The Top 50 Showrunners
Series creator Mike Kelley presides over somewhat bipolar set shooting ABC's drama "Revenge."
The mood inside the Manhattan Beach studio where ABC shoots its hit primetime drama Revenge is a bit bipolar. Between takes, the cast and crew happily traverse the labyrinth of shingled estates that fill their makeshift Hamptons, joking with one another and eyeing the lavish -- even by L.A. standards -- craft-services table. But as soon as they're rolling or enmeshed in a particularly thorough rehearsal, the show's fictional animosity creeps in like an Atlantic fog.
Madeleine Stowe, nominated for a Golden Globe for her calculating villainess Victoria Grayson, casts an icy gaze from her prop balcony until someone signals a break, her intimidating expression loosens into a smile and she makes a beeline for a robe. (It might be summer in this version of Hamptons, but it hasn't topped 65 degrees inside the studio on this mid-September day.)
Series creator Mike Kelley hops the railing to talk his star through the rest of the scene, a tense encounter with new addition Jennifer Jason Leigh. Stowe says such intimate moments of prep time with Kelley have afforded the seasoned film actress a very different focus on her first TV series. "I was always taught [in film] to not worry about the words and just feel your way through the scenes," says Stowe, who says she's in particular awe of her onscreen nemesis, TV veteran Emily VanCamp (Brothers & Sisters, Everwood), 26, who today is on the sideline, quietly running lines and plugged into her iPhone. "I learn so much from the younger actors. They come from a completely different school."
A former producer on The O.C. who created CBS' brief but well-received 1960s-set drama Swingtown, Kelley, 45, had a blind script deal with ABC only two years ago when the network expressed interest in updating Alexandre Dumas' tale of vengeance The Count of Monte Cristo with a female protagonist.
He admits the audience has spun his series into something different than he intended ("Suspense drama is what I wanted people to call it, but they see it more as a guilty-pleasure soap," says Kelley) but knows it isn't worth harping on labels. Revenge heads into its sophomore year as one of the youngest-skewing debuts of the 2011-12 season and a new mainstay of water-cooler chat. The show managed to build viewership in the undesirable 10 p.m. Wednesday hour. As a reward, the series has moved to Sunday, where it is poised to grow in Desperate Housewives' former time slot.
Kelley has high hopes of filling such legendary shoes. "Yes, people may be watching football and The Good Wife at that time on a Sunday night," he admits. "But I'm really hoping not."
THE TOP 50 SHOWRUNNERS: THE LIST
TEAM CHUCK LORRE: Don Reo & Jim Patterson, (Two and a Half Men); Bill Prady & Steve Molaro (The Big Bang Theory); Mark Roberts (Mike & Molly) (CBS)
Ages: 59, 66, 45, 52, 45, 51 Twitter Handles: @billprady, @stevemolaro. The Show That Inspired Me to Write:: Lorre: All in the Family was a turning point. Prior to that, I don't remember half-hour comedies dealing with weighty issues and being as funny at the same time. Roberts: The block of comedies in the 1970s: Newhart, Mary Tyler Moore all the way through to The Carol Burnett Show. My Big Break Roberts: Two and a Half Men. Prady: You Can't Do That on Television. My TV Mentors: Lorre: I loved what the Smothers Brothers brought to television. Norman Lear was a game-changer; the Charles brothers with Cheers, Larry David with Seinfeld, Steven Bochco. Now you have [Breaking Bad's] Vince Gilligan raising the bar again to places that are breathtaking. I watch dramas, and it's like a different language. I'm amazed, mystified and mesmerized all at the same time. Prady: I had the amazing luck to work with Jim Henson for six years up until his death in 1990. My Toughest Scene to Write This Year: Roberts: The two-part wedding episode of Mike & Molly. We'd never done a two-parter, and each episode needs to be free-standing and still create an interest and momentum for the second half. Molaro: Wolowitz's (Simon Helberg) wedding was on the roof. How I Break Through Writer's Block Lorre: What's writer's block? You have to do 24 shows in 30 weeks. There's no time to sit around and say, "Oh no!" Prady: My preferred method is three months in an opium den. Sadly, due to the economy, most of the nearby opium dens have closed. If Wish I Could Delegate: Roberts: Talking to actors' agents. Prady: I've delegated almost everything to Steve Molaro this year, so you probably should ask him which aspects of the job he was least happy to receive. Molaro: Picking where we get lunch because no one is ever fully happy. These are not actual problems that any human