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The Rise of Auteur Television

By Ryan O’Toole

Barry Jenkins on the set of The Underground Railroad

Photo: NPR - Source

It’s a widely held notion that film is a director’s medium and television is a writer’s medium. We have been in the Golden Age of Television for more than 2 decades now. Starting around the release of The Sopranos and including shows like The Wire, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and Game of Thrones, we have seen an unprecedented rise in television quality. You’ve probably heard someone say that tv is as good as movies, and yet, there was still something separating the two mediums, and a lot of that had to do with the aforementioned notion.

There is a fundamental difference between a movie director and a showrunner. They are operating on two different levels entirely. You never really watch a tv show for the cinematography or editing, and when you discuss the performances or story, it is in a much different way, discussing the broad strokes of the multi-season arc or a specific plot point. It is very possible to review Breaking Bad without bringing up showrunner Vince Gilligan’s name in a way that is unimaginable to do with Quentin Tarantino or Martin Scorsese.

The auteur theory, as created by French critics in the 1950’s and popularized by Andrew Sarris in the US, is that a director is the prime author of a film. When we watch a film, we are watching a director’s vision for that story, filtered through performance, cinematography, editing etc… The film starts and ends with the director, whereas the core of television is in the story itself. It starts and ends with the writers.

David Lynch on the set of Twin Peaks

Photo: GQ - Source

In the past, there have been a few examples of auteur directors having a hand in television: most notably, David Lynch and his work on Twin Peaks. David Lynch is a director as idiosyncratic as they come, with films like Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive, showing his unique storytelling style, and Twin Peaks is no different. Twin Peaks is, without question, Lynch’s show, pulling from the same eccentricities and postmodern style he had been working on and would continue to develop. And if you’ve ever seen Twin Peaks, you know just how different it is from the rest of the world of television. He carved out his own niche and for a while, was one of the only auteurs in television.

But now, more than 30 years after Twin Peaks’ premiere, we are in a new age of auteur television.

Much like Lynch, we have seen some of our greatest directors experiment with television over the past decade, but it really exploded in the past few years: Jane Campion (The Piano) with Top of the Lake, Steven Soderberg (Ocean’s Eleven) with The Knick, Barry Jenkins (Moonlight) with The Underground Railroad. Even Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave) experimented with shorter form content with his Small Axe anthology series of 5 separate films.

Elisabeth Moss, Gwendoline Christie, and Jane Campion on the set of Top of the Lake: China Girl

Photo: Variety - Source

Mike Flanagan just released his third horror miniseries on Netflix with Midnight Mass, following The Haunting of Hill House and The Haunting of Bly Manor. He has also directed films such as Oculus, Hush, and Doctor Sleep. And he brings the same craft and focus on characters and theme from his films to television. He is an expressly modern director, with seemingly no preference for his medium and chooses whatever best suits the story he wants to tell, indicating what the future might hold for the two mediums.

Right now, there are a lot of tv shows that, if they had been released 20 years ago, would have been films. If The Queen’s Gambit was made in a previous era, it would have been a 2 hour movie instead of a 7 hour limited series. Or, in the past, Jason Sudekis or Bill Hader would come off of Saturday Night Live and make their own movie. Instead, they made Ted Lasso and Barry instead.

As more film directors seep into television, the lines between the two mediums begin to blur. The director and showrunner are starting to merge as television is becoming even more cinematic than it ever has before. And as directors begin to destigmatize the idea of changing mediums for each project, we will continue to see more and more auteur television.


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