They were once just a name on the credits roll, but showrunners have gained celebrity status over the past decade and are now considered the major creative force behind every television drama.
This DQ show examines the showrunner’s rise to power and why it can be one of the most satisfying jobs in Hollywood.
In the first of a two-part programme, DQ hears from leading showrunners about the challenges of this all-consuming position.
Contributors include Shawn Ryan (The Shield), Terence Winter (Boardwalk Empire), Ilene Chaiken (Empire), Glen Mazzara (The Walking Dead), Clyde Phillips (Dexter), Eric Newman (Narcos), Terri Miller and Andrew Marlowe (Castle), Maggie Friedman and Corinne Brinkerhoff (No Tomorrow), Jon Bokenkamp (The Blacklist), Les Bohem (Shut Eye), Michelle Ashford (Masters of Sex), Graham Yost (Sneaky Pete), Howard Gordon (Homeland), Matt Miller (Lethal Weapon), Peter Lenkov (MacGyver), Oliver Goldstick (The Collection) and Carol Flint (Designated Survivor).
Part two will be available from Wednesday March 29.
As US drama MacGyver prepares for its UK debut, airing on Sky1 on February 8, the showrunner and executive producer of the CBS drama – who also takes charge of network sibling Hawaii Five-0 – finds room for a pair of Hawaii-set series and an ‘honest, raw portrayal of teenage life’ in his list.
This was my jam growing up. It had everything a teenage boy could want – a strong hero, action, laughs, girls in bikinis and a super-cool car. It was fluff, popcorn entertainment, but it’s also the reason I wanted to be a TV writer. Well, it was one episode in particular – an early episode in season three entitled: Did You See the Sun Rise?. It was a mythology episode, chock full of backstory on my beloved characters – Thomas, Rick and TC.
The episode made sense of their bond, their dedication to one another and the reason these three mainlanders all ended up in Hawaii together. At the end of that particular episode, Magnum did something completely unexpected, something I had never seen a hero do before – he shot his nemesis in cold blood. Justified or not, the moment blew my mind. And I knew then and there I wanted to do just that – tell stories that would surprise people, and maybe even blow their minds.
I’m certain this gem is on everyone’s shortlist – and I came to it a little later than most. In fact, it was the main topic of conversation in the CSI: NY writers’ room at the time (nearly a decade ago already – wow) and I felt left out (for good reason).
A friend, on her third viewing by then, lent me season one and I ended up watching it all in one weekend. By the following weekend, I had seen every episode. Sixty hours! And I still managed to find time to go to work. Not sure how I did it, but I did. I had to, I was addicted. In less than seven days I was a Wire junkie, hungry for more, looking for anything related to the series, any behind-the-scenes insights, anything that would somehow extend the rush.
It was craftsmanship at its best. It didn’t play by conventional TV rules. Every season was a new story. New characters. A new theme. I hadn’t seen this done before and I believe it’s influenced cable for the better. The Wire was also my introduction to binge-watching, and quite honestly everything else has paled in comparison since.
James at 16 (originally James at 15)
Sure, it only lasted one season. But at the time it aired, I was a few years younger than its lead (Lance Kerwin) and I was very eager to grow up as fast as I could. And this show was a very honest, very raw portrayal of teenage life.
James was my ‘older brother.’ He gave me a glimpse of what the upcoming years would be like. My parents had no interest in this show, which made it all the more compelling. It was like I had this secret, this friend who I’d meet once a week to instill life lessons. From navigating issues with his parents to his first sexual experience, I was along for the ride, the silent wingman soaking it all up. Despite being nominated for a bunch of awards, by the time James turned 17 the show was gone.
Over the years TV has moved me in many ways, from influencing my storytelling to helping shepherd me through tough times. It’s been the great escape many a night. The Beachcombers has been one of those welcome distractions. This north-of-the-border production featuring Canada’s multicultural heritage is one of the longest-running shows in CBC history.
Was it good? Honestly, I don’t remember. Almost 400 episodes and I can’t for the life of me recite a plot point. But what I do remember is how I felt watching it. It made me giddy. Re-runs helped put me to bed at night with a great big smile on my face. And no matter how tough the day was, Relic (Robert Clothier)’s crazy antics would wash it all away.
