Fascinating insight into brains behind TV shows

JANE CLIFTON
Last updated 08:54 31/01/2013
Dexter

RISKY: The latest episode of Showrunners picks the brains behind Dexter.

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It will come as no surprise to anyone who has worked in television that the man responsible for the hit series Battlestar Galactica sometimes had to remind his staff, "We're not curing cancer here. This is a TV show."

It's one of the entertainment insights common in SoHo's new series, Showrunners (Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays), which interviews a slew of the creators/managers of some of the recent years' biggest hit programmes.

The term may not be familiar here, but was coined as an attempt to distinguish the Top Banana on a production from the bewildering multiplicity of producers, executive producers and sundry apparent bigwigs you'll notice listed in the credits.

The showrunner is the person who gets the final sign-off on everything, even outranking the director. He or she can also be the show's writer/creator, and a household name in their own right.

The doings of Lost's J J Abrams and David E Kelley (Boston Legal, Ally McBeal) are as avidly anticipated as those of the hottest TV actors.

What makes this series so fascinating is to see how the job, a blend of creativity, economics and military operation, takes place against the mercurial whims of the TV networks, which kill and spare shows for often opaque or political reasons.

Specially interesting this week was the in-depth interview of Dexter showrunner Clyde Phillips, who has piloted the series through eight seasons, despite its hero being a serial killer.

It's hilarious even trying to imagine that original pitch to risk-averse studio bosses. Phillips discusses the tricky matter of not being too far ahead of the public's appetite for edginess, saying Dexter's character was carefully tweaked and then readjusted so, despite being a homicidal psychopath, he could be seen to operate by a code of honour.

It's one of those shows which, take it or leave it, has survived the great TV-land risk of being daringly original. The art of striking the right tone, and skirting the boundaries of taste, is a fascinating thing to hear discussed, even if it is only in the context of telly.

The series also gives viewers an idea of the magnitude of many of these productions, not least the vast panels of storyliners and script writers. Masses of work is whittled down to what are, in the course of a TV hour, really a very few words. This causes tension.

As Bones showrunner Hart Hanson says, in the movie-length programme that was the forerunner to this series, "You know everything's going well on your show if everyone's just a little bit annoyed with you."

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