Vince Gilligan was showrunner of . for five seasons Breaking Bad. His series about a drug-cooking chemistry teacher became one of the best-received TV productions of all time, but making it did not sit well with him, he said in a report made about the closing season: cost.” As showrunner, Gilligan was responsible for the decisions that can make or break a series. That he is the equally successful spin-off Better Call Saul running with Breaking Bad writer Peter Gould will have given him a little more peace of mind.
When making a series, not the director, but the showrunner is the decision maker for all departments. The showrunner position has been around for a long time in the US and since the series explosion of the past decade, it has also become more widely known outside the industry. People like David Benioff and DB Weiss (Game of Thrones), Noah Hawley (Fargo) in Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy) make million-dollar deals and join major talk shows.
A showrunner has several hats on, although what he or she does differs per production. Often it is the person who conceived the series and leads the writing team (according to Gilligan the main role). Sometimes showrunners also direct episodes. When making a pilot episode, there will be intensive consultation with the director who sets the atmosphere in such a first episode.
The term doesn’t appear in the credits: a showrunner is usually referred to as “executive producer” or simply “producer.” At the Flemish-Dutch crime series Undercover it is in the credits. Showrunner Nico Moolenaar spoke last year NRC about his role: “It is up to me to constantly make clear what our vision is in terms of directing, casting, visual style and editing.” Leading actor Frank Lammers also saw that, he said in the same piece: “Nico also guards the story on the set.”
Phoebe Waller-Bridge, creator of Fleabag on Killing Eve, has been mentioned earlier in this section. After the first season of the thriller Killing Eve, she relinquished control to give other women the chance to run a series. She devised a rotation system: each season would be led by a different woman. This approach produced mixed results. The two follow-up seasons can’t match the first series. Currently, the fourth and final season is being created by Laura Neal (she previously wrote for Sex Education).
It ended much worse with American Gods. This expensive series about the battle between old and new gods started out promising, but completely collapsed after original showrunners Bryan Fuller and Michael Green were fired. The successor lost all grip on the complicated story and was also sent away. Provider Amazon pulled the plug after a third season, with another new showrunner. You can hire the best actors and have the most beautiful sets built, a series without a strong leader will not make it quickly.