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.
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?