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The 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


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10. “True Detective” (Season 1)

Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, "True Detective"

Notable Director: Cary Joji Fukunaga

Cary Fukunaga had already turned the heads of many cinephiles before “True Detective” debuted in January 2014 (his two features “Sin Nombre” and “Jane Eyre” were well received), but the Nic Pizzolatto serial killer drama put the director, who headed up the entirety of the first season, on the radar of everyone in the business and the millions who tuned in each week. The long take heard around the television world deserved all the acclaim it received (it even won Fukunaga an Emmy); it’s an ingenious six minutes of camera choreography that makes the heightened tension of Rust Cohle’s raid feel so dangerously palpable you wish every action film could even try and match half of what it achieved. But Fukunaga’s filmmaking on the series was rarely as showy, and his compositions were more polished than you might have expected for a bayou-set murder mystery. He wasn’t so much concerned with evoking the setting’s atmospheric grime as he was with turning a brutal world into something more visually methodical. There was a stately rhythm to his shots that made the dark events going on inside them appear even more chilling. It’s the serial killer genre done with a disarming elegance.

9. “The Handmaid’s Tale”

The Handmaid's Tale -- "The Other Side" Episode 107 -- Remembering her familyÕs treacherous escape attempt, a shocking revelation from life before Gilead provides a new perspective on OffredÕs life. (Photo by: George Kraychyk/Hulu)

Notable Directors: Reed Morano, Mike Barker, Floria Sigismondi, Kate Dennis, Kari Skogland

Reed Morano, as the director of the pilot and following two episodes, took on the immense challenge of bringing to life the terrifying dystopian world of Margaret Atwood’s classic novel, and not only made the world of Gilead feel like a real, lived-in place, but somehow also made it beautiful. Between the unforgettable visuals and the intimate performances, “The Handmaid’s Tale” could easily have floundered without the tone established by Morano’s first three episodes, and the largely female director roster who followed her ended up sticking the landing. Season 2 can’t come soon enough.

8. “Mr. Robot”

MR. ROBOT -- "eps2.8_h1dden-pr0cess.axx" Episode 210 -- Pictured: (l-r) Jeremy Holm as Mr. Sutherland, Rami Malek as Elliot Alderson, Christian Slater as Mr. Robot -- (Photo by: Michael Parmelee/USA Network)

Notable Directors: Sam Esmail, Jim McKay, Tricia Brock, Christoph Schrewe, Nisha Ganatra

The TV vs. film argument has passed the point of exhaustion, but if we’re going to continue to praise small screen series as “cinematic,” there are few shows better to do it with than “Mr. Robot.” Creator Sam Esmail, who directed three episodes in Season 1 before heading behind the camera for the entire 12-episode second season, has tapped into the psychology of his main character in such a bold way that “Mr. Robot” is easily one of the most visually distinct series ever made. Esmail completely disregards traditional composition rules, opting for lots of negative space and sectional blocking to increase Elliot’s isolation and paranoia. Even when Elliot is in the same room as other characters, he’s framed in such a way as to always be disconnected. If the main character is an unreliable narrator, then so too is Esmail’s direction. You’re never quite sure where the divide is between reality and Elliot’s delusions, and that mantra fuels a lot of what makes “Mr. Robot” such a visual show-stopper.

7. “Breaking Bad”

Walter White (Bryan Cranston)- Breaking Bad - Season 1, Pilot - Photo Credit: Doug Hyun/AMC

Notable Directors: Vince Gilligan, Michelle MacLaren, Rian Johnson, John Dahl

How much more can we say about some of the most game-changing filmmaking of the last ten years? Really, one of the greatest elements of “Breaking Bad” is just how the wide range of amazing directors behind the camera still somehow presented a unified vision which defined the series while keeping us on the edge of our seats for five seasons.

6. “The People v. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story”

THE PEOPLE v. O.J. SIMPSON: AMERICAN CRIME STORY “The “Verdict” Episode 110 (Airs Tuesday, April 5, 10:00 pm/ep) -- Pictured: (l-r) Nathan Lane as F. Lee Bailey, David Schwimmer as Robert Kardashian, Cuba Gooding, Jr. as O.J. Simpson, Courtney B. Vance as Johnnie Cochran, John Travolta as Robert Shapiro. CR: Prashant Gupta/FX

Notable Directors: Ryan Murphy, Anthony Hemingway, John Singleton

Ryan Murphy has always been a director who knows exactly what he wants to get out of a scene, and Episode 2 of “The People v. O.J. Simpson,” “The Run of His Life,” might be the best thing he’s ever directed. And it’s not even the best episode of the anthology series, which also featured stellar directing work from Anthony Hemingway and John Singleton. Daring to depict one of the most well-known trials ever was one thing, but the series managed to make both the iconic scenes we remember well as well as the unseen moments happening behind the scenes human and believable.

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