[posted 4 May - release notes]
In 2000 at the start of its fifth season, Buffy the Vampire Slayer suffered a crisis of faith. I’m not referring to the titular character, although Buffy Summers certainly suffered many crises of faith over her serialized transmedia existence. Rather, I mean the show itself was the site of such a crisis, with fans concerned over a plot development that threatened to undermine the show’s integrity and vision as they had come to know it. The crisis was triggered by the introduction of a new character in the final moments of the fifth season debut, “Buffy vs. Dracula”: Buffy’s 14-year-old sister Dawn. Fans who had spent four seasons, more than 50 hours, watching the series, knew Buffy as an only child; suddenly they were being told that she had a teenage sister who had never been seen before. The next episode, “The Real Me,” did little to clarify matters, as Dawn became a central character in the ensemble with no explanation for her sudden existence. Despite numerous references to her teen angst that “nobody knows who I am” and hints that something supernatural was afoot, the established characters all acted as if Dawn had always been part of the storyworld.
While the show’s fantasy genre certainly allowed for many potential explanations for Dawn’s appearance, fans were panicking in the gaps between episodes, left to vent their anxieties on the show’s vibrant online fan discussion boards. On its face, this seemed like an example of typical television retooling on a teenage-focused show when central characters grow up: add new teenagers to the cast to maintain its youth appeal. However, by treating Dawn as an established character and not a new addition, the show was challenging viewers’ beliefs in the fictional world they had come to know and love in previous seasons, posing a narrative enigma of who (or what) Dawn really was that would not be answered until the season’s fifth episode. We must remember that in the original airing, this process took a full month, with week-long gaps between episodes for fans to theorize and stress about what was going on: when would this enigma be solved, and would the solution be satisfying? But while some fans feared that the show had gone off the rails, destroying its continuity due to a network-mandated retooling, a common refrain emerged on these online fora: “Trust Joss.”
Of course, this refers to Joss Whedon, Buffy’s creator, executive producer, head writer, and frequent director—in other words, the text’s author. It is an unusual moment in television storytelling and fan consumption, but I believe it is indicative of larger tendencies of how serial television authorship operates. This chapter explores the role of authorship within serial television via three related facets. The first is a material question of “how is serial television authored?”, explaining how the production of contemporary American television establishes its parameters of creativity, and exploring the tension between the collaborative realities of production versus the romantic notion of singular authorship embodied in the concept of “showrunner.” The second question focuses on such notions as they circulate in larger cultural discourses—“how is television authorship understood?”—via a broader rhetorical analysis of the changing role of television showrunners as public figures and stars in their own right. Finally, I consider “how do viewers use television authorship?”, looking at the pragmatic processes of consumption where imagining an authorial presence is vital to our processes of comprehension and interpretation, as with the call to “Trust Joss.” These three facets of material, rhetorical, and pragmatic analysis will hopefully suggest the central importance that authorship plays in framing our engagement with serial television.
The Author in Production
Narrative television is a highly collaborative medium, with dozens of individuals participating in the production process of each episode, and thus making the ascription of authorship a difficult process, especially if trying to import a literary model of singular authors. Film scholars, critics, fans, and the industry itself have wrestled with this issue for decades, arriving at a commonly accepted attribution of a film’s authorship to its director (with some notable exceptions), which alters our notions of the authoring process. For literary writers, we imagine authorship by origination, where a singular creator devises every word, and thus is responsible for creating everything found in the text. Such a notion is obviously an oversimplification, minimizing the important role of feedback, editing, publishing, and intertextual influence, but it is the widespread conception of what a literary author does. A film’s director clearly cannot have direct responsibility for creating every aspect of the final text, as legions of performers, technical crew, designers, and executives are involved in the processes of creating and assembling the sounds and images in a film. Nonetheless, the director is regarded as the final decision maker over every choice, from the color of furniture to the particular version of an actor’s performance to the levels of the sound mix. This model of authorial attribution is less focused on what the director personally creates, but rather vests responsibility for collective creativity in the singular authority of the director—a particular moment in a film may not have been planned or executed by the director, but s/he is ultimately responsible for choosing to include it in the finished work, a mode of attribution we might call authorship by responsibility.
