Do We Need More Separation Between Shows and Their Showrunners?

During a recent panel for HBO’s The Newsroom at the Television Critics' Association press tour, show creator Aaron Sorkin was asked about the degree to which he editorializes and pontificates personal beliefs through his characters. As relayed in various write-ups after the panel and on Twitter, Sorkin prefaced his answer to that question by saying that he “wants to make a clear distinction between me and the characters that are in the show.”

I wasn’t at TCAs but I can imagine that at least a few critics rolled their eyes when Sorkin answered that question and all questions throughout the cordial but pointed session. This is, of course, because the discourse surrounding The Newsroom is explicitly tied to Sorkin, his style, his beliefs and more. Many of the initial reviews of the show noted that The Newsroom was as pure Sorkin as a show could get, or something along those lines. (The "Sorkinisms" supercut that simultaneously made its way around the internet didn't help.) This line of criticism referred to Sorkin’s writerly tics and his undying commitment to having his characters deliver lecture-like speeches in almost every scene, but it also fell in line with Sorkin’s presumed complicated (to say the least) relationship with women and female characters. Right around the time that The Newsroom debuted on HBO, it became known that Sorkin had an awkward confrontation with a female reporter and for some dumb reason, called her “internet girl” while trying to teach her how to high-five.

While online discussion and reviews had already pegged The Newsroom as inseparable from its creator and his vision, that unfortunate occurrence, combined with the show’s admittedly shoddy treatment of women, created a compelling firestorm where all discussion about The Newsroom had to include all of Sorkin’s baggage. And in many ways, this all happened for good reason. Sorkin is, without question, a singular, powerful force behind the creative vision of The Newsroom, and it’s irresponsible to disregard prior knowledge of anything related to him—whether as a creative or as a person—in a review or discussion. In short, The Newsroom is his show and he should have to deal with the criticism that comes with that.

Nevertheless, the sheer volume of the discussion about The Newsroom, and the way that his TCA panel was so anticipated (both for good and bad reasons) tells us just how far we’ve bought into the idea of auteurs—singular forces driving the artistic direction of a project—in television. And while I certainly see the value in this line of thinking, considering creative types are being given more control to shape their stories in contemporary television, and I have been guilty of closely identifying everything that happens with a show to one person, I am wondering if maybe we have gotten a little carried away.

Let me qualify that last statement: By “we,” I am referring to “people who talk about television on the internet,” which includes critics, bloggers, fans, commenters, etc.—those folks who take part in the discourse surrounding television. And all of us have, thanks primarily to the internet, become more engaged with television and the people who make it. In recent years, this idea of the television auteur has gained quite a bit of steam, and mostly through indirect means like the increased media coverage and Twitter visibility of the "showrunner," the rise in detailed television criticism online, and the generally improved opinion of television as an art form. If television is better now, and we are talking about it more, we are bound to celebrate specific individuals who are producing that better product.

The positive impacts of this new environment are readily apparent. The analysis of certain shows with absolutely clear sole visionaries has led to a slew of great thinkpieces, reviews, and essays from critics all over the web. And even in certain instances where the shows were not or are not particularly good, auteur-centric analysis has brought us fine work. I think back to the “Three Glees” theory developed by The A.V. Club’s Todd VanDerWerff in that show’s first season as an example here. The amplified spotlight on television’s creative voices has helped legitimate the medium—a move that has nicely corresponded with a presumed increase in the medium’s overall quality—and moved television away from any cliché rhetoric involving idiot boxes and factory-like formulas. Moreover, the media’s decision to highlight these folks has “mainstreamed” previously insider-y matters, giving those of us interested in such things an outlet to educate ourselves.

Finally, there is no doubt that the visibility of showrunners, writers, and producers (not to mention actors) on Twitter, Facebook, in podcasts, etc. has allowed us “normal” people to be, or at least feel, closer to the folks who make the shows that we love. Sometimes that interactivity online can go too far, but the fact remains that being able to send Damon Lindelof a tweet about my opinion on the ending of Lost at any time is pretty cool.

Nevertheless, with all these things in mind and out there as part of the new normal when discussing contemporary television, a handful of recent events have me thinking, if not reconsidering, the intense way that we’ve latched on to television’s creative types and how shows reflect their exclusive talents. The loud noise surrounding Sorkin and The Newsroom is one. All the problems that the show has are apparently not only problems caused by Sorkin—he being the driving creative force and all—but problems that are directly tied to Sorkin and his various hang-ups. Again, this sort of analysis and discourse isn’t totally unfair or even untrue, but the swell of conversation about how the show’s issues reflect everything that is wrong with Sorkin’s talents and maybe even everything that is wrong with him as a person, is... complicated.

Going back just a few months, recall the fervor around the premiere of another HBO show, Girls. Reviews, comments sections, and Twitter (though mostly the latter two) were afire with discussions of Lena Dunham’s gender, Hollywood connections, and family tree. Too many people took hold of the nepotism angle and it’s pretty troubling that Dunham’s gender turned anyone off from watching the show. As Girls’ main creative force and star, it’s as if Dunham has to answer for her “real life” just as much as she does for the show she writes, directs, and stars in.

And of course, we can’t forget the removal of Dan Harmon as Community showrunner. The outpouring of sadness and rage directed at NBC and Sony for removing him from his post reflected a sense that the series could never, ever be the same without him. And while there is zero question that Harmon’s unique sensibilities played the largest role in making Community the weird, great show that it is, the idea that Community will simply be terrible and unwatchable when it returns this fall is a bit misguided. Most of the writing staff is coming back, as is the entire cast. If there was ever a group of people who were aware of their fans’ tastes, it’s the Community folks.

In any event, it seems to me that we, at times, lose sight of the fact that television shows are the result of the work of hundreds, sometimes thousands of people. Certain singular voices might write the final scripts, have full control over a production and might make the final decision at all the important levels, but lots of people helped them along the way. This is where something like the aforementioned “Three Glees” theory unfortunately falls apart: It’s fun to picture a world where a show is totally different when each of its writers take hold of a script, but the reality is that in the Glee writers room (and almost all rooms), writers are spit-balling together in hopes of breaking the next scene, act, episode, or arc.

Perhaps more importantly, it’s troublesome to presume that everything we see on-screen is the product of a showrunner’s psyche, personal life, or family tree. Maybe most of what we see is, but there is simply no way to tell—and inferring too much is problematic. The fact that Judd Apatow likes Dunham or that she has Hollywood parents shouldn’t change the fact that Girls is a pretty amazing show (and about neither of those things from Dunham’s “real” life).

I am curious to see how this phenomenon grows and shifts moving forward. Less than a decade ago, showrunner wasn’t a common term and most television viewers had no real sense of who was “responsible” for what they saw*, other than what name came up with the “executive producer” credit next to it. Today, the departure of a Dan Harmon brings Community fans to their knees, while the appointment of a Jeremy Carver is cause for celebration in the Supernatural fandom. We have always cared deeply about our television. Now it is clear that we care almost as deeply about the people making it, too.

* It would be short-sighted to suggest that most television fans today know what a showrunner is, or what a showrunner does. Obviously, it’s impossible to determine who is online and what they know, but I do think it is safe to say that as a whole, contemporary television fans are more educated about behind-the-scenes matters—and they certainly have better opportunities to educate themselves if they are not.

Cory Barker is a co-founder of This Was Television and the founder of Follow him on Twitter: @corybarker.

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