The only show I have to watch if I happen to catch a re-run on TV. It’s comedy-drama at its best. Its poignant storytelling and social commentary made war fun, and God knows there’s nothing to laugh at there.
Hawaii Five-0 (1968-1980)
Another show set in Hawaii. The OG series. The one that introduced Hawaii to the world. This Five-0 was my father’s favourite show. I have fond memories of sitting by his knee while he ate his dessert, usually a bowl of fruit, and got lost in the crime of the week.
But it was way more than a well-crafted police procedural with a cast of strong characters led by Jack Lord – this was my father’s weekly escape from our brutal Montreal winters. This was a destination on his bucket list. And this experience is a constant reminder of the power of a location; how a setting can be just as important as anything else.
In this golden age of TV, it’s easy to fixate on the high-end limited series that dominate cable and SVoD schedules. But spare a thought for the mainstream scripted series that deliver huge ratings and ad revenues week after week for networks.
A good example is CBS crime procedural Hawaii Five-0, which is currently dominating Friday nights at 21.00 in the US with an audience of approximately 10 million, compared with the meagre 1.7 million that Fox’s The Exorcist is currently attracting – and the 500,000 that prefer to watch The CW series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.
A reboot of the classic 1960s/1970s series, the new Hawaii Five-0 has performed consistently well for CBS since it launched in 2010, usually averaging around 11-12 million viewers a season. At time of writing it is up to 150 episodes, which just goes to show the immense commercial value of the franchise. Keep in mind that it has also been licensed around the world to the likes of AXN Asia, Cuatro in Spain and Rai Due in Italy. It also performs a key role in handing over a big audience to 22.00 drama Blue Bloods.
With around 25 episodes a year, the show sucks in a lot of writing talent. All told, more than 50 scribes have been involved in writing episodes since the start. One name, however, is ever-present – Peter Lenkov. Lenkov wrote the season one pilot and still writes the first and last episodes of every new season, usually in tandem with another writer such as Eric Guggenheim or Matt Wheeler.
Canadian Lenkov’s credits prior to Hawaii Five-0 included TV series 24 and CSI: NY, plus films RIPD and Demolition Man. He’s also played a central role in the reboot of MacGyver on CBS this year. Although the show hasn’t received a good response from critics, it has rated well enough to secure a full-season order of 22 episodes. If it can keep its ratings at the 7.5-8 million mark then it stands a good chance of getting a second season.
Another writer who has reason to feel pleased with himself this week is Stuart Urban, whose four-part drama The Secret for ITV has just been named best drama at the Royal Television Society NI Programme Awards. The show, which stars James Nesbitt, tells the story of a real-life murderous pact between a dentist and his mistress. Produced by Hat Trick, it is based on Deric Henderson’s non-fiction account of the story, Let This Be Our Secret.
Now 58, Urban’s career dates back to Bergerac in the 1980s. He subsequently won a Bafta for An Ungentlemanly Act, his dramatisation of the first 36 hours of The Falklands War. In 1993, Urban created his own production company, Cyclops Vision, under which he produced a range of feature films and documentaries including the black-comedy movie May I Kill U?.
Still on the awards front, it has also been a good week for Anna and Joerg Winger, whose German-language series Deutschland 83 has just been named best drama at the International Emmy Awards in New York. We featured the Wingers in our focus on German writers last week.
The winner of the TV movie/miniseries category was the Kudos/BBC1 production Capital. Based on John Lanchester’s novel Capital, this three-parter was written by Peter Bowker, who has since gone on to have a hit with The A Word, a BBC drama based on an Israeli show.
Best telenovela went to Globo’s Hidden Truths, written by Walcyr Carrasco and directed by Mauro Mendonça Filho. The show, which aired last year, explores the fashion underworld. Carrasco has been writing telenovelas since the late 1980s. Among his more recent titles was an adaptation of the Jorge Amado novel Gabriela and 2016’s popular Eta Mundo Bom!.
This week has also seen US pay TV channel BBC America greenlight a second season of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, a series based on the books by Douglas Adams. The show has been adapted for TV by Max Landis, an American multi-hyphenate who has written several movie screenplays including Chronicle, American Ultra and Victor Frankenstein. He is also an executive producer of SyFy’s horror anthology series Channel Zero.
