At the beginning of Peak TV, the industry’s visionaries were pushing the envelopes, challenging their audiences to follow along with complex characters and antiheroes whose choices were shocking and maddening — and made for great TV. If one thinks of an auteur as someone who writes, creates and sometimes directs a vision so compelling as to be the “author” of it — with a minor mea culpa to the film industry — TV’s auteurs have transformed serial storytelling. And as impressive as those creators (and their creations) were, their antiheroes have often moved through their worlds as pale and male as the visionaries who brought them into being.
The current crop of auteur-driven TV reflects an industrywide effort to bring more voices and stories to audiences. And in a year when most of us desperately needed comfort or escape from our own complicated worlds, these Emmy-nominated visionaries didn’t just reflect the culture — they defined it.
SCOTT FRANK (THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT, NETFLIX)
It’s one thing for a series to be one of the most popular shows on a platform — a hurdle The Queen’s Gambit cleared just four weeks after its October launch, becoming Netflix’s most watched scripted limited series of all time. It’s another for a streaming show to have a quantifiable, real-world influence. This coming-of-age series with midcentury moxie, starring Anya Taylor-Joy as a complicated chess virtuoso, was such a hit that it sent sales of chess sets spiking, particularly among young women suddenly drawn to the game. Writer-director Frank was at the helm of the seven-part series, and the adaptation of Walter Tevis’ 1983 novel collected 18 Emmy nominations, including one for best limited series. The buzz for breakout star Taylor-Joy could earn her a lead actress Emmy, but it’s the double- nominated Frank who brought this compelling and luscious period drama to life.
MICHAELA COEL (I MAY DESTROY YOU, HBO)
When I May Destroy You debuted on HBO last summer, the resounding response from critics and audiences was that there was simply nothing else like it on TV. Part of the brilliance of the 12-episode series, which orbits a writer in the wake of a sexual assault, is that it defies easy categorization: Its heaviest moments are intercut with bursts of humor, and its approach to complicated themes is never without nuance. However one might describe it, there is no question that I May Destroy You is the singular vision of star, writer and co-director Coel. If Chewing Gum — the 2015 sitcom based on her 2012 play Chewing Gum Dreams — put Coel on the map, I May Destroy You proved that her creative abilities know no bounds. By delivering a performance that matches the strength of her storytelling, Coel has set the bar at a new high.
BO BURNHAM (BO BURNHAM: INSIDE, NETFLIX)
At just 17, Burnham became the youngest person to land a stand-up special on Comedy Central in 2008, blazing a trail for digital creators hoping to cross into other realms of media and entertainment. The unique blend of observational comedy and musical satire that Burnham cultivated on his YouTube channel — drawing 400 million views in the process — established him as the voice of a generation that grew up on the internet. From writing and directing 2018’s Eighth Grade to his role in 2020’s Oscar-winning Promising Young Woman, Burnham’s work articulates the anxieties and absurdities of living right now, a theme he returned to in this year’s Bo Burnham: Inside. If the six Emmy nominations he scored for the Netflix special — done in isolation — are any indication, this is only the beginning for the young auteur.
MISHA GREEN (LOVECRAFT COUNTRY, HBO)
The six Emmy nominations for HBO’s horror drama must be a bittersweet achievement for Lovecraft Country creator and showrunner Green, as the series was canceled after a single critically acclaimed season. Yet those Emmy noms reiterate what anyone who followed the show’s only season could tell you: Green’s vision is unparalleled. Adapted from a 2016 novel by Matt Ruff, Lovecraft blends the dark terrors of H.P. Lovecraft’s horror tales — flesh-eating monsters, demonic possession and supernatural cults, to name a few — with the dark terrors of segregated postwar America. The brash and bold series was perfectly timed for 2020, when many Americans reexamined our collective history and its impact on the present. Green’s provocative series proves you can entertain and enlighten — the gore only makes the lesson more effective.
BARRY JENKINS (THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD, AMAZON)
After winning an Oscar for co-writing 2016’s Moonlight (which also won best picture) and receiving a second nom for adapting 2018’s If Beale Street Could Talk, Jenkins made the move to television. The source material for his first foray into the medium was a perfect match: the Pulitzer- and National Book Award-winning novel The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. Instead of squeezing the celebrated book into a limited feature-length narrative, the writer-director used the episodic structure to his advantage. The result is pure cinema, no matter what size the screen you watch it on. An ambitious, sprawling work of magical realism that reckons with America’s past, Jenkins’ Underground Railroad stands alongside the expansive television work from auteurs like Ingmar Bergman and Rainer Werner Fassbinder.
ROBIN THEDE (A BLACK LADY SKETCH SHOW, HBO)
The article at the beginning of HBO’s comedy series is deliberate: This is a sketch show for and by Black women, not the sketch show. But it’s thanks to creator-star Thede that there’s an outlet for some of the funniest women in comedy (including herself) to provide consistent belly-churning laughs, often at their own expense. And it’s particularly meaningful that A Black Lady Sketch Show, in its second season, is Saturday Night Live’s sole competitor in outstanding variety sketch series. Thede and her hilarious co-stars and co-writers don’t have to fit into a white-male-dominated comedy space; she has carved out a space of her own — one that’s as big as she wants it to be. The specificity of A Black Lady Sketch Show’s title is hardly limiting. Instead, it’s an invitation — not just for potential viewers, but for other Black women to find their space, too.
This story first appeared in the Aug. 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.