The Showrunners

The behind-the-scenes leaders of today's most beloved TV series have become as famous as the stars of their shows, whether they like it or not.


From left: Elizabeth Meriwether, David Benioff, D.B. Weiss, Dan Harmon, Alex Gansa, Greg Berlanti

It's not like the concept of the showrunner-as-kingpin is new—in the eighties, Aaron Spelling, Steven Bochco, and Stephen J. Cannell were as well-known as the series they lorded over. But as the television landscape has become ever more atomized and analyzed, the behind-the-scenes bosses—writers by trade, generally—have become stars in their own right, (sometimes) reluctant figureheads, and ambassadors for their shows' creative processes. "The shows I liked growing up had 30 million viewers, and three networks were splitting 200 million people," says Dan Harmon, who this year became the poster child for the perils of showrunners' increased visibility after he was fired from his own show, Community. "A more fragmented audience means if you're watching something, you definitely sought it out. And there's an Internet to talk about it on, so the names of the people responsible are more in your face."

Alex Gansa, cocreator and showrunner of the Showtime hit Homeland, has worked on enough series—10—over two decades to see how the job, and its qualifications, have evolved. "The idea used to be that you'd bounce around to many shows and it was 10 or 15 years before you had your turn," Gansa says. That's not the case now, when writers without any TV experience can be handed the reins to high-profile network shows.

That's what happened to the playwright and No Strings Attached screenwriter Elizabeth Meriwether, currently overseeing the second season of her show New Girl, and she's still adjusting to the fact that her job is worthy of being lionized. "Sometimes I can't believe people are interested," she says. "But it's good that you have to be accountable for your show, and that's good for television, because it means you're making something closer to art. I guess?"

Greg Berlanti, who codeveloped this season's comic-book adaptation Arrow, is quick to caution against glamorizing the position, especially as the pressures that come with a successful series mount. "It can be a distraction," he says, and he also worries that the attention can lead to pigeonholing when it comes time to sell new shows. "You have the same 150 problems first thing in the morning whether or not everyone knows your name."

Novelists turned screenwriters David Benioff and D.B. Weiss had never produced a television show before Game of Thrones, which can be shooting in five different countries at any given time. "We're like a couple of 10-year-olds exploring an abandoned house, too stupid to be scared and having too much fun to listen to the grown-ups." And are they worried about being relegated to dungeons and dragons forever? "We'll see when we go out with our next project, Bernanke! The Musical."

Elizabeth Meriwether, 31
Credit check: New Girl, No Strings Attached
Secret of survival: "You have to come up with a system that's sustainable. You can't have your hands on everything. The first year you're trying to survive, the second it's like, 'Okay, I need to make my life work.' At one point you're working on 11 episodes at the same time—it's impossible to maintain your voice through all of it."
Dress by Alaïa, shoes by Nicholas Kirkwood.

David Benioff, 42, and D.B. Weiss, 41
Credit check: Game of Thrones; The 25th Hour, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, City of Thieves (Benioff), Lucky Wander Boy (Weiss)
Why two heads are better than one: "We hope that two weak personalities might compensate for the lack of one strong one. No one person does everything, and anyone trying to nurture the perception that they do is nurturing a lie. It's a hugely collaborative process."
From left: Shirt and T-shirt by Maison Martin Margiela, jeans by Rag & Bone, sneakers, his own. Blazer by Louis Vuitton, shirt and jeans by GANT Rugger, boots by John Varvatos.

Dan Harmon, 39
Credit check: Community, Rick and Morty
Keep your head down: "You'd better have high ratings if you're gonna start being loud and noticeable. I'm sure [studios and networks] long for the days of us being anonymous, much the same way they consider it a liability for you to be a critical darling and not have high ratings, because now they're stuck with this PR situation that has nothing to do with putting bread on the table."
Sweater, shirt, and pants by Club Monaco, tie by J. Lindeberg, shoes by BOSS.

Alex Gansa, 52
Credit check: Homeland, 24, Dawson's Creek
The new model: "If you're in the national conversation, you can be identified as a hit even though you're not getting huge numbers. And if getting those conversations started means talking to showrunners about the political mine fields they walk every day, that could be interesting to someone who might tune in to the show."
Blazer by Boglioli, shirt by Louis Vuitton, jeans by John Varvatos, shoes by Grenson.

Greg Berlanti, 40
Credit check: Arrow, Political Animals, Brothers & Sisters
Burn notice: "When I started out, we had two months between seasons—now we have one week. The audience can flip to any cable channel and see a $100 million movie, so a show needs to look and sound the same as that."
Sweater by Prada, shirt by Pierre Balmain, pants and shoes by J. Crew.

• • •

Hollywood Mavericks
 

The Leading Man

The Showrunners

The Career Opportunists
 

The Next Big Thing

The Survivors

The Idea Man
 

The Directors

The Outsourced Superhero

The Creative Collectives