TV's Top 50 Showrunners 2010

6:00 AM 9/9/2010

by THR Staff

The most influential TV showrunners in Hollywood.

Selections for The Hollywood Reporter’s third annual list of the top TV showrunners are based on the following criteria:

1. Direct responsibility for the day-to-day creative output of a scripted TV showcurrently on theair or debuting in the fall.

2. How prolific the showrunner is; those with more than one series on the air are more likely to be included. Writer-producers with a show debuting in the fall are included only if they created or ran a previous hit series.

3. Nielsen ratings, especially relative to other shows on the same network.

4. Emmy attention and/or critical praise.

5. Reputation among studio and network executives for professionalism and delivering high-quality and high-rated TV.

The Godfathers: Not included on the list but just as influential are major executive producers like J.J. Abrams (Fox’s Fringe and NBC’s Undercovers), Jerry Bruckheimer (CBS’ CSI franchise and Cold Case and NBC’s Chase), John Wells (TNT’s Southland and Showtime’s Shameless), Dick Wolf (the Law & Order franchise) and Anthony Zuiker (CSI). They impact TV as much as anyone on the Showrunners list.

  • Neal Baer & Rene Balcer

    "Law & Order: SVU," "Law & Order: Los Angeles" (NBC)

    The "Law & Order" mothership has gone to cancellation heaven and "Criminal Intent" might be on life support, but "SVU" chugs into its 12th season with the longest-running paired characters on TV, "second only to Ozzie and Harriet," Baer notes. Meanwhile, former "L&O" showrunner Balcer jumped coasts for the next franchise entry, which NBC is giving its A-list promo campaign in the fall. Balcer brought in "L&O" veteran Chris Misiano as a producing partner but admits to struggling a bit to find locations around the City of Angels. "In New York, it's easy to get five to six locations within walking distance of each other, so you can shoot on location efficiently," Balcer says. "In L.A., the only thing within walking distance of anything is your car."

    Favorite TV Moment: "My 10th birthday was on Feb. 9, 1964," Balcer recalls. "Ed Sullivan gave me the best present a kid could ever have: The debut of the Beatles on North American television. I sat there and ate my birthday cake and just watched the Beatles."

    Big Break: "It came from the same person, twice: John Wells," Baer says. "I grew up with him in Denver, and he gave me a job at 'China Beach.' Then I went to medical school, and he sent me a script for 'ER' and asked me to consult for a few months. I stayed seven years."

  • Alan Ball

    "True Blood" (HBO)

    The Atlanta-born Ball started out as a playwright before switching to sitcoms ("Cybill"), penning the Oscar-winning script for 1999's "American Beauty" and seguing to HBO's breakout drama "Six Feet Under." As his vampire saga wraps up its third season as HBO's top-rated series, Ball is working on the script for "All Signs of Death," a pilot for another HBO series, this one based on the Charlie Huston crime noir novel "The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death."

    Favorite TV Moment: "The 'Stupid Spoiled Whore Video Playset' episode of 'South Park' [from 2004, spoofing Paris Hilton]. But the show that made me get off the couch and actually cry out was in 'Breaking Bad' when Hank successfully fended off the two drug lord assassins."

    Big Break: "When Carolyn Strauss pitched the idea of 'Six Feet Under' to me and when HBO agreed to make it."

  • Carter Bays & Craig Thomas

    "How I Met Your Mother" (CBS)

    The sitcom is coming off one of its strongest seasons ratings-wise, meaning Bays and Thomas won't have to reveal the mother's identity any time soon. But when the day finally comes, the Wesleyan alums -- they met in college performing in a soul band called the Testostertones -- are more than ready. "We came up with the ending of the series when we were filming the pilot," Bays says. 

    Favorite TV Moment: Thomas points to Shelley Long's emotional farewell on "Cheers," while Bays favors the first installment of CBS' "The Late Show With David Letterman" following the Sept. 11 attacks, back when the duo were staff writers on the show. 

    Big Break: Landing internships in MTV's development department in New York between their junior and senior years at Wesleyan. 


  • Ed Bernero

    "Criminal Minds" (CBS)

    Bernero's grisly procedural soared past 100 episodes this season and prompted a spinoff, "Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior," launching in the fall. But the new show hasn't increased the workload for the former Chicago cop. "I mean, I get paid for it," he says. "But Chris Mundy is running it and all the credit goes to him." 

    Favorite TV Moment: An episode of "St. Elsewhere" in which the wife of Dr. Morrison (David Morse) is killed in a car crash. "Her heart is transplanted into an old man and the last image of that show is him putting his stethoscope to the guy's chest and listening to her heart beat." 

    Big Break: Connecting with Geoff Harris, then a vp in charge of writer development at NBC. "An acquaintance of mine in Chicago was working as a driver and picked him up for a speaking engagement at Northwestern University and gave him one of my feature scripts." Harris helped Bernero land an agent, leading to freelance assignments on "F/X: The Series" and "NYPD Blue" and, eventually, a staff position on "Brooklyn South."


  • Shane Brennan

    "NCIS," "NCIS: Los Angeles" (CBS)

    Running two of CBS' highest-rated dramas is a walk in the park compared to making television in less time and with fewer dollars in Brennan's native Australia. "For me, coming here means I can take weekends off and do a bit of golf," he says. And with ratings running so high, he's even open to the idea of a third spinoff. "We've done 165 episodes of 'NCIS' and there's no shortage of stories," he says. "We're coming up with fresh material all the time." 

    Favorite TV Moment: "The first episode of 'Hill Street Blues' proved that the U.S. was finally making television like we'd always had in Australia and England. We were now competing with the U.S. for high-quality dramas."

    Big Break: "I took over running 'The Man From Snowy River' (an Australia-U.S. co-production) when the showrunner had a heart attack; Lee David Zlotoff (creator of "MacGyver") came out and helped me break 26 episodes in two weeks. He taught me all these tricks and said I had the skills to run an American show." 


