5. Modern Warfare – Justin Lin (Community, 2010)
Justin Lin is better known for his contribution to the Fast & Furious film series. After directing the crime-drama Better Luck Tomorrow, starring his regular contributor Sung Kan, and the box office bomb Annapolis, he was picked up to helm Tokyo Drift, the 2006 entry to the franchise. Even though it was met with mixed critical reviews, it was a modest financial success. He has since directed every subsequent Fast & Furious film, melding comedy with serious drama and action-packed heist scenes with ease.
Say what you want about the mindless-entertainment mentality those films represent; Lin knows how to please the masses.
Community, on the other hand, is a niche-show, forever on the verge of cancelation and getting picked up for a new season at the very last hour, always keeping its die-hard fanbase on its toes. The TV series’ very particular comedic style relies on a never-ending pop-culture reference fest that alienated many viewers in the beginning of its run, but has since then garnered a huge internet following.
After directing a couple of episodes, Lin was tasked to helm Modern Warfare, the apex of many of the first season’s storylines and the turning point of the series overall tone. The story revolves around a paintball competition on a college campus that goes hilariously wrong. It simultaneously expanded the number of stories the show could tell and the way it comments on itself with an outstanding sense of humor.
The episode is a pastiche and homage to a number of action-adventure movies, such as John Woo’s Hard Boiled and James Cameron’s Terminator. It outright quotes part of a scene from 1979’s The Warriors, and its opening sequence is reminiscent of Danny Boyle’s post-apocalyptic opus 28 Days Later.
Lin works every action-movie cliché in the episode’s twenty minute run almost effortlessly, including every act break and scene beat from most Hollywood blockbuster into its TV commercial-fueled script structure. Action film tropes such as Heroes Huddle Around a Fire And Talk About Their Future; the Second Act Plot Twist, and Lead Characters Having Sex When You Most Expect They Will are included and parodied, but it doesn’t take away from the fact that it advances the show’s character development in a major way.
Nevertheless, the episode allowed Lin to flex his directing skills in a more contained framework. From the panoramic views of the apocalyptic campus and the top notch choreography, to the Scarface-like shootout in the study room, or the paint bomb in the episode’s climax; the whole twenty minutes managed a million dollar summer-blockbuster feel with a TV budget, which is no small feat.
Modern Warfare wouldn’t even win Lin an Emmy nomination for Best Direction, despite the fact that it was perhaps the best sitcom episode of its year.
4. Boardwalk Empire – Martin Scorsese (Boardwalk Empire, 2010)
Martin Scorsese is a man that needs no introduction. One of the great modern American filmmakers, he hand picks his projects more than the common Hollywood director. Many of his films center on gangsters and crime-culture in the United States of America, be it the Italian-mafia subculture, the Irish crime syndicate or the 19th century gangs in New York.
After shying-away from the genre for a few years (2007’s The Departed is a more hard-boiled, thriller-esque entry in his crime-film cannon) Scorsese went back to his roots with the sumptuous, eighteen million dollar Boardwalk Empire, the homonymous show’s first episode.
A brain-child from Emmy Award-winner Terrence Winter (who also penned last year’s The Wolf of Wall Street), Boardwalk Empire is a very loose adaptation of the book Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times and Corruption of Atlantic City. It chronicles the rise and fall of many 20s and 30s gangsters such as Al Capone, Arnold Rothstein, Meyer Lansky and Frankie ‘Lucky’ Luciano.
Our point of entry character is simultaneously Enoch ‘Nucky’ Thompson (played by the incredible character actor Steve Buscemi), the corrupt treasurer of Atlantic City that gets himself involved in bootlegging after the Prohibition starts, and Michael Pitt’s Jimmy Darmody, a World War I veteran that wants in on Nucky’s scheme.
The episode is sprawling and ambitious: not many like it existed in 2010. Ensembles in drama television were a hard-sell, even though they thrived in HBO ever since The Sopranos premiered in 1999. Boardwalk Empire was hailed as the ‘next big thing’ when it first debuted: it had a remarkable creative pedigree, what with Scorsese directing and producing, Winter headlining the show’s writing staff and actors like Steve Buscemi starring on lead roles.
