Power Showrunners: Drama

David Strick

THR's fourth annual list shines a spotlight on the 50 most influential -- and valuable -- creative chiefs writing, producing and redefining television.

For better or worse, 2011 will go down as the Year of the Showrunner. It all began with Chuck Lorre becoming a household name for all the wrong reasons. Then there was Mad Men's Matthew Weiner making waves during the showrunner's painful, prolonged negotiations with the network he put on the map. The summer saw film auteur Frank Darabont make a stormy exit from his AMC smash hit The Walking Dead and then be replaced by The Shield veteran Glen Mazzara. But the news wasn't all negative. Emmy night awarded comedy kings Steven Levitan and Christopher Lloyd more gold for Modern Family, and that Mad Men guy earned a redemptive trophy for his collection. Plus, the fall saw the return of such established veterans as Howard Gordon (Homeland), Michael Patrick King (2 Broke Girls) and Neal Baer (A Gifted Man), proving that reinvention is a showrunner's most powerful tool. Here, THR profiles the men and women who make TV's toughest gig look damn good.

DRAMA SHOWRUNNERS

Alan Ball
True Blood (HBO)

After the fourth season of the vampire hit maintained nearly 5 million viewers, Ball inked a multiyear deal with HBO that will see him stay on full time for the series' fifth season. "There will be an end for me at some point," Ball said in July during the Television Critics Association press tour, "though I don't have any desire to leave because I'm having more fun than I ever had in my life." The Georgia-born Emmy winner (for Six Feet Under) and Oscar winner (American Beauty) also has a dark comedy pitch set up through his Your Face Goes Here Entertainment banner at Paramount with Elan Mastai. As for how long True Blood could realistically run, Ball, 54, says, "I think if we did 13 seasons, we'd have to address why the vampires are aging."

Team CSI (CBS)
Carol Mendelsohn (original), Ann Donahue (Miami) and Pam Veasey (NY)

The CSI franchise not only introduced regular Joes to the nuances of DNA and blood-spatter analysis, it pioneered a sea change in the modern police procedural. "Thirteen years ago, no one knew what a crime scene investigator was," says Donahue, 56, who helped launch the mothership series with Mendelsohn and creator Anthony Zuiker before segueing to CSI: Miami in 2002. "You'd be in an elevator and hear someone talk about 'epithelial tissue.' Everybody's conversant in the language now. I try to take it as flattery." More than a decade after the original series premiered, CSI and CSI: NY won their time periods last season in total viewers, and CSI: Miami managed to best its scripted competition. The three series also have been sold in more than 200 markets worldwide. The showrunners are reflective about how the franchise's dense scientific underpinnings made for a steep learning curve. "I did terrible in organic chemistry in college," says Donahue. Adds Mendelsohn, 60, "I never even took organic chemistry." And Veasey, 49, admits she was nervous stepping into the CSI universe after cutting her chops on shows like In Living Color. "I said to Ann, 'I don't know what epithelial means,' " says Veasey. "She said, 'Calm down, you'll get it.' "

Steven S. DeKnight
Spartacus (Starz)

The series' prequel installment, Spartacus: Gods of the Arena, pulled in record ratings for Starz last January, and the network recently locked DeKnight into an exclusive, two-year overall deal. But the success has been bittersweet. Actor Andy Whitfield, whose diagnosis in early 2010 of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma forced him to give up the role of Spartacus after the first season, died Sept. 11. DeKnight says there was "quite a bit of soul-searching" about recasting the part for season three, scheduled to start in January. (Another Australian actor, Liam McIntyre, won the role.) With months of reflection under his belt, DeKnight admits that early episodes of the series might have strayed into the gratuitous territory of graphic sex and operatic violence, but, hey, it was his first premium cable series. "The handcuffs were off, we went a little crazy," he says. "But I never approach anything with the idea that I want to 'shock' the audience." Maybe not, but DeKnight, 45, does cut a distinctive figure in Hollywood, with a shaved head and Maori tribal tattoos covering his arms and back. He had aspirations to appear onscreen, but three years into an undergraduate degree at the University of California, Santa Cruz, DeKnight realized he was just a "good enough" actor but "could be a much better writer." After a decade spent in writers rooms -- first on MTV's Undressed and then with Joss Whedon on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Dollhouse -- DeKnight was handed the opportunity at Starz to revive the swords-and-sandals epic.

