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.