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The Best TV Directors of All Time – IndieWire Critics Survey

From Cary Fukunaga and Michelle MacLaren to James Burrows and Mimi Leder, these directors know how to craft excellent television.

Richard Madden and Michelle Fairley, "Game of Thrones"

Richard Madden and Michelle Fairley, “Game of Thrones”

HBO

IWCriticsPick

Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Tuesday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best show currently on TV?” can be found at the end of this post.)

This week’s question: Who is the best TV director? Why? (For old, current or upcoming shows.)

Marisa Roffman (@marisaroffman), TV Guide Magazine

The recent Emmy Awards was a good reminder of just how great television directors are right now. It was the best overall crop we’ve had in years, and one of the few categories where it felt like it could have gone any way.

But in terms of best television director, I’m partial to David Nutter. His 30-plus year resume is impressive (“The Sopranos,” “ER,” “The X-Files,” plus an Emmy win for “Game of Thrones”) and wildly varied (he’s done procedurals like “Without a Trace,” seamlessly as he’s maneuvered the glitzy world of “Entourage”).

However, what may be most impressive about his work is the streak he had of consecutive pilots getting picked up to series. Starting with 1994’s “M.A.N.T.I.S.,” Nutter helped 16 consecutive pilots go on to become full-on series. Some were short-lived, like the 2003 show “Tarzan”; then there’s “Supernatural,” which is still going strong. Nutter had a few pilots get passed over in the past few years, but his recent resume is nothing to scoff at: he helmed the first episodes of “Arrow,” “The Flash,” “Containment,” and the upcoming ABC series “Deception.” Successfully directing the first episode is no easy feat, as the visual tone of the series is established in the first installment. The fact that people keep coming back to Nutter for this very delicate task? Speaks volumes. (Okay, and bonus points for directing the still-chilling “The Rains of Castamere,” aka the Red Wedding, hour of “Game of Thrones”)

Allison Keene (@KeeneTV), Collider

This is so tough, but when it comes to bests and worsts I try not to overthink it and just go with my first thought … or three. Three directors came to mind immediately, and for better or worse they all come primarily from the film world. My apologies to all of the hard-working and excellent TV-only directors I am snubbing!

For me, Steven Soderbergh’s direction of “The Knick,” Cary Fukunaga for “True Detective,” and Susanne Bier for “The Night Manager” mark three times I have been so visually bowled over by a series that I became obsessed and just wouldn’t shut up about it (and still won’t). The way each of these three so fully captured their environs — be it the hustle (and side hustles) of an early 20th-century hospital, swampy, gothic southernness, or Vogue-like gatherings and nocturnal dessert explosions — these directors made their series unforgettably gorgeous and visceral. It helps, too, that they had ownership over entire seasons, and honed a look that defined each so completely. I know that isn’t the luxury of typical TV direction, so I’m probably failing this survey, but these directors made those seasons, for me, iconic works of television.

Clive Owen, "The Knick"

Daniel Fienberg (@TheFienPrint), The Hollywood Reporter

This question is too complicated and anybody who can narrow it down to just one is doing it wrong. Look, you start with James Burrows (“Taxi,” “Cheers,” etc). That much I know. The modern sitcom format doesn’t exist without him and I think he’s more clearly influential in his genre than anybody else in any other genre, but if comedy is deviating more and more from the multi-cam format, is somebody like Todd Holland (“Malcolm in the Middle”) nearly as influential in his own way?

But then you look over to drama and it’s basically impossible. How do you quantify the influence somebody like a John Frankenheimer, who directed 27 installments of “Playhouse 90” before becoming a wildly influential film director and then returned to TV later in his career and won multiple Emmys for telefilms? Or John Brahm, who directed many classic installments of “The Twilight Zone” and other early TV classics? Does our 2017 TV vernacular exist without Mimi Leder and Tommy Schlamme? Probably not. Gotta mention them, because they helped codify modern TV style and when they direct for TV today, they’re as good as it gets. David Slade is as good as it gets when it comes to pilots.

