Why Dan Harmon’s firing from Community is just the latest shot in an increasingly familiar showrunner-vs.-network battle

Why Dan Harmon’s firing from Community is just the latest shot in an increasingly familiar showrunner-vs.-network battle

When reading through Warren Littlefield’s new book Top Of The Rock, an oral history of NBC in the ’80s and ’90s, I came across something I didn’t know: Glen and Les Charles, co-creators of Cheers, stepped down as the program’s showrunners toward the end of its second season. They were almost completely replaced by the start of season three, off to try their hand at creating other series and writing movies. (They only managed to get a handful of additional projects off the ground.)

This answered a question I had always had: Why did Cheers’ tone turn slightly broader at the start of season three? It didn’t irreparably harm the show, which is still one of the best sitcoms ever made. But a bruised drama about the ways people in a Boston bar built each other up and tore each other down gradually turned into a daffy workplace farce. By the time the show’s sixth season rolled around, and original love interest Diane Chambers was long gone, it had more or less completed its transition into a completely different sitcom with the same characters and premise. The tone was different. The structure of episodes was different. The types of jokes told were different. But the underlying structure the Charles brothers built (in collaboration with James Burrows, who directed the majority of the episodes) was so strong, it was all but impossible to make a terrible episode of Cheers. In spite of several regime changes and a handful of different showrunners, the show remained so strong that it gave birth to one of the most successful spin-offs of all time: Frasier.

One of the truisms most often expressed in the wake of Dan Harmon’s firing from Community has been that this is the sort of news that would only become news in the Internet era. While that’s not strictly accurate (for reasons I’ll get to momentarily), the use of Twitter, Facebook, and comments sections allow news like this to travel more rapidly and allow for fans to mobilize with greater structure than ever before. (I’m somewhat surprised there isn’t a “Save Our Showrunner” campaign already taking flight.) The Internet allowed Harmon to go directly to his fans in a hilarious, caustic Tumblr post. It allowed those fans to get his name trending on Twitter and to strike back at Sony (the company that produces the show) the only way they knew how. When the NBC press tour session before the Television Critics Association inevitably happens this summer, the Internet will allow fans to “hear” NBC Entertainment Chairman Bob Greenblatt respond in virtual real time.

That’s all new. It’s even more present now than it was in the last two giant public fights between showrunner and network, both involving AMC shows—Matt Weiner over Mad Men (AMC blinked) and Frank Darabont over The Walking Dead. (AMC fired him—and the show improved.) But what isn’t new is the fact that there have always been two types of showrunners: managers and creators. The manager builds a strong, structured environment in which creative people can do their work and all contribute to a strong whole. The creator is so thoroughly in charge of the show’s voice that even such minor decisions as costuming or hairstyling may run through their office. The ideal showrunner is probably a 50/50 split between the two categories—able to delegate certain things, but taking ultimate responsibility for the most important things. No one showrunner is 100 percent of either category. (Weiner, who reportedly has a say in even the most minor Mad Men elements, probably comes closest.) Great television can be made by showrunners in both categories, and so can lousy television. But the one other thing that’s consistent is that networks and studios would like all showrunners to be managers, even as most showrunners secretly long to be creators. It’s all about control.

The term “showrunner” has become so pervasive in Internet television discussion that it’s easy to forget it only entered the public consciousness in the last decade. (I trace its prominence to the 1999 book The Showrunners, by David Wild, which is most famous for following NewsRadio creator Paul Simms around for the show’s fourth season, when it seemed as if NBC might yank it at any moment.) Since there’s been some confusion over the showrunner’s role on the show as this Harmon situation has unfolded, let me define it: A showrunner is an executive producer and head writer of a program. In some cases, series will split showrunner duties between someone who handles day-to-day production details and someone who handles the writers’ room, particularly in cases where a first-time showrunner is in charge. But the showrunner is as important to a series as a director is to a film set. Regardless of who has script credit, the showrunner took a pass at that script. Regardless of who directed that episode, the showrunner is the ultimate arbiter of the series’ visual style. Every aspect of the production will bear the showrunner’s stamp in one way or another, and if he or she isn’t happy with, say, a set design, that will be changed. It’s an immensely powerful role, and in the struggle to develop something of an auteur theory for television, the showrunner has been the most frequently examined figure.

Being a showrunner is a lot of work. It might be the most difficult, wearing job in show business. Directors’ shoots end after several months. Bands eventually finish albums. Authors may work on novels for years, but if they want to take a little time off to reconsider, they’re completely free to do so. A showrunner, however, is there, day in and day out, for months at a time, and that tenure can extend for years upon years if the show is a hit. Is it any wonder that many showrunners step down after two or three seasons at the helm? (For most of its glory years, The Simpsons had an informal “two seasons and out” policy for its showrunners, who step back into a less-demanding consulting position after two years in the big job.) This is where the idea of the showrunner as manager comes from. The job of the initial showrunner—usually the creator—is to put a system in place to produce good episodes, a system so secure that future showrunners would have to work hard to break it. Then future showrunners are expected to do their best not to break the system. It’s possible for a manager’s departure to make a show slowly deflate—Greg Daniels’ departure from King Of The Hill is a good example—but for the most part, a show initially run by a manager can run for several years with only minimal input from that original creative leader. 