should deal with. My Proudest Accomplishment This Year: Molaro: That we managed to get a character to go up in space as an astronaut and have it be interesting, serious and funny and not come off as crazy or ridiculous. If I Could Add Any Writer to My Staff, It Would Be:Roberts: Do they have to be alive? Dorothy Parker. The Show I'm Embarrassed to Admit I Watch Lorre: Syfy's Alphas. They took the superhero format and reinvented it in a way that was much needed without leotards and capes. Roberts: Boss with Kelsey Grammer. It's half-good. He's really amazing, and then all of a sudden they have these Zalman King sex scenes that are just insane. Prady: I'm not embarrassed to admit that I watch Judge Judy on the treadmill. Should I be? The Three Things I Need in Order to Write Lorre: Fear of having not written; this ridiculous, obsessive idea that someday you're going to get it right; the ongoing belief that you've gotten it right; and the delusion that someday you might get it right. They all keep me going. Roberts: A good writer's assistant, a big jug of water and four to seven other funny people. Prady: Stuff to fiddle with (currently a replica Doctor Who sonic screwdriver), a comfortable chair and colleagues who are much more talented than I am.
TEAM SETH MacFARLANE: Steve Callaghan & Mark Hentemann (Family Guy); Mike Barker & Matt Weitzman (American Dad); Rich Appel (The Cleveland Show) (Fox)
Ages: 38, 43, 43, 41, 44, 49 Twitter Handle: @sethmacfarlane. The Show That Inspired Me to Write: MacFarlane: All in the Family. Callaghan: I was very inspired by the brilliance of M*A*S*H and am not afraid to admit that I cried during the last moments of the series finale. To this day, I still cannot bring myself to ride on buses where Korean women are suffocating chickens or babies. Hentemann: Seinfeld. Weitzman: The Simpsons. My Big Break MacFarlane: [Cartoon Network's] Johnny Bravo. Callaghan: My first writing job was faxing in wordplay-style categories for the MTV dating game show Singled Out. I was paid $5 for each accepted submission. During my entire tenure, I earned about $15. Hentemann: Late Show With David Letterman. Appel: I was working as a prosecutor in Manhattan when I manned up and tried what I'd wanted to do from the time I was 14. I wrote a bunch of material, got an agent and then, amazingly, got a job as a staff writer on The Simpsons during its fourth season. Weitzman: Daddy Dearest, a short-lived sitcom on Fox starring Richard Lewis and Don Rickles. Nervous breakdowns happened often. MY TV MENTOR MacFarlane: Norman Lear. Hentemann: Seth MacFarlane and Larry David. Appel: Matt Groening, Greg Daniels. Weitzman: My father has been a lit agent for 40 years, and whenever I tell him I don't know if I'll ever work again, he reminds me that's what his clients have always said. My Proudest Accomplishment This Year: MacFarlane: I had a phone conversation with Ari Emanuel that exceeded eight seconds. Weitzman: Being there when the L.A. Kings won the Stanley Cup. Oh, and my son's birth -- put that first. My Toughest Scene to Write This Year: Callaghan: A scene where Stewie and Brian are genuinely contemplating a joint suicide. A funny version of that. Hentemann: Writing the 200th episode of Family Guy. Appel: Having lunch with Carl Reiner and George Shapiro at The Grill from time to time. Carl -- cliché alert! -- is my hero, and he's become a recurring character on The Cleveland Show. How I Break Through Writer's Block MacFarlane: A stroll on the patio as I enjoy the rich, full flavor and cool mildness of that perfect blend of choice tobaccos that you only get from a Camel. Callaghan: Realizing that there is a deadline and simply no time for writer's block. Writer's block is a luxury reserved for people who don't own calendars. If I Could Add Any Writer to My Staff, It Would Be:MacFarlane: Rob Petrie. I'd Rather DelegateAppel: Meetings about how to foster seamless viewing patterns and capitalize on the "churn" at the 30-minute mark through the creation of original content so that … I'm sorry, what was the question? Weitzman: Telling Mike Barker, my co-showrunner, when he's wrong. The Most Absurd Note I've Ever Gotten Hentemann: Broadcast standards told us to change the nonsensical word we made up, "clemen," because it was too offensive. Appel: An executive called to tell me that my show was canceled. That was hilarious. The Show I'm Embarrassed to Admit I Watch MacFarlane: NBC Nightly News. Appel: How cool would it be if I watched such smart shows that The American Experience on PBS was the one I was most embarrassed by? If I Could Scrub One Credit From My Resume, It Would Be: MacFarlane: The Hudson Brothers Razzle Dazzle Show. Hentemann: Human bowling pin passing out coupons in Central Park.