  • Liz Brixius & Linda Wallem

    "Nurse Jackie" (Showtime)

    Barely a year into production, the duo is already writing its Emmy-nominated dramedy's third season. The rush for fresh episodes is "a little like guerilla filmmaking," says Brixius, adding that each show is shot in five days. She's the rookie in the pair. Wallem, once half of a comedy team with "Rescue Me" co-showrunner Peter Tolan, broke into the business with "That '80s Show" before landing Edie Falco for her and Brixius' odd hospital dramedy. Fresh off Falco's Emmy win, the duo have relocated their writing team to New York for the third batch of episodes, hoping to keep the stories fresh.

    Favorite TV Moment: "This makes me sound like I'm 80, but my dad won a color TV in a sales contest, and the first time we turned it on, Gilligan was on, wearing a red shirt," Wallem recalls. "It was like, 'This is amazing!' " 

    Big Break: "Ten years ago, Sandra Bullock bought my spec script 'The Sprinkler Queen,' then hired me to write a second script ('Bridesmaids')," Brixius says. "That put me on the map."

  • Glenn Gordon Caron

    "Medium" (CBS)

    The perennial bubble show has survived time slot and even a network change to remain a consistent draw after six years. "It's not 'Glee' or anything, but I think it's awfully good," says Caron, who created "Moonlighting" in 1985. He believes his current supernatural brainchild, which won an Emmy in 2005 for star Patricia Arquette, should have a wider audience than it does. "I don't think it's been viewed by all the people who might appreciate it." 

    Favorite TV Moment: An episode of "Moonlighting" titled "The Dream Sequence Always Rings Twice," featuring an introduction by Orson Welles, who died five days before it aired in October 1985. 

    Big Break: "ABC said, 'We want you to do one of those boy-girl detective shows.' I said, 'I hate that stuff.' They said, 'We don't care what you do with it, but that's what you're going to do.' 'Moonlighting' was me, frankly, trying to kill that genre so that I would never have to suffer through it."

  • Marc Cherry

    "Desperate Housewives" (ABC)

    The one-time "Golden Girls" staff writer has hinted that he'll leave Wisteria Lane after next season, the show's seventh. But until then, Cherry is welcoming Season 1 cast members Mark Moses (Paul) and Harriet Samson Harris (Felicia) back to the show. "We're having some fun and returning to our roots," he says. 

    Favorite TV Moment: Alfre Woodard's performance as a woman whose son is accidentally shot by a cop on a 1983 episode of "Hill Street Blues." 

    Big Break: Cherry's first agent, Marcie Wright, was arrested for embezzlement, forcing him to find new reps for his dramedy about suburban housewives. "I was very worried," he recalls, "because that was about the best I could write." New agents Andy Patman and Debbee Klein at Paradigm changed strategies: " 'We need to offer it to the drama side but tell everybody that there's comedy in it,' " Cherry recalls. "All it took was that one little change in packaging." 

  • Greg Daniels, Paul Liebersteinm & Mike Schur

    "The Office," "Parks and Recreation" (NBC)

    Daniels might be the master-mind behind NBC's mockumentary hits but he has ceded day-to-day control of "The Office" to Lieberstein heading into Season 7 and Schur for "Parks & Rec," whose third season starts in January. Lieberstein, who also plays Toby on the show, was surprised that he wasn't deluged by wanna-be writers when he took over. "I expected a nonstop barrage of phone calls and scripts and I didn't get that at all," he says. Well, that quote might change things. Favorite TV Moment: "Hearing Archie call out 'Meathead!' on 'All in the Family,' " Lieberstein says. 

    Big Break: "Getting hired by Jon Stewart to come up with comedy pieces for his book 'Naked Pictures of Famous People' (in 1997)," Schur says. "I think he used one-third of one idea, but just him believing in me and hiring me made me feel like maybe I could do this as a career. He then called Steve Higgins at 'SNL' and recommended me for a job there."


  • Steven S. DeKnight

    "Spartacus: Blood and Sand" (Starz)

    In his next life, DeKnight wouldn't mind running a show that takes place in the real world. "You know, a nice quiet family drama where people sit around and talk about their feelings -- that'd be great," he says. The "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Angel" and "Smallville" alum scored this year with Starz's gladiator action series, which premiered to record-setting viewership in January. He's currently in Vancouver filming a six-episode prequel. Favorite TV Moment: "I've been rewatching old TV movies that scared the crap out of me as a kid, like 'Don't Be Afraid of the Dark.' I remember being really young, in the '70s, and sleeping with the lights on for two years after that." 

    Big Break: "Joss Whedon plucked me from obscurity to write for 'Buffy' and taught me everything I know, especially about running and producing a show. But technically, my first paying TV job was on MTV's primetime soap, 'Undressed.' And I share that honor with Damon Lindelof."

  • James Duff

    "The Closer" (TNT)

    With a big Emmy win last month for star Kyra Sedgwick and 7 million-8 million viewers per episode, Duff's sassy procedural is the No. 1 scripted show on cable. (Talk to Duff, though, and the ratings should be closer to 9.5 million, including DVR viewership.) The former playwright is up at 6 a.m. to write before coming to work, and is highly proprietary of every aspect of his show. So even though he may shoot a new script for another network this year, he has no plans to hand off "Closer." "I promised Kyra that as long as she's doing the show, I'll never leave." 

    Favorite TV Moment: Walter Cronkite announcing that President Kennedy had been shot. "I was 8, and that is the single-most-stunning memory for me." 

    Big Break: " 'Doing Time on Maple Drive' (1992) was the first thing I wrote for television." 


  • Jeff Eastin

    "White Collar" (USA)

    Eastin was trying to sell his pilot (originally titled "Redemption") until someone pointed out there was a very similar series called "Life" already on the air. But when USA contacted him post-WGA strike for a show idea, he lightened the tone and came up with "White Collar." Now deep into its second season, the show is a consistent hit and made a star of Matt Bomer. Eastin has also penned several film scripts, including an early draft of "Rush Hour 3" and "True Lies 2," which was shelved by James Cameron when Arnold Schwarzenegger went into politics. 

