Even our favorite television programs have disappointing episodes. It’s arguable that no show has ever existed which didn’t contain at least a couple bad-to-mediocre installments. While various reasons for that circumstance exist, Showrunners (2014) explores many of the corporate/business reasons why generally great shows churn out crummy episodes.
“When you’re writing a script every ten days, you start to realize every episode is not going to be a home run, and start looking at the seasons as a whole, realizing that the bad episodes will come out in the wash.” - Damon Lindelof, showrunner of Lost (2004) and The Leftovers (2014).
Creating television is a constant battle between art and commerce. It is, at its core, a corporate art form. Obviously, everyone involved in producing a television program wants to make the best show they can. Nobody strives for mediocrity. Yet, every show that airs for any length of time has its ups and downs. This has been true well before “showrunner” was a term, beyond the days when common people had any understanding of how television was produced. How many absolutely terrible Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987) episodes are there? Literally dozens. Yet the show has a lasting legacy of one of television’s great series.
It comes down to a simple fact: When you’re trying to churn out 20+ episodes of television in a year, usually some of them are going to be duds. The television network’s schedule doesn’t care if the writing staff is having trouble creating a clever script for a certain episode - it still needs something to air by a certain date. If the show fails to produce an episode the network can air, it screws up the schedule, leads to millions of dollars of lost revenue, and jeopardizes reputations. Bluntly, it’s not an option. Putting out a forgettable episode that gets lost in the memories of its viewers is far less detrimental than putting out no episode at all.
Fortunately, those who create television shows know that the occasional weak episode will not dissuade people from watching what they love. It’s something to be expected. Highs and lows exist within seasons of television - what’s important is the collective takeaway from the series when it’s finished.
“Your ambition every time you’re making an episode is for it to be the best episode you’ve ever made. But the reality of the situation is, we’re writing a script every 10 days," Lindelof continues. But the legacy of a show isn't defined by the poor installments - it's defined by what the show's highs and lows leave behind as a whole.
Showrunners' director Des Doyle spoke about the conflict of art and commerce in a YouTube interview with Film Courage, and spends some time in the documentary hearing from showrunners about the challenges they face dealing with network executives and deadlines when they come in opposition of creative quality. Michael Wright, President and Head of Programming for TNT, TBS and TCM gives his take on the situation. “Trying to create something unique, and do it for a certain amount of money, and within a certain period of time - throwing in those factors, you separate the true showrunners from the great writers.”
Overall, the shows that succeed and become blockbuster hits are helmed by people capable of managing every element, despite the occasional poor episode being a certainty.