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The Showrunner as Auteur: How TV Critics Have Learned From Film Critics' Mistakes

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by Sam Adams
June 13, 2013 5:15 PM
2 Comments
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"Mad Men."
At The New Republic, Craig Fuhrman uses a review of Brett Martin's "Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From 'The Sopranos' and 'The Wire' to 'Mad Men' and 'Breaking Bad'" -- multiple colons in the original, sadly -- to go after what he calls "the showrunner fallacy." He writes:

"Our best TV shows may be more complex than ever, but our theory of their greatness has become utterly reductive: In this reputedly golden age of television, it all boils down to the showrunner, television's own auteur."

Television, Fuhrman argues, is a collaborative medium, "created less by celebrity chef than crockpot." On his blog, he goes into specifics, citing examples of great TV moments that came about because of interaction -- and sometimes friction -- between creative elements. The memorable moment in "Mad Men"'s first season when Don Draper's reunion with his family turns out to be a fantasy was suggested by an AMC executive, while the vertiginous pullback showing "Breaking Bad"'s Walt in his crawlspace was suggested by the episode's director.

To this, I can only say: Duh.

Although Fehrman produces plenty of evidence, much drawn from "Difficult Men" and Alan Sepinwall's "The Revolution Was Televised" that the recent rise in television's critical fortunes has been accompanied by a concomitant focus on showrunners -- a role that often encompasses creator, head writer, and executive producer -- he's hard-pressed to find examples of anyone treating a showrunner as a series' sole creative authority. 

The closest he gets is a quote from Martin's book. At one point, he notes Chase's affection for the powerful post-auteur directors of Europe. Yet those directors, Martin continues, "would have killed for a fraction of the godlike powers over an ever-expanding universe that [Chase] exercised from his office. ...His name and its power were so often invoked, usually in whispers, that he came to seem like an un-seen, all-knowing deity."

Fuhrman makes brief reference to Cahiers du cinema, "the French publication that popularized the original film version of auteur theory," but he seems unaware that this particular straw man has long since been torn apart. In essence, he's retracing the tracks laid down by Pauline Kael in her book-length essay "Raising Kane," which argued that writer Herman Mankiewicz deserved as much credit for "Citizen Kane" as Orson Welles, if not more so.

There's a reason Francois Truffaut called his initial formulation "la politique des auteurs" rather than the auteur theory, as Andrew Sarris named its English-language equivalent. Treating a director as the primary -- not sole -- creative force behind a film was a polemical notion, one that could be applied to a select group of artists. That a movie like "The Wizard of Oz" achieves greatness despite its having been been worked on by no less than four directors does not disprove the auteur "theory," any more than "The Walking Dead" surviving the departure of several showrunners disproves their overall importance. Like any other school of cinematic analysis, auteurism is a tool, more useful in some cases than others. Pointing out that it doesn't account for every facet of a work's complexity is like saying that hammers are useless because they can't cut wood.

The elevation of showrunners has as much to do with culture as criticism. It's an easy shorthand, and one that reflects the tremendous influence that certain -- not all -- showrunners have on their shows. Part of running a successful show is knowing how best to take advantage of the many talents at your disposal: that David Milch deliberately wrote long monologues for "Deadwood" actor William Sanderson, whose discomfort with extended speeches fed the constant anxiety of his perpetually ill-at-ease character E.B. Farnum, hardly contradicts Milch's influence. In fact, it's a prime example of a creative force turning a potential negative into a positive, seeing something no one else saw. 

No sane critic would claim, or ever has, that a director or showrunner is the only force at work on a movie or series, excepting experimental filmmakers like Stan Brakhage or James Benning. Nor do most auteurs attempt to take all the credit. Matthew Weiner's "Mad Men" commentaries are rife with acknowledgements of the costume designers, cinematographers, directors and day players whose work goes into the show. Of course, you can't make an amorphous collective the subject of a New York Times Magazine cover. Showrunners are, among other things, brands: Would you be more or less likely to watch a futuristic Western set in space if you knew it was "from the creator of 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer?'"  

As cultural phenomena go, the notion of "serious TV" is relatively new, and that goes for TV criticism as well. The auteur theory helped legitimize the work of the overlooked studio craftsmen whose personalities shone through their work in disparate genres, and it's helped legitimize an art form whose boundaries are still being tested. But few if any critics endorse the "showrunner fallacy" Fuhrman militates against. Perhaps some film critics were slow to learn the lesson, but TV criticism shows few signs of repeating their mistakes.

Read more of "Why TV Critics Should Stop Focusing on Showrunners."

UPDATE: An "erstwhile assistant" to "Mad Men"'s Matthew Weiner has weighed in with a comment on the TNR article, under the name Orbots: "Yes, it's a collaborative process and everyone contributes to the show, but all employees of the show, including the directors, report to the showrunner who tells everyone else what to do."

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2 Comments

  • Joel Bocko | June 14, 2013 10:16 AMReply

    *Herman, not Joseph Mankiewicz

    That aside, I'm wondering if you think there is a substantial difference between a showrunner's "authorial" impact on a series vs. a director's on a film. You make a good case that in both film & TV, auteurism helps us pinpoint the predominate voice/viewpoint but needn't drown out others; but do you recognize a difference between how auteurism (my iPhone always tries to turn that into "sutures"!) would pan out in the two mediums?

  • Sam Adams | June 14, 2013 10:35 AM

    I'm sure it's different between media, as it is from one production to another. But in either case, auteurism is more of a critical tool than a theory of creation. The structure of a narrative TV series is less malleable than that of a feature film, but an episode by Joss Whedon or Aaron Sorkin or Shonda Rhimes is still instantly identifiable.

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