Drama showrunners keep a tight grip

Grooming a successor is rare for top hourlongs

Bloody good shows | Drama showrunners keep a tight grip | Drama nominees
Emmy Central

Although “Breaking Bad” showrunner Vince Gilligan is eager to praise the creative staff around him when it comes to his Emmy-winning cable series, he believes he’s speaking for many other showrunners when he says the job “requires someone who’s a control freak.”

“It’s a group effort, and I try to be a benevolent dictator,” Gilligan says, “but I want things the way I want them.”

Gilligan’s efforts have once again brought “Breaking Bad” to the Emmy nominees circle for outstanding drama, a category with its fair share of series — such as “Lost” and “Mad Men” — whose lauded creativity stems directly from a hands-on sense of vision from the top.

Gilligan, in fact, says he can do little else but think about every aspect of the series he created.

“It occupies my thoughts constantly,” says Gilligan, who’s already in the writers’ room cooking up season four, which won’t begin shooting until next year.

But could he ever leave it, and pass the reins to someone else?

“Only if I feel I’ve run out of stories to tell,” says Gilligan. “But I’d like to stay till the end.”

That’s what “Lost” showrunners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse did, taking their show all the way through six seasons to a much-anticipated finale in May. But they might not have stayed with the show past season three if they hadn’t negotiated a fixed end date with ABC, an unheard-of arrangement for a popular broadcast series.

For Cuse and Lindelof, respecting the show’s storytelling demanded it.

“Had ABC not wanted to make a deal with us, then at that point it would have been hard to stay, with the prospect of the show being open-ended,” says Cuse. “Till we had an ending, we didn’t know how long we had to stretch our story out. Once they said yes, we could not have been more energized. It was nothing but full commitment.”

Says Lindelof: “We didn’t know how to continue otherwise. And it was so fulfilling to sit there watching the finale going, ‘Wow, we really did this whole thing.’ Now I don’t know if I’d be capable of stepping away from another show. I think we’re much more likely to go in the next time saying, ‘We’ll do 13 episodes a year for four years, and that’s the end.’?”

So far, there’s no set end date for “Mad Men,” about to air its fourth season, or “True Blood,” currently airing its third season but already mapping out season four. But their respective showrunners, Matthew Weiner and Alan Ball, are still committed to overseeing them. Is this the future for showrunners: Single-minded focus from start to finish?

TV historian Tim Brooks cites a creative power shift over the years, from strong networks — when it was just CBS, NBC and ABC, and a certain homogenization ruled — to strong showrunners, who are courted in a now highly competitive, cable-dominated arena to make shows they want.

“I don’t see the current fragmented model changing much in years to come,” says Brooks. “As long as you have many places where creatives can go, then creatives are going to stay in the driver’s seat.”

Is grooming a successor a dying art, then? Not if you look at Emmy nominee “Dexter,” which has seen two handoffs at the top. This fall’s fifth season is being steered by showrunner Chip Johannessen (“24,” “Moonlight”), taking over for Clyde Phillips. In this case, the usual reasons for a change at the helm don’t apply.

“This is the opposite of inheriting a train wreck,” says Johannessen. “This is something that’s working really well, so it’s not about fixing something, it’s about understanding what is special about the series.”

And yet, when presented with a chance to change things up, being a new set of eyes can be a plus.

“Given the serious cliffhanger I was left with from the end of (season) four, we’re going to continue the energy of the previous season in a really big way,” says Johannessen. “That was an opportunity to have this season feel new and distinctive. But it’s still very much honoring what was there before.”

One can’t imagine a “Mad Men” without Weiner, though. If David Chase could end “The Sopranos” when he saw fit, should AMC even try to keep a show like “Mad Men” on when Weiner’s ready to stop?

“The creative force behind a show is the hardest thing to replace,” notes Brooks. “Especially if they’re doing it right.”