Sam Esmail’s Homecoming has become a bit of a critical darling in the last few weeks. Any article or review has given Esmail olympic praise – and for good reason. The show is a triumph of cinematography and writing, a triumph reserved for Esmail himself, who has taken the limelight as the show’s ‘creator’. This praise was also shown for Mr. Robot, Esmail’s last venture, where the filmmaker worked as a detailed and precise visionary. It appears for Esmail, nothing but his view will do. This seems to be in keeping with the fetishisation of the ‘auteur’: the single artist, creating a single work, with a single view in mind.
Notably, Esmail is one of many. In cinema, filmmakers like Taika Waititi and Ben Wheatley have taken up titles as ‘auteurs’ with their unique styles, and this has bled into the expanding world of artistic TV. Noah Hawley, Phoebe Waller-Bridge and even Lisa McGee of Derry Girls fame have become more and more the focus of TV journalism and general praise. It seems that there is a growing trend of auteurs in artsy and stylish TV. In some ways, this could be attributed to TV’s growing popularity or even to a general sense of the ‘cult of celebrity’ – but I don’t think this answers the question in a way that’s wholly unique to a notably distinct trend like the rise of auteurs in high-culture TV. I think it’s probably fairer to say that this arises from a change in the way we perceive media.
This perception shift is all in the internet. As any YouTube user knows, there’s been a bit of a shift in the way we associate a filmmaker and their art. On the internet, videos and films are personality-driven. They rely on the filmmaker’s personality and flair to gain a following. This has led to filmmakers becoming more transparent, and the craft of film becoming more of a people’s art. In so many ways this has raised our appreciation for the job a filmmaker does, because it is more visible and attainable. This does go some way in explaining the rise of Esmail as a name and brand.
“As a world of binge-watchers, the habit of watching a TV show without interruption allows for something closer to film. This has meant that the TV we watch has adapted to becoming guided more by one vision, and Esmail’s work has become a result of that growing trend”
However, we don’t see the time-honoured tradition of the outsider auteur as much in online content. This is something that’s been kept a little more to the realms of film and TV, and stems from a long tradition of driven visionaries looking to rock the foundations of a medium. Kubrick is probably the most famous example, but there have been plenty of wannabe Hollywood artists that tried to create edgy and thought-provoking art. Film’s anxiety with the fact there can never be one creator, like in paintings and music, means this is probably a natural conclusion. A similar anxiety also applies to TV, where it still functions as “the small screen” despite the medium now being a cultural heavyweight in its own right. That does explain the cinematic nature of some of Esmail’s work, particularly Mr. Robot, but I doubt you’d hear Esmail saying that he has been trying to emulate cinema.
There’s also something to be said for a change in viewing habits. As a world of binge-watchers, the habit of watching a TV show without interruption allows for something closer to film. This has meant that the TV we watch has adapted to becoming guided more by one vision, and Esmail’s work has become a result of that growing trend. It’s also worth bringing up the strange symbiotic nature a driven creator has with a dedicated audience. When an audience takes out significant portions of time to binge a series there is a greater devotion to the work and the auteur. This devotion leads to the auteur being able to more freely take strange creative decision that will be financially backed by a dedicated following. It must be said Esmail’s Mr. Robot enabled this for the showrunner, and Homecoming reflects it, with a few more creative risks (the visual direction in particular) than his previous effort.
The other trend is the general change in the definition of the auteur, which has been happening for a while, even in film. With each successive famous auteur there was an evolution in the process. Kubrick and Coppola made for a string of serious and ironic think-pieces from filmmakers yet to come. Tarantino led to a wave of realist dialogue and the constant use of grainy recordings of songs from the 60s in film. The nature of an auteur is to change; as the auteur is, by its nature, someone who both borrows and rejects what has come before them. The shift of auteur culture from TV to film is just keeping in the tradition of auteur culture in the first place.
There’s one more reason for the rise of auteur in modern TV, and it surrounds the grubby world of showbusiness. The show-runner and creator is probably the closest the audience sees to the business itself and therefore offers a unique role. It’s the go-between for the art and the business and is therefore the place where creative battles can be lost and won. This is probably a good reason behind why creators and ‘auteurs’ have received a large amount of praise recently, when the creator stands up to the money-fuelled villains of Fox, Amazon and Netflix to realise their vision it is all the more noble. That’s not even to say that companies like Netflix are inherently villainous, they just provide a good narrative device for the branding of a fire-brand filmmaker-cum-artist.
Therefore, Sam Esmail seems to be riding on a wave. That’s not because Mr. Robot or Homecoming are of low quality – they’re not – it’s more that it’s an inevitable symptom of our reactions to new TV. I don’t suspect that the wave of ‘auteur culture’ is set to go anytime soon: as we reach a new age of the ‘creator’ due to the popularity of YouTube and streaming, look out for many more auteurs on the horizon.