Des Doyle was the assistant cameraman on Reign of Fire. Now, somehow, he’s managed to surpass that achievement with Showrunners, a documentary that manages to make you feel sorry for the makers of Everybody Loves Raymond in ways you never knew possible.
Introduced by Andrew Collins, the film was prefaced at the Edinburgh International TV Festival with an intriguing note from another TV festival session stating that the UK was yet to adopt the Showrunner and Writers’ Room system because it was too expensive (leading to some post-film grumbles about presenters and actors’ wages). Den Of Geek’s thoughts were that Doctor Who isn’t quite there, adopting an informal version of this system without an official writers’ room (with its hierarchical structure that also acts as a career ladder in US TV), but with Steven Moffat’s two shows being the most prominent examples in British television.
This, then, is focused on American TV, with battle lines drawn (or rubbed out, in some cases) between Cable and Network channels, between artistic freedom and greater financial rewards, between serials and procedurals. The biggest laughs, unsurprisingly, come from professional comedy writers, but also the biggest moments of pathos.
What comes out from this is the sense of a dichotomy at the heart of creative enterprises: a show runner is often a writer who has ended up with what Michael Carnahan describes as ‘the grind’ of administrative production. You are the driving force and final say, but the flip side of this is that you oversee everything, a demand that draws on very separate skillsets (indeed, writers are described as being mainly unsuitable for the task of nuts and bolts production).
Doyle and his editor, John Murphy, have structured Showrunners very well, with Bones’ Hart Hanson followed across one twelve-hour day at the studio, finishing up ruminating that he’s ‘old’ (Hanson is 53) and so will be out of a job soon. Every single person interviewed (mainly, Collins noted, white men – almost like the TV festival itself in that respect) is sanguine at some point. It doesn’t look like Doyle had to look far for a pervading air of melancholy.
This approach is accrued through experience and realism. Hanson knows Bones’ reputation and his own, telling the story of how his Dad wept when he first saw his son’s name in the credits, but also that his reaction to Emily Deschanel reeling off a list of technical dialogue (that Hanson wrote) was ‘How does she come up with this stuff?’
Hanson is making the show for people like his Dad, who don’t even know there’s a writer, rather than the minority of people of a Den Of Geek persuasion – those who look behind the scenes, and follow devotedly. Ronald D. Moore – who still can’t quite believe he killed Captain Kirk – was present for a brief Question and Answer session (he’s in Scotland while working on Outlander, which I’m informed is basically the perfect series for fans of hot men called Jamie), and stated that the internet had enlarged this fraction of the audience, but it was still in a minority.
This moment was much like being placed in the Total Perspective Vortex, another healthy reminder that our voices should probably not be considered as important as we’d like them to be. It’s not like showrunners really have time to listen to us anyway. The job is all consuming. Joss Whedon still sounds tired when he speaks of ‘the year I ran three shows’ (Doyle managed to bump into Whedon in a car park after months of seeking him out for interview), after Michelle and Robert King (The Good Wife) express disbelief that anyone could manage more than one show at a time. In a bittersweet moment, due to the documentary being filmed over three years, the then-showrunners of Fringe say they don’t believe they could make the show by themselves.
Showrunners covers a lot of subjects quickly and efficiently. There’s plenty here to geek out on from a variety of perspectives, but what it does most subtly is show the way the role dominates peoples’ lives. The reactions to good and bad news, the broken voices as things go awry… the suggestion that people are taking their darkest thoughts and turning them into entertainment, and know this is weird. It’s all there to various degrees as well as the basics of the job relayed effectively, seguing comfortably from subject to subject.
It’s a very well put together piece, one that belies its Kickstarter enhanced budget. The interview subjects cover a wide range of shows, and it’s intriguing to see different outlooks and styles all reflect similar stories of self-doubt, teamwork and ambition. While it’s intriguing to speculate what a UK version of Showrunners would be like, this is still a fascinating glimpse into the realities of American television, with an accompanying book due out in September.
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