Recently, there has been this great migration from the big screen to the small screen. Actors like Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson had a pretty bright time in the international spotlight with this year’s True Detective success. Steven Soderbergh directed a whole series this summer: The Knick, which aired on Cinemax. It’s like the lines between film and television are blurring, begging the question on which medium permits more artistic liberty that’s at the same time prone to mass consumption.
Given, it’s a fairly recent trend, but not an unprecedented one. American-cinema gem Quentin Tarantino directed an E.R. episode in 1995 and a C.S.I. ten years later. Martin Scorsese has dabbled in documentary series here and there. Hollywood star Glenn Close made a name in the TV medium on both The Shield and Damages. Comedy darlings Amy Hackerling and Paul Feig have also directed their fair share of TV sitcoms before this recent fad.
The thing is, television is becoming more and more a vehicle for actors and directors to explore their non-Hollywood sanctioned dreams. Part of McConaughey’s reinvention as an actor is owed to his part in the 8-episode True Detective; Rustin Cohle is a deep and complex character that couldn’t have been played by many other actors without spinning toward caricature or cliché.
McConaughey, by taking on that challenge, proved (to both general audiences and himself) that he could wear any skin he so chose, instead of the Don Juan persona he was best known for. The same applies to Soderbergh’s undertaking: with ten episodes where to shove his wildest creative overflows he expertly crafted a whole series, imbuing it with his own visual mannerisms and slick visual style.
In reality, the lines between the two mediums aren’t blurring: TV isn’t better than cinema or vice-versa; they’re just starting to complement one another in a way they previously didn’t.
This is a list and analysis of some of the most carefully directed TV episodes by modern filmmakers in the past few years.
NOTE: This list contains a few broad strokes of each episode’s storyline, but is completely spoiler-free.
10. Pilot – Jon Favreau (Revolution, 2012)
After his stint directing two of the first entries of Marvel’s very successful Avengers mega-franchise and the box-office bomb Cowboys and Aliens, Jon Favreau took a break from Hollywood and made the pilot for J.J. Abram’s produced Revolution.
The show has serious creative bona-fides, having been created by Supernatural’s mastermind Eric Kripke and starring Breaking Bad’s Giancarlo Esposito as the season’s primary villain/anti-hero. The story is set on a post-apocalyptic world where electricity has suddenly stopped working, setting civilization back a couple of centuries. Horses and carriages are the best bet for travelling; guns and ammo are sparse so people use sabers and bows for fighting and general discussion-solvers.
Script-wise, the pilot episode is filled with tropes and overused clichés, sporting a flashback structure that has its roots in another J.J. Abrams produced show: Lost. The apocalyptic setting, the constant mysteries being introduced (why has electricity stopped working?) and even the characters are reminiscent of the 2004 show.
Nevertheless, the episode has a couple of things playing in its favor. Favreau’s direction is top-notch and has a cinematic feel that makes the viewer stick around for its sheer beauty. Conversations don’t feel dragged by shot/reverse-shot dynamics: the bright colors and sci-fi flares help turn around the post-apocalyptic dark and muddy aesthetics that films like Mad Max and The Book of Eli helped perpetuate.
Despite its narrative flaws, Revolution’s first episode is a serious commitment by Jon Favreau, a director somewhat ashamed for his artistic endeavors these past years. He starred and directed this year’s Chef, an adorable little piece of indie cinema that shows how much fun the director can have when not shackled by Hollywood studios. Revolution was canceled by NBC this year after two seasons, even though it upped its quality more than slightly toward the end of its run.
9. The Train Job – Joss Whedon (Firefly, 2002)
Joss Whedon is an accomplished Hollywood director but, more than that, he’s an accomplished pop-culture icon. His status as a geek and geek culture-friendly stand-up guy has always followed him around like Thor’s hammer Mjolnir follows the Asgardian god. His knack for creating complex characters and kick-ass female heroines turned what could just be an underground director into an adored filmmaker.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer was his debut in screenwriting, a film which he later turned into a cult-hit and now well-known phenomenon TV series. He then created a couple of other shows, like Angel and Dollhouse, but Firefly is perhaps his most adored project, even if only for the fact that it was unjustly canceled by Fox after a single season. It has a dream cast (Nathan Fillion, Morena Baccarin, Adam Baldwin!) and a fantastical space western setting that allowed the show to tell the most varied stories, ranging from horror to drama to comedy in an out-of-this world scenery that kind-of worked as a reverse Star Trek.
The Train Job is Firefly’s second intended episode, a giant train-heist not unlike what many big-budget westerns were known for. The episode’s great action setpiece follows the space crew’s starship, rusty Serenity, flying alongside a speeding train. It’s thrilling and works as a fantastic second introduction to the characters and their respective dynamics, having a humorous touch that is now known as whedonesque for its biting satire and coolness factor.