    Favorite TV Moment: "The last 'M*A*S*H', when Hawkeye kisses Hot Lips. A close second is the finale of 'The Shield,' which is probably my favorite show of all time." 

    Big Break: "I did 'Shasta McNasty' with producer Neal Moritz, which lasted a season on UPN. That was sort of my introduction into TV and I really haven't looked back."


  • Doug Ellin

    "Entourage" (HBO)

    The recent news that Ellin's Hollywood comedy will end next summer wasn't a shock to him. "We knew last year that Season 8 was only a maybe, so we decided to do a strong seven," says Ellin, who has had a hand in writing every episode. He's now working on a new idea for HBO, and there's still the possibility of an "Entourage" movie. Not bad for a guy with no TV credits before selling his show in 2002. "I'm a million times better at everything now," he says. "I don't know if I'm any good, but I am having fun." 

    Favorite TV Moment: "On 'All in the Family' I saw this episode at age 8 or 9 where a swastika was painted on the Bunkers' front door, and a guy from the Hebrew Defense League shows up to help. He ends up getting blown up in his car. I was like, 'My God, this is a comedy?' The idea that you could do a brilliantly funny show that was poignant was affecting to me." 

    Big Break: "Knowing Mark Wahlberg, of course. He was gracious enough to give me his life story and ask me to do something with it."


  • Tina Fey & Robert Carlock

    "30 Rock" (NBC)

    Only Jack Donaghy would care that the show ranked 86th among primetime broadcast shows last season. The kudos keep coming, including 15 Emmy nominations this year. Fey and Carlock began collaborating on "Saturday Night Live" and this season will return to the format with two live broadcasts (one for each coast) on Oct. 14. 

    Favorite TV Moment: In college, Fey loved Comedy Central's "Short Attention Span Theater." 

    Big Break: Carlock was hired by Robert Smigel and Louis CK on "The Dana Carvey Show" alongside Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert and Dave Chappelle. "Seeing it not work and get canceled in spite of all that talent -- that was my big break," he says. "A splash of cold water on my face."

  • Steve Franks

    "Psych" (USA)

    Even after five years, Franks still considers himself a showrunner by default. "You pitch a show as a writer but as soon as the show starts, it's all about crisis management," he notes. The quirky USA buddy-dramedy was down a bit in ratings this summer but still attracts about 3.6 million viewers and a loyal fan base. The show's detective format also allows Franks the freedom to jump in and out of different genres each week. "This year we did a Kung Fu episode," he boasts. "I had acrobats and stuntmen flying off buildings." 

    Favorite TV Moment: "The last frame of 'Did You See the Sunset?' the two-part premiere of 'Magnum P.I.'s' third season," he recalls. "Magnum has this bad guy at gunpoint and the guy basically says, 'You don't have the guts to do it.' You see the sunrise and then Magnum pulls the trigger and kills the guy right there and it goes to black. Just talking about it, I get chills."

    Big Break: "I worked at Disneyland while I was in college. When I was supposed to be waking up Jose the bird in the Tiki Room, I was in the office writing my first feature script, 'Big Daddy,'" eventually made with Adam Sandler.


  • Vince Gilligan

    "Breaking Bad" (AMC)

    Gilligan spent his summer hashing out stories for Season 4 of the acclaimed drama -- which doesn't start shooting until January. "My writers and I have this wonderful lead time," says the Virginia native and "X-Files" veteran. "We're hoping to break 10 out the 13 episodes before we even start shooting." 

    Favorite TV Moment: The series finale of "M*A*S*H" in 1983 or Neil Armstrong taking the first steps on the moon in July 1969. "I was probably propped in front of the TV but I have no memory of it whatsoever." 

    Big Break: Winning a screenwriting award in 1989 for "Home Fries," which was made with Drew Barrymore in 1998. And getting hired for Season 3 of "The X-Files." "I realized my career writing movies was kind of getting cold. I figured, 'Why not work on a really great show and have the stuff I write actually get produced?' " 


  • Greg Garcia

    "Raising Hope" (Fox)

    The latest comedy from the Emmy-winning "My Name Is Earl" showrunner was nearly called "Keep Hope Alive." But fears of upsetting Jesse Jackson prompted a name change, just one of the challenges on a series with a precocious baby as its focal point. "What we think is an easy scene can turn into a couple hours while the baby decides if it's in a good mood or not," Garcia said at TCA. "Hope" will have a similar feel to the deadpan homespun delivery of "Earl." "I like to try and do a little movie every week, so we'll try and accomplish that."

    Big Break: Garcia's first writing job was on ABC's "Family Matters."


  • Dan Harmon

    "Community" (NBC)

    Harmon's first showrunning job led to some unexpected compilations in Season 1. "We planned that our lead Jeff (Joel McHale) would go from lone wolf to being part of a family in 12 (episodes), but after six, I thought, 'Well, he's already there.' " That meant scrambling to compensate for character development in the second half of the season. "We got less 'Office-y' and more '30 Rock-y,' " he explains with a characteristic pop culture reference. 

    Favorite TV Moment: The series finale of "Quantum Leap." "I remember watching that as a young kid and going, 'Holy crap, it's a time travel show and it's killing me.' "

    Big Break: "Ben Stiller gave me my first big break in TV -- we did a pilot ('Heat Vision and Jack'). It was critically well-received but failed. Still, that led to my seduction and now full immersion in television."


  • Bruno Heller

    "The Mentalist" (CBS)

    As the son of screenwriter Lukas Heller ("The Dirty Dozen"), the British-born Heller had a lot to live up to. So for years he didn't try. Instead, he worked in various below-the-line positions, eventually becoming a noted boom operator. Finally, several years after his father's death in 1988, he gathered the confidence to try his hand at the family trade. After scoring his first big screen credit with the 1994 film "Pax," starring Amanda Plummer, he went on to co-create HBO's "Rome." 

    Favorite TV Moment: The soothing quality of shows like "Cheers." "It was familiar in that it was family," Heller once told THR. "It had a kind of realistic positiveness to it." 

