On Showrunners

June 15, 2011 10:29:59 Posted at June 15, 2011 10:29:59
Lainey Posted by Lainey

Written by Duana

(The article below came out of a liveblog. Some people wanted to know about showrunners, and what they do.)

I'm passing the time before a flight just ruminating on Friday Night Lights. As I often do. I can make a lot of life allegories come out of that show as well as from Mad Men, Veronica Mars, In Treatment - all the usual suspects I often write about. I think about what they would do if they were here. Tami Taylor would be irritated by how loud the airport tv is, I'll tell you that much.

When I was a kid, I think people thought my interest in fictional characters was a sign of, you know, a problem. Like not enough connecting to real life. My parents tolerated my obsessions but still wondered why I got emotional over what were essentially just a bunch of made up stories.

I'm not going to lie to you, it feels good to have proved it's an actual career choice.

Lots of people do this. Make up stories for a living. When I was a little bit younger I couldn't think of anyone who wouldn't want to do this. Why would you choose any other career path?

I'm wiser now.

The pilot pickups are past, 'staffing season' is finishing up, and showrunners, who were elated that their shows were picked up or that they got the awesome top job, now have to face the reality of actually running a show.

We talked recently on the liveblog about 'name' showrunners - what it means to be one, whether they deserve their inflated cheques. If you wonder what it is that Matthew Weiner or Joss Whedon or Shonda Rhimes do in a day, it's merely everything.

Officially, the showrunner is the head writer. Their first job is to hire the writing team, manage the team's day-to-day assignments, make sure that the tone of the stories and later, the scripts that come in, are in line with the showrunner's plan for the show. Since a staff team can be as big as the high teens, and scripts are often as many as 60 pages, this is a big job. Especially since some writers lose track of what they're supposed to be doing, or the story "falls out" (everyone realizes it doesn't work anymore) or the cliffhanger of the season comes too early or too late.

But wait - once you get a script out the door and breathe a sigh of relief...uh oh. Suddenly your second-lead actress has a scheduling conflict. A movie she reeeeally wants to do. Production wants to know what you want to do. Do you make your hero have all her scenes with a third-lead character instead and have all the fans think it's weird? Do you switch that plot to later and put pressure on another script (and writer) to be ready earlier? Do you simply force the actress to show up? You can, but you know she's kind of poisonous on the set, and can make life miserable for everyone if she's miserable. What do you mean, fire her? Everyone out there in TV land loves her!

Okay, so after you put out that fire, there will be several others. There's not enough money for that big crowd shot you want. Well, there is, but it'll have to be shot with a tiny camera that doesn't show how huge the crowd is. Yeah, you can have the big, good camera - but then you can't have the crowd itself. That many extras is expensive. What do you choose?

Oh, and did I mention network notes? The network (and the studio, if you're in that system) has someone devoted to reading all the scripts and giving their feedback, and noting whether there's anything you should change. Which there always, always is. If you don't agree with it? You better talk them through why not. If you don't do that to their satisfaction? You're running the risk of being labelled 'a problem'.

And two editors are fighting because one of them thinks the other is massacring the best scene in the episode (which he wishes he were lead cutter on anyway) and your writers haven't seen you since this morning and are you ever going to weigh in on the casting choices for that guest-starring role? Don't let anyone hear you say "who cares, it's a two-line part"; that actor cares, and so does the casting director, and you need to keep them happy.

Okay, done everything you need to do? Your writers have only been waiting to see you for seven hours. Go in there. Listen to them explain why these two unlikely characters should hook up. You don't agree - so you have to spend 90 minutes saying that in a way that won't make them think you hate everything they worked hard on all day. After all, they're here with you, instead of home with their families.

Sh*t. Your family. You have one? If it consists of your mom and dad, they think you are working too hard and, let's face it, like the bad episodes as much as the good ones. No matter how proud they are, they still wonder if you couldn't find a show that has easier hours? If your family involves someone you love or children or both, they have given up waiting for you to come home and, sorry to tell you, have a whole routine for when you're not around that they've grown to enjoy. On a rare evening when you are home, the dog will look irritated that you've taken its spot on the couch.

And then you get the call at midnight that the actor who's supposed to be in makeup in six hours has food poisoning (or 'food poisoning', your call) and won't be able to make it to set tomorrow. But he's in every scene. And every hour that the crew is delayed is hundreds of thousands of dollars...

...but you get to make up stories. Every day.

Yes, of course the job I described is only as busy as lots of tough, person-on-top jobs. The difference, I think, is that because it's "entertainment", it's supposed to feel easy. It's not supposed to be a lot of laborious effort. After all, isn't it just making stuff up all day?

I wrote all of the above and I still got excited. I think it's the best job in the world. It's just not easy, is all. But doesn't it sound like fun?

(The above situations are all fictional. But for a fun game, fill in the blanks of your favourite show! See? Even more stressful!)

From Lainey: During the aforementioned liveblog that was the genesis of this article, we wondered which of the bigname showrunners attract you to shows so much that you’ll watch, without any other piece of information like cast and plot, whatever, just because you’re a big fan. Joss Whedon? Jason Katims? Shonda Rimes? David Simon? Alan Ball? Let us know!

Attached – Jason Katims, showrunner, Friday Night Lights and Parenthood. Click here for an old but good article on him and FNL.

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