Although few television episodes have the production complexity of most feature films, the medium’s serial form changes the nature of the production process and thus the attribution of authorship. The need to create an ongoing series that runs for years is a very different process than the bounded system of film production, which typically has segmented phases of pre-production (writing, rehearsing & planning), production (filming), and post-production (editing, special effects & sound mixing). On an ongoing television series, different episodes span these various stages simultaneously—one or more episodes might be being written, another being planned for shooting, one shooting, and a few others in the process of being edited, scored, and adding visual effects. This complicated system requires oversight as typically granted to one or more individuals with the somewhat vague credit of “producer,” and the authority granted to this role has led television to be frequently termed a “producer’s medium.” Under this model, the producer rather than director is accorded the final responsibility for the choices that shape the finished work in a model of authorship by management, evoking the leadership and oversight that managers take in businesses and sports teams. Highlighting producers’ managerial functions is not to deny their roles in originating ideas or taking responsibility for choices, but it emphasizes the additional role that television authors must take in helming an ongoing series rather than a stand-alone work, as well as highlighting the importance of the sustained team of creative and technical crew that often stay with a single series for years.
The role of producer has transformed significantly over the history of American television. In the 1950s, many of the most prominent producers were also the stars of their best known shows: Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball produced I Love Lucy through their production company Desilu; Gertrude Berg both starred in and was the head writer for The Goldbergs; Jack Webb starred in, produced, and directed every episode of Dragnet, and wrote a few under the pseudonym John Randolph. For decades, television producers identified as being at least partly in charge of a series included on-screen actors like Bill Cosby (Fat Albert, The Cosby Show) and Tina Fey (30 Rock); directors like Sheldon Leonard (The Andy Griffith Show, I Spy), Michael Mann (Crime Story, Miami Vice) and James Burrows (Cheers, Will & Grace); and executive producers credited with no direct creative production role, such as Aaron Spelling (Charlie’s Angels, Beverly Hills 90210) and Quinn Martin (The Fugitive, Streets of San Francisco). But the primary job that has emerged as the typical managerial role for executive producers within the organizational framework of an ongoing series is the head writer.
While every television series has its own particular organization and division of duties, some production roles and processes have emerged as standards throughout the medium. Typically a series is created by a writer (or writing team) who pitches an idea to a production studio, broadcast network and/or cable channel. If the pitch is optioned, that writer develops a pilot script and “bible” for an ongoing series, which again must be approved by the production and distribution corporations who will ultimately produce and air the program. The pilot production process assembles the collaborative team of actors, designers, director, and other creative and technical crew who will be responsible for making the series. If the produced pilot is deemed successful by the network or channel, it moves into series production, at which time the creator typically assembles a team of writers and producers to undertake the ongoing creative process, while the creator steps into the role of Executive Producer, usually functioning as head writer and the unofficial title of “showrunner.” Sometimes writers with less leadership experience will partner with a seasoned showrunner to share managerial and creative duties, as with The Shield’s Shawn Ryan co-running Terriers with Ted Griffin, who had created the original idea but had little previous television experience. Showrunners perform similar roles of authorship by responsibility as a film’s director—for instance, typically the editing process for an episode starts with the editor making an initial rough assembly of the footage, the episode’s director working to refine it into their cut, and then the producer/showrunner taking over to work with the editor to settle on the final cut.
Since the program’s managerial oversight typically comes from a writer, the writing process is seen as more central to a series’ creative vision than the contribution of directors, who are often hired as rotating freelancers rather than permanent members of the production team. The writing staff is much more stable, typically with a regular team of between six and twelve writers (many of whom also have producer credits) whose work in a “writers’ room” is regarded as a program’s creative nerve center. For a contrast of such production roles, consider the first four seasons of Breaking Bad: the 46 episodes credited ten different writers, with the explicit “Written By” credit rotating among the team with little turnover between seasons; however, those same episodes featured 22 different directors, most of whom only directed one or two episodes. Notably, three of the show’s writers directed episodes, including creator/showrunner Vince Gilligan’s four directorial efforts; additionally, two episodes were directed by star/producer Bryan Cranston, two by the series’ ongoing director of photography Michael Slovis, and seven by co-executive producer Michelle MacLaren. While Breaking Bad features a distinctive visual sensibility, performance style, and pacing—all facets typically controlled more by directors than writers—the show’s staffing patterns suggest that such vision comes more from the ongoing writing and production team than the rotating crew of directors, a balance common to most contemporary fictional television.