MY WORST WRITING JOB: "I did a rewrite of a cheap horror movie called Ice Cream Man starring Clint Howard while also teaching ESL at a Japanese school in the Valley. But it was like $2,000 for two weeks of work, more money than I could have imagined." -- Steve S. DeKnight

Vince Gilligan
Breaking Bad (AMC)

Stephen King has called Breaking Bad "the best of the 21st century … and dark. Very dark." But the series creator, who grew up "a pretty good kid" in Farmville, Va., offered the biz a first writing effort that was decidedly light -- the 1998 Drew Barrymore starrer Home Fries, which won Gilligan the Virginia Screenwriting Competition. In 1995, The X-Files lured him from Virginia to L.A., a job Gilligan calls "a close second to Breaking Bad as far as my favorite jobs go." Despite a yearlong hiatus that Gilligan says "drove me crazy," the show's season-four premiere was its best-rated, beating even Mad Men's AMC record in several demos. He can expect more Emmys (stars Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul have won three and one, respectively) and a sizzling series finale slated presumably for 2012. The modest Gilligan, 44, says he's proud of the series' impact on the genre. "The mandate here has always been, take our hero and turn him into a bad guy," he says.

Brenda Hampton
The Secret Life of the American Teenager (ABC Family)

What's tougher than crafting the perfect script? Writing annual reports. "Because you can't make those up," says Hampton, whose earlier life was in the corporate world. Before creating the family drama 7th Heaven, which ran for 11 seasons, the University of Georgia graduate hopped around as a writer, with stints churning out tech copy for the U.S. Navy, scripting jokes for comedians including Roseanne Barr and acting as a corporate communications manager for NBC in New York. Her first TV writing job came on the 1989 comedy Sister Kate. Now three seasons into ABC Family's flagship series, Hampton, 60, has become the unofficial voice for the teenage set, but knows all too the demo's perils. "Teens are fickle, so you have to go for a broader audience," she says. Even with ratings down a bit this year, Secret Life has two things going for it that many shows don't: loyalty and efficiency. Days rarely go beyond the 12-hour mark "because the same people have been working together for so long," says Hampton. "They're the fastest crew in Hollywood."

Hart Hanson
Bones, The Finder (Fox)

With solid ratings performer Bones picked up for a seventh season -- after prolonged negotiations between Fox and its sibling studio 20th Television -- Hanson, 54, is working double duty this year. With the spinoff The Finder picked up to series and a recent four-episode addition to Bones, he is leaning more on longtime executive producer Stephen Nathan. "About 700 times a day I turn to Stephen and ask, 'Can you do this?' And 703 times a day he says yes." Hanson also had a partnership early on where TV was concerned: His earliest memory of the medium is of him holding his father's hand as they looked through a storefront window at a TV set broadcasting a cartoon in full color. The British Columbia-raised writer says "TV was always on" at home and offered an early indicator of his life's work. "One of my proudest moments was when my first show aired in Canada and it said. 'Written by Hart Hanson,' and my dad saw it," he says. "To this day, every time I see that credit on screen, I think of him."

Bruno Heller
The Mentalist (CBS)

Heller is that rare showrunner who's experienced the best of both worlds -- prestige and popularity -- first as showrunner for HBO's acclaimed period epic Rome and now for CBS' hit procedural The Mentalist. The Brit also is a card-carrying member of the intellectual elite: His sister is novelist Zoe Heller (Notes on a Scandal), his father was screenwriter Lukas Heller and his paternal grandfather was the legal philosopher Hermann Heller. Despite his heady pedigree, Heller is rather down-to-earth about his current artistic endeavors. "There's only so much you can say about a show like The Mentalist, which is designed to entertain people," says Heller, 51. "I did a cable series that urban sophisticates liked, and I very much didn't want to do that again. I wanted grandmum and grandson to be able to watch it sitting on the same couch, which is increasingly rare on TV." Heller's self-challenge has paid off: Now in its fourth season, Mentalist is seen by more than 13 million viewers a week.

Neil Jordan
The Borgias (Showtime)

The Oscar-winning Irishman (The Crying Game) is likely the only entrant on this list who'd never even heard the word "showrunner" before his current gig. "I hadn't a clue what it meant!" says Jordan. "Now I see it's all about maintaining a consistent tone and getting directors to see things the way you do." And determination, too. Jordan, 61, was hellbent for 11 years to tell the story of Rodrigo Borgia, "the Godfather in the Vatican." After DreamWorks commissioned the original script for a film, then didn't want it, he tried several times to reboot it with the likes of Colin Farrell, Christina Ricci, Scarlett Johansson, Viggo Mortensen and Ewan McGregor -- until about two years ago, when Stacey Snider had a conversation with Steven Spielberg and suggested making it into a TV series. Jordan's small-screen spin for Borgias' debut fetched the best ratings for any Showtime drama in seven years, beating even the best season of the network's other costumed hit, The Tudors, while also scoring two Emmys. The 2012 season looks to top the first on the scandal scale as Jordan promises his characters are going to get nasty. "They'll be downright evil," he says. "The viewer will be complicit in all sorts of bad, fun things."

