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How ‘True Detective’ and ‘The Knick’ are Ushering In the Next TV Revolution

By Corey Atad | Think Pieces | August 20, 2014 | Comments ()


The Knick Director.jpg

Television is not a medium known for its aesthetic beauty. Descended from a tradition of filmed plays and cheapo sets, and shown on small screens with poor resolution, there was hardly a need for TV to stand out visually or cinematically. The occasional series would break the trend, like The Prisoner in the 60s, Miami Vice in the 80s, and Twin Peaks in the 90s, but even those looked like “TV.” The so-called New Golden Age of TV brought about greater attention to visuals, aided by the move to HD. Now, True Detective and The Knick are taking that to the next level, signaling a radical shift in our understanding of what television as a storytelling medium can do. No more is television just a writer’s medium.

There is no denying that series like Mad Men and Breaking Bad have altered what audiences expect from the “filmmaking” on TV. Both shows, and other top tier dramas of their ilk, bring personality and flare to their visuals. And still, they aren’t quite there yet. Mad Men is a beautiful show, featuring thoughtful, stylish shots and edits throughout, but it’s still hemmed in by production schedules and budgets. In re-watching the show recently, it’s become clear just how often the directors will opt for a medium shot rather than a wide shot. Perfectly framed and gorgeous, but with clear limits.

On Breaking Bad, directors were given extraordinary freedom to envision and execute creative visuals. Beginning with Season 2, the show took on a cinematic quality relatively unmatched on TV outside of Boardwalk Empire. Directors like Michelle MacLaren and Rian Johnson pushed stylistic boundaries and did incredible things with fairly low budgets, challenging conventional wisdom in the craft.

Still, all these shows are fundamentally writer-driven. It makes sense, of course. The method for making television usually requires a solid creative personality responsible for maintaining consistency in narrative over the long term. Directors are brought in simply to execute that preset vision. Any spaced allowed for them to play is within the scope of the showrunner’s mandate. Bolder executive producers have widened that mandate, or in some cases focused it into something distinctive and quite brilliant, but there’s still something missing in that.

That’s where True Detective and The Knick come in. Both shows are notable for having used only one director for every episode of their respective debut seasons. The results speak for themselves. True Detective garnered huge acclaim for its direction, and now The Knick is receiving similar plaudits. What sets these shows apart from the rest of television is their allowance for true directorial vision while still very much conforming to the conventional elements of serialized TV.

True Detective was very much writer Nic Pizzolatto’s baby, and certainly his scripts in the early going were fascinating and engaging. The direction (and the acting, of course) is what made the show truly stand out. Whether it was bravura showmanship like the single take action sequence, or the reveal of Reggie Ledoux, or the falsified gunfight at Ledoux’s place, director Cary Fukunaga made something entirely unique and expressly cinematic. True Detective was not a ten hour movie by any means, but it sure felt up to that level, and that made a huge difference. Had that series gone through the normal HBO production method, with multiple directors handling different episodes, it’s a safe bet the show would not have made such a bold impression.

The Knick is written entirely by Jack Amiel and Michael Belger, and Clive Owen plays the lead, but the real star is director Steven Soderbergh. It’s early going, but after two episodes it’s already clear that the show has bested True Detective in the directorial department. The Knick is essentially a hospital drama with a really inspired setting. It’s conventional to the end, and had it been shepherded and directed by anyone else, it likely would’ve been an also-ran in the current landscape of truly excellent television. Soderbergh’s direction makes it near transcendent.

The opening sequence of The Knick’s second episode exhibited the kind of filmmaking verve usually reserved for the best movies of the year. Soderbergh crosscuts two scenes with amazing energy, and visual flourish to boot. He follows that sequence with an impressive long take as several characters make their way to work in the morning. Later in the episode, instead of shooting a pure dialogue scene with blocking and coverage, he stages it as a single take set piece, at one point following a character opening curtains while the main characters continue speaking off camera, and then ending with Clive Owen taking an axe to an electrical box. Each shot is composed with liveliness and auteuristic style that makes a fairly typical show anything but. And that’s just one episode of ten.

Many British series have used one director, but it’s a rare event for American TV. Even True Detective Season 2 will be done with multiple directors, but when rumoured names include the likes of William Friedkin, that’s something to look forward to. There is no denying the importance of the writer in television, but allowing directors more freedom to bring their vision to the small screen is the next step in revolutionizing the medium. Between The Knick and True Detective, and the rise of the director, the best that TV has to offer is almost certainly still to come. I can’t wait to see what that looks like.

