New showrunners walk the tightrope

Head writers must innovate while honoring past

When Al Jean began his second stint showrunning “The Simpsons” in the fall of 2001, he made it his first order of business to return the writers’ emphasis to the core family members — Homer, Marge, Bart and Lisa.

“A week later, I read a story in the New York Times that interviewed each of my predecessors, and every one of them had said, ‘My goal is to return the focus to the family,'” Jean recalls. “I have to say, I was a little embarrassed.”

Such is the lot of the showrunner brought onboard a long-running series — sometimes, even the goals can be derivative. Showrunners must strike a balance between satisfying the series’ longtime fans and conjuring enough new ideas to keep the show vital.

It’s a tough job, says David Zabel, who ran “ER” during its last four seasons.

“There’s always somebody who isn’t going to be happy,” Zabel observes. “Old fans complain, ‘This isn’t the show I used to love.’ And new fans get tired of the same old storytelling.”

Television history is littered with the wreckage of long-running shows that stayed on the air long after they exhausted their premises, resorting to gimmicks and guest stars, births and deaths, in an effort to extend their lives by a season or two. Less obvious, but equally dispiriting, are the shows that stick to a proven formula and play out the string.

“We ask ourselves every single year, ‘What can we do now? Is there anything left?'” says “24” showrunner Howard Gordon. “We were particularly concerned after season four that there was no season five. But then we came up with an idea — killing President Palmer — that shook things up and gave us our most successful season.”

But Gordon, an executive producer on “24” from its inception who took over as showrunner for the series’ fifth season, also notes that inspiration isn’t always on your side.

“The sixth season may have been the year when we were right that we had run out of ideas,” Gordon says. “That’s when we really discovered the limitations of the series and realized the show needed some reinvention. And I’d like to think we did that this year.”

Gordon and his writers had Kiefer Sutherland’s Jack Bauer face a Senate hearing on illegal torture that asked many of the questions that critics had leveled at the show.

Other series, like “CSI” and “Law and Order,” have introduced new characters and utilized guest stars to keep things fresh.

“Some multiple-episode guest star arcs, like the one we did with Forest Whitaker, help you take a left turn and go off into another story that crosses over into your world, but isn’t totally in your world,” “ER’s” Zabel says.

“I always told my writers: ‘We’ve been doing “Hamlet” for a long time, but there’s this other play, “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern,” which is about what the other characters in “Hamlet” are doing while Hamlet is giving his soliloquy. Let’s focus on those guys awhile.'”

The approaches differ, but the showrunners who have been successful caretakers mostly dismiss the notion of leaving a personal imprint or making radical changes simply for the sake of change.

“It’s a tricky position when you’re competing with 20 years of your own history,” says Jean, noting that “The Simpsons” is currently working on its 21st season, a record for a primetime scripted show.

“You work hard because you’re always worried about letting people down,” Jean adds. “I will guarantee one thing about ‘The Simpsons’ this year … it will be the best 21st season a show has ever had.”