    Big Break: Joining John Milius and William J. MacDonald and "Rome" and writing 11 episodes of the historical epic. 


  • Mitch Hurwitz

    "Running Wilde" (Fox)

    Hurwitz's late Fox comedy "Arrested Development" is now revered as a classic (please stop asking him about the still-in-development movie). But he remembers the perilous position his career was in before the show bowed in 2003. "The night before I turned in the 'Arrested' pilot, I sat down with my wife and we talked about our options and other jobs I might be able to do, like teach," he says. Hurwitz now has high hopes for "Running Wilde," which reunites him with "Arrested" stars Will Arnett and David Cross. "It's a simple, straightforward romantic comedy with bigger laughs than 'Arrested.' " he says. "Actually, how about I just say, 'It's more commercial.' Maybe more people will watch it?" 

    Favorite TV Moment: "I remember my mom waking me up one night at 11 p.m. and saying, ' "Fawlty Towers" is on. You have to see it!' " 

    Big Break: "Writer-producer Allan Burns went to high school with my mom, and after college he recommended me for an assistant gig working for (writer-producers) Paul Junger Witt and Tony Thomas. I called him shortly after I started and said, 'Um, I think there's been some mistake. They have me getting coffee. I'm a writer.' "


  • Brenda Hampton

    "The Secret Life of the American Teenager" (ABC Family)

    Hampton is getting very good at juggling teenagers' schedules. This year she not only coped with the temporary loss of star Shailene Woodley to the George Clooney film "The Descendants," but she also coaxed Bristol Palin into talking about teen pregnancy. Ratings have slipped a bit but the show still delivers in the key teen demo, and Hampton says she's working on another project for the network. Having run "Fat Actress" and "7th Heaven" simultaneously, she's ready for double duty again. 

    Favorite TV Moment: "When Jim Ignatowski's father died (on 'Taxi'), this trunk came to his apartment and it had a cassette tape of 'You Are the Sunshine of My Life,' so his father could let him know he loved him. It was so heartbreaking and funny."

    Big Break: "Aaron Spelling had heard a million pitches, and I just wanted to meet him, so I tried to come up with the best idea I could. I thought up the '7th Heaven' idea on the way to the meeting, in the car. The WB bought it."


  • Hart Hanson

    "Bones" (Fox)

    It has been a year of ups and downs for Hanson. "Bones" hit 100 episodes but his attempt at a new pilot ("Pleading Guilty") fizzled. "It's strange to immerse yourself in a new show," the Canada native says. "There's a huge amount of inertia that doesn't exist on a show that's been going five years." The "Judging Amy" veteran is also one of TV's most prolific on Twitter. 

    Favorite TV Moment: "There's a scene in 'The Andy Griffith Show' where Barney Fife tries to recite the preamble to the United States Constitution, and it was the single funniest thing I'd ever seen. It was probably the first time I'd gotten a joke on TV. I just watched it again on YouTube -- and I was still screaming with laughter." 

    Big Break: "I was 38 when I came down from Canada to the U.S. and Rob Thomas hired me for 'Cupid.' He told people how valuable I was, and that meant everything. David E. Kelley was also instrumental in getting me an overall deal at 20th Century Fox -- what I'd done in Canada as a showrunner made no difference in L.A."


  • Al Jean

    "The Simpsons" (Fox)

    Staying in the cultural zeit-geist for 22 seasons is no easy feat, especially when you're working with a 10-month gap between writing and airing episodes. This season's premiere, featuring original songs by "Flight of the Conchords" stars Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie, was written last year, "and the episodes that air through this December were recorded at the end of last year," Jean notes. He's been with the show for a big chunk of his adult life, running Seasons 3 and 4, then leaving to work on "The Critic" and returning from Season 13 on. 

    Favorite TV Moment: The 1969 moon landing. "I'm really sorry to find out it never happened," he jokes. 

    Big Break: Jean cites the unavailability of Tom Gammill and Max Pross, who turned down the jobs on 1982's "Airplane II: The Sequel" and the first season of "The Simpsons" that went to Jean and writing partner Mike Reiss. "They're terrific guys and I work with them now, so I'm not trying to make them look like the Wrong Way Corrigans of television."


  • Chip Johannessen

    "Dexter" (Showtime)

    Few would consider "Dexter" a family bonding opportunity but Johannessen credits his 15-year-old daughter for turning him on to his job. "She's obsessed with it -- all of her friends are," he says. "Watching it was one of the few things she would let me do with her." So the veteran of dark material -- "Millennium," "24" -- couldn't turn down the opportunity to step in for showrunner Clyde Phillips, who departed the Emmy-nominated drama after Season 4. Under Johannessen's leadership, the show continues to slay. "It's a black comedy but when you're here inside of it, it's very, very dark," he says. "It's flashing me back to 'Millennium,' after which I decided I didn't want to live in this place anymore. Now I'm like, 'Oh man.' "

    Favorite TV Moment: "I never really watched a lot of TV. I got into this after my rock band, the Same, broke up in New York during my 20s and I had to get a real job. Essentially I came to this business as a failed guitarist."

    Big Break: "This 'Married With Children' freelance assignment, which I got off of a pitch to my really good friend Kevin Curran, who now writes for 'The Simpsons.' "

  • Jason Katims

    "Friday Night Lights" (DirecTV/NBC), "Parenthood" (NBC)

    Katims survived a year of balancing one series based in Austin ("FNL," which kicks off its fifth and final season in October) and another L.A.-based production forced to recast its female lead because of illness (Maura Tierney, replaced by Lauren Graham). The result was two major Emmy nominations for "FNL" and a second-season pickup for "Parenthood," rare these days for a broadcast nonprocedural.

    Favorite TV Moment: "Kung Fu," starring David Carradine. "It was about ideas and it was very philosophical, plus there were good fight scenes."

