It’s happened to House of Cards and to Veep, to Vinyl and Narcos, and to countless others: the showrunner switch-up. Beau Willimon, the creative leader and divining voice behind Netflix’s prestige political drama has officially stepped down in advance of Season 5, Veep’s Armando Iannucci took flight last season, and Terence Winter fled Vinyl’s abysmal ratings and iffy critical reception at the end of Season 1 (since then, the show has officially been cancelled). These kinds of changes can (and rightfully do) send fans into tailspins, prompting extensive questioning about what the future of a show might look like without the guiding light of the series’ appointed head.
But what exactly does a showrunner do? Sharing duties with those of the head writer, executive producer and head script editor, showrunners are arguably the most important driving force behind the creative direction of a show, often becoming the biggest factor in imbuing a show with its own unique style and tone. One of the best-known showrunners of last two decades is Damon Lindelof, showrunner of Lost and now The Leftovers, who was treated to a massive influx of attention as the increasingly-labyrinthine Lost continued its less-than-resolutionary six-season arc. The recipient of fairly equal praise and derision, Lindelof experienced an early wave of our (continuing) cultural obsession with the showrunner. “I think the Internet had to exist in order to create the story of the showrunner,” Lindelof said — a fact that seems increasingly true in a cultural climate that slings as much praise on our Vince Gilligans as our Bryan Cranstons (and arguably, for good reason).
Despite the fact that cultural obsession with showrunners has seen what could easily be called a “golden age” as television enters its own #PeakTV summit, showrunners have been working quietly since the 1980s after winning creative control from the studios, and breaking free of years of careful supervision from the corporate entities. But it’s within the last two decades or so that we’ve arrived at our current full-scale intrigue with not just television’s most fascinating characters, but the minds behind them. However, with that spike in attention comes even greater pressure on those creative minds behind the operation, spurring on more professional shuffling to ensure the brightest light is on deck for any given show. A showrunner switch-up doesn’t always signal a major sea change in the tone of a specific show, nor does it doom the series to failure. But some of our culture’s most iconic shows have seen series-altering transitions as showrunners are fired and swapped, for better or for worse. Here, we revisit some of the most talked-about showrunner switches of the last two decades of television, and take a peek at each show’s post-transition fate.