John Logan has been nominated for three Academy Awards (“Hugo,” “The Aviator,” and “Gladiator”). Sam Mendes won an Oscar for directing “American Beauty.” While both got their start in the theater, the duo behind Showtime’s Sunday premiere of “Penny Dreadful have made a name for themselves as filmmakers. Logan has collaborated with iconic directors like Oliver Stone, Martin Scorsese, and even penned the screenplay for Clint Eastwood’s upcoming adaptation of “Jersey Boys,” while Mendes made “Road to Perdition,” “Jarhead,” and “Skyfall” after winning his Oscar. These two are bonafide filmmakers. Successful filmmakers. And now they’re making television.
Thankfully, there’s nothing wrong with that anymore. The stigma of downgrading from the big screen to the small has all but vanished in 2014, and there are a few major players we have to thank for that. Below, we’ve listed the 10 best television shows created, developed, or primarily written by individuals who were filmmakers first. While having a background in film before moving on to successful TV is the only major criteria, that does eliminate a few shows from people who are now known as filmmakers. You won’t find “Lost” or “Alias” on here, seeing as J.J. Abrams didn’t earn his reputation for writing “Gone Fishin'” or “Armageddon” (thought the latter remains my favorite of his work). The same goes for Joss Whedon, whose work on “Toy Story” is irrefutably brilliant but not his namesake. Rod Serling for “The Twilight Zone” and Larry Gelbert for “M.A.S.H.” also are excluded because their hit movies (“Planet of the Apes” and “Tootsie,” respectively) came out after their hit shows.
But enough with who’s not included. Let’s talk about who is — check out the list below:
One could argue — and would be correct in doing so — the television version of “Friday Night Lights” is actually Jason Katims’ baby. He was the executive producer, showrunner, and an Emmy winner for writing the finale. But it was Peter Berg who brought it to television, and, along with Brain Grazer, used his muscle in Hollywood to get it greenlit time and again for five glorious seasons. Berg directed the feature film first, of course, before developing the story for television and directing the pilot.
Why is it the best? Six words: “clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.” The quote that’s come to be a code among fans when feeling each other out is also the perfect encapsulation of a show built around morals. The filmic quality of the presentation supports the substance of the stories on screen with a shaky, roaming camera and natural, flowing dialogue. Even while we whip and pan and jump and shake, the vision is clear, our hearts are full, and the show remains unbeaten.
Like Logan and Mendes, Sorkin got his start writing for the stage before breaking out with “A Few Good Men” — the play, then followed by the film. He earned two Golden Globe nominations for two of his first three screenplays, “Men” and “The American President,” before he took a stab at TV with “Sports Night.” Then came the legendary, life-changing political drama “The West Wing.” Looking back at it now (and you can — all seven seasons, only four of which Sorkin penned — are on Netflix), the suits and styles have become dated, but the political gusto and patriotic parleys are as relevant as ever. “The West Wing” also earns credit for being one of the first major television shows to successfully lure and integrate a legitimate movie star: Martin Sheen, who was certainly someone prior to taking Sorkin’s oath of office, has never been seen the same since. True Americans would still follow President Bartlet into battle, for country or for cause.
3) “Twin Peaks” – created by David Lynch
David Lynch’s resume need not be discussed, considering the iconic stature he reached in the film world before and after “Twin Peaks.” His co-creator, Mark Frost, started in TV, writing episodes of “The Six Million Dollar Man” and “HIll Street Blues” before partnering with Lynch to create the short-lived, but cult favorite, surreal murder mystery. Frost has gone on to work on a few failed TV shows as well as writing the two “Fantastic Four” movies, making “Twin Peaks” largely Lynch’s property, pride, and proud addition to his canon of work. Buzz for the show remains fervent to this day, despite going off the air in 1991, with some authors even calling for its reinvention in today’s marketplace. No matter whether or not it lives on, “Twin Peaks” has proved its lasting impact already, while serving as a mid-career experimental success story for Lynch.
4) “Lonesome Dove” – created by William D. Wittliff, from the novel by Larry McMurtry
Larry McMurtry was an author first and a screenwriter second, but that didn’t stop him from earning an Oscar nod for writing “The Last Picture Show” in 1971 or a win in 2005 for “Brokeback Mountain.” That being said, “Lonesome Dove” the miniseries was the work of William D. Wittlliff, often credited as Bill Witliff, who earned early praise for writing “The Black Stallion.” He would go on to write “Legends of the Fall” and “The Perfect Storm,” but not before adapting McMurtry’s western masterpiece for television.
Helped along by impeccable performances from a truly A-list cast including Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones, Danny Glover, and Diane Lane, “Lonesome Dove” makes its way into the Top 5 despite its qualification as a miniseries. After all, TV miniseries are as close as the medium could get to movies in the late ’80s, and Wittliff’s version was divided into only four episodes, which wouldn’t even count as a season run by today’s abbreviated standards. Still, clocking in at six-and-a-half hours, “Lonesome Dove” is just long enough to qualify, and, to be blunt, it’s simply too towering of an achievement to exclude.
