“What happens when you take on another show and then the show you were working on starts to suck while you’re gone?”
That’s what a fan asked Julie Plec at a recent panel appearance. Plec, who began her career as an assistant for Wes Craven before partnering up with Kevin Williamson, is a writer-executive producer with two shows currently on the air: The Vampire Diaries and its spin-off The Originals, both of which have already been renewed for next season. Her next show, Containment, an adaptation of a Belgian series about a disease epidemic, was just picked up by the CW meaning she’ll soon have three different shows on the air, ala Joss Whedon in 2002.
It’s actually the second time Plec has joined the “three-shows” club, rubbing elbows with Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, How To Get Away With Murder) and Chuck Lorre (Big Bang Theory, Mom, Mike & Molly). Last year, Plec had The Tomorrow People along with Vampire Diaries and The Originals, but Tomorrow People didn’t make it to a second season. She still lags behind Greg Berlanti and Andrew Kreisberg, who already have two superhero shows (Arrow, Flash) with two more on the way (Supergirl, DC’s Legends of Tomorrow). On top of that, Berlanti just landed a deal to produce an adaptation of the comic book The Infinite Horizon for Warner Bros., either as a mini-series or movie. Plus, NBC handed out a series order to his new show Blindspot, ensuring he will soon have 5 shows on the air, 6 if NBC renews Mysteries of Laura.
This is the age of the superstar TV showrunner, with multiple writer/producers turning their names into brands and expanding ever outward it. There’s even a documentary about it on Netflix! Sometimes we’re just talking about a hyper-productive personality churning out unrelated TV shows, and sometimes we’re talking about people overseeing their own TV cinematic universe with a parent show and at least one spin-off. Often times it’s a person who creates multiple shows before handing them off to someone else and observing from afar. However, is aggressive expansion really the best thing for quality storytelling? For example, if you don’t like the current season of Arrow, you can easily blame the two superstar producers who seem to have left things to show co-creator Marc Guggenheim in favor of focusing on The Flash and prepping Legends of Tomorrow and Supergirl. Similarly, if you’re not crazy about the state of The Vampire Diaires you can go to a panel appearance and pretty much directly ask Julie Plec if she realizes how bad things have gotten now that she’s divided her focus. Way back in 2002 it was not uncommon to hear similar arguments made against Joss Whedon, who had reportedly fallen in love with his new baby, Firefly, to the detriment of his first two kids, Buffy and Angel.
Or maybe older shows naturally run out of steam, regardless of their original creator’s level of engagement. Maybe Arrow season 3, The Vampire Diaries season 6 along with Buffy season 7/Angel season 4 back in the day are a-okay, and this “the creators stretched themselves too thin” chatter is a bunch of nonsense.
Those might only be arguments which get made, fairly or unfairly, in the age of the showrunner. I am not aware of anyone piling on Steven Bochco during his run of Hill Street Blues, Bay City Blues, L.A. Law, Hooperman, Doogie Howser and Cop Rock or Sherwood Schwartz and his run of Gilligan’s Island, It’s About Time and The Brady Bunch. But this is the age we live in, and KCRW’s The Spin-Off recently asked Julie Plec the big questions for modern showrunners: Why not just focus on a single show? And how exactly do you delegate duties when you have two or more shows running at the same time?
Why make so many shows?
It’s the big philosophical question. It’s funny – I was just doing a showrunner panel recently, and we were talking about the art of showrunning. A fan got up and asked the question, ‘What happens when you take on another show and then the show you were working on starts to suck while you’re gone?’ I was like, “Dang, man. Just come right out with it.” I said to the fan, and I meant it, and I’m still trying to figure this out for myself, “You have to make a decision as a creative person, as a storyteller, as an artist and as a business person trying to define a career for yourself.” I used the dreaded “B” word, “Brand,” which I know is an incredibly controversial word when attached to writers and anyone whose name isn’t supposed to matter. But when you’re trying to build business there’s a line between – I could spend my whole life on one show, and by my whole life I mean 8 or 9 or 10 years, and then be worried what my next job was when that was over. Or I could continue to try and capitalize on the moment as it’s happening, and continue to find cool new ways to tell cool new stories. And as long as I’m excited about and invested in those stories, for me that’s a good thing. I haven’t quite whored myself out to the point that I’m doing things that I don’t want to do.
Why is “Brand” a bad word for TV writers?
It’s kind of a new idea. The writer is supposed to be the humble one. The writer is notoriously the guy sitting locked in his room with the manual typewriter, suffering in silence. And I think a lot of that comes out of the movie business itself where even to this day with the writer they’re like, “Oh, thanks for your words. Now we’re going to hire 72 other people to re-write you, and maybe if we have your right address you’ll get to come to the premiere. And that’s if we haven’t outright fired you yet.” Television is such a different beast, and it gives so much power to the writer and to the storyteller that it’s just in the last little bit that the writer realized, “Hang on a second. I don’t’ have to be the one that nobody knows exists.” It’s not about ego. I want people to know my name in the same way that I grew up knowing the name David Kelley, like I wanted to see any show that David Kelley or Aaron Sorkin or in recent years Damon Lindelof. I want to watch what they’re going to do because I know I’m going to like it, and even when I don’t like it I like what it means and what it’s about.
How do you divide your time?
Showrunning and running your own show is the job for a complete control freak and complete perfectionist. If you yourself are handling and managing all the details you know that if it does well it’s because you worked your ass off and you followed your instincts and you should celebrate, and if does horribly you have no one to blame but yourself. It’s very comfortable to be in that role. The problem is that there is simply fundamentally too much work to do, even just running one show, for you to have your hand in all the details. So, you slowly but surely have to figure out which details and which areas you can delegate, where you can not have any control at all, and that when you have a control freak-esque personality is the first 3-4 years of show-running, is just figuring that out. Then once you get a handle on that, the challenge is not giving too much up. It’s really easy to do nothing. If you’re so good at delegating to other people then all you’re really doing is putting the pieces together and letting all the other people do the hard work. There’s an argument to be made for that, too. I haven’t quite gotten to that place yet. I’m still in the mode of “Work my butt off and suffer and find great partners to delegate to and hope that I don’t accidentally kill them or drive them crazy while we’re all in it together.”
Source: KCRW’s The Spin-Off