Jason Katims
Parenthood (NBC)

Katims officially closed the book on Friday Night Lights with a touchdown last month, picking up an Emmy, his first, for writing the NBC/DirecTV drama's series finale and watching underdog Kyle Chandler pull off an upset in the drama actor race. The Brooklyn native says that while he loved the writing on such classic sitcoms as The Odd Couple, his career has drifted toward writing for critically praised (but ratings-challenged) dramas like ABC's My So-Called Life, FNL and NBC's Parenthood, which is enjoying a critically acclaimed third season, steady ratings and a recently announced two-episode extension. Katims, who has used his son's battle with autism as inspiration for one of Parenthood's most compelling story arcs, says he's finally reached a place of peace when it comes to fighting the ratings war. "The bottom line is: If not enough people watch the show, no matter how much critics and fans like it, it won't survive," he says. "We have to accept that's the business we've chosen." Katims, 50, who in the past year directed episodes of FNL and Parenthood, is also developing a hourlong NBC drama with Jason Ritter and staying optimistic about that buzzed-about FNL movie: "It's something we hope will happen."

Michelle King and Robert King
The Good Wife (CBS)

When Julianna Margulies won the lead drama actress Emmy last month, the award didn't just acknowledge the veteran actress' nailing of the complicated wife-mother-lawyer-lover character Alicia Florrick. It also was a signal to the drama's creators, Robert and Michelle King, that their show had achieved the kind of prestige for CBS more recently relegated to cable actresses like Kyra Sedgwick and Glenn Close. Robert goes one further: "It feels now like we've cheated death," he says. "We were supposed to do 13 episodes and sink into oblivion. Now we're on the 55th." Good Wife marks the couple's (the California natives met while working at the same shoe store) first stint overseeing a staff after years of so-so success in features -- you can thank Robert for penning 1995's much-razzed flick Cutthroat Island -- and off-and-on TV collaborations including their first short-lived stab at a legal drama, ABC's In Justice, starring Kyle MacLachlan. With all the ups and downs, it makes sense that their work philosophy centers on one theme. "Treat every episode as if it were your last," says Michelle, 49. "It's the only way the viewer won't get bored." Fans of Good Wife clearly aren't: Season three is averaging 11 million viewers for the network. So it makes sense that Robert, 51, is still basking in the glow of Margulies' Emmy triumph. "It was an indescribable happiness," he says. "She's responsible for so much of the show's success. It was like seeing a family member win."

Peter Lenkov
Hawaii Five-0 (CBS)

Winter lasted eight long months in the small town outside Montreal where the TV-obsessed Lenkov spent his youth. But the Emmy-nominated writer would still make the trek home from school at lunch just to watch The Flintstones -- and then, after school, catch a marathon of episodes of his favorite dramas Magnum, P.I. and Hawaii Five-0. In fact, it was the episode in which Magnum confronted and killed the person who'd held him as a POW that inspired Lenkov to start writing. "I'd never seen an episode like that," says Lenkov, 45. "I realized it was possible to take someone on an emotional journey in a short period of time." Limited writing opportunities in Montreal, where he studied political science at McGill and later at Concordia, led Lenkov to a screenwriting course at UCLA. That spawned a career as a film producer and comic-book writer -- his R.I.P.D. is being adapted for the big screen with Ryan Reynolds -- and, in a full-circle twist of fate, as the force behind CBS' Five-0 reboot, which in its second season is averaging nearly 12 million viewers. "My dad watched for 12 years straight," says Lenkov, whose other credits include CSI: NY and USA's La Femme Nikita. "Doing the new Hawaii was so striking emotionally because it'd been so important to him."

Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk
Glee (Fox), American Horror Story (FX)

As a child wrestling with undiagnosed dyslexia, Falchuk found himself drawn to television while other kids his age buried themselves in books. "I had a hard time reading, so I was always drawn to anything visual because it was my opportunity to connect with stuff," he says. "I spent way too much time watching TV." Falchuk remembers sneaking the black-and-white television from his kitchen into his bedroom to watch everything from Looney Tunes to televangelists and later getting hooked on such 1980s staples as Dallas, Cheers and Magnum, P.I. But a career in television was never considered by the Boston-bred Falchuk, 40, whose family was full of doctors, until a move to study at the American Film Institute broadened his future. He landed his first Hollywood job writing on the syndicated sci-fi show Earth: Final Conflict in 2001 and two years later scored a gig on Nip/Tuck, Murphy's plastic-surgery drama on FX, spawning one of the industry's most lucrative partnerships. For his part, Indianapolis native Murphy, 45, started as an entertainment journalist before segueing into TV with the short-lived WB series Popular. Today, the two co-run Glee and this month added FX's American Horror Story to their drama resume. Says Falchuk of balancing the demands of both shows: "We're lucky. Ryan has the stamina and the creative abilities of 10 people, so it's like there are 11 of us."

