Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Keep On (Show) Running

If you love Cinema or Movies or Film or whatever you want to call the artform in question, chances are you follow certain creative people. Directors, most likely, since Auteurism passed over from academia in the 50s and entered the subconscious of the mainstream (helped by the fact that Studios had always used certain "name" Directors to sell films, as far back as Griffith and Keaton, through Welles and Ford and DeMille) so that everybody with any basic film literacy knows who Peter Jackson, James Cameron or Quentin Tarantino is. If you're like me - and every other film-lover I know - you keep an eye on the Directors you admire, and make an effort to see their new work. Probably you also follow certain thespians, for this is how the star system functions. You like an actor or actress in one thing, and you'll be willing to see if you like them in anything else, is the thinking. And so you look out for them in trailers, on posters, in reviews. You liked J.J. Abrams' Star Trek reboot? You loved that cocky young man playing Captain Kirk? Well, here he is, with Denzel (you've liked him in loads of things, hes an old, reliable favourite) in a big action movie, playing the good guy! You wanna see that, dontcha?

On the level of the Film Blog, you have to go into more detail. I obviously follow lots of directors and actors and actresses, but I'm also interested in the work of dozens of screenwriters, cinematographers and even composers. If Ennio Morricone or David Holmes has scored a new film I've never heard of, I'm instantly interested. Probably there are hundreds of thousands of people out there who feel exactly the same way. There are even producers whose involvement will make me take notice; Scott Rudin, Art Linson, a few others. This is how I keep up. By tracing careers, following the progress of the individual whose work I find rewarding and/or exciting.

But television is different. Traditionally it has been seen as more of a writer's medium. Directors generally don't own their shows, instead they work as hired guns. In the UK, the work of TV writers like Dennis Potter, Jimmy McGovern and Alan Bleasdale have long been the main attraction of their own programmes. The American concept of the "Showrunner" is as close as you can get to an Auteur Theory for television. This is generally the creator of the show who oversees the writing, steers the direction of the show and is involved with decisions on most every level, including casting and direction (Kurt Sutter, who created Sons of Anarchy, gives a great account of just what the job involves here ). Often, this Showrunner will receive none of the recognised relevant credits. He has not directed the episode, nor written it, not edited or shot it. Nevertheless, the episode is more his than anybody elses, for the wider vision - and very often all of the tiniest details too - comes from him. And what does he get? An "Executive Producer" credit.

The rise of HBO to a position where it is widely regarded as producing some of the finest television drama ever made has helped in the recognition of the Showrunner as the creative lynchpin of much TV. For while the likes of Sam Peckinpah (on The Westerner) and Michael Mann (on Miami Vice and Crime Story) basically worked as Showrunners on high-quality, critically acclaimed programmes in other eras before transferring their talents to cinema, before the rise of HBO, many notable American Showrunners worked on more populist, less acclaimed shows. I mean the likes of David E. Kelley (Ally McBeal, The Practice, Doogie Howser, M.D), Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick (thirtysomething, Once & Again) and Steven Bochco (Hill Street Blues, Murder One, L.A. Law). The Sopranos, and to a lesser extent, The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, changed everything. David Chase is seen as the author of The Sopranos, credited as Creator, responsible for writing numerous key episodes and directing a couple, and he gets most of the plaudits for the series' ambition, artfulness and complexity.

Joss Whedon has benefitted similarly from the success of Buffy and trailed that through a string of less successful Series, from Angel through Firefly to Dollhouse. So it seems obvious; in TV, I follow the Showrunners, the Creators. If David Chase ever gets around to making another Series, I'll be there. David Simon has won me for life with The Wire, The Corner and Generation Kill, and I will watch Treme (whenever it gets a UK DVD release) entirely on the promise of his name. David Milch, Alan Ball, Matthew Weiner, Vince Gilligan, Mitchell Hurwitz, Kurt Sutter, Aaron Sorkin; all names associated with exceptional series whose future work will be scrutinised as belonging to their own ouevres.
David Milch, for example, has a new series in production for HBO. Entitled Luck, it would be eagerly anticipated on the basis of its cast (Dustin Hoffman, Joan Allen and Nick Nolte among many others) and director (Michael Mann is directing the pilot), but for legions of Deadwood fans, its a David Milch piece, pure and simple. Mitchell Hurwitz's new show, Running Wilde, has been given a mixed reception due to the high expectations of fans of Arrested Development.

