‘Showrunners’ Offers an Inside Look at the Making of TV

Showrunners Poster
By Susan JAMES

What is a showrunner, you ask? If you are on Facebook or Twitter you already know that the showrunner is the person in charge of your favorite TV show – the one you send nasty tweets to if you don’t like the direction the show is going. Irish writer-director Des Doyle has put together a fascinating documentary that lets viewers inside the chaotic world of the men and women who both create the television shows we watch and oversee their day-to-day writing and production. According to Ali LeRoy (“Everybody Hates Chris”), the job involves “a billion decisions a day. When you’re a showrunner, they only bring you questions.” Says Bill Prady (“The Big Bang Theory”), “The burnout rate for showrunners is 100%.”

Most showrunners start as writers and Doyle talked to some pretty heavy hitters, Joss Whedon (“Buffy,” “Angel,” “Firefly”), J. J. Abrams (“Lost,” “Person of Interest”), Damon Lindelof (“Lost,” “The Leftovers”) and Jane Espenson (“Battlestar Galactica,” “Once Upon A Time”) to name a few. The takeaway is that a showrunner never loses his or her first love, the writing. The production side of the business is a necessary evil that has to be embraced in order to get the writing on the screen.

Showrunners are warrior kings jealously guarding their kingdoms from incursions by studios and networks who like to give notes. In other words, the suits enjoy rewriting the writing and changing the vision. Showrunners do not like this, even though sometimes there is a grudging admission that a network exec can come up with a constructive idea. Showrunners also have to hold their own against the actors who portray the characters the showrunners have created. According to Irish actor Jason O’Mara, who played Damian Boyle on “The Good Wife,” “As an actor you are the guardian of your character.”

If actors spend years playing the same character, and some of the lucky ones do (hello, David Boreanaz), they invest heavily in what that character will or won’t do and are willing to go to the mat with anyone who argues with them. What then of the showrunner who is the original creator of that character?

According to Hart Hanson (“Bones”), “If the show is in its third year, it’s a hit. You can replace behind the camera; you can’t replace in front of it. So if there’s a huge fight, the actor will probably win. The [Steven] Bochco quote I heard was, ‘The first year they work for you; the second year, you’re partners.  The third year you work for them.”’

Showrunners may have similar problems but their interaction with fans on social media is wildly varied. Joss Whedon embraces the exchange between the showrunner and the show’s fans.

“To be able to write and to have people be able to speak to you about it is more than a writer usually gets,” he said.

Steven DeKnight (“Spartacus”) loves Comic-Con and calls it a rock concert for showrunners. Damian Lindelof credits the rise of the Internet with the rise of the showrunners. Hart Hanson is more skeptical. According to him, 90% of the audience doesn’t even know that writers write the episodes and thinks the actors make up their own lines. Social media fans, he concludes, “should be ignored because they’re not your audience.”

For any of you interested in how that TV show you love gets made and stays on the air, this film is for you.

See you at the movies!