They conceive the characters, write or co-write the scripts, set the pace and provide the vision for the TV programs you know and love. They’re called showrunners, and they are the designated auteurs of the boob-tube renaissance still in progress. Writer-producers such as Joss Whedon, Shonda Rhimes, Matthew Weiner, Vince Gilligan, and the holy trinity of Davids — Chase, Milch and Simon — have earned profile pieces and graced magazine covers, becoming celebrities in their own right. They are to modern television what film directors were to the New Hollywood of the 1970s: the rock stars of their medium.
While the aforementioned heavy hitters are still working in TV (or, in the case of Whedon and Chase, have turned their attention to movies), there are a number of newer artists who are taking advantage of the freedoms that networks, basic-and premium-cable channels, and new streaming-content outlets like Netflix are offering. A few, like True Detective‘s Nic Pizzolatto, seemed to have attained small-screen stardom overnight. Most of the interesting and innovative serial storytellers — some veterans, others relative newbies — are doing the sort of work that may not have yet garnered them name recognition (yet) but, in a perfect world, would potentially earn them an invite to join the pantheon. Here are a dozen showrunners that you should being paying attention to ASAP.
John Fawcett and Graeme Manson, ‘Orphan Black‘
Horror-movie fans might remember John Fawcett as the director and co-writer of the teen-girls-turn-werewolves cult flick Ginger Snaps (2000); hardcore sci-fi nerds would recognize Graeme Manson as the writer of the equally beloved existential headscratcher Cube (1997). But with this BBC America hit about a young woman who discovers she’s part of a set of clones — most of whom have been marked for extermination — has instantly, and deservedly, established the Canadian duo as unsung heroes of the Comic-Con nation. They have an ace up their sleeve in star Tatiana Maslany, a remarkably versatile actress who ends up juggling an average of five different roles per episode, yet it’s Fawcett and Manson’s deft ability to keep the various clones’ plot strands moving along in sync that make this show so compelling. This is smart sci-fi that knows when to get cerebral and when to kick ass; keep cloning that formula, gents, and we’re yours.
Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg, ‘The Americans’
Lots of spy shows can claim to have done due diligence on the drudgery of espionage skullduggery; hardly any of them, however, can claim to have an ex-CIA officer calling the shots. As a former case officer, Joe Weisberg is able to bring a level of authenticity to his Reagan-era drama about KBG agents posing as married suburbanites in Washington D.C. None of the first-hand touches regarding the spy-vs.-spy activities, however, would matter if Weisberg and his showrunning partner Joel Fields weren’t able to nail what lurks beneath all the intel and beaucoup wigs: It’s really a drama about matrimony, and the lies we tell both our loved ones and ourselves. Throw in some boundary-pushing sex scenes and just the right amount of period details, and you have one of the more compelling, complex shows on contemporary basic cable. A job well done, comrades.
Bryan Fuller, ‘Hannibal’
It takes a person with substantial cojones to take on Thomas Harris’ iconic serial killer — Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter — and, after numerous substandard films and diminishing returns, think they can make these characters seem vital again. But it helps to remember that Bryan Fuller is not only a showrunner with several macabre, death-focused shows to his name (Pushing Daisies, Dead Like Me), he started off as a Star Trek aficionado who went on to reinvigorate the franchise’s Voyager series as a writer. In other words, this is someone who knows how to handle fan-loved material with both fidelity and freshness — and anyone who’s been following this NBC horror-drama’s second season can attest that Fuller has delivered on the show’s early-buzz promise. (That opening episode’s fight scene! Bringing in the Vergers!) Fuller and his new Hannibal, the mighty Mads Mikkelsen, know how to mess with the iconography of the character just enough to make things seem different without jumping the track altogether, and should the show survive the so-so ratings and keep going, there’s the sense that Fuller has a big picture in mind that would blow ours.
Aaron Guzikowski, ‘The Red Road’
Having written the script for Prisoners (2013), Aaron Guzikowski demonstrated off the bat that he knew how to craft dark stories about disturbed men. This stellar crime drama that he developed and co-wrote for SundanceTV, however, proves that he’s just as good with atmosphere, capturing a sense of place (in this case, the outskirts of New Jersey) and a slow-burn approach to narrative that pays off. Focusing on a cop (Martin Henderson), his mentally unstable wife (Boardwalk Empire’s Julianne Nicholson) and a Native American ex-con running a pharmaceutical scam (Khal Drago himself, Jason Momoa!), Guzikowski’s series crams a lot of character development and storytelling into six episodes without making things feel rushed. He’s also figured out how to use the hulking Mamoa as more than just screen muscle, allowing the Hawaiian actor to lace his don’t-fuck-with-me sesne of menace with a lackadaisical charm. We’d follow the showrunner down almost any road at this point.