Team NCIS
Shane Brennan (original) and Gary Glasberg (L.A.) (CBS)

NCIS and its spinoff NCIS: Los Angeles attract nearly 40 million viewers a week to CBS. If the franchise is the linchpin in CBS' procedural lineup, Brennan, who worked on NCIS with creator Don Bellisario for two years before creating NCIS: L.A., admits that giving the spinoff its own voice took a lot of heavy lifting. "There was a lot of pressure," he says. "It had to be a show that stood on its own. It couldn't ride the coattails of NCIS." Glasberg has been an executive producer on NCIS since 2009, and took over as showrunner this season. The series will hit its 200th episode in January. "With all these episodes behind you," says Glasberg, "you really have to be conscious of keeping things new and different." Brennan and Glasberg may navigate similar challenges, but they come from divergent backgrounds. Glasberg, 45, who is from Middletown, N.Y., in the Catskills, got an internship with film director Alan J. Pakula while he was an undergraduate at New York University, then got his start in TV writing animated children's series. Brennan, 54, began his writing career as a print and television journalist in his native Victoria, Australia. "You launch yourself into these things with a certain amount of ambition and hope, but you learn to have low expectations," says Brennan. "It's incredibly hard to break into showrunning, and then it's incredibly hard to be successful at it."

Matt Nix
Burn Notice (USA)

After graduating from UCLA as a political science major ("partially because it had a good theater program," he says), the L.A. native was close to becoming a lawyer before his father offered him a challenge. "I'll support you in becoming a lawyer, but only if you can find an attorney who actually likes what he's doing," recalls Nix, 40. (He tried and failed miserably at the task.) So going Hollywood wasn't a surprise to his supportive family. "I was lucky because my great-grandfather was a writer in the 1930s, " he says. "Screenwriting got them through the Depression." There was nothing glamorous about his first writing job, scripting an independent movie produced by an Irish production company. Fifteen years later, USA owes a great deal to Nix -- who had no showrunning experience before creating Burn Notice -- for kick-starting a slate that was last summer's most formidable lineup. Burn Notice continues to deliver, netting nearly 5 million viewers each week and helping USA to set a record in the third quarter as the only cable network to ever average more than 3.5 million viewers. The series also has such a loyal audience that the network aired a prequel telepic directed by its star Jeffrey Donovan and launched a digital interactive comic book that hit 100,000 page views the first day it was released. Says Nix, "The challenge in any show is always to change and stay exciting at the same time."

Jeff Pinkner and J.H. Wyman
Fringe (Fox)

When Fringe moved from Thursdays to Fridays in the middle of its third season, viewership tumbled from 5.1 million to fewer than 4 million. This is why it was so meaningful -- and shocking, really -- that Fox renewed the cult favorite for a fourth season in March. It was a sign, say Pinkner and Wyman, that ratings are no longer the most valuable unit of measurement by network execs. Buzz can be all powerful. "We keep a lot of plot secrets because we find it's better that way," says Wyman. "If nobody knows what you're doing, then nobody can tell." Created by J.J. Abrams, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, Fringe took a creative gamble last season when it erased the existence of one main character and added a new series regular. But Pinkner, 45, a former producer on Abrams' Alias and Lost, and the Montreal-bred Wyman, 44, who was a writer on Canadian period series Wind at My Back and co-created Keen Eddie, are hardly ready to close up shop. "The only show we've done that said, 'Hey, this is going to be our end date and we're marching toward it,' was Lost," Pinkner says. "We hope it's a long time before that happens for Fringe."

Shonda Rhimes
Grey's Anatomy, Private Practice, Scandal (ABC)

Rhimes and her prolific Shondaland production company business partner Betsy Beers couldn't have come from more different backgrounds. Rhimes spent most of her suburban Chicago upbringing reading and rarely watching TV, while Long Island native Beers gained what Rhimes calls an "encyclopedic knowledge" of television. "It actually didn't occur to me that television was a real job until after I was out of college," says Rhimes, who is the medium's most prolific female drama series creator. With Beers, she now has three series with ABC -- Grey's Anatomy, Private Practice and the midseason legal soap Scandal -- and at least two more in development. Rhimes, 41, says she and Beers are embracing their "very different jobs," with the former focused on writing and the latter on managing the busy company's creative affairs. But that doesn't mean they aren't always a phone call away. Says Beers: "If she rang me at 3 o'clock in the morning and asked me to bury a body, I'm there, no questions asked, with a shovel."

