The Fallacy of the Showrunner Fallacy (And Why It’s Still Productive)


In The New Republic’s “The Showrunner Fallacy,” Craig Fehrman responds to what he considers a troubling development within television criticism. Citing Alan Sepinwall’s The Revolution Was Televised and Brett Martin’s forthcoming Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution, Fehrman focuses on what he terms the “veneration” of the television showrunner, which he argues “does not explain TV’s greatness.”

“But this obsession with showrunners—what we might call the showrunner fallacy—has obscured what makes television so great[,] … prevent[ing] [critics] from exploring the people and pressures that are unique to television—exactly what the medium’s reporters and critics should be working to understand. Instead, they praise or blame the showrunner, succumbing to a kind of narrative simplicity that we would never accept in an Emmy-winning drama.”

It’s an article that touches on two of my interests: the evolution and function of television criticism, and the rise of the showrunner as a primary figure in television production culture. It’s also an article where I sympathize with Fehrman’s argument while ultimately disagreeing with his conclusions: without adding some key qualifiers, the suggestion critics’ focus on showrunners is a fallacy pushes too far to devalue—rather than simply reevaluate—a mode of analysis that holds incredible value within broader conversations of television culture.

The—I presume editorial—“dek” attached to Fehrman’s article online reads “Veneration of TV Auteurs does not explain TV’s greatness.” When I went to post about the article on Tumblr (before realizing I had more to say than would fit in a Tumblr post), this sentence came up to represent Fehrman’s argument, and it helped me work through my primary issue with the piece: in an effort to push us past the importance of the showrunner, Fehrman develops his own logical fallacy where he elides the centrality of showrunners within his view of television production culture to make a point.

If I had to edit this sentence—and it’s possible Fehrman himself would edit it, given that he probably didn’t write it—to better reflect the principles at stake here, the first would be adding a few qualifiers to veneration.

Complete and utter veneration of TV’s auteurs does not explain TV’s greatness.”

I agree that any view of television culture that begins and ends with the showrunner as the sole creative force behind a television series is incredibly problematic. Part of the inspiration for my dissertation was seeing some scholars talk about how “place” is constructed within TV programming entirely from the perspective of writers and directors, when in fact it is labor of location scouts, production designers, set decorators, CGI compositors, and other below-the-line workers that is more substantive to what we understand as “televisual place.” And so when we add to the logline a bit, we find a sentiment that I not only agree with but one I’m also actively working against in my own research.

However, I also believe that showrunners offer valuable insight into our cultural understanding of television. The respect I show to showrunners in analyzing television both critically and academically is not so much a validation of their greatness but rather an acknowledgment of their prominence. Through their self-disclosures that actively construct authorship, and networks/channels’ active cultivation of that authorship from a promotional perspective, and the visibility available to showrunners in a social media age, they are undoubtedly a primary lens through which we—we here referring to engaged viewers in general—understand television (which Jason Mittell has analyzed in his chapter on Authorship in his forthcoming, serial published Complex TV). Fehrman finds a few quotes in which Martin uses religious metaphors to refer to showrunners, and I’d agree there’s something a little aggrandizing there which makes me uncomfortable. But I believe the problem there is the how and not the what: while I would encourage us to be critical of how accurate those self-disclosures might be—and worry specifically that talk of “revolutions” risks pushing us toward “great men” histories—and what labor they might be obscuring, I nonetheless think engaging with the figure of the showrunner—as I’ve tried to accomplish in my “Showrunners on Twitter” series at Antenna—is crucial to understanding contemporary television culture. To suggest otherwise may serve the rhetorical function of highlighting a course correction for critical discourse, but to deny the cultural meaning of the showrunner as a figure within production culture is to deny a considerable amount of tangible evidence being more widely circulated than ever before.

As Fehrman builds on his showrunner “fallacy,” though, he hints at another version of the dek that I would agree with on principle.

“Veneration of TV’s auteurs does not entirely explain TV’s greatness.”

Fehrman uses an example from Justified to poke holes in the suggestion that everything about a series boils down to its showrunner, isolating the contributions of other producers, actors, editors, and other laborers. However, as much as I’d agree with his desire to push beyond the contributions of Graham Yost to Justified, the fact remains that Yost’s vision is what serves as the day-to-day guidepost by which those laborers complete those tasks. If you believe Justified to be a great television series, then chances are much of what you see on Justified is, if not the direct result of his labor, then certainly nonetheless under his umbrella of responsibility as a showrunner.

June Thomas at Slate has a nice response to Fehrman’s piece defending the value of considering television through the lens of the showrunner where she reiterates this point among others. However, I do want to contend with one claim, which I understand but want to push against slightly:

“But Fehrman’s prescription—that critics consistently acknowledge the complicated interaction of actors, directors, writers, and editors behind every creative decision—is impractical. It’s like saying that reporters covering Google would get a more accurate picture of the way the company creates new products by talking to the engineers, designers, product managers, and marketers who work on them than they do by simply interviewing Sergey Brin or Larry Page. That’s undoubtedly so, but it isn’t obvious to me that it would be a better or more interesting story.”

