Top TV Drama Showrunners Ruminate on Life, Death, and Their Workloads

How do you spot a successful TV drama showrunner? Look for somebody “on the verge of bad health and insanity.” We’re guessing that isn’t what the folks who bring us “Writers on the Verge” mean. Or is it?

by Lacey Rose

A gathering of top showrunners can quickly devolve into a type of therapy session about dealing with audience pressures and network demands. But when this sextet — The Looming Tower’s Dan Futterman, 50; Power’s Courtney Kemp, 41; The Crown’s Peter Morgan, 55; The Handmaid‘s Tale’s Bruce Miller, 53; The Good Doctor’s David Shore, 58; and The Chi’sLena Waithe, 33 — gathered on a late-April morning for The Hollywood Reporter‘s annual Drama Showrunner Roundtable, it managed to avoid the usual subjects of writerly angst, save some musings from Morgan, who lamented a U.K. system that doesn’t nurture writers rooms as well as U.S. shows do.

“You can’t find people in the U.K. [to write on your show]; everybody’s got their own show,” he explains. “And we’re in this era now of boom TV, so the most inexperienced, fledgling writers have got two or three shows on, and it’s like, ‘But he’s only 18.'” When it’s suggested, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, that by the time The Crown reaches the season about Meghan Markle, he’ll have had time to groom a room of writers, Morgan laughs: “I give you my word. I will not get to the Meghan Markle season.”

Over the course of an hour, the group talked instead about the value of writers room debates, the politics of who can tell what story, the future of pay parity and the lengths each of them is willing to go to for the sake of a truly safe set.

BRUCE MILLER The one that comes to mind is when I had a pitch that we were going to do a female genital mutilation story on Handmaid’s Tale. You don’t even know how to word anything, I’m just dancing around it as much as my upbringing would allow — and then you realize you’re doing it to Rory Gilmore! [Alexis Bledel starred in The Gilmore Girls before Handmaid’s.] But it was fine for them [at Hulu]; they loved it. I still haven’t recovered. I’m turning bright red just thinking about it.

COURTNEY KEMP I was very, very fortunate because the first show I ever pitched was Power.

LENA WAITHE Overachiever!

KEMP Yeah, I walked into the room with 50 Cent and, at that time, [the late music executive] Chris Lighty. It was like a hundred dudes and me. There were no other women. Everyone would sit down, and the people on the other side would go, “OK, so who am I listening to?” And I’d go, “Me, the girl from Connecticut, I’m going to pitch you the drug-dealing show.” It’s not a funny story, but it does speak to how much has changed, even in the past five years.

PETER MORGAN There isn’t such a culture of pitching in the U.K., so I pitched The Crown but really only to one or two people. [Of course,] when I wrote Frost/Nixon for the screen, I had a dozen unsuccessful pitches. Everybody thought it was a catastrophe….

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