The range of creative processes found within writers’ rooms is crucial to understanding the practices of American television authorship. Most writers’ rooms function both as hierarchical collectives, with clear rankings of leadership and authority, and as open collaborations where all writers’ contributions are incorporated into a creative stew. There are rare programs where a singular writer operates on his (or even less frequently, her) own mostly outside a writers’ room, as with David E. Kelley (Ally McBeal), Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing), or Mike White (Enlightened), but most serialized primetime programs emerge out of “the room.” A standard practice is to meet for a few weeks before the season begins production to map out the season-long arcs, benchmarks, and goals, and decide on the season’s narrative structures. The writers then “break episodes”—sometimes collectively in the writers’ room, sometimes individually—mapping out the specific plots, story beats, and structure for each episode. This process results in a detailed outline for each episode, which then gets assigned to a specific writer to shape into a full screenplay with dialog and descriptions of action. Usually the writer’s goal is not to create a script that stands apart from the series as a personal vision, but rather to mimic the showrunner’s voice in an effort for stylistic consistency. A finished draft will sometimes return to the room for feedback or “punching up” (especially in comedies), or often be delivered to the showrunner (or other producer) to “take a pass” on the script, making it fit the show’s norms, standards, and arcs. Once a showrunner finalizes a script, it usually must climb the corporate ladder for executives at the production studio, network, or channel to approve and provide notes—different corporate cultures mandate different norms, with broadcast networks typically being more prescriptive in giving notes than some more hands-off cable channels that pride themselves on being “creator-centered” like HBO or AMC. The writing credits for an episode typically are given to the writer who first drafts the script (although such policies vary by showrunner and production team), but a show’s story construction and script revisions are usually a collective process organized via a discrete hierarchy.
The final product of an aired episode goes through intense collaborative processes, filtering the contributions of performers, designers, editors, and network executives, but the responsibility for the end product rests with the showrunner. Although it’s not hard to find stories of credit-grabbing producers who claim to have written more than they actually did, most showrunners earn their authorship by both responsibility and management for countless leadership decisions, and thus are regarded as the primary authorial figures within an intensely collaborative medium. While it might seem that such authors shift their roles from an origination model of writing a pitch and pilot, to a managerial approach once they must run the production process of a picked-up series, the initial creation of a show also has a managerial facet. Writers are always pitching projects in the hopes of getting produced, and thus they strive both to meet the expectations of the corporate executives in charge of picking up programs, and to plan for their potential future showrunner roles of having to implement their creative ideas. There is a romantic notion that a writer’s creative vision starts as “pure” and then gets compromised through the process of realizing that vision, especially in the commercially inflected world of mass media. However, the creative process in television is always inflected by the realities of both practical production and commercial concerns for what can and cannot sell, and these concerns shape television storytelling in all stages of creativity.
One of the more unusual examples of series development was Lost, and the unique circumstances leading to its production help explain why the show’s success has been so hard to replicate. While most television series emerge from writers’ pitches, sometimes network executives conceive a show and hire writers to develop it; this was the case with Lost, as ABC Chairman Lloyd Braun came up with a concept in 2003 for a dramatic series modeled on the film Cast Away and the reality show Survivor, focusing on people stranded on a deserted island. Braun hired Jeffrey Lieber to write a pilot based on the idea, working with him to develop the program, but fired him after finding his program called Nowhere unsatisfactory. Braun was still committed to the idea, and pitched it to J.J. Abrams, the creator and showrunner for ABC’s Alias. Abrams said he was too busy to take the lead on the show, but was willing to collaborate with another writer to develop it. ABC reached out to Damon Lindelof, then a writer and co-producer on Crossing Jordan, who had been trying to meet Abrams and land a job on Alias. Neither writer was particularly invested in the concept for a show based on a deserted island—for Abrams, it was an obligation for his boss at ABC, and for Lindelof, it was a potential way to make a connection and land another job. Given that they had heard that Braun was likely on the outs at ABC, Abrams and Lindelof had fun coming up with a series of outlandish and risky plans for using flashbacks, creating a deep sci-fi mythology for the island, and planting mysteries throughout the pilot without much advanced planning—as Lindelof recalls, they often said, “They’re never gonna pick this thing up anyway.”