Michael Rauch and Andrew Lenchewski
Royal Pains (USA)

Rauch and Lenchewski credit the easygoing temperament of their Hamptons-set medical dramedy to the low turnover of its staff. "The biggest thing is preserving the writers room we started with," Lenchewski says. Unlike many showrunning pairs who divvy up aspects of the job, Rauch and Lenchewski, both from Manhattan, make all decisions in tandem -- whether it's about budget, scripts or casting. "Luckily, there's rarely ego, so it hasn't been a problem," says Rauch, 43, whose interest in the business sprouted when he was a kid watching second-run Paramount and RKO movies with his father. For Lenchewski, the early inspiration took a decidedly less prestigious form. "Saved by the Bell made me want to work in TV. I've taken a lot of shit for saying that," says Lenchewski, 35, who co-created Royal Pains with John P. Rogers. With the series averaging more than 5 million viewers in its third season, the showrunners are openly enjoying their hot streak. Jokes Lenchewski, "We have nowhere to go but down from here."

Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage
Gossip Girl, Hart of Dixie (CW), Chuck (NBC)

Since they first met as writers on Fox's The O.C. in 2003, Schwartz and Savage have made their Fake Empire shingle into one of the industry's most diverse. The pair have three hourlong dramas in varying phases: NBC spy dramedy Chuck (co-created with Chris Fedak), which Schwartz says has allowed him to "fulfill his James Bond obsession" and is in its final season on NBC; the CW's Gossip Girl (exec produced by Josh Safran), which recently kicked off its fifth season; and the rookie fish-out-of-water drama Hart of Dixie (created by Leila Gerstein). With the two established series bolstered by cult followings, Schwartz, 35, feels he's made good on at least one early career goal. "In high school, I couldn't get girls to go out with me because they were so obsessed with Jason Priestley and Luke Perry," he says. "That was powerful. I thought, 'Hopefully one day I will create a show that will make it impossible for somebody else to date in high school.' " Meanwhile, Savage, 42 and raised in Calgary, spent her youth highlighting all the shows in the Sunday program listings her family wanted to watch, even posting a schedule on the TV-room door. "It didn't occur to me until I was in Los Angeles that I could get a job making things for people to watch on television."

David Shoreand Katie Jacobs
House (Fox)

Eight seasons in, Fox's medical procedural is undergoing a reboot. Beleaguered love-interest Lisa Edelstein departed last season, and Odette Annable and Charlyne Yi have joined the cast that's led by six-time Emmy nominee Hugh Laurie. Says Jacobs, 48: "You have to decide early on what captures your interest. If you wait for the audience to tell you they don't like it, it's too late to switch gears." Shore, 52, a veteran of such shows as Family Law and Law & Order, oversees the writers room while Jacobs heads up everything else ("post, casting, publicity, crew, production," she says), including stepping behind the camera as a director. "I knew I wanted to do a show with David, and we made a blind deal to do something. House satisfied that promise," says Jacobs. Shore admits to having an enviable problem, being so far into the series' narrative. "It means I have to come up with that many more stories!" he says. Against all the odds (namely Dancing With the Stars), House still averages about 10 million viewers.

Craig Silverstein
Nikita (CW)

Silverstein fell into TV like many have before him: by failing to make it in the movies. "But, to be fair, it was a feature spec script that got me my first television job," says Silverstein, who also co-created Fox's big-budget family adventure Terra Nova. In 2000, he landed as a staff writer on Syfy's (then the Sci Fi Channel) The Invisible Man. Silverstein, 36, credits David Levinson, now an executive producer on Nikita, with affording him the opportunity. His quick ascension prepared him for future projects (Standoff, Bones, K-Ville), and a bad pilot experience taught Silverstein to stand by his instincts. When he was approached to develop an update to the Nikita franchise for the CW, he had reservations. "I didn't want this to be Gossip Girl with a gun. She kills people, so I told the CW it had to be dark," he says. Luckily, the network execs agreed. Nikita is settling into its new Friday slot in season two: It's already averaging 2 million viewers and has made a Comic-Con idol out of star Maggie Q.

David Simon
Treme (HBO)

"I don't think of myself as an entertainer," says Simon, "which of course is a very dangerous thing in this industry." Simon, 51, is television's avant-garde master. With Simon's post-Katrina diary Treme, his impressive HBO resume also boasts The Corner, Generation Kill and The Wire, which is still finding new audiences via DVD sales and digital platforms more than three years after it wrapped. His work has earned critical raves and small, if devoted, audiences. But the freedom he's afforded at HBO has probably engendered a little jealousy from his colleagues in broadcast television. "At any moment, I expect the window to slam shut on my fingers and I'll have to go back to journalism," says Simon, who was a crime reporter at the Baltimore Sun when his non-fiction book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, about life in inner city Baltimore, became the inspiration for Tom Fontana and Barry Levinson's NBC series Homicide. Simon and Eric Overmyer are at work on the third season of Treme, set to bow this spring, and Simon is developing a miniseries for HBO about the Lincoln assassination with Fontana. "Working in cable changed things for me; it was the window I crawled through," he says. "Until they tell me to crawl back through it, it's good."