5) “Band of Brothers” – created by Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg, and Gary Goetzman
Another miniseries makes the cut with the help of its sequel of sorts, “The Pacific.” In today’s day-and-age, “Band of Brothers” and its slightly inferior sibling would constitute the first two seasons of a standalone series, like “True Detective” aspires to be and “American Horror Story” has already been. And a third effort from creators Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg, and Gary Goetzman still could arrive sometime down the line, as war stories never get old for audiences and young faces to portray baby-faced vets are also rarely in short supply. “Band of Brothers,” though, is its own creation. Arriving only three years after “Saving Private Ryan” and successfully mimicking its gritty style in cinematography and set design, the HBO miniseries was arguably as significant to the way Hollywood tells war stories as its cinematic predecessor. Here’s hoping for a part three — or four — soon.
6) “Homicide: Life on the Street” – created by Paul Attanasio
While David Simon’s consistent top seed “The Wire” doesn’t quite qualify for this list, the show based on his book — and developed for television by Paul Attanasio — is an absolute must for fans of Simon, “The Wire,” and good TV in general. Chronicling a fictitious version of the Baltimore Police Department, this police procedural was nursed through six seasons on NBC by Attanasio, who scripted “Quiz Show,” “Disclosure,” and “Donnie Brasco” before solidifying his scholarly rep with “Homicide: Life on the Street.” But he wasn’t alone as the only filmmaker on set: Barry Levinson joined him. At that time, Levinson had already directed “Diner,” “The Natural,” “Good Morning, Vietnam,” and “Rain Man.” It’s no wonder some of the characters from Simon’s book and this show moved on to be recreated in at least three of the best shows ever made.
7) “ER” – created by Michael Crichton
I know, I know. Michael Crichton is a novelist whose books were later made into movies. Well, that much is true, but he also wrote many of those movies himself. He’s credited for adapting “The Great Train Robbery,” “Jurassic Park,” and “Rising Sun” to film. He also wrote “Twister,” which was an original screenplay. In 1994, he created “ER,” based on Crichton’s experience as a resident physician in an emergency room that he originally wrote as a screenplay in the ’70s. John Wells helped in the development as well, serving as an executive producer for not only all 300+ episodes of “ER,” but also for another show higher on this list, “The West Wing.” The show perhaps best known in 2014 for launching George Clooney’s career as well as many other one-hour network doctor dramas still holds up today as a hospital procedural that did, disappointingly, overstay its welcome. If not, it could be a few slots higher. Maybe.
8) “Justified” – created by Graham Yost, based on the novels by Elmore Leonard
Graham Yost started his career by writing for the short-lived Nickelodeon show “Hey Dude,” but he proved himself with some very adult material, even before the boundary-pushing action series, “Justified.” You see, Yost wrote “Speed.” Yes, thee “Speed” with Keanu Reeves, Sandra Bullock and Dennis Hopper. He followed that up with “Broken Arrow” and was later credited for “Band of Brothers” and “The Pacific.” But the man wrote one of the best action movies of the ’90s, nay, all time, so his cinematic chops are unquestionable. Even after pumping out five seasons of Kentucky badass, “Speed” is still his crowning achievement.
That being said, “Justified” is nothing to sneeze at. With widespread high regard, an ardent fan base, and one of the better casts working on modern television — Walton Goggins has been criminally overlooked by the Television Academy, as has the show in general — “Justified” is set to wrap up on a high note next year with more of its violent, fast-paced, and extremely fun stories. Huh. Wonder where Yost learned how to do that.
9) “The Good Wife” – created by Robert and Michelle King
CBS owes pretty much every shred of respect it still has from a creative viewpoint to Robert and Michelle King’s drama, and they know it. Consistently backed for Best Drama at the Emmys, earning a nod in 2010 and 2011, the Ridley Scott production is back on the campaign trail again this year, calling out its competition for producing less of a good thing each year. Though the “Blade Runner” and “Alien” director’s inclusion as an executive producer could be enough to merit the show’s inclusion on this list, its creators also come from the world of cinema. The wife of the husband/wife duo has only worked in TV, but Robert had a long career making films, well, not quite on par. The lone highlight in a slew of forgettable ’80s and ’90s fare is “Vertical Limit,” the Chris O’Donnell-led action flick about climbers trapped on a mountain while trying to make a difficult ascent. Clearly King pulled all the juicy bits of usable drama from that and put it into “The Good Wife” — that, or he should’ve started listening to his wife much sooner.
10) “The Walking Dead” – created by Frank Darabont
Frank Darabont’s claim to fame is “The Shawshank Redemption.” There’s no disputing it. But he most likely learned more for his mega-hit zombie show by writing a few B-level horror flicks early in his career. Darabont scripted “A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors,” “The Fly II,” and even the 1988 version of “The Blob.” After earning Oscar nominations for “Shawshank,” he again went back to the horror genre with “Frankenstein,” starring Robert De Niro and Kenneth Branagh, then blended the two worlds of horror and prisons by adapting Stephen King’s “The Green Mile.” He again returned to horror for another King adaptation, the under-appreciated 2007 film “The Mist.”
Next up? He put it all together to create “The Walking Dead,” AMC’s biggest, most consistent ratings draw to date. I doubt anyone will forget the show’s opening scene, expertly told through slow camera movements building tension as Sheriff Rick Grimes searches for gas and instead finds a lost little girl…or is she? Darabont uses still frames and lingering shots to lull the audience into accepting the serene environment. That is, until the unthinkable happens and “The Walking Dead” marks itself as a new breed of horror show.