Despite Abrams and Lindelof’s attempts to create something unlikely to air on television, Braun greenlit the pilot, based only on their 13-page outline without a finished script, and even authorized a record budget of more than $11 million to produce the debut episode. Braun’s bosses at ABC/Disney hated the project, and used its bloated production as an excuse to fire Braun in spring 2004; however, enough money had been sunk into Lost that they picked up the series to debut in September of 2004, expecting little from the unconventional program on a medium where formula and conventionality tends to rule. We now know that its unconventionality was an asset, debuting to a large audience, garnering awards, and developing into one of the most cultish shows ever to appeal to a mainstream audience. Notably, Lieber retained a credit as co-creator (and thus a share of residuals) for all six seasons of Lost, despite his own creative efforts having virtually nothing to do with the series as produced—such credits are determined by the Writer’s Guild of America’s arbitration process, suggesting a crucial legal and economic facet of television authorship. Abrams withdrew from active involvement with the series midway through the first season, and Lindelof persuaded Carlton Cuse, his old boss from Nash Bridges, to join the show as co-showrunner to navigate what eventually proved to be one of the most complex pieces of television (and transmedia) storytelling ever devised. Of course the actual credits make this attribution hard to parse, as Lost’s final episode listed nine people as Executive Producer, including Abrams (who had virtually no involvement by that point), Lindelof, and Cuse, as well as three other writers, the show’s central director Jack Bender, and two producers overseeing the logistical and business ends of the operation.
So who is Lost’s author? Arguably Lloyd Braun was the person most responsible for bringing the show to the air, with both the originating concept and the decision to produce the risky pilot, although his name appears nowhere in Lost’s credits. Lieber’s creative stake seems more legal than artistic, but clearly in the world of commercial television, such credits are vitally important and lucrative. Abrams and Lindelof conceived what we know Lost to have become, and Cuse took over Abrams’s managerial role early in the production process, co-writing many episodes and storylines with Lindelof. Lost demonstrates how a serialized text’s authorship can change over time as the ongoing narrative and production process unfolds. Even years after Abrams left the show, many articles about the show referred to it as “J.J. Abrams’ Lost,” suggesting how external discourses can be as vital in defining authorship as internal creative roles, as discussed more below. Lost highlights the way that groundbreaking and popular television often emerges from an unplanned alchemy of accidents and inspiration, rather than the imitative logic of formulas and conventions that often tries to replicate a surprise success. The program’s numerous failed clones, from Invasion to Flash Forward to The Event, all were designed to mimic Lost’s unconventionality using the logic of convention and imitation; what might be a more replicable lesson from Lost would be giving creators license to devise a show that embraces the attitude that “this is never going to get picked up,” and see what follows.
Before turning to the broader cultural role of television authorship, we should return to Buffy and Joss Whedon’s authorial role. Buffy the series was created by Whedon, based on his 1992 film screenplay of the same name that was changed significantly in production by the director, producers, and actors to make the tone more comedic and downplay its horror elements. Given the comparatively low control that screenwriters have in feature film production, Whedon’s input was less valued in that medium, and thus he sought to revisit the character on the writer-centric medium of television in 1997 on the emerging network The WB. Whedon served as active showrunner for the first five of Buffy’s seven seasons, credited as writer or co-writer on 25 of 144 episodes, and director on 19 episodes. Even though Whedon did not write or direct any of the season 5 episodes introducing Buffy’s mysterious new sister, he was understood by fans as the show’s creative mastermind, responsible for the story and thus the appropriate object of either disdain or faith. To understand how he came to personify the show’s creative vision requires us to look beyond the production process to see authorship in broader cultural circulation.
