What Does A ‘Best Director’ Emmy Really Mean?

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.

The importance of proper pacing is most evident in comedy. Veep wouldn’t be Veep if the characters weren’t talking a mile a minute; and part of what’s made John Oliver’s HBO show so successful is how many jokes and references he squeezes into 30 minutes each week. Silicon Valley, on the other hand, gets laughs by changing its pitch from character to character, integrating eclectic comic styles that range from Guilfoyle’s slow-drip acerbic remarks to Bachman’s stoned philosophizing to Richard’s breathless stammer.

In the drama and miniseries categories, controlling pace by moving the camera, positioning the actors, and modulating performances matters just about as much as it does in comedy — and, again, is largely the director’s responsibility. That’s why Murphy stands a good chance of winning for his episode of Feud, which takes place almost entirely on the night of the 1963 Academy Awards. Murphy moves dozens of characters through elaborate sets, often in long, unbroken takes. It’s a marvelous stunt.

If the voters want to go in a different direction, Zaillian’s work on the first episode of The Night Of is a study in quiet control. For about 20 minutes toward the end, we follow a murder suspect as he’s arrested and detained for an entirely different crime, and we watch as he waits nervously in the station to see if he’ll be found out. Similarly, in the drama category, Vince Gilligan builds tension in his Better Call Saul nominee “Witness” by slowing the action down to a crawl, as his hero awkwardly stakes out a fast food restaurant that’s been laundering money for drug dealers.

Turning to performance, it’d be reasonable to argue that directors Reed Morano and Kate Dennis, with their nominated episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale, and Vallée, with Big Little Lies, had a lot of their work done for them by their phenomenal casts — which includes Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman in the latter, and Elisabeth Moss and Ann Dowd in the former. (Witherspoon and Kidman also produced Big Little Lies, which could bolster the argument that they’re the series’ real auteurs.)

Vallée faced a real challenge with Witherspoon and Kidman’s performances, having to create a sense of unity when one of his leads’ storylines leaned toward black comic farce and the other’s toward domestic tragedy. The Handmaid’s Tale is an even more interesting case, since so much of the acting on that show is in the reacting. Because the story’s set in a near-future fundamentalist dystopia, a lot of the dialogue has the characters play-acting highly contrived roles within this new society, while watching each other to make everyone’s complying with the new order. The actors have to strike a tricky balance, simultaneously signaling suspicion and masking insincerity.

Ultimately though, visual style will probably always dominate most viewers’ perception of direction — and perhaps even lead Academy members to opt for one show over another. Donald Glover’s eclectically inventive Atlanta nominee is more memorable than the relatively square Silicon Valley and Veep, which may give Atlanta an edge. Drunk History may set itself apart from its more conventional variety competition just because it features such a mix of styles: from hilariously cheap historical reenactments to what’s essentially documentary footage of a tipsy Lin-Manuel Miranda and Derek Waters hanging out in New York.

The drama category’s packed with visually impressive work, but Matt and Ross Duffer’s first Stranger Things chapter “The Vanishing of Will Byers” is probably the standout, because of the almost obsessive way the Duffers have recreated ‘80s genre films, in a kind of Stephen King/Steven Spielberg/John Carpenter mash-up. In the miniseries category, the most striking episode is the season premiere of Fargo, directed by the show’s creator, Hawley. “The Law of Vacant Places” packs in a lot of the show’s half-cartoonish/half-nightmarish imagery of chilly midwestern life, then ends with a suspenseful and hilarious sequence where a troublesome character gets flattened by a well-timed falling air conditioner.

Fargo though is an example of one of the more unusual aspects of directing for television as opposed to directing for film. Keith Gordon (not nominated) directed episodes of Better Call Saul, The Leftovers, and Fargo this year, and in an interview with Daniel Fienberg of The Hollywood Reporter he talked about what it’s like to be a hired hand on a prestige TV show. He said that while he has some freedom to be creative within the show’s pre-set parameters, there are nearly always some major elements of style that are dictated by the script. In other words: sometimes the particularly clever bits of staging are the showrunner’s idea, not the director’s.

Gordon’s absence from the list of nominees — despite directing some of the best television of the spring and summer — raises the question of why certain episodes are submitted for consideration over others, and why the Academy’s drawn to certain material. None of the three nominated Veep episodes is “Judge,” the one where Selina Myers ruins her assistant Gary’s hometown birthday celebration — even though that’s more memorable than the other Veeps on the list. Also missing from the comedy category: the Silicon Valley episode “Hooli-Con,” where the boys commit cyber-fraud at a tech expo. And while just about any Better Call Saul is award-worthy, this past season’s most powerful episode by far is the absent “Chicanery,” which took us inside the hero’s tense bar association hearing.

As for what will actually win on Sunday night, well, that should be illuminating to track. Awards-giving bodies often vote in waves, meaning that the directing prizes could be part of an overall sweep and not really a recognition of individual achievement. And many of the nominated drama, comedy, and miniseries episodes are credited to those show’s head writers, which makes sense, since these series are their visions.

But as television competes more and more with cinema as a subject of serious critical attention, it’d be great if the Academy voters could help TV viewers understand the craft a little better, by honoring the men and women who are genuinely the best at it — even if that means looking beyond premium cable and streaming services. There’s a lot more to directing than just putting the camera in an unusual place. Television episodes may look more like movies every day, but it’s reassuring in a way whenever the Emmys honor TV that looks and feels like TV.