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Emily Nussbaum on the New Interactive Showrunner

Illustration by Zohar Lazar  

When I was a child, in the halcyon seventies, I loved to watch TV. It wasn’t an easy hobby: I had to get up each time I changed the channel. Cable barely existed (I was 15 when “Video Killed the Radio Star” launched MTV). And it wasn’t as if I could pause or rewind or save a show, at least not until the VCR showed up late in the decade, and even then, recording became an ordeal, involving rickety towers of plastic cassettes, timer dials, and sticky labels scrawled with the desperate command DO NOT ERASE!!!

But still, there were so many shows that I adored, especially sitcoms like Mork & Mindy and Three’s Company and WKRP in Cincinnati and Taxi and M*A*S*H and the mind-blowing Soap (gay people, sex jokes), and, when the babysitter let me stay up, the brain-warping double feature of The Love Boat and Fantasy Island, where the Devil took the form of Roddy McDowall. I had no idea how these shows were made or who made them. But it was obvious from the way that adults doled it out that television was a type of candy, so if there happened to be candy-makers out there in Holly­wood crafting these episodes, that wasn’t any business of mine—they were producers, creating product, some of which tasted good, some of which was forbidden to me on the grounds of good taste. (Hogan’s Heroes, for instance, a sitcom that was set in a German POW camp: Take that, Outsourced.)

In the eighties, a handful of big-name TV-makers invaded my consciousness. There was Steven Bochco, who spearheaded Hill Street Blues, with its threaded stories and comparative grit. There was James Brooks, the master sitcom craftsman behind Mary Tyler Moore, and All in the Family’s Norman Lear, the two men who had overseen the iconic sitcoms I’d been neglecting in favor of Mork & Mindy. And there were my surreal funny-guy heroes: Michael Palin, John Cleese, David Letterman.

But it wasn’t until 1990 that TV experienced a truly cataclysmic cultural event: the premiere of Twin Peaks, a series that was described, again and again, as being “like nothing else on TV.” The show stood out not merely for its style but for the way it was made, as the product of one big, weird brain, conceived by the intimidating David Lynch, he who had directed Blue Velvet (middle-aged ­nudity, bug-covered ear). At this point, I’d graduated from college, and my friends and I would gather to watch, thrilling at ­David Duchovny in drag, retro brunettes with bruises, dwarves, cherry pie, and a general air of adult perversion. Within a few episodes, we all agreed the series had gone off the rails (a flash-forward to future TV fanhoods), but it was the first time I’d watched a show while thinking—with worship and anxiety and eventually a twinge of betrayal—about the person who had created it.

From all accounts, Lynch was fighting a war against the candy-makers. He was making a series that demanded that viewers pay close attention, when the greater cultural message was that television was there to kill time. So we needed to trust him, even if the show got confusing, even if it shocked us. “Television, the talking furniture we look to as a cure for loneliness, is not expected to surprise,” wrote John Leonard in his dizzying, acerbic 1990 New York cover article on the Twin Peaks phenomenon, a meditation on how quickly the show had captured the intellectual crowd. But Leonard also argued that, for all the show’s Buñuelian/Fellini-esque excitement, in the end it had “nothing at all inside its pretty little head except the desire to please. In this, and only in this, it resembles almost every­thing else on television.” That was the mood in 1990, both among the makers of television and those who wrote about it: Every thrill of celebration was spiked, one way or another, with low self-esteem.

By the late nineties, cable television had been around for a while, spinning out pleasant if random diversions—Red Shoe Diaries, Fraggle Rock, boxing, comics against brick walls. But there had been no singular event quite like Twin Peaks. For two decades, there was a wave of interesting and ambitious shows (St. Elsewhere, Thirtysomething, The Simpsons, Seinfeld, My So-Called Life, The X-Files) as well as terrible-but-watchable hits (Ally McBeal), many of them with big-name creators and distinct aesthetics. A few of them attracted followings, especially Aaron Sorkin, who famously wrote every episode of The West Wing. A handful of early adopters—like the prescient creators of Babylon 5—even got online to speak to fans, back when there was barely an online to get onto.

Then, just as the century began to turn, something strange happened to the way people were watching TV, and for me, it involved my dawning awareness of two particular shows: David Chase’s The Sopranos and Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer. On the surface, they had little in common. One was a mob narrative full of sex and violence, served up with a roar of critical praise on HBO; the other was a teen horror series full of feminism and neck-biting, largely ignored and launched cheaply on the “netlet” called the WB. But both were works of radical originality, written and produced by large personalities: Chase, the cranky Italian-American auteur with a gimlet eye, Whedon the quotable nerd who believed that genre was more than junk. Whole communities formed online, virtual universes as fascinated with the shows’ creators as they were with the shows themselves. There was worship in the air. And it was no coincidence to me that around this time, possibly in Canada, where all good things come from, that people began referring to a person who oversaw a TV show as the “showrunner.” Unlike the anodyne “executive producer,” it was a title with a brassy, circusy feel: It suggested someone who was in charge, not behind the scenes but out in public, like a ringmaster. Online and off, in interviews about their shows, TV auteurs were eagerly pouring themselves back into that decades-old Lynch mold, making a case for the artist as visionary.