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Why isn’t Rian Johnson doing more TV?

Rian Johnson is a director/writer/editor. You may know him from BrickThe Brothers Bloom, or Looper, which are some of his main films (the latter, Looper, did pretty well at the box office).

If you were a fan of TV in 2013, though, you probably know Johnson because he directed the third-to-last episode of Breaking Bad, called “Ozymandias.” That specific episode has been called out in a bunch of places — here, here and here — as one of the best single episodes of television this year. Spoilers are going to follow, but “Ozymandias” aired in mid-September, so hopefully you’re mostly clear now. I watched the final eight episodes of Breaking Bad with literally breathless anticipation — I spent all week trying to guess what might happen, e-mailed with my friends about said topics, and then sat back and let it rip. It was truly an amazing show. Many people cite this in their reviews of “Ozymandias,” but that episode actually felt like the real conclusion to the show. There were powerful things in the final two — Walt’s call to his son, Walt saving Jesse, etc. — but so much hit the fan in “Ozymandias,” and the show was so dark anyway, it could have probably ended there and we all would have been like, “Wow.” When I finished watching “Ozymandias” for the first time, I literally said Wow about 11 times and then walked around my apartment to contextualize all I had just seen.

Johnson directed two other episodes of Breaking Bad — “Fifty-One” and “The Fly” — which are also pretty sharp. He also directed one episode of Terriers, which is on pretty much every “this show was criminally underrated” or “this is a Netflix gem” list you’ll find online. The episode Johnson directed, “Manifest Destiny,” was pretty well-reviewed.

So here’s my broader question: this is seemingly a golden age of television in many respects. At the same time, while many filmmakers and creatives probably want to work in movies (more money, more reach, more prestige, etc.), Johnson has done some excellent work with television so far. “The Fly” is pretty much the esoteric middle-of-the-run Breaking Bad episode that a lot of themes come back to; “Fifty-One” is an amazing portrait of Skyler falling apart; and “Ozymandias” might well be the best episode of the entire series (which is saying a lot, because you can make a strong case that it’s one of the best series ever to air on TV). His Terriers work was good too, and his IMDB currently has nothing “in production” or “in pre-production” for him. Why can’t AMC or Sundance or a cable channel trying to pop big throw some money at Johnson to develop a show for them? He could write/direct the pilot and maybe one other first season episode, and then get a team around him (i.e. how it normally works / exactly what Vince Gilligan did on Breaking Bad). AMC just lost Breaking Bad, will lose Mad Men in two summers, and flopped with Low Winter Sun. Let’s get Rian Johnson a project for them! Pair it with Better Call Saul for a comedy-dramedy one-two punch. Johnson has done some transformative TV work over the past four or so years. Get him in the medium full-time, or at least full-time for a couple of years. It could be a game-changer. 

Ted Bauer

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