Is There Really Such a Thing as “a Shonda Rhimes Show?”

Or to put it another way, can TV really be a home for auteurs? Should it be?

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by Chloe Gilke

Last spring, I enrolled in a class called “Hitchcock and Modernity.” I’m a certified Hitchcock fanatic and freely spend my time writing unassigned essays about “Vertigo” and the male gaze, so the opportunity to learn about some of my favorite movies in a class setting was impossible to pass up. Still, as I clicked the “register” button, something about the course’s title made my skin crawl. Hitchcock and Modernity. Like countless other English classes at the University, this course would be focused on a single author and his body of texts, noting repeated themes and language and analyzing their significance — but authorship in film is not as simplistic as this method implies.

Critics and academics have been looking at movies this way for over 50 years. Writers for a French film journal called Cahiers du Cinema coined the term auteur to describe a superior group of directors. Their movies would always be more interesting and deserving of analysis than those written by their second-rung (metteur en scène) counterparts, because these authors possessed more talent than just technical competence and the ability to tell actors to move around a room. An auteur imbued his films with his own personal touch, and each stroke of genius could be traced back to his other movies and the patterns analyzed for meaning. The theory was later adopted by American critics, who added a whole mess of qualifications to be an auteur: An auteur’s movies must get better and better for his whole career, he had to have a godlike command of how his story was told and surpass all the financial and creative difficulties that the other hacks working on his movie presented him with. At the end, the auteur’s movie would stand as a singular representation of his vision and innovation.

This theory began to lose steam in the years following the 1960s as other critics pointed out the flaws in the auteur logic. Choice directors like Orson Welles and Hitchcock didn’t make amazing movies for their whole lives, and any of the second-tier filmmakers probably could have made a film less bloated than Welles’s “F for Fake.” And what about the other authors of movies — screenwriters, who have just as much a hand in creating a film’s symbolism and meaning? What about women and filmmakers of color, who often aren’t afforded the same opportunities to rise above studio restrictions with their cinematic voices intact? And what about TV, where directors don’t hold quite as much esteem, and it’s anybody’s guess who will end up getting public credit for creating an acclaimed TV show? With all these inconsistencies, the auteur theory has died and been laid to rest in the pages of my film theory textbook. Well, almost.

Since “The Sopranos” kicked off the “Golden Age” of TV, the small screen has become the new hot spot for powerful cinematic authors. It’s the series’ showrunner who usually gets the auteur treatment, because he holds a role similar to the movie director. In most TV writers’ rooms, the decisions for plotting the season and formulating character arcs rest with the showrunner. Because many series feature the work of multiple writers and directors in a given season, the auteur crown goes to the person who sits on throne and makes everything happen. This logic isn’t without fault….

Read it all at Michigan Daily