Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Showrunner

Who doesn't love TV?

TV is a fantastic medium for telling a story. It's also a huge time/creativity killer where hours of one's life disappear faster than you can say "Netflix binge weekend" but that's a topic for another blog.

I think TV is a perfect avenue for filmmakers looking to flex their long-form storytelling abilities and that in many ways, scripted TV keeps getting better (if you know where to find it). But who is responsible for making those hours spent staring at a screen worth it? The showrunner. Here's some recent examples of why their guiding hand is the key to a show's success.

One of the best comedies on the air is NBC’s Community, which just wrapped its 5th season last Thursday. The show is frequently on the cancellation bubble, never quite sure from year to year if it will be returning, but has nonetheless maintained a fervent fan base which is what keeps it alive. The show’s creator, Dan Harmon, was sent packing after the show’s 3rd season, leaving the future and quality of the series in jeopardy. Once it was official that it would return for a 4th season, hardcore fans swore off the Harmon-less season, claiming that Community minus Harmon isn’t Community and as far as they’re concerned, the show ended with season 3. After a lackluster 4th season, the unimaginable happened. It was announced that the show would return for a 5th season and Harmon would be back at the helm!

Community would be restored to its former glory because of one man’s involvement! And that leads me to my point: where movies are a director’s medium, TV is where the showrunner is the visionary. So once he/she leaves, is it really the same show?

Take Breaking Bad vs. Dexter. Breaking Bad (arguably the best show of the 21st century) was Vince Gilligan’s story to tell from start to finish. By the end, you could be satisfied with the knowledge that no matter how you may have liked to witness the saga of Walter White unfurl, at least this was the definitive ending by the creator who brought him into this world. A successful show can’t be an easy thing to walk away from but Gilligan knew when to call it quits and for that I commend him.

Dexter didn’t have the luxury of a dedicated showrunner to see it through from start to finish and in its 8 seasons changed hands three times. The original showrunner, Clyde Phillips, exited the show after season 4 (where many, including myself, like to pretend it ended) and went out on a high note. Once it did reach its conclusion, he chimed in with how he would have ended the show just in case fans weren’t on board with the ending they did receive (they weren’t). The series eventually went past its expiration date because it was mishandled, something I explored further in a previous blog.

This is the cinematic equivalent of Wes Anderson dropping out of his own movie mid-production, and the studio not wanting to eat the cost so they bring in hired gun Brett Ratner to finish the job. An extreme example, but it gets the point across.

You find this in music occasionally when band members come and go but still record under the same name because it has brand recognition. The packaging may fool some, but its contents are not the genuine article. Like when Velvet Underground put out its final album minus all the founding members. Who wants to listen to a VU record without Lou Reed? The answer was nobody. At this rate, Guns n’ Roses might as well quit pretending and just be billed as “Axl Relives His Glory Days, a GnR Tribute”. C’mon, you think Jack White would ever tour as The White Stripes without Meg?

The Wire had David Simon. The Sopranos had David Chase. The Walking Dead has…

And that leads me to this week’s news, in which current Walking Dead showrunner (third and counting) Scott M. Gimple stated that he envisions The Walking Dead could last 10 years or longer. Either this guy is hoping for a self-fulfilling prophecy so he can have more job security than the previous men who filled his role, or he’s deluded himself into thinking he’ll be around for the show’s final act (more on that later). 4 seasons in and already this show is past its prime, but ok, let’s entertain this idea.

In Gimple’s words, “it's possible that the cast — considering the amount of deaths on this cast and everything else — after 10, 12 years, it could shift into a whole new cast.”

#WalkingDeadSeason10 cast?
Well if that’s the case, why not just produce a Walking Dead spinoff with a fresh set of characters. Oh yeah, that’s exactly what they’re doing. With Breaking Bad done and Mad Men on its way out, AMC is scrambling for another Walking Dead size hit. So what’s the answer? Clearly two Walking Dead shows are better than one, right?

I know I’m coming off as a bit of a hater right now, but that’s not my intention. I truly want the show to succeed! Who would have thought we’d have a zombie series on TV, let alone two a few years ago? That in itself is progress. But what I don’t want to see happen is the flagship series suffer when the focus becomes split. Wouldn’t fans prefer one kickass zombie show as opposed to two mediocre ones? But Walking Dead is now AMC’s sacred cash cow, bigger than any one showrunner, and they will drag it on for as long as viewers are tuning in. After all, Walking Dead mastermind Robert Kirkman is still involved, so that’s something, right?

His concept for the comic book series was to offer what zombie movies could not deliver. To follow a group of survivors throughout the zombie apocalypse and to never have to wonder what happens to them after the credits roll, but for the story to continue as long as need be. Comics are the perfect medium to achieve that goal. There’s no major studio notes, budget constraints, or scheduling conflicts with actors to worry about. It’s just Kirkman and the artist.

But comics play by a different set of rules.

Creators come and go on longstanding titles. It’s become standard industry practice to bring in a new creative team to shake things up, hopefully bringing in new readers to kick off a fresh arc. But it wouldn’t be The Walking Dead without Kirkman, would it? If he ever decides to move on, will the comic continue on without him penning it? I mean what zombie loving comic scribe wouldn’t want to play in Kirkman’s sandbox? “Before The Walking Dead,” anyone? Nah…

Yes, the comic series that inspired the hit show has run far longer than your average creator owned series (over 100 issues and going strong), so there’s plenty of source material to pull from, but all good things must come to an end. Vince Gilligan knew this and that’s why Breaking Bad wasn’t handed off to a new showrunner to finish his story for him.

I’ll probably still tune in to The Walking Dead when it returns, if for no other reason than to stay apart of the conversation, but at this point, I don’t know if I’ll be celebrating 10 years on the air once it reaches that point. Now that AMC is in the driver’s seat, and not the interchangeable showrunner, it appears that the Dexter curse has taken hold. Perhaps in a decade or so from now when Walking Dead ends its run, original showrunner Frank Darabont will give us his version of "how it should have ended."

I refuse to die... as long as I stay lucrative!
So that’s my rant for this week. Sorry Walking Dead, I don’t mean to pick on you. I’m just a firm believer that in order for a show to be a creative success, a solid showrunner is crucial.

I turn it over to you, dear reader: who are some of your favorite showrunners and are there any exceptions where a show went on to higher heights due to a new showrunner taking over? Let me know in the comments!

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