Despite the star-filled name dropping the pitching session must have been, the show never garnered much traction, sporting a slow paced narrative and a slow-burn-like approach to its storytelling that didn’t click with audiences. None of that is a fault of the director though: the pilot episode is filled with Scorsese’s trademarks, the keen eye for character interactions, the musical action set-pieces and montages, the complex camera moves and the black humor are all there.
Boardwalk Empire finished its healthy run this past month, and all of its five seasons rest on Scorsese’s pilot episode: the art direction, though it has improved over time, is a carbon-copy of the visual aesthetic that the Taxi Driver director imbued in the show’s first hour. It’s a magnificent period piece that comfortably fits on Scorsese’s repertoire.
3. Mizumono – David Slade (Hannibal, 2014)
Hannibal is a funny TV show. Not funny in the comedic sense of course, funny because it’s one of the most goriest and disturbing pieces of fiction on network television. Bryan Fuller’s chef d’oeuvre found its home as a co-production between NBC and Gaumont International, which keeps it sustainable on a budget sense, despite its low ratings. Even though it doesn’t sport big numbers in live viewership, Hannibal has become a cult hit since it first premiered last year, being critically acclaimed for its acting, narrative, musical score and visual style.
The latter owes large amounts to the pilot episode, directed by David Slade. He’s better known for his work on the Twilight series’ Eclipse, which displays the gloomy and dark aesthetic that’s present on all of his works. He also directed 30 Days of Night and Ellen Page-vehicle Hard Candy. Though none of them have been that well received critically, they’re all pretty to look at. With vivid red colors and pitch-black scenarios, Slade created his own, eye-pleasing visual style.
Acting as an executive producer on the series, he has directed a total of five episodes, but the one that stands out the most is second season’s finale Mizumono. It has every visual technique employed by the series and then some, it’s also action packed in a manner this introspective and often philosophical show isn’t, and has a truly unconventional narrative structure. Slade juggles all these moving balls with masterful precision, creating one of the most perfect and entertaining episodes of television this year.
Tasked with the difficult job of capping a season with lots of narrative threads and character arcs, Mizumono never feels overstuffed or like it’s speeding to the finish line. It starts with a dreamlike pace, reflecting on the choices the lead character made previously in a very visual manner. The director frames Jack Crawford and Hannibal as both Good and Evil with careful camera placement and editing.
Slade creates a crescendo, keeping the viewers on edge the first half of the episode with its slow pace and haunting score, only to unleash a bout of unrestrained energy in the last half. These moments of action and horror have a greater impact due to the way the episode was structured, feeling like a gut punch times ten. The last few minutes alone have some of the most gruesome imagery TV has ever produced, with blood gushing everywhere in Slade’s trademark vivid red color.
David Slade is a perfect case study for this new audiovisual paradigm, having first started his career directing music videos before migrating to the big screen. Now he spends most of his time on TV: besides his stints in Hannibal and Breaking Bad, he also directed Awake’s, Crossbones’ and the upcoming Powers’ pilot episodes. On the other hand, he hasn’t helmed a film since 2010’s Eclipse. Maybe he’s found a new home.
2. Blackwater – Neil Marshall (Game of Thrones, 2012)
Game of Thrones is the show with the biggest budget on television right now. It airs on HBO, a cable channel that’s best known for the amounts of nudity, sex and gore it permits its shows to use. Obviously, Game of Thrones doesn’t escape this gratuity, its critics having even coined the term ‘sexposition’, a mesh of ‘sex’ and ‘exposition’, as in using explicit sexual encounters to provide background story for the characters and narrative.
Being a show set in a Lord of the Rings-esque medieval era, it’s normal to expect big battles and clashing forces on a large clearing, but Game of Thrones, even with its ever expanding budget, couldn’t justify one until second season’s ninth episode, Blackwater. Even still, the show’s producers decided not to recreate the LOTR’s Battle of Helm’s Deep on television, choosing to focus on the perspective of the infantryman’s of both opposite armies. This way, the episode scaled down the battle to a more relatable level that’d permit an emotional connection and toll with the many, gruesome deaths that happen on screen.
