In the era of superstar showrunners like Matthew Weiner and Shonda Rhimes, TV fans regularly credit the brilliance of a beloved series to the voice of a single auteur. Buffy was Joss Whedon’s inner demon slayer. Only Aaron Sorkin knows the secret percussion underlying that hallway banter. But in some cases, the individual creative vision is shared.
Variety spoke with two showrunning trios and one duo behind three of this year’s Emmy contenders to discuss mindmeld, throwing down in the writers room and achieving that magic alchemy.
For many, Lena Dunham is synonymous with her HBO comedy “Girls,” but back in 2010, the then-24-year-old filmmaker was considered too green to run her own show.
“The biggest thing I’d done was ‘Tiny Furniture,’ which was a movie with a crew of five. HBO was wise in bringing on supervisors,” Dunham says of the decision to pair her with seasoned scribe Jenni Konner and executive producer Judd Apatow as co-showrunners on what would become a cultural sensation.
“What they didn’t know was Jenni and I would fall in love and become partners in all things creative. I recognize now that that is not what happens to every young writer who is given a supervisor on a show.”
As the series prepares to enter its fifth season, the trio say their creative process has not changed, which according to Konner begins with she, Dunham and Apatow in a room “talking about our hopes and dreams for the next season.” Dunham notes that their first collaboration was an intensive punch-up on the pilot script. “We always try to go back to that safe creative space at the beginning of each season.”
The “Girls” writers room and post are based in LA, but the series films in New York. As the show’s star, Dunham obviously needs to be in the Big Apple. Konner serves as a second pair of eyes on set, and Apatow weighs in from LA.
“I get the chance to read everything without having to worry about all the production problems,” he explains. “Because I’m not on set, the world exists for me in my mind. I’m the one person who’s fresh. I can read it and see if it’s all tracking.”
If there’s ever a difference of opinion — and it’s been known to happen — one voice does carry more weight than the others. “We defer to Lena,” Konner says. “It’s her voice and her story we’re telling.”
“This situation is very similar to ‘Freaks and Geeks,’” Apatow adds. “Paul Feig had a real vision. We all tried to make a contribution based on our experiences, but the fun of it was trying to help Paul.”
Plus, he says, “Nobody wants that show to be about Judd’s vision of women in New York. I’m just a contributing voice and helper when needed.”
Dunham believes the reason their creative collaboration has been a success is that they’re all essentially on the same page.
“I always talk about that feeling when someone gives you a note and you have a chill in your bones because you know that you’re just not on the same page,” Dunham explains. “I’ve never had that feeling with either Jenni or Judd, where you hear a note and go, ‘No, that’s not what I’m trying to say at all.’
“Even if we don’t see something identically, our aesthetic is matched. I’m sure really great stuff can come out of more tension and difference, it just happens not to be our story.”
“It’s a cheerocracy,” she jokes, adding, “We all trust each other’s taste so much that I can’t imagine any of us wanting something in the show that the other two react so violently towards.”
“The fact that Lena is proud of the show is my accomplishment on the show,” Apatow says. “That she loves it and she feels like she’s gotten to say what she wants to say.”
Ultimately, Dunham says, the process of working with others has been more illuminating than she could have imagined: “I always thought that writing had to be a solitary activity. Learning that it didn’t and that it could have this very communal aspect has been so liberating.”
So what happens when three people with equal say in all departments disagree?
The trio behind the frosh Netflix thriller “Bloodline” — Glenn Kessler, Daniel Zelman and Todd A. Kessler (known among their colleagues as KZK for short) — share creative demands equally, as they did on their previous series, “Damages.”
Glenn Kessler likens their unified approach to “a conveyer belt with things passing by and everybody has equal access to it.
“That’s the same with talking to the actors, wardrobe, casting — each one of us has the ability to access any of these departments at any point and weigh in if we have a strong opinion about something.”
Todd Kessler says their inevitable debates result in better options. “We certainly have disagreements,” he says. “We see them as healthy. Disagreements just become points of conversation. It’s very possible that one point of view is expressed and then a different point of view is expressed and by the time we talk it out we take a third course of action.”
Glenn Kessler notes the process has become necessary for the kind of shows they make. “In this heavily serialized storytelling every element starts to inform the next element. We’ve learned over time that something that may be incredibly exciting right now has to be considered beyond that because there are many, many ramifications. Competing points of view (are) explored in a way that provides clarity moving forward.”
While the Kessler brothers have been creative sounding boards for each other since childhood, the trio have known each other for 25 years. Zelman says their collaboration works well in part because of those Kessler sibling ties — a high-functioning relationship that is the polar opposite of the kinds explored in “Bloodline.”
“The whole dynamic of brothers in general is very familiar to me,” says Zelman, himself the middle of three siblings. “There’s a certain kind of rough and tumble to getting in a room together and hashing out ideas. Brothers tend to, at least in my experience, say what they think to each other and have it out. There isn’t a lot of hesitancy or walking on eggshells. Which may be one of the reasons we ended up collaborating. It feels natural.”
And even if they’re not at odds to the same degree as any members of the Rayburn clan, all three admit that there’s a certain element of personal experience that came into play with the creation of “Bloodline.”
“For everything that we’ve worked on together and separately, the themes are coming from very personal places,” Todd Kessler says. “‘Damages’ was very much about our experiences entering the professional world. With ‘Bloodline’ what we’re really trying to do is delve into family dynamics and the roles people play within families.”
“Over the years we’ve all thought and talked a lot about family in general,” Zelman adds. “We share a lot of stories about our families. (‘Bloodline’) is the result of us exploring the inner workings of our family dynamics and having the impulse to dramatize that in some way.”
Like the “Girls” crew, Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg were also brought together specifically for work. The idea for FX’s Cold War thriller “The Americans” originated with Weisberg, a former CIA agent with just a few writing credits. Fields was a vet with previous experience executive producing for TNT.
“Breaking a season of television and producing it, that’s a tall order,” Weisberg says of the early days. “It’s a lot of hard work and you do it under enormous time pressure. It’s like the first year of any marriage. There’s so much strain, your true personality is going to come out. You’re going to find out fast if you’re compatible or not.”
In this case, the Hollywood matchmaking worked. The pair have since become inseparable.
“Season one Keri Russell just started referring to us as the Jays. That really stuck,” Fields says. “People learn pretty quickly that talking to one of us is like talking to both of us.”
“For me, the entity that is us together is greater than the sum of the parts,” Fields continues. “When we work together we intrinsically make more creative progress, more progress on production, and things are better, faster, stronger.”
Although being viewed as a single unit also has its disadvantages, as Fields notes: “One thing I’m hopeful we pull off next season is how we can better divide up who’s on call late night and who’s on call with email. We want to figure out how we can allow each other to turn off.
“People reach out to both of simultaneously, because they know we work so much together, and we’ll both spend seven minutes answering the same email and hit send at the same time and then we both want to kill ourselves.”
As dark as “The Americans” gets at times, the Jays have become known for their sense of humor. Even if not everyone is in on the joke. “We also laugh a lot more together than one person can on their own,” Weisberg says wryly. “If one person walked around laughing the way we do, they’d be institutionalized. We still look pretty bad, but we’re not actually in straight-jackets.”
In their case, a disagreement is a sign that something’s probably wrong with whatever element is up for discussion. “If we both feel equally strongly about (different ideas) then we just look for a different solution,” Weisberg says. “Not just as a way to compromise, but we figure if we both feel really strongly about something in the opposite direction there’s probably something wrong with it.”
“For me this is the only show I’ve ever run, but having been through this experience I can not imagine running a show by myself,” he says. “I would not want to do this job alone.”