The Rise of the Half-Hour Television Series in the Era of TV Auteurism
Ever since The Sopranos premiered on HBO in 1999, the hour long cable drama series became synonymous with the new golden age of television. A plethora of scholars, critics, and fans began to pay attention to television, and as a result, shows like The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad were valued as great works of art. For the first time since its invention, television surpassed film in its ability to produce sophisticated narrative fiction with complex characters, innovative plots, and high production values, and audiences around the world were paying attention.
15 years have passed since The Sopranos made its impact, and much has changed in the world of television. Most significantly, the male anti-hero, as described in Brett Martin’s book Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos and the Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad, has become a tired cliche, as evidenced by the lukewarm response to shows like Low Winter Sun and Luck. It’s fair to say that the first wave of the hour long cable drama series crashed with the conclusion of Breaking Bad in 2013, and although some series with male anti-heroes still linger in the undertow (most notably House of Cards and Rectify), a second wave of television programming is on the rise. This new wave has reinforced the relevance of the half-hour television series, which air on cable networks like FX and HBO, and streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon, and Crackle. These shows are artistically and culturally significant, and challenge the commonly held misconception that the hour long drama series is more sophisticated.
Like the hour long drama series that came before, the contemporary half-hour series is the product of what some critics have called the “TV auteur.” TV auteur theory is inspired by François Truffaut’s “la politique des Auteurs,” which was subsequently expanded upon by Andrew Sarris in 1962 and given the more common term “auteur theory.” Auteur theory, according to Sarris in his essay “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962,” is rooted in the belief that the director is the author of the film, and that “the way a film looks and moves should have some relationship to the way a director thinks and feels” (516).
The TV auteur can be understood similarly, and it is used to refer to showrunners like David Chase, David Simon, and Vince Gilligan, who control the content of their shows and express a grand artistic vision. There’s an underlying implication that TV auteurs are more important than, say, the creators of generic sitcoms like The Big Bang Theory, and that their work demands more critical reflection in the culture.
TV auteurs have traditionally been associated with the hour long drama series like The Sopranos and The Wire, and with the exception of a few individuals like Norman Mailer, Jerry Seinfeld, and Garry Shandling, the half-hour comedy series has not been celebrated for its artistic merits. We watch Friends not because it is a challenging work of television, but because we relate to the characters. And while it is certainly acceptable to relate to the characters in shows by TV auteurs, something more significant is being presented to us. Shows by TV auteurs are defined by their willingness to deviate from narrative and stylistic conventions, and they ultimately strive to be more than mere entertainment.
The Sopranos, for instance, is considered the definitive work of TV auteurism, and it is easy to comprehend why. Not only are the show’s production values significantly more sophisticated than most network television shows (and indeed, most films), its challenging narrative defies the conventions of TV storytelling. For example, the series is littered with dream sequences, alternate narratives, unresolved subplots, and characters that disappear without warning. Unlike network crime shows like Law & Order, Chase tells a continuing story that unfolds over the course of six seasons, but he has the audacity to experiment and produce some episodes like “The Test Dream” that have nothing to do with the show’s overarching narrative and more to do with probing into the main character’s mental state. Consider this scene, in which strange things happen to Tony (James Gandolfini). Chase was devoted to his artistic vision until the very end, when the now iconic series finale concluded ambiguously with an abrupt cut to black. This ambiguity is a central component to the series, and what made it so unique and revolutionary.
In addition to these formal and stylistic deviations, the series addressed serious themes like the decline of the American family and the disillusionment with the American dream, all of which confirms that The Sopranos intended to educate and enlighten as well as entertain. We laughed, we cried, and we shrieked in horror, but we also thought about what it all meant and why it mattered. This, precisely, is what separates generic TV from auteurist TV.
If 2014 has taught us anything, it is that the half-hour television series has rightly earned its TV auteur status, and that it remains as vital as the many hour long drama series that signified the new golden age of television.
The most innovative half hour series is FX’s Louie, which is written and directed by comedian Louis C.K., who also plays a fictional version of himself in the lead role. I’ve written about this show in the past, and continue to be blown away by its originality. It is well documented that C.K. has complete creative control, and the ways he defies narrative and stylistic conventions solidify his auteur status.
Like Chase, C.K. incorporates fantastical sequences into his show, including a beautiful and funny bit in the episode “Elevator Part 1” where his daughter and girlfriend play violin together. It’s a bold, bewildering moment, and it demonstrates the risks C.K. is willing to take in order to express his artistic vision.
Louie has dismantled the sitcom paradigm, and has shown that the half-hour format can provide humor and pathos. Unlike sitcoms, which exist to make the audience laugh, half-hour comedy series like Louie experiment with different genres. One scene, in particular, takes place on a subway, and plays like a short horror film. It is completely devoid of humor, and demonstrates C.K.’s unconventional approach to television storytelling. Louie can shift from horror to hilarity and back again in the blink of an eye.
