TV or Not TV, That Is the Question

An article here in Think Progress by Alyssa Rosenberg covers a Directors Guild symposium, headed by DGA president Paris Barclay. The article tries to make the case that (what a surprise!) TV is a directors medium. She seems to buy into the flimflammery, and links to an article by New York magazine TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz -- written however for the website Vulture -- which she refers to as a "flag-planting piece." That article, which you can read here, has at its core the statement --

"The notion persists that TV is not a director's medium--that any creativity comes from the writer or producer, whose jobs fuse in the P.T. Barnum-esque title 'showrunner.'

Mr. Seitz's article is thoughtful and well-written. And it's admirable in the attention he gives to subject and its history. It also comes across as huge revisionist theory, and has little bearing on how television shows are, and have been, physically made.

It's important for me to put a big disclaimer here. I traded a bunch of tweets with Mr. Seitz over the article. (A terrible medium to do such a thing.) In them, he makes some points that I thoroughly agree with. That directors shouldn't be totally dismissed as meaningless in TV and its history, and that directors shouldn't be denigrated in TV any more than writers should be in cinema. And he ended by noting -

If all I had read were the tweets, I think I'd almost completely agree with Mr. Seitz (a very good and thoughtful critic who tends to care about the subjects he writes about, something rare and impressive).

But I read both articles, and whatever his and Ms. Rosenberg's intent, I think another impression comes through. Even if that wasn't the intent, I fear most readers will think otherwise. And I also think that in his trying to make a perfectly reasonable case, too much bending in the other direction took place , and therefore suggests offering another perspective.

What Mr. Seitz does do is postulate a well-presented theory about how our perception of TV is due to it being such a new medium. He writes --

"One explanation is that movies have a half-century head start on TV, so there's been more time for critics to settle on terms and definitions. I like to tell people that TV, as both business and art, is at roughly the same place in its development as cinema was in the late fifties, around the time that the French floated the auteur theory. We're still figuring out who the "author" is on TV shows."

Leaving aside the argument of the "auteur" theory that drives writers nuts, and has always been a sort of self-congratulatory flagellation (there's a legendary, perhaps mythic story about the writer Robert Riskin walking into his partner's office, the director Frank Capra, dropping a blank ream of paper on his desk and saying, "Let's see you give that the Famous Capra Touch"), this TV theory above -- while understandable -- doesn't have a significant enough overlap with history. Early movies were always a director's medium, most particularly because there was no sound! Early TV was always a writers medium because of it was radio that had a camera stuck in front of the actors. It has nothing to do with a half-century head start. And further, there is no argument about whether directors are the "author" on TV shows. Except perhaps in the DGA -- and I'm not sure even there. Maybe with Paris Barclay.

I have a great friend who directs on a successful TV show and was recently made a producer on the show. He was initially hired and later promoted by a mutual good friend of ours -- a writer...who is the showrunner in charge of everything on the series. My friend the director loves directing and directors. I can't even begin to imagine him walking up to our showrunner friend and explaining that he's the author of the episode he's directed. First of all, the show has been on the air for about five years. (A writer created it.) Each year, the writing staff comes in 3-4 months early, ahead of everyone, and breaks down the entire season ahead of time, what the episodes will be, how the season's stories will develop, how characters will develop, and then begin writing the shows. About 10 days before an episode is to be shot, the director finally comes in. He gets up to speed, shoots the episode, oversees the editing -- with the showrunner -- and leaves. And the writing staff continues writing, developing and planning the rest of the season.

"One of the common perceptions," Alyssa Rosenberg writes in her article, " is that directors in television are simply translating the on-page vision of the writers and show-runners." This leads to Paris Barclay correcting that supposed mis-perception. And it comes from one of the funniest lines in the Mr. Seitz's article is when one particular director proudly states that he goes on location scouts, which somehow seems to endow him with great authorship powers, he apparently believes. If that's the case, then the set designer who goes along also has claims to authorship, as does the location scout...and all the writers on the scout.

Mr. Seitz singles out specific shows, specific episodes and specific shots to push his theory that TV is a director's medium. And all the examples indeed are great samples of directors doing impressive work. It's one of the things he does well, as a student of TV history.

But still.

Forgetting for a moment singling out specific shots -- or even especially well-directed series -- what most critics (of TV and film alike) tend to overlook is that sometimes there's a really great shot because (are you ready?) -- it was described in the script! Not always, to be sure, but seriously, it really does happen. No, really. It does.

By the way, to be clear, there are absolutely magnificently-directed TV series. And directors at their most basic do solid, critical jobs in television. But to single out "Remember that shot where...?" as proof of authorship is to ignore the road that got you to that shot, even if you single out a dozen example, or hundreds. There are 700 minutes of script for just one single TV show in a single season. Multiply that by all the shows every week, of every network, of every season, of every decade for the history of television. There darn well better be some great shots in there. And great directed episodes, and great-directed shows. And there are.

