One of the greatest entertainment-related trends in the Internet age has been the emergence of unprecedented recognition and even fandom surrounding writers and creators. These previously unsung hard-working script scribes were left to the background while actors and directors took all the credit for our favorite shows and movies. But that time is over. Fans now know that a lot of what they love about their favorite stories can be attributed to the individuals’ brains that think up each story beat, emotional moment, line of dialogue, and world detail. In the realm of TV, the head writer/creator is known as the showrunner, and these are the people that Des Doyle explores in his first documentary effort, Showrunners: A Documentary Film. Through interviews and day-in-the-life-of style sequences featuring some of today’s preeminent showrunners (including J.J. Abrams, Joss Whedon, Ronald D. Moore, Damon Lindelof, Janet Tamaro, Kurt Sutter, Steven S. DeKnight and many more), Doyle reveals the scope, stresses, and joys of one of The Industry’s most mysterious jobs.
The film unfolds logically. Doyle first introduces the concept of the showrunner and the structure of a TV writer’s office. Then we get more into day-to-day duties followed by a look at the relationship between showrunners and network executives. Next Doyle discusses the showrunners’ “branding” of themselves and their rise to celebrity in the last decade and a half. After delving into an expose on minorities (women & African Americans) in the profession, the film concludes with a look at how it feels to see a show you’ve put every bit of your heart and soul into either fail miserably or go on to fabulous success. As a TV/Movie nerd who has also worked on a network TV show, much of the introduction and general detailing of the job tasks was not new to me. For someone in the dark about television production, I am sure this aspect of the film would be much more intriguing. I was hoping that it would get a little more detailed than what I already know. I did find the network executive-to-showrunner relationship interesting, as it is clearly a love/hate dynamic. Network execs need showrunner to….run the show…and showrunners need network execs to remind them what is going to be successful for the largest percent of the audience – the casual viewers. If Kurt Sutter were able to make the Sons of Anarchy that is most true to him, it would be far too disturbing and graphic to appeal to a mass audience.
Most fascinating about the film, as is usually the case for documentary film, are the stories and personalities of each of the different showrunners – the how’s and why’s of an individual’s path. At the end of the day, no two showrunners are alike. Some are more focused on the writing, some are highly involved in directing, some are highly involved in the design, some are on set everyday, some never leave the office…it really seems that a showrunner really gets to decide what aspect of production is most important to them. As long as they deliver their episodes on time and on budget, then it’s all good (well, unless no one is watching the show, then it’s all bad). Ronald D Moore worked his way up through the writers’ room beginning with a Star Trek: Next Generation spec script. Janet Tamaro was a news reporter who could no longer handle the day-to-day tragedies she saw – so she wrote a show about them instead. Steven S. DeKnight started as an actor and stand-up comedian. The only thing really that all these people have in common is that they are good writers and that they have the ambition to commit themselves to the life-consuming job of overseeing 22 hour-long TV movies a year (or some like Joss Whedon have multiple projects happening at once!).
I definitely enjoyed learning about these real-life personalities behind the shows. While I wish there was a little more detail and maybe slightly more input from those around the showrunners, I left with more of an appreciation for those who can commit themselves so fully to all of the responsibilities of such enormous projects. Quite frankly, it’s a miracle to me that any movie or TV show even ever gets completed in the first place. But also, these people are crazy and have superhuman amounts of energy and the ability to sacrifice other aspects of their lives to give us something amusing for when all we want is to sit on the couch and eat peanut butter filled pretzels.