Lynn Shelton established herself as an observant, smart director, first by making her own indie films and then by transferring her gifts to television. In the wide span of TV work that she did over the past decade, she brought her innate understanding of people to an array of different projects — prestige dramas, broadcast network sitcoms, experimental dramedies in keeping with her mumblecore roots. She was an auteur in the movie world, one who most often wrote and directed her films in a collaborative spirit that still hewed to her vision. In the TV realm, she was an auteur for hire, who was able to merge her vision with other people’s work in a way that allowed all creative partners to shine.
The work that Shelton, who died suddenly on Friday of a previously unknown blood disorder at the age of 54, did on television during her too short career was defined by the same thing that defined her film sensibility: humanity. She had a natural capacity to capture human behavior in all its complexity and organicness, guiding actors to raw performances and making viewers feel like what we were witnessing was something that was actually happening, rather than something scripted.
The first TV directing gig she got was for Mad Men. Imagine starting out in the medium’s best drama, a meticulously written period piece, as a filmmaker best known for contemporary, improvisational work and then hitting it out of the park the way Shelton did. Back in 2010, she told the Seattle Times that she spent a seven-hour period with Matthew Weiner, transcribing every thought he had about the episode. “I wanted to bend over backward and make sure I was giving him exactly what he wanted,” Shelton said.
The episode, “Hands and Knees,” felt seamlessly part of Mad Men, but you also could sense where Shelton’s instincts came into play, in close-ups on Don as he succumbs to panic attacks or in the quiet intention of a scene in an abortion-clinic waiting room, where a conversation between the mother of a pregnant teenager and Joan, about to get her own abortion, leads Joan to lie and say she’s there with her nonexistent, 15-year-old daughter. Even if you don’t know what happens in subsequent episodes, it’s clear in just a small, downward glance that Joan has changed her mind. Shelton makes sure that glance is photographed, but doesn’t push the moment beyond a second or two. She trusted the audience, always, to understand meanings both hidden and on the surface.
She also instinctively got that most situations are not dictated by a single emotion, that in a given moment, people are usually feeling eight things and not just one. In a partners meeting later in the same Mad Men episode, every character comes to their seat at the conference table with unspoken concerns rattling around in their heads. Roger has just been told by Joan that she aborted their baby, and he’s also carrying the knowledge that they’ve lost the Lucky Strike account. Don is still in low-grade panic mode over the potential exposure of his true identity. Pete is infuriated about the fact that he has to take the hit for losing the North American Aviation account, even though Don forced him to kill it. Literally every action and response in this scene speaks less to what’s actually happening in the meeting and more to the baggage that everyone has brought to it.
At the end of the scene, after Lane announces that he’s taking a leave of absence to return to London and exits the meeting, Roger bursts out laughing. It’s a laugh that is just a few seconds from evolving into sobs and that no one shares with him. Only Roger understands the jeopardy the agency is in, and if he doesn’t laugh about it, he will cry. That very specific reaction — the surprise appearance of laughter where it doesn’t belong — was a Shelton speciality.
She put it to great use in Casual, a dramedy so in her wheelhouse that Shelton could have created the series herself. In the season-three opener “Ashes to Ashes,” in the middle of a memorial service for Charles, the father of Michaela Watkins’s Valerie and Tommy Dewey’s Alex, their mother casually drops the information that Charles is not actually Valerie’s father. The camera locks in on Valerie, Alex, and Valerie’s daughter, Laura (Tara Lynne Barr), all seated side by side. Valerie’s mouth is agape. Alex is looking at her like, What? Then Laura opens her mouth and loudly guffaws, which is not a thing one generally does in a funeral setting, but also feels like the only right response to what’s happening. Life is messy, and comedy and sadness are rarely socially distanced from each other. Shelton knew that and used that knowledge to inject color into her work again and again.
You could watch your way through the many episodes of television Shelton directed — for New Girl, Fresh Off the Boat, The Good Place, Love, Dickinson, The Morning Show, Shameless, the comedy specials by her partner, Marc Maron — and find moments like this, that are honest and real and tinged with joy. Shelton’s work also was a constant reminder that, despite its many flaws, being alive is a wild, bizarre blessing.
There was joy in both episodes she directed of Master of None, “Ladies and Gentlemen,” in which Dev celebrates a citizen’s arrest by dancing in a bar to Toto’s “Africa,” and “Older People,” in which Lynn Cohen, who died earlier this year, delivers a gorgeous performance as a grandmother who proves there’s still vibrancy left in her.
Amid all of the intensity in Little Fires Everywhere, the last TV credit on Shelton’s résumé, she found moments of sardonic comedy in the way Bill (Joshua Jackson) would widen his eyes but keep his mouth shut when his wife, Elena (Reese Witherspoon), claimed that her children had always felt they could confide in her.
GLOW, the Netflix series about female wrestlers that traffics in the absurd and the poignant, was another perfect fit for Shelton, who was so good at highlighting all the aspects of complex women. The finale of its most recent season, “A Very GLOW Christmas,” was a Lynn Shelton joint that ended with Debbie (Betty Gilpin) offering Ruth (Alison Brie) the opportunity to direct a new TV wrestling show that Debbie will produce.
“I’m going to build us an Eden where we run the show, you and me,” Debbie says. “We’ll call the shots.”
But Ruth turns down the opportunity because she still wants to build her own success, on her own terms. In the argument between the two, there is the discussion they are having about the project, but more importantly, there is what lies beneath it, a tug-of-war between two ambitious women who want to support each other and can never seem to figure out how. You watch that scene, a back-and-forth at an airport gate, and you feel its weight, even in what is ostensibly a comedy set in the time of ’80s spandex. Shelton could always find the weight, but never made it too heavy.
Like Ruth, Shelton was an actress who discovered a talent as a director. Unlike Ruth, at least at this point in the GLOW story, she carved out her own career path, and took chances to work with others as a filmmaker too. As a result, she left behind a string of wonderful films and an even larger number of superbly directed episodes of television, all improved by her intelligent, delicate, and forever empathetic touch.