This list was ridiculously hard to put together and rank. I feel that a week from now I might look back and desperately want to change half of the list, but I have to stand by my picks. A Showrunner is the leader of the writers room and the top Executive Producer of a series. Often times, shows can change their showrunners several times through the course of production. At times this can be a major disruption, and at other times the audience might not notice at all. Today’s Top 10 Tuesday takes a look at our top 10 Showrunners of all time.
10. Dan Harmon – Community
Dan Harmon was such a distinct voice for his series that the 1 season he didn’t run his creation is commonly acknowledged as the only flaw in a perfect comedy by many fans. Dan Harmon is known for being outspoken, and it is often hypothesized that this trait is what lead to his removal from Community. During his time off from Community he kicked of an animated series on Adult Swim called Rick and Morty. Fan demand, and the work of Community star Joel McHale eventually lead to the return of Dan Harmon for the series 5th season. Community will return for its 6th season through Yahoo’s Screen streaming service after being canceled by NBC. Six seasons and a movie!
09. Ronald D. Moore – Battlestar Galactica
Ron Moore got his start as a writer for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, but it was his 2003 miniseries (that eventually became a regular series) Battlestar Galactica that won him the undying love of nerds and geeks worldwide. A remake of a cheesy cult favorite from the 70s, Ron Moore’s Battlestar Galactica wove together politics, religion, and existentialism into a dour space born drama. Moore followed up Battlestar with its prequel Caprica, which doubled down on its existential exploration of artificial intelligence. Recently, Moore gave us Helix on the SyFy channel, a story about immortals and a virus run rampant that drew comparisons to LOST for its cryptic sensibilities. Currently, Ron Moore is running the Starz drama Outlander, about a time traveling English Nurse from the 1940s who ends up in 18th century Scotland.
08. Jenji Kohan – Orange is the New Black
First making a name for herself with the Showtime comedy Weeds, Jenji Kohan became known for using comedy to get through dark and trying stories. It is with her current series Orange is the New Black, however, that Kohan has gained much of her credibility as a Showrunner. The Netflix original series was the lesser known of Netflix’s 2 major productions (the other being House of Cards) but quickly became their biggest original series. Topping both House of Cards and the much anticipated return of Arrested Development, Orange is the New Black is best regarded for creating so many strong roles for Actresses in an industry dominated by Actors. Orange is the New Black tells the story of a woman who ends up in prison after her wild past catches up to her, but the focus of the show quickly shifts from following this single character to become a wonderful ensemble series. Jenji Kohan’s next project is reportedly at HBO, and about the Puritans in Salem, Massachusetts.
07. Charlie Brooker – Black Mirror
Unfortunately, much of Brooker’s best work is not available in North America by legitimate means as we have previously covered. Charlie Brooker started in the industry as a personality on comedic news programs and as a contributing columnist for The Guardian. His first major fiction series was Dead Set, a high concept zombie series that envisioned the zombie apocalypse overlapping the sequestered roommate reality TV series Big Brother. Having shown himself adept at high concept TV, Brooker next took on technology with his Twilight Zone-esque anthology series Black Mirror. Black Mirror has featured some of the most brilliant dystopian science fiction in years, exploring the side effects of social networks, microtransactions post-mortem messaging, and much more. Brooker also created the hilarious Police procedural spoof A Touch of Cloth, also not available in North America.
06. Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci – Fringe
Kurtzman and Orci, as they are commonly called, have been a team since their first showrunning gig on Xena: Warrior Princess, a series well ahead of its time with genre bending storytelling, meta fiction interludes, and trope defining mainstays. But Kurtzman and Orci are best known for their work on the Fox series Fringe, which was produced by the prolific J.J. Abrams but run by Kurtzman and Orci. Fringe, like many of J.J.’s series, started with the promise of episodic content to the networks before evolving into a serialized story for the fans. Kurtzman and Orci delivered a complex piece of science fiction that jumped between dimensions, and times. Currently Kurtzman and Orci have launched Sleepy Hollow, a fish out of water supernatural investigation series.
05. D.B. Weis and David Benioff – Game of Thrones
While they have only worked on 1 series, what a series to work on. DB Weis and David Benioff are the showrunners of HBO’s gargantuan Game of Thrones. Based on the novels by George R.R. Martin (A Song of Ice and Fire), Game of Thrones follows the MANY denizens of the 7 kingdoms of Westeros and its surrounding lands. Game of Thrones was initially thought to be unfilmable, which makes the work of Weis and Benioff all the more impressive. The 2 continue to work on solo projects alongside their work on Game of Thrones which suggests that, like Cuse and Lindelof, the partnership is specific to the 1 series. Game of Thrones, whose cast of characters continues to grow exponentially, has filmed in more than 7 countries.
04. Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof – LOST
While each were initially contenders for this list individually, I decided to put them together since their best work was a result of working together. On the groundbreaking and ambitious ABC series LOST, Cuse and Lindelof dragged their ensemble cast through fracturing timelines, and varied genres, even taking a stop in the after life for the series final season.
LOST is perhaps the most ambitious series to ever air on television. From its structural use of flashbacks as a storytelling conceit to its exploration of all religions as different faces to a single spirituality, LOST impressed in just about every conceivable way. The music was all live orchestrated which simply wasn’t done at the time, and the art direction brought magic and mystery to archaic analogue technologies like monochrome screens and pneumatic tubes. LOST was a milestone in television history that will soon celebrate it’s 10th anniversary. Cuse and Lindelof are currently working on solo projects. Lindleof is currently running HBO’s rapture series The Leftovers, and Cuse is seemingly running every other show currently on TV, including working with Guillermo de Toro on FX’s The Strain.
03. Vince Gilligan – Breaking Bad
Though he only has 1 hit series of his own as a Showrunner, Vince Gilligan’s 1 hit series is a masterclass in dramatic storytelling. Breaking Bad follows a chemistry teacher who, after being diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, explores the drug business as a methamphetamine cook. Breaking Bad succeeded largely on Vince Gilligan’s overall vision and attention to detail. Before Breaking Bad, Vince Gilligan was a major player in the writing room of the X-Files, and even directed a few of the series later episodes. He co-created the failed spin-off series The Lone Gunmen. It was Breaking Bad, however, that changed Vince Gilligan’s stars. Fresh of the celebrated final season of the series, Gilligan’s next projects include the Breaking Bad spin-off Better Call Saul, and the upcoming CBS police drama Battle Creek. Gilligan also had a hilarious role in an episode of NBC’s Community.
02. Joss Whedon – Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Often thought of as the God of geeks, Joss Whedon is actually a 3rd generation screenwriter, the grandson of John Whedon (The Donna Reed Show), and the son of Tom Whedon (The Golden Girls). Joss’ brothers Zack (Halt and Catch Fire) and Jed (Spartacus) are also screenwriters, as is his sister in law Maurissa Tancharoen (Dollhouse). Whedon is credited by many Showrunners for changing the landscape of television writing with his breakout series Buffy: The Vampire Slayer. Buffy lasted 7 seasons, and was highly regarded for its wit, and complex seasonal plots. After 3 seasons of Buffy, Whedon created the spin-off series Angel, which lasted 5 seasons itself. During the final season of Buffy (and the 4th season of Angel), Whedon debuted a 3rd simultaneous series. Firefly ran only a single season, but has one of the largest and most loyal fan bases around. After Angel ended, Joss managed to write and direct a conclusion to his hit space series Firefly in the form of the major motion picture Serenity. Serenity marked the first step in Joss’ real success as a film director. The last series Joss Whedon worked on as a showrunner was the mildly received Dollhouse. Whedon is now working as a filmmaker, having written and directed Marvel’s mega-hit Avengers movie. He is currently helming its sequel. In addition, Joss helped Marvel launch a TV series connected to Marvel’s cinematic universe, ABC’s Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD. Agents of SHIELD is being run by his brother (Jed) and sister in law.
01. Bryan Fuller – Hannibal
Who could possibly top Joss Whedon? I can only think of Bryan Fuller. Like fellow list contender Ron Moore, Fuller started his career as a writer on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Unlike Moore, Fuller didn’t make his name with another space series. Fuller’s first showrunner credit was on Showtime’s Grim Reaper series Dead Like Me, about a girl named George who was killed by the falling toilet seat of a space station and then recruited as a Grim Reaper, tasked to pull souls from their bodies moments before they die. Fuller next started the series Wonderfalls for Fox. Wonderfalls followed a college graduate working a dead end job at a Niagara Falls tourist gift shop. The twist? She has conversations with inanimate animal figures. Following the cancellation of Wonderfalls Fuller worked on NBC’s Heroes as a writer during the series first season, where he penned the episode Company Man, often considered the best of the series. Fuller left Heroes to create and run his next original series Pushing Daisies. Stunningly gorgeous, and featuring quick witted and flowery dialogue, Pushing Daisies took a light hearted look at Necromancy (the revival of the dead).
Fuller’s masterpiece came by way of NBC series Hannibal, a dark heightened operatic take on the infamous literary character Hannibal Lecter and his relationship with FBI special agent and criminal profiler Will Graham. Hannibal is considered by many critics to be one of the best shows currently on TV. Bryan Fuller is currently working on Hannibal’s 3rd season, as well as HBO’s adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, which couldn’t be in better hands.
Hate our list? Feel that we missed someone? Give voice to your opinions by telling us in our comments. Stay tuned to TVEnthusiast for coverage of all of your favorite shows and Showrunners.