Review – Showrunners: The Art of Running a TV Show

Showrunners © Black Sheep Productions
Showrunners © Black Sheep Productions

Showrunners: The Art of Running a TV Show is a Kickstarter-funded documentary film and book that examines the role of the showrunner. Not all that long ago, nobody had ever heard of the term “showrunner” and only die hard fans knew the names of anybody involved in creating their favorite TV shows beyond the main cast. In the last decade or so, all that has changed. Showrunners like Joss Whedon, Bill Prady, and Damon Lindelof are now household names each with their own devoted fanbase who follow their careers between shows and across media.

Showrunners the Movie is a 90-minute exploration of just what it is a showrunner does, how and why they do it, the challenges they face, and more. In creating it, the producers interviewed dozens of showrunners including Jane Espenson (Caprica), Hart Hanson (Bones), Janet Tamaro (Rizzoli & Isles), and Joss Whedon (Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Firefly, Angel, Dollhouse) and quizzed them about every aspect of their work. What makes a good showrunner? What does your work day look like? What are the best (and worst) parts of the job? What results is a broad look at TV production in the teenage years of the new millennium. It’s an industry in flux as new distribution and funding mechanisms such as Netflix, Amazon Originals, webseries, and Kickstarter-funded productions such as Veronica Mars leave traditional networks scrambling to assert their place. That sense of mild confusion is palpable throughout both the film and the book.

Joss Whedon in Showrunners © Black Sheep Productions
Joss Whedon in Showrunners © Black Sheep Productions

Although the film is interesting in that it covers a lot of ground and thus allows a wide variety of thoughts, opinions, and stories to be voiced, it suffers in that that same breadth never allows for much depth to occur. The film asks a question then jumps from showrunner to showrunner seeking answers. As fascinating as it is to see that variety (every showrunner takes a different approach–after all, the production of a serialized show on HBO has to differ greatly to that of a mainstream network procedural), I would have loved to see some focus. Show me a day in a showrunner’s life in detail. Let me see the minutiae of their workday, the ups and the downs, the tough decisions and the great laughs. Of course that’s a difficult thing to capture on film. As the showrunners being interviewed explain themselves, no two days are the same and different problems are being thrown up every day, but at least is would have gone some way to prevent the slightly superficial feel that the film suffers from.

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Showrunners Book Cover © Titan
Showrunners Book Cover © Titan

The book provides more of the same, broadly following the same path the documentary did but without the constraints of time. This allows it to include the full answers given by each showrunner to the many questions they were asked. If you read the book soon after watching the documentary (as I did) you will constantly find lines that you remember hearing spoken out loud. Chapters include “The Script is King” which looks at staffing a writers’ room, an explanation of pilot season, and a look at the basic TV act structure, “The Politics of Making Television,” and “Connecting to the Matrix,” which discusses the internet and its impact on showrunning. Between these chapters are “In Depth” features which look at subjects like “Women & Minority Showrunners” and “How Lost Changed Showrunning,” as well as longer, focused segments on specific points such as showrunner “burnout.” One of the most interesting sections is a piece from Joss Whedon on how he considers himself a “company man” and his surprise at finding himself labelled a “rebel.”

The accompanying book has many of the same problems as the documentary. The question/answer format seen on screen is translated onto the page, so you read the question, then a series of answers from each showrunner. There is no flow, just a series of loosely connected anecdotes, opinions, and stories which quickly serve to make the book feel monotonous even though the content is actually very interesting and insightful. I even spotted chunks of answers/dialogue being re-used in multiple chapters on more than one occasion. With better formatting Showrunners would have been a joy to read, as it is the book suffers from creating the sensation of reading dictated notes. However, if you’re the kind of person who has a real interest in TV production, Showrunners is a window into a world most of us will never experience.

GeekMom received this book for review purposes.

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