The film auteur is a well-established force: From François Truffaut to David Lynch, a filmmaker with a vision is more than just a helmer. He (or she) is a speed pass to class, a highfalutin -- though legit -- way to put an "art" label on what boils down to 24 frames a second on a wide screen, viewed by an audience eating Goobers.
But the television auteur, someone with that same clear, creative vision -- and someone who usually is behind the creation of the show, as opposed to a veteran brought on at a network level -- is less well established. These days, though, these kinds of creator/show-runners are proving to be equal in their visionary force.
Just glance at this year's Golden Globe nominees for drama and comedy TV series. They include Alan Ball's "True Blood," Matt Weiner's "Mad Men," David Shore and Katie Jacobs' "House," Doug Ellin's "Entourage" and Tina Fey's "30 Rock." They've reaped not just critical praise but also audience success -- and in several cases already, many awards.
So, is a TV series run with a firm, creative vision actually the way to better television?
Not that creators or show-runners are going to say so right out; TV still has that "second best" shine to it when compared to film -- and they're not likely to consider themselves auteurs. But the nominees are a long way from feeling like hired hands.
"Shows benefit from somebody (much to the consternation of networks and producers) who takes credit and responsibility for 'This is how it's going to be,' " says Weiner, who is considered within the industry to be one of the more meticulous (or obsessive, depending on your point of view) show crafters.
"In the process of making the show, every person working under you [has] questions: 'Is it this or is it that?' And there are a bunch of people who are perfectly happy saying, 'Do whatever you want,' " Weiner says. "I am there to say, 'This is what I want. This is what I'm trying to do,' and it makes everyone work with more confidence. It's collaborative, but someone has to make the decisions."
Those decisions pile up, and when filtered through one key figure behind the scenes, a fuller storytelling experience can emerge. Viewers home in on that, says Ball, who didn't create the "True Blood" story but is now the guiding force behind the scenes.
"Audiences notice when there's a distinct voice, when it's not just the same old mythology in a new setting packaged with new characters," he says. "They know when it's not the fourth version of this legal drama or procedural. People like to be surprised. At this point, we've all consumed so much popular entertainment that when you see something that really feels like you haven't seen it before, people respond."
Ellin writes or co-writes nearly every script for "Entourage," which keeps stories, details and characterizations consistent, and he agrees that fans are aware of changes behind the scenes. "They do notice, and not in a subtle way. Writing in television is so essential to what a show is. . . . It's so important to know what the point of view is, and it can make or break a TV show."
In the case of top-rated "House," the single-auteur theory crumbles just a bit, because there are two minds behind the show's creation. Jacobs introduced the medical framework, while Shore brought along the titular character. But their individual contributions have fused into one strong guiding hand for the series.
"We're like a marriage that works," Jacobs says. "The division of labor is really clear, and the mutual respect is clear."
"I have worked on shows that were created by other people," allows Shore, "and it is a slightly different thing. This is obviously special to me because it is so personal, and the character is so personal -- and I'm sure Katie feels the same way."
But does any of this translate into awards? Ask Fey ("30 Rock) and Weiner ("Mad Men") and the answer's a clear yes (both shows are on Emmy and Globe winning streaks). Whether having an individual vision, rather than by committee, guarantees anything, that's something most show-runners don't want to think about.
"I really try hard not to pay too much attention to anything other than making the show," Ball says. "There are network shows that have a very strong voice and vision, but networks are in such trouble, they're hemorrhaging viewers, and it's hard for [executives] to take risks. I developed a show for a network once and people were giving me notes on the color of place mats. It was an eye-opening experience."
So, pin them down on "auteurism" and the truth comes out -- not one (at least whom we spoke to) really believes his or her show would do all that well if he or she packed up and departed for greener pastures; in fact, all were adamant that they'd never even think of dividing loyalties with a second series, or going anywhere else.
"I wouldn't leave," says Fey, who, admittedly, is the most integrated show-runner (with Robert Carlock) of all, being the star of her own series.
"Robert and I laugh about this," she says, "because it's the corner we've painted ourselves into. This is a couture house, not a factory. That's why we'll never be rich -- well, we're not poor, but seriously, I don't think I could leave. I admire people who can, but I just couldn't."