The Walking Dead (AMC)
Age: 45 Twitter Handle: @glenmazzara. The Show That Inspired Me to Write: The third-season premiere of Hill Street Blues, "Trial by Fury," written by David Milch. It made me realize that there could be great, meaningful moments on TV that you could think about the next day, and it really landed a punch. The other moment was the M*A*S*H finale. My Big Break Nash Bridges. I wrote a freelance episode and was hired to staff and partnered with a young punk named Shawn Ryan (The Shield, Last Resort). I learned story structure there and how to write for a main character. I was originally told that Nash doesn't make mistakes because nobody wants to see Don Johnson make mistakes. You really had to make sure that the main character drove every scene and was compelling, watchable and entertaining. Those are the rules that I've stuck to on every single show. My Proudest Accomplishment This Year: For our third season, I was able to lead the show [out of] a time of crisis. I think we've written and filmed our best season yet. My Toughest Scene to Write: When Rick (Andrew Lincoln) kills Shane (Jon Bernthal). The actors had very different takes on what that scene should be, and I really had to stick to my guns as a showrunner and have faith in the material that my co-writer, Evan Reilly, and I had developed. The Most Absurd Note I've Ever Gotten I just received one that a particular line written wasn't good because it sounded "too TV." What was so bad about something sounding TV? What does that mean? That was an odd note. I'd Rather Delegate: Telling the actors their characters are being killed off. That's never fun. How I Break Through Writer's Block I write the worst possible version of the scene I need to write. I try to make it as cheesy, goofy and ridiculous as possible. That way, I don't have to worry about any other draft because it can't possibly be that bad. By writing the worst possible version, you get it out of the way, and it takes the pressure off because anything else will just be an improvement. If I Could Add Any Writer to My Staff, It Would Be: The Twilight Zone's Rod Serling. A current writer would be Milch. The Show I'm Embarrassed to Admit I Watch Project Runway. I have no fashion sense, so I have no idea if what they're making is good or bad. I have to ask my wife. If I Could Scrub One Credit From My Resume, It Would BeFox's Standoff. I did not have a good experience there.