And it's important to remember to that, much as film directors like to talk about the characters they helped mold in their movie (that a writer created), in TV that actor and character has been created and well-set and solidly established long before most directors step on the set. There's very little explaining who a character is and what he or she is thinking, when that character may have existed for three years already, or far longer, on the page and in the performance.

And again, almost all those great directors came to the show a week or so before the episode, while the writers oversaw it all. Mr. Seitz notes that today directors are producers on series. True. But this is a new manifestation, as he himself notes. Not something that always "was." And those directors-now-producers proudly now are staff are themselves surrounded by a full staff of producers who are almost all writers.

Moreover, a TV sits in a home. The audience invites its series in. And decides if it wants to invite you back week after week. And the heart of that is whether that audiences sitting at home (or watching on a computer or tablet) likes the characters. And is involved in the story. No matter how brilliantly directed a show may be (and many are) -- its character and story that involve an audience and get you invited back. A one-off feature film can bowl you over with cinematic magic. A TV series -- series -- has to get you asking it to come back.

Please note: it is no denigration of directors to say that TV is a writers medium. Nor should anyone suggest that directors don't play an important part, as Mr. Seitz notes. They absolutely play an important part, just as writers do in feature film. However, it's a writers medium not because writers are Better or More Important that directors -- that's a matter of ego and subjectivity -- it's a writers medium for a very objective reason: because reality demands it.

And this, for all I've written above, is really the most important thing why the theory of TV being a directors medium has no bearing in reality.

That's because Nature gives us seven days in a week. And 24 hours in a day. And 60 minutes in an hour. And no matter how hard you try -- you just can't get around that.

A feature film might have a detailed schedule down to the day, but it's free-floating, and if a director goes over-schedule, he might get chewed out or even fired, but the movie will flow on and eventually finish. When cutting that movie together, it might be 107 minutes -- but if it's decided to recut the film and an extra minute gets added, fine, it'll end up 108 minutes. If a movie's release date has to get moved, so be it.

But when How I Met Your Mother is scheduled for 8 PM on a Monday -- it darn well better go on at 8 PM on Monday, and it better be exactly, to the dot, 22 minutes and 30 seconds. (Or whatever the requirement is.)

TV schedules are voracious monsters, and their demanding needs must, must, must be met. There's no wiggle room for a director wanting to get the perfect shot, or keep doing retakes until he or she gets it just right, or trying to experiment with an interesting angle or...well, fill in the blank. Almost all of that has been worked out long before by the writers, in the writers' room. Down to the second. There occasionally can be some room for rich creativity by directors, and we see the results of that and revel in those results and appreciate them. There are great, visual TV shows and moments. But even then, the writers are usually on the set, watching everything, and making sure that it's all correct, and tweaking it as it goes along. (Look for a writer on a movie set, and you might need a telescope.) That's because the voracious beast of the Realty of the Schedule is always rearing its ugly head in TV. We Need the Episode Now. Get it Done. It Must Be Shot, It Must Be Edited. It Must Be Gotten to the Network by 2 PM on Tuesday. Must. Must. It MUST Be on the Air. on Friday. At 9 PM. And Off at 9:27:30.


That's why TV is a writers medium. There's no other alternative. It's not about creativity or talent -- though the best of TV is wildly creative and majestically talented. It's because Nature created a week with 7 days.

And no amount of revising history, no matter how thoughtful or well-written, will ever change that. Nor, as long as Nature is around, can it.

I admire that Mr. Seitz is trying to right a wrong, where the contributions of directors in TV shouldn't be denigrated. And of course he's absolutely right about that. But I suspect that this colored my perception of the article, since for 50 years writers have been trying to correct the perception of the Director As Auteur in movies - and much longer, the concept that writers just "word it in." Writers being denigrated doesn't even begin to describe it. "Schmucks with Underwoods" is how famed studio owner Jack Warner depicted them and their typewriters. So, to finally see a correction, and have it be how poor directors have been overlooked, it just went too far for me. I know the article was about just television, but in ignoring the larger history, and in going so overboard to change a perception (one which, by the way, I do believe is based on a valid truth) an unfair sensibility was given.

In the end, I'm glad to know that the point Matt Zoller Seitz says he was making is something I largely agree with. I just think the article -- with its solid thought and scholarship -- leaned too far in trying to make a point, and left out what are to me more valuable realities. I think that happens sometimes. You want to make a point and focus on it. And though the point behind it valid, the larger truth gets shunted to the side.


Robert J. Elisberg's new novel The Wild Roses, a comic adventure in the spirit of The Three Musketeers but with three women, is now available here in paperback or for $3.99 as a Kindle eBook. His other writing can be found at Elisberg Industries.