The Discursive Production of Authorship
Although television is clearly a creative medium, many might bristle at the ascription of authorship to commercial television, which has typically been seen as something that is produced rather than authored. The lexical differences are significant—production evokes a corporate factory following formulas to mass manufacture a product, an image that has been associated with television dating back to early critics like Theodor Adorno and Dwight Macdonald. There is no doubt much truth to this image of television production, where an industry treats texts as products—which function mainly as bait for the real product to be sold, viewers’ attention—and creative personnel as labor; the recent rise of production studies within media scholarship embraces this definition, highlighting the ways that labor matters in media creation and validating the work of “below-the-line” crew who are typically ignored in the study of creative practices.
Authorship bears quite different connotations, linked both to the literary notion of the creative genius working in solitude to give birth to a finished work of art, and notions of authority that assure that work’s interpretive frame and cultural validation. Given the intensely collaborative nature of the production process, there is no doubt that notions of authorship, even in its managerial conception, oversimplify the creative process, and threaten to deny agency to the array of contributors who help make television. Celebrating Whedon as Buffy’s author does little to help us understand how that show was actually created, obscuring complex collaborative processes in the name of celebrating and elevating a singular authorial voice. And yet even though such images of authorship as a singular entity is clearly a inaccurate reflection of production practices, such conceptions still function in our understanding of television narrative, active within industrial, critical and fan discourses, and serving an important cultural role. In fact, we can look at authorship as one of the key products of television programming, its industrial practices, and its cultural circulation.
To understand authorship as a product of television programming, not as its originating source, we need to consider how notions of authorship have been framed and transformed by literary and film theory. Traditionally, authorship has served as an interpretive reference point, framed as the authoritative source of meaning and intentionality. Using approaches like biographical criticism or close textual and intertextual analysis, critics strive to understand what a text means by discovering what the author’s intended meaning was. Although such traditional notions of explicit intentionality are less common within criticism today, a looser form of intentionality follows from the auteur model of film criticism, where a director’s body of work is analyzed for consistencies of theme and style—while these authorial markers need not be identified as explicit “intent,” such criticism assumes that directors bring particular concerns and approaches to their work, and that the critic’s job is to uncover those commonalities to reveal an authorial presence. Such auteur studies have been fairly rare within television scholarship, aside from some critics whose work derives more from literary studies, although as discussed below, issues of authorial intent do reemerge in the ways that viewers use authorship as an interpretive framework.
Traditional notions of authorship and intentionality were dismantled in the wake of poststructuralist criticism, most famously by Roland Barthes’ proclamation of the death of the author. At the same moment, Michel Foucault reframed authorship from a process of creation to a discursive practice, shifting the study of authorship into the rhetorical realm; for Foucault, authorship is not easy to dispel by proclaiming its death, but rather is a function of discourse that works to attribute, classify, delimit, contextualize, hierarchize, and authenticate creative works. Television fiction provides an interesting case study for Foucault’s model of authorial function—the material creative process is far more collaborative and decentered than in most other media, and television authorship has been mostly hidden from the public eye for much of its history, buried in confusing credits far more than the prominent role of literary writers or film directors. As American television has become more aesthetically valued over the past two decades, its author function has become more prominent, helping to justify and anchor the medium’s cultural worth through a range of discursive practices.
The very act of attributing television to an author is a comparatively new phenomenon. In the classic network era, it was much more common to connect a program to actors than creators, typified by naming a series after its star (The Dick Van Dyke Show), naming the main character after an actor’s name (I Love Lucy), or both (The Mary Tyler Moore Show), with only the most dedicated fans aware of the production teams behind such programs. Continuity between programs was most commonly established via spin-offs that followed characters across series, rather than promoting the shared producers or creators between unrelated series. More recently, identifying the creators of a new series can serve similar functions of creating common audiences and branding—tellingly, NBC initially wanted Parks and Recreation to be a spin-off from The Office by producers Greg Daniels and Michael Schur, but instead the series was developed as a separate storyworld and promoted as coming from the same creative team. While star-branded series are still commonplace, there has been a rise in programs that are promoted via the authorial stamp of established creators like Aaron Sorkin, J.J. Abrams, Alan Ball, and Shawn Ryan. Even producers without a well-known reputation are promoted as authors through their work in the writers’ rooms of previous hits, as with Mad Men’s Matthew Weiner and Boardwalk Empire’s Terence Winter, who had both been writer/producers on The Sopranos.