Landis is currently writing Bright, a supernatural cop thriller starring Will Smith that has received US$90m backing from Netflix.
Elsewhere, cable network TNT is piloting Snowpiercer, a futuristic thriller based on the 2013 film about a huge train that travels around a post-apocalyptic frozen world with the remnants of humanity on board. The TV version will be written by Josh Friedman, whose credits include Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and War of the Worlds.
“Snowpiercer has one of the most original concepts to hit the screen in the last decade, and it’s one that offers numerous opportunities for deeper exploration in a series format,” explained Sarah Aubrey, exec VP of original programming at TNT.
At the other end of the budgetary scale, BBC4 in the UK has ordered a bittersweet comedy about a reserved schoolteacher who agrees to go on a road trip with her mother when she learns that the latter is dying. Entitled Bucket, the show is written by Frog Stone, who will also star alongside Miriam Margolyes. Stone began writing comedy with the Footlights at Cambridge University and has honed her craft writing comedy sketches for Radio 4.
After a promising debut for This Is Us, NBC has given the new drama an additional five episodes, taking the total number of instalments for the first season to 18. The decision was made on the eve of the show’s second episode.
Citing Live+5-day data, NBC said the show’s premiere attracted 14.3 million viewers. It also set records on NBC’s digital platform.
Commenting on the decision to extend the show from its initial 13-episode order, NBC’s Jennifer Salke said: “It’s a rare moment in this business when a show so instantly delivers both critical acclaim and hit ratings, but This Is Us is just such an achievement. Creator Dan Fogelman, along with co-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa and the producers, cast and crew, has delivered the kind of heart and depth that resonates with every segment of the audience and we’re proud to extend it.”
This Is Us is also making waves in the international market, with Channel 4 in the UK picking up the show last week. Jay Hunt, Channel 4’s chief creative officer, said: “This Is Us is unmissably life affirming with a warmth that has drawn critical acclaim and bumper ratings. It’s a great addition to our slate of acquired shows – from Deutschland 83 to Fargo.”
Fogelman’s other new series, Pitch, hasn’t had such a bright start, however. The story of the first-ever female Major League Baseball pitcher, the show was one of Fox’s weaker performers last week, bringing in 4.2 million viewers.
It has had a decent amount of critical approval, which means it will almost certainly complete its initial 13-episode run, but it will need to win over audiences quickly to secure an extended run or second season.
Among the other new US series to have hit the air, CBS reboot MacGyver has had a strong start, securing an audience of around 10.9 million for its first episode. This is the best performance by a Friday-night scripted series on the network since Hawaii Five-0 in 2014.
With the show’s debut clearly benefiting from in-built name awareness, it will be interesting to see if it manages to hold on to that number through episodes two and three. If it does, it means the revival is an inspired move. If it drops away quickly, it will resemble ABC’s experience with The Muppets last year – namely a strong start followed by rapid loss of audience interest.
The fate of MacGyver may have some influence on whether the big four US networks continue to look at reviving classic series. Others currently in the works are The Rockford Files and LA Law, and success for MacGyver will certainly mean more.
By contrast to MacGyver, ABC’s Notorious has started very badly and looks like a prime candidate for early cancellation. Fox’s reboot of The Exorcist, with 2.9 million viewers, has also started slowly but may find its niche in international distribution because of its name recognition and supernatural subject matter.
Still in the US, FX has revealed that season four of its vampire virus series The Strain will be the last. The Strain’s writer and showrunner is Carlton Cuse, who is also coming to the end of A&E’s Bates Motel.
There had been talk of The Strain operating to a five-season story arc, but four seasons is probably enough to play the concept out. Strong in season one, the pace and direction of the narrative started to falter in season two – something that has been reflected in the ratings.
The downward path of the ratings tells the story. While season one averaged 2.2 million, season two came in at 1.34 million (this season also suffered from an awkward piece of recasting). Now in season three, the show is averaging 1.1 million but the latest episode attracted just 880,000 – the sign of a franchise coming to the end of its life.
Elsewhere, it has been a busy week for Australian drama. On the domestic front, Nine Network has commissioned a second season of Doctor Doctor, a local comedy drama about a formerly high-flying surgeon who is forced to work as a GP in the small country town where he grew up. The series, which sounds similar to DRG’s hit format Doc Martin, was only two episodes into the first season when Nine announced the recommission.
