Are there auteurs in the world of television? The term, originally popularized in France during the French New Wave, stated that the best directors have to have a complete authorship and vision for their work. Someone who has a technical ability to direct, incorporates their own unique stylistic choices into the project and paints a portrait into their worldview. In American cinema the auteur label is associated with the likes of Alfred Hitchcock, David Lynch and Paul Thomas Anderson.
But it’s hard to pinpoint one specific auteur in television shows. This is mostly due to structural differences between the media. While many people have their hands in the production of a film — most influence is derived from the director and the screenwriter. The director is the one credited with the vision — using the screenplay along with their expertise and personal style to make something that echoes what they want to say.
Conversely, television is much more collaborative. There’s not a single writer, there’s a writers room. And directors rarely stay on for a whole season, with most television shows alternating different directors each episode.
But that isn’t to say auteurs cannot exist in television — they simply differ from those roles within film. Because auteurs are concerned with the long-standing vision of a work — it’s unlikely they will take the forms of directors or writers. Instead, television auteurs can exist as showrunners, producers and even lead actors.
UnREAL was co-created by Sarah Gertrude Shapiro and Marti Noxon. Noxon is a television drama powerhouse — boasting credits like executive producer for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, consulting producer for Mad Men and most recently executive producer for Sharp Objects. Shapiro, on the other hand, wore several producer hats on The Bachelor over the span of two years. Together they acted as auteurs for Lifetime with their differing industry experiences and thematic styles to create a unique voice for the series.
In “Relapse,” the show takes a more serious route than the introductory pilot. The episode deals with darker themes — the death of a contestants father and a competition to create a new villain for a cash bonus. The tone can be credited to director David Solomon and writer Elizabeth Benjamin. Solomon is most known for producing and directing Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Benjamin has written for Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Bones and 13 Reasons Why.
It’s also possible for actors to be auteurs in television — especially since they are involved for long periods of time and are effectively the face of the production. I Love Lucy’s success is credited to several people — but it wouldn’t be what it is now without the influence and charm of Lucille Ball.
UnREAL is a show-within-a-show, following the production of Bachelor parody Everlasting. In the case of Everlasting, Quinn King serves as auteur. The showrunner tactfully manufactures every second of footage to create the most watchable show, no matter how unethical it may be. While she often makes someone else carry out her vision for her — the vision is ultimately her own. And Everlasting perfectly encapsulates how Quinn sees the world — an America built on exploitation, pessimism and shameful temptations.