Film directors who have made great TV shows

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June 18, 2021
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Film directors who have made great TV shows

Decades ago film and television were very different mediums. The small screen simply couldn’t get budgets and prestige comparable to film. But with the rise of cable television and streaming services offering exceptional original series with big money and names attached, times have changed. The blurring of the two mediums and the crossing-over of feature film directors and actors to television offers viewing audiences the opportunity to see visionary directors create and direct some of the greatest series ever available on the small screen.

Stacker dug through film and TV history and chose 25 noteworthy film directors who have created and/or been the primary director on a TV show. To qualify for the list, the show had to have at least a 7.0 rating on IMDb. The list is ordered by the director’s last name.

These directors hail from all over the world and all have varying degrees of feature film experience. Some are green, while others are seasoned auteurs. They each bring their creative signature to television. From detective stories to political satires, these artists show that it is not the medium that matters, but the creative minds behind the stories told through the flickering light of screens in living rooms.

Get comfortable as Stacker brings you iconic film directors who have also made great television shows.

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J.J. Abrams

- Series: Lost
- IMDb user rating: 8.3
- Years on the air: 2004–2010

J.J. Abrams is both one of the creators and an executive producer of the unique show about a group of plane crash survivors who get stranded on a mysterious island. Abrams directed both the first and second parts of the series pilot for the show. The Hollywood powerhouse has also directed films in both the “Star Trek” and “Star Wars” franchises.

2 / 25
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Robert Altman

- Series: Tanner '88
- IMDb user rating: 7.9
- Year on the air: 1988

The legendary director who died in 2006 was responsible for several memorable and award-winning films, including “Gosford Park,” “The Player,” and “The Long Goodbye.” For the 11-episode HBO miniseries “Tanner ’88,” Altman and Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau came up with the concept of creating a candidate for the presidency for the primary, whom they ran alongside other candidates, essentially throwing actors into the ring with real-life politicians like Jesse Jackson, Kitty Dukakis, and Ralph Nader, in a biting bit of satire. In 2004, Trudeau and Altman teamed up to create a follow-up to the innovative miniseries with “Tanner on Tanner.”

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Peter Berg

- Series: Friday Night Lights
- IMDb user rating: 8.6
- Years on the air: 2006–2011

Peter Berg directed and cowrote the screenplay for the film that the series “Friday Night Lights” was based on. He went on to create the television series and served as an executive producer. The producer, director, writer, and actor did direct two episodes of the series, which featured the lives of a Texas football team and their devoted coach.

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Ingmar Bergman

- Series: Scenes from a Marriage
- IMDb user rating: 8.4
- Year on the air: 1974

“Scenes from a Marriage” was a Swedish television miniseries directed and written by Ingmar Bergman. The series follows the trajectory of a couples’ relationship over the course of several years and phases including marriage, infidelity, divorce, and new partnerships, and stars Liv Ullmann, who was once Bergman’s partner.

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Susanne Bier

- Series: The Night Manager
- IMDb user rating: 8.1
- Year on the air: 2016

Susanne Bier directed “The Night Manager,” an AMC miniseries based on the novel by John le Carré, about a former British soldier turned night manager at a Cairo hotel who gets involved in infiltrating the crew of an arms deal. The Danish-born Bier directed the Netflix hit film, “Bird Box” as well as the HBO miniseries “The Undoing.” She has won an Academy Award, a Golden Globe Award, and an Emmy Award, which she won for “The Night Manager.”

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Jane Campion

- Series: Top of the Lake
- IMDb user rating: 7.5
- Years on the air: 2013–2017

Created by Jane Campion, “Top of the Lake” features Elisabeth Moss as a detective disturbed by the disappearance of a 12-year-old pregnant girl near a New Zealand lake. The mystery saw a second season, and Campion directed eight episodes of the series. The New Zealander directed award-winning films “The Portrait of a Lady” and “The Piano.”

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Michael Crichton

- Series: ER
- IMDb user rating: 7.7
- Years on the air: 1994–2009

Megahit and long-running medical drama “ER” was created and executive produced by Michael Crichton, who was not only a director but a novelist and physician. He wrote the series pilot based on his experiences at Harvard Medical School. Twice in his lifetime, Crichton had a #1 best-selling book, movie, and television show simultaneously.

