Or Everything Wrong with Prestige TV, Part I
This is Part I in a two-part series, “In Brief, Everything Wrong with Prestige TV.” Part I focuses on Scene Direction, while Part II focuses on Writing and Producing.
It has been called by a number of different names: the Golden Age of Television, Peak TV, or Prestige Television. Each implies the same concept, that any particular series we currently watch is the pinnacle of the medium, only exceeded each following day with every new show. Although media historians differ, the consensus is that in 1999 The Sopranos (1999–2007)—followed by the rest of HBO’s subsequent lineup, from the short-lived Deadwood (2004–2006) and Rome (2005–2007) to the longer-lived The Wire (2002–2008), alongside other niches such as FX's The Shield (2002–2008)—ushered in a new era of artistic achievement for the boob tube. Once a low-rent purgatory that actors and directors tried to ascend from, television from then on had the means and merit to draw talent away from film. Apple TV’s The Morning Show (2019–), for example, has Jennifer Aniston, Steve Carrell, and Reese Witherspoon all under one roof. In the past, that could only happen at awards shows, but now it is par for the course.
All three names for this so-called epoch are fitting, though unintentionally so. It is fine to call ours a Golden Age: everyone knows you can recognize Eden only once you have left it. Peak TV, is also an accurate term, recalling not quality, but rather quantity of a crude extract. Prestige Television is perhaps most fitting of all. In Christopher Nolan’s film, The Prestige (2006), the title is explained as a magic trick’s third and most vital act. The Prestige is the payoff, when the vanished object miraculously returns. But that payoff is also another illusion: of course the vanished object did not vanish into thin air. The returned object is rarely the one initially spirited away.
Contrary to the press releases of most streaming moguls, television is not actually in its prime. In fact, it is a sickly limping thing begging for that final mercy. In all of its facets, but primarily scene directing, the artform has been in steep decline from its true crest, the salad days of the Clinton administration. Although I am loath to give Generation X any credit, television did have a true artistic moment throughout the 1990s, before the craft and lessons were accidentally, and sometimes quite deliberately, forgotten. Across the medium, quality television has become as lost an artform as Greek fire. The dual forces of Prestige TV—the older, seasoned Julius Caesar of cinematic television and the younger, entrepreneurial Augustus of streaming platforms—have both peaked and hold sway, so much so the ancien regime seems like a foreign country, but not so distant that the republican virtue is fully gone from living memory. Let’s examine the heights from which we’ve fallen, ask who did the pushing, and perhaps learn how we can scale the cliff once again.
Whenever I try, often in failure, to convince family and friends of the decline in television directing, I first use this video clip. In it, a Trekkie shows how a recent line from Star Trek: Discovery (2017–) is a word-for-word reference to another line from Star Trek: Voyager (1995–2001). Both scenes over twenty years apart feature captains discussing the finer points of Starfleet regulation, yet, as technique affects tone, the styles are total opposites. Such fans, so focused on the continuity to lore, do not even realize the desecration before their eyes.
The recent Star Trek shows, moreover, are a compositional mess. Attempting to establish the chaos of a starship in peril, the camera hops around like a caffeinated toddler. The 2017 scene has no sense of spatial relation between the actors, which might be fine if intentional, but it clearly is not. We are given instead a cobbled-together coverage:, with the camera jostled vigorously to mimic the Bourne series, it lacks any understanding of the intent behind the method.
Star Trek: Voyager, although the least fondly remembered Star Trek series, exhibits camerawork that is night and day in contrast with Discovery. For one thing, it has blocking—the placement and movement of actors within a scene. In this 1995 scene every actor is perfectly blocked, and the viewer knows it, from. exactly where everyone physically stands in relation to each other, and metaphorically positions within the story. As Captain Janeway (played by Kate Mulgrew) shifts away from the group, she signifies her elevation and isolation atop the hierarchy. The show trusts itself with simple camera moves, from some shot-countershots to one glacial dolly as Janeway shifts herself above and away from her subordinates. While both scenes are attempting different strategies, what matters most in direction are accomplishments, not good intentions. Voyager, banished to syndication and often on a diminished budget, bests Discovery even with its twenty years of technological advance and slush fund of streaming money.