Veena Sud
The Killing (AMC)

When she started as an undergrad at Columbia University, the Toronto-born, Ohio-raised Sud set out to become the next great American writer, but admits, "I was 18 and didn't know shit." So she studied political science and women's studies, freelanced, studied film at NYU and eventually landed as a writer/executive producer on CBS' Cold Case. But it was her "worst" job -- directing on The Real World in 1992 -- that most impacted her craft. "I spent five months baby-sitting drunk, hysterical 20-year-olds in Cabo San Lucas in a hurricane," says Sud, 44. "But you could watch human nature unfold for a very long shift." After running Cold Case for two years, Sud embarked on The Killing, the daunting adaptation of the dark Danish series Forbrydelsen (The Crime) for AMC. Its April 3 bow was AMC's second-highest series debut (after The Walking Dead), and her Emmy-nominated star Mireille Enos as detective Sarah Linden became cable's most intriguing new face. Even haters of Sud's controversial red-herring finale are apt to tune in for the second season, set to begin in the spring.

Matthew Weiner
Mad Men (AMC)

How did Weiner grow up to create TV's most literate show, one of only three in history to win four consecutive Emmys for best drama? Maybe because he got rotten grades. "I was a horrible student, literally 100th out of 120 people in my high school class," he says. "So TV was the first thing taken away." The L.A. native instead watched classic movies and pored over books in his free time, which led to higher test scores, entry into Wesleyan University, then USC Film School and writing jobs on Biography, Becker and The Sopranos, where he won two Emmys. "Even on Becker, the job that forced me to write Mad Men," says Weiner, "I still realized I was in major league baseball: Only 300 people in the country had this job. Part of the origin of Mad Men was my saying, 'I'm 35, I have all this stuff, I've achieved part of my dream, anybody's dream, and I'm still completely unsatisfied. And that was sort of the story of Don Draper." Though as charmed as Weiner's career has become with Mad Men, which returns in March, his humble years are always within a memory's reach. "My worst job was writing an interactive CD ROM in Orange County about Richard Nixon," he says. "The cubicle, the birthday cakes, the office gossip, the 45-minute commute … it was misery."

D.B. Weiss andDavid Benioff
Game of Thrones (HBO)

Weiss and Benioff were terrified that their bizarre, dragon-infested adaptation of George R.R. Martin's fantasy novel would be a cult show with a tiny audience. After early career promise in film (Benioff, 41, wrote Spike Lee's The 25th Hour and Troy; Weiss, 40, wrote the script for the game-turned-film project Halo), the longtime friends dragged their wives to Belfast, kickstarting a years-long process to make a show many thought too confusingly weird to survive. But Thrones beat Entourage and True Blood's first-season numbers, earned 13 Emmy noms -- and a win for supporting actor Peter Dinklage -- and became HBO's fifth-most-watched original series, just behind Sex and the City. "The sophistication of the TV audience has grown," says Weiss. "If you really pay attention, you'll follow it."

John Wells
Shameless (Showtime)

Despite 20 years in the industry, six Emmys for producing ER and The West Wing, forays into features and a tenure as WGA president, there are moments that surprise the seasoned writer-producer, now overseeing Showtime's politically incorrect Shameless. "We were in a read-through last week and at the end of it, Bill [Macy] pulled out a ukulele and had written a Christmas song for us to use to promote the show," says Wells, laughing. Though Shameless' first season attracted only a fraction of the audience that broadcast networks consider a success -- roughly 1 million viewers -- Wells, 55, believes having more options on television is creatively exhilarating. "There are shows on the air with audiences that are 10 percent the size of what was once considered a failure," explains Wells. "If you look at what we think of as 'successful' now, like Mad Men, there would have been no place for that show 20 years ago." As Shameless readies its return this winter, Wells has a slew of projects in development and remains a producer of TNT's underdog drama Southland. His focus, however, is on growing the fledgling Showtime drama. "You use up a lot of your best ideas in season one," he says. "So the concern now is making the best possible use of this amazing cast."

