TV Guide Magazine’s “Fan Favorites Showrunners” panel was one of the most exciting events I attended at WonderCon this year. It featured an all-star panel of TV’s hottest showrunners whose work reflects the best cross section of what’s going on in TV these days. Moderated by TV Guide magazine executive editor Michael Schneider, the session brought together top producers for a look behind the scenes of our favorite shows. Panelists included Brannon Braga (Salem), Kerry Ehrin (Bates Motel), Adam Goldberg (The Goldbergs), Dan Harmon (Community), Alex Hirsch (Gravity Falls), Peter Horton (American Odyssey), and Graeme Manson (Orphan Black).
The panel discussed what it means to be a superstar showrunner; making noise and pushing boundaries; Harmon’s big move to Yahoo; how Hirsch gets away with a show that’s one of the most dense animated series ever seen on a children’s network; how social media has changed the game; the premiere of American Odyssey and Anna Friel’s committed performance; how Manson keeps track of every clone and personality while constantly bringing in more; how it’s impossible to shock people anymore; their take on remake mania; where Goldberg gets the content for Erica; the breaks that got them to the next level; and what we can look forward to this next season.
What it means to be a showrunner in this era and why it’s more than just being a writer or a producer:
ADAM GOLDBERG: In TV, unlike features, the writer is a producer. The writer is in charge of the content. His schedule is severe and the stakes are high, so the people that care the most about it do get to be in charge of the content. It’s somebody that has either paid their dues or lucked out greatly depending on who you’re looking at. They’re in charge of 250 people on the network side that are making a show. There’s millions and millions of dollars a month flowing through for a season. They’re someone you can hire or fire to run a show.
ALEX HIRSCH: Your whole floor is a bed. It’s blankets and a desk. You’re sort of like the president and also sort of like the janitor. At the end of the day, everything that doesn’t get done, it’s your name on the show. You are in charge of everything and you can choose how much you want to delegate or how much you want to be a control freak and try to do everything yourself. The second one is not how you should run a show, but it’s how I do it, and it’s why I sleep in my office quite a bit.
PETER HORTON: It’s a totally different mindset. An actor really gets focused on a character. They have the luxury of getting lost in that character. What we all have to do as showrunners encompasses the whole picture. We’re responsible for everything including the actor.
DAN HARMON: I never would have been able to be a showrunner in the 80’s era of TV before blogging, before Twitter, before my brand of obnoxiousness, before the visibility of the showrunner. I would have been fired before I made it up to showrunner and never rehired because the industry was more tightly run and there was less content to make. You would always go with somebody who knew what they were doing and gave you the least amount of grief. Now we get a lot of content and the question is how are you going to make money in a world where everyone has a million things to choose from. To our benefit and their benefit, the answer has become you have to make so much stuff and you’ve got to stop caring quite as much about if somebody is a pain in the ass and let them make their thing.
The push and the pullback that you get from the network and the kind of things you can get away with doing on advertiser-supported cable:
BRANNON BRAGA: Salem is an erotically-charged horror show, and it is quite graphic, and it’s on a very small new network called WGN out of Chicago. Because we were helping to launch the network, if anything, they pushed us more because they wanted to make a lot of noise and be noticed. So, we don’t worry about any of that. There’s a moment in the first episode of Season 2 that involves castration and a bird and that’s all I’ll say.
KERRY EHRIN: Bates Motel has become quite incestilicious as we go into this season. In the season opener, Norma and Norman are in the same bed. It’s a taboo topic that’s front and center in the show. There’s probably something wrong with me because it doesn’t seem particularly bad to me. I mean, they’re just sleeping. He’s 17, and she’s a single mom, and they’re close. It’s all good. It worked out.
GOLDBERG: (reacting to an embarrassing photo that appeared on the closing credits of The Goldbergs last week) I was a lonely kid without a lot of friends and a video camera. Everyone on Twitter was like, “Why are you wearing no pants?” The thing is, I am, but I was too big to be wearing that outfit and my mom forced me into it, so the pants rode up on me. It looks like I’m pantless. I made an episode about it because Barry, my brother, tortured me for years about that photo and it hung up in our living room. So, I put it up on national TV. He can’t make fun of me anymore because everyone knows it. I took the power away from him.
