Tag Archives: Showrunners

Interview: Hell On Wheels Showrunner John Wirth

JohnWirthWhen veteran writer/producer John Wirth took over as showrunner on AMC’s Hell on Wheels, it was a somewhat strangely public process. John Shiban, the showrunner for the show’s first two seasons, backed out unexpectedly after the series was renewed, leading AMC to make the series’ pickup contingent on finding a new showrunner. With series creators Joe and Tony Gayton departing as well, Wirth stepped into a series with established characters, existing storylines, and more or less complete creative freedom to take the show in whatever direction he desired.

That direction has made the show a strange sort of success story for AMC, shuffled off to the prestige-less refuge of Saturday nights where it’s been quietly outperforming expectations (see Kate Aurthur’s report at Buzzfeed for more). It concludes its third season tonight at 9/8c on AMC with the expectation that it has earned a fourth season, and having successfully transitioned from a slightly underperforming prestige AMC drama to a successful translation of their film western audience into original programming on a normally dead night.

At July’s TCA Press Tour before the season premiered, I had a chance to talk to Wirth about his perspective on showrunning, how he came to be involved with Hell on Wheels, his planned use of social media (which I’ll be reflecting on soon elsewhere), and how—despite the strange circumstances—Hell On Wheels marks a meaningful period in his career as a showrunner-for-hire.

This is far from your first time serving as showrunner on a series; in fact, the Internet suggests you were part of a “Showrunner Training Program” at some point? How do you train someone to be a showrunner?

JW: I put together a committee of writer-producer-showrunner types. We did a small book called A Television Writers’ Handbook. And it was the first time in the history of the Writers’ Guild that anybody had codified what it is to work on a TV show and what the various positions are and what’s expected of you when you’re in those positions. And we had a big chapter on showrunners, and how to behave as a showrunner, and so forth.

Out of that, Jeff Melvoin—who I had asked to be a part of that committee—had the idea: is this something we could teach? And I didn’t believe that it was, and he believed that it was. He said “I’m going to try to put together this program, will you work on it with me? “And I said sure, but I don’t want to be in charge—this little book we did took five years, and I thought it would take a couple months.

We put together the Showrunner Training Program, which has been enormously successful. I still don’t believe you can teach someone to be a showrunner, but you can expose them to the things they’re going to experience when they are showrunners. That’s really the goal of that program, to let people know what it is they’re going to be experiencing when they get that job.

What’s that job like?

The job itself is ridiculous. You’re the hardest working man or woman in show business – the hours are incredible, you have to be a writer/producer and manager, you have to manage up down and sideways, you have to be a priest, you have to be a magician, you have to be a wife – it’s nutty.

So why you do you think AMC came to you to fill that job on Hell on Wheels?

JW: I think they got to the Ws in their rolodex and were like “Damnit!” Who’s after this guy? We’d better like him. Continue reading

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

ShowrunnersLetters

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.

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A New Outlet: Contributing to UW-Madison’s Antenna

A New Outlet: Contributing to UW-Madison’s Antenna

September 17th, 2010

As you may know, I recently joined the PhD program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which in some ways will limit the amount of online writing I am able to do (it’s why things have been a bit quieter here at Cultural Learnings as of late, especially with the Cultural Catchup Project). However, the irony is that although the volume of my writing will be decreasing, the outlets for that writing are actually increasing: I’m extremely excited to be joining Antenna, the department’s media analysis blog, as a contributor.

I’m particularly excited because of how it allows for the merger of my two worlds: while the community consists largely of academics, the analysis is meant to cut through the traditional academic delay (where journals and books take years to get through the review/publishing process) to address current events similar to how online criticism operates. I very much look forward to exploring some of my more academic ideas within this framework, and encourage my Cultural Learnings readers to join that community and take part in a wide range of intriguing media-related discussions.

Right now, my first post is on something that many of you may relate to. In “Tweets of Anarchy: Showrunners on Twitter,” I look at how Twitter and other forms of social media have changed the relationship between showrunners, their texts, and their viewers, focusing on Kurt Sutter (Sons of Anarchy) and his somewhat controversial Twitter presence. The piece, like all Antenna pieces, is short and focuses on providing some information and prompting discussion, so I’d love to hear how showrunners’ online presence have changed your impressions of your favourite series (or perhaps series that you were otherwise unattached to).

Tweets of Anarchy: Showrunners on Twitter [Antenna]

…showrunners are now becoming active participants in conversations surrounding their shows, both formally (Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse’s Lost podcasts) and informally (Louis C.K.’s decision to wade into comment threads of Louie reviews); combined with their more prominent role in DVD bonus features and the proliferation of television journalism online, showrunners are becoming veritable celebrities among viewers of television. This is perhaps no more apparent than on Twitter, where showrunners (including Lindelof, Cuse, ,C.K., and numerous others) gain tens of thousands of followers who desire to know more about who is behind their favourite series.

Next week, meanwhile, Antenna will be offering multiple perspectives on each of the Fall debuts (a project I’ll be participating in);  I’ll likely share some of that as well, so stay tuned!

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