Corey Atad is a Staff Writer for Pajiba. He lives in Toronto.



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Comments Are Welcome, Jerks Will Be Banned


  • Mrs. McGregor

    I just want to thank you for giving credit to "Miami Vice," a show that many people (who clearly have never watched it) seem to write off as a cheesy 80's punchline. But goddamn, that show was good. It was neon-noir. It could be grim as hell. And visually, most episodes ended up looking like Michael Mann's films/Michael Mann's films all look like episodes of "Vice" to me, even though he never directed an episode. Gorgeously shot.

    (And yeah, I'm still lobbying for Don Johnson in True Detective season two.)

  • andrew packer

    The Killing.

  • lowercase_ryan

    the 5 greatest achievements seen in my lifetime:
    1) the internet
    2) cell phones
    3) HD television
    4) resurrecting Hostess from bankruptcy
    5) Streaming services (thanks again internet! and for the porn!)

  • Prepagan

    Where's my jet pack, my colonies on the Moon?

  • Robert Sanchez III

    God dammit I love The knick so much. Its killing me having to wait a week between episodes! Ive watched both episodes multiple times now. The score really stands out to me as being a driving force behind how good it is as well as the direction being consistent which made true detective so great.

  • Bothari

    I haven't seen either of these shows (yet), but I'm going to make it a point to use the word 'plaudits' in conversation ASAP. And AOAP (often).

  • bring personality and flare to their visuals

    Isn't JJ Abrams doing movies now?

  • laylaness

    Well, Soderbergh and Fukunaga are film directors.

  • Ted Zancha

    Could you include Hannibal in this list as well?

  • mrsdalgliesh

    Although David Slade hasn't directed all the Hannibal episodes, Bryan Fuller has mentioned how important it is that DS has directed so many, so far into the series -- so I think Hannibal fits into this narrative. Its direction is key to its quality.

  • Hannibal fits in. As does Louie. These are all exceptions that prove the rule. Let directors strut and you get even more innovation.

  • Ted Zancha

    I didn't even think about Louie but he has done some phenomenal stuff with that show. Especially 6 episode arc that was essentially a movie and the 90 minute episode (also, basically a movie).

  • John W

    Each of these shows is like an oasis' in a desert of reality tv.

  • Daniel Rex

    Fargo.

  • BWeaves

    OK, dumbass here. I thought all TV shows used the same director. Wouldn't you hire staff for the duration of the show. Grips, best boys, makeup artists, actors, director? I guess I only noticed if the director was different if an episode felt "off." Not in line with the rest of the show. Or if an actor decided he wanted to direct an episode.

  • There is a certain prestige in being the director for a show's pilot because that director is often responsible for setting the directorial tone for the whole series. There usually are several different directors for a show, especially one that runs 22 episodes per season.

  • TheOtherGreg

    Several episodes can be in production at once.

  • BWeaves

    But wouldn't that be a problem for the actors or rest of the crew?

    Yes, I get it, but it still seems like it would be easier if the same director was there all the time. Just me? OK.

  • luckypete

    I can imagine the level of risk involved in that though. As a showrunner/ writer, to put that much faith in one director. If it pays off, like it did in True Detective, all the more brilliant, but when it doesn't... oh boy.

  • "How True Detective and The Knick are Ushering in the Next TV Revolution"

    By being boring?

  • TherecanbeonlyoneAdmin

    Hmm I detect a bouquet of rotten potato with a spicy undertone of unwashed armpit and a light dusting of Stilton cheese. The finish is as if the commenter were straining to defecate and failed causing an internal backup and forcing vomit into his own mouth.

    Final grade: D-

  • I can't help you with (a) your nose; or (b) your labored writing. I can help you with my point, which is:

    Oof -- those shows are not interesting.

    "True Detective" wants you to THINK it's interesting. But it does this by sacrificing women left and right. Sometimes literally, like the poor naked woman, bound and gagged and posed. Sometimes like all the other female characters in the show, given nothing to do and no intelligence. They're catalysts for the men, nothing more.

    The show is filled with spectacle, but it has no inner intelligence. It has no understanding of what it's trying to achieve (other than how easy it is to mask misogyny by suggesting that the point was never women to begin with) nor a coherent endgame. It's boring because we aren't learning anything new. This portrayal of violence against women isn't telling us anything new about why.

    And then, as far as "The Knick" is concerned: Was anyone REALLY asking for a steampunk "Nurse Jackie"?

  • Repo

    BOOOOOOOOO

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