Dan’s big move to Yahoo with Community and what the reaction has been:
HARMON: Community has a bazillion viewers now, but the dark side is it’s their show and Yahoo gets to manage that data however they want now. You’re out of the Nielsen system which is a huge relief, but there’s no more public record of your success. Maybe they’re lying to me and it’s like the Twilight Zone, but now that they’re counting clicks instead of journals from baby boomers, it turns out as many people are watching any given show as you feel are watching. I think we all have a number in our head when we watch House of Cards based on the conversations we’re having. And then, those Nielsen numbers would come in to defy those things and people would go, “Wait, that doesn’t make sense.” As many people as I thought were watching my show are watching my show on Yahoo.
That’s the great news. The bad news is they’re giving me total control. There’s no more bad guys. All my anger has to go out three feet in front of my face and splats back on me like I’m spitting in the wind. “Who’s in charge of this shit?” “It’s me.” “Why are we working so late?” “Because of me.” But it’s going incredibly well. It was incredibly strenuous this year for those exact reasons, all glibness aside. It was the hardest season we’ve ever worked on. But in the edit bay, it’s turning out to be one of the best I think by my standards. I created Community to be like 30 Rock and The Office because that was the age that Community was allowed into the nursery room. I looked at my older brothers and sisters and said, “Let’s be like that.” So Community was designed to be like that. I thought the 22-minute total run time was responsible for the pace, but I found out that you can hold yourself to that pacing with no regard to run time. Basically, the run time turns out to be about 28 without fail, unless I’ve been lazy and it’s 30, and then it feels too long.
What you can get away with on a show like Gravity Falls, which is probably the most dense animated series ever seen:
HIRSCH: We get away with crazy monsters and scary stuff that might give kids nightmares. That’s one category of stuff we get away with. Then, the other category is just like how complex and mythological and insane and packed it is. This is a kid’s channel for Disney. We recently had an episode where a house was haunted and a bunch of taxidermied animal heads started chanting, “Ancient sins…” and then blood started coming out of their mouths, and then a skeleton came out of a fireplace with an ax in his head. The way I got away with that was just pure stubbornness. I thought when I came into Disney I’ll play ball and be everyone’s best friend and they won’t have any reason to fight me. I quickly learned the opposite lesson. I just have to care more and be really annoying, and when they shoot that email back to me that says, “Oh the kids aren’t going to like the blood coming out of the monster’s mouth,” just be like, “Alright. Hey, find another Alex Hirsh.” You have to play chicken with them and care more, and eventually they get so sick of your annoying, arrogant emails that they leave you alone and you get away with it. That’s unfortunately the lesson I’ve learned. You just have to be annoying and persistent and stay up late and keep trying and keep asking. That’s how I get away with the scary stuff. It’s just by being obnoxious.
And then, in terms of the dense mythology, Disney has no problem as long as the show works as 20 minutes of fun with a little story arc, and you get it, and it’s broad, and you like the characters, and it’s from a kid’s perspective. As long as it’s working on the level that people signed up for, then they’re fine with it. If I want to sneak in ten other levels underneath that, they’re not going to have a problem with that as long as I’m meeting the alpha note of “kids better love it.” And then, you can also get a billion crazy conspiracy nuts as well as long as you wedge that in between the lines of funny fart jokes and stuff.
In terms of the process of actually running the show, the amount of callbacks, the mythology, and all the clues, and all the codes we have, it does slow down the writing process. It slows everything down, because we’ll be in the middle of a story we love, and then say, “Wait a minute. This steps on the canon we have for someone’s backstory that we haven’t unveiled yet. And if you have a new writer, just catching him up to speed with all that takes a really long time. It just makes writing slower and more agonizing. I love cracking a three-act funny sitcom story, but so often the rules of Gravity Falls require that we have to throw that out and try five more times for it to work. We’re just barely navigating what doesn’t step on our own toes in terms of story logic. It’s grueling getting all the pieces to hook up, and the internet will let me know every time we slip up. Without fail, we’ll think no one will catch that and they catch it a second before it airs on TV somehow. These are the people we are trying to outsmart. It’s literally impossible.
