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The Tim Van Patten Syllabus

Currently behind the camera for HBO’s ‘Perry Mason,’ the longtime director has made a name for himself with a mix of vision and discipline

Getty Images/HBO/Ringer illustration

It’s common to judge a television series by the grand unified vision of its creator or showrunner: In this equation, the best directors are the ones who color inside the lines. But there’s a difference between efficiency and excellence, and for the last 25 years, Tim Van Patten’s work has tended toward the latter. A former teen actor turned filmmaker—he starred in the MST3K-approved Karate Kid rip-off The Master—Van Patten is not a show-off like Cary Fukunaga or Hiro Murai, muscular formalists who never met a long take they didn’t like. He’s more of a shape-shifter, able to operate in on-screen universes as disparate as Sex and the City, The Pacific, Game of Thrones, Boardwalk Empire, and The Sopranos, for which he helmed 20 episodes as a director.

Van Patten has two Emmys under his belt—one for The Pacific and another for Boardwalk Empire’s elegiac Season 2 finale “To the Lost”—consolidating his unofficial status as HBO’s most reliable in-house director. It’s the same status that Van Patten brings to his gig on the network’s latest miniseries, Perry Mason, which simultaneously prequelizes and reimagines one of the most iconic American television series of all time. It’s an ambitious project, one well suited to Van Patten’s mixture, vision, and discipline—qualities on display in this list of some of his most impressive directorial credits.

Homicide: Life on the Street, “Nothing Personal”

A legitimate contender for the most underrated network television series of its era, NBC’s Homicide: Life on the Street was also ground zero for David Simon’s television career. The show was based on Simon’s superb, unnerving nonfiction account of a year spent embedded in a Baltimore police precinct, and its thoroughly deglamorized imagery and tone—closer to documentary realism than ’80s hits like Hill Street Blues and Miami Vice—made it a hard sell in a cautious, pandering mid-’90s prime-time landscape. Van Patten cut his teeth on the Season 3 episode “Nothing Personal,” one of two installments aired out of order by NBC. Set in the aftermath of the shocking suicide of Jon Polito’s Detective Steve Crosetti—a series regular who embodied Homicide’s rumpled sensibility—the episode deals affectingly with his absence, as the late cop’s caseload gets reassigned to his grieving partners. In the opening sequence, a bobbing, handheld camera expresses the urgency and frustration felt by Crosetti’s peers as they take on his unfinished business, with special emphasis on Melissa Leo’s Kay Howard, whose nervy brilliance and self-destructive commitment to her craft gets one of its greatest showcases.

The Wire, “Back Burners”

Like Homicide, The Wire had found its groove by its third season, and Van Patten’s work on “Back Burners” didn’t find him rewriting the show’s stylistic playbook. The episode’s title refers to the prepaid cell phones distributed by Stringer Bell’s crew, and Van Patten skillfully illustrates their precise dissemination across a complex network of users; on a show that was at its best describing complex urban ecosystems, “Back Burners” is attuned to the bigger picture. It also shows off Idris Elba’s range as Stringer during a tense dinner scene with Donnette (Shamyl Brown); the locked-off camera permits the actor to play his most emotional moment at a distance before he wanders back into focus, his control regained.

The Sopranos, “Second Opinion”

“One thing that you can never say: that you haven’t been told.” So declares Dr. Krakower (Sully Boyar) at the end of “Second Opinion,” which in some ways is a pivotal episode on The Sopranos overall moral compass—it marks a moment where the show directly addresses the audience on the uncomfortable theme of complicity. Carmela’s visit to a therapist rhymes with Tony’s sessions with Dr. Melfi, a doubling that Van Patten refers to visually while giving her session its own hard, disarming clarity. Where Melfi sometimes seemed to be enabling Tony’s self-pitying narcissism even as she deconstructed it, Dr. Krakower is blunt and unsparing in his advice to his client, refusing to absolve her guilt or to take what he calls “blood money” in exchange for his time. The greatness of The Sopranos was often tied to how deeply it immersed us in ugly but vicariously thrilling illicitness, and while Van Patten was as good as any of the show’s regular directors in staging physical violence, the emotional impact of “Second Opinion” is more powerful than any body blow.