Kevin Williamson and Julie Plec
The Vampire Diaries (CW)

The CW has doubled-down on Williamson on Thursday nights, pairing his witchy freshman soap The Secret Circle with The Vampire Diaries, which in its third season has become one of the network's biggest scripted hits. The series inhabit their own universes -- though each boasts rabid online fan bases -- forcing Williamson, 46, to test his showrunner mettle. "I've never really understood it," he admits. "There's no set of rules on how to run a show or make TV." The creator of the Scream film franchise and Dawson's Creek jokes that his parents "pushed him out" of the rural North Carolina town he grew up in to encourage his Hollywood aspirations. Now with a serial-killer drama in development at Fox, he must lean increasingly on Diaries' co-showrunner Plec, 39, whom he dubs his unofficial "life partner." Jokes Plec: "Kevin and I have a highly functional dysfunctional system."

Terence Winter
Boardwalk Empire (HBO)

Schooled in the mafia omertà on the streets of the Brooklyn neighborhood of Marine Park, Winter once worked in a delicatessen owned by Gambino crime boss Paul Castellano. "If you kept your eyes open and your mouth shut, you saw a lot of stuff," he says. But his early education as a writer came in front of the television, where he spent countless hours watching The Honeymooners and The Munsters. "That's how I learned to tell a story. I actually paid attention to it. It's a perfectly valid way to learn about this stuff." So when in 1998 his agent sent him a pilot for an HBO series called The Sopranos, it was destiny. "I knew that world. And I was a huge fan of crime writing," he says. "I called my agent and said, 'You've got to get me on this show. I can write the shit out of this thing.' " Winter, 51, joined The Sopranos in its second season and is responsible for some of its most iconic episodes ("Long Term Parking" and "Members Only," among others). These days, Winter is mining an earlier incarnation of the organized crime underbelly in the Prohibition-era Boardwalk Empire, an Emmy nominee now in its second season, and where he works with numerous former Sopranos colleagues, including its Emmy-nominated star Steve Buscemi and director Tim Van Patten. The show has become the pay cable network's principal drama series given its auspices (its Emmy-winning pilot director Martin Scorsese is also an executive producer) and its status as an heir apparent to The Sopranos. "No pressure there," laughs Winter, who lives with his wife and kids in Manhattan. "It's flattering that anyone even talks about this series in the same breath."

Graham Yost
Justified (FX)

Yost was surrounded by TV growing up in Toronto, with his dad hosting a popular series about movies for 25 years. However, he ultimately broke into writing on his own, working for Soap Opera Digest and Hey Dude, Nickelodeon's first scripted show, and then on Full House -- but quit "four days before they fired me ...they hated me." One day later, his feature script for Speed sold to Paramount. Yost's action films, which also include Hard Rain and Broken Arrow, had grossed a half-billion dollars when Tom Hanks gave him TV cred by hiring him as a writer on Band of Brothers and as a writer/director/executive producer of The Pacific. Yost used that clout to make Justified, one of the best Elmore Leonard adaptations since Get Shorty. It was the second-most-watched debut in FX history (after The Shield), second-season ratings were up 16 percent, and it also scored four Emmy noms and a win for Margo Martindale. Yost, 52, defines his approach in 10 simple words: "Treat characters with dignity and have a sense of humor."

MY INDUSTRY IDOL: "Steven Bochco. What I'm doing now is only possible because of him. One of the transportation guys on my series Boomtown even found me an arm patch from the old Hill Street costumes. I have that somewhere." -- Graham Yost

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BEHIND THE SCENES WITH ... Janet Tamaro, Rizzoli & Isles (TNT)

"Watch out -- she moves fast." So warns the show publicist for TNT's breakout summer hit Rizzoli & Isles as its showrunner, Janet Tamaro, exits the door of her office on the Paramount lot at a pace normally reserved for emergencies.

It's probably a holdover from her life as an ABC News correspondent that gives Tamaro an ingrained sense of urgency. Or it could be that her drama series was tied with The Closer as this year's top basic-cable series, and the expectations have reached a fever pitch. More likely, it's 90 degrees and the former high school track star (she still manages to work out daily) is dressed for a fall day in her native Boston and needs some AC. "Suede jacket and jeans -- what was I thinking?" she wonders aloud.

Around 1 p.m., we enter Stage 4 and are greeted by the show's stars, Angie Harmon (tomboy cop Jane Rizzoli) and Sasha Alexander (medical examiner Maura Isles). They are filming episodes 214 and 215 for the series' winter-season block, set to air this fall. "Hi baby!" coos Tamaro, embracing Alexander, wearing a slim red dress and between-the-scenes flats. The two discuss a stunt that will have Alexander diving to the ground. "Hmmm. I wonder if you should really be wearing a dress for this," says Tamaro, pensively. "I'm worried about your safety."

