Television Auteurs: Showrunners

Part 2

by Diana Black

Tradition4dummiesMiss the first half of this article? You can still find it HERE.

It seems that in TV land ‘Auteurism’ is closely associated with the ‘Showrunner’. These folk call the shots on many levels over the life of their specific television series. Not only are they, more often than not, the original writer of the series, they maintain script editorial rights, liaise with ‘the suits’ and do all the tasks normally associated with that of the Executive Producer. So it is no wonder that many television writers aspire to be a Showrunner; in order to retain power over their work, but is that efficacious? It is exhausting work with apparently few lasting the distance; especially for a long-running television series.

Go to Writers Guild of America, West and you’ll find they conduct a Showrunner Training Course in partnership with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. While their Alumni may not have reached ‘Showrunner’ status yet, they are figuring prominently in the slate of current emerging and established television programs:

Kenya Barris was the creator and Executive Producer for 2 episodes of Black-ish (2014 –); Peter Gould is co-creator, along with Vince Gilligan, of Better Call Saul (2015 –); Ben Queen was Writer and Executive Producer for 13 episodes of A to Z (2014 – 15); David Holden was Writer of 11 episodes and Exec. Producer for 10 of Young and Hungry (2014 –); Janine Sherman Barrois, Writer of 15 episodes and Exec. Producer /Co-Exec. Producer of 110 episodes of Criminal Minds (2005 –); Scott Gimple the Writer of 10 episodes and the Exec. Producer, Supervising Producer and Producer for 53 episodes of The Walking Dead (2010 –), and Don McGill, Writer of 9 episodes and Exec. Producer for 83 episodes of CSI (2000 –).

What of the Writers who set a precedent before such a course was created, not only in terms of their work as a Showrunner but also demonstrating the hallmarks of Auteur-ship: versatility, creating a prolific body of work and/or having a unique, avant-garde slant on television narratives?

It should come as no surprise that Gene Roddenberry is considered to be an Auteur for his great vision. Then there’s Joss Whedon, who’s substantial body of work includes co-authorship of Toy Story (John Lasseter, 1995 ), Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997 – 2003), Angel (1999 – 2004), and of course Firefly (2002). His web-series, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog (2008) is required viewing in University Film study courses. His later work includes Doll House (2009 – 10) and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013 – ).

Who else can we consider as potential if not recognized Auteurs? Let’s take a brief look…

While the creator of The West Wing (1999 – 06), Aaron Sorkin, might not identify himself as the Showrunner for that television series, he would qualify as an Auteur for his work being recognized as ‘Sorkinesque’ – signature rapid-fire dialogue in collaboration with Director, Thomas Schlamme’s, hallmark ‘walk and talk’ scenes. Both men took on the role of Exec. Producer for many episodes.

Terence Winter managed to head and herd a team of ‘cats’ (staff writers) as Exec. Producer and Creative producer, while also writing 56 episodes of Boardwalk Empire (2010 – 2014).

Vince Gilligan not only directed and wrote episodes of X-Files (1993 -2002), he’s also created Breaking Bad (2008 –13), a television series in which he also directed 5 episodes and was the Exec. Producer for 62 of them. He is noted for creating realistic characters and undertaking in-depth character studies, for example, the ‘delightful’ Walter White.

David Simon’s background as an investigative journalist informs his work as creator, Writer of 60 episodes and Exec. Producer of 52 episodes of The Wire (2002 -08). He admits he’s preoccupied with the notion that the modern capitalist world is dismissive of the individual.

Larry David along with Jerry Seinfield created Seinfield (1989 – 1998) in which they wrote 172 episodes and Jerry took on the role of Producer and Exec. Producer for 168 episodes and Larry, 129 episodes. In the series Curb Your Enthusiasm (1999 –) which Larry not only created, but wrote 51 episodes and was Exec. Producer for 81 episodes, he is renowned for ignoring political correctness, big time.

For David Chase, creator of The Sopranos (1999 – 2007), a series in which he wrote and took on the role of Exec. Producer for 86 episodes, it’s all about exploring humanity in all its glorified ugliness.

The observant reader will note the disparity in terms of gender but fear not, well…not entirely.

Amy Sherman-Palladino is known for screw-ball comedy and pop-culture intertextual referencing, widely recognized as ‘Gilmore-isms’ in Gilmore Girls (2000 – 7) in which she directed 18 episodes, wrote 154 episodes and took on the role of Exec. Producer for 131 of them. Prior to this she was a staff Writer for Roseanne (1988 – 1997), writing 13 episodes and took on the role as Co-supervising Producer and Co-Producer for 37 episodes. Now as co-creator of Bunheads (2012 –) she has directed 5 episodes, written 18 and taken on the role of Exec. Producer for 18 of them.

Then there’s the ‘satirical, don’t-take-yourself-too-seriously’ work of Tina Fey – Head-writer for Saturday Night Live (1975 –) for 172 episodes and as the creator of 30 Rock (2006 – 2013), she wrote 130 episodes and took on the role of Exec. Producer for 132 episodes.

And of course Shonda Rimes, the Queen of ABC’s primetime schedule, with an output of glamorous dramas that put her on the same throne Aaron Spelling occupied in the ’70s. And even more than the shows of Mr. Spelling, every series in Ms. Rimes stable bears her undeniable stamp on everything from concept to characterization to production values.

Dizzying stuff in terms of the volume of work these folk have created. They and many more besides have worked damn hard to create amazing, zany, thought-provoking television and while they may be paid well, the grueling schedules, long hours and going mano-a-mano on a daily basis must come at great personal cost. For us who perceive these folk and many others as role models, deserving of our great respect, we will have our work cut out for us if we are ever to fill their shoes.