The show’s synopsis says: “When he is knocked off his pedestal and on to the Impaired Registrants Programme, prodigal Sydney surgeon and party boy Hugh Knight must return to his home in rural Whyhope where he might learn to swallow his pride and mend his ways – or not.”
Meanwhile, US-based SVoD platform Acorn has acquired two Australian series from distributor DCD Rights. The first is Deep Water, a four-part series inspired by a crime wave targeting gay people in Sydney’s coastal communities in the 1980s and 90s. The show is a Blackfella Films production for SBS Broadcasting Australia, Screen Australia and Screen New South Wales.
Acorn TV has also picked up the second season of political thriller The Code, which is produced by Playmaker Media for Australian public broadcaster ABC. Both series have also been acquired by BBC4 in the UK, a channel that is often used as a barometer of whether a show has international sales potential.
Finally, some desperately sad news this week with the untimely death of Gary Glasberg, executive producer/showrunner of NCIS and creator/executive producer of NCIS: New Orleans. Glasberg, just 50 years old, died suddenly in his sleep on September 28.
A well-liked figure, Glasberg joined NCIS in 2009 and helped confirm its status as one of the biggest drama hits in the world – a huge ratings success in the US and widely distributed internationally.
His previous credits included The Mentalist, Crossing Jordan and Bones.
“Today is an overwhelmingly sad day for NCIS, CBS and anyone who was blessed to spend time with Gary Glasberg,” said CBS president of entertainment Glenn Geller. “We have lost a cherished friend, gifted creative voice, respected leader and, most memorably, someone whose warmth and kindness was felt by all around him. Our heartfelt thoughts and sympathies go out to his wife, Mimi, his two sons and all his family and friends.”
CBS TV Studios president David Stapf added: “He brought kindness, integrity and class to everything he did. His remarkable talent as a writer and producer was only matched by his ability to connect with people.”
Toby Jones turns spy in thriller The Secret Agent, adapted from Joseph Conrad’s novel by screenwriter Tony Marchant.
Is 2016 the year of the spy? From the continuing international popularity of German hit Deutschland 83, break-out US series Quantico and BBC series London Spy to Emmy nominations for John le Carré adaptation The Night Manager and Cold War thriller The Americans, there’s no shortage of covert operations on the small screen.
Fans of espionage thrillers can also look forward to Epix’s first original drama Berlin Station, CBS’s MacGyver and Fox reboot 24: Legacy all airing this autumn, as well as the return of long-running Showtime series Homeland; and, looking further ahead, forthcoming series SS-GB and The Same Sky, both due in early 2017 in the UK and Germany respectively.
“In some ways it’s a coincidence there have been quite a few spy stories this year but they are just manifestations of the bigger genre thriller,” says television writer Tony Marchant. “Toby Jones once said the great attraction of spy dramas is we all feel we’re being watched these days. That’s maybe why they’re so popular.
“They’re also about identity and concealing identities and we’re all pretty conscious of that because when we’re online, we can be different things. Maybe it’s in tune with some idea of the fluidity of identity these days, who knows!”
Another new entry to the genre is Marchant’s latest project, The Secret Agent, which is currently airing in the UK on BBC1.
Based on the Joseph Conrad book of the same name, the aforementioned Jones stars as Verloc, whose seedy Soho shop is a front for his role as an agent working for the Russian Embassy, spying on a group of London anarchists.
Under pressure to create a bomb outrage that the Russians hope will lead the British government to crack down on violent extremists, Verloc drags his unsuspecting family into a tragic terror plot.
It was executive producer Simon Heath who suggested Marchant adapt Conrad’s book, which by coincidence the writer had been reading only weeks earlier.
“You’re just struck by its prescience and the fact that it’s not just about geopolitical manipulations,” Marchant says of the 1907 text. “At the heart of it is a domestic tragedy, which in the end is probably the best reason for me doing it. You have to get past Conrad’s scorn, and the tone of the book is beset with irony, but the one person he does care about in the book is Winnie [Verloc’s wife, played in the series by This Is England’s Vicky McClure], so it was important to make her absolutely the bedrock of the piece. Although most people think it’s about Verloc, in the end, once you’ve seen all three episodes or read the book, you realise the person to whom the biggest tragedy befalls is Winnie.”
