The men and women who control television series behind the scenes are explored in the documentary Showrunners: The Art of Running a TV Show. Every television series is run by the chief writer and producer, known as the showrunner. Considered to be one of the complex roles in the entertainment industry, showrunners work hard to control the direction of their series, while also having to cope with network interference and an industry dependent on ratings. Multiple showrunners, including J.J. Abrams (Alias), Damon Lindelof (LOST), Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), and Terence Winter (Boardwalk Empire) talk about their experiences as showrunners, which is now more than just an anonymous writer in the background.
It can be generally understood that the television industry is going through a bit of a renaissance right now. Television series, particularly on cable, have become much more cinematic and have made the role of showrunners all the more important. Showrunners are at the top of the hierarchy of television writers, with many of them, including J.J. Abrams and Joss Whedon, moving on to become big names within the industry.
Structurally, Showrunners: The Art of Running a TV Show consists of about 75% talking head interviews, featuring about two dozen showrunners. The other quarter of the film follows some of the showrunners, including Hart Hanson (Bones) and Matthew Carnahan (House of Lies), as they go about their duties on set. With such a heavy emphasis on interviews, Showrunners does come off as a bit monotonous at times. However, since many of these interviews are with some pretty well-known names, it is quite interesting hearing what they have to say.
Probably the most interesting interviewee in Showrunners is Damon Lindelof, who co-created LOST with J.J. Abrams and Jeffrey Lieber and acted as co-showrunner with Carlton Cuse. LOST arguably was the point when showrunners entered the spotlight, since Lindelof and Cuse were promoted as the men who “had the answers.” To this day, Damon Lindelof is criticized for the direction (or lack thereof) LOST went in, which now affects everything that Lindelof is involved with, particularly the film Prometheus. It is definitely interesting hearing Lindelof talk about his experience with the show and how he knew that the LOST finale was screwed when people thought that the finale of The Sopranos was a cop out.
Showrunners is the first directorial credit for Irish-born filmmaker Des Dolye, who previously worked as a camera assistant. This is somewhat obvious while watching the film, since there were a flew weird editing decisions. Probably the most jarring involves an interview with Rizzoli & Isles showrunner Janet Tamaro, where she seems to flub her statement, is asked an unintelligible question off camera, and proceeds to answer it. This is frustrating, since it appears from the answer that this an important question, yet I did not hear what it was. Another editing choice that sort of rubbed me the wrong way was when a bunch of people were introducing themselves in a boardroom and the camera would just fast-forward to the next person, instead of just doing a cut.
For a documentary that was likely made on a very low budget, the film doesn’t really feature any clips of the television series’ mentioned, often relying solely on photos. This causes the single show clip that plays in the film, for the show Spartacus, to somewhat stand out like a sore thumb. However, ultimately the little nitpicks I have don’t really amount to much, since it is still quite interesting hearing these guys talk about the challenges of showrunning, which often includes the outrageous script notes given by network executives.
The television industry is booming, while also in flux. Mentioned only in passing in the documentary, many new television series’ are moving away from the network model and are now debuting on digital platforms, such as Netflix. Altogether, despite a somewhat monotonous structure and few first-time director mistakes, Showrunners: The Art of Running a TV Show is still a pretty interesting look at the world behind the scenes of TV.★ ★ ★ ★ | LIKED IT
Showrunners: The Art of Running a TV Show screens this afternoon at 3:30pm at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema, followed by a Skype Q&A with director Des Doyle. The film is also available to rent or purchase off of iTunes and there is also a tie-in book available.