Review: Showrunners



Who is behind the television of the modern age?

Who is behind the television of the modern age?

It certainly does seem like we are currently living in a “Golden Age” of television. The small screen medium has never before churned out quality entertainment in the levels that it is currently doing, with networks, cable and online streaming sites all tripping over themselves to ship a plethora of new shows starring increasingly bigger names every year, all to a chorus of sustained critical acclaim. Even in just my immediate viewing list, there’s Justified, Breaking Bad, True Detective, Game of Thrones, Person of Interest, The Blacklist, Love/Hate, The Good Wife, House of Cards, House of Lies and then we can get into the plethora of comedies and then the comic book saturation this year and so and so on.

We can all recognise what’s happening, as the outlets understand that quality programming can be made on the TV budget, that big name actors and actresses can be enticed away from the big screen and that the online option is the biggest revolution on the topic since satellites became a factor.

But who are the people driving this time of visualised milk and honey? Who are the men and women at the crucial part of this creative process? And why do they do what they do? I was able to see the world premiere of Showrunners in Dublin’s IFI last weekend as part of their “Stranger Than Fiction” documentary festival.

A Kickstarter funded documentary from Irish director Des Doyle, Showrunners offers the audience a glimpse into the world of television production in Hollywood, through an impressive amount of one on one interviews with the titular capo di tutti capi. Whedon, Moore, Espenson, Lindelof, Abrams, DeKnight, Tamaro and King are just some of the names that pass by, some legends in their field, others new kids on the block, outlining just what their work entails and the immense effects it can have on them, for good and bad.

Spoilers, such as there are for a documentary, from here on out. For my shorter, non-spoiler review, click here to go to The Write Club.

If there’s one thing I learned coming out of Showrunners, it is that showrunning is hard. Very hard. Oh so hard. Make no mistake, this is a job that will wreck the employee, mentally and physically, as Showrunners will make clear in repeated instances of showrunners talking about how hard their job is. Hard, difficult, exhausting.

I get that documentarians feel the need to hit the 90 minute mark in order to make their projects worthwhile and cinema worthy, but Showrunners is, to me, an example of an idea where the central message is stretched out and returned to so much that this very point starts to get a little lost, like using a word so many times that it begins to lose all meaning (or, more pertinently, using similar establishing shots of the LA urban landscape that they begin to get tiresome).

Throughout the course of Showrunners, the interviewees are enticed to talk about how difficult they find their jobs, and most of them invariably end up repeating what somebody else has already said, and adding very little to the record. This strikes me as the kind of thing that, like an academic essay, should have been left for an introduction and a conclusion, and should not have been peppered throughout. It just gets a little boring to look at another face talk about how tiring they find the showrunning process without adding any new kind of insight, and it’s an especially big problem in the last half an hour. I think if you did cut these moments down, you’d be left with something close to an hour in length, and that probably wouldn’t fly in a cinema.

Which is a shame, because there are some genuinely interesting things in here, it’s just the experience is so overly lengthy. Doyle goes through the evolution of the showrunner as a concept and as a position crucial to the writing, production and direction of a television episode, though he leaves it to the showrunners themselves to do all of the talking, which is a good thing, it makes the whole film feel a bit more natural. This is a role that has become gigantic in comparison to its near anonymous status in previous decades: now, showrunners are celebrities themselves, who mix their stated job with a vast amount of promotional work – a whole sequence of Showrunners is dedicated to the Comic Con requirements of people like Stephen S. DeKnight and how such things contribute to a “rock star” type status elevation for showrunners in the modern age. After all, there is a reason it’s called the “Whedonverse”.

Showrunners have a lot to do. Theirs is a delicate and stressful process: writing and overseeing episodes, outlining the direction of a season, budgeting, human resource work, dealing with dreaded studio “notes”, choosing procedural or serialised routes and walking the frequently fine line between success and cancellation. It is a story of compromise, in so far as how showrunners must decide what portions of their vision they are willing to sacrifice to the studio requirements and what parts they are willing to turn into the “hill that you want to die on”. It is a story about daring to dream, of turning ideas into reality in a compressed timeframe, seeking an audience for that story and a way to change the television landscape. And, on plenty of occasions, it is a story about abject failure, the four year time span of the documentary allowing for plenty of glimpses into TV triumph and TV disaster. For every success like Rizzoli and Isles and House of Lies, there is a Men of a Certain Age and Undercovers. House of Lies and Undercovers are especially noteworthy in that respect, Showrunners documenting the contrasting fortunes of two TV shows that choose to place black actors and actresses in the lead roles.

His contribution is small enough, but Whedon is, surprise surprise, one of the stand outs.

His contribution is small enough, but Whedon is, surprise surprise, one of the stand outs.