    Big Break: A phone call from "thirtysomething" producer Ed Zwick in 1993. "I was working in New York and trying to become a playwright. He called me out of the blue and said, 'I just want to let you know I read a play of yours and I enjoyed it.' I met with Ed, who was developing 'My So-Called Life' with Marshall Herskovitz and Winnie Holzman, and they put me on that show and it completely changed my life."

  • Daniel Zelman, Todd A. Kessler & Glenn Kessler

    "Damages" (DirecTV)

    The show's move from FX to DirecTV's 101 Network might seem like a setback to some, but not to the trio known as "KZK." "In terms of content and show length, not having to deal with commercials and all that, it gives us a whole new way to tell stories," says Glenn Kessler, who is two years older than brother Todd. The trio has been friends since Zelman and Glenn Kessler met as undergrads at Harvard, but, while they enjoyed their individual successes in theater and TV, it wasn't until "Damages" that they all worked together.

    Favorite TV Moment: "The opening credits of 'The Muppet Show,' " Glenn Kessler says.

    Big Break: " 'Damages' really felt like it was a big break for us creatively because everything came together and we were not forced by FX or Sony to compromise."

  • Michelle King & Robert King

    "The Good Wife" (CBS)

    Married just months before the 1988 WGA strike, the Kings admit they "had very little success" when they started out. The couple was never staffed but sold a few pilots and were behind the short-lived 2006 legal drama "In Justice" starring Kyle MacLachlan. Then came the idea for "Good Wife," which lured Julianna Margulies on its way to becoming a breakout hit for CBS and an Emmy series nominee. Before writing for TV, Robert wrote a dozen produced films, including "Vertical Limit" starring Chris O'Donnell, and Michelle was a script reader for various production companies.

    Favorite TV Moment: "The entire first season of 'The Sopranos,' " Michelle says.

    Big Break: In 2001, selling their first pilot to ABC, a drama about the interaction between the San Diego and Tijuana police forces.

  • David Kohan & Max Mutchnick

    "$#*! My Dad Says" (CBS)

    Kohan calls Justin Halpern, who created the Twitter feed that inspired "$#*!," the "voice of authority" on the new sitcom. But the duo behind "Will and Grace" are the experienced writer-producers running the show. Kohan and Mutchnick met as kids and work side-by-side in all areas of production, from editing to rewrites. "We share every part of this experience together," Mutchnick says. "It's a meritocracy -- the best idea will win out, and we don't care where it comes from."

    Favorite TV Moment: "The moment on 'Maude' where Bea Arthur realizes her neighbor has died wearing a brooch of hers," Mutchnick says. "She goes to the funeral, leans down to kiss the dead woman in the coffin and comes back up wearing the brooch. It was a perfect funny moment in a four-camera comedy."

    Big Break: "Warren Littlefield allowed us to run a television show in our mid-20s ('Boston Common'). That was a pretty brave move on his part."

  • Steven Levitan & Christopher Lloyd

    "Modern Family" (ABC)

    The showrunning duo, whose credits include "Wings" and "Frasier," hit ratings and Emmy paydirt again last season with their off-kilter single-camera sitcom. And this time, it's personal. "A lot of the stories come from my life and the lives of the other writers," says Levitan, who also made news by questioning the value of airing his show on Hulu and "The Dunphy family is a loose version of my family in a weird way."

    Favorite TV Moment: Lloyd says it's either the first kiss he wrote for Niles and Daphne on "Frasier" or Buster Douglas' shocking knockout of Mike Tyson in 1990.

    Big Break: "On 'Wings,' a story blew up at the table read and needed a completely new take on it, and I came up with the story fix that sort of saved that episode," Levitan recalls. "They basically told me that if I hadn't done that, they probably wouldn't have asked me back."

  • Jenji Kohan

    "Weeds" (Showtime)

    The sixth season of Kohan's pot comedy debuted to record ratings last month, a testament to her strategy of completely reinventing the show each year. At the same time, she's prepping her next projects, including series concepts "Tough Trade" (in a holding period) and "Me and Lee?" which she's working on with "Weeds" writer/exec producer Matthew Salsberg. Ideally, she's hoping to bring her "Weeds" staff to the writers' room at any new show she runs. "I want to give them year-round employment," she says. "Writers with time on their hands need to be kept off the streets."

    Favorite TV Moment: "My first writing job, at 'The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,' was not the happiest place on Earth, so I would wander down the hall to another show and speak to a writer who had all of these TV posters and books. He told me, 'TV took care of me; it's what I did when I was happy or lonely, and that's why I do it now.' And I had an epiphany: This is a medium that can truly affect or change peoples' lives."

    Big Break: "I can't say so-and-so gave me my big break. You're as good as the last script you wrote, and I kept writing scripts -- so I earned it."

  • Bill Lawrence

    "Cougar Town" (ABC)

    Lawrence's career has come full circle: He started out in close collaboration with a big star (Michael J. Fox) on "Spin City," got to "run a dictatorship" at "Scrubs" and is now paired with creative partner Courteney Cox on "Cougar Town." "I don't think there's any show that's the same six or eight episodes in," he says of "Cougar Town's" evolution, which almost prompted him to change its name. "Every showrunner will tell you that some aspect of their show's success comes from it not being where they thought it would be initially."

    Favorite TV Moment: "If you say to me, 'What does a yellow light mean?' anyone my age and who truly loves television knows. That's a scene from 'Taxi' when Jim is taking the taxi cab test. It's a joke that went on way too long, became unfunny and then kept going and got funny again."

    Big Break: "Gary David Goldberg sent me to showrunners college by putting me on 'Spin City,' and in an odd way the breaks are still coming."

  • Chuck Lorre

    "Two and a Half Men," "The Big Bang Theory," "Mike & Molly" (CBS)

    The undisputed king of the sitcom has developed a close-knit team, some of whom go back 20 years to classic shows like "Roseanne." For instance, "Bang" co-creator/exec producer Bill Prady wrote on "Dharma & Greg" and "Men" co-creator/exec producer Lee Aronsohn worked on "Grace Under Fire." Mark Roberts, creator and co-showrunner on the new "Mike & Molly," is another "Men" vet.

