“Showrunners: The Art of Running a TV Show” should probably be required viewing in film/TV studies classes, but as a mass-consumption documentary, it doesn’t quite pass the test. Much of that has to do with a lack of focus, inasmuch as it offers a snapshot of the exalted status of TV producers at an interesting time, but without a clear point of view or direction. The producers, obviously, are good storytellers, and there is something to be said — touched on here — about their shifting roles as TV has embraced an auteur quality. Still, the resulting doc finally feels like less than the sum of its anecdotes.
Irish filmmaker Des Doyle received funding from both the Irish Film Board and Kickstarter to assemble the project, which might explain a certain wide-eyed, rudimentary approach to the topic, from defining the term “showrunner” and the rungs of the writer-producer ladder to providing fly-on-the-wall access to a writers room (“Bones”) and a pilot being made (“House of Lies”).
Still, Doyle casts his net far and perhaps too wide, speaking to a few dozen showrunners as well as assorted executives and actors.
The film comes closest to conveying its reason for being during the final third, with a segment subtitled “Rise of the Showrunner,” which follows various scribes to Comic-Con, and documents how social media, among other things, has helped bridge the gap between series creators and the public. Yet if that’s the biggest difference between now and, say, Norman Lear’s day, then consider the topic raised, but not tackled with much depth — much like the docu’s cursory handling of the changes in the pilot and writing processes.
What’s left, then, is a collection of amusing observations and funny lines, as well as talk about the high burnout rate among showrunners because of the “utterly consuming” nature, as Joss Whedon puts it, of doing the job.
“It’s draining. It’s awful. I miss it terribly,” he says, a sentiment echoed by his peers, with “The Big Bang Theory’s” Bill Prady likening the gripes to having a bad back from moving gold bullion, and “Person of Interest’s” Jonathan Nolan comparing churning out a TV show to staging a controlled plane crash every week.
Certainly, the film brings some perspective to the task of making television — at least, for those generally unfamiliar with it — while offering insight into such dynamics as the relationship between writers and actors (Anthony LaPaglia recalls marching over to “Without a Trace” producer Hank Steinberg with a script and proclaiming, “This is shit.”), or the frustration of discovering, as “The Shield’s” Shawn Ryan notes, “The hard thing about Hollywood is that good things can fail too.”
The most fertile thread that “Showrunners” introduces but doesn’t unspool might be Damon Lindelof’s discussion of how he and Carlton Cuse became semi-public figures thanks to “Lost” (a seminal moment, perhaps, in the showrunner evolution), as well as the toll his association with the show exacted on him.
Available on iTunes and in select theaters, the mere devotion of a documentary to this topic further validates TV’s recognition as a medium at or near its creative peak, while acknowledging the financial and logistical considerations that remain a pragmatic part of producers’ limitations.
Yet for the movie to deliver more than a mere medley of good soundbites, it would have had to embrace one of the things most of the showrunners confess to dreading — namely, a few well-considered notes.