Ask this year’s crop of nominated directors and writers how to distinguish between a well-written and a well-directed episode of television and the answer you will get is largely the same: You can’t. On television shows, particularly cable series where the creative team is small, the relationship between director and writer is often so collaborative that separating the two elements is virtually impossible.
“If something is badly written or directed, I’m thinking, this is poorly written or poorly directed,” says “Silicon Valley” executive producer Alec Berg, nominated for writing the HBO comedy’s second season finale, “Two Days of the Condor.” “But if things are effectively rendered, you’re just thinking, ‘Wow, this is awesome.’ Or, ‘I love this,’ or ‘I can’t wait to see what happens.’ You’re not really thinking about the craft.”
Logically, this would mean that when submitting the episode that represents the best a show has to offer there would be overlap in the writing and directing category at the Emmys, yet for the past five years, overlap has been minimal, even when a series is represented in both categories. Which begs the question, if a strong script is necessary for a director bring the words to life, and solid direction elevates an already strong script to even greater heights, why is the same episode not represented in both categories?
Those tasked with deciding which sample of their work demonstrates a particular expertise contend that choosing often comes down to instinct. “Veep” showrunner Armando Iannucci submitted “Testimony” for directing, an episode where direction and editing would make or break or break the episode, and the HBO laffer’s season finale, “Election Night,” which features a delicious plot twist, for writing.
“You think, let’s choose something where you can see the style of it, the format of it, that there’s something specific about that episode that lends itself to being the nominee for directing,” Iannucci says. “[‘Testimony’] felt different from the other episodes. It felt like there was something fresh about it. Also, personally, it was the culmination of four years of ‘Veep’ for me. So it felt like the right one to submit.”
“Transparent” creator Jill Soloway submitted the Amazon dramedy’s pilot for writing and “Best New Girl,” a visual departure from the rest of the show, for directing. While both choices felt like the best examples of pushing her own boundaries, Soloway finds that as a showrunner who wrote the majority of episodes and directed several, a real distinction is hard to make.
“I think editing, the scripts, they fall under the directing,” she says. “A good director can stand there and say, ‘I’m responsible for every single moment in this. I give notes to the editor. And I found the music. I gave the writers notes on the script. I ask them to cut this scene.’ That’s what a director does.”
What most nominees agree on is that, unlike movies where a cool angle is something worth noting and even celebrating, being aware of the techniques utilized on a TV show is almost a disadvantage.
“I don’t ever want to draw attention to myself as a director,” says David Nutter, nominated for directing “Mother’s Mercy,” the eventful season finale of HBO’s fantasy epic. “I don’t want people to watch something and say ‘that was a good shot,’ ‘that was a cool shot.’ When they focus on the shot it takes them out of the story, and the story is the No. 1 thing that I serve. I want to be truly invisible so that I support what the audience is watching.”
But without a solid script, even the most talented director cannot shine.
“Visual storytelling is the writer’s domain as well,” says “Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner, nominated for penning the AMC series finale “Person to Person.” “I don’t know if people realize that. People think the writer writes a whole bunch of talking, and the director comes in and figures out everything else. It doesn’t work that way on our show. It didn’t work that way on ‘The Sopranos,’ I can tell you one thing: No one has ever won a directing Emmy with a script that’s bad.”