    Favorite TV Moment: "When I was very young, I was watching Ed Sullivan with my dad when Henny Youngman said, 'I went to the doctor and told him it hurts when I do this. The doctor said, "Don't do that."'I never laughed so hard in my life. For years after, all [my father] had to do to make me laugh was move his arm like Henny did on the line 'It hurts when I do this.' "

    Big Break: Roseanne Barr fired her writing staff in 1990. "This created an enormous talent vacuum that I saw as a great opportunity to get hired onto a hit show. Unfortunately, I'd forgotten that life cannot exist in a vacuum and for the next two years I proceeded to die a little every day."

  • Seth MacFarlane

    "Family Guy," "American Dad," "The Cleveland Show" (Fox)

    Delegation is key when you oversee 90 fast-paced minutes of animated comedy every week. "The best analogy for dealing with all of these shows is FDR and Hitler," MacFarlane says. "One of them delegated because he realized he had a lot of smart people around. Then you had the other guy, who micromanaged everything to death and ended up shooting himself. I'm looking more at the FDR model." That means Mike Barker and Matt Weitzman take care of "Dad," which kicks off its seventh season in January, and Richard Appel looks after "Cleveland," heading for its second season.

    Favorite TV Moment: "The very last scene of the very last episode of 'Star Trek: The Next Generation,' where they're all sitting at the poker table and the camera pans back and the table becomes the saucer section of the Enterprise -- that was pretty amazing for a geeky guy like me."

    Big Break: "The folks running Fox -- Peter Roth, Mike Darnell and Leslie Collins -- they trusted me not to screw up 'Family Guy.' It would have been easy for them to buy the show and say, 'Now get the hell out of here,' but they didn't -- and here I am."

  • Jeff Melvoin

    "Army Wives" (Lifetime)

    Working on "Northern Exposure" prepared Melvoin for the challenge of running a show about women on an Army base in the South. "In both, there was no set formula for where the stories came from or went," he says. "I find that very stimulating." With "Wives" in its fourth season, Melvoin and his Charleston, S.C.-based production enjoy a close relationship with the Department of Defense. "We wrote in a script that we wanted to see C-17s taking off and we got the footage," he says. "It was priceless."

    Favorite TV Moment: "Growing up, I had such a fondness for 'Sea Hunt' with Lloyd Bridges. I wrote a fan letter to him and he sent me back a signed photo that said, 'To Jeff: Smooth Sailing.' "

    Big Break: "I was a journalist for seven years after college, mostly for Time magazine. But in college I'd written my thesis on American detective fiction and my favorite TV show was 'Remington Steele.' My friend worked at MGM and got me a job writing and working for the show creator Michael Gleason."

  • Ryan Murphy

    "Glee" (Fox)

    Murphy has shepherded a hit show before ("Nip/Tuck"), but that experience could not have prepared him for a phenomenon as big as "Glee." How can he top that breakout first season? "The obvious choice would be to make it bigger and bolder," Murphy says. "Instead, we're going quieter and more intimate. We are doing the exact opposite of what people think." His success can be traced to an insane work ethic -- Murphy directed last month's "Eat Pray Love" and might do another movie next summer.

    Big Break: While still a journalist, Murphy sold a script titled "Why Can't I Be Audrey Hepburn?" to Steven Spielberg.

  • Carol Mendelsohn, Ann Donahue and Pam Veasey

    "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," "CSI: Miami," "CSI: New York" (CBS)

    The women steering the "CSI" franchise might be happily ensconced in their jobs after 11, nine and seven seasons, respectively, but that doesn't mean they're bored. "It's a constant dance," Donahue says. For instance, this season, series creator Anthony Zuiker will rejoin "CSI," which is perfect timing for Mendelsohn, who will also executive produce CBS' new series "The Defenders." "I felt the universe sent me a guardian angel in Anthony," she says. Meanwhile, each show is trying out a new time slot this season, and Veasey is contending with the departure of female lead Melina Kanakaredes (Sela Ward is stepping in). "It happened almost at the 11th hour," Veasey says. "We had scripts prepared and we had to do rewriting and think of ways to introduce her without being repetitive to our viewers."

    Favorite TV Moment: "When I was working on 'The District' we received a letter from a woman who watched an episode in which [star] Craig T. Nelson visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial," Veasey recalls. "When Craig placed his hand on the wall in the episode, he put it right on her son's name. She was so grateful. That meant a lot to us."

    Big Break: "The man who taught me everything was David Levinson, the executive producer on '21 Jump Street,' Donahue says. "He just has this ethos that he wants to pass on his skills."

  • Matt Nix

    "Burn Notice" (USA), "The Good Guys" (Fox)

    Taking on a second series this year erased any free time Nix once had to play around with. "On weekends I have a drawing class, and the rest is work," he says. "That is my glamorous life." Hopefully, it's worth it. Six seasons after he launched "Notice" without any previous TV experience, the Miami-based drama earned its first Emmy acting nomination (for Sharon Gless) and "Guys," while struggling to live up to expectations, is getting a reboot in the fall. Nix is still trying to figure out how to be in the writers' room for both shows at once. "It's like having children," he notes. "You don't get to say to one child, 'I'm not paying attention to you because your sister is more important.' "

    Favorite TV Moment: "I had seen every episode of 'M*A*S*H' and I cried when it was coming to an end. My friend Patrick sat with me at lunch in third grade and counseled me: 'Don't worry, it'll be on in reruns for years.' "

    Big Break: "Definitely USA and Fox TV Studios letting me run 'Burn Notice' even though I hadn't worked in television before."

  • Mark V. Olsen & Will Scheffer

    "Big Love" (HBO)

    A couple for 20 years, Olsen and Scheffer both enjoyed 10-year TV careers before they "could decide to bear writing together," Scheffer says. In 1994, he was chosen for HBO's new writer's project, which led the way to TV movies like "In the Gloaming." He also created the CBS series "Ellis Island" and "Duck Town," and wrote on CBS' political drama "Citizen Baines." Olsen, a former attorney, wrote the HBO miniseries "Mary Chestnut's Civil War" and HBO Films' "Cabrini USA," about the notorious Chicago housing project. In addition to the fifth season of "Big Love," Olsen's play "Cornelia" is in development for Broadway.

