…But the post below is still worth reading cuz arguing about this shit is always fun:
by Craig Fehrman
Our best TV shows may be more complex than ever, but our theory of their greatness has become utterly reductive: In this reputedly golden age of television, it all boils down to the showrunner, television’s own auteur.
According to this theory, the villain is a clueless suit, sending along absurd notes; the hero is the courageous iconoclast, ready to fight the tiniest battle. Here’s one example from the set of “Mad Men,” recounted in Alan Sepinwall’s recent book, The Revolution Was Televised: The Cops, Crooks, Slingers, and Slayers Who Changed TV Drama Forever: A costume designer presented the perfect button-up dress for a love scene to showrunner Matthew Weiner. “Unzipping is sexier,” he replied—and off she went to find a new dress. Everyone seems to thrill at these stories of micromanaging prowess. It’s why novelists are trying to write cable pilots; why The Hollywood Reporterpublishes its annual “Top 50 Power Showrunners”; and why, in 2010, no less an outlet than Cahiers du Cinéma—the French publication that popularized the original film version of auteur theory—put “Mad Men” on its cover. This narrative has been reinforced by long magazine profiles of David Chase (showrunner for “The Sopranos”), David Simon (“The Wire”), David Milch (“Deadwood”), Shonda Rimes(“Scandal”), Lena Dunham (“Girls”), Liz Meriwether (“New Girl”), and others.But this obsession with showrunners—what we might call the showrunner fallacy—has obscured what makes television so great. In his (otherwise excellent) forthcoming book, Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad, Brett Martin emerges as the latest exponent of this fallacy. Martin credits the shows in his subtitle, which, together, he labels TV’s “Third Golden Age,” to the showrunners themselves, with their “immense powers of rejection and benediction.” (Martin’s showrunner metaphors tend to be deific). Yet this approach prevents Martin from exploring the people and pressures that are unique to television—exactly what the medium’s reporters and critics should be working to understand. Instead, they praise or blame the showrunner, succumbing to a kind of narrative simplicity that we would never accept in an Emmy-winning drama.
Even before the word showrunner entered our cultural vocabulary, television was a writer’s medium. In its first Golden Age (the experimental 1950s), in its second (the network-drama-powered 1980s), and in all the lesser programming in between, television has depended on its scribes. Bruce Helford, who served as a showrunner on “Roseanne,” once framed that dependence like this: “Television is really bad art. It’s like someone going into a museum and saying, ‘We have a lot of blank walls, let’s make some paintings to fill them up.’” The cheapest (and fastest) way to do this was through writers churning out dialogue-heavy scripts.
I enjoyed this article and think that the book it seems to have started out as a review of, Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad, by Brett Martin, looks like a must-read. But I’ve been there and I know: The showrunner thing – in which we can credit or blame the showrunner/auteur for more or less everything considered to be creative about any given TV series is right on the money.
The only caveat I’d give to the overall “the showrunner did it” is that we always have to remember that the showrunners are working within the corporate strictures of the medium so that what the audience sees is a result not only of the showrunner’s talent and judgment but also of his or her intellectual (and practical) courage and political infighting ability.
Sorry, Craig, but I think modern day showrunners are Supermen and deserve all the acknowledgement they can get!