This is, we are told, the new Golden Age of television, a time when creatives with vision can find a refuge of artistic freedom on the small screen. Whether it’s true or not that TV is better now than it’s ever been, one inarguable aspect of the current cultural climate is that showrunners have greater visibility than ever before. A showrunner, if you are unaware, is a producer on a TV show who is responsible for running the day-to-day operations behind the scenes, as well as its long-term creative decisions. They are often but not always the creators of the series and usually write for it, too. Showrunners: The Art of Running a TV Show is an inside look at what this job entails.
In the same way that directors of all stripes once rose to the forefront of discussions around film (and not just in critical but mainstream circles), showrunners now act as the faces of their respective series. Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse are forever associated with Lost. D.B. Weiss and David Benioff are looked to on all matters Game of Thrones. Vince Gilligan is Breaking Bad to many fans. This doc gathers together dozens of showrunners to talk about what it’s like. One could debate over whether it’s accurate to credit these particular people as the authors of their series, but debate isn’t where the movie’s interests lie. It’s about the nature of this specific job.
Far and away, the main impression that the showrunners leave is that their work is a tremendous burden. Towards the end, one states (not even jokingly) that the burnout rate is 100 percent. Planning the story arc of a television series, organizing the disparate creative elements that come together to make these series a reality, interfacing with network executives, and doing all of it on an intensely tight schedule (the turnaround for an average episode of television is about a week) creates a stress level that can only last for so long before it crushes a human under its weight. While some other interviewees in the doc (such as Showtime president David Nevins) are reluctant to give showrunners all the credit for making series work, no one denies the scads of effort they put in. It still seems ridiculous that Joss Whedon was running three TV shows at the same time in 2002.
It’s a pity that Showrunners undoes most of its potential via completely uninspired presentation. It’s like a host of bits from DVD bonus features from various shows stitched together. The most interesting it gets is when it engages with Ali LeRoi and Janet Tamaro to hear what it’s like to be, respectively, a black and a woman showrunner in a field dominated by white men. The doc appears to have been made by shooting interviews with whoever agreed to sit down with the filmmakers and then editing them all together with only the vaguest sense of structure and almost no sense of a real point to build towards.
I notice that this is a recurring problem with crowdfunded documentaries. These filmmakers are being empowered to produce student-level work by the whims of people who throw money at whatever strikes their fancies, thinking, “Oh man, that sounds like a subject I’d like to learn more about!” And if you want to learn the basic facts about how showrunning works and hear a scant few interesting anecdotes, then Showrunners should be a perfectly adequate film. For anyone looking for a shred of substance, it will disappoint.
This review was originally published on October 31, 2014.