This small case study, borderline anecdotal, still represents the current debacle on our hands. At best, television direction is in the hands of the uncomprehending who can pass on their trade without understanding the craft behind it—if modern showrunners passed on the practice at all. The question is: did they even receive a craft? In Walter M. Miller Jr.’s novel, A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959), Catholic monks in a post-apocalyptic world illuminate blueprints and technical diagrams from a past civilized age, preserving the printed content but not its semiotic and social meaning. Modern television direction is functionally the same—imitation without understanding. It is always easy to blame a younger generation for not paying attention, but truthfully the old masters did not properly pass on directing’s institutional knowledge. Instead, they left us with a game of telephone in a foreign language: the imitation of a concept fades with the definition misunderstood.
Let’s look at another, more linear comparison. The X-Files (1993–2002) was my favorite show growing up. A kind uncle gave my family a VHS box-set of episodes, which we would watch during summer nights in the basement, joyfully scared s***less. Aside from its pitch perfect premise—two FBI agents, a skeptic partnered with a believer, traveling across the country to solve paranormal mysteries—it was also as cinematic as television could be, and probably ever was. Shot on 35mm film in the damp moss forests of British Columbia, The X-Files was always cloaked in shadow and spongy underfoot.
Its scene direction was unparalleled, even in the esteemed company of 1990s television. The episodes were overseen primarily by Kim Manners. Respected for his eye despite never transcending television, Manners was counted by Alain Resnais, director of Hiroshima mon amour (1959) and Last Year at Marienbad (1961), as one of his favorite directors and a talent equivalent to the likes of Wong Kar-wai and David Lynch. “The virtuosity of his shot-breakdown technique and of his mise-en-scène, and the way in which he treated actors’ performances,” Resnais said, “all of it impressed me. He’s the best of the best.”
Contemplate one such Manners-directed episode, my personal favorite: “War of the Coprophages.” This scene, in which a mob storms a convenience store and grab what they can, has the handheld jitteriness of that first Star Trek Discovery scene but maintains its self-discipline. In a single shot, the camera trails several different looters. As it darts back and forth in seemingly sporadic movements, the camera is actually painting the mise-en-scène—how a scene is set and the stage is arranged—in crossing swaths. In another single take, Agent Scully (played by Gillian Anderson) arrives to survey the place: while she is foregrounded, a car-crash gag happens just behind her. As a capper to the scene, Scully approaches the camera in a deep focus, low-angle shot. Although film is a two-dimensional medium, Manners’s direction creates a certain fullness and tactility within the shot. With so much of modern TV and film flat and affectless, The X-Files quite literally had depth.
Unfortunately, as Frost knew, nothing gold can stay—or, in the case of mass media, stay away. Even The X-Files was rebooted (2016-2018), with the main cast and showrunner Chris Carter both returning. Because Kim Manners had died a few years prior, his absence was sorely missed and the reboot was quite frankly a disaster. Even with most of the same writers and crew, their original magic could not translate into the modern era. A primary reason was their choice to switch from film to high-definition digital cameras.
A show renowned for its depth of field and shadowy layers was now washed out and tragically flat. Take, for instance, this scene: though simple as a brief dialogue between Mulder (played by David Duchovny) and Scully on a Washington, DC street corner, its pattern has been well established by now. Perhaps it is unfair to contrast such a staid scene with the former’s kinetic energy, but every shot is an opportunity for and judgment of a director. Unlike the previous one’s dynamism, this shot can muster up only a mild flourish with a pointless swirl around the actors. It then settles into shot-reverse shot—the technique whereby two characters seem to face each other in opposite directions by first showing one face then the other—not out of minimalist principle but just to finish the segment. Our two stars are kept separate from their surroundings, like a local weather lady before a green screen. Any color, both literal and figurative, has been bleached out for soft-focus cheapness. Shooting in daylight is arguably naturally less evocative than the cover of night, but this decision seems to be another directorial failure.
If we are to be appropriately angry at the state of modern comedic directing, a bit of a primer is necessary. There are three main forms of comedic television direction: multiple camera, single camera, and the “mockumentary” genre.
First off, the multiple camera format (also known as multi-camera or multicam) involves setting up several cameras to record the actors playing through a scene in its entirety, often in front of a live audience. Each camera covers a certain angle, then the footage is edited among these three, sometimes four, perspectives. First popularized by Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz for I Love Lucy (1951º1957), it is closer in time and form to a theatrical production. The primary form of comedic television well into the 2000s—the trinity of Seinfeld (1989–1998), Frasier (1993–2004), and Friends (1994–2004) all used a multi-camera setup. Multicam was popular to the point of ubiquity and, at times, standard to the point of laziness.