Such authorial branding functions as an anchor for understanding programming, delimiting a new show’s potential appeals, tone, style, and genre. This branding can certainly help a series get on the air, as a network or channel can look to a creator’s reputation as an asset to help build an audience, and can often provide fans with a sense of hope that a series will grow to match a producer’s previous work. Both of these were certainly true with Dollhouse, Joss Whedon’s first series produced after Buffy left the air—Fox hoped to draw on Buffy’s cult appeal, while fans looked to Whedon’s track record to sustain hopes that the show would grow to be more successful as a narrative than its shaky start suggested. Neither hope fully panned out, as ratings never grew enough to last beyond two seasons, and fans generally viewed the show as an erratic failure compared to Whedon’s other work. Neither Fox’s faith that the show might grow in viewership nor fans’ faith that the series might improve make much sense without the authorial function of Whedon’s past successes and established brand name.
Authorship frequently functions as a marker of distinction, as we situate a cultural work within aesthetic hierarchies based on the aura of an author’s reputation, track record, and public persona. Thus even in a previous era of television, a series produced by Aaron Spelling was assumed to be more conventional, frivolous, and mainstream than a program by Steven Boccho, even though each produced a wide range of styles and quality of programming that belie such generalized reputations. Such authorial identities serve as brand names for a new series, establishing an aesthetic framework for judging a program and a horizon of expectations for viewers in terms of tone, style, and approach to the given genre. A Chuck Lorre comedy like Two and a Half Men or Mike and Molly is packaged with an assumed lowbrow, raunchy sense of humor, conventional multi-camera production values, and broad appeal to a mass audience, while Greg Daniels’s sitcoms such as King of the Hill and The Office feature more innovative production styles, drier wit and satire, and narrower appeals to cult viewers. While authorship often contributes to an upscaling legitimating discourse, it is not exclusively a realm of highbrow distinction, as examples like Lorre, Spelling, reality TV guru Mark Burnett, and crime show producer Jerry Bruckheimer all provide their programs with a comparatively lowbrow yet highly popular aura.
An author’s reputation can also set the aesthetic bar too high, as the creator of a beloved series can find future projects quickly condemned for not meeting expectations established by previous programs. Shawn Ryan’s The Chicago Code was generally seen as a solid cop show, but nowhere near as edgy or ambitious as his earlier landmark series The Shield—the failure of the former to catch on with viewers is partly attributable to fans of the latter being disappointed by the newer show’s more conventional style and tone, as befits the formal and content limits of airing on the broadcast Fox network rather than the FX cable channel that had enabled and encouraged The Shield to push conventional boundaries. Many other programs may have leveraged an authorial reputation to help make it to the airwaves, but found the unrealistic expectations established by an earlier series daunting, as with Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (from The West Wing’s Aaron Sorkin), Running Wilde (from Arrested Development’s Mitchell Hurwitz), John from Cincinnati (from Deadwood’s David Milch), The Return of Jezebel James (from Gilmore Girls’s Amy Sherman Palladino), and Treme (from The Wire’s David Simon).
While most contemporary television authorship compresses the collaborative creative efforts to a single discursive figure of the showrunner, sometimes individual writers can develop an authorial presence that becomes notable for diehard fans. Frequently, such branding stems from work on previous programs, as with the fan celebration of writers from Buffy and Angel—the presence of former Whedon writers David Fury and Drew Goddard on the staff of Lost gave the show cult credentials, and Whedon fans track the efforts of Jane Espenson across programs ranging from Gilmore Girls to Battlestar Galactica to Game of Thrones, even though she works nearly exclusively as part of a writing team supporting an established showrunner rather than as a primary authorial voice. It’s rare for a writer’s track record outside of television to translate into a notable presence in the collaborative realm of television—for instance, after an initial press burst, little of award-winning playwright and filmmaker David Mamet’s prestige rubbed off onto the CBS military drama The Unit that he created. Such cross-media success is more common in British television, where individual episode writers are given more agency, leading to high-profile guest writers like novelist Neil Gaiman and filmmaker Richard Curtis scripting episodes of Doctor Who. Rarely a single writer can establish their own voice, style, and reputation within an ongoing series, as with Darin Morgan’s iconic episodes of The X-Files “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose” and “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space”—Morgan’s highly reflexive and ironic take on the show’s style became fan favorites and inspired a cult following for the writer whose approach did not mimic the showrunner’s voice, but, according to star David Duchovney, “seemed to be trying to destroy the show.” Morgan’s innovative take on the series helped develop a television fanbase that became attuned to the role of individual episode writers and what they brought to the collaborative creative process.
