Mad Men, True Detective and the rise of the TV auteur

Mad Men, True Detective and the rise of the TV auteur

Nic Pizzolatto and Cary Fukunaga ensure the seminal cop noir remains true to their voices

Auteur theory, originally the domain of 1950s French film theorists, is being applied to groundbreaking TV series. With the first season of True Detective wrapping up and the final season of Mad Men about to commence, we ask if there's any truth to the term 'TV auteur'

In last year’s Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad, author Brett Martin posited that 1999 kicked off a third golden age of television, and said that the TV show was 'the signature American art form of the first decade of the 21st century.'

Alongside this generation of era-defining shows, we've seen the rise of the theory of the ‘TV auteur’, which argues that the reason why TV has become more self consciously arty over the past decade is because there is an artist at the helm. Whether or not you agree with the theory, or the premise that we’ve been living in a golden age of TV for the past 15 years, it’s clear that the shows highlighted in the book’s title have had a definite effect on TV; from the subject matter to the production methods.

Exhibit A: True Detective, the latest offering from American studio HBO, airing in the UK on Sky Atlantic on Saturday nights. The show arguably couldn’t exist without the likes of The Sopranos breaking down doors before it, and is already being compared to the best shows from the past 15 years despite last Saturday’s episode being only the seventh to air on these shores, with the finale to come this weekend.

The show is about a pair of mismatched cops, Rust Cohle and Marty Hart (played by Hollywood A-listers Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson), who are investigating a bizarre series of killings in Louisiana in 1995. Flash forward to 2012, and the two are being interrogated by police about a new series of murders which have more than a passing resemblance to the ones they worked on 17 years earlier.

As good as the plot and performances are, there's also much to be said about the way the show is made, and seeing how it compares to other shows which fall under the auteur TV umbrella.

TV is traditionally regarded as a team sport, and is usually made up of a sprawling, ensemble cast of different directors and writers. With this in mind, True Detective is unique in that each of the show’s eight episodes are written and directed by the same two people: writer Nic Pizzolatto, a 38-year old novelist whose only previous experience writing for TV was on two episodes of the US remake of The Killing; and director Cary Fukunaga, a 36-year old who won the Director Award at Sundance for his first feature film, Sin Nombre, in 2009.

Even the most frequently high-quality shows have a revolving door of writers and directors which change from episode to episode (The Sopranos, for example, counted Steve Buscemi, Peter Bogdanovich and Mike Figgis among its directors). On some level, this has to have an effect on the end product. By having a dedicated relationship between writer and director, True Detective can maintain a certain level of consistency over a season, and can give each of them license to show off their chops. For example, the end of episode four features a six-minute tracking shot – when was the last time you saw that outside of a Paul Thomas Anderson film?

And because every episode of the show is written by the same chap, they’re all interwoven with each other, creating references within references which only really make sense after giving it a second look – a hallmark of classic art-house cinema.

A worthwhile comparison to True Detective is Twin Peaks, the cult classic from the early-90s which is considered to be one of the first auteur TV shows. Both use the genre conventions of a whodunnit-style mystery as a sublimely subversive diving board, and leap off from there to tell a broader story. In the end, both shows topple the cliches of the typical crime fare, and True Detective ends up resembling a cop story only as much as Twin Peaks was ever a detective story – that is, almost tangentially. David Lynch, who created Twin Peaks with Mark Frost, supported the theory of TV’s arty turn over the last generation in an interview with The Independent, saying, 'Television is way more interesting than cinema now. It seems like the art-house has gone to cable.'

However, is the direction in which TV is travelling related to the auteur theory? Or is it just a case of imposing a rigid definition onto something that doesn’t really require it?

The original auteur theory comes from cinema. It originated in France in 1954 by Francois Truffaut – before he became an auteur in his own right – writing for influential film journal Cahiers du Cinema. It was put forward as a way to distinguish cinema as a legitimate art form, and give authorship of the work to a central figure, who could be considered the artist. The film director became the cultural cousin to the novelist or songwriter.

On the face of it, the theory seems at odds with television. TV is an inherently collaborative medium, and there are both practical and economic reasons why traditional TV shows are structured the way they are. An on-going, multi-season show is too sprawling for there to be one person in charge of it all. Surely there are too many moving parts, and it’s arguably nigh-on impossible to juggle them all at once?

That’s where the showrunner comes in. If you couldn’t tell by the name, showrunners run the show. They have a hand in writing, producing and casting, and dictate the overall look and feel of the show. In short, they oversee the whole operation, and their vision is the one which is being followed from the top down. The showrunner is the auteur of the small screen.

All of the shows that could be described as 'auteur TV' have showrunners who have gone on to become mini-celebrities in their own right as their shows became popular. If you liked The Sopranos, you're probably familiar with the name of showrunner David Chase, while David Simon will ring a bell for fans of The Wire (incidentally, the title of 'showrunner' is something you can make a career out of – after wrapping The Wire, Simon went on to create Treme).

