In Tara Bennett‘s book “Showrunners: The Art Of Running A TV Show,” the job is variously described as being a dictator, a CEO or leading an army. And while we’re now in the era of celebrity showrunners—Damon Lindelof (“Lost,” “The Leftovers“), Matthew Weiner (“Mad Men“), Vince Gilligan (“Breaking Bad“)—it’s often forgotten how expansive the responsibilities that come with that position truly are. If you’ve ever wondered exactly how complicated the machinery is that drives your favorite show, or what the gig actually entails, Bennett’s book—a companion piece to the forthcoming documentary directed by Des Doyle—is a slightly jumbled, but still interesting peek behind the curtain.
With names like Joss Whedon, Jonathan Nolan, Terrence Winter, Damon Lindelof and more taking part, ‘Showrunners’ brings a broad spectrum of talent from shows both popular and niche, both successful and failed, to help define what that eleven letter word means. While it might seem like a vocation that’s a product of the current golden age of television, it has actually always been around. Ever since national broadcasting was only comprised of a few channels, there has always been someone in charge of the focus of a show. As television evolved, and particularly as the internet era kicked in, TV episodes and seasons became more scrutinized, and with it, the writers who put their names up on the small screen each week. So showrunning not only became a more recognizable and fully defined job, in many cases they also act as the public face of the show too, juggling their duties on the series with publicity. It’s balancing act that continues to shift each day.
Doing interviews and hitting conventions aside, the role of a showrunner is essentially that of solving a thousand different problems on a daily basis. They visit the writer’s room to ensure a story is headed in the right direction, they deal with casting, communicate with the studio to ensure everything is running on time and on budget, deal with notes, hit the editing bay to see how the episode shot last week is shaping up, work with actors and much, more more. If a director is king on the movie set, the showrunner is arguably his equal in the TV realm. They have final say creatively, at least to the point that the scope of the show can meet with the realities of the resources they are given to work with by the network. It’s management and creativity rolled into one, and as such, you have to have a certain personality and stamina (the hours are very long, and sometimes the reward is a canceled show) to stick it through.
Given the complex array of subjects and topics, Bennett does her best to keep them manageable, and the fact that this book is a companion, not a standalone, does forgive it some of its drawbacks. But not entirely. Divided into six chapters, which then subdivide into more subchapters, the attempt to keep ‘Showrunners’ organized is perhaps admirable, but doesn’t work. While Bennett does provide some context, the book is mostly transcriptions of interviews (some of which are repeated in different sections), and it does require some measure of industry knowledge at times to get into the more inside baseball elements. But mostly, the format doesn’t present the free flowing discussion between the interviewer and interviewee that likely occurred and that this topic requires. Particularly when ‘Showrunners’ delves into the differences between cable and network programming, having your show cancelled and the role of social media, one wishes that the excerpt structure had been reconsidered. Again, the book is meant to be supplementary to the documentary, it’s a just a shame that it can’t stand on its own as much as you might hope.
For those eagerly seeking knowledge on what it really means to run a show, ‘Showrunners’ is effective. One does come away with a much better understanding of the challenges they face, and a greater appreciation for what a monumental task it is to get anything on the the air. It’s interesting to hear Shawn Ryan lament the title of the short-lived “Terriers,” as he feels it unfortunately led to audiences staying away, uncertain of what is was. Jeff Melvoin speaks candidly that “Army Wives” probably wasn’t the best fit on Lifetime, and as a result, was likely ignored. And Whedon is in particularly good form, opening up about his own shortcomings and lessons he learned along the way. The wealth of experience in the book is worth it for anyone who is even remotely thinking of a career in the industry; indeed, this is very much at times like a manual for the job.
Less of a cover-to-cover read, and likely more useful as a resource delivered from those in the trenches, ‘Showrunners’ can be repetitive as often as it is insightful. But you’re not likely to find a more comprehensive look at what it means to guide a series on TV today, and there are more than enough fascinating anecdotes about life on the inside to make a worth a look. [B-]
The book “Showrunners: The Art Of Running Of A TV Show” is now in stores. The film opens in limited release on October 31st.