Besides anthologies, the biggest trend in narrative television right now is the auteur series. As opposed to how shows are traditionally produced – seasons are broadly outlined by creators then individual episodes are parsed out to a pool of writers and directors – in the last few years we’ve started to see a slate of series that are written primarily if not exclusively by one person. This person is almost always the series creator, and in many instances also serves as the showrunner: one person, one author, one voice. The auteur series functions like a novel, it has both the advantages and limitations of that form and thus feels elevated over committee fare for its singular, unwavering vision. It’s not a coincidence that two of the best auteur series to date, TRUE DETECTIVE and FARGO, were both created by novelists.
Using these two shows as a jumping-off point, I thought we’d take a look at what I consider the eight best auteur series to date, in no certain order. It should be noted that I consider a show to be an auteur series if 90% of all episodes are written by the same person who created the series, and if the number of other writers contributing to scripts is five or less. And it should also be noted that I am intentionally leaving out auteur comedies like LOUIE, INSIDE AMY SCHUMER, MASTER OF NONE, CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM et al, as they are more projections of their creators’/stars’ actual lives or personas, and that’s different from straight-up fictional storytelling. Got it? Good, let’s get started.
TRUE DETECTIVE – written by Nic Pizzolatto
While not the earliest series on this list, TRUE DETECTIVE can be thought of as the one that really propelled the auteur series. It can also be thought of as representing the best and worst this kind of a series can be. Pizzolatto, primarily a novelist who only worked with two other writers on three of sixteen total episodes (those three all in the second season), created a stellar first season that played like a blockbusting beach read, then produced a second that slow-boiled like a heady autumn character study. Put more simply, the first season was cinematic, and the second was too literary. While the first season proves how a single voice can produce meticulous, seamless weavings of narrative the likes of which a team could never piece together, the second season reveals the biggest pratfall of the auteur series: that there were no other voices to steer the narrative, and no other sources from which ideas were injected. I’ve gone on record several times saying I don’t think the second season of TRUE DETECTIVE is bad, I just think it’s bad as compared to the first season, which is exceptional. Regardless of what we think of the series as a whole, we have to recognize it as the most representative series of the form, and a foundation for many shows to come. Though TRUE DETECTIVE likely doesn’t exist anymore, Pizzolatto does have an overall deal with HBO that should produce a new series in the next couple of years.
FARGO – written by Noah Hawley
This is the other big boy. FARGO started on the heels of TRUE DETECTIVE and like that show it was the brainchild of another novelist, Hawley. Though working from a source world, Hawley incorporated none of the characters or plot from the film on which his show is based, more so the feel that comes from homespun true crime with a side of Midwestern quirk. Richer and broader in character than TRUE DETECTIVE, and not quite as stern while still remaining starkly brutal, FARGO has fared better in the long run than that other series. To many, Hawley created a second season that was as strong as the first (maybe stronger) in a completely different yet familiar way that also simultaneously evokes the film while transcending its atmosphere into somewhere a little darker and a lot more real. I don’t know how you apply the term “page-turner” to a television show, but if you could this would be the first series I’d throw it at. Of the 20 episodes of FARGO that have aired, Hawley has contributed to them all, and only four other writers have contributed to a total of six episodes. He’s also listed as the writer of all 10 season three episodes, yet to air. FARGO is, in my opinion, the epitome of the auteur series and all it can be.
PENNY DREADFUL – written by John Logan
This is my favorite horror show on TV right now and it’s in the running for my favorite ever. It is certainly one of the smartest not just in its genre but the medium at large, and that’s because it comes from a very smart writer, John Logan, best known to film fans as the screenwriter of GLADIATOR, THE AVIATOR, HUGO, and SKYFALL among others. Logan has written 25 of 27 episodes, and only two other writers contributed to the other two episodes. Think of PENNY DREADFUL as a kind of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen of gothic literary horror: there are vampires, werewolves, witches, demons, and specific characters like Victor Frankenstein, his Monster and the monster’s Bride, Dorian Gray, Dr. Jekyll, even a dashing and dapperly-deadly Dracula. This show is a love-letter to literature and things that go bump in the night, and an homage to the writers who have influenced Logan: Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, Robert Louis Stevenson and more. I could geek out over PENNY DREADFUL all night long; it’s so good, it made me like Josh Hartnett. That’s not a joke, he’s incredible, I was a fool to ever doubt his talents. And do not get me started on how spectacular Eva Green is. If she doesn’t win an Emmy or a Golden Globe or something real soon for her work here, I’m going to lose my mind. If you’re not watching PENNY DREADFUL, start watching PENNY DREADFUL.
