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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


<< Previously: Picks #6-10

5. “The Leftovers

Notable Directors: Mimi Leder, Keith Gordon, Daniel Sackheim, Carl Franklin, Nicole Kassell, Craig Zobel

“The Leftovers” embraced character-specific standalone episodes for much of its three-season run, which allowed different directorial voices to come in and leave their mark on what is surely one of TV’s all time great dramas. Mimi Leder is the indisputable MVP of the series, having directed 10 of its 28 episodes. The stoning of Gladys, captured in a still wide shot to increase the impact of its brutality, is as harrowing as television or movies get. She also pulled off two visceral disaster sequences in the Season 1 and Season 2 finales, amplifying the chaos of similar Guilty Remnant attacks by using frantic handheld camera movements the series often avoided. And in “Crazy Whitefella Thinking,” she brought the series to Australia and fully realized it as a neo-Biblical exodus. Her work on the series is unparalleled, especially in the way it contrasts the personal suffering of the characters (her close-ups are so intimate they’re damn fragile) with the world’s larger sense of confusion, loss and isolation (her establishing shots are used not simply to identify setting but to show the character’s placement in this new world). Leder’s work alone pushes “The Leftovers” into the Top 5, and the directors who accompanied her on the journey were equally stellar.

4. “Better Call Saul

Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy McGill, Rhea Seehorn as Kim Wexler - Better Call Saul _ Season 3, Episode 4 - Photo Credit: Michele K. Short/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

Notable Directors: Vince Gilligan, Peter Gould, Nicole Kassell, Michelle MacLaren, Thomas Schnauz

Here is the highest compliment to be paid to the “Breaking Bad” prequel/spin-off — co-creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould have only gotten better and better as both showrunners and directors. On a technical level, the series stuns us each week with its originality and humanity. Meanwhile, with each episode “Better Call Saul” gets more and more captivating, especially when you consider that the show doesn’t lean on big drama to keep us horrified. In “Saul’s” world, a car crash with no casualties has the same impact as a bomb. A house fire, seen from a distance, leaves us gasping.

3. “The Knick”

Clive Owen The Knick

Notable Director: Steven Soderbergh

If Steven Soderbergh’s announcement that he would retire from filmmaking after “Side Effects” in 2013 was devastating for fans, it didn’t take long for the best kind of remedy to arrive. “The Knick” premiered on Cinemax in August 2014 with Soderbergh behind the camera for what would become the series 20-episode run, and it featured some of the most dynamic filmmaking of his career. Soderbergh’s intricate handheld camera created such an immediacy in every scene that “The Knick” felt like no other period drama in television or movie history. His long takes, while meticulously blocked and choreographed, never called attention to themselves — they instead created an intimacy between the viewer and the performers so raw that to watch the series was to live and breathe alongside the characters. That’s a major reason the series felt so unbearable in its moments of unrelenting violence and gore. Soderbergh never wasted a frame. He refused to play it safe with traditional coverage shots and scene-setting editing. Where most directors would need five shots to properly set up an entire scene, Soderbergh opted for one or two, infusing every moment with a lived-in presence not far removed from what the best documentaries do. “The Knick” is masterclass filmmaking from beginning to end.

2. “Mad Men

Jon Hamm as Don Draper - Mad Men _ Season 7, Episode 14 - Photo Credit: Justina Mintz/AMC

Notable Directors: Matthew Weiner, Alan Taylor, Lesli Linka Glatter, Jennifer Getzinger, Phil Abraham

The thing that stands out, looking back at seven seasons of “Mad Men,” is how the show proved elastic enough to encompass so many tones and genres and moods, while never losing sight of the existential issues which fascinated creator Matthew Weiner. There are sequences which rival David Lynch for their dazzling surreality, but honestly it’s the intimate character moments which stand the test of time, especially when the show turned its focus on the delicate and beautiful bond between Don (Jon Hamm) and Peggy (Elisabeth Moss). Two of our finest actors doing some of the finest work seen on television, made possible by direction that, first and foremost, put its humanity first.

1. “The Girlfriend Experience

Girlfriend Experience

Notable Directors: Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz

“The Girlfriend Experience” is only 13 episodes long, and yet it’s so assuredly written and directed by indie filmmakers Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz that it more than deserves to top this list. It’s audacious from beginning to end, and Kerrigan and Seimetz direct the living hell out of it. It’s clear from the get-go they have no intention on making this story about a law student turned high-end escort into a soapy sex-filled drama. “The Girlfriend Experience” is a patient, character-driven study of sexual beings and the role men and women play in satisfying the desires of each other and themselves. The camera rarely moves, each frame carefully constructed in a way that forces you to study the bodies inside it — where they are, how they move and why. When the camera does move, like the claustrophobic tracking shots that follow Christine’s every move once her office discovers her secret, it’s with such ample dramatic intensity that it becomes hard to breathe. There’s an observational stillness to the filmmaking that’s so thought-provoking the direction alone becomes more stimulating than any of the sex scenes. The sexiest imagery might just be the architecture, the sleek, polished surfaces and open modern spaces that  trap the characters in their social roles and express a void that must be filled. Christine fills that empty space with an unapologetic dive into a world that empowers her, and Kerrigan and Seimetz capture it with such perceptive filmmaking it’s just outstanding to behold.

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