It seemed too good to be true, and now it definitely is. Director of acclaimed films American Hustle and The Silver Linings Playbook, David O. Russell has backed out of executive producing a drama series for ABC. The series already had a 13-episode straight-to-series order and will thus continue on without him — it's now titled The Club, and actress Callie Hernandez has just been cast in the series. Russell had already suggested to The Hollywood Reporter that he was not ready to transition to television.
I’m not really transitioning right now to TV projects,” he said. “I don’t know if that thing’s going to work out. Matt Weiner, the creator of Mad Men, just gave me a crash course on this: ‘You know, if you’re really going to make a show that’s like a movie, you've got to give yourself to it.’ Matt Weiner gave his life to Mad Men, Vince Gilligan gave his life to Breaking Bad. That’s going to be it. Otherwise it ain’t going to be your art or your vision. I was in delusion that I could do both. It was an illusion. I woke up and said, ‘What am I going to do, stop making feature films? Are you crazy?’ This is the height of my work right now. I'm not going to stop that.
Russell isn't the first big-name filmmaker to abandon a television project. If it's done early enough, it can be a test of whether a television show's premise can survive on its own. When Ang Lee left Tyrant, which he was set to direct, the show quickly found a replacement in Harry Potter director David Yates. The show's premise, about an American family in a Middle Eastern country after the fall of their dictator, was strong and independent of the acclaimed director, so FX felt the need to continue developing the show without Lee.
Meanwhile, the Fox pilot The Middle Man has been stalled after director Ben Affleck had to depart in order to film Batman vs. Superman. The Boston crime show (of course) has been a pet project of Affleck's since 2009, so the show is currently deciding whether to find a replacement director or wait on Affleck.
Television writers continue to marvel at the transition of movie actors and directors to television, noting that there's no longer a difference in prestige between the two mediums. But the departure of many of these famous film names from television says that many are still devoted to film, or are unaccustomed to the constraints of television.
And when a one of these directors leaves a show during its run, things can get messy. The most famous example is David Lynch leaving Twin Peaks for most of the show's second season to direct Wild at Heart, and many believe the show experienced a huge decline in quality as a result. More recently, director Frank Darabont was fired by AMC from The Walking Dead (his first foray into television) after fighting with the network over budget cuts to the show. The show still continues to gather critical acclaim, but it did suffer from an awkward transition in Season 2 during which Darabont's reign over the show ended and Glen Mazzara became the new showrunner.
So yes, it's exciting when critically acclaimed directors make their way to the small screen. But unless they're completely devoted to the show and willing to adapt to the demands of the medium, that's all it will ever be — an exciting potential.