TV 101: Auteur Theory (or How YOU can make TV better, a practical guide)
That changes today. Last night, as I was drifting to sleep, I happened upon an idea that will not only make television better, it's something that we can all start doing right now. My idea, after the jump....
Okay, kids, follow my logic here and, I think, by the end of this essay we'll all have a very practical way to make American television better by the start of the 2009-2010 season.
Auteur theory was developed by a French guy named André Bazin. It states, essentially, that a film should be, first and foremost, a reflection of the director's personal vision. It differed from earlier theories of film production because of that emphasis on the personal; prior to auteur theory, films were thought of as entirely cooperative -- almost assembly line -- ventures.
Now, I don't own a turtleneck or have a neckbeard, so I don't watch a lot of 1950s French cinema. I realize that, to many of you, this comes off as small-minded in that uniquely American way. Please, though, save your "You just have to see Jules and Jim!" comments, because you need to understand: I am a small-minded American. In fact, I'm wearing a cowboy hat and eating Doritos as I write this. I ain't changing pal, because these myopic, uni-lingual colors don't run.
That said, I am a fan of American auteurs. Peter Biskind describes the American auteurs in his great books Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (about the start of the movement in the '70s) and Down and Dirty Pictures (about its revival in the '90s). Guys like Robert Altman, Wes Anderson, Francis Ford Coppola, Joel and Ethan Coen, David Fincher, Spike Jonez, George Lucas, Paul Schrader, Martin Scorsesse, Steven Spielberg, and Quentin Tarintino. The guys who, once Hollywood takes over our country once and for all, will wind up on our currency.
All of these directors have amassed enough power -- both in Hollywood and in cultural awareness -- that they can make their personal vision of a movie. This allows for some interesting side effects.
For instance, most of the movies that are made in the old Hollywood cooperative style fall firmly in the middle of the "Meh" meter. After being run through the ringer of a thousand producer notes and a million test screenings, they become so broad and inoffensive as to not even really exist. To this day, my wife and I can't decide whether or not we saw How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days. It seems like we would have seen it, but who can tell? The impression a movie like that makes fades faster than the indent my body makes on my memory foam bed.
Spectacular hits and spectacular misses only happen for the guy who reaches -- the auteur. Take Francis Ford Coppola: he blows our collective minds with Apocalypse Now [Video NSFW], and then, just a few years later, he blows a monumental fart with One from the Heart [Video Not Safe For Anyone].
It's okay, though, because studios are willing to risk the occasional Death Proof if they also have access your Pulp Fiction.
I think it's auteur theory that allows movies -- even the most commercial of movies -- to be looked at as art. Answering to the vision of a single man -- as opposed to a studio's marketing department -- allows for the kind of interesting (or even annoying!) quirks that we see in other singular art forms like novels or poetry (or television blogging!)
These quirks -- for good or for ill -- is what sets the films of the auteur apart from the film by committee.
Televsion: America's Sausage Factory
It's no secret that if you were to chart "artistic respect" on a graph, TV would fall about 200 places lower than movies (right above "Tijuana Donkey Show" and right below the winner of the "Best Gangbang" award at the AVNs).
Whenever a star gains just a little bit of traction on the small screen we wait and wonder when he'll make the leap to the big. Conversely, when we see a movie star show up on television we tend to treat it like when we see the Prom Queen 70 pounds over-weight and waitressing at a Bennigans. Yeah, Gary Sinise, I'm looking at you.
I would like to put forth the idea that this lack of respect is not a problem inherent in the medium, but because Television does not have any auteurs.
Almost everything we watch on television is created by a team, first and foremost. There isn't a writer, there's a writer's room. There isn't a director, there's four guys on rotation that have to follow certain show guidelines.
As we've seen with movies, when things follow a collective vision rather than a singular vision, they tend towards the mediocre. The chances that something will break out in a spectacular fashion (or even fail spectacularly) are significantly lowered with every chef you add to the kitchen.
This is not to say that great television can't be produced -- after all, I'm not blogging for TV Squad because they're paying me Zach money; they're not even paying me Screech money. It does bring forth a very valid criticism, however: TV's lack of auteurs forces the vast majority of television -- even good television -- into staid and stale team productions.
I mean, you're talking about an industry so resistant to change and quirkiness that it's considered risky when a comedy is filmed without a laugh track. Television makes Soviet Russia look like Austin Powers' London.
Even the very few exceptions help to prove the rule. The original BBC Office and HBO's The Sopranos, arguably the most important comedy and drama, respectively, of the last twenty years, were both the brainchild of strong-willed visionaries. Ricky Gervais and David Chase stand out as showrunners because they're in a very exclusive club: television producers who are treated like auteurs.
Well, great, but what can I do about it?
Now, here's the way we can all make television better:
1. As we've see, auteur theory makes traditionally collaborative art better.
2. Television is a medium bereft of auteurs. It's therefore weaker, artistically, than it could be.
3. If we can somehow create auteurs out of TV producers, we will make TV a better product!
Now, you might be saying to yourself, "But Jay, I already consider the creators of my favorite show auteurs! Hell, I know everything about TV. Just the other day, I was saying that Friends wasn't any good after Nina Kraft left the make-up department following the second season. I mean could Chandler's forehead be any more shiny?"
And yes, I realize that the kind of person who reads TV Squad on a daily basis has a deeper interest in television than my Aunt Fran (who was shocked to discover that many shows are being broadcast in color nowadays). I'm not arguing that we treat TV creators as auteurs -- most of us already do -- but that we make a concerted effort to make our casual-viewing acquaintances see what we see.
From now on, whenever you're discussing that show in public, make sure that you credit the greatness of the show to the efforts of that showrunner. Yeah, I know, it's a little unfair to the great writers and directors that are working on that show, but as Sensei John Kreese once said: Mercy is for the weak. We're gonna have to break a few eggs to make an auteur omellete.
Power is perception: if everyone who reads TV Squad starts crediting the showrunners and they're able to influence just a few of their friends, soon the showrunner will be credited with that show's success.
Hollywood's elite will soon begin to feel the same way the public does: it's not the stars or the timeslot, it's the showrunner. They'll start giving showrunners blank checks to create whatever shows their singular little visions are inspiring them to create.
The result? Fewer According to Jim's, many more Sopranos (and, uh, John from Cincinnati... yay?)
TV will soon become the same artistic mixed bag that movies are: mediocrity won't disappear, but it will be joined by grand adventures (and misfires) from talented individual thinkers.
And here's the best part of it: we will be the reason why this happened! Seriously, all you have to do is change, slightly, how you talk about shows:
"Hey did you catch the latest Damon Lindelof episode of Lost? Man that Lindelof has been hitting it out of the park lately."
"I thought Russell T. Davies had peaked with Queer as Folk, but I'll tell you, Torchwood is his best yet."
"Shonda Rimes used to be one of my favorite people. Then she created Private Practice and I actually traveled to Haiti so I could learn voodoo and curse her."
You can find a list of notable showrunners here.
So, what do you say, are you with me? Are you going to take my hand and change the world? Are you going to make a difference?
Come on! I don't want to go 171,146 words without making an impact...