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September 5, 2015

TV 101: Auteur Theory (or How YOU can make TV better, a practical guide)

by Jay Black, posted Apr 10th 2008 11:04AM
Sure, he looks like a less-than-affluent grad student, but the man moves mountains every Thursday!Blogsmith, the software that we write TV Squad on, keeps a running tally of how many words we've written for the site. I can therefore tell you with precision that since I was hired in November of '06, I've written exactly 169,676 words of news, reviews, and opinion. While I'd like to think that most of those 169,676 words were entertaining, I have no illusions about whether or not they were helpful. My future brother-in-law is a surgeon; his job helps people. I write reviews of The Office.

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

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...

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I take issue with auteur theory in general, because there are so many people involved. I have no problem with the idea that directors have a tremendous impact on the final work, but take Spielberg, for example. He wrote Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but all his other major projects have been written by someone else. E.T. wasn't his idea, nor was Jaws, nor was Indiana Jones. The comparison to solitary artistic works doesn't hold, just because it has to be collaborative - there's too much work to be done.

That said, I think showrunners have a tremendous impact on TV series. Compare Rod Lurie Commander In Chief to Steven Bochco Commander In Chief, and you can see how important they are. They're not the sole author of the thing, of course, a great showrunner can't elevate a bad idea, or a bad writing staff, or a poor cast into a great show. But a poor showrunner can ruin an otherwise great show. And since they have, in many ways, final say on a lot of the ideas that are going into the show, if I enjoy showrunners' work once, I'm genuinely interested in subsequent series with their names attached.

April 12 2008 at 12:22 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

So...you're calling upon the democratic masses to swell up and fight for...a lack of democracy? What gives?

I think if you look again at the shows you love, you'll find there are a variety of voices in there contributing to what makes the show great. Not only do most of the shows you mention have multiple producers, multiple writers, multiple actors and multiple directors throughout their run, but the fact that television takes place in series or serial form means it takes much longer to produce than film, increasing the chances of turnover in the staff.

The nature of television is a collaborative one. You can make excuses for exceptional series by talking about them as "strong personalities," but calling for readers to support more auteurs in television obscures the importance of the medium's prominent qualities.

April 11 2008 at 8:25 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

It's a noble effort, but unless you've worked in the TV business and know how it works, you're always going to miss the mark. There's a big distinction you're not making here -- creator versus showrunner. When all is right with the world, they are one in the same. But more and more, feature writers are paid five times as much as TV writers for a pilot. Most feature writers have no experience in TV and don't know how to create a show with a sustainable engine. Ergo, en experienced showrunner is brought in to fix the mess. More often than not, the show is fundamentally flawed and unfixable. You see, TV DOES have an auteur -- it's a writer/creator with a vision for his or her show, and the experience with which to pull off a successful run. You denigrate writers with experience because you think they've lost their creative vision by actually learning the business. Not true. Learning the business makes them much more able to protect their vision and produce the show THEY want to make. Regardless of the input of the writing staff, the showrunner is the final word. He or she doesn't get outranked or outvoted. The show can't be made without the writing staff (such as it is these days, which is negligible) or the crew, but it won't even get off its feet without a strong creative vision driving it. The problem isn't that there aren't any "auteurs" in TV, it's that the people with strong creative visions aren't usually deemed as important as big-time feature writers, or even writers who've created shows (even if they were massive creative and economic failures -- guy does Kidnapped and Bionic Woman, and they give him another show?).

April 11 2008 at 1:58 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Kay's comment

Your points are sound, but I have to quibble if you are calling Kidnapped a creative failure. I recently watched all 13 episodes on UHD, and I was riveted the whole time. The show had one of the best ensemble casts in recent history, and was shot beautifully. It was a victim of timing and serial overload as much as anything else, and is a perfect argument for the utility of a year round season, where a show like Kidnapped could build a bit of a following and not die on the vine.

But yes, Bionic Woman blew.

April 11 2008 at 1:37 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Blair M

Your first point that auteur-driven movies are inherently better, or that collaborative movies are somehow inferior is not really given any evidence. Sidney Lumet is a great American director who's directed many classic films and he is not an auteur; he goes out of his way to ensure the vision the writer of the material had is respected in the final product.

Also, you want TV to have auteurs, but then you talk about praising show runners, who drive the narrative of a show but very very rarely do they direct the final product, or even get involved in defining the directorial style of the show (that's usually the job of the Pilot's director).

I can't deny that shows fueled by a singular mind can be spectacular, as Babylon 5 alone would convince me of that, but other shows with collaborative writer's rooms can also be spectacular. One good example is Battlestar Galactica: Ronald D Moore is the showrunner and leads the narrative, but if you've ever listened to the writer's room conversations that RDM has posted, you'll see that he doesn't overpower them in that room. He might take their idea and twist it to achieve the final effect, or it could be better than the idea he originally had. The fact that a lot of like-minded smart guys (and girls) sit down and hash out the story means you get crystallization not dilution.

But that's just my personal opinion. Oh dear, I've gone and rambled.

April 10 2008 at 9:57 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Jonny Rice

The problem with concept of television auteurs is that it's impossible for one person to have that much micro/macro control over a television show (especially a network show with 22 eps) and not burn out. A prime example would be A. Sorkin on the West Wing. Dude somehow wrote three excellent seasons of TV; yet scripts started coming in later and later, and he eventually ended up with a coke problem.

Most visionary film-makers can take three or four years between films, to spend as much time as is necessary on script, pre-production, filming and post. Can you imagine how much crap writer-directors like P.T. Anderson or the Coen Brothers would put out if they were producing 20+ hours of film every year?

Which is why network television HAS to be the way it is: Teams of talent producing a number of episodes in order to meet the demands of the business.

Reduced-season cable shows change that dynamic to a certain extent, but it's the BBC model that really works best for quality/auteur television. Short seasons. Short series. Fewer episodes. Creators change gears, and then produce something else entirely new. No seasons 7-9 of the X-Files. Or seasons s5-7 of Buffy. Or seasons 3-5 of Alias. Or fill-in-the-blank with your own series that just went on far too long for one "visionary" to sustain it.

The list could go on and on.

April 10 2008 at 9:11 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Jeremy Cromwell

I'd nominate the following as TV auteurs:
Aaron Spelling
Stephen J. Cannell
Jack Webb (Mark VII)
Quinn Martin
Chuck Lorre
Mark Goodson (game shows)

April 10 2008 at 5:50 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

One problem with trying to do the auteur thing in television: there's far too much for any one person to do. A lot of those film auteurs you listed go for years between each 2 to 3 hour movie. The average hour long drama is expected to produce roughly 15 to 16 hours of material each year. Unless a showrunner is an obsessed workaholic, they're going to have to delegate a LOT of responsibility.

April 10 2008 at 5:15 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Kind of off-topic, but it's crazy that JJ Abrams still gets so much credit for LOST, Darlton RULES!

April 10 2008 at 4:58 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

It's TARANTINO, not Tarintino...

April 10 2008 at 4:10 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

One more thing--while I love Gervais, Stephen Merchant is every bit as responsible for the success of The Office and Extras as Gervais--maybe more so, since he was the motivation behind the original pilot of The Office, the one that got a full season from the Beeb. The full story escapes me, but he was the prime mover on that one.

April 10 2008 at 4:07 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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