TV has always had creators as well, however, and I use that term not in the sense of someone who comes up with the initial show idea, but in the sense of someone who wants to maintain creative control from frame one until the day the series ends. For the most part, creators’ struggles with the machine designed to keep TV production humming along have been bitter and lengthy, and most have spilled into the press in one way or another. Those saying that the reason the Harmon situation got so much play was because of the Internet would do well to look at Larry Gelbart’s struggles to maintain control of M*A*S*H in the ’70s, or Glenn Gordon Caron’s disastrous tenure as Moonlighting’s showrunner, during which time he was simply unable to deliver the number of episodes the network ordered. Both men were consummate creators, in charge of their shows from the word go. Both men were more trouble than the network and studio thought them worth. Both men were replaced. In Gelbart’s case, he’d done a good job of creating a solid sitcom structure, and M*A*S*H ran for years. In Caron’s case, Moonlighting collapsed without him. 

The “creator” figure is as old as television itself—Rod Serling and Stirling Silliphant are two examples from the medium’s early days, and Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz did everything but write on I Love Lucy—and shows run by creators tend to be cult hits, fiercely loved by a few, but ignored by the masses. (Sound familiar?) Networks and studios have always found showrunners easier to replace than actors, but in the last 20 years, the balance has tipped more and more in favor of the creator showrunner. First, it was just those showrunners with hits—Larry David of Seinfeld, or David Chase of The Sopranos—but then the philosophies behind cable television opened up space for the sorts of cult-like series that previously became quickly canceled curios. Someone like David Milch—who was removed from NYPD Blue for the way his unusual writing methods delayed production and cost the studio money—now had a welcoming home at HBO, at least for a little while. Battles between these sorts of hyper-controlling showrunners and studios spilled out into the press less and less—an Aaron Sorkin here, an Amy Sherman-Palladino there—and some figures, like Weiner, actually began winning their battles, because their voices were seen as so important to their shows.

In many cases, losing a creator showrunner is a deathblow for that series creatively, but not for the series commercially. NYPD Blue, West Wing, and M*A*S*H ran for several years after Milch, Sorkin, and Gelbart left. In Gelbart’s case, several of the show’s most classic seasons didn’t involve him at all. This is likely not what Community fans want to hear, but there’s every possibility that the series’ new showrunners, who are both talented writers, will create something with enough of their own stamp to allow the show to run for another several seasons. It won’t be Harmon’s Community, but it could be a slightly different version of the same show, like the different versions of Cheers.

More likely, though, is the Moonlighting scenario. Like Moonlighting, Community was a show where nearly every script was filtered through one man’s viewpoint, where the characters developed distinct voices and dialogue styles thanks to that man, and where individual episodes often seemed to take place in entirely different realities. When a show becomes that distinctive and unusual, the temptation for many would be to chase the unusual nature of what made it so beloved by its cult audience. But this is a trap. As with Caron and Moonlighting in the ’80s (or Weiner just a few years ago), Harmon was the figure keeping all of Community’s many plates balanced on sticks and spinning. To many of the show’s fans, Harmon was the show, and any attempt to be him will just remind them that the show no longer has him. Better, then, to try to make a mostly similar but slightly different show about seven goofballs at a community college. It won’t be what the series was in its first three seasons, but it could develop its own voice and its own creative terms. There is no Community without Dan Harmon, but there could be a show called Community that remains pretty good without Dan Harmon.

American television is always going to be pitched between a workplace and art, between a bunch of people just trying to make good product and a bunch of people trying to create something meaningful. It’s easy in this day and age to denigrate “manager” showrunners, but one of our very best dramas—Breaking Bad—is run by a man who seems content to set up a system he knows will deliver him quality product, so he can concentrate on the things that most interest him. And this is to say nothing of the many “creator” showrunners over the years who drove potential hit shows into the ground—see Caron again for essentially every example of what not to do. The issue, then, will always stem from studios that long for competent managers who turn out amazing product, but too often end up with mercurial creators who follow their own whims down paths studios would prefer to avoid. To make the stuff, they need people who make the trains run on time, but to make it great, they need weird geniuses who might be hard to deal with. Now that practically every polarizing showrunner commands an army, studios might be entering an age where they have to suck it up and ride it out for the long term, or at least until those 100 episodes are in sight.

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