As these shows gained footing in the early 00s, the showrunners began to gain recognition in the broader culture too, with Simon and Chase in particular going on to have more than a few magazine profiles penned about them. In TV, this kind of reverence used to typically be reserved for actors and actresses; not any more.

This rise in the profile of TV show creators isn't restricted to big budget drama; shows like Lena Dunham’s Girls and Louis CK’s Louie tout the idea of their ‘authorship’ as integral to their existence.

Louie is a particularly interesting example, and arguably the makes the strongest case for a the theory of auteur TV. The show is about the everyday life of the comedian (playing a fictionalised version of himself) as he tries to juggle being a single father to two girls living in New York City, and all the existential angst and absurdity that comes with it.

Similar to Woody Allen in his late 1970s heyday, CK writes produces, directs, acts in and edits the show. He gained this level of control due via a trade off with FX, whereby the show has a fixed budget of £300,000 per episode – a trifle in the world of network TV budgets – in exchange for complete control, to the extent that the network doesn’t even get to see the episode until he is finished editing it. Louie is widely praised, and has won a number of awards, including several Emmys and a Peabody, so evidently the comedian's end-to-end creative control is paying dividends.

American network AMC also made a conscious decision to follow the showrunner model a few years back, and is now reaping the rewards with commercial and critical hit shows like Mad Men (whose final season is about to commence) and Breaking Bad. Both shows share the same network, and both have difficult male protagonists, but their approaches to writing narrative drama are polar opposites.

Breaking Bad was a sleeper hit. The show only really took off in a big way during its final season, which was split into two parts. This turned out to be a sage move by the network: it made the show perfectly paced for binge-watching. When Netflix aggressively pushed Breaking Bad as their main selling point when they started to gain footing in the UK in 2012, the show became one of the most talked about TV events of the year.

Breaking Bad features all the hallmarks of being an auteur TV show and is usually lumped in with them, but showrunner Vince Gilligan doesn’t subscribe to the theory. Speaking to The Guardian during the writing of the show’s final season, he said:

'The worst thing the French ever gave us is the auteur theory. It's a load of horseshit. You don't make a movie by yourself, you certainly don't make a TV show by yourself.'

Gilligan likes to be approachable to his staff, and prided himself on Breaking Bad's reputation for having the happiest writers' room in Hollywood. In the same interview with The Guardian, he mentions that all of his writers are considered equal, and said: 'There's nothing more powerful to a showrunner than a truly invested writer. That writer will fight the good fight.'

The process behind making Mad Men, the network’s other trump card and another TV show considered to be auteur-y, is vastly different (although it's worth noting that, in the wake of Breaking Bad's success, Mad Men's final season will also be split in two, with equal halves airing in spring 2014 and spring 2015). The writer’s room of that show is led by showrunner Matthew Weiner, and is renowned for being more hierarchical, with everything going towards serving Weiner’s vision.

In Difficult Men, Brett Martin recounts an anecdote from the Mad Men writers room that shows just how autocratic it can be. Legendary screenwriter Frank Pierson, whose credits include Dog Day Afternoon and Cool Hand Luke, was visiting the room and shared a story about his dog with the show’s writers. A young writer chimed in with a story of his own pet, which didn’t go down well with Weiner.

Speaking to Martin about it, Weiner said, 'This was somebody who was very low on the totem pole. I literally pulled them aside afterward and said, “No one gives a shit about your dog.”' And when Pierson was talking, he said, 'Only I interrupt him.'

This top-down approach means that Weiner is absolutely pivotal to the show. In 2008, his continued involvement in the show was in limbo after a contract dispute with the network couldn’t be resolved. Jon Hamm, who plays Don Draper on the show, said, 'We can’t do the show without Matthew. Of course, you "can" do it, but you know you can’t.'

Maybe the notion of there being one central figure, the artist, who carries the entire weight of a show’s success or failure on their shoulders, is too simplistic. Also, it arguably does a disservice to the talented cast and crew who are contributing to the project. Nowhere is this point more pertinent than in a show like True Detective, where one of the main strengths of the show is the performances and interplay between the two leads.

The theory of the TV auteur has some credence, but ultimately it depends how loosely you define the parameters. In terms of True Detective, there’s certainly an argument to be made that it’s an auteur TV show. Most people who watch the show probably won't be shocked to find out that the team is so centralised, and there’s definitely a cohesive voice which runs throughout each episode, but it comes nowhere near the high level of control set by a show like Louie.

It’s interesting to point out though, that the original auteur theory came about in the early 1950s, when film was roughly 50 years old, and that TV auteurism is being espoused during TV's half-century too. Maybe film and TV’s 50s are their angsty, teenage years, where they’re trying to become their own thing, and gain their own definition. Or maybe, in trying to impose this definition upon them, we’re just going through the motions?

The final episode of True Detective season one will air on Sky Atlantic, Sat 12 Apr at 9pm. The first episode of Mad Men season seven will air on Sky Atlantic, Wed 16 Apr at 10pm.

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