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The Showrunners Runneth Over

When one hears the phrase "showrunner," one thinks of:

a. an elaborate tablecloth on Mother's dining table
b. a flamboyant 4X400 relay team member
c. the person responsible for shepherding script, actors, and other assorted elements required to out a television show every week

While it might be fun to discuss fabulously befrocked track stars, this is a site about television, so we're going with answer C. A new book, The Showrunners by David Wild, attempts to give non-showbiz insiders a look at the juggling duties that comprise the average showrunner's job.

The very nature of the job, as the book makes clear, is difficult to pin down: showrunners can be writers or producers, engaged in everything from scheduling wrangles with Scott Sassa to last-minute rewrites with the Friends writing team. Showrunners cast pilots, sell shows to networks, sweat location logistics, write scripts, make final edits, coddle actors (hilariously dismissed by Will & Grace's showrunner Max Mutchnik as "silly people"), fire writers, and somehow find time to track and maintain the creative vision driving the show. Lest we forget, if given a moment to surf the Web, they'll only find a bunch of snotty TV-themed Web sites featuring items written by people who just don't understand how hard it is to do what they do.

It's a job only a masochist could love, and the book illustrates that abundantly, trotting out vignette after vignette about 20-hour days, divorces, and sudden career devastation.

But the book's not about recruiting people for a life in showrunning; it's about being a showrunner. Structured in a series of chapters meant to mimic the lifecycle of a show during a single television season, The Show Runners attempts to follow the runners at shows as diverse as 7th Heaven, NewsRadio, South Park and Party of Five over the 1998-1999 season.

I say attempts because the book's reach far exceeds what it grasps. Wild has strung together vignettes from 7th Heaven, Cupid, Dilbert, Everybody Loves Raymond, Friends, It's Like, You Know ..., Jesse, NewsRadio, Norm, Overseas, Party of Five, Seven Days, Snoops, South Park, Time of Your Life, Veronica's Closet, and Will & Grace, and attempts to use the different stories to illustrate the very different fortunes awaiting shows and showrunners each season. It's a Hollywood take on the noir contention that there are eight million stories in the Naked City.

Unfortunately, the sheer volume of the show list prevents any of those stories from being substantive or compelling; trying to follow the slender thread of an individual show's tale through anecdote after unrelated anecdote is tiring, and the rewards one reaps for doing so are slim relative to the amount of effort required to keep all the stories straight.

The seasonal structure doesn't help matters. While it's true that some shows' fortunes rise or fall on sweeps, not every show's story fits so neatly into the artifically imposed calendar. The real drama on Everybody Loves Raymond last year was hiding Patricia Heaton's pregnancy, then writing around Peter Boyle's heart attack. Neither happened in a sweeps month, and the hair-pulling effort to sustain the show's momentum is diluted because of the book's uneven structure.

No two television shows are alike, and each of the shows was included to illustrate a different facet of show business. But none of the shows illustrates any one point particularly well. This book could have used some serious editorial pruning and reorganization. For example, the sections on Friends product team Kaufmann/Bright/Crane all mention that the trio is overextended from trying to sustain one network star and nurture two weaker sitcom properties (Veronica's Closet and Jesse.) A similar tale unfolds with the Keyser/Lippman team behind Party of Five, the failed Relativity and the drastically revamped Time of Your Life, and there's passing mention of increasingly overbooked David E. Kelley and Snoops. So why not simply focus on the Kaufmann/Bright/Crane story, explore how show runners are now brand name franchises, and follow the trials of trying to recapture lightning in a bottle with each successive show? One well-researched, meaty case study would be far more entertaining than a series of connect-the-dots anecdotes.

In addition to a lack of focus, the book also suffers from flat writing and repetitive phrasing. Actresses Courteney Cox and Jennifer Aniston are both described, within paragraphs of each other, as "incredibly slender," whereas Matthew Perry is constantly labeled "funny." Not only do these labels tell us nothing new, they're dull. Coming as he does from a reporting background, Wild may be following an old journalism rule -- eschewing adjectives and adverbs for descriptive nouns and verbs -- but he's not writing for the typical newspaper audience, so there's no reason to keep the word choices confined to a fifth-grade level.

That's not to say the book is a complete waste of time. Finding out that the producers of Everybody Loves Raymond feed their studio audiences dinner during tapings is the kind of charming detail that one wouldn't know from watching the show. Reading the banter between The NewsRadio cast and the invited audience at a Museum of Television and Radio event is almost as good as being there, especially after an A.M. radio reporter responds to Dave Foley's ribbing with the catty remark: "You're right... but at least I have a job next year." Learning how very much showrunners and network types hate the June network kickoffs and subsequent summer press tours is also engaging: it's always fun to find out what crosses each industry asks its members to bear.

But these isolated moments do little to help lift the book's fragmented story arcs. The Showrunners is billed as a behind-the-scenes look at how the shows we see get on the air, but the reader is taken past those scenes at a dead sprint. If this book is a behind-the-scenes look at showrunning, you might as well argue that jogging on a treadmill is a behind-the-scenes look at Olympic training. Any track star can tell you that ain't so; I'm here to tell you the Showrunners, while superficially amusing, isn't anything like the book it's billed to be. That's a shame: unraveling the web of behind-the-scenes tasks and decisions, suprises and crises could have made for a truly informative and entertaining read.


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