It’s been 70 years since those smartass French critics coined the term “auteur” to apply to the creative “author” of a film, and everyone’s been arguing about it ever since without ever really settling the debate as to who exactly qualifies and why. So it would seem that applying the term to the relatively younger medium of TV, and the positively infantile phenomenon of Peak TV, is obviously even more of a fool’s errand. Hang on, did someone say “fool’s errand”? Sign us up!
At the weekend, Bryan Fuller‘s “American Gods” premiered as did newcomer Justin Simien‘s “Dear White People.” Next weekend, the Wachowskis‘ “Sense8” returns for season 2, Aziz Ansari‘s “Master Of None” and Jill Soloway‘s new “I Love Dick” arrive on May 12th, Tina Fey‘s “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” returns on May 18th, and David Lynch‘s “Twin Peaks” lands on May 21st — and these are just the big season premieres, with Noah Hawley‘s “Fargo” and Damon Lindelof‘s “The Leftovers” and many others currently airing or just finished. Inasmuch as television has auteurs, do some, none or all of those guys count?
As difficult as it is to work out which film directors might merit the appellation, it’s many times more complex given the nature of television, in which the writer, director, executive producer, showrunner and creator roles can all be separate, but some combination of which often gives a sense of authorial ownership to one person. And over the course of several shows, or even just one if their voice is distinctive enough, that can seem to comprise a recognizable sensibility, an auteurist style.
So, because we enjoy pain, we thought we’d set ourselves the Sisyphean task of identifying 50 men and women who fit our loose and subjective definition of auteurdom (usually we’ve gone with someone who has both a “creator” credit and a regular writing and/or directing and/or showrunning position on the show). And then, because we love to make you hate us, we thought we’d rank them in terms of how much their current form picks up our pilot, so to speak.
We’ve avoided people, even big names, who haven’t been on air in a while (even if their return is imminent), along with people who we feel have gone off the boil recently, and, more heartbreakingly, some creator/showrunner/writers who may be the creative driving forces behind some of our favorite shows, but simply haven’t done enough within or outside those shows to merit the lofty title “auteur.” So, to reiterate, this is not a list of our favorite current TV shows, or an all-time list of TV greats, but a list of those men and women whose names alone can, right this second, get us interested in a TV project. Here are the 50 current TV auteurs we’re most excited about.
50. Armando Iannucci
Major Shows: “The Thick Of It” (U.K.), “Veep”
Scottish political satirist Iannucci was a staple on British television long before he leapt the pond, with “The Thick Of It” (still probably his all-out masterpiece) only capping a long career as a comedy writer and producer on shows like “The Day Today,” “I’m Alan Partridge” and “The Armando Iannucci Shows.” But U.S. audiences will know him best as the creator of HBO‘s “Veep,” on which he also served as showrunner for the first four seasons. His creation seems to have managed to beat the odds and remains a witty and relevant political satire, even without his daily involvement, at a time when it feels like satire falls short of reality. Even so, and though he has directorial feature films and a novel in the works, we can’t help but hope he brings his caustic paint-stripper humor back to TV soon: Iannucci, your public needs you now more than ever.
49. Lee Daniels
Major Shows: “Star,” “Empire”
There’s the model of TV auteurdom that is about total control, about racking up writing credits and acting as showrunner on the day-to-day. Lee Daniels doesn’t really fit that mold, though his input on his two major TV projects so far, “Star” and “Empire,” whether as co-creator, occasional writer or marquee-name director, has been considerable — not least in getting them sold in the first place. His big success came with “Empire”: a pulpy, extravagant drama starring Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard set in the hip-hop industry that proved an instant hit for network Fox, pulling a huge 17m viewers for its season 1 finale. Since then, viewership has dwindled, but it was still Fox’s most watched show of the 2016/17 season. “Star,” about an aspiring girl band, which premiered on Fox in 2016, hasn’t made the same sort of splash, but has been renewed and, if nothing else, suggests Daniels’ fascination with the music business remains an integral part of his TV brand.
48. Melissa Rosenberg
Major Shows: “Marvel’s Jessica Jones”
Amid the great flattening-out and homogenization that happens in the Marvel TV stable, each of the various shows adopt certain stylistic quirks, but the only one that feels close to deserving the “auteur” tag is Melissa Rosenberg’s take on “Jessica Jones.” Having risen to showrunner/exec-producer status on “Dexter,” Rosenberg’s sensibilities made her Marvel show the most distinctive of the Netflix superhero crop. This is largely because “Jessica Jones” is not just the only Netflix/Marvel joint, but possibly the only superhero show (until “Legion” anyway) to properly mine its metaphorical potential: over the course of its first season, Rosenberg created a show more about domestic violence and the guilt and fear it creates than about caped crusaders saving the imperiled.
47. The Wachowskis
Major Shows: “Sense8”
The secrecy surrounding Netflix viewership figures means we can’t really know, but instinct, plus a clutch of middling reviews for season 1, suggests that “Sense8” wasn’t quite the hit they might have hoped for, coming from the ‘Matrix‘ directors, long in gestation and clearly pretty pricey. And it’s certainly weird, not just in a concept sci-fi way, but in the occasional creakiness of the story, which follows eight mystically linked individuals scattered across the globe. Basically, it’s the doctrine of identity politics made manifest through a complex sci-fi mythology, but it’s also oddly charming, displaying, for all its globe-trotting hi-tech trappings and quasi-spiritual mumbo-jumbo, a winningly sincere desire to contend with issues that few shows are brave enough to go near. As such, it not only feels of a part with the Wachowskis’ film work, but actually a more mature take as this isn’t simply a repackaged messiah myth but a homage to the power of a collective working together across religious, gender, ethnic and cultural divides. Season 2 premieres this Friday.
46. Reggie Rock Bythewood & Gina Prince Bythewood
Major Shows: “Shots Fired”
It may seem early to dub this husband-and-wife team “TV auteurs,” but their new Fox series, “Shots Fired,” is very much their brainchild and very much born of their desire to dramatize contemporary African-American experience in the same way that both their movie careers have done. Taking on the immense and seemingly intractable issue of racially motivated police violence would be an admirable-enough ambition, but to do so in the form of a network show that adheres loosely to the murder mystery/cop procedural format is really smart, and it makes it one of the most addictive yet deceptively challenging primetime network dramas on air. It occasionally can feel schematic in its plotting, but the racial dynamics of the communities it portrays and the characters who populate it are never less than engrossing.