    Favorite TV Moment: Scheffer says he is partial to the "Mary Tyler Moore" series finale where the entire cast engaged in a prolonged group hug. "That kind of connection, it can't be faked," he says.

    Big Break: Selling their first project together, "Big Love," while in a pitch meeting at HBO.

  • Tyler Perry

    "House of Payne," "Meet the Browns" (TBS)

    Perry might be better known for his "Madea" films but he's just as active (and successful) as a TV showrunner. Based at his Atlanta studios, he's at a table read in the morning, then he leaves during rehearsals and does some writing in his office. It's back to the set at 2:30 to shoot, then he's off to make a film at night. "I can do that for about 90 days and then I need a long break," he once told THR. The strategy is working. Both "Payne" and "Browns" have 90-episode pickups at TBS.

    Big Break: Perry's series of stage plays featuring his mad alter-ego Madea became so popular that Hollywood came calling.

  • Jeff Pinkner & J.H. Wyman

    "Fringe" (Fox)

    It may have been borne from an idea by J.J. Abrams, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, but "Fringe" enters its third season as a clear Pinkner and Wyman production. "I never had any experience with science fiction before," admits Wyman, who previously ran "Keen Eddie" and now splits duties 50-50 with Pinker. "But it became apparent to me that science fiction talks about the human condition."

    Favorite TV Moment: "The dream sequence in 'Twin Peaks' when Dale Cooper has this interaction with the man from another place," Wyman says. "It was life-changing because a large part of who I am comes from a place of atmosphere, and in one sequence [creator] David Lynch made me understand that there was a darkness and an evil out there I could not comprehend."

    Big Break: "I had written a spec script based on an experience I had at law school and gave it to a friend -- and unbeknownst to me he sent it to his client David E. Kelley," Pinker says. "I was on the way to my wedding in San Francisco and the phone rang and someone said, 'Please hold for David Kelley.' I assumed it was a joke. He had me write an episode of 'The Practice' that was produced as an episode of 'Ally McBeal,' and from there my career in TV took off."

  • Shonda Rhimes

    "Grey's Anatomy," "Private Practice," "Off the Map" (ABC)

    Rhimes is typically coolheaded despite now juggling three hourlong shows. She says she rarely worries about writing herself into a corner. In the Season 7 "Grey's" opener, she's dealing with the aftermath of a hospital shooting that "completely changed all the characters for good," while on "Practice" "we did a crazy woman cutting Violet's baby out of her belly one year, so we sort of feel like we can do almost anything."

    Favorite TV Moment: Buffy discovering her mother dead on the sofa on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." "A great end-of-innocence moment," she says. Or Dexter coming home to find his wife dead in the bathtub in last year's season finale of "Dexter": "It was one of the best television surprises."

    Big Break: Selling her first spec script, "Human Seeking Same," to New Line Cinema in the late '90s. "At the time I wrote it, I was pretty much broke and done," she says. "I felt like, 'OK, if it doesn't sell, I'll leave town.' It went on the market ... and, at the end of the day, it sold."

  • Shawn Ryan

    "Terriers" (FX), "Ride-Along" (Fox)

    Ryan admits he is a glutton for punishment. "Terriers" kicks off this month, while a second new show, "Ride-Along," arrives in February. That's on the heels of his 2009-10 "Lie To Me" showrunning stint, before which he was doing double duty penning notes for "The Shield" while running "The Unit." "I'm OK if I'm doing two shows that use different parts of my brain," he jokes.

    Favorite TV Moment: "Watching the pilot episode of 'Cheers.' I was a teenager at the time and I remember sitting in my living room -- and it was the first time I realized that people actually wrote this show, and they're better than any writers on any other shows. It inspired me to start writing a few years later."

    Big Break: "Kevin Reilly and Peter Liguori, who were running FX, had no business trusting me with 'Unit.' I asked Kevin years later why he had that confidence and he said it was just a gut feeling."

  • Josh Schwartz & Stephanie Savage

    "Chuck" (NBC), "Gossip Girl" (CW)

    One of the youngest showrunners ever when he launched "The O.C." at 26, Schwartz is now 34, married and diversifying his Fake Empire shingle -- run with Savage -- into movies. She takes the lead on "Gossip Girl" while he does double duty on "Gossip" and "Chuck" (with Chris Fedak) which will return with a 13-episode order. "Every year we never know if we're coming back," Schwartz says. "It's part of the fun."

    Favorite TV Moment: "The masturbation contest on 'Seinfeld', " Schwartz says. "Or Dana Carvey performing the 'Choppin' Broccoli' song on 'SNL' (in 1986)."

    Big Break: "Getting my first script on "The O.C." ('The Best Chrismukkah Ever')," Savage says. "Weeks after I handed it in, I was rewriting a pilot that then got ordered to series."

  • David Shore & Katie Jacobs

    "House" (Fox)

    After seven seasons, Shore and Jacobs have settled into an easy partnership. "We have similar tastes, and I trust her to do what I want," Shore jokes. He runs the writers' room and she makes the production happen, including occasionally directing episodes. There are small changes in store this year, with the temporary departure of Olivia Wilde and the hiring of Amber Tamblyn. Oh, and a long-awaited kiss by House and Cuddy (Lisa Edelstein). "We'd been thinking about that since Season 1," says Shore, who is also trying to bring "The Rockford Files" back to TV for NBC. "But you don't want to do that kind of thing too early."

    Favorite TV Moment: " 'Miami Vice' had the nerve to kill off the kids our heroes were supposedly protecting," Shore says. "Going for that dark surprise ending was incredible. I remember staring at the TV set, just stunned at what a television show could do to you."

    Big Break: "When Steve McPherson was heading up Touchstone, he gave me my first shot, for 'Gideon's Crossing,'" Jacobs says. "I had produced movies but I didn't necessarily know what it took to produce a TV series."