How social media has changed the game and how much they pay attention to it:
HIRSCH: You think with the celebrity showrunner concept, it’s great because then you can have fans and all this Twitter attention, and have your own little Twitter contest, and get people to know about your products. But also, you’re the face of every mistake. The face has never been out there more. The more visible you are, the more crazy people are mad at you and you just collect that vibe. So, on the one hand, it’s awesome and you get all the love. But also, I’m the face of the show. So suddenly, if there’s a hiatus between episode 2 and 3 that’s a month, I just get every message every single day, “When’s the episode coming out?” I’m not allowed to say, but they assume I’m going to have the answer.
GOLDBERG: I find that when I’m making the episodes, it’s like me and the writers are just in a bubble, in a vacuum. We have no idea if it’s working. We find it funny. It’s entertaining us. The reason I like Twitter or the Facebook page we have is that I can find out what people like and know that’s something that people are responding to and to maybe work in that direction a little bit more and also what people don’t like. It’s really helpful. Is it hurtful if somebody says my dad is the worst father on the planet? Yeah, it’s hurtful. It’s all on video. He wasn’t the greatest guy, but he meant well. You have to ignore that stuff. But there’s so much positivity I find because I’m also writing about Transformers and all these things people love. If anything, I take more issue with critics that don’t watch the show and say how much it sucks. Fans, if they’re watching it and they hate it, it’s their right to say they don’t like it. My issue is more when people go after my family for being a certain way when they don’t really know what the show is.
What happens when your show is about to premiere and you don’t know what the Monday morning numbers are going to be?
HORTON: These guys are all relaxed when they talk about their shows. It’s really nerve wracking. It’s exciting, of course, and thrilling. It’s the job of a lifetime. What we do up here, as much as we’d like to complain about it, it’s the best job in the world. To have an idea in your head, to write it down, and see actors come in and act and sets built that you had in your brain, it’s just not a whole lot that’s better. On the other hand, I’ve spent 3-1/2 years of my life doing this. I went to Morocco seven times in fourteen months to try and get this thing on its feet. It’s a passion project and so it’s terrifying. It’s all an act. I used to be an actor. Inside I’m a puddle on the ground in my bathroom listening to Eckhart Tolle tapes.
The casting of Anna Friel in a demanding role on American Odyssey that’s quite different from what we’re used to:
HORTON: That was a shock for me, because in our minds initially, this character is a soldier. When you see the show, you’ll see she goes through incredibly taxing and insane situations. When you think of someone like Anna Friel, you think of Pushing Daisies and someone small, thin and sweet. She came in and read for us and really devoted herself to it. When you think about the fact that she not only devoted herself physically by going to a military trainer from the moment she got the part and doing sit-ups in the rain in London, to the fact that she’s Irish, so she’s speaking with an American accent, and speaking French which she speaks, but also speaking Arabic phonetically, it’s a real committed performance on her part. I call her Mighty Mouse. She’s strong and she’s fierce.
How Manson keeps track of every clone and personality in Orphan Black:
GRAEME MANSON: It’s all up here (points to his head). We really like it dark, so that’s the easy part. We also have twisted humor, my partner John (Fawcett) and I. So that’s the easy part. Whenever the show gets too heavy, we do something dark and twisted. These guys were talking about how do you keep surprising audiences when everybody’s trying to guess something. We have a new thing that we do in the room. We go, “Okay, what’s the stupidest thing we could do, the thing that just wouldn’t work?” And then, we go, “Okay, make that work.” Like in Season 2, Donnie shoots Dr. Leekie. And John goes, “That’s the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard. He wouldn’t do that. That’s not going to work.” And it goes on for a few weeks, and then he comes around, and he’s like, “You know what, no one’s going to guess that.”
How it’s impossible to shock people anymore and whether there is anything you can’t do on television:
HARMON: It’s just our unconscious response to overpopulation. Rats do the same thing. [I surprise people] by eating babies, same as rats. Kids are good. We ran over a kid. That was shocking, but only for about five seconds and then we’re onto the next scene.
HIRSCH: They had a problem with us referencing spin the bottle on the show which wouldn’t make people blush in The Andy Griffith Show. I don’t know what universe these censors were living in. The way we surprise people is on a kid’s network doing stuff that’s slightly edgier than the other kid’s networks, and then people fall out of their chair and lose their minds. That’s the secret, go to a kid’s network and then do horrifying stuff. That’s the best way to be surprising in the modern age.