The non-television backgrounds that creators bring to a given project can help frame a series in ways beyond aesthetic judgment and intertextual expectations. For The Wire, certainly David Simon’s background as a crime reporter in Baltimore helped saturate the show with notions of authenticity, making it clear that the program was produced by people who knew the subject matter firsthand. This authorial validation was deepened by the broader writing team, with co-creator/writer/producer Ed Burns’s background as a Baltimore homicide detective, wiretap expert, and public school teacher all feeding directly into the show’s plotlines and characters. Likewise, other writers like Rafael Alvarez, whose experiences as a reporter and laborer on Baltimore ships informed the show’s second season, and Bill Zorzi, whose coverage of Baltimore government helped shape the political storylines, were frequently cited as vital to maintaining the show’s authenticity; the numerous novelists on staff, including George Pelacanos, Richard Price, and Dennis Lehane, all helped provide both cross-medium legitimacy and decades of experience writing well-regarded, research-driven crime fiction. On-camera talent also functions to authorize the show’s verisimilitude, with cameos and recurring roles played by Baltimore politicians, reporters, and drug-dealers marking the program as grounded in the real city. The Wire’s authenticating authorship framed many viewers’ disappointment with the final season as discussed more in the Endings chapter, where the details of Simon’s own disillusionment and bitterness about his former employer The Baltimore Sun were frequently cited as marring the journalism storyline, turning the story too much into Simon’s personal axe-grinding grudge for some viewers, rather than an organic part of the series. In all of these instances, the biographical knowledge of the show’s crew and cast helped discursively frame our understanding of its fictional representations, encouraging many viewers to regard it as a work of journalism or sociology that uses fiction to tell deeper truths as authenticated by authorship.
Traditionally, the discursive circulation of television authorship had been fairly marginal, as creators and producers worked in relative anonymity, occasionally providing interviews to trade journalists or appearing at fan events, but otherwise letting network promotional materials construct their low-profile reputations for viewers with few exceptions. The rise of online television fandom has enabled showrunners and other production personnel to have a more public, engaged, and interactive relationship with their fans. Often this is filtered through journalists, as online entertainment sites like The AV Club and HitFix regularly run interviews with showrunners with far more depth and detail than anything previously seen in print. Some showrunners have adopted online media as a way to engage directly with fans and construct their own public persona. An early example of such engagement was J. Michael Straczynski, creator of mid-‘90s science-fiction series Babylon 5, with Straczynski participating in online conversations via the pre-web Usenet system; JMS (as he was known online) regularly answered fan questions, offered interpretive perspectives, and gave glimpses into production practices. While few showrunners since have been so actively engaged online, the recent rise of Twitter has led many producers like Dan Harmon (Community), Kurt Sutter (Sons of Anarchy), and Shawn Ryan (Terriers) to interact directly with fans, as well as fostering public personalities that can create controversies with the entertainment press and television fans—Harmon even went as far as to mockingly reference someone who had been antagonistically critiquing him on Twitter within an episode of Community itself, creating an in-joke for his Twitter fans who could celebrate being in the know about Harmon’s personal feuds.
The industry has taken advantage of showrunners’ increased public personae to create official paratexts that surround and augment a television series across media. Television specials or online videos that preview an upcoming season or episode, DVD extras, including making-of segments and commentary tracks, ongoing podcasts released between episodes, and live appearances at fan-friendly events like Comic Con all serve to both hype the core series and perpetuate an authorial presence used for commercial branding and fan interpretive strategies. Many of these paratexts allow viewers to get an inside glimpse into production practices, allowing them to see, in Battlestar Galactica’s Ron Moore’s terms, “how the sausage gets made”; however, it is important to remember that these official paratexts are always authorized, providing insider vision only as allowed by showrunners and production companies, not an unmediated glimpse into the broader array of labor practices, creative squabbles, and behind-the-scenes drama. Such paratexts have helped create the phenomenon of star showrunners who have become media celebrities themselves amongst an expansive fanbase of eager paratextual consumers. In the bulk of these paratexts, showrunners are constructed with dual, often conflicting cultural roles—in one way, they hype their accessibility, speaking directly to fans using insider lingo and addressing viewer questions with friendly, grounded personas that Suzanne Scott has called “the fanboy auteur.” At the same time, showrunners are framed as authoritative presences, in control of their narratives and possessing secrets about coveted long-term mysteries, but only willing to dole out clues or references obliquely. While authorial paratexts work to convey the illusion of accessibility, they simultaneously reassert authority, marking a clear power divide between fans and producers.