I wish Showrunners had spent a bit more time discussing those issues, that of women and minorities in the position, because those were probably my moments of truest engagement. 20 minutes in to Showrunners I was thinking “This is a documentary about middle aged white men” and feeling a bit uncomfortable about the apparent silence. But Showrunners did eventually get around to discussing this point, and how difficult it is for women and “people of colour” to break into this valuable part of the industry – and how, when they do, they are judged to a different standard than the mainstays. One contributor noted rather brilliantly that women like Tina Fey and Lena Dunham are, of course, “brilliant” – because they have to be in order to get as far as they have. In comparison, the list of male showrunners is surely full of mediocre individuals (in my opinion, several of them were interviewed in this documentary) and the makers of this documentary fall into the trap themselves, probably because of the simple reality of the situation: Ali LeRoi of Everybody Hates Chris is the only black showrunner interviewed, as far as I could see.

Janet Tamaro, of Rizzoli and Isles, offers some of the best segments, discussing her motivations and expectations inside this white male dominated industry, and how her own experiences within a different part of the television world – as a crime correspondent for a news show– helped to shape her subsequent activities. This discussion fascinated me, and I feel that the constant fallback into “This job is very demanding, I’m so tired, I never thought I’d be doing this for so long” is a shame when there was ample ground to cover elsewhere.

In terms of other stand-outs, there’s obviously Joss Whedon, who’s a delight in nearly every interview he ever does, here talking about how he has somehow been saddled with the reputation of being some kind of “renegade”, maybe because he had the temerity to complain about how Fox treated Firefly. Whedon knows what he’s talking about when it comes to showrunning – he might be the only person to have done it for three serialised shows at once, with Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Angel and Firefly in 2002. Whedon is a good example of someone who became burned out with the process of showrunning, backing away from television because of age and family commitments, finding greater solace in film.

Ronald D. Moore is also great, discussing the fractious relationship he has had with studios, especially over his failed adaptation of Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series, one of those “hill you want to die on” moments that worked out badly for Moore. His anecdote for how he wound up getting traction in the business is also revealing for what is required of people trying to “break in”: he finagled a tour of Star Trek: The Next Generation set though his then girlfriend, and convinced his guide to read one of his spec scripts, which found its way to the people in charge.

There are others of note too. Jane Espenson talks about the new opportunities of online avenues, especially in terms of non-traditional casting in her Husbands (the trends catching online: check out one of Amazon’s latest, Transparent). Mike Royce, speaks on the creation and eventual disappointing ending of Men of a Certain Age with star Ray Ramono, with a moving remembrance of the moment he realised the show was doomed in terms of ratings. There’s Stephen S. DeKnight, who spent the years struggling to break in and eventually find fame with Spartacus: Blood and Sand teaching TEFL courses. And there is Matthew Carnahan, whose work on House of Lies forms the backbone of Showrunners’ narrative, as he moves from early envisioning, pilot creation, actual production and wrap parties, before learning how the ratings went (good, House of Lies has currently aired three seasons).

They’re good interviews, and the sheer number of them is a credit to the filmmakers, though the clipped nature of some of the interactions does make one think, occasionally, of the old adage “less is more”. I could watch a whole 90 minute interview on the topic of showrunning with Joss Whedon alone but I suppose I must acknowledge that I am not the be all and end all of film audiences.

The central message of Showrunners has that very negative tang to it, even if it is dressed up as otherwise: the men and women who do this job are portrayed as inevitably becoming burned out as they hit middle age, with the showrunner role one that is more and more reserved for the young who have the time and the energy to put into it. But there’s also an addiction to it, and Showrunners does a good job of giving the audience a sense of that addiction: of how the TV medium, especially in this day and age, allows a creative freedom and ability to tell stories that is unparalleled. That’s something that is impossible for creators to ignore or resist, and Showrunners allows you to understand just why.

Showrunners is down to earth, simple and accessible. It’s investigative documentary work in its most basic form, offering a new perspective on something that we are already somewhat familiar with. There are no fancy camera tricks or incredibly deep revelations, just a succession of human beings who have been fortunate (or unfortunate in some cases) to be involved in the rise of television as the critically acclaimed medium it currently is.

For the major TV aficionados (like myself) there may be a sense of watching a lesson in something you already know about. For the layman, I think they’ll find something very intriguing in Showrunners, and will come out of it with greater respect and understanding for what the actual showrunners themselves go through in order to make their visions real and their stories told. While there are moments in the last half hour where I felt that the belabouring of the point was reaching truly intolerable levels, I still feel that the overall production is quite solid, and offers a glimpse into the entertainment industry that is sure to interest both TV buffs and the more casual viewer.

A good film, which some cutting down could have made great.

A good film, which some cutting down could have made great.

(All images are copyright of Submarine Deluxe).

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