I agree with Thomas that there is impracticality to that kind of analysis, but I’d make the distinction that it’s only impractical within the context of mass volume criticism. Post-air analysis is about analyzing everything, which does create a challenge if every scene or episode you analyze you need to acknowledge every single person involved. The fact is that much of episodic criticism has become a short form, cumulative dialogue: you would never look at every episode through every lens, but rather pick and choose the right lens for the right episode. Sometimes this might mean thinking about the showrunner and their influence; other times it means highlighting a director, or a cinematographer, or an actor, or any other laborer who has put their stamp on a particular episode. Part of the reason I think critics—myself included, I suppose—would take issue with Fehrman’s claim is that we know how often we focus on the very parts of television production he claims we elide. While I don’t know how much television criticism Fehrman has read outside of Sepinwall and Martin’s respective books, I would wager that he isn’t an avid reader given that he’s willing to reduce all of television criticism down to those two writers—one of whom, Martin, isn’t a TV critic—and their respective monographs.

However, at the same time, I would say that Thomas’ focus on practicality raises an interesting challenge for television critics who write more substantial criticism. When we write about television outside of the episodic model and focus on a long-form thinkpiece, are there times when we start and stop with analysis of television auteurs? No television critic would ever argue that the showrunner remains the sole creative figure behind a television series, but I’d argue that all television critics should be considering new ways to consider television production outside of the lens of the showrunner; not because that lens is inaccurate or destructive, mind you, but rather because a diversity of perspective is something that all critics should strive for. It may be in many cases less practical, going to Thomas’ point, and I would also agree that it might not necessarily make for a better perspective in every instance. However, Fehrman’s piece calls for a self-reflexive approach to television criticism that would benefit all critical writing, both to nuance our perspectives on showrunners and to expand the critical perspectives critics offer to readers.

On the whole, I don’t buy Fehrman’s argument: it’s based on a limited survey of critical writing that doesn’t give critics enough credit for the diversity of their perspectives, devolving into a strawman argument wherein “it all boils down to the showrunner” despite plenty of evidence to suggest otherwise. However, at the same time, I don’t entirely disagree with some of the reasons why Fehrman was compelled to make this argument, observing in the trends surrounding the showrunner space for critics to expand their perspectives and confront their own choices in how they write about the showrunner as an evolving figure. While it may be a challenge to look past the inherent flaws in Fehrman’s argument, I would hope the provocation inspires a larger conversation as we continue to parse the roles and rhetoric of writing about television in the contemporary moment.


Filed under Television Criticism

3 responses to “The Fallacy of the Showrunner Fallacy (And Why It’s Still Productive)

  1. Karl Ruben Weseth

    I think the big danger for TV criticism is not so much deifying showrunners, as it is critics completely ignoring form in favour of story. I want to read good, observant critics digging into an episode’s writing, direction, acting, editing, cinematography, design, music, etc, but it’s a rare occurrence. Discussion of those elements of form, the individual (and/or parts-of-the-whole) artistic performances are relegated to parentheses, stray observations, if they’re seen at all.

    I understand why this is, of course; the amount of story, the week-in-week-out drive of TV shows as story engines is one of the main reasons why online discussion and critiques has turned into such a booming part of the internet. But too often, reviews end up seeming like they might as well be dissecting a script, for the amount of space they spend discussing what actually happens on screen. It’s why I love your reviews so much, because you’re one of the few critics I know who can actually operates in the way you describe in this piece:
    “The fact is that much of episodic criticism has become a short form, cumulative dialogue: you would never look at every episode through every lens, but rather pick and choose the right lens for the right episode. “
    You seem to do just that, you search for the right lens for every single review, while too many other critics merely glom on to a story point (or points) time and time again, thinking that because it’s a different story point, the perspective is sufficiently different. Too often, it just isn’t.

    Anyway, I love your writing, Mr. McNutt! Keep doing what you’re doing, Make Mine Marvel, Thank You For The Music, etc etc.

  2. Tausif Khan

    2 responses to this piece:

    1) Buffy/Angel writer/director/production culture would be interesting to study in light of this piece.

    All of the producers on Buffy with the exception of Jane Espenson ended up directing their own work. This was part of a strategy by Whedon to hopefully eventually leave the show in capable creative hands which did not come to pass as the show ended after 7 seasons.

    On Angel Tim Minear was not the show runner but played a significant role in forming the tone of the show. Specifically when he wrote and directed “Darla” a very important show in developing the mythology on Angel.

    I have since tried to find other people who have written and directed on shows in which they are neither the show runner or creator of the show. My hope is to identify strong voices on shows and hopefully follow them when they create their own shows. I haven’t done an exhaustive search but this phenomena has been hard to find. Ben Edlund on Supernatural might be in the similar vein as Minear.

    Angel’s experimental nature which allowed Steven S. DeKnight to direct an episode of the show when he had never directed in his life before. He had been trained as a writer. His training on Angel allowed him to develop the skills he needed to be a great visual storyteller in the success of his television show Spartacus.

    2) Moving beyond Buffy/Angel the showrunner of Parks and Recreation Mike Schurr made a very important point about collaboration on the 93rd episode of The Nerdist Writers Panel. He talked about how in hiring writers for his show he looks for original voices, he reads only original spec scripts because only then can he tell that the person has a strong individual voice. He then specifically went on to mention that writer Harry Wittles was critical of the way the P&R writers room was writing how a person reacts on morphine. Wittles then took that section of the script entirely rewrote that section. When he came back Schurr remarked that the every joke was better than how the staff had envision the scene and that the scene was now specific to how a person reacts to being on morphine and not just a strung out person on drugs. He also mentioned another writer was hired specifically because she can writer jokes for Leslie Knopes character which Schurr himself can not write. With that Schurr concluded how essential collaboration is to the job of a showrunner.

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