Liz Meriwether, Brett Baer and Dave Finkel
New Girl (Fox)
Ages: 30, 46, 42 Twitter Handles: @lizmeriwether, @finkel_is_great. The Show That Inspired Me to Write: Meriwether: I love Cheers. I didn't watch it growing up, but I watched it getting ready to do the first season of New Girl. It bowls me over every time I see it. Baer: I watched SCTV (Second City Television), to which I became dangerously addicted. I used to get stomach pains when I knew it was on and I couldn't watch it. Finkel: All in the Family and The Larry Sanders Show. I liked Norman Lear's ideology that you could trust an audience to stay with you. My Big Break Baer: Dave and I got our first paying gig writing cartoons. Our first job was an Animaniacs cartoon about Hemingway for Steven Spielberg. It's been downhill ever since. Our TV Mentors: Finkel: Peter Hastings (Pinky and the Brain) for giving us a shot when no one else had any reason to. Bruce Rasmussen, Rob Ulin and Bruce Helford for giving us a shot when no one else had any reason to. Rob Carlock and Tina Fey for showing us how to keep doing it until it's right and forcing us to do it until it's right (usually with brute force and verbal threats). And Liz Meriwether for bringing a fresh angle and a die-hard belief that everything is important. My Proudest Accomplishment This Year: Finkel: Getting through season one and staying married. I had my third child last year (I did it! All by myself! My wife did nothing!). I have three kids now, and they all know me as "Mr. Finkel." I make them bow when they greet me. My Toughest Scene to Write: Baer: We had to rewrite "The Landlord" episode overnight, which is an unfortunately common occurrence on our show. I remember doing a punch-and-cut pass on the big menage a trois scene with a couple of the writers at about 6:20 a.m., and I was so tired I started hallucinating. It was near Halloween, and there were a bunch of little pumpkins on the writers room table that suddenly were very fond of me -- in my mind, anyway. In a moment of desperation, I collected all the little gourds in a warm embrace and declared, "I'll always have my pumpkin patch." The Most Absurd Note I've Ever Gotten Baer: This was for a children's show we worked on: "Please delete the shot of the Fancy Lassy in the high-kicking boots exposing her nipple." To this day, we have no idea what the executive was talking about. If Wish I Could Delegate: Meriwether: Production design and [deciding] how things look. I am not a very visual person, so it's hard for me to make those decisions. But I'm learning! Baer: Organizing the writers assistants' schedules so they don't go past 14-hour days. I feel like I'm the manager of a Denny's in West Covina. Finkel: The writing. Also, the thinking. And the giving of notes. Plus the rewriting. If I can just do the snacking and the collecting of the money, I think that's my sweet spot. If I Could Add Any Writer to My Staff, It Would Be: Meriwether: Larry Charles or Eugene O'Neill. We could put O'Neill in the joke room. We need more alcoholics. Baer: Tough one. I'll take Larry Gelbart. Finkel: This is theoretical, right? Garry Shandling. I'd love to … I'm just scared of him. The Three Things I Need in Order to Write Baer: A baseball, a purpose, a Finkel. Finkel: We're adorable! If I Could Scrub One Credit From My Resume, It Would BeBaer: The easy answer would be Joey. But I'm gonna go with Joey. Finkel: I'm proud of every single one of my credits -- until the people who created the shows are dead.
Ryan Murphy & Brad Falchuk
Glee, American Horror Story (Fox, FX)
Ages: 46, 41 Twitter Handles: @MrRPMurphy, @BFalchuk. The Show That Inspired Me To Want to Write: Falchuk: St. Elsewhere, Monty Python's Flying Circus. They didn't make me want to become a writer, but they gave me a model for the kind of writer I wanted to be: fearless. My TV Mentor: Ryan Murphy. He gave me my first real staff job working on Glee. My Toughest Scene to Write: The school massacre scene in American Horror Story. If Wish I Could Delegate: Returning phone calls and e-mails. I suck at it. I'm sorry to everyone I owe a return call or a reply. The list is long and distinguished. How I Break Through Writer's Block I watch scenes from The Sopranos on YouTube. If I Could Add Any Writer to My Staff, It Would Be:Michael Schur (Parks and Recreation). His Fire Joe Morgan blog was a must-read. The Three Things I Need in Order to Write Sweet potatoes, Internet access and Bruce Springsteen. I don't listen to music while I write, but I have all of these great pictures of The Boss in my office. They were all gifts. It's basically a wall of Bruce. He inspires me.
