executive producer for television series Luck (2012) on HBO, and these are the ones that I can think of off the top of my head.  Film directors are taking to the small screen.  Neil Jordan who directed Interview with the Vampire has gone on to work on The Borgias for Showtime stated the following "Hollywood isn't doing anything like this material anymore, with cable, there's this wonderful domain that's emerged for film directors like me who enjoy the kind of material that Hollywood finds too boring for words."

Jordan raises an interesting point about the problem with films, and their lack of variety.  Television, especially cable networks provide a venue for incredible amounts of artistic expression that has lured directors from the bring screen.  Television direction has come a long way from shows like Qunicy, or Marcus Welby M.D.  Looking at those shows then the episode of Game of Thrones from this season entitled "Blackwater" which was directed by Neil Marshall.  "Blackwater" is one of the best directed episodes of television ever, the scale is incredibly large, yet Marshall does not minimize the importance of character development, and the performances from actors like Peter Dinklage.  

There is an artistic inversion going on here.  In the past films provided more opportunities for directors to show their heft because of budget, and more range for freedom of expression.  Television is now the space for this to happen.  There are opportunities within a shortened amount of episodes to tell great stories, and create well directed episodes that allow auteurs to make it work.  

Looking at this year's nominees in Outstanding Directing category is proof that even within ten years television direction has evolved into something special that provides viewers with world, and opportunities they never had before.  Whether we find ourselves lost a post World War I Downton Abbey, or trying to become a kingpin in the drug world on Breaking Bad, these shows prove television direction is a whole new ball game.

The nominees for this year's Outstanding Directing in a Drama Series are:

Boardwalk Empire-To the Lost-Tim Van Patten (HBO)
Breaking Bad-Face Off-Vince Gilligan (AMC)
Downton Abbey-Episode 7-Brian Percival (BBC) 
Homeland-Pilot-Michael Cuesta (Showtime) 
Mad Men-The Other Woman-Phil Abraham (AMC)

Of these the winner should be Homeland, and I have a feeling it will win this award, along with Danes for Lead Actress in a Drama series.  There is of course one interesting statistic about this list and the Outstanding Drama series nominations, not one of them is from a basic cable network.  Throughout the years basic cable shows have ended up on this list, but within the last two years they have been persona non grata.  The problem is that basic network television series are not challenging the norm like they did with Lost, or 24, they are playing it safe and letting other networks (they may own) step up to the plate and put forth creative programming.  As a fan of the direction of television I am not going to complain, I am going to sit back and watch as television gets more and more film directors to direct, create and executive produce shows that are surpassing films today.

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