The Trouble with Showrunners
When I first heard the job title “show-runner” I pictured a young man fetching coffee for a producer. As it turns out, I wasn’t far off the mark. A “show-runner”, as I understand it, is paid to fetch plot points to keep the action—“events”—on the screen from letting up.
In the old days, we had ‘writers’ who worked from a Theme and a Narrative, two of the basic elements of good prose (the others being Voice, Setting, Character, Dialogue, and Syntax).
So, for example, a respected writer like Graham Greene spent much of his time on all 7 elements, and in fact, Greene wrote The Third Man—a great movie—as a novella before writing the screenplay. As he himself said:
“To me, it is almost impossible to write a film play without first writing a story. Even a film depends on more than plot, on a certain measure of characterization, on mood and atmosphere; and these seem to me almost impossible to capture for the first time in the dull shorthand of a script… one must have the sense of more material than one needs to draw on.”
During the lockdown, like many others, I spent most evenings watching Netflix, wondering after a few weeks why their shows seemed so boring. It wasn’t because of the actors, most of whom had to perform backflips to motivate the plot twists that the “show-runners” had scripted; and technically, the shows were proficient. No, the fault was in the writing, or lack thereof—a tone-deafness—a failure to understand good writing: “The Plot is what the writers tell the characters to do; the Narrative is what the characters actually do.”
What has happened is that Business, like a pandemic, has infected our culture with the result that creative decisions are now made for commercial reasons, not creative ones—producers are folks who can get pictures made; they are not the people who know how to make them. The shows we see on our screens contain now more sex and violence, and the insertion of these gratuitous elements slow—even prevents—the development of story. To quote the great American writer John Cheever:
“I don’t work with plots. I work with intuition, apprehension, dreams, concepts. Characters and events come simultaneously to me. Plot implies narrative and a lot of crap. It’s a calculated attempt to hold the reader’s interest at the sacrifice of moral conviction. Of course, one doesn’t want to be boring… one needs an element of suspense. But a good narrative is a rudimentary structure, rather like a kidney.”
Perhaps one day producers will “get woke” and invite the ‘writer’ in again to participate in telling us our stories; while Netflix and others, having bored the audience silly, are tossed into the dustbin of cultural history.