Similarly, HBO’s Girls is written and directed by its lead star, Lena Dunham, who continues to push the boundaries of what is acceptable on television. Girls is one of the most perceptive series on television. Dunham accurately depicts what it is like to be a twenty-something New Yorker in the digital era. Unlike Sex and the City, which glamorizes New York and unrealistically suggests that columnists like Carrie Bradshaw could comfortably afford an apartment on the Upper East Side in Manhattan, Girls finds its characters struggling to pay the bills in Brooklyn. A number of snarky critics have dismissed the series as an obnoxious ode to hipsterdom, but such complaints overlook Dunham’s artistic intentions.
The point of Girls is to portray a generation of narcissists that came of age with the Internet, George W. Bush, and a you-go-girl, DIY cultural mentality. The characters are not supposed to be “likable,” but they are human and Dunham wisely refuses to judge. Hannah Horvath and her friends have spent their entire lives in comfortable bourgeois complacency, and they are unable to navigate a world in which things will not always go their way. First-world problems, to be sure, but narrative fiction has always taught us that all human beings suffer, regardless of status.
Like C.K., Dunham blends comedy with drama, and her show is at once outrageously funny and disturbingly sad, often in the same scene. Consider, for example, the highly debated sex scene between Adam (Adam Driver) and Natalia (Shiri Appleby) in Season Two’s “On All Fours.” Some critics have called it rape, much like they did in a more recent episode of Louie, but I believe that Dunham is after something a little more nuanced and complicated. For many young men and women, the line between consent and refusal is often muddled, and it is difficult to discern what, precisely, the opposite sex wants. Rather than comment on a rape culture, Dunham uses this scene to make a point about the characters’ inability to communicate with one another in the social media age.
Girls is often cited for pushing the boundaries with its graphic sex scenes, but more confrontational is Dunham’s willingness to place her characters in difficult emotional situations. Her series is raw to the bone, and many audiences are turned off because they cannot deal with its unfiltered authenticity. There’s one scene from the episode “Beach House” in which the girls finally call out each other’s flaws, and it is incredibly powerful and realistic to the point where it is almost unwatchable. It’s harrowing television, to be sure, but the cruelty is unbearable. I cannot help but wonder if Dunham wrote this scene in response to the critics of her show, as if to incorporate all of the negative complaints about her characters in a way that serves the narrative and makes the audience realize that the point from the beginning was to follow unlikable people.
Those who have seen Dunham’s early films, particularly Tiny Furniture (2010), will notice that she brings this sensibility to Girls. That a 28 year-old woman would have creative control over a television series on HBO is an achievement by any standard, but Dunham has dominated the cultural conversation because the series is consistently excellent.
More recently, streaming services have allowed TV auteurs to express their vision. Amazon, for example, has produced Jill Soloway’s Transparent, the best television series of 2014. Transparent stars Jeffrey Tambor as Maura, a transgender individual who has lived her life as a man, married, had children, and finally decides to come out as a woman in late middle-age. Soloway and Amazon deserve credit for telling a story about those within the transgender community, but that would hardly matter if the show weren’t any good. Transparent matters precisely because it is a masterful family melodrama that interrogates notions of identity and the self.
Crackle, as well, has reinvented television with Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, a talk show that deviates from the form by allowing Seinfeld and his guests to chat in cars. Seinfeld’s guests are not there to promote a product, and the show instead is an excuse for Seinfeld and guests like Chris Rock, Larry David, and Sarah Silverman to discuss the craft of comedy. Episodes vary in length, and although it is easy to classify the series as the ultimate show about nothing, Seinfeld’s musings make it more interesting than the generic late night talk shows on network television. Even the way Seinfeld incorporates product placement is creative. Rather than render it invisible, he calls attention to it in a comic manner, and has turned it into a running gag that viewers anticipate.
The series that I have discussed above do not by any means cover the entire spectrum. In addition, there are Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, Ben Best, Jody Hill, and Danny McBride’s Eastbound & Down, Ricky Gervais’ The Office, Extras, and Derek, Armando Iannucci’s Veep, Mike White and Laura Dern’s Enlightened, Michael Patrick King and Lisa Kudrow’s The Comeback, and Michael Lannan’s Looking, among others.
Some of these shows are no longer on the air, and others have just begun. The point, to put it plainly, is that the half-hour television series has established itself as an artistic platform for auteurs interested in creating challenging narrative fiction. In 2014, the half-hour series has surpassed the hour-long drama in artistry, originality, and quality, and it remains the reason why television continues to be culturally significant.
Featured image source: Ruvena Fanador.
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