Showrunners: The Art of Making a TV Show


Shaun Leonard looks into Irish director Des Doyle’s documentary about the people behind the so-called “Television Renaissance”.

“Showrunning is like painting a painting, while writing a novel, while doing your taxes.”


The above quote is from Matthew Carnahan, the creator of Showtime’s House of Lies. Des Doyle’s Showrunners is a documentary that follows Carnahan and others like him over the course of four years as they strive to produce an hour of quality television every seven days, while satisfying networks, fans and budgets. Doyle and his Irish team managed to get some of the most important showrunners of the so-called “Television Renaissance”, including JJ Abrams, Damon Lindelof and Joss Whedon, to speak candidly on camera about their jobs, and the toll those jobs take on their lives. Not bad considering one of the first writers they spoke to, Jane Espensen of Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Once Upon A Time, told them it was never going to happen. In the words of the Dublin-based first-time director “Maybe she hadn’t counted on the Irish.”

The documentary itself is expansive and features over a dozen writer/producer/creators discussing the trials and tribulations of being the deciding voice through which an entire story is told. Most documentaries live or die by the strength of their editing, and this one is no different. For aspiring writers and producers or for anyone interested in the inner workings of a mainstream American TV series, the film will surely inform and entertain. The danger is that the breadth of people being interviewed will alienate the casual moviegoer, as the film does flit between individuals at a fast pace. Thankfully, the showrunners that made the cut (and the crew did flirt with a three-hour version) are entertaining and honest enough to sustain interest. That in itself is commentary enough on the changing role of TV storytellers. Fifteen years ago writers never needed to leave their laptop grindstones, and now they’re expected to regularly represent their shows on late night national television. Showrunners lets these nouveau elite tell all, and they give the audience a fascinating look at how TV has changed, becoming more cinematic, sensational, and auteur.

When asked about the Irishness of the project, Doyle was worried about recognition at home. Given that it focuses exclusively on American showrunners, the director is unsure “if people immediately identify it as being Irish because of the content.” We’ll have to wait and see whether or not this will affect the documentary’s Irish release on the 17th of October. And what about the crew’s reception as the Irish abroad? While stereotypical, it seemed to be beneficial overall. When asked to participate, Hart Hanson, the creator of Bones, told Doyle: “How can I say no to people who survived the potato famine and The Troubles?”

How indeed.


Shaun Leonard is an Irish writer and journalist currently based in Las Vegas, NV. He podcasts for film and television at and tweets @shaun_leonard.

Showrunners: The Art of Running A TV Show is released in Ireland on the 17th of October, and has a limited release in the US on the 31st of October.




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