The recent death of Andrew Sarris recalls a time when film criticism really mattered -- while simultaneously reminding us there has never been a television critic with his reach and intellectual influence. And that goes for his contemporaries Pauline Kael, John Simon and Stanley Kauffmann, too.
Sarris, of course, was famous for popularizing the “auteur theory” of film criticism, which posited that the way to understand and analyze film is to regard the director as the “auteur,” or author, of the work. Sarris had his pantheon of great filmmakers – Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, Orson Welles, Jean Renoir, etc. – whose main appeal wasn’t just that they made great films, but that they had a recognizable style and recurring set of themes that allowed a critic to compare and contrast the whole body or work.
It’s only been in the last decade that a similar theory of authorship has begun to grow up around the creation of works of art that originate on television. And that’s probably because it’s only been in the last decade that you could use the words “works of art” and “television” in the same sentence.
Not that there wasn’t outstanding television way back in the 20th Century. Even in the ‘60s and ‘70s, when the most popular shows seemed to be the schlockiest, there were pockets of excellence like “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “The Carol Burnett Show.” But except for very rare cases such as Rod Serling’s “The Twilight Zone,” most television shows didn’t derive from the singular vision of one creator. You never thought to ask about the creative power behind “Gunsmoke” or “The Beverly Hillbillies.”
That began to change when powerful producers with distinctive visions started creating a new kind of serious television: people like Norman Lear (“All in the Family,” “Maude”), Grant Tinker (“The Mary Tyler More Show,” “Hill Street Blues”), and Steven Bochco (“L.A. Law” and “NYPD Blue.”) But even these producers, being too busy with multiple projects to claim the sole creative vision of any one show, weren’t seen as the “authors” of their series.
I don’t know where I was when I first heard the word “showrunner.” Maybe I wasn’t paying attention, but the phrase seems to have come from nowhere to omnipresent in every critical analysis of television. I look forward to the next edition of the Oxford English Dictionary to discover its derivation, but in the meantime television finally has its own version of the auteur theory. The showrunner is the author of a television series, and we can focus our critical analysis on him or her.
Formally, a showrunner might sport one of a variety of producer-type formal titles, such as executive producer or senior producer, but since a proliferation of these honorifics has diluted their real meaning, the phrase showrunner is used to indicate the ultimate creative authority on a show.
A showrunner is frequently the creator and head writer (and not the director, who is typically seen as a craftsman one step above set designer.) This reflects the difference between television and film: a movie screen, being a hundred times bigger than a TV screen, is a more visual and social medium than television, which is experienced at home more intimately and casually through the spoken word.
It’s no coincidence that the most critically acclaimed shows seem to have the strongest showrunners. An empowered showrunner will deliver a distinctive style and avoid the corporate blandness that results from a show that is written by committee with intrusive network input.
Andrew Sarris had his pantheon of great directors and a similar hall of fame for great showrunners is beginning to emerge. In the area of drama, this would include: David Chase (“The Sopranos”), Matthew Weiner (“Mad Men’), Alan Ball (“Six Feet Under” and “True Blood”), Aaron Sorkin (“Sports Night,” “The West Wing” and “Newsroom”), Vince Gilligan (“Breaking Bad”) and David Simon (“The Wire” and “Treme”).
There are great showrunners in comedy too, including Larry David (“Seinfeld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm,), Louis C.K. (“Louie”), and Greg Daniels (“The Office” and “Parks and Recreation”).
What’s tricky from the critic’s point of view is that showrunners can leave shows they created before they come to an end. This is more common for broadcast television shows, where the networks sometimes want the show to go on long after the creator has run out of steam (I’m thinking about you, NBC and “The Office.”) Once the “author” is gone, it’s harder to assign credit and blame.
We’ll soon have a test case of how much the showrunner matters. Dan Harmon, who was the creative force behind “Community,” was fired when NBC picked up the show for next season. If the show somehow manages to hang onto its very distinctive vision even without Harmon, we might need to reconsider the mystique of the showrunner.
Then again, the auteur theory was itself an imperfect tool: who’s the “author” of “Gone With The Wind,” which had two directors (Victor Fleming and George Cukor)? Even with the rise of the showrunner, television criticism will continue to be a messy job. A great show will be a great show regardless of who gets the credit, and comparing showrunners will never be as easy as comparing movie directors.