Showrunner overdrive

Why they need to turn every major plot point

If cinema is a director’s medium and the stage an actor’s true home, then episodic television is very often the domain of the writer-producer, especially the showrunner, or, as the standard credit extols, the “creator.”

With a series creator (or, occasionally, creators) — the primary shaper(s) of a show’s voice, tone, look, setting, plot and characters, the credit truly earns its wink at the biblical, no more so than when a creator also pens a specific episode.

“If you don’t have the story, the script, the characters, then it doesn’t matter how pretty a shot is or how much nice music you shove in there or how beautiful the actors are, they’ve got nothing to say and no one cares,” explains Amy Sherman-Palladino, who just left her post on “Gilmore Girls” after six seasons as the creator and exec producer. She says she feels especially responsible for “emotional turning-point episodes” — like last November’s “The Prodigal Daughter Returns,” when mother Lorelai and daughter Rory finally reconciled after a multiepisode fight, or “Partings,” the season finale, when Lorelai gives her fiance Luke an ultimatum about their long-postponed wedding. “I’ve got these girls’ psyches freakishly ingrained in my head, and I really think that (these kinds of episodes are) something that I should jump into.”

Damon Lindelof, co-creator of ABC’s “Lost” who shares showrunning duties (and, often, writing credits) with executive producer Carlton Cuse, estimates he’s written or co-written about a third of the show’s second season, most often episodes that deal with the series’ central characters of Jack, the reasoned doctor, and Locke, the impassioned hunter-philosopher.

“The characters of Jack and Locke, for me, have always been the center of the thematic fate vs. reason aspect of ‘Lost,'” he says, “which is really, really compelling to me as a writer. When I know that there is a Jack or a Locke flashback coming up, I tend to cry dibs sooner rather than later.”

It’s no coincidence that those episodes, like the season premiere “Man of Science, Man of Faith” or the penultimate episode simply titled “?” — a reference to a mysterious wall-sized map — also usually involve “downloading” the show’s labyrinthine mythology, which Lindelof says “has to be done fairly deftly.”

Creators are often pulled into writing a full episode if it is “going to start off a new arc or it’s going to turn the major situation in some way,” says Greg Daniels, who developed the cult BBC comedy “The Office” for American television and exec produces the show for NBC.

For example, an unrequited office romance that had developed since the show first premiered hit a major snag in the February episode “Booze Cruise,” but that wasn’t the only reason Daniels decided to write it. “It was a particularly important episode because it was our first one on Thursday,” he says, referencing NBC’s relaunch of its once-dominant block of Thursday night comedies.

A similar challenge faced Shonda Rhimes, the creator of ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy.” By the time she sat down to write “It’s the End of the World” — a nail-biter that guest-starred Christina Ricci and featured an unexploded bomb embedded in a patient’s body — she knew ABC would be giving the episode the Holy Grail of timeslots, right after the Super Bowl.

As a result, she decided to turn the story into a two-parter and wrote a second hour that aired the following week. Part of the attraction, she says, of writing scripts like these are that they “are the episodes where we just try to do something a little bit different with the structure,” and keeping those episodes within the overall tone of the show is a welcome challenge.

Sometimes it’s just easier for a series’ creator and showrunner to write an episode rather than assign it to the writing staff.

“If somebody else writes it,” says Sherman-Palladino, “then you’ve got to give them notes and they do another draft and then you give them more notes and then you have to take a pass at it anyhow. So sometimes it’s like, ‘Ahhhh, just give it to me.’ ”

Still, the myriad responsibilities a showrunner-creator carries on her or his shoulders often means some shrewd multitasking. Delegation is key.

“When the job first started for me, I was like, ‘I don’t know how anybody does this,'” says Lindelof. “‘How do you produce 24 hours of a show in essentially a 10-and-a-half month period?’ The answer is you surround yourself with the people you enjoy working with and then let them do the majority of the heavy lifting. It’s a very hive-mind approach.”

Whichever way you cut it, drafting an episode often means long nights and little sleep for the top gun.

“Well, sweetheart, you know, I think that when I’m dead, I’ll have plenty of time to sleep,” says Sherman-Palladino. “Really, what else do you do when you’re dead? You do nothing. You just lay there. So I’m thinking I’m saving up all the sleep for then.”

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