For the past decade or so we’ve lived in a golden age of TV. It is now perfectly acceptable for a movie star to headline a TV show, and not a star whose light has dimmed but a big star, and it is also not a huge surprise to see an episode or two of these shoes to be directed by a superstar director. There are different kinds of director involvement when it comes to TV. There are shows which a director has developed and thus they take a huge role in like Steven Soderbergh with The Knick or The Wachowskis and Sense8. With these shows the director’s influence is writ large in every scene from character traits to choice of music or writer.
Another type relies on a director being an executive producer on the show and they come in to direct the pilot and then are simply a credit and an occasional mouthpiece for building hype for the show. Boardwalk Empire, House of Cards, Prison Break, House, and Sleepy Hollow all have recognisable names linked to them and Martin Scorsese, David Fincher, Brett Ratner, Bryan Singer, and Len Wiseman each directed the pilot episode of the show they executive produce.
Finally, we have the guest director. You’ll be watching a show and at the beginning of a random episode in the season a credit will appear that you recognise. Joel Schumacher has directed episodes of House of Cards and Jodie Foster has done the same for Orange is the New Black. You also see directors who have a few movies under their belt directing TV like Ben Wheatley directing Doctor Who, Lexi Alexander directing Supergirl, or Rian Johnson directing Breaking Bad. This is great for giving the directors further exposure, keeping the bills paid between movie gigs, and also giving them a chance to practice their craft. Wheatley isn’t big enough to be given some massive sci-fi franchise but directing two Doctor Who episodes, one about a T-Rex in Victorian England and one set in space, he gets a chance to work with special effects and high concept madness while having a ton of fun in the process.
One of the more famous and shocking at the time examples of this was when the penultimate episode of ER‘s first season was guest-directed by Quentin Tarantino. When Tarantino directed ER he was hot and fresh off Pulp Fiction, had created a genre unto himself, and was poised for world domination. In 1995, the idea of a director that big directing something as small as TV was a massive novelty, whereas when Tarantino directed a CSI two-parter ten years later the novelty wasn’t a movie star directing TV, it was the fact that he had chosen CSI to be the show he wanted to work on.
The thing about a movie director directing TV is that it is a great bite-sized way of seeing a director’s style (or lack thereof.) If you watch the Scorsese-directed episode of Boardwalk Empire, Fincher’s House of Cards or Tarantino’s ER, their style is spray painted on every frame in ten foot high letters. Fincher’s use of washed out colours and static cameras are heavily present in the first episodes of House of Cards and leave the show with a style that other directors then have the thankless task of trying to imitate. Scorsese’s pilot episode for Boardwalk Empire was so good that, when I realised he would not be directing further episodes, I didn’t bother pursuing the rest of the show knowing that quality would diminish as directors tried and failed to imitate Scorsese’s style.
Tarantino’s ER is the anomaly on this list as he didn’t direct the first episodes, he directed episode twenty-four of a twenty-five episode season. ER was always a very well-crafted show and Tarantino doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel, but while working within the established ER style he makes some classic Tarantino stylistic choices like the opening unbroken shot travelling through the hospital and the prevalence of black comedy throughout. The only thing missing is a Tarantino cameo and Samuel L. Jackson popping up as an angry man in the waiting room.
The flipside of the above is that rather than illuminating a certain director’s unique flair it can reveal their lack of a signature style. Len Wiseman, Brett Ratner, and Bryan Singer directed the pilots for Sleepy Hollow, Prison Break, and House respectively, but each of this episodes of television are interchangeable. There is nothing about them that makes you think, “Oh, this is clearly a Ratner joint” because the director himself doesn’t have the same kind of go to moves as Fincher, Tarantino, or Scorsese, a fact that a less kind writer than myself might use to explain why his movies are all utter garbage.
The golden age of TV shows no signs of abating, and as more and more movie stars migrate to TV shows, it would be great to see more movie directors doing guest spots. I guess in the end all I really want is Wes Anderson to direct a Penny Dreadful, Kathryn Bigelow to direct a Game of Thrones, and for the Coen Brothers to direct an episode of Doctor Who. Not too much to ask for.
Featured Image: Netflix