Vince Gilligan, Matt Weiner, Noah Hawley, and Jill Soloway are just a few of the writer-directors who have helped shift perception of television into more of an auteurist direction, brilliant writers who know how to capture their ideas better than anybody else. But TV is still a medium of directors who go from show to show, and I love the work of directors who only work on quality shows and thus only do quality work (or vice versa), whether it’s somebody like Keith Gordon, who did episodes of “Better Call Saul,” “Fargo” and “The Leftovers” last fall, or a relative newcomer like Steph Green, whose sterling 2017 credits include “American Crime,” “Billions,” “The Americans” and “Preacher.” And who am I to disagree with the recent Emmy recognition for Reed Morano, who helped shape “The Handmaid’s Tale” into a juggernaut?

And if I said in last week’s question that the “Up” series is one of the landmarks of the medium, then Michael Apted has to be mentioned. And if we’re talking documentaries, Ken Burns has to be mentioned. Force me to give one answer? I’ll give two: James Burrows and Tommy Schlamme.

"The Americans"

“The Americans”

Craig Blankenhorn/FX

Liz Shannon Miller (@lizlet), IndieWire

The first episode of television Michelle MacLaren ever directed was one of the best episodes of that season. “The X-Files” Season 9, up until that point, had been exceedingly lackluster thanks to the general sense that everyone still involved kinda wished they could move onto something else. But the MacLaren-helmed “John Doe,” which featured Agent Doggett (Robert Patrick) lost in the Mexican desert, brought with it an inspired visual flair that we hadn’t seen from the series in a long time.

MacLaren then tried her hand at a variety of different shows before becoming a key member of the directing team on Vince Gilligan’s “Breaking Bad,” directing more episodes than any other director involved with the seminal series. There, her talents behind the camera really got the opportunity to shine, especially in key episodes like “Gliding Over All” and “To’hajiilee,” and she’s since gone on to not only work on some of the best prestige dramas on TV, including “Game of Thrones,” “The Leftovers,” and “Westworld,” but helped bring to life 1970s Times Square for HBO’s “The Deuce,” directing the first and last episodes of Season 1. MacLaren has become one of television’s go-to auteurs, and while she’s moved onto her first major film project — an adaptation of Kristin Hannah’s “The Nightingale” — TV will always welcome her back.

Tim Surette (@timsurette), TV.com

I agree with the above and below (probably)! Michelle MacLaren, Jill Solloway, Miguel Sapochnik, Cary Fukunaga, and Steven Soderbergh are all splendid at what they do for various reasons. But I’d like to throw someone else’s name in there who really impressed me this year. Jason Bateman handled the first two and final two episodes of Netflix’s “Ozark” with wonder, mostly because the show is so brittle it could fall apart at any time. But he managed to keep things together with incredible shots and paranoid pacing that got the viewer lost in the visual storytelling instead of the actual storytelling that featured leaps of faith and an annoying teen daughter. For a guy whose directorial experience is rooted in fairly plain sitcoms (“Arrested Development” aside), his first shot at drama was a doozy.

Ozark Season 1 Episode 3 Jason Bateman Laura Linney

April Neale (@aprilmac), Monsters & Critics

This is a painfully tough winnow, as I am a huge fan of Phil Abraham, who has a stellar CV in TV work, Tim Van Patten (“Rome,” “Sopranos,” “Boardwalk Empire”) and the newer directors like Megan Griffiths (“The Fight” and “The Missionaries” episodes in “Room 104”) but I had to nod and tip the hat to Thomas Schlamme, whose evocative period work (“Manhattan,” “The Americans”) plus his hilarious stuff like “The Larry Sanders Show” and the film “So I Married An Axe Murderer” are perennial favorites I can watch over and again. Tough question, Hanh! So many amazing TV directors out there, it’s like taking someone to See’s Candy and saying pick the best and only chocolate you can eat the rest of your life. As soon as I submit this I will kick myself for not noting the work of about 10 others whose specific eye and feel for a genre or time period I love.