The Sopranos, “Long Term Parking”

There’s an obvious model for the horrifying set piece in “Long Term Parking,” where Adriana is driven out into the woods by Silvio Dante and executed for informing to the FBI: the slow-burn pacing and moment of sudden, fatal realization echo the build-up to Tommy’s murder in Goodfellas, with Shawn Smith’s laid-back escapist song “Leaving California” serving the same lulling function as Eric Clapton’s “Layla” in Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece. Perhaps more than any other death on The Sopranos, Adriana’s demise served to violate and devastate viewer expectations, not because it came out of nowhere but because its retrospective inevitability—and encoded misogyny, with Sil’s gentlemanly mask dropping unforgettably at the moment of truth—confirmed what had been lurking in plain sight all along. The scene’s mixture of directness and restraint is astonishing, but the episode’s actual best moment comes just before, as Christopher contemplates whether to flee with the love of his life and start a family in witness protection or sacrifice her on the altar of his omerta. Stranded at a gas station, he observes a washed-up, mullet-rocking dad and his brood, and Michael Imperioli’s expression—judgemental contempt with a tiny sliver of yearning peeking through—wordlessly confirms his decision before he even makes it. It may be The Sopranos’ single most indelible image of male weakness.

Boardwalk Empire, “Margate Sands”

A lavishly subsidized victory lap around thematic territory already staked out and perfected by The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire was also pulpier than its predecessor; between the delicious, deluxe period-piece production design and actors willing to chew it (Michael Shannon, come on down!) the show embraced its status as a sort of gory live-action cartoon. The apex of this tendency came in the third season’s amazing finale “Margate Sands,” in which Jack Huston’s mask-wearing assassin Richard Harrow fulfills his destiny of playing real-life Counter Strike, rampaging through the upscale brothel known as the Artemis Club on a moralistic rescue mission. As an outburst of supremely choreographed, utterly righteous violence—with an innocent child’s life hanging in the balance—the scene plays out as a tour de force, drenched in blood-red lighting and anchored by Huston’s amazingly precise physical acting. It’s excessive, yes, and probably implausible, but in the context of a series predicated on showmanship it’s also as good as it gets.

Black Mirror, “Hang the DJ”

Van Patten went slightly off-brand for “Hang the DJ,” a surprisingly sweet installment of Black Mirror about an artificially intelligent dating app that predetermines the length of users’ potential relationships. Frank (Joe Cole) and Amy (Georgina Campbell) are informed within moments of sitting down to dinner at an automated restaurant that their romance is going to last a grand total of 12 hours: an inverted Groundhog Day scenario where instead of having infinite chances to get it right, the pair have a limited amount of time to prove the “system” wrong. Clearly relishing the opportunity to shoot action outside of a gritty, crime-drama context, Van Patten visualizes a near-future world defined by an anodyne, lifestyle-catalog pleasantness whose limitations are revealed in a predictable but still effective twist (of course there’s a twist). Like the similarly romantic (and reality-bending) Black Mirror standout “San Junipero,” “Hang the DJ” isn’t meant to be frightening, and its final, Morrissey-assisted beat is lovely, containing the possibility, however statistically remote, of escaping one’s certain fate.

Perry Mason, “Chapter One”

The question of whether or not the world needed a Gritty Perry Mason Reboot is very much open, and the first episodes of HBO’s miniseries have been uneven, if still firmly anchored by Matthew Rhys’s shaky gravitas in the title role. At this point, early-20th-century L.A. crime sagas are their own subgenre—filled with conventions and clichés—and the attempt by series creator Erle Stanley Gardner to ape the fatalism of Chinatown is fairly transparent. But if the writing has been so-so, the direction has been excellent, especially in the premiere episode’s shocking cold open involving the discovery of a child’s corpse on the Angels Flight Railway, which swiftly establishes a series of new nightmarish parameters around a character more associated with network TV’s sanitized past. There’s also a terrifically menacing texture to the Hollywood party Perry attends in the hope of blackmailing a studio executive with some incriminating photos of his talent; led into a hangar-sized room by a couple of goons for his meeting with a mogul, our hero is at once dwarfed by the institution he’s battling and swallowed up in a sea of noir-ish darkness.