Marchant is no stranger to adaptations. His previous television credits include Great Expectations, Crime & Punishment and Canterbury Tales.
The Secret Agent was a trickier proposition, he reveals, as he faced multiple points of view, a non-chronological storyline and important events that are reported by Conrad’s characters but not seen first-hand by readers of the book.
“The general rule with adaptations is you try to find something that personally appeals, that chimes with your own preoccupations and obsessions,” Marchant explains. “That should be your first response or impulse with an adaptation, but with the others I’ve done, they have been more structurally straightforward. The difficulty with Great Expectations is the familiarity of it, Crime & Punishment was difficult but again not structurally, it’s more about [the character] Raskolnikov than anything. This was difficult because it was a modernist novel. But also it wasn’t just the structure that was tricky, it was the tone as well, which is quite scornful of most of the characters.”
Marchant initially developed the three-part series with producer World Productions’ Heath and Priscilla Parish, with an emphasis to build a plot that continually drove its characters forward through the story. This meant creating further scenes not mentioned by Conrad, such as the professor sitting on a bus with a bomb, leading to an encounter with Stephen Graham’s Inspector Heat.
“With adaptations, you have to love the book and you have to have a healthy disrespect for it at the same time,” admits Marchant, who has also written series including Garrow’s Law, Public Enemies and Leaving. “You have to tell yourself there’s something missing or that something doesn’t work. But if you do decide to embrace it as a thriller, you must make sure the characterisation and the complexity of the characterisation isn’t being compromised.
“You don’t make it a vacuous hell-for-leather thriller; you’ve got to make it full of tension and jeopardy and intrigue. The novel is called The Secret Agent so I think you’re entitled to a bit of licence in terms of the genre.”
On the Edinburgh set, which doubled for 1886 London, that licence extended to the actors, who were welcome to speak to Marchant about the script or individual lines they wanted to tweak or, in Jones’s case, omit altogether.
“That’s all fine,” the writer says. “If you’re working with really good actors, you have to respect the fact that if they’re playing it, they’ve got a great instinct for what’s right and what doesn’t convince. So I did plenty of tweaking as we were shooting it.”
Above all, it was important for Marchant and director Charles McDougall that the cast, which also includes Vicky McClure, gave completely naturalistic performances and “were not all bonnet and bodice or caught up in the fetish of period dramas.”
He continues: “If you take an adaptation like this, the great thing about this is it’s so contemporary so we’re doing it in a really modern way. That goes for the performances as well. In the end, Charles explicitly told the actors to be as natural and contemporary as you can be without it being anachronistic.”
Marchant’s writing career began in the theatre, which he credits with giving him a sense of his own voice – an influence becoming less common with the increasing scarcity of one-offs and three-parters and the popularity of genre series.
“It’s very hard for writers coming into television wherever they come from, to feel like their voice is being heard and they’re not being co-opted into writing some sort of genre show,” Marchant argues. “But I think you’ve got people like Jez Butterworth [Edge of Tomorrow] who went straight from theatre into film. Equally, you’ve got Nick Payne [The Sense of an Ending] and Mike Bartlett [Doctor Foster] who are now writing TV. That’s been quite a common trajectory for writers.
“It’s a paradox that you get bolder, bigger storytelling but that doesn’t mean the author’s voice is more clearly heard. In some ways, it can be done at the expense of authorship. If you think of TV in the past year and what’s the most authored thing you’ve seen, for me it’s Toby Jones in Marvellous [written by Peter Bowker]. That just seemed to be utterly unique, personal and authored – something that bigger dramas could never be.”
There are exceptions, however, and proof that writers can be heard, though they are found in the US – an industry Marchant adds is more advanced than British television.
“The momentum is really in big shows but if people are going to invest amounts of money into certain kinds of dramas, they want to take fewer risks and it’s more likely a show is going to be in a genre than be singular or perverse,” he says. “There are exceptions – something like Mr Robot is a great show but you’d have to say US TV has evolved a bit more in how to be big and authored. You’d say they’re in a slightly more advanced place than us.”