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1 November 2023

Who runs the show?

As the power in Hollywood has moved from film to TV, so has the much-mythologised alpha male auteur.

By Jesse Armstrong

Once, early in the process of making the pilot for Succession, one of the actors asked me: “Who is the showrunner on this thing?” The answer was that I hoped I was. But I knew why they asked the question. I didn’t entirely feel like the showrunner, nor was I perhaps acting like one yet. But that’s one of the odd things about the term – it is a position without definition or even formal recognition. It doesn’t say “showrunner” on the credits at the end of a TV show, nor is the position listed on the call sheets of each day’s shoot. As a role it’s a little like being a cult leader: you might not hold an official title, but everyone knows who you are, and you are the figure finally responsible for setting the tone of the endeavour – whether, overall, it will tend to promote human kindness and understanding, or lean more in the direction of taking folks into the jungle as you start to break out the Flavor Aid.

Peter Biskind has plenty of examples of every style of showrunning in his enjoyable new book about US television, Pandora’s Box: The Greed, Lust and Lies That Broke Television, from the Its Garry Shandlings Show writing room where writer Janis Hirsch had “a flaccid penis… placed on my shoulder, you know, just for laughs” to Alan Ball’s Six Feet Under room, which Transparent creator Joey Soloway recalls as having been “like a therapy group”.

Biskind is the ex-executive editor of the film magazine Premiere and made his name with his book about the male auteurs of Seventies Hollywood, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (1998). Now, he has made the same move much of the entertainment industry has in the past couple of decades – following the money from movies to TV.

Biskind’s argument is that “the river of sewage which was the nightly network line-up” was disrupted by the arrival of cable channels – first HBO, then Showtime, AMC and FX – which gave us a Golden Age of TV, allowing creators to produce the shows they wanted without restrictions on the content. But now the tech-led streamers such as Netflix, Amazon and Apple – once considered to be as innovative as the advent of cable – are on the verge of blanding out TV into a grey globalised goo, with content optimised by algorithms and bean-counters to please the same advertisers and broad audiences the networks used to chase.

[See also: The fatal flaw in the “final” Beatles song]

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Biskind takes a triple-pronged approach: he examines what he considers the key shows; takes in the merry-go-round of executives who green-lighted them; and breaks down some of the boardroom manoeuvres and takeovers of the corporations that employed those execs. As a result, you are never far from the next nugget of drama, conflict or bad behaviour. The book makes for a brisk read – and is a good primer on this latest Golden Age. However, in surveying the hundreds of TV shows mentioned – from Robert Altman’s satirical Tanner ’88 to this year’s The Idol – plus the personalities and power structures behind the productions, Biskind has set himself a big task. Maybe too big. With so much to cover, something has to give.

Often, what gives is nuance. Network TV is harshly characterised in his thesis. After all, flowing down the networks’ “river of sewage” along with the daytime soaps and quizzes were M*A*S*H, Cheers, Hill Street Blues, Frasier, Roots, 30 Rock, Friends, The West Wing, Seinfeld and The Simpsons – series which, in their heyday, were among the best ever made. When discussing the creative process inside a TV show, Biskind highlights the conflicts: such as director Michael Mann trying to bar writer-producer David Milch from the read-through for the racetrack drama Luck; or showrunner Terry Winter being fired from his own series, Vinyl, and then brought back in by executive producer Martin Scorsese; or the writers who were allegedly pitted against one another in the writing room of The Sopranos.

It may be true that happiness on a TV show, as well as elsewhere in life, tends to “write white”, but there is also a sense that the author isn’t so intrigued by the more subtle flavours of collaboration and mutual playfulness. He prefers big game hunting. As in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls and his 2004 book Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance and the Rise of Independent Film, Biskind likes an alpha male – and he is always seeking to ride towards the sound of gunfire, or at least breaking crockery and the shuffling of non-disclosure agreements.

[See also: How Friends changed the way we laugh]

Biskind describes how Tom Fontana – the showrunner who created Oz, the breakthrough HBO prison drama – used to wear a T-shirt printed with a picture of a dog licking its genitals under the words: “Because I Can!” This, he writes, “pretty much summed up the attitude of the show”; which gives you a decent sense of what it was like on the set of Oz. But it comes to feel that this is Biskind’s ultimate vision of what creativity is, too: the badass pushing shit to the max, while corporate assholes everywhere try to hold them back.

The scripts for Deadwood, Biskind tells us, “are chock full of casual violence, as well as racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, anti-Asian slurs… A favourite epithet is c***-licker”. This, he seems to feel, is real writing, suggesting the inventive violence of the show’s language is its own justification, that the act of breaking taboos is its own reward.

Of course, some writers – including me and my colleagues on Succession, mentioned towards the end of the book in generous terms – have enjoyed the freedom to experiment with subjects and language which would be hard to get away with on network television. But it is tonal freedom, rather than the freedom to be explicit, that is more important. After all, once ABC had let David Lynch make a network show, Twin Peaks didn’t need Blue Velvet’s occasional profanities to blow the tops of its viewers’ heads clean off. 

But perhaps the most damaging myth that lives in the bones of this book is the Difficult Men hypothesis. Difficult Men, a 2013 survey of the big male-led cable shows of the early 2000s by Brett Martin, which Biskind acknowledges warmly, may be the book he would have preferred to have written had it not already existed. But while Martin burrowed deep into the creation of The Wire and The Sopranos, he remained ambivalent and forensic in describing the complicated figures who made those breakthrough cable shows.

Biskind’s take is less ambivalent: he gives us the sense that these are the guys who can really do it. That it is not a quirk of history that some Difficult Men made some great television, but that there is a link between the hard-driving, self-loathing, capricious, sometimes dictatorial approaches that some of that generation took and the quality of the shows.

