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The 20 Best-Directed TV Drama Series of the 21st Century, Ranked

For over a decade, series like "Breaking Bad" and "The Leftovers" have made us rethink the line between film and television, thanks to the cinematic brilliance we've witnessed on screen.

Girlfriend Experience/The Wire/Game of Thrones

Starz/HBO

TV has never been more beautiful, more daring, and more dramatic, and that’s owed to the new level of talent being given a chance to redefine what might be possible within this medium today. Since the dawn of the 21st century, we’ve witnessed an incredible array of directors (some native to TV, some fleeing the fluctuating feature film world) come to episodic storytelling to discover its potential.

READ MORE: The 25 Best TV Theme Songs of the 21st Century, Ranked

True story: We began this list with a wider range of genres in mind, but the number of shows we wanted to recognize grew so large that we decided to split it into drama and comedy series (we’ll get to comedies down the line). This is also the ritual place where we acknowledge that “The Sopranos,” if it had premiered just a little bit later, would have been in serious contention for this list, as well as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and other shows which premiered during the ’90s.

One fascinating thing we observed in compiling this list is how many directors made their names known across many of these shows. Anthony Hemingway, Lesli Linka Glatter, Alan Taylor, David Slade, Alex Graves, and Michelle MacLaren’s extensive resumes have included stops on many of these shows, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

TV is, it’s important to remember, a collaborative experience, and while several directors on this list were in charge of filming every episode, many others functioned as part of a larger team. The end result, the one that matters — some of the best storytelling happening today, flat-out.

20. “Lost”

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover UsageMandatory Credit: Photo by Snap Stills/REX/Shutterstock (2052176aq)Lost - "Confirmed Dead" - Elizabeth Mitchell, Matthew Fox, Ken Leung, Evangeline Lilly, Naveen Andrews, Jeremy DaviesLost Season 4 - 2008

Notable Directors: J.J. Abrams, Jack Bender, Marita Grabiak, Greg Yaitanes, Alan Taylor, Roxann Dawson

Following the pilot, directed by J.J. Abrams, “Lost” was a series with its share of missteps, but one thing the ABC drama always made sure to do was ground its fantastical elements in character and story. It was one of television’s most audacious gambles, and owed its success to a series of talented directors, including one-off turns by Paris Barclay and Mario Van Peebles. But it was Jack Bender, who directed over 40 episodes including the series finale, who stands out as one of the show’s most influential directors. “Lost” changed the way we thought about television in the 2000s, and it owes everything to that direction.

19. “Legion”

Legion Season 1 Episode 1 Kiss gif

“Legion”

FX

Notable Directors: Noah Hawley, Michael Uppendahl, Larysa Kondracki, Dennie Gordon

If you’re going to be making a show about one of the most powerful and unstable mutants in “X-Men” history, then you better make sure your direction matches his no-holds-barred powers. Similar to what Noah Hawley achieved in “Fargo,” where he took staples of the Coen Brothers’ style and made them feel organically fresh, “Legion” is built upon clear directorial touchstones (Kubrick, “Cuckoo’s Nest,” David Lynch, Wes Anderson) and yet warps them into something exhilaratingly new. The camera movements have no limits — we flip, pan, zoom and defy — while the direction takes David’s unstable psych and turns it into a chaotic funhouse that’s maddening, surreal and forever transfixing. The first season eventually gets to a place where it’s set in multiple planes of existence, the direction becoming more singular as the more characters distance themselves from reality. It’s the filmmaking version of a head trip, and it couldn’t be more intuitive for a series that literally takes multiple trips inside the mind.

18. “Black Mirror”

Mackenzie Davis in "Black Mirror."

Mackenzie Davis in “Black Mirror.”

Notable Directors: Owen Harris, Carl Tibbetts, Joe Wright, Euros Lyn

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the direction of “Black Mirror” is that while each episode stands out as uniquely its own, tonally each installment of the anthology series is very much of a piece with each other. And that’s without any one director really steering the ship — only a few have even directed more than one episode. That consistency is a testament to the power of writer Charlie Brooker’s storytelling talents, but he also deserves credit for letting each director apply their own unique style to the action.

17. “Game Of Thrones”

Kit Harington in "Game of Thrones."

Notable Directors: David Nutter, Alan Taylor, Jeremy Podeswa, Miguel Sapochnik, Mark Mylod, Alex Graves

“Battle of the Bastards.” It’s the easiest reason to give when explaining why “Game of Thrones” is one of television’s best directed series. Miguel Sapochnik, having already staged one of the series’ great action sequences in “Hardhome,” managed to pull off a large scale battle with a visceral intimacy that was impossible to shake (that long take, capturing Jon Snow in the middle of the battlefield, was a particular knockout). It was miles away from what Neil Marshall did with “The Watchers on the Wall,” a battle so grand and massive it found the show channeling its inner “Lord of the Rings.” But while the show’s increasing budget has given it the chance to pull out all the stops, the direction of the series has been doing just that all along. You can see it during the first season, in the way Alan Taylor stages Ned Stark’s beheading through a series of reaction shots that escalate the tension, or how Marshall directs the second season “Blackwater” more as a character study than a traditional battle episode.

16. “Rectify”

J.D. Evermore as Sheriff Carl Daggett, Clayne Crawford as Ted Talbot Jr. - Rectify Season 4, Episode 8

Notable Directors: Ray McKinnon, Keith Gordon, Billy Gierhart, Stephen Gyllenhaal

Daniel Holden (Aden Young) is released from prison after DNA evidence exonerates his 19 years on death row for the rape and murder of his girlfriend. How Daniel is able to re-assimilate back into his small town life makes up a majority of the drama in “Rectify.” It’s not a series concerned with figuring out if Daniel is guilty or not, and thus the direction relies less on an intense look for the truth and more on a patience for observing how one rebuilds his or her life. “Rectify” is so direct in its filmmaking that its greatness is rather unnoticeable at first. Each frame manages to find beauty in Daniel’s world, as if he’s just been born and experiencing every object, every natural surrounding, for the first time. The camera is always carefully placed so that it can amplify Daniel’s re-discovery of his old life, and it makes “Rectify” an overwhelming emotional journey. This is the type of a series where just the sight of dust floating in the air carries an emotional toll to it. It’s also a show where the blocking is integral to conveying character dynamics and theme. Daniel is free, and yet he’s often blocked inside frames. The direction forces you to ask just how imprisoned every character is to his or her own life, and the series get its power from how each person discovers his/her own answer to that question, and what they decide to do about it once they realize.

Up next: Picks #11-15, including a cannibal, crime-fighters and cowboys.

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