more than a couple of TV box sets in there. The likes of ‘The Sopranos’, ‘Sex and the City’ and ‘Band of Brothers’ are just some of the ones I most often notice on the shelves of fellow box set bingers. And if you check out the credits on the back you will likely find the same names cropping up after the ‘written by’ and ‘directed by’ credits.
Over the last 20 years some of the best directors of TV drama make their mark on popular series and subsequently make the move into feature direction. In the UK a prime example is that of Joe Wright. Beginning his career as a director of TV mini-series, he seamlessly transferred his skills to celluloid with ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and ‘Atonement’, both of which bagged Oscar nominations. But for the people that don’t move into movies it is much harder to get the name check that they deserve.
So to begin with, there’s one man who I think needs to be recognised, and his name is Tim Van Patten. If HBO were a Hollywood studio then he would be the premiere go-to creative talent. He is essentially the Spielberg of television. His name pops up in the credits of nearly all of HBO’s major shows of the last few years: ‘The Wire’, ‘Deadwood’, ‘The Pacific’ to name but a few. However his status as a true auteur of television is most evident in his episodes of ‘The Sopranos’ (of which he directed more than anyone). With the show’s strength coming from the power of its writing, his directing style is wonderfully understated, allowing the acting and the dialogue to prevail over any kind of cinematic stylisation. This kind of artistic choice is one of ‘The Sopranos’ most distinguishing features. Van Patten can also claim the plaudits for having written ‘Pine Barrens’, which Sopranos aficionados most often cite as being the greatest episode. (And any aficionados reading will know what I mean when I ask: what ever happened to the Russian?). Now before I lose non-Sopranos fans completely let me just say that Van Patten also directed the two-part finale of ‘Sex and the City’ which, I am reliably informed by a female housemate, brought the much loved series to a satisfying end (with the subsequent, unnecessary films completely ruining it).
During the early 2000s ‘The Sopranos’ became something of a breeding ground for major creative talent in US television. Two of the shows most prolific staff writers, Terrence Winter and Matthew Weiner, are now the head writers and show runners for ‘Boardwalk Empire’ and ‘Mad Men’ respectively.
Over here in Blighty, a similar trend can be seen in terms of there being a small pool of heavyweight creative talent bringing us popular and original television. Russell T Davies is someone who has consistently created terrific TV drama, reaching his peak with the BBC’s jewel in the crown ‘Doctor Who’. Through this show he rejuvenated a previously lagging genre with wonderfully rendered characters in a fantastical sci-fi context. I’d urge anyone who enjoys good drama to seek out box sets of his earlier work, particularly ‘Queer As Folk’ and ‘The Second Coming’. But it is his apprentice and current Doctor Who show runner Steven Moffat who is definitely the incumbent auteur of British television. His superlative, modern take on Sherlock Holmes (‘Sherlock’) was, despite only having three episodes, undoubtedly the runaway TV hit of 2010. His work is characterised by decidedly dark themes and plots but, taking a leaf out of Davies’ book, is always sprinkled with smart humour and delightful characters. Case in point is his Doctor Who episode ‘Blink’ (which is to Doctor Who what ‘Pine Barrens’ is to The Sopranos), famous for featuring hardly any of The Doctor, lots of Carey Mulligan and some absolutely terrifying angel statues.
TV auteurs are in some ways superior in talent to their cinematic contemporaries; because despite having to work with major restrictions on the time, the content of the work they consistently produce is unique, entertaining and distinctive television. And seriously, is there anything better than watching some really good TV?