8 / 25
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Frank Darabont

- Series: The Walking Dead
- IMDb user rating: 8.2
- Years on the air: 2010–present

The three-time Oscar nominee directed both “The Green Mile” and “The Shawshank Redemption” before turning his attention to the development of “The Walking Dead.” He both directed and wrote the series’ pilot episode and was heavily involved with the series early on, even serving as an executive producer. 

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Guillermo del Toro

- Series: The Strain
- IMDb user rating: 7.3
- Years on the air: 2014–2017

New York is ravaged by a viral outbreak brought on by ancient vampires in this FX horror series cocreated by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan. Del Toro also directed a few episodes and served as an executive producer. The director is known for both writing and directing fantastical major motion pictures like “Hellboy” and “Pan’s Labyrinth.”

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Ava DuVernay

- Series: When They See Us
- IMDb user rating: 8.9
- Year on the air: 2019

Triple threat Ava DuVernay not only served as director, writer, and executive producer for this Netflix miniseries, but she also created “When They See Us.” Based on a true story, the series focuses on what happens when five Harlem teens are accused of attacking someone in New York City’s Central Park. DuVernay was the first Black woman to win a Directing Award at the Sundance Film Festival: She won in 2012 for her film “Middle of Nowhere.”

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Rainer Werner Fassbinder

- Series: Berlin Alexanderplatz
- IMDb user rating: 8.5
- Year on the air: 1980

Rainer Werner Fassbinder directed and wrote “Berlin Alexanderplatz.” Set in 1920s Berlin, Franz Biberkopf is released from prison and though he vows to follow the straight and narrow, he quickly gets caught up in the city’s active criminal underworld. The prolific director and prominent figure in the New German Cinema movement died at the age of 36, two years after the series was released. He made 44 movies in the span of 16 years.

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David Fincher

- Series: Mindhunter
- IMDb user rating: 8.6
- Years on the air: 2017–2019

“Mindhunter” focuses on two FBI agents who interview serial killers in the 1970s to build profiles that will help them capture the elusive criminals. Charlize Theron introduced Fincher to the idea for the series after reading John Douglas’s “Mind Hunter: Inside the FBI's Elite Serial Crime Unit.” Fincher eventually went on to direct several episodes of the series, and also served as an executive producer, along with Theron.

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Cary Joji Fukunaga

- Series: True Detective
- IMDb user rating: 8.9
- Years on the air: 2014–2019

“True Detective” is an HBO anthology series that follows fictional police investigations and explores the lives and relationships of those involved, with each season focusing on a new case with a different cast of characters. Cary Joji Fukunaga serves as an executive producer on the series and directed the first season, which features two detectives through several time periods (1995, 2002, and 2012). Fukunaga is also directed the Oscar-nominated 2011 feature film “Jane Eyre.”

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Andrew Haigh

- Series: Looking
- IMDb user rating: 8.2
- Years on the air: 2014–2015

“Looking” is the story of the loves and lives of three friends in San Francisco. Andrew Haigh served as the series’ executive producer, and also wrote and directed several episodes. The British-born Haigh also directed the feature films “Lean on Pete,” “45 Years,” and “Weekend.”

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Barry Jenkins

- Series: The Underground Railroad
- IMDb user rating: 7.2
- Year on the air: 2021

Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight” won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay. Turning his attention to the small screen, Jenkins directed and wrote the teleplay for “The Underground Railroad.” The Amazon original series was based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel from Colson Whitehead, about an enslaved woman who makes a discovery when she attempts to escape bondage.

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Krzysztof Kieslowski

- Series: Dekalog
- IMDb user rating: 9.0
- Years on the air: 1989–1990

“Dekalog” is 10 television shorts/episodes, each based loosely on the Ten Commandments. Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski directed the episodes and cowrote them with Krzysztof Piesiewicz. Two were based on shorter versions of feature-length films, also cowritten with Piesiewicz and directed by Kieslowski. What links all 10 stories is the location, which is a Warsaw apartment complex. Kieslowski is best known for his “Three Colors” trilogy.

