You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

How do you identify top TV director work?

Past Emmy winners discuss what makes a kudo-worthy episode

Watch an episode of TV drama or comedy. Then ask yourself: What did the director do?

In effect, this is what Emmy voters selecting their picks for top helmer on their ballots have to ask themselves. It isn’t as easy to determine as it may seem, since TV is widely held as a showrunner medium, in which the writing can count for much more than the direction. By definition, some would argue, a good episode is a well-written episode.

For insight into what makes a director worthy of an Emmy, it might be helpful to turn to a few who’ve won the statuette and glean what makes TV direction actually notable.

“Every good director will elevate the material on the page. His job is to elevate it visually, to give it the weight of an art form,” says director Rod Holcomb, an Emmy winner for “ER.” “In a way, it’s easier to determine with a show that you know very well as a viewer, and if you know the contours and the voice of the show, then you can more easily answer some key questions. Like, does the director make choices that have the maximum impact for the scene and the episode? Does the direction fully realize the potential inherent in the episode?”

Says Greg Yaitanes, 2008 Emmy-winning drama series director for “House”: “I have to be strongly affected emotionally. I’ve watched a hell of a lot of TV, so for something to stick with me, it needs to display great strength in both performances and visual style, since these are two areas in which the director plays a fundamental role. I don’t like flash for flash’s sake” — a sentiment echoed by every director contacted for this report — “but I need to be moved.”

Director Richard Shepard scored a 2007 Emmy for “Ugly Betty,” a show with more than its share of flash, so it’s not surprising that one of the qualities he looks for in a candidate is energy.

“What is that?” he asks. “I guess excitement, verve, surprise. An imaginative use of shot selection. Script is overwhelmingly important, especially for viewers and voters, which is why you never see a weakly scripted episode being nominated when it comes to directing.

“But the real reasons why I’ll remember an episode once I start filling out my ballot is because there was something beautiful or complex in the direction that really popped. And I think the main considerations must be the factors over which the director has the most control and input, and I look very closely for those — they would be interesting choices of locations, selection of extras and of dayplayers, and giving actors the space and conditions to deliver a great performance.”

Robert B. Weide contributed to the refreshed look of TV comedy, liberated from the three-camera/live audience setup, when he worked on the launch of Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” Yet even here, where the show’s radical visual style of a single camera — often handheld — suggested the strong hand of a director, the facts are otherwise.

“Our documentary style honestly came about through little more than Larry having difficulty memorizing a lot of pages of dialogue and our choice of going without a strictly worded script,” he says. “The form followed circumstances, which shows that you can’t always tell when watching a program where the look comes from. The pilot dictates it, for sure, but maybe the director has a hand. Or not.”

Weide agrees with Shepard that remembering episodes is key for voting: “With so many to choose from, I’ll tend to vote on memorable episodes. I’ll think something was nicely directed, and it may have had great shots in it. But was this the d.p.’s hand at work? Or maybe a producer’s? It can be hard to know, but if I see some innovation going on, that will affect me.”

TV series juggle inhouse and freelance directors | ‘Daily Show’ director not easily flustered | TV directors who leave their mark | How do you identify top TV director work?

More TV

  • 'SNL' Turns the Impeachment Hearings into

    'Saturday Night Live' Turns the Impeachment Hearings into a Soap Opera (Watch)

    “Saturday Night Live” kicked off its Nov. 16 episode with a take on the biggest news story of the previous week (and foreseeable future): the impeachment hearings. But another big story of the week, especially in Hollywood, was how NBC’s last remaining daytime drama, “Days of our Lives,” had let its actors out of their [...]

  • Andy Cohen attends BravoCon's "Watch What

    'The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City' to Debut in 2020

    Bravo announced Saturday during its first annual BravoCon that a tenth “Real Housewives” series, “The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City,” will debut in 2020. Bravo host and “Real Housewives” executive producer Andy Cohen made the announcement during a panel titled “Ask Andy” at the NYC convention. “We’ve always tried to choose a city that [...]

  • Sterling K. Brown on His Oscar

    Sterling K. Brown on His Oscar Buzz for 'Waves': 'Kind of Surreal'

    Sterling K. Brown can’t quite comprehend the awards attention he’s receiving for his work in the A24 drama “Waves.” “If the Academy sees fit to put me in a category with people who I absolutely adore, I will pee all over myself, dude” the Emmy winner says on the latest episode of “The Big Ticket.” [...]

  • TV News Roundup: 45th Annual Humanitas

    TV News Roundup: 45th Annual Humanitas Nominees Announced

    In today’s TV news roundup, Humanitas has released the finalists for the 45th Annual Humanitas Prize, and YouTube announced a new beauty competition series hosted by James Charles.  CASTINGS Jason Kennedy has been named as the host of E!’s new series “In The Room.“ The “E! News” host will bring viewers inside celebrity homes for [...]

  • Editorial use only. No book cover

    Viacom Extends 'The Office,' 'Parks and Recreation' Syndication Deals

    “The Office” and “Parks and Recreation” reruns will continue to air on Viacom linear networks for the foreseeable future. The company announced that it has reached a new deal with NBCUniversal to keep “The Office” on Comedy Central through 2021. The series will then air in a non-exclusive window on Viacom Media Networks through 2025. [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content