8. Top of the Lake – Jane Campion (Top of the Lake, 2013)
Academy Award winner Jane Campion returns to the TV medium for the first time since 1990’s An Angel at my Table, which, despite having premiered as a film, was produced as a three-part mini-series. Best known for her work in 1993’s The Piano, Campion brings Lynch’s Twin Peaks sensibility and backwoods-town creepiness to the XXI century in last year’s Top of the Lake. First envisioned as a six-part mini-series, it has been renewed for a second season a few weeks ago.
Being the only female director on this list, Campion’s series works as a reflection on the role of women in this new century and the many horrors they still suffer at the hands of men. Top of the Lake is a feminist noir that chronicles a young female detective’s (played by up-and-coming star Elisabeth Moss) investigation of a missing person case that may or may not be also a rape case.
We’re introduced to weird cast of characters like the Mitcham family, the local drug runners and unofficial town leaders, or the local police’s head officer played by David Wenham (yes, Faramir) that has a creepy crush on Moss’ character.
Top of the Lake reunites Campion with Holly Hunter, who plays the spiritual leader of a sort-of eccentric refuge for women that are mistreated by men or simply want to get away from life. This way, the series fits in the female director’s film cannon of women trying to lead their lives in a male-centric and governed world.
7. Pilot (Part 1 & 2) – J.J. Abrams (Lost, 2004)
Jeffrey Jacob Abrams is that guy from genre fiction. He practically has his hand in every piece of science fiction of the last decade, be it a Hollywood production such as Star Trek or a TV show like Person of Interest or Fringe.
The filmmaker started his career as a composer and scriptwriter for some 90s films like Regarding Henry and disaster-thriller Armageddon, before shifting his focus somewhat in 2001, when he founded his producing company Bad Robot. Since then he’s composed the theme music and produced shows like Alias, Alcatraz, Revolution and Almost Human.
Abrams also co-wrote and directed the pilot episode for the hit-show Lost, a two-parter that works as an exemplary paradigm of what a first episode for the medium should be like. It doesn’t just draw out what future episodes of the show can or should be like; it explores the characters’ dynamics and their personalities with extreme mastery, spiking the narrative with small, to-be-explored mysteries that are a J.J. Abrams trademark.
It was the most expensive pilot of its time (it’s been ten years), costing between $10 and $14 million, due to the on-location shooting and the costly, visual effects-heavy plane crash that occurs in the first few minutes. This was a landmark when it occurred: television had never felt more like the big screen as it did then. Abrams brought the thrill and adrenaline of sitting on a film theatre to your living room, which created a matrix for every TV show that followed.
Even though Lost is now better known for its hyper-complex mythology, the pilot episode (and, in large part, the first season) was more about survival, the character’s relationships with one another and the natural environment that The Island represented.
By the end of the episode, though, the show already had its teeth deeply sunk in the supernatural side of things. The flashback structure was also a breath of fresh air in the stale, network-TV landscape (HBO’s The Sopranos had already premiered by then) which carried the show throughout its six season run.
Many of the big-budgeted TV shows that now air owe to Abram’s Lost pilot, a grand piece of television fiction that still proves itself as a tour de force of the director’s ever-expanding vision.
6. Smoke Gets in Your Eyes – Alan Taylor (Mad Men, 2007)
Alan Taylor has always been a TV-director first and foremost. His career spans almost thirty years, working on series such as Homicide: Life on the Street, Oz and Sex and the City. Most of his work has been done on HBO, though Mad Men’s first episode ‘Smoke Gets in your Eyes’ is the exception to the rule, being an AMC production. Besides his work in television, he’s also directed blockbusters like Marvel’s Thor: The Dark World and the upcoming, terribly-titled Terminator: Genisys.
Having a somewhat chameleon-like posture, adapting his style to whatever show he’s working on, Taylor’s been able to craft a bunch of wonderful episodes like The Sopranos ‘Pax Soprana’, and Deadwood’s ‘Here Was a Man’.
Similarly, ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’ functions as a singular entry in Taylor’s résumé, though it sports a foggy, washed-out visual palette that’s reminiscent of his work on Deadwood or Six Feet Under. What’s so special about this episode is the masterful way in which it builds a believable world with rich and complex characters, and an ever-propelling narrative momentum that still lets the viewer gaze in the beautiful period details and mannerisms.
Most classic works have an iconic first scene that beats the test of time and rages through the ages, be it a couple discussing a heist on a bar, a giant starship flying past the screen, or a zoom out of Alex DeLarge’s face, and that’s what separates ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’ from the rest of Taylor’s work.
The conversation between Donald Draper, the main character, and a black servant in a smoky, high-class café is a fantastic introduction to Mad Men’s world that immediately makes the viewer wonder ‘who is this man?’, a question that would be the main focus of the show’s first season.
It’s no wonder Alan Taylor won a nomination for his work at the 60th Primetime Emmys for Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series.