On Monday night, Gail Mancuso took home the Emmy for “Outstanding Direction for a Comedy Series” for her work the Modern Family season five episode “Las Vegas.” This was Mancuso’s second win in a row and the show’s fourth win in a row in this category. This year, Mancuso beat out Comedy Film School favorites Louis C.K. and Lena Dunham as well as seasoned film directors Jodie Foster (for Orange is the New Black) and Mike Judge (for Silicon Valley). Looking even further back, the last time a network show director, in which directing is historically more like house-painting than Picasso, lost to a cable director is in 2004, when Curb Your Enthusiasm took home the prize for HBO (however I will not besmirch the Emmy voters’ 2004 selection of Barry Sonnenfeld's Pushing Daisies pilot for ABC, which is one of the most visually inventive and exciting pieces of television I have ever seen). This all begs the question of what are Emmy voters looking for in comedy directing, and why, year after year, as television directing gets more and more interesting and “filmic”, are the voters rewarding merely proficient directing over shows with more artful or at least with the most directing?
For the award, directors can submit one episode of the show for which they hope to be nominated. This means that a show can be nominated multiple times within the category for multiple directors. This is done to encourage voters to consider the directing work done only within the submitted material and to ignore their affinity for the show as a whole beyond the submitted material. There is no specific criteria for outstanding directing so the voting body is left to interpret that for themselves. The director branch of the Television Academy nominate eligible directors for the award and then a more select judging panel of not only directors selects the winner within the nominations. As is true with all popular award shows, the process is discreet and not particularly transparent. However, the process is the process and Modern Family has thus without a doubt established itself as a comedy directing titan, so let’s take a close look at the four episodes that comprise the nearly unprecedented (only M*A*S*H* from 1974-77 shares this distinction) Emmy four-peat.
Starting with the 2011 winner, season two’s “Halloween,” it becomes immediately clear that the key to directing Modern Family is setting up a traditional ABC story sitcom look, but with enough wide shots for a cast that is full of particularly adept physical comedians to shine. Michael Spiller (who has a background in independent film has Hal Hartley’s cinematographer) was the Emmy-winning director for this episode, and he does have a good eye for framing the physical bits, particularly with Phil. The key to this episode is setting up the layout of the spaces — the Dunphy haunted house and Mitchell’s office — so that the big final gags, the haunted house failing and Mitchell scaling his office building in the Spiderman costume, pay off correctly. As I expected, this is utilitarian, capable directing that at worst does not get in the way and at best enhances the performances significantly. Given that it was up against two other episodes of the show and two other network sitcoms for the Emmy, I can support this choice.
Season three’s Emmy-winning episode “Baby On Board” has tougher competition ahead of it including an early Dunham-directed episode of Girls and one of Louie’s most impressive episodes, “Ducking” directed by CK. In “Baby On Board”, directed by the show’s creator Steve Levitan, the show goes deeper into the realm of fantasy than usual with an A-story centered around Cam and Mitchell’s adoption mirroring the plot of Cam’s favorite telenovela. In a climactic scene, the show breaks into soap opera style filmmaking complete with dramatic close ups and zooms. It is one of the only times I have ever seen the show tell its joke with its camera and it is an interesting and eye-catching choice in an otherwise traditional episode and series as a whole. I can’t possibly understand how Emmy voters could see an episode like “Duckling”, which is a massive directorial accomplishment in both joke-telling and storytelling, and vote for this instead.
Season four’s “Arrested” is the first of Gail Mancuso’s back-to-back wins. The episode opens on a well-constructed gag in which three matching wide shots reveal the three couples reacting to a middle of the night phone call. The payoff relies on the scenes matching and building in pace and performance for a traditional three-peat joke. Mancuso crafts this well and gets the most out of the material, but the rest of the episode is much more traditional sitcom style — there is nothing that stands out and a C plot with Jay, Manny, and Lily feel particularly like it is going through the motions. I probably would have given this statue to Lena Dunham who was nominated for Girls episode “On All Fours”, or the one where Marnie sings, a darkly funny episode with a large scale party scene that Dunham pulls off with her usual success.
Which brings us back to Monday night, where Gail Mancuso took home a repeat win for “Las Vegas”, which is without a doubt the best episode of Modern Family I have ever seen. The show completely abandons its comfort zone, leaving the houses and the kids for an adults-only trip to Las Vegas, which allows for things to be shaken up a bit. The pace of the first two acts are simple and quick. We meet a parade of guests stars (Stephen Merchant, Fred Armisen, and Patton Oswalt) and basically avoid the show’s typically boring cutaway bits. The payoff comes in a big way in the final act, which takes place in the three connecting hotel suites. What Mancuso manages to pull off here is reminiscent of the Marx Brothers’ door scene in The Cocoanuts in its complexity and choreography. The camera work is kinetic and jokes payoff in unexpected ways as the many doors of the suites open to constant surprises. Despite the tiredness of awarding the same show four years in a row, in this case the Emmys awarded a deserving episode of television.
While Modern Family is not, and does not try to be, the most visually complex comedy on TV, what I found in this rewatch is that the show’s reliance on physical comedy does give its episode directors opportunities to go after some fun and interesting style choices. It's clear that the Emmys are perhaps rewarding consistency and popularity but they are also rewarding a show that is a strong framework for jokes and a stable of directors who capably and reliably raise the level of the writing and performances. It's a shame to see directors like Dunham and CK, who direct (and are allowed by their networks to direct) with artful intention and specific visual style, but I will concede that Emmy voters could certainly do worse than award Modern Family as well.
Brad Becker-Parton is a film person living in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter; you'll regret it during Knicks games.