A single-camera setup is fairly self-explanatory: a show is filmed with one sole camera, one shot at a time. Instead of running through an entire scene only once, it is performed again and again to capture each moment. Because of time and effort, there is no live audience and usually no laugh track. Inherently more cinematic than a multi-camera setup, it has all the basics of day one filmmaking. Standard for television drama, it became en vogue for ambitious comedy shows to cast off the shackles of the multi-camera set-up for the maximum creative control of the single camera. Curb Your Enthusiasm (2000–), Arrested Development (2003–2006), Community (2009–2015), It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (2005–), and Silicon Valley (2014–2019) are perhaps the best-known examples of single-camera comedy.
Mockumentary filmmaking is the most recent addition to comedy directing. Although explored somewhat extensively in film by the likes of Albert Brooks and Christopher Guest, it did not truly reach the small screen until the original British show, The Office (2001–2003), which was then followed by the American version (2005–2013), then its own quasi-spinoff, Parks and Recreation (2009–2015), and recently the Emmy juggernaut, Modern Family (2009–2020). As the name implies, a mockumentary is a fake documentary: handheld cameras follow the characters around, occasionally interspersed with B-roll footage of the actors talking directly to the camera. Since the camera’s existence becomes a textual part of the world, that maneuver allows them to “break the fourth wall” without becoming heedlessly self-referential. This third mockumentary format thereby splits the difference between the previous two styles: it allows for more freedom than the multi-camera setup to choose whatever angle one prefers, and for more ability than the single-camera setup by running several cameras and simply editing the collected footage together.
All three methods have their merits and pitfalls, with positive and negative examples of each. An underlying cultural narrative, however, has developed that this development of options is a natural evolution, rather than a willful revolution. The traditional sitcom format is staid and stagnant, it is thought, whereas the mockumentary format is cinéma verité, the cutting edge of modern TV direction. Viewers have validated this stance, as The Office and Modern Family are both highly decorated and highly rated. Nonetheless, the multi-camera sitcom has more artistic merit than usually allowed, while the mockumentary is frequently more flash than substance. To defend allegedly-kitsch tradition from such slander, let’s examine a paragon of the style, Frasier.
Frasier is another one of my favorite shows, personally discovered only long after it ceased airing. Streaming, for all its faults, was a godsend to recovering, long-neglected sitcoms. Frasier, a tonal and aesthetical throwback, was considered so even thirty years ago. Arguably better than any sitcom of its era, or ours as well, the show understood that the multi-camera setup was intrinsically theatrical and viewed everything through that prism.
So many other multi-camera sitcoms were embarrassed by their restraints. Seinfeld, in particular, had a tendency to add in single-camera footage, with their dipped toe becoming the industry’s full submergence of the 2000s. To inject more realism into the show, Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David would instead break the fragile suspension of disbelief most sitcoms rely on. One soon starts to wonder why we never see the far wall of Jerry’s apartment. Frasier, on the other hand, embraced the format’s theatrical roots. Because the show fosters in us the instinctive dismissal of the stage, the audience never wonders where Frasier Crane’s far wall is. We are the fourth wall. It avoided the uncanny valley by deliberately flaunting its unreality, then and now.
Frasier is the master of farce. Many episodes consist of characters slamming bedroom doors or mistaking one another for being gay (that much of the male cast beside Kelsey Grammer was gay only adds to the fun). Being stuck in a single location, as the cornerstone to all farces, is used to hysterical effect. Characters rush in and off “stage,” with the locations turning into one giant frame. Major plot points and even entire characters exist offscreen, without the threat of a camera cutting to them and diminishing the joke. Much as the Hays code, for all its faults, forced writers and directors to become more clever with their filmmaking, the multi-camera setup’s structural limits led to some inspired creativity within those three-to-four shots.
Consider one scene from the classic episode, “The Innkeepers.” In it, Frasier Crane (played by Kelsey Grammer) and his brother Niles (played by David Hyde Pierce) open a restaurant to predictably disastrous results. While limited to the confines of the kitchen, the director finds depth and dynamism by exploiting the elements within those confines. Frasier, Niles, and Daphne Moon (played by Jane Leeves) are blocked on to three separate planes, as the food tossed to one another snakes forward and back, instead of merely laterally. For example: when Frasier tries to throw the lighter to Roz Doyle (played by Peri Gilpin), but it goes out the door and thereby offstage, he thus adds another level of dimension to the scene, as well as sends Roz off-screen for an important gag to come.