Each program and showrunner frames their personalities and models of engagement in a distinct way. As Derek Kompare discusses, Battlestar Galactica’s Ron Moore presents himself as a solitary authorial figure, rarely incorporating other voices into his regular podcasts aside from his wife, who is playfully called “Mrs. Ron.” He is willing to admit his own perceived missteps and reveal frank insider knowledge, but his tone is authoritative as well as authorial, grounding the program within his own singular intentionality and vision. Breaking Bad’s podcast offers a very different tone and approach—hosted by editor Kelley Dixon, every episode features Dixon, showrunner Vince Gilligan, and a rotating stable of creative personnel from the show, including actors, writers, directors, producers, editors, special effects artists, and musicians. Combined with Gilligan’s own low-key dissembling personality that usually attributes creative decisions to “the room” or his collaborators more than himself, the vision of authorship constructed by Breaking Bad’s paratexts is far more decentered, collective, and less authoritative than most other programs with star showrunners.
Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse are probably the most prominent showrunners in using paratexts, including podcasts, online video series, and public appearances on talk shows, Lost-themed television specials, and live events like their annual Comic Con panels. In large part, Cuse and Lindelof’s high public profile was necessary to shift attention away from J.J. Abrams, who was regularly credited as Lost’s author by the press and fans, as discussed more above. By making their presence known in a range of media, Cuse and Lindelof asserted control in the public eye and promoted their authorial role. They used that prominence to construct a goofy, comedic image that downplayed some of Lost’s more overwrought tendencies, with podcasts that often felt like comedy routines and live events featuring scripted scenes and mock mythology—even adopting a combined fannish identity of “Darlton” to assert their collective authorship and playfully reference fan investments in developing relationships between characters through such combined so-called “shipping names.” Their pervasive public discourses worked both to assure fans that they were in control of the show’s complex mythology, and urge viewers to lighten up and enjoy the ride by emphasizing Lost’s more fun and escapist side over the hyper-serious mystery that occupied many fans’ attention and forensic energies. As discussed in the Endings chapter, this balancing act became particularly precarious at the end of the final season, as fans demanded both mythological payoffs and narrative entertainment.
It is telling that all of the examples I referenced are male showrunners; in large part, this is due to the persistent gender bias within television writers rooms, where women make up less than one-third of writing staffs. But few female showrunners have become public figures like some of their male counterparts, with less active online presence and widespread notoriety among television fans, despite running very popular programs like Grey’s Anatomy (Shonda Rhimes), CSI (Carol Mendelsohn), and CSI: Miami (Ann Donahue), as well as more cult favorites Gilmore Girls (Amy Sherman Palladino) and The Vampire Diaries (Julie Plec). Arguably television’s best known female showrunner, Tina Fey, is known only because her onscreen presence in 30 Rock and Saturday Night Live—tellingly, her character Liz Lemon is a fictional showrunner who is portrayed as competent, but hardly authoritative or garnering much respect from her nearly all-male writing staff and production crew. One of the crucial aspects of the author function is conveying authority, mastery, and control of fictional universes, and such attributes are highly gendered as masculine in American culture, reenforcing the perceived authority of male writers over the more marginalized women both within writers rooms and within the imaginations of television critics and viewers.
An exceptional but important moment that promoted the visibility of television writers as authors was the Writers Guild strike in 2007-08, where the lack of new television production called attention to the people responsible for ongoing serial creativity. Even for viewers who were not avid consumers of authorial paratexts, the strike highlighted the authored