In 2000, the Emmys made the choice to differentiate between single-camera and multi-camera series when recognizing the work of cinematographers. It was an approach that gave comedies a chance at being recognized: In the previous decade, no comedy had garnered a nomination in the combined category. However, it was also an approach that arrived just as the single-camera comedy came of age, so there remained a large number of unrecognized comedies in the eight years that followed. Only UPN’s Everybody Hates Chris garnered a nomination (in 2006).
That’s likely what prompted the Emmys to briefly, from 2008 to 2010, separate half-hour and hour-long categories—and single-camera comedies dominated their multi-camera counterparts in the former. And yet in 2011 the Emmys shifted back to single-camera and multi-camera categories, citing the belief that technology and not length should determine how work is compared. As logical as the decision is, the previous status quo has returned: No single-camera, half-hour series has been nominated in the past two years.
That deserves to change, given the importance of cinematography to HBO’s Enlightened. Itself a case for categorical confusion, television’s clearest example of a half-hour drama nonetheless competes as a comedy. Enlightened has often been singled out for its direction (a space where, unlike cinematography, single-camera comedies have become dominant), with series co-creator and showrunner Mike White joined by a convoy of independent filmmakers, including Jonathan Demme, Nicole Holofcener, Todd Haynes, Phil Morrison, and David Michôd. But a consistent force behind all of these individual episodes has been director of photography Xavier Pérez Grobet, submitted this year for his work on season two’s “Higher Power.”
As much as Enlightened—canceled after its second season aired earlier this year—will be missed for its rich performances and powerful storytelling, it was also consistently beautiful to look at. However, unlike other series, it rarely takes place in beautiful locations: Grobet—perhaps channeling the series’ optimistic protagonist—is often asked to find the beauty in a sprawling concrete office complex (as he does so well in the haunting establishing shots of the Abaddon building), or the dated décor of Helen Jellicoe’s suburban bungalow (as he did so well in season one’s “Consider Helen”). The Cogentiva office in the basement of Abaddon is one of the triumphs of contemporary television production design, and Grobet’s cinematography has brought that stark, white box to life so consistently throughout the series’ run.
“Higher Power” is a rare case where Grobet was given a traditionally beautiful setting to work with, as Luke Wilson’s Levi takes center stage during his stint in Hawaiian rehab center Open Air. Despite this, Grobet’s task involves more than just Hawaiian sunrises and twilight silhouettes walking down the beach. Levi tells Amy in a letter that Open Air is “like a Hawaiian prison,” and lighting plays a big part in showing how it’s possible to feel miserable on an island paradise. As Levi escapes rehab with two younger patients, Grobet contrasts the filtered sunlight of Open Air with the industrial lighting of hotel bathrooms; when Levi returns from a sobering evening of drug-fueled revelry, it’s not to a beautiful Hawaiian sunrise but rather to a sunrise partially—not entirely—obscured by clouds. Grobet’s cinematography is asked to play a subtle but nonetheless significant role in signaling Levi’s evolving relationship with his recovery, adapting well to the challenges of an episode built around multiple locations and a range of new sets used only in this episode.
Given the prestige of its directors and Mike White’s position as the series’ sole writer and creative auteur, Grobet’s contributions are rarely discussed. In an interview discussing his work in the series, tied to his decision to shoot on film, Grobet contributes to his own marginalization. Emphasizing that working with these directors is part of the series’ appeal, he says of White that “he puts a lot of heart into the project. It doesn’t feel like a TV production. Each episode is almost like an independent film, made with care. That’s what is fantastic about HBO—you have the freedom to create.”
However, while Grobet—like so many others—tries to legitimize the project through association with film, it’s the televisual nature that makes Grobet’s work so impressive and important. In order for a revolving collection of directors to take over, and in order for White to be able to explore his vision on his own terms, there needs to be consistency within the production capable of living up to those shifting expectations from episode to episode. For his work crafting the look of Enlightened over its two seasons, Xavier Pérez Grobet deserves to stand alongside his more famous collaborators as Emmy voters consider the show among the year’s finest.