These details are all happening nearly simultaneously. While Frasier is in the kitchen correcting various orders, for example, Niles is struggling to knife an eel as it swims in the water. Thus, when Daphne crosses the screen to bash the eel, the camera first follows her over in one pan, then whips back in the opposite direction as she smacks the eel against the counter until the poor creature is dead. The whiplash, being half the gag, could only be achieved within this scheme. A single-camera setup, in marked contrast, would probably ruin the surprise by splicing in another angle, and the mockumentary would be too jittery for the glacial camera movement this joke requires. This gag was conceived within the established limits of what their cameras could do, and yet the boundless freedom of the other styles do not allow the occasional fun of coloring outside the lines.
The same applies at the scene’s end, when Roz staggers in after Cherries Jubilee ice cream explodes in her face. If she had wandered in between a cut, the gag would instinctively diminish in our eyes. Although we intuit in the back of our minds that anything can happen when we move a camera, just like some sort of pocket universe bubbling into being to grant enough time, old shows did not have that luxury. Thus, within the world of Frasier, comedy happens in real time. So when Roz staggers back into the kitchen like Wile E. Coyote, her stratagem having physically backfired, we are impressed by how fast the crew had to slapdash makeup and scorch marks upon her face and hair. By limiting the “stage” to the kitchen, the explosion must happen offscreen. As Hitchcock knew with murder scenes and Spielberg discovered with his mechanical shark, our imaginations are often better directors than almost anything a real director can do. A wise one mixes the imagined with the visible. Thus, the scares become scarier and the gags funnier when we are forced to envision them for ourselves as a supplement to the screen.
I do not intend to wholly libel the mockumentary genre, I have enjoyed many of its brethren throughout the years. Quite frankly, it is also not in my best interest to insult The Office, which has more zealous worshippers in America than any church, synagogue, or mosque. Once I had a roommate who watched The Office, and only The Office. No hyperbole here: whenever he and his girlfriend reached the series finale, they returned to season one and started it all over again. I did not have to imagine Sisyphus happy—the proof was on their rictus smiles. The issue with the mockumentary genre is its supremacy. It has reached the omnipresence previously held by the multi-camera setup, but without a flagship series to inspire others like it into real populist art.
Outside the works of Errol Morris and Werner Herzog, documentaries struggle to be inherently cinematic. With good reason, too: cinema creates the illusion of reality, while documentaries try to record it. Documentaries are narratives just like any other film, but they must at least project some sense of validity. Thus, their visual language has become a shorthand for legitimacy: quick zooms, shaky camerawork, and talking-head interviews have achieved totem status as second-class signifiers of authority.
Just as Frasier reveled in its theater associations, so too do shows from The Office to Modern Family enjoy the residuals of authenticity. But the question remains if authenticity is necessarily the right goal for a television series. The same way a great story can feel more real than a mere list of facts, the faux realism of the mockumentary format does not feel any more “real” than It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. It is even less sincere—the supposed documentary teams are never explicitly acknowledged in Parks and Recreation or Modern Family, yet they record footage that would almost never be accessible to a crew. Merely butting in on a sheen of reality, the mockumentary is a meta-trick novelty. A novelty works well for a film, but not well enough when we have to tune in next week.
More worrisome than the novelty are the limited number of moves allowed within it. Again, limitations are not necessarily a death knell. Often necessity spurs innovative tricks for the screen and the production of great sitcoms. But, while the theater gives Frasier a whole tradition to use, mockumentaries are bound to their conceptual prison of imitating full-dimensional reality. A real documentary crew cannot block the cast, or perform an interesting camera move. They are would-be journalists, there to document. Truth, though stranger than fiction, is rarely cinematic. Nature holds no straight lines or constructed gags, although it permits endless cliches. In this little scene from The Office, Michael Scott (played by Steve Carrell) tries to pass off his insults to Human Resource’s Toby Henderson (played by Paul Lieberstein) as legitimate exit questions. It is delightful, primarily because of the writing . . . but not much else. As it is difficult to make a scene vibrant when the cast must sit around a table, the only trick up The Office’s sleeve is a fast whip-pan followed by a zoom—a well to which the show returns too often. It is the same mistake Adam McKay makes in his later quasi-mockumentary films, thinking that an in-camera zoom is enough to bring energy to a dolefully-blocked scene.