TOP OF THE LAKE – written by Jane Campion and Gerard Lee
Campion and Lee first worked together way back in 1989 when they co-wrote her award-winning feature film debut SWEETIE. Two dozen years later they collaborated again on the seven-episode television event TOP OF THE LAKE, a thriller set in a small village in remote New Zealand where a young detective (Elizabeth Moss, who won a Golden Globe for the role) is sent to investigate the attempted suicide of a 12 year old girl. Campion and Lee wrote every episode together and Campion directed them all, as well, making this perhaps the most auteur series on the list, in regards to her involvement. For his part, Lee has four novels to his name, so he brings the structure and pacing of a longer form to Campion’s cinematic mind, and the result is simply breathtaking television. Recently it was announced that TOP OF THE LAKE will return for a second season, again written by Campion and Lee and starring Moss, along with new cast member Nicole Kidman, who worked with fellow Aussie Campion previously on PORTRAIT OF A LADY. An actress of her caliber indicates a character to rival Moss’ own, which bodes very well indeed for future episodes.
THE FALL – Allan Cubitt
This serial killer/cop procedural set in Belfast and starring Gillian Anderson (THE X-FILES) as the cop and Jamie Dornan (FIFTY SHADES OF GREY) as the killer is written exclusively by series creator Cubitt, 11 episodes to date with one season still yet to air. As a psychological thriller, THE FALL having just one writer helps to keep each character in their respective states of mind, which is especially important to Dornan’s character, being a loving father, caring husband, and vicious killer in the same brain. Multiple writers could make this schizophrenic (as an adjective, not a diagnosis) while one is able to keep to a single, uninterrupted track of thought.
BROADCHURCH – written by Chris Chibnall
Another UK crime procedural, this one following the investigation of a murdered child in a quaint coastal community. BROADCHURCH is an interesting example of auteur television because technically it was made twice, but with drastically different results. In the first version, this version, Chibnall wrote every episode of the first season, and the show was a rip-roaring hit with enough popularity to warrant an American remake. That second version, retitled GRACEPOINT, followed the same exact storyline and featured US versions of the same exact characters including star David Tennant in the same lead role just with a different accent, but despite being one of the most hotly-anticipated shows of its season and featuring a stellar cast that included not just Tennant, but Anna Gunn fresh off BREAKING BAD and a rare TV appearance by Oscar-winner Nick Nolte, the show tanked in a very major way and was cancelled almost immediately. The big difference? Writing. Chibnall only wrote the pilot of GRACEPOINT – the episode that generated all that hot anticipation – and then the show was handed off to two other writers who while talented weren’t the authors. In this case, the opposite of TRUE DETECTIVE happened: the injection of others’ ideas ruined was what special about the show and the magic just evaporated, along with the viewers. BROADCHURCH, however, just started filming its third season, entirely written by Chibnall.
DOWNTON ABBEY – written by Julian Fellowes
This is the biggest accomplishment on the list. Julian Fellowes wrote all 52 episodes of this phenomenal series – which is really just an expanded remake of his Oscar-winning screenplay for Robert Altman’s GOSFORD PARK – with only two other writers assisting him on two episodes back in the first season. This is especially admirable when you consider that DOWNTON is the only period piece on this list, and technically it’s like six period pieces, as each season happens years apart from the others. In addition to being its writer, Fellowes is also the show’s researcher into history, dialogue, conventions and traditions, and all sorts of other minutiae that would make most writers’ heads spin. For his efforts, though, he created the most watched and beloved British television series of all-time (at least by American standards) and set a bold precedent for how big auteur television can be.
MR. ROBOT – written by Sam Esmail
This is the newest series on the list, and like many others it was an instant phenomenon that attracted the attention of viewers and critics alike, and even managed to walk away with the Golden Globe for Best Drama Series over some pretty formidable competition, including GAME OF THRONES, in the process making it the first show from USA Network to win the award. Now, technically there are five other writers besides Esmail listed for MR. ROBOT who did in fact write half of the first season, but Esmail created the show on his own, outlined everything on his own, and scripted the truly pivotal episodes at the season’s beginning and end. Furthermore, for the series’ second season, starting this summer, not only has Esmail reclaimed sole writing duty for all ten episodes, he’s also going to be directing all ten, making him the biggest auteur on the list over Campion. The staggering success of MR. ROBOT, on the heels of the staggering success of FARGO and TRUE DETECTIVE’s first season, along with the critical and commercial appeal of the other series on this list would seem to signify that the auteur series is just starting to peak. Catch these before a flood of imitators dilutes the pool.