Blame it on those DVD commentaries

Once obscure, head writers of TV shows are becoming stars in their own right
Blame it on those DVD commentaries
Getty Images; NBC; Photo Illustration by Bradley Reinhardt

Who’s starring in this fall’s TV series? Who cares? The real stars are the “show runners”: head writers who, according to The Shield creator Shawn Ryan, “have final say over the hiring of writers, actors and directors.”

Two new shows with unknown actors, Undercovers and Mike & Molly, have tried to build ratings by publicizing their high-profile writers, J.J. Abrams of Lost and Chuck Lorre of Two and a Half Men. Today, the creator of a show has to be prepared to be its public face: Dan Harmon, creator of the comedy Community (whose second season recently started on Citytv), says he’s not getting stopped in supermarkets yet, but “the group of people who know who I am has gotten larger.”

This kind of fame for writers is unknown in Canada, where TV writers have much less control over shows (which has been suggested as one reason why our TV isn’t as good). But for many years, it was also unknown in the U.S. Shows would become huge hits without anyone but insiders knowing the creators’ names. “I grew up in the ’80s when you thought you were watching the Dukes of Hazzard make the decision to drive around in the car,” Harmon says. “You never knew or cared that anything was written.” The fact that Star Trek fans knew about the show’s creator, Gene Roddenberry, was seen as a sign of how geeky those fans were. But when Lost went off the air, Jimmy Kimmel Live did segments with the show’s co-creators, Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, and the jokes assumed that the audience knew who they were. We’re all geeks now.

What turned these unkempt, sometimes balding people into celebrities? Both Harmon and Ryan think that a major factor was the rise of DVDs, where the creator of the show is often called on to appear in the special features: on the new DVD set of Community, for example, Harmon provides audio commentary on every single episode. When people buy DVDs of their favourite shows, Ryan says, they get to see and hear the people who are “behind the camera, not just in front of the camera,” and that gets them “looking for a more immersive experience,” wanting to know who the show runners are and what they contribute.

Once the show runners were no longer faceless, they started looking for other outlets to increase their fame. Twitter, which rewards the ability to write funny one-liners, is a perfect medium for these people: Harmon, Ryan, and other show runners like Bill Prady (The Big Bang Theory) and Hart Hanson (Bones), use the site to gather followers, reveal behind-the-scenes information and, of course, to remind viewers when new episodes are on. “TV is the same passive transmission that it was when Jackie Gleason was around,” Harmon explains, but with the Internet, we’ve now “decorated the TV with devices that allow us to talk about it more.”

But no one would care who these writers were if they weren’t genuinely powerful; fans are starting to realize that in U.S. TV, the head writer is the person to keep an eye on. This isn’t true in movies. When Aaron Sorkin does a TV series, like The West Wing, it’s his show, but though he wrote The Social Network, it really belongs to the director. Harmon explains that U.S. TV is made so fast that one person needs to be able to supervise writing and production: “Because of the schedule, they have no choice but to rely on the writer.”

But if the combination of power and public profile has turned writer-producers into celebrities, it could also lead to them being typecast by the public, just like actors are. “I don’t want people thinking everything I do is going to be just like The Shield,” says Ryan, but Terriers, a buddy detective show, is getting low ratings, and it may be partly because it’s not what viewers expect from him after the gritty Shield. Still, writers will keep putting themselves out there, not just because it helps them, but because it may improve ratings if they become famous. “It’s like Paul Newman being on the salad dressing,” Harmon says, except that TV, unlike salad dressing, is “a product that’s always created by ugly nerds.”