While dramatic television has seen a wave of directorial ingenuity over the last 17 years (see our list of the best-directed dramas for proof), 21st century TV will probably be remembered more for the growth of vision in the comedy genre. What was once a format dominated by multi-cam sitcoms with live studio audiences has become the most auteur-driven genre on television, and the results have been some of the most creative and personal series the small screen has ever aired.
In brainstorming the best-directed comedy series of the 21st century, it becomes very clear just how much the genre is driven by personal style. Whether it’s Louis C.K.’s grounded realism or the rapid-fire curveballs of Armando Iannucci and Mitch Hurwitz, the showrunner as auteur has become the lynchpin of what makes 21st century TV comedy so remarkable
Make sure to check out our list of the best-directed drama series, and see our 20 best-directed comedy shows below.
20. “How I Met Your Mother”
Notable Directors: Pam Fryman
We selected this series, directed by Pam Fryman for all but 12 episodes over its nine season run, not just because it was able to blend the multi-camera format with single camera elements. What has us forever intrigued by the CBS comedy is the way in which it was able to track the entire lives of its characters, the good and the bad and the tragic, while never failing to deliver some laughs. While largely multi-camera, “HIMYM” never felt held back by the format, finding ways to innovate within it, including fantasy sequences, musical numbers, one-take experiments and the occasional brutal moment of reality.
19. “The Bernie Mac Show”
Notable Directors: Ken Kwapis, Linda Mendoza, Lee Shallat-Chemel, John Fortenberry, Reginald Hudlin
A five season experiment in form that feels shockingly modern given when it premiered, “The Bernie Mac Show” put Bernie Mac front and center by breaking the fourth wall and experimenting with documentary-esque techniques at the same time Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant were developing a similar approach with the British “The Office.” Yet its unique approach let Mac’s voice really drive the action, as he and his wife take in his sister’s kids after the sister is admitted to rehab. The series won a Peabody Award in 2002 — unfortunately, creator Larry Wilmore was fired soon after due to disputes with the network, but the show continued for another four seasons, with a stellar directing roster behind the camera.
18. “Parks and Recreation”
Notable Directors: Greg Daniels, Beth McCarthy-Miller, Dean Holland, Nicole Holofcener, Amy Poehler
Building on lessons learned from “The Office” but finding its own voice and tone relatively quickly, “Parks and Recreation” gave us some of modern television’s most powerful and inspirational moments, combined with some truly genius, insane comedy. While it helps to have an incredibly talented ensemble to draw upon, “Parks” made great use of those talents, with great dialogue and inspired moments of improv keeping the series moving. The show got better with every season, as the characters grew deeper and the world of Pawnee felt more real. Most importantly, Amy Poehler emerged not just as a confident leading woman, but a real talent as a director. Hopefully she gets more opportunities to direct in the future.
17. “30 Rock”
Notable Directors: Adam Bernstein, Gail Mancuso, Don Scardino, Beth McCarthy-Miller, Linda Mendoza
In retrospect, the most impressive thing about the direction of “30 Rock” was its madcap pace, which kept the show hurtling from joke to joke so quickly that years later, we’re still unpacking every nuance of the iconic Tina Fey series. That, plus its flawless pop culture parodies, real moments of sincerity and a trust in its eclectic cast to be able to sell any moment helped ensure this series’ legacy as one of this century’s most lovable oddball comedies.
Notable Directors: Jill Soloway, Nisha Ganatra, Silas Howard, Andrea Arnold
“Transparent” is so delicately shot that at times its compositions feel like visual poetry. In this regard, the show feels like a spiritual cousin to Andrea Arnold’s style of filmmaking, and it’s no wonder the “American Honey” director has shot two episodes of the series. The show’s direction often evokes two of the series’ greatest themes: isolation and connection. In moments of emotional detachment, wide shots and negative space drown the characters in their own feelings of loneliness. Connection and intimacy are often depicted with closeups of body parts touching, as Soloway and her directing team sensitively shoot hands touching or feet caressing one another. “Transparent” has a lyrical quality that still feels grounded. The direction evokes the emotional undertones of each scene, but the cast makes these emotions feel so relatable. That’s why the show is at its very best in episodes like “Man on the Land,” where Soloway lets the filmmaking have an expressive quality that the cast manages to make honest and real.
