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10 Best TV Shows Created by Filmmakers

Photo of Ben Travers By Ben Travers | Indiewire May 9, 2014 at 11:06AM

In honor of John Logan's first TV show "Penny Dreadful" premiering Sunday night, we rank the best television shows created by former filmmakers.
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Josh Hartnett and Eva Green in "Penny Dreadful."
Jonathan Hession/Showtime Josh Hartnett and Eva Green in "Penny Dreadful."

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:

1) "Friday Night Lights" - developed for television by Peter Berg

Friday Night Lights Coach Taylor Kyle Chandler Connie Britton

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.

2) "The West Wing" - created by Aaron Sorkin

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

Twin Peaks
"Twin Peaks"

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. 

This article is related to: Friday Night Lights, Peter Berg, Peter Berg, Aaron Sorkin, Aaron Sorkin, The West Wing, James L. Brooks, James L. Brooks, The Simpsons, Television, Television