Read More:  ‘Game of Thrones’: The Character Death That Would Devastate TV Critics Most in Season 8 — IndieWire Survey

Alan Sepinwall (@sepinwall), Uproxx

I was on the verge of sitting out this week’s poll, simply because the question seemed too overwhelming to contemplate, given how many years TV has been around, and how many great directors the medium has produced. Like, how do you choose between John Frankenheimer and Tommy Schlamme? Between Sam Peckinpah and Mimi Leder? Between James Burrows and Michelle MacLaren? What about all the directors who started out as actors, like Tim Van Patten and Thomas Carter coming out of “The White Shadow,” or actors who directed great episodes of classic series, like Alan Alda and Kelsey Grammer? What about writers like JJ Abrams and Vince Gilligan, who proved in many ways to be even more potent behind the camera than they were at the keyboard? I have no good answer, and feel bad about five dozen people I haven’t already listed.

Then I asked Fienberg who he chose, and he rattled off a good chunk of his list before admitting he forgot to add Clark Johnson. Now, I don’t know if Johnson is the BEST director TV has ever had, but when you are the man behind the camera for the first and last episodes of both “The Wire” and “The Shield,” well, I would not want him to be left out of this discussion. Family meeting, everyone! Bring a hankie.

"The Shield"

“The Shield”

FOX

Todd VanDerWerff (@tvoti), Vox

Look, there are a lot of answers I could give here — which is pretty unusual, considering just 10 years ago, I would have had to think hard beyond the man who was my top pick then and is my top pick now — but for me, everything comes back to James Burrows. Burrows took perhaps the least obviously cinematic format on TV (the multi-camera sitcom) and brought a vivid sense of filmmaking craft to it, to go along with his innate sense of the theatrical. Just watch any given episode of his from “Cheers” to get a sense of how he could balance the perfect touch with actors with a deep understanding of how to tell a story via limited camera setups. There’s one Season 1 episode that concludes with a dolly shot along the bar, taking in the faces of the patrons, and even if it’s the sort of showy move that usually turns me off, there’s a generosity of spirit to it that encapsulates what Burrows did best. I think he eventually fell off his mark later in his career, but I would stack his work in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s against anybody’s.

Joyce Eng (@joyceeng61), TVGuide.com

With all due respect to the crazy talented and very deserving Reed Morano, for the longest time I wanted Michelle MacLaren to be the first woman (and third overall) since Mimi Leder — another great — to win the drama directing Emmy. Her resume — “Breaking Bad,” “Game of Thrones,” “The Walking Dead,” “The Leftovers,” “The X-Files,” “Westworld” — speaks for itself, but few can match the suspense or action born from her staging IQ, visual flair, and kinetic yet balletic set pieces. She is the queen of typical boy action fare. “The Deuce,” sans whiz-bang action, is outside of her milieu and is all the richer with her low-key, intricate fluidity and thoughtful eye in a show about porn. What I’m saying is, someone give her a directing Emmy already.

Ben Travers (@BenTTravers), IndieWire

It’s hard to keep names like Tim Van Patten (who directed episodes of “The Wire” and “Sex and the City” in the same year), Thomas Schlamme (the perfecter of the walk-and-talk, without whom Aaron Sorkin might just be known as a playwright), and Michelle MacLaren (who cannot stop wowing us to this day) out of the conversation, but I learned the most about direction from talking to, and hearing stories about, two remarkable women: Mimi Leder and Lesli Linka Glatter (both of whom each happen to have five Emmy nods for directing). That knowledge cannot be condensed into any one post, but I would encourage everyone to spend some time watching Anne Thompson’s interview with Glatter and look through Leder’s favorite shots from “The Leftovers” to get an idea of what they’re capable of and how much they’ve invested in their individual projects; more so, I encourage watching anything and everything they do, for there is always something new to take away from these brilliant minds with uncanny eyes.

Q: What is the best show currently on TV?*

A: “Halt and Catch Fire” (three votes)

Other contenders: “Better Things,” “BoJack Horseman,” “The Deuce” (two votes each), “American Vandal” and “Nathan for You” (one vote each)

*In the case of streaming services that release full seasons at once, only include shows that have premiered in the last month.

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