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Baz Luhrmann

- Series: The Get Down
- IMDb user rating: 8.3
- Years on the air: 2016–2017

Australian director Baz Luhrmann, who wrote and directed “Moulin Rouge!,” created the Netflix series “The Get Down” and served as an executive producer. Luhrmann also directed the pilot episode of the 11-episode series. “The Get Down” is the story of a dying New York City in the 1970s, and a group of teenagers from the South Bronx, who, along with music, brought the city back to life.

18 / 25
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David Lynch

- Series: Twin Peaks
- IMDb user rating: 8.8
- Years on the air: 1990–1991

By the time David Lynch cocreated the surreal world of “Twin Peaks,” along with Mark Front, and had the whole world asking, “Who killed Laura Palmer?” he had already directed several successful films that spoke to his uniquely surreal style, including “Eraserhead,” “Blue Velvet,” and “Wild at Heart.” Lynch served as the showrunner, executive producer, and writer for the series focused on not only the murder of the teen prom queen in a Pacific Northwest town, but also on the strange inhabitants and eerie goings-on. He directed several episodes in the first and second season. Lynch also co-created, wrote, and directed the 2017 limited series follow-up, “Twin Peaks: The Return.”

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Nicolas Winding Refn

- Series: Too Old to Die Young
- IMDb user rating: 7.4
- Year on the air: 2019

Danish film director, producer, and screenwriter Nicolas Winding Refn of “Drive” fame co-created “Too Old to Die Young” along with Ed Brubaker. He also served as director and executive producer throughout the series, which features a Los Angeles detective who gets pulled into a double-life, where he ends up on the wrong side of the law as a killer for hire. The two conflicting areas of his life create utter chaos.

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Steven Soderbergh

- Series: The Knick
- IMDb user rating: 8.5
- Years on the air: 2014–2015

This Cinemax drama chronicled the lives of the medical staff at New York’s Knickerbocker Hospital (the Knick) during the early 1900s. Steven Soderbergh handled the cinematography, directing, and editing for this well-received series for the first two seasons. 

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Aaron Sorkin

- Series: The West Wing
- IMDb user rating: 8.8
- Years on the air: 1999–2006

This long-running network television series follows the lives of the President and his advisors as they navigate politics in the White House. Created by Aaron Sorkin, “The West Wing” won 26 Primetime Emmy Awards. Sorkin even made a cameo appearance in one episode of the show.

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Paolo Sorrentino

- Series: The Young Pope
- IMDb user rating: 8.4
- Year on the air: 2016

Jude Law starred as Lenny Belardo, aka Pius XIII, the very young and very first American pope in this Paolo Sorrentino-created HBO miniseries. Sorrentino also directed the series. “The New Pope,” also created, directed and executive produced by Sorrentino, is a continuation of the series.

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Oliver Stone

- Series: The Untold History of the United States
- IMDb user rating: 8.5
- Years on the air: 2012–2013

In 12 installments, Oliver Stone brings audiences details and truths from some of America’s greatest historical stories in “The Untold History of the United States.” Stone created, directed, and produced the documentary series, which he also narrated. The series featured archival footage and fictional movie clips. The show is very in keeping with his film work, which includes “JFK,” “W.,” and “Nixon.”

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Jean-Marc Vallée

- Series: Big Little Lies
- IMDb user rating: 8.5
- Years on the air: 2017–2019

The HBO series “Big Little Lies” featured Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Nicole Kidman, Zoë Kravitz, and Shailene Woodley as a group of women who are bound by a terrible secret. Jean-Marc Vallée directed the first season, edited the series, and also served as an executive producer. Vallée also directed “Dallas Buyers Club,” which won three Oscars and was nominated for Best Motion Picture of the Year and Best Achievement in Film Editing.

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The Wachowskis

- Series: Sense8
- IMDb user rating: 8.3
- Years on the air: 2015–2018

Created by the Wachowskis and J. Michael Straczynski, “Sense8” focuses on a group of mentally linked people and those who would like to destroy them. Lana Wachowski directed 14 episodes of the series, while Lilly Wachowski directed seven. They also both served as executive producers, and Lana even appeared in an uncredited role as a French wedding guest.

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