  • David Simon

    "Treme" (HBO)

    The Baltimore Sun reporter-turned TV writer-producer followed up his groundbreaking "The Wire" with a kaleidoscopic chronicle of post-Katrina New Orleans that feels about as close to a documentary as is possible in scripted drama. Tragedy hit the shoot in March when producer David Mills died suddenly of a brain aneurysm, but the show will carry on his legacy with a second-season pickup by HBO.

    Favorite TV Moment: " 'Mystery Science Theater 3000' and its ruminations on the film classic 'Santa Claus Conquers the Martians': 'Old man take a look at your elf, he's a lot like you.' "

    Big Break: "I sold a book to Tom Fontana and Barry Levinson at about the moment when my home in newspaper journalism began crumbling. ["Homicide" producer] Fontana a) offered me a writing gig; and b) promised to teach me how to produce television. Promise kept."

  • Kurt Sutter

    "Sons of Anarchy" (FX)

    Sutter admits there are challenges when your lead female character is also your wife. "I wrote the role for Katey [Sagal] and it's been gratifying to see her bring that character to life," he says. "But it ultimately consumes both of us and it's been impossible to have boundaries between our personal life and work life." Still, he's learning the ropes as FX's highest-rated show kicks off its third season. "Creatively, I'm a guy who likes to lock myself in my room and write and create. I've had to learn that as a showrunner, you just can't do that."

    Favorite TV Moment: "Watching shows like 'Hill Street Blues' and 'Law & Order,' I realized this was a different kind of television. I couldn't understand at the time that it was better writing, more realistic acting and this documentary style -- but it had a deep and profound impact on me, and shifted how I was able to watch television."

    Big Break: "I was coming off of 'The Shield' and for creative and career reasons needed to make 'Sons' work; (FX's) John Landgraf wanted to make his mark with the network. It was definitely a trial by fire, and I had to learn a lot very quickly, but the network trusted me to pull it off."

  • Janet Tamaro

    "Rizzoli & Isles" (TNT)

    "I'm probably one of the few showrunners in town who's sat face-to-face with a serial killer," Tamaro says. "He said he wouldn't kill me, he'd just rape me." That was back in her former life as an ABC news correspondent, which gave her plenty of material for her second career as a writer-producer. After two years on "Bones," in May 2008 Tamaro channeled her gritty past into the "Rizzoli" pilot, and by that September, she'd already cast Angie Harmon as one of the leads. The show debuted to huge numbers in July, becoming the second-highest-rated cable series of the summer (behind its lead-in, "The Closer").

    Favorite TV Moment: "My parents did not believe in television, though I was a secret TV junkie. I nearly electrocuted myself once trying to get the TV to work."

    Big Break: "I wrote Episode 13 of 'Law & Order: SVU' while I was still a working journalist. I was there for filming and in one scene, this young actress plays a drug addict and gets shot. I was almost giddy when she got up and they said, 'Let's do it again.' I was like, 'She's alive!' That I could fictionalize this stuff and not live it was a relief."

  • Peter Tolan & Denis Leary

    "Rescue Me" (FX)

    Tolan is ever-prepared; though he and Leary's "Rescue Me" is wrapping up, he's already got his next gig lined up -- with an NBC pilot commitment for "Brave New World." Still, he can't give his new "World" much attention yet -- "Rescue" is written almost entirely by him, Leary and Evan T. Reilly. Tolan says they've got an endgame in mind, and they've abandoned the idea of Leary's character committing suicide. "That's too grim," he says. "You have to have some kind of positive outcome."

    Favorite TV Moment: "I came to Hollywood when I was about 30 -- I wasn't a kid," Tolan recalls. "And I was not a starstruck sort of person, but I really wanted to meet Dick Van Dyke. So one year at the Emmys they had all the winners on-stage, and I walked over there with my (1998) Emmy in tow and shook his hand -- and that was it."

    Big Break: "I was always in these situations where I didn't know what the f*** I was doing," Tolan says. "But [producer] Matt Williams believed I could, and he was the first person to recognize and believe in me."

  • Matthew Weiner

    "Mad Men" (AMC)

    Weiner is getting used to busy summers. He had his hands full last month writing and directing the Season 4 finale while simultaneously supervising postproduction on episodes going to air and preparing for the Emmys, where "Mad Men" again won the drama series award. "It's a blessing to be involved in all that, but it's all very high pressure, especially when everyone else is on vacation," jokes the "Sopranos" veteran.

    Favorite TV Moment: In Episode 5 of "The Sopranos," made before Weiner had joined the show, Tony quietly waits for daughter Meadow to finish a college entrance interview, minutes after having strangled a turncoat mobster. "The bravery of the moment and the reality of it, it was so inspiring and entertaining," he says.

    Big Break: Landing a gig as a gag writer on the short-lived Fox sitcom "Party Girl" (1996), created by college friend Daisy von Scherler. "I didn't even know there was such a job."

  • Kevin Williamson & Julie Plec

    "The Vampire Diaries" (CW)

    The "Scream" movie franchise and teen soap "Dawson's Creek" put Williamson on the map in the late 1990s. But co-running a show about vampires in 2010 has proven a totally different beast. "Yes, we are riding the coattails of 'True Blood,' which I love, and 'Twilight,' " he says. "But we are also writing a horror movie, a teen drama, a family story and one about a small town, all in one. And there's a wink-wink to it all, too." Plec, who also has a film background ("Scream 3"), co-ran the ABC Family hit "Kyle XY" before joining Williamson to help the young-skewing CW attract a demo far broader than for its usual fare.

    Favorite TV Moment: "David E. Kelley and 'Picket Fences' made me realize how powerful TV could be," Williamson says.

    Big Break: "I was 24, waiting tables in New York, and [TV director] Paris Barclay needed a new assistant. I stage managed a cabaret for him because I had a theater background and pulled it together lickety-split. He was like, 'Wow!' He got me a job in L.A. after that."

comments powered by Disqus