The most peculiar aspect of the episode, though, is the way it narrowed the continent-hopping storyline, with more than half of its sprawling ensemble cast cut from the episode so it could focus on the happenings at King’s Landing, where the battle was held. This didn’t diminish in any way the potency of the episode, it just added to it.
All this to say that large part of the focus and assertiveness that Blackwater gave the viewer owes to Neil Marshall’s direction. He wasn’t the first pick to helm the episode: about a week before shooting was to start, the director had a personal emergency and Marshall came to replace him. The show’s producers made a smart choice based on Marshall’s work on his films Centurion and Dog Soldiers, both with vigorous action set-pieces made on a limited budget.
He then gave us a battle that would make Peter Jackson and Saving Private Ryan’s Steven Spielberg clap in awe. Everything, ranging from the small moments that illustrated the character’s panic and confusion, to the epic battle that gave the episode its title was expertly handled. Not once the episode started showing its seams, and not once we got lost on the geography of what was happening on-screen, which is remarkable.
Even with everything happening at night we never wondered which character was who, the lighting was top notch and surely gave the DP a bunch of headaches before they got it right in every shot. Marshall also manages to work in a few bouts of pure, unrestrained gore that have made films like his 2005’s The Descent famous.
Neil Marshall would be chosen to direct this year’s season four ninth episode, also centered on an epic battle, but it couldn’t attain the brilliance of Blackwater because it lacked many of its emotional beats and character interactions that Marshall directed with wonderful balance between the goriest moments of the episode. It’s still baffling how it didn’t even garner a nomination for the best direction Emmy.
1. Ozymandias – Rian Johnson (Breaking Bad, 2013)
TV is a writer’s medium, many say. The way it allows characters be explored in an episodic fashion that may last a few years permits a deeper and richer feel of their fictionalized psyches and that is what many viewers and artists most enjoy from the medium. Breaking Bad is the best example out there, having been pitched since the start as a character study that chronicles the transformation of the lead character from ‘Mr. Chips to Scarface’.
Probably everyone has read that pitch by now, but it’s still relevant. Michael Corleone’s rise (or fall) from military hero to mafia boss in The Godfather is the best on-screen character transformation that cinema has given us, and Walter White’s turn as Heisenberg is definitely its TV counterpart.
Ozymandias is a heart-breaking, devastating hour of television. When he read the script, Pacific Rim director Guillermo del Toro desperately wanted to direct this episode. To his dismay, it was handed to Rian Johnson, who’s been reported as telling del Toro “Yeah, sorry, I’m the one who gets to fuck the prom queen”. If you’re into black humor, that’s the best way to describe what he got to direct.
Better known for his work on 2012’s Looper and being the chosen director to make the upcoming Star Wars Episode VIII, Johnson never shied away from difficult material. He also directed a previous Breaking Bad episode, season three’s Fly, a very polarizing piece of fiction.
In Ozymandias, he creates a claustrophobic environment even when the characters are out in the open, with fixed shots and close-up shots that don’t let the viewer breathe. Small cuts to the beautiful scenery Breaking Bad is known for give us room to contemplate some of the atrocious acts that are committed throughout the hour, but they’re still part of Johnson’s framework to make us suffer with gut punch after gut punch.
The episode’s infamous knife fight scene is a perfect example: sporting an enormous amount of visual cues that fill us with constant horror and extreme-close ups that leave us with our hearts in our hands. We could certainly argue that this is perhaps one of the best television episodes ever made thanks to the exemplary script, but the truth is that the surgical precision of Johnson’s direction created a dread-filled cinematic masterpiece that couldn’t make us avert our eyes even when we know we should.
Author Bio: João Santos is a Portuguese cinema student and an aspiring scriptwriter. He spends most of his time devouring films and some TV series as a guilty pleasure he can’t shake off, even though he knows he should be editing his damn scripts.