TEAM NCIS: Shane Brennan (NCIS: LA); Gary Glasberg (original) (CBS)
Ages: 55, 46 The Show That Inspired Me to Write: Brennan: I wanted to be a film writer until I saw Hill Street Blues. Glasberg: St. Elsewhere left me saying, "I want to do that for a living." My Big Break: Brennan: A cop show -- what else? -- the Australian series Cop Shop. Glasberg: It was for UPN on the short-lived Swift Justice. The show lasted only nine episodes and then died. My TV Mentor: Brennan: I didn't have a mentor until I'd been writing for 15 years when I had the great fortune to work with Lee David Zlotoff, who created MacGyver. And yes, Lee had been a writer on Hill Street Blues. Glasberg: Storywise, I learned a tremendous amount from Alan J. Pakula and James L. Brooks. But David Balkan (Hunter) taught me how a TV show runs. I am forever appreciative. My Proudest Accomplishment This Year: Brennan: My 33rd wedding anniversary. Glasberg: Writing and producing NCIS' 200th episode and running the year's most watched TV show. Proud is an understatement. The Funniest Note I've Ever Gotten:Brennan: I was once asked to replace a lead character's pink blouse with something lighter "like a burgundy." Huh? If I Could Add A Writer To My Staff, It Would Be: Brennan: William Shakespeare, just to ask him how the hell he did it. Glasberg: I hear that Shakespeare guy is good, but he's a little long-winded. The Three Things I Need In Order to Write: Brennan: Pencil. Paper. Sobriety, though not always. Glasberg: I like to take my shoes off, keep the coffee pot full and listen to a lot of movie scores.
Burn Notice (USA)
Age: 41 Twitter Handle: @MattNixTV. The Show That Inspired Me to Write: M.A.S.H. I watched two episodes every day as a kid. My Big Break: Doing an adaptation of a Robert Parker novel for Helen Hunt, although I hesitate to call it a major writing job because the project was put into turnaround before I could turn in the script. My TV Mentor: Since Burn Notice was my first TV job, my mentor was Jeff Melvoin, who ran the WGA's showrunner training program. My Proudest Accomplishment This Year: Changing the model of the show from a largely self-contained, episodic show into a highly serialized drama. Having the ratings go up in season six is unusual, and it's not supposed to happen when you get more serialized. The Funniest Note I've Ever Gotten:A cut of an episode accidentally went out this year that was missing an entire act. We got the note that the network felt the addition of the second act sort of slowed it down. I'd Rather Delegate: The endless rounds of booking directors. Anything having to do with scheduling is not my thing. How I Break Through Writers' Block: I always tell myself I'm not writing the script yet. I'll just write down the things that I know have to happen in the episode and go from there. By constantly telling myself I'm not writing the script, that I'm preparing to write the script, eventually the script emerges. If I Could Add Any Writer to My Staff, It Would Be:Stephen J. Cannell. The Show I'm Embarassed to Admit I Watch: Project Runway. My wife watches it, and I accidentally get sucked in. Hell's Kitchen is the other one. I find a screaming Gordon Ramsay very entertaining.
Jonathan Nolan & Greg Plageman
Person of Interest (CBS)
AGES 36, 43 The Show That Inspired Me to Write: Nolan: The Magnum P.I. episode "Home from the Sea," the one with the shark. Only marginally less effective at reducing grown men to tears than a kick to the stones. Plageman: Cheers, Miami Vice, Moonlighting, NYPD Blue. My Big Break: Nolan: The short story my brother [Christopher Nolan] adapted into [the 2000 feature film] Memento. I was still in college. I'd pitched it to Chris on a road trip and then had gone back to school and forgotten all about it. Plageman: I started out at Spelling Television, wrote a story for 90210, then wound up on 7th Heaven. But the first really tough gig I landed was when Steven Bochco hired me on NYPD Blue. My Proudest Moment This Year: Nolan: One evening we had POI and The Dark Knight Rises shooting side by side in Tribeca. Pretty great night. Plageman: Launching a new show and getting it to stay on the air. That's a first for me. The Funniest Note I've Ever Gotten:Plageman: Anything emanating from Broadcast Standards and Program Practices. Those folks have an impossibly absurd job. I'd Rather Delegate: Nolan: The phone calls. There's a lot of 'em. Most days I feel more like the Time-Life operator than a writer. Plageman: Everything outside of breaking and writing stories. Every other aspect feels interpretive to me, which is a fine recipe for madness. How I Break Through Writer's Block: Nolan: Assign the script to someone else. Plageman: Take the weekly hysterical call from production asking when they're going to get a script. If I Could Add Any Writer to Our Staff It Would Be: Nolan: Michael Mann. His work comes up enough in the room that we should be paying him royalties.