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.