HARMON: Almost nothing violent is surprising. It has to be sexual to be surprising or to be taboo. The trick is to mix your sex with your violence and get the sex scene underneath the violence. That’s what’s great about this golden age of TV. The lid has been lifted. You can hit somebody in the head and stuff can come out of their head but if it’s animation and you can make it purple, it’s okay.
HIRSCH: That’s true. With green blood, you can do anything in animation and they’re fine with it.
GOLDBERG: I’m not allowed to show Jeff Garland’s jiggling balls. I always get notes on that. “Too much jiggling.” We’ve had to CG out the jiggle in his tiny whities. It cost thousands of dollars. It’s true. It’s really is sex. Standards and Practices: two thrusts, not three.
HARMON: For my part, the thing that attracts me to television is the populist public nicety of it. We’re gathered in a room here. The reason why we’re able to do this is because nobody is jumping up and ripping open their shirt and saying, “Look at these! And I forced you to be reminded that we are animals all the time.” We come out to the public and we interact with each other. There’s a joy and actual freedom to the fact that we can do it in a civilized way. It’s absolutely great that underneath it all there’s this boiling river of lava. We should always forgive ourselves for being animals and the stuff underneath that. Good TV should always have these volcanic eruptions. But also, TV is public. It’s a church. It’s a big, open place where you’re with everybody watching something. I’ve never really had the urge to tear down the pillars and make it filthy. I always feel there’s a comfort there that’s sweet and nice.
Their take on remake mania with Coach, Full House, and The Muppets now coming back:
HARMON: It’s like we’re running out of ideas. It’s the beginning of the end.
HIRSCH: In ten years, it’ll be great for all of us. Someone will want to remake our thing and we’ll get royalties for it. So just wait around a generation and people will have nostalgia for what we made, and Michael Bay will be making a Community movie eventually.
HARMON: I think that broadcast networks are responding inappropriately to the threat of basic cable and the internet in general. In some ways, they’re responding very well. They’re raising the lid on broadcast content. They’re creating cooler feeling, more basic cable-feeling network shows, but then there’s that other impulse which is like, “What about The Munsters? Get them back here for The Munsters.”
EHRIN: Or else, do that as a cable show.
Goldberg’s passion for TV vs. returning to do more feature films:
GOLDBERG: I found that movies are long to write. They take forever to get made. I did this one movie called Fanboys that I wrote. That was six years of my life for a movie that when it came out was just this Harvey Weinstein monstrosity. As a writer, you get more control. So, in looking back at would I want to go back to movies, one thing I’m pitching now is the Gobots movie. That’s a passion of mine. But otherwise, there’s no [interest]. TV is like a train. You have to keep writing and keep making things. Otherwise, you’re just stuck getting studio notes on a movie for three years. It’s tortuous.
Where Goldberg gets the content for Erica on the show and how he integrates it with his stories:
GOLDBERG: I don’t have a sister and people on Twitter said it’s like finding out there’s no Santa Claus because they love that character. When I was hiring my staff, I knew that was a spot that I would need writers for. I’d lived everything else. So I hired some amazing female writers. I was looking for a very specific character, just like my older brother, Eric, really rebellious. There’s a video where he’s screaming at my parents at Thanksgiving that I showed at the end of one of the episodes. They wanted to send him to Europe and he was like, “You’re trying to control me! No!” And he stormed out of Thanksgiving and refused to come back to the table. That’s why I wanted a writer who would relate to that. So, I just got great writers that were pitching me all kinds of stories from their childhood and that’s what I’m incorporating into the show.
What some of the breaks were that got them to the next level and how they went from consistently working to showrunning their own projects:
EHRIN: I feel it has a lot to do with luck. I think talent obviously gets you so far, but I think there are just certain points in your career where you’re in the right place at the right time and they need something that is like what you’re pitching. You get an amazing actress or actor to do it and it starts falling together. I do think there is a little bit of that factor in it.
HORTON: I think it’s luck and persistence.