This muddles correlation with causation. Making a big TV show, and making it good, is always going to involve some friction and pain. But it’s not the friction and pain that make it good. If you think it is, you are in danger of venerating the difficult and painful parts, rather than seeking to ameliorate and address them.

The most striking absence in this book about modern TV is an analysis of modern TV. There is precious little on what a good show looks or feels like, why it might be good, or what he or you or I might find sustaining or entertaining. That leaves things feeling a little chilly. As we move through the many pages of corporate manoeuvrings, pre-emptive firings and executives screwing each other over, the reader might feel we need a more discriminating guide, even a moral intelligence, to explain what it was all for. 

Maybe Biskind assumes everyone evaluates the shows under discussion the same way, or perhaps, like most of us, he just hasn’t had time to watch all of them. His assessment of Mad Men feels assured. But often his critical faculties are less attuned. He declares that all of Danny McBride’s very funny output – Eastbound & Down, Vice Principals, even The Righteous Gemstones, with a performance of considerable pathos from John Goodman at its heart – is “crude and vulgar”. Ryan Murphy’s breakthrough show, the ribald Nip/Tuck, is “tasteless”. Aaron Sorkin is dismissed as radio with pictures.

Almost all of Biskind’s discussion of Sex and The City focuses on allegations of sexual harassment against Chris Noth (which he denies), though he tells us that Emily Nussbaum’s review is “far better than the show itself”. (Maybe. And this top hat is much better than that banana.) After the four paragraphs devoted to Lena Dunham’s seminal Girls, Hannah Horvath is summed up as a “good-bad girl” like the “good-bad guy” Tony Soprano. I mean, perhaps. Tony choked his nephew to death, while Horvath was sometimes a little over-focused on her own preoccupations. I guess that’s kind of samey-samey?

[See also: Where are all the family dramas?]

Even when the overall assessment of a show is sound notably, for a US-focused work he gives Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You due consideration what Biskind picks as the scene-jewels of the Golden Age can make you wonder if you’re watching for quite the same rewards as him. He believes that The Sopranos, a show he thinks was “levelling off” after season four, was nevertheless:

regularly lifted by a series of sick, kinky or just plain nutty moments: in season three Paulie paws through Adriana’s underwear draw sniffing the crotch of her panties; Tony’s sister Janice steals a plastic leg of Svetlana, one of his many mistresses; and in another scene, “Christofah” piously crosses himself as he drops Ralphie’s severed head into a hole in the ground. Every time it seemed like there was no place to go, Chase and his writers found one.

The scenes mentioned are memorable – but this doesn’t feel like critical appreciation at its highest. “Some people,” Mario Puzo had Lex Luthor note in Superman, “can read War and Peace and come away thinking it’s a simple adventure story. Others can read the ingredients on a chewing gum wrapper and unlock the secrets of the universe.”

Biskind also swallows whole the line from David Chase that with The Sopranos he “didn’t want it to be a TV show. I wanted to make a little movie every week.” It might have occurred to another writer that the delicious and watchable nature of the show is as much about Chase’s long training on quality network TV (The Rockford Files, Northern Exposure) as it is its occasionally cinematic feel.

But there is a pervasive sense that for Biskind TV is only good when it is like the movies, made by an auteur-creator, who is perhaps sadly, but also rather inevitably, a Difficult Man. And there are few indications of why he cares about the shows he gives prominence to, beyond their being a compendium of cool mad stuff an uninhibited creator gets to put out if the guys in charge are similarly “sick, kinky or just plain nutty”.

This lack of critical engagement with theworks themselves raises a problem: if we don’t understand why the shows he writes about merit our attention, when we get to the executive-level material, we might as well be hearing about the corporate chicanery at a chain of shoe shops.

Because, boy, is the corporate wrangling hard to follow. Take this characteristic paragraph on HBO: “Fuchs had wanted Levin’s job. Plepler wanted Nelson’s job, while believing that Kary Antholis wanted his and Lombardo wanted and took Naegle’s job.” I have met or worked with a number of these people, and I struggled to keep track or stay invested.

The swirling chaos of Biskind’s title threatens to engulf his narrative. And as the businesses competing for streaming audiences multiply, the shows get less and less attention. Towards the end the book increasingly reads like a weather report delivered by a man being carried away by a twister; we get a powerful sense of the disorientation and some vivid snapshots, but not perhaps a sense of the wider meteorological picture.   

[See also: How streaming ate itself]

Which is a shame – because you don’t have to have read all of Walter Benjamin to wonder if the structures, aims and ambitions of the corporate owners of networks and streamers have something to do with a certain narrowness in the available tones and subject matter of US TV. Nor do you have to be Raymond Williams to notice how TV shows that fix a cool eye on the cultural and economic systems out of which they grow, can end up being co-opted. Anyone for the spin-off show Squid Game: The Challenge? “The conditions were absolutely inhumane,” complained one of the 456 contestants to Variety, after getting eliminated from the quest to win the $4.56m cash prize.     

There are powerful forces shaping what we watch on TV – bigger than any individual, no matter how difficult. As a showrunner who likes a happy life and enjoys collaboration, perhaps I am not a disinterested analyst. But I believe that although great work can happen under difficult circumstances, it can happen in many other circumstances too. And I dare say even in the toughest of writing rooms, the good stuff came out of the good days, not the shitty ones.

Pandora’s Box: The Greed, Lust and Lies That Broke Television
Peter Biskind
Allen Lane, 400pp, £25

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This article appears in the 01 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Labour Revolts