At this year’s Emmys, a single category will pit Oscar winners Ron Howard, James Marsh, and Steven Zaillian against Jean-Marc Vallée, director of the Oscar-approved movies Dallas Buyers Club and Wild. Yet in my opinion the two best choices for “Outstanding Directing for a Limited Series, Movie, or Dramatic Special” are Noah Hawley and Ryan Murphy — both of whom are TV creators, first and foremost.
Will one of those two win? Hard to say. Members of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences may be drawn to the star power of Howard, or the arthouse imprimatur of Vallée. But if they do whiff on this choice, be kind. “Best Director” is a difficult category for even movie awards voters to get right. And that’s not taking into account the broad scope of what an Emmy-nominated director has to do.
Here’s a thought exercise: Imagine there were some kind of computer sorting error, and every directing nominee at this year’s Emmys were suddenly competing against each other, with no subdivisions for comedy, drama, variety, or miniseries. The Academy would then have to weigh if Don Roy King’s direction of a Jimmy Fallon-hosted Saturday Night Live was better than the work Jonathan Nolan did on the time-bending, genre-hopping, character-packed finale of Westworld.
That sounds ridiculous. But is it so different from the choices voters make every year within the actual categories? At least this year’s batch of comedy nominees is only honoring single-camera shows with no laugh tracks — so no one has to try to weigh Veep against the very different Mom, for example. But three episodes of Veep and two of Silicon Valley are up against “B.A.N.,” a daringly offbeat Atlanta episode directed by the series’ creator Donald Glover, which parodies both the solemn tongue-clucking of black public affairs TV shows and commercials aimed at black audiences.
Meanwhile, the aforementioned SNL is contending with a Bono-driven AIDS charity auction on a special edition of Jimmy Kimmel Live!, a The Late Show with Stephen Colbert that aired during the Republican National Convention, and Drunk History’s format-breaking salute to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. Meanwhile, in the miniseries category, Vallée’s entire seven-hour run of Big Little Lies is meant to be compared to, among other things, two separate episodes of HBO’s other major recent miniseries, The Night Of.
Don’t take this though as another reason to shrug at the quirks and contradictions of the awards-giving process. Instead, this year’s wonky set of nominees provides an opportunity to consider what “good directing” actually is — and whether standards change based on the kind of television program being produced.
Take a live broadcast like SNL — or even a “plausibly live” one like Colbert, Kimmel, and John Oliver’s shows. The craft there is primarily concentrated in coaching and choreographing the cast and crew during rehearsal, while the actual shoot is more an exercise in pushing the right pre-set buttons at the right time. That has nothing to do with the kind of directing that the average viewer finds most distinctive: the kind that’s the most visually dynamic and “cinematic,” and which has become fairly common in the drama and miniseries categories.
Then again, the florid “prestige” touches of something like Netflix’s Queen Elizabeth II bio-series The Crown would likely choke the life out of a comedy as snappy as Veep. I’d argue that going big and serious sometimes chokes the life out of dramas and miniseries, too… or at least that’s the case with Howard’s overly fussy work on the exhausting, shallow Genius. The Crown, by contrast, at least has an appealing naturalness in the way all the royals interact when they’re away from the public eye.
Before I proceed any further, I should stipulate that a lot of what directors get credit for comes more the contributions of their collaborators — which the director approves. We don’t always know how much of a TV show’s pace, emotional depth, or visual style should be rightly credited to the actors, the editors, the cinematographers, or the writers. Generally speaking though, the director does set the tone, even when he or she is following orders from a producer (or “show-runner,” in the case of television).
So let’s start with pacing, which is one of the more undervalued but crucial components of a TV director’s job, regardless of the genre or format. Editors certainly have an enormous effect on whether a finished scene feels too slow, too rushed, or just right. But a lot of that final result has to do with how much energy and tempo the actors bring—and directors traditionally have most of the say-so on that, on the day of the shoot. Picture Charlie Brown in A Charlie Brown Christmas, explaining the signals he intends to use to get the actors in his Christmas play to move faster. That’s actually not a bad description of what directors do a lot of, for both stage and screen.