Emily Halpern and Sarah Haskins, ‘Trophy Wife’
From the moment this ABC sitcom about a blonde bombshell (Malin Akerman) who marries a fiftysomething man and suddenly finds herself in the middle of a multiple ex-wife maelstrom premiered last year, critics started proclaiming it one of the best of the new primetime-comedy crop. It’s not just that Haskins has mined her own marital experience for laughs, though the write-what-you-know aspect undoubtedly lends a certain bite; it’s the way Sarah Haskins and her showrunning partner Emily Halpern turn a typical family-shenanigans show into a riff on parenting, unlikely female bonding and how to use a comic dynamo with Nordic cheekbones to your slapstick advantage. The cast is strong (SNL‘s Michael Watkins, The West Wing‘s Bradley Whitford, Oscar winner Marcia Gay Harden) and the clichés are MIA. If Haskins and Halpern can make something like this sing, they can do virtually anything.
Noah Hawley, ‘Fargo’
“You guys want a cop show, but this isn’t a cop show,” Noah Hawley told FX executives when he was pitching them on a TV revamp of the Coen brothers’ beloved 1996 movie. “What you want is a miniseries, and here’s how you do it.” His idea — don’t recycle the film’s characters, tell another story in that landscape and limit it to10 episodes — has already paid off for this former Bones writer, proving to be a critical and popular hit immediately out of the gate. We can confirm it keeps getting stronger the more it goes on, building off its noirish narrative involving a killer, a schlub and two small-town police officers who’ve stumbled on to a real pickle of a case. The Midwestern accents and colloquialisms are still here, but Hawley wisely viewed the original material as a springboard instead an endgame. You can betcha we’ll tune into whatever he does next.
Adam Reed, ‘Archer’
Animation devotees and Adult Swim viewers know Adam Reed as one of the writers behind the brilliantly subversive Space Ghost Coast to Coast and the absurdist Sealab 2021 series. Just when you thought you could write him off as a guy who only riffs on kitschy Seventies cartoons, however, Reed came up with Archer, a raunchy parody of International Man of Mystery he-man heroism. Already blessed with one of the best comedic casts on TV, Reed’s show kept upping the ante on the lead character’s faux-chauvinism and the dadaist non sequiturs. Then, for it’s fifth season, the showrunner decided to essentially restart the series from scratch, turning his secret agents into drug smugglers. Cue the Kenny Loggins duets and Miami Vice color palette; there seems to be nothing Reed isn’t willing to throw in to the mix, and the result is some of the funniest, best-written animated TV since the heyday of The Simpsons.
Pendleton Ward, ‘Adventure Time’
Take one hirsute, lumberjack-ish writer who’d been kicking around the periphery of the animation world for a wee bit. Give him carte blanche to make an animated kids’ show involving a boy and his dog, done in style that suggests it was actually drawn by preschoolers who broke into the cough-syrup section of the medicine cabinet. Throw in things like “earclops” (think cyclops, but with a giant ear instead an eye on their head), adolescent romance and the apocalypse. Voila! You have a Cartoon Network show that New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum compared to “World of Warcraft as recapped by Carl Jung.” Equally parts druggy, philosophically dense and totally kid-friendly, Ward’s show reflects its creator’s sensibility, in which an overactive imagination and astute emotional sensitivity can turn silly or nightmarish in a heartbeat.
Beau Willimon, ‘House of Cards’
Out of all the people named on this list, playwright-turned-showrunner Beau Willimon may currently be the closest to actually breaching the A-list creator status. Everyone initially referred to Netflix’s revamp of a British TV drama-cum-suprising hit House of Cards as “the David Fincher show,” thanks to the Fight Club director’s involvement as an executive producer. But after two successful, binge-watched seasons, people have started to pay more attention to the Oscar-nominated 36-year-old who’s responsible for every twist, turn and mustache-twirling Kevin Spacey aside in this political soap opera. His attention to language and the nuances of the Washington grind (Willimon did time on Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign) is no surprise, but the sheer joie de vivre he brings to the show’s cutthroat power plays still has the power to shock. The show’s cunning antihero may see his built-one-backstabbing-at-a-time empire come tumbling down. Willimon, however, seems to know where every card in the deck is stacked.