If you want to find a contemporary Einstein, look no further than television’s writers’ room and ask for the showrunner.
Math and science be damned – if you want to find a contemporary Einstein, look no further than television’s writer’s rooms. Showrunners spanning multiple genres graced the cover of The Hollywood Reporter recently, cited as the brains behind the magic we see on the small screen. These manic masterminds stay bent over their work for days at a time, obsessively perfecting until it can make audiences and characters alike laugh, cry, and have an existential crisis in a single episode.
Showrunners and head writers embody the explosive brainpower it takes to create and run groundbreaking shows in this golden age of television. Each have their own unique brand of neuroses and breadth of knowledge that prove television today’s most revolutionary art form.
5. Matthew Weiner (Mad Men)
Mad Men is a revitalisation in “bringing high art to the masses,” or at least that’s how the LA Times put it. Forget Bert Cooper’s Rothko, Matt Weiner is one of the key people responsible for bringing said art back into television drama. Weiner dictates every episode to stenographer, like one of the executives at Sterling Cooper & Partners might have his secretary do, or like many great writers that have come before him have, from Mark Twain to Billy Wilder.
In a world littered with TV shows devoted to every major city’s CSI unit, Mad Men was a glorious change of pace, embracing history and a more complex version of the human experience. Weiner struggled for nearly a decade to create Mad Men, then endured additional toil trying to get it on the air. AMC decided that the masses might actually enjoy high-brow television again. Mad Men is the kind of show so layered with its own history and symbolism that every second of it could make up its own college class.
4. Tina Fey (Saturday Night Live, 30 Rock, Tooken)
Tina Fey is smart, and it’s not just the glasses. As the first female head writer at SNL, she proved chauvinists who claim women simply aren’t as funny as men completely wrong. Take Christopher Hitchens’ Vanity Fair column that claimed women aren’t funny, to which Fey brilliantly responded: “It is an impressively arrogant move to conclude that just because you don’t like something, it is empirically not good. I don’t like Chinese food, but I don’t write articles trying to prove it doesn’t exist.”
Fey opened the floodgates for TV comedies that just so happen to be about women, from Broad City to The Mindy Project, proving that funny women do not belong to some sort of niche genre. 30 Rock changed TV, but Tina Fey’s genius should not be credited to her glass ceiling cracking alone. 30 Rock was so full of jokes that it seemed impossibly funny, wry, and on point. Fey proved she was simply the best at comedy, winning tons of accolades, from Emmys to the Mark Twain prize. You might think after all that, she might have nothing left in her, but Fey is still going, running new comedy Tooken on NBC and producing Cabot College for Fox. She’s a force.
3. Louis CK (Lucky Louie, Louie)
Louis CK has it on good authority that he’s the best comedian in the world. He’s been in the game for decades, but his FX sitcom Louie is finally getting him the recognition he deserves. CK wrote, directed, produced, and edited nearly every episode of the first three seasons of Louie. Such creative control is rare, but CK’s capable hands have proven their strength. FX doesn’t require him to listen to their notes, and he has total control. Louie isn’t funny in the same way other shows are funny. It has unique artistry from its aesthetics, to its tone, its rants, to its stories.
After an indefinite hiatus, Louie recently returned for a fourth season. Louis CK involves you in a life that incorporates disastrous sex with random women and telling knock-knock jokes with his daughters at the dinner table, and yet it all seems to go together. Each episode has the rare ability to stand on its own and yet feel warmly nestled in the rest of the series. Whether you cringe through each episode or enjoy it to the fullest, its brilliance is that it traps you with this man, or even inside him; laughing through his annoyances, awkwardness, and anxieties.
Read more: Louis CK is TV’s comedy auteur
2. Dan Harmon (Community, Rick & Morty)
Dan Harmon’s journey is the stuff of legend in the television community. His incredible, but troubled brain seems like it’s constantly whirring. Its pistons are always steaming, full of pop culture references and the most intelligent poop jokes you’ll ever hear. The brilliant showrunner was famous for writing complex Community episodes like Remedial Chaos Theory (also known as the timeline episode) and Paradigms of Human Memory, in which stories overlapped and contradicted each other throughout, but managed to come together harmoniously at the end.
Harmon’s demons and alcoholism got him fired from the show after its third season. He was eventually rehired for the show’s fifth season, but the show was tragically cancelled this year. Harmon still co-runs Adult Swim’s Rick and Morty and has a regular podcast, Harmontown. They embody the same irreverent style as Community and keep Harmon’s brain firing on all cylinders for all to see.
1. Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul)
Whenever Vince Gilligan is asked if he thought Breaking Bad would be a hit, he usually says never in a million years. He was worried about Weeds’s market share in the drug genre and that people wouldn’t be able get behind a normal dad who turns into a monstrous drug kingpin. Luckily for Gilligan, he’s a genius, able to come up with clever solutions that made TV audiences everywhere root for the utterly cunning Walter White. Gilligan’s protagonist was so smart that someone even smarter than Walter White had to pull the strings and make Walt do incredible things, in the amazing world that Gilligan was able to build for the show.
Gilligan’s ability to create a huge mess then clean it all up again in a neatly packaged series is a masterclass in television. In a world of where so many TV shows, and even movies, end in unsatisfying ways, Breaking Bad gave audiences the closure they needed. Vince Gilligan and his team of writers didn’t always know where the show was going, but their willingness to follow the characters and the show down every dark nocturne allowed them to forge one of the greatest stories ever, and that will hopefully continue with Better Call Saul.
Read more: Why Breaking Bad was the best show of 2013
Featured image: AMC