In television, it’s most often the actors on a TV show or, in some cases, the showrunner(s) that get all the accolades for the success of a television series, while in the feature film world, it’s most often a director who gets the blame or praise for a film’s achievements. That’s not unfair: Television showrunners, like feature film directors, see through the production and development of the entire project. More often than not, TV directors are hired hands, brought in to do a few episodes of one TV series before moving on to another TV series. That doesn’t mean they don’t deserve some recognition, and for f*ck’s sake: On the Internet, where everything is eventually reduced to a list, it’s about time TV directors were singled out for their accomplishments.
Below, I’ve ranked the ten best working TV directors. I’ve excluded showrunners who direct their own episodes (Weiner, Sutter, etc.), as well as Cary Fukunaga, who basically ran True Detective (and directed every episode). Those guys get plenty of attention. These are the unsung heroes of some of our favorite episodes of television over the last decade.
10. Neil Marshall — He’s only directed four episodes of television, and I can’t attest for either episode of Black Sails, nor the upcoming episode of Game of Thrones he directed, but he directed “Blackwater,” which is enough to put him on this list (his feature, The Descent, is also one of my favorite horror films ever).
Best Episode: “Blackwater”
9. Adam Arkin — Better known as very good character, three-time Emmy nominated actor (and the son of Alan Arkin) is famous for multiple roles in television dramas. He began to dabble in directing episodes back in his Chicago Hope days, but as of late, spends more time directing TV episodes than starring in them (although, he has a knack for also appearing in series he directs). He has directed two episodes of Terriers, two episodes of The Americans, four of Sons of Anarchy and eight of Justified, including this year’s season finale.
Best Episode: Either the season finale of last year’s The Americans or this year’s Justified.
8. Lesli Linka Glatter — Nominated for two Emmy Awards for best directing (Mad Men, of which she’s directed six episodes, and Homeland, of which she’s directed 5), Glatter is one of the more prolific TV directors, having directed episodes of everything from The West Wing to Gilmore Girls to Justified and The Walking Dead.
Best Episode: “Q&A,” Homeland
7. Jeffrey Blitz — I have a soft spot for Blitz, who directed one of my all-time favorite movies, Rocket Science. But he’s also a stellar TV director, having won an Emmy for directing an episode of The Office from back during its heyday (“Stress Relief”). He also directed an early season episode of Parks and Recreation but it was his recent work — directing all 9 episodes of Comedy Central’s Review — that solidified his placement on this list.
Best Episode: “The Convict,” The Office
6. Allen Coulter — Though his stab at feature directing was a disaster (remember Robert Pattinson’s 9/11 rom com Remember Me? Neither do I), he has seven Emmy nominations for directing, and he’s worked on many of the best dramas, though he’s been most prolific on HBO dramas Six Feet Under, The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire. He was nominated four times for best directing on The Sopranos, and likewise nominated for directing the pilots to both Damages and Nurse Jackie.
Best Episode: “Irregular Around the Margins,” The Sopranos
5. Jack Bender — Nominated for Best Directing three times (twice for Lost and once for Northern Exposure), Bender is best known for directing multiple episodes of Lost, including the season finale (a very well shot finale, regardless of what you think of the writing). He’s also directed multiple episodes of The Sopranos and some of the better episodes of Alias (all in the first three seasons).
Best Episode: “The Constant,” Lost
4. Beth McCarthy-Miller — If you like television comedy, McCarthy-Miller is probably the best in the game. She has eight Emmy nominations, include two for 30 Rock and Saturday Night Live, of which she has directed 218 episodes. She also directed several episodes of MTV’s Unplugged, including the Nirvana episode, Jon Stewart’s old MTV show, and more recently, Community, Brooklyn Nine-Nine and the Galentine’s Day episode of Parks and Recreation.
Best Episode: Pick your favorite SNL episode between 1995 and 2006.
3. Michelle MacLaren — You need only know that MacLaren directed four episodes of Game of Thrones (including “First of His Name” and “Oathkeeper”), three episodes of The Walking Dead (including this year’s season finale) and, most importantly, eleven episodes of Breaking Bad.
Best Episode: “One Minute,” Breaking Bad
2. Tim Van Patten — Van Patten has eight directing Emmy nominations (including one win for an episode of Boardwalk Empire), and you don’t get much better than this guy. He’s directed sixteen episodes of Boardwalk Empire, 20 episodes of The Sopranos, multiples episodes of Deadwood, The Wire, Pacific and the first two episodes ever of Game of Thrones. Want to launch a dark drama? Tim Van Patten is your guy.
Best Episode: “Winter Is Coming,” Game of Thrones, or the penultimate episode of Pacific.
1. Rian Johnson — Maybe it’s not fair to give a guy who has only directed four episodes of television in his life the top spot, but he directed Breaking Bad’s “The Fly,” and “Ozymandias,” (and one episode of Terriers) so I’m sorry, he wins. When you direct the best episode of television of this decade, maybe of this century, or maybe even of all time, you get the benefit of the top spot.
Best Episode: “Ozymandias,” Breaking Bad