These days, you could cast a mini-series off the sheer profusion of forceful personalities creating television, from the Three Davids of HBO (Simon, Milch, Chase) to the visionary geeks (Whedon, J. J. Abrams, Damon Lindelof) to idiosyncratic figures ranging from Shawn Ryan (The Shield) to Matthew Weiner (Mad Men), Kurt Sutter (Sons of Anarchy), Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy), and Ryan Murphy (Glee). More recently, there has been an ascendant breed of sitcom auteur, including Community’s Dan Harmon, 30 Rock’s Tina Fey and Bob Carlock, Modern Family’s Steven Levitan and Christopher Lloyd, Raising Hope’s Greg Garcia, and The Middle’s Eileen Heisler, as well as Louie’s Louis C.K., whom I profile in this issue.
You don’t have to love the work of every showrunner to see what they have in common: When you watch their shows, you know who set their stamp on it.
It would be wonderful to report that this new breed of showrunner has in turn ushered in a televisual Utopia, with each show more wild and ambitious than the last. But in fact, this season has been a period of dispiriting backsliding, with some of the best newcomers canceled (R.I.P. Terriers, we’re still sad), while a high proportion of cable dramas and “dramedies” (oh, hideous word) suffered from that old eighties Leonard curse, their pretty looks concealing their hollow hearts.
And yet, great TV happened—much of it made by showrunners who have learned to navigate this fractured landscape. There was the second season of the sleek network procedural The Good Wife. There was the aforementioned sitcom revival, including the kickass fifth season of 30 Rock, which punched new shapes into the form. There was the marvelous Friday Night Lights and the brilliant Breaking Bad and a few ambitious dramas that actually found audiences, like Justified. There were shows that made me cry, like Parenthood. And others that took my head off with their strangeness, like United States of Tara.
For fans of these series, there’s a whole new set of circus rings in which to witness showrunners as they run shows, the latest being Twitter, where viewers, critics, writers, performers, and even fictional characters are intersecting in peculiar, creative, unsettling new ways, the etiquette forming before our eyes. Still, 140 characters only get you so far. So we asked the newest generation of showrunners a few questions about their role models and philosophies. As varied a group as they are, they shared some opinions: shorter seasons on the broadcast networks; a nearly universal love for Cheers; and a common vision of the showrunner’s credo, pithily summed up by Sutter: “Be willing to compromise on your execution but not on your vision. And try not to be a dick in the process.”
Truthfully, maybe we as viewers could adopt a bit of that philosophy. Because if it’s a sign of progress that we no longer worship showrunners, it would be a mistake to forget how deeply mutual this particular art form is—and how high our expectations. To win, and keep, our love, TV’s creators know what they need to do: break through the lazier habits of television while maintaining its basic pleasures. Build a hit that also feels like an act of artistic rebellion! Be at once transparent and mysterious, capable of surprising us with something we never knew we wanted, yet giving us all we ever imagined was possible. Also, ideally, they should be online 24 hours a day, to joke around, never to spoil anything but to, you know, kind of warn us if something bad is coming.
Is that too much to ask?