By 1:20 p.m., we're tucked inside a nondescript room next to Stage 2. Today, Tamaro and her head of casting, Gary Zuckerbrod, are charged with filling the roles of "Whistler and His Daughter" -- parts that will appear later this year. A parade of middle-aged actors and twentysomething actresses file in and read one by one. By 1:45 p.m., it's been 25 minutes of some pretty good and not-so-good readings. "I liked the one who looked like a Barbie doll," she tells Zuckerbrod. "You didn't expect the intensity."

Back inside Stage 2, a car-crash re-creation scene is being dissected; most urgently, what is the most appropriate type of skid marks? Tamaro hashes out what she feels is the most realistic approach with director Michael Zinberg and police adviser Russ Grant. "But if it went like this, the marks would need to go the opposite direction, right? Like, "Errrrrrr!" offers Tamaro, giving a demonstration while staring at a messy drawing of the scene. "I know I'm in trouble when we start making diagrams."

Tamaro, 43, is open about the strain of overseeing a hit series. "TNT has been great so far, but I've realized there's no way to be a master of the universe," she says. "I've accepted that this is the gig, and I think all the showrunners in Hollywood should start a support group." Her main priorities for season three? "Having a life again" and making more time for her husband and two teenage daughters. "I'm also going to demand more and not be as concerned with people liking me," she says, laughing. "I wish there were more sole showrunners who were female. We've watched men be in charge for 1,000 years. I'm just going to pretend I'm a man and really take the wheel." 

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BEHIND THE SCENES WITH ... Kurt Sutter, Sons of Anarchy (FX)

"Forgive me … I'mworking on like 2 1/2 hours sleep," warns Sutter. The Sons of Anarchy creator is slumped in a stuffy edit room inside a trailer on the barbed-wire-appointed grounds of SOA's seedy headquarters in North Hollywood. In the throes of editing episode 11 of the biker-gang drama's fourth season, Sutter appears the opposite of the hardened persona who has used Twitter as a public receptacle for seemingly endless obscenity-laced rants about the Emmys and rival showrunners. He's soft-spoken and almost preppy (save for the sleeves of tribal tattoos), wearing a T-shirt, jeans and gray Converse sneakers.

Sutter is understandably exhausted. He was up all night writing the season finale for what has become FX's biggest drama ever -- its premiere was the most-watched episode in the cable network's history -- an episode he's also prepping to direct. But there's another problem to be solved on this cloudy Tuesday afternoon. After a second viewing of the sprawling 11th episode -- in rough-cut form and laden with visual placeholders like "VFX: Bloody Head" -- Sutter looks worried. "I don't think I can get this down without gutting the whole thing," he tells his dutiful editor Lauren Pendergrass, taking notes on a legal pad. "I'm going to have to e-mail FX and ask if I can do a 90-minute episode again. As we get into the season, even lifting a line of dialogue undermines the narrative."

One could easily imagine Sutter back when he was headed for a career in academia. After a New Jersey childhood that "wasn't happy," he studied communications at Rutgers and in 1997 was awarded an MFA fellowship in performance at Northern Illinois University. It was there, inspired by Henrik Ibsen and Eugene O'Neill, that he started writing plays and cultivating ideas for the screen while also teaching acting and directing. Sutter moved to L.A. and wrote specs and one-minute bumpers for Bravo before landing as a writer on FX's first original series, The Shield, where he stayed for seven seasons. He says his inspiration for SOA grew largely out of wanting to collaborate with his wife, Golden Globe-winning star Katey Sagal, whom he met via a coffee date set up by friends. "And I never looked back," he says.

Today Sutter, 48, is one of FX's most iconic and outspoken creatives. He made headlines last summer with all that Twitter trash-talk about SOA and Sagal getting snubbed by the Emmys, which put him suddenly on everyone's radar (and even defending his behavior on NPR). He says the rants came from a satirical place, but admits it's tough not to get sucked into the hype. "I see a show like Mad Men get gobs of Emmys, as well it should," he says. "But what people don't realize is that it's almost more difficult to make my show look this shitty."

Awards aside, the feedback that rings most powerful is that from his "f--ing committed" fan base. "I was at a party for [Hells Angels founder] Sonny Barger. These guys said: 'Your show is a f--ing soap opera. But it's our soap opera.' I thought, 'Yeah, that's what it's about.' "

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METHODOLOGY: Selections for The Hollywood Reporter's fourth annual list of the top showrunners are based on the following criteria: 1. Direct responsibility for the day-to-day creative output of a scripted TV show that has aired for at least one full season (unless he or she also had another show on the air). 2. How prolific the showrunner is: Those with more shows on the air were more likely to be included. 3. Nielsen ratings, especially relative to other shows on the same network. 4. Emmy attention and critical praise. 5. Professionalism and reputation among studio and network executives.

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