There are several recent US shows waiting to jump the Atlantic I'm looking forward to, and Showrunner issues make each interesting for different reasons. Boardwalk Empire is the most obviously appealing. A HBO-produced period gangster epic with an awesome cast, a massive budget, and Scorsese direction of the pilot seems almost too good to be true. But it has been created by Terence Winter, one of Chase's key writers on The Sopranos. The last Sopranos alumni to launch his own period epic about the making of America? Matthew Weiner with Mad Men. Instant pedigree.
Rubicon is an AMC show, which these days is a recommendation. AMC has given us the aforementioned Mad Men together with Breaking Bad, and here they have backed the creation of Jason Horwitch, whose only previous notable work was a short-lived mid-00s drama, Medical Investigation. Rubicon has proven short-lived too, with AMC cancelling it after the first season, and it is reportedly quiet and slow and baffling and subtle, which sounds great to me, despite mixed reviews and my ignorance of Horwitch's work.
The Walking Dead is also from AMC, Frank Darabont is the Showrunner, its based on a comic I know well and quite like, and I can see it working brilliantly as a Series. Aside from Darabont's obvious cinematic record (The Shawshank Redemption, The Mist, etc), I'm encouraged by the fact that his TV education came at the hands of Shawn Ryan on the Shield. Ryan is a one man Television Drama factory, his proteges and writers creating their own series regularly. The Unit and Sons of Anarchy both originate from within Ryan's stable, and I love both those shows (despite being lukewarm on The Shield itself).

Ryan is executive producer on the show I'm most excited about; Terriers. It is created by Ted Griffin, best known as a screenwriter on Oceans Eleven, Matchstick Men and Best Laid Plans. If those films suggest a taste for Neo-Noir, then the show looks like a vintage slice of Southern Californian dirty noir: all faded urban backdrops (actually San Diego) alcoholic ex-cops, struggling Private Investigators, black humour and one-liners. With a pilot directed by Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow), underused character actors Donal Logue and Michael Raymond-James as suitably scruffily mismatched leads, and echoes of such California-Noir classics as The Long Goodbye and Harper evident in the promotional material, it looks like a tonally perfect piece of classy pulp. Almost finished its first Season on FX in the States, its been well-reviewed (75 on metacritic) but not massively successful in the ratings, but I've read too many good things from writers I trust to be put off.

Griffin as Showrunner also encourages me. When Screenwriters create tv shows, the results can be fascinating. Take Graham Yost, who wrote Speed, Broken Arrow and Hard Rain in the 1990s. He seemed a big budget, high concept writer. But then he created Boomtown, the underseen and short-lived cop drama which was always complex and more or less the opposite of Yost's movie work in its effect. His most recent creation is the superb Justified. Or Peter Berg, whose middling work as a director of films has been blown away by the impressive way he developed his best film, Friday Night Lights, into the TV drama of the same name. Or Ben Best and Jody Hill, whose brilliant series Eastbound & Down is on a different level from their mixed work in feature films on the likes of The Foot Fist Way and Observe & Report. Based upon these precedents, I have high hopes for Ted Griffin as a creator of good TV, and for Terriers.

A question all of this prompts is: if I was offered the choice right now between writing and directing a Movie, with all the grandeur and spectacle that implies, and creating and running a TV Series, which would I choose? Which would anybody choose? Cinema has a magic and an aura denied to television, in some ways it seems more important, the statelier artform. But then I think of the reach, the detail, the incredible nuance and variety of shows like The Wire and Mad Men, and I don't know. Series like The Pacific match any film in terms of spectacle and action, anyway. Watch them in a theatre and they would be just as viscerally powerful as most movies. And then they have the time and space to stretch out and investigate characters, to truly address thematic preoccupations, to follow whimsical ideas, to create worlds and populate them with people and have those people grow and develop as they would in life without any false structure forced upon them.
I really can't decide.
Which is probably why people who can do both, do both.

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