15. “You’re the Worst”
Notable Directors: Jordan Vogt-Roberts, Alex Hardcastle, Matt Shakman, Wendey Stanzler, Stephen Falk
From the very first episode, “You’re The Worst” delivered a specific, deliberate tone that charmed us, but it’s also a show that has refused to play it safe, making choices both with storytelling and filmmaking that have made it one of the most exciting and challenging comedies on TV today. True story: one week, an episode was posted to the FX screener site that, by mistake, lacked a few key channels of audio — not knowing it was a mistake, we watched it, and even without sound, the storytelling was still quite clear, the performances still striking. That’s the mark of a truly great series, featuring some truly great direction.
14. “Dear White People”
Notable Directors: Justin Simien, Tina Mabry, Barry Jenkins, Nisha Ganatra
As IndieWire noted earlier this year, “Dear White People” is a masterclass in how to adapt a movie into a television series. Justin Simien expanded his 2014 breakout indie into a “Rashomon”-style television series, crafting POV-focused episodes that follow the lives of individual characters in the wake of a racially insensitive campus party. Simien brilliantly expanded the narrative to fit the needs of television storytelling, but he wisely kept the distinct visual style of the film intact, most notably the use of negative space to disenfranchise certain characters (Sam is practically engulfed in negative space after her black friends discover she’s been seeing a white man). The way the show directs dialogue is also thematically potent. Simien often avoids eye lines and puts his characters at the edge of the frame, heightening the confrontational space between speakers. So much of the series involves characters confronting each other on social issues that Simien’s uncomfortable framing techniques only heighten the tension and emotion. The direction is unlike any other comedy on television, and that’s part of what makes “Dear White People” so special.
13. “Documentary Now”
Notable Directors: Rhys Thomas and Alex Buono
You may think it’s slightly unfair to include a show where the direction is so blatantly lifted from the most iconic documentaries ever made (the styles of Maysles, Morris, Demme and Pennebaker are all faithfully represented here), but IFC’s “Documentary Now!” always goes for more than just the cheap visual knockoff laugh. While it’s a mockumentary of public TV programming and the documentaries they feature, the real pleasure lies in watching how the direction creates homages to great nonfiction work and brings attention to what made the filmmaking behind these works so pioneering. It’s more postmodern analyzation than it is straightforward copy cat. It doesn’t just want to recreate a style, but it wants to prove to you why that style matters. Rhys Thomas and Alex Buono have been behind the camera for every episode, and their attention to detail is so meticulous that oftentimes it looks like they just used VFX and inserted Fred Armisen and Bill Hader into the original works. “Documentary Now!” is a love letter to the legacy of nonfiction filmmaking, and that deep respect for the genre is shown in every frame of every episode.
Notable Directors: Lena Dunham, Richard Shepherd, Jesse Peretz, Jamie Babbit
Spearheaded by Lena Dunham over the first three episodes of the series, the direction of “Girls” was always the key in proving the series was very aware that it was an observational study of a particular set of millennial angst. Critics who took issues with “Girls'” lack of representation or Hannah as a likable character had every right to, but the show was clearly filmed in a way to observe (no wonder the reactions were wide-ranging and polarizing). Dunham was a fan of static shots and slow zooms and pans, which always made “Girls” feel not like a immersive experience but a visual tableau. Each shot called attention to its details, as the representations of each character’s personality were accented by their rooms, clothes and mannerisms. “Girls” was a study of personalities, and the direction insightfully forced you to pay attention to this, even when those moments were cringe-worthy and/or sexually provocative. Dunham’s insistence on holding shots is what gave those notorious sex scenes their fearless and invasive power. “Girls” wanted to stir up conversations, and the filmmaking behind it helped create the dialogue.
11. “Master of None”
Notable Directors: Eric Wareheim, Aziz Ansari, Melina Matsoukas, Alan Yang
Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang’s “Master of None” is so diverse in its storytelling and narrative structure that it opens itself up to a variety of different directing styles. The duo decided to shoot the series in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, creating a cinematic widescreen effect that no other television series is currently daring to play with. But what makes the series so great is how its cinematic style is filled with real emotional work. The series is designed to amplify its emotional core, and every directing choice serves this purpose, from the use of color to the brilliantly-constructed montages (the Tinder date montage that kicks off “First Date,” for example). “Master of None” encourages bold directing choices, whether it’s shooting in black-and-white and on location to evoke Italian neo-realism or capturing the agonizing confusion of a date’s aftermath in a three-minute long take that just sits with Aziz and his reactions. “Master of None” takes more chances with each new episode, and from season to season it showed an increase in ingenuity that was jaw-dropping. If Season 3 happens, there’s no telling how amazing the filmmaking will soar.