THE BACK PAGES

How to make fans very, very angry

Who used to even talk about showrunners? But replace one now and see what erupts.

JAIME J. WEINMAN August 14 2006
THE BACK PAGES

How to make fans very, very angry

Who used to even talk about showrunners? But replace one now and see what erupts.

JAIME J. WEINMAN August 14 2006

How to make fans very, very angry

Who used to even talk about showrunners? But replace one now and see what erupts.

tv

JAIME J. WEINMAN

When it was announced that Gilmore Girls was getting a new executive producer, or “showrunner,” fans were outraged. A writer for the popular site www.televisionwithoutpity.com lamented: “Contemplating the absolute lurch in which they are leaving the fans of this program, I kind of feel weird and sour about coming to this very bitter end.” In the past, TV fans mostly wanted to know what was going on with the actors. Lately, though, there’s a new interest in the people who control a show behind the scenes—and a lot of talk about what a disaster it can be when they leave.

Though the showrunner is the most important person in the production of a show, supervising everything from the casting and the writing to the visual style, showrunners were traditionally unknown to the public. But thanks to several abrupt hirings and firings, the concept of the showrunner is in the news. The biggest news has been the saga of Gilmore Girls. For six seasons, the WB’s comedy-drama was run by the husband-and-wife team of Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino. Now they’ve left the show, to be replaced by a staff writer, David Rosenthal—and fans are talking as if this could literally be the end of the show.

What that reaction comes from is the fans’ increasing knowledge of how a show’s voice, its uniqueness, is a product of the person who runs it. Some showrunners have developed cult followings for their quirky, instantly identifiable style, like Joss Whedon (.Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and J.J. Abrams (Alias). The Palladinos’ work on Gilmore Girls, writing many of the scripts and rewriting the others, made the show’s dialogue sound like nothing else on TV. And that puts a new showrunner in the position of either

trying to mimic the original style, or trying something new—either of which might make fans complain. Many fans lost interest in The West Wing when it lost creator/showrunner Aaron Sorkin, and there is a danger that Gilmore Girls may also lose a new type of fan: the fan who sees the showrunner as the real star of the show.

On the other hand, sometimes a showrunner’s departure can generate good publicity—especially if the show was going downhill when he left. Tom Spezialy (Weird Science) was one of the original two showrunners of Desperate Housewives. But last April, near the end of a second season that critics and audiences found disappointing, Spezialy walked off the set due to what the Hollywood Reporter creatively called “an unspecified falling out.” Not long after, he left the show for good, leaving sole control in the hands of the show’s creator, Marc Cherry.

ABC almost immediately used Spezialy’s exit as evidence that the show would get better. The network president, Stephen McPherson, announced that “Marc has, partly because of the responsibility of 100 per cent falling on his shoulders, really stepped up and gotten out ahead of it.” Though Cherry was there when the show went bad, ABC was able to claim that the show would be different with him running it alone. That’s one potential ad-

vantage of a change in showrunners: the network can shift all the blame for a bad season onto the guy who just left.

But some shows start to go bad when a new showrunner joins, and there’s no one else for the network to blame. Another ABC show, Commariderln Chief, started out with strong ratings and reviews. Then ABC fired the creator and showrunner, Rod Lurie (director of the movie The Contender), claiming he couldn’t get the episodes finished on time. His replacement was a veteran, Steven Bochco (Hill Street Blues), who retooled the characters and made some cast changes. The show was off the air within a few months. ABC has recently been talking with Lurie about doing a TV movie based on the series, as if acknowledging that the concept didn’t work without him: “You know, he was the voice of that show,” McPherson admitted.

Not every show changes much when a new showrunner takes over. The Simpsons has had several different showrunners over a 17-year run, and nobody outside of Internet message boards seems to notice much of a difference. But there are some shows that depend so much on the writing and producing style of one person—or two people—that fans get the feeling it’s not the same show without them. Lauren Graham, the star of Gilmore Girls, reminded the Hartford Courant that “This has happened with shows before. And some of them do really well.”

And some of them don’t. M