The mockumentary is essentially a voyeuristic enterprise. Its audience feels like a peeping Tom from across the street, zooming in to get a picture yet never quite seeing enough. The scene, cobbled together from camera coverage, is edited together with neither attention nor purpose. Multi-camera setup is limited to cameras in a fixed setting with set parameters—a confining as well as liberating condition. Documentary-style camerawork, in contrast, is boundless if nothing else, free to roam at its leisure. The result of falling back to compiled shots from set locations is, consequently, recursive at best and a Nietzschean flat-circle at worst.
The NBC comedy show Community, as a single-camera show, is an impartial observer to this battle. One of its episodes, “Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking,” is done in the mockumentary style as shot by one of its characters, Abed Nadir (played by Danny Pudi). At the end, he fittingly concludes:
I thought the documentary format would be like fish in a barrel. But, as is the case with a real barrel of fish, after a while it can become cramped, chaotic, and stinky. Fortunately, if your documentary is turning out just as messy as real life, wrap it up with random shots which, when cut together under a generic voice-over, suggest a profound thematic connection. I'm not knocking it. It works.
Perhaps this is my primary issue with the format, it works. I am sure of it, just as I am sure the Star Trek and X-Files reboots likewise work in “suggesting profound thematic connections” . . . through cheap, formulaic tricks. It is stressful to shoot on film, probably even more exhausting to map out shots and characters before shooting begins. Judging by the proliferation of shows of this style, there is enough of an audience who do not mind it either. Even the two shows I have pitted as aesthetical rivals, Frasier and Modern Family, come from the same production team.
There is nobility in tradition, but also the risk of getting left behind. If The Office had a narrative purpose for its format, Modern Family was pure survival instinct from the old guard, an evolutionary adaptation to its surrounding environment. It proved the fittest, as Modern Family won five Emmy Awards for Best Comedy in its first five seasons, a feat only matched by Frasier some fifteen years prior. The siren call, coming from inside the house, is a pleasant duet. Considering the producer and viewer satisfaction, the only people left to feel annoyed are reactionary cranks. Although if the reader has made it this far, perhaps I have found a kindred spirit or two.
In A Canticle for Leibowitz, while the monks illuminate their ancient scientific texts, they analyze one such document that happens to mention “electronics.” The modernist Brother Jeris mockingly questions the antiquarian Brother Francis: what is the subject of electronics? “The electron.” And what is the electron? “A negative twist of nothingness.” Well, Jeris chides, “how clever they must have been, those ancients—to know how to untwist nothing.” With enough study, he continues, “we’d have the 'electron' in our midst, wouldn’t we,” perhaps to put “on the altar in the chapel?” However, Francis admits, “I have a certain faith that the 'electron' existed at one time,” but “I don't know how it was constructed or what it might have been used for.”
This passage takes place some six hundred years after a nuclear war between the east and west. As its survivors subsequently committed genocide against anyone deemed intelligent or even literate, the absence of these apocalypse scapegoats decivilized mankind into a dark age idiocracy. In the novel, it takes another six hundred years before later monks understand electricity well enough to put it into practical use. While luddites like Brother Jeris mock the old ways, secretly frustrated at their own misunderstanding, those like Brother Francis wisely revere these ideas and tools, but have little means to renovate their inheritance. Their tragedy, however, is not ours. We are barely twenty years into decline, let alone six hundred after total collapse and six hundred before even the smallest restoration. Surely there is still time to retrace our steps and salvage television, or at least keep the flame alive in new communities. We must become the Saint Leibowitz we want to see in the world.
Walter M. Miller, Jr. A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959), introduction by Mary Doria Russell (New York: Eos, 2006). ↩︎
Not a euphemism for something worse. [Author’s note.]
It better not be. [Editor’s note.] ↩︎
Walter Miller, Canticle for Leibowitz, ibid, 75-76. ↩︎
Featured image: Photo courtesy of Photography Maghradze PH via Pexels.
Joe Joyce is a screenwriter and freelance critic from the far reaches of the San Fernando Valley. He has been called a living saint, amiable rogue, and “more like a little brother” by most girls he’s dated. His film reviews can be found at Letterboxd as well as Angelus News.