Hard to Find
June 4, 2013
I used to do an occasional roundup post wherein I would comment upon interesting new TV-related articles I’d read. Ever since I’ve been on Twitter (@smilingcobra), I’ve just been posting those links there — it’s more efficient and I never liked putting a lot of effort into writing posts that would become instantly disposable.
However, I can’t resist a little annotation on two recent articles that are totally unrelated but still strike me as two halves of the same whole. One is Matt Zoller Seitz’s attempt to make an auteurist case for the episodic television director. The other is a DGA Magazine article about directing The Good Wife. Where Seitz compiles through-lines by looking at the TV shows themselves, Ann Farmer comes at it from the other direction, by polling some Good Wife producers and directors in search of concrete examples of the directors’ contributions to specific episodes. (Totally irrelevant coincidence: When I interviewed veteran TV director Michael Zinberg for last year’s “Turkeys Away” oral history, he called me from the set of The Good Wife. Which reminds me, I’m still waiting for that introduction to Archie Panjabi.)
Whereas the role of the television writer changed seismically when episodic television shifted from a freelance to a staff model, the of the episodic director is essentially the same as it has been since the fifties. The almost complete separation of filmic and three-camera sitcom directors, the director’s hierarchical disadvantage relative to producers and actors and cameramen who work on their shows full-time, the gulf between A-listers who direct the hot shows and rank-and-file directors who get stuck with everything else — none of those factors have changed much since the late fifties. There have been some intriguing exceptions to these old patterns in recent years – a director’s occasional commitment to a staff job on a show, as Seitz noted, or the relatively new form of the one-camera sitcom – but none of them have become the rule. Plus, even those new things aren’t that new: in the old days, a director would turn producer once in a while (Walter Grauman on Felony Squad, Boris Sagal on T.H.E. Cat), and hybrid half-hour dramedies like The Law and Mr. Jones, which were the closest antecedent to single-camera comedies, attracted an odd mix of comedic and dramatic directors, just as today’s single-cams pull in both established TV comedy directors and indie-film outsiders (whose widespread infiltration of episodic TV during the HBO era of the early 2000s is also something that a few older shows like East Side / West Side and The Bold Ones tried).
So, nothing is new under the sun — which is why it’s remarkable, and frustrating, and revealing, that the subtext of that Good Wife piece is one of defensiveness, and that the idea Seitz is getting at is so hard to pin down. It’s easy to talk out one’s ass about “the director” — to simply default to auteurist lingo in criticism and write that Thomas Schlamme did this or that, without actually investigating who came up with what idea. But to really write authoritatively about a TV director’s work, or style, is extremely challenging. A glance at Seitz’s scattershot examples shows how much work is left to be done: there are nods to The Twilight Zone (John Brahm) and All in the Family (Paul Bogart), but most are from post-2000 shows Seitz has written about elsewhere. Of course, there are TV director auteurs from every era, but we’ve only scratched the surface in picking them out or isolating what qualities differentiate them from their peers. John Frankenheimer’s roving camera made him a behind-the-scenes star of the Playhouse 90 period, and most of my fellow sixties television cultists have figured out that Sutton Roley – the Orson Welles of early television – crammed nearly every TV episode he directed with a ton of strange angles and extreme lenses. But there are dozens of other early episodic directors with an eye almost as bold as Roley’s, and an especially problematic class of “actor’s directors” (like Paul Bogart, whom Seitz mentions) whose touch is probably only detectable by subtraction. (Many episodic TV directors had, or have, their own “stock companies” — but while we know all of those beloved John Ford and Preston Sturges actors well, we haven’t yet enumerated Paul Bogart’s or Ralph Senensky’s favorites.)
Most of us watch television by program, whether it’s one episode per week or in marathon form. To write knowledgeably about an episodic director’s work, you’d have to turn that sideways, and scrutinize specific episodes of dozens of different series, with an eye peeled for formal connections that aren’t always obvious. Then you’d have to try to account for factors that derived from other creative contributors, or “house styles.” Series like Ben Casey or Star Trek had such distinctive lighting schemes that you would expect any director’s episodes of those shows to vary from their personal “look,” whatever it might be. A series star’s performances aren’t likely to vary much from episode to episode (or are they?), but what can be discerned by comparing actors’ one-off work across many shows, for particular directors? Why might Don Gordon have walked through a dozen guest shots and then absolutely nailed the title role in The Defenders‘ “Madman”? Was it simply a response to stronger-than-usual material, or was the director (Stuart Rosenberg) the x factor? Or why, to put it another way, might Sutton Roley’s touch be more muted on some series than others? Probably because of budget constraints, or producers and cinematographers who preferred a less showy style. Roley always fought the system, which is why his body of work stands out, but there are other directors who did extremely innovative work on “friendly” shows and totally anonymous work on other series.
In the DVD-and-torrenting era, the texts are available for this kind of scrutiny in a way that they weren’t until ten or fifteen years ago — but I haven’t taken it on, and I’m not aware of anyone else who has, either. (Actually, I do know some gonzo cinephiles who are expert on some of the TV-movie directors of the seventies, but little or none of their work has been published yet.) Finding the director’s touch, I think, is the ultimate brain-teaser of television scholarship.
P.S. So, I’ve been missing in action for a while, huh? Writing for money and sundry other things have kept me away from the important work for longer than planned. If things go as planned, though, this space should be sputtering slowly back to life over the next couple of weeks.