HIRSCH: Timing is huge. You could pitch your favorite show in the world, and they could love it and say, “We just heard another network is doing something with it. Your show is a ghost and their show is a ghost. No.” Or, “Their show has a ghost and it’s season 3 and people love it. Yes. Pitch us three more ghost shows.” But you can’t really predict. Persistance is the only way. If it’s random or timing is such an issue, then just pitch constantly. Just keep going and keep pitching. Eventually the window will line up for a greenlight. They’re not making something too similar or too different and they know you well enough. You can’t be discouraged because the natural state of a pilot is to die. It’s like salmon swimming up a stream and you’re probably going to die, so send lots of salmon. Don’t give up.
MANSON: And picking your creative partners, if you co-write, or if you partner up with a director or a producer, those choices, you’ve got to pick the people that are as persistent as you are. They don’t have to be your best friends. You just have to see the same thing.
BRAGA: You need to have an agent. The agencies are the last vestige of a very old media world. For better or for worse, my agent saved my life. Everybody up here owes their life to their agent. But there’s like five agencies, and if you don’t get represented at them, then you’re not getting these meetings. And if you’re not getting these meetings, then you don’t get to exercise all of these wonderful, spiritual disciplines like keep trying. It’s a result of your agent saying, “So and so wants to meet with you.” Why do they want to meet with you? Because your agent told them that they want to meet with you. All I know is that I had to get represented at an agency and then I started working. How do you get represented by those peope? I don’t know. They don’t do panels.
How to handle pitch meetings and notes:
EHRIN: It’s so different at every single place. It’s hard to do blanket advice on that. I think it’s safe to assume at a network there’s going to be more people contributing let’s say, as opposed to a smaller order on a cable show that can be more specific and unique. But there’s also a skill in navigating collaboration and navigating invasiveness. Mostly, you want to always hear what they’re saying. You don’t necessarily have to do it, but you want to make them think you’re doing it. You’re listening to the nature of the note. A lot of times it’s right, but the way it’s being presented is not always exactly right. You want to get at the real heart of what the note is. If you agree with it, if there’s a way you can make it work, if you feel it makes it better, try it.
What we can look forward to in the coming weeks as their shows premiere or end their season:
BRAGA: If you haven’t seen Salem, it’s on a network called WGN. You’ll have to find out what channel that’s on in your area. The second season premieres tomorrow at 10:00pm and the first season is on Netflix. If you like sex and you like scares, this is the show for you.
EHRIN: Sex and scares. This is an amazing season. It’s right in the center cut of Norman Bates losing it.
GOLDBERG: I’m doing a Princess Bride episode. Now that the show’s been on two years, the studios are more willing to let me use some of the 80’s films that I love. Castle Rock was really cool. They said, “Take all our stuff.” I’m really excited about that one.
HARMON: Sex and scares. If you’re scared of sex like me, you should be watching Community on Yahoo. It’s free. You have to deal with the player which has varying results for people, but it’s there and it’s good. You can watch Community right now. Go get caught up on Hulu and then watch Season 6 on Yahoo and then Rick and Morty is coming up.
HIRSCH: The title of the next episode is “Sex and Scares” but it’s G-rated, so Cuddles and Spookums. Gravity Falls has just finished the first half of Season 2. There’s a hiatus in between. The show is coming back in the summer. I don’t have an exact date for you, but if you tweet me everyday, “Tell me the exact date,” and use #CuddlesandSpookums, eventually you’ll get an answer. For those of you who are fans, we ended on this massive, game-changing reveal of the main character as a secret relative who came into the show. For those of you who are like, “I want to know all about that. Is he going to jerk us around or are we actually going to get answers,” I guarantee you, even if you have to wait a long time, when the next episode comes out and I’m allowed to give you the title, we delve deeply into the history of Grunkle Stan and how all this stuff came to be. Prepare to have your head canons annihilated. Prepare to be really frustrated with how it doesn’t match up with your fan fiction. You’ll like it though, I hope.
HORTON: By Episode 3, there’s this huge alien invasion. Sunday night is the first episode. It’s full of energy. It’s full of tension. And it only gets more so going forward. So, enjoy the ride.
MASON: Project Castor is in full effect and we learn a lot more this coming season. April 18th we’ll get to see a lot of Tatiana Maslany kicking her own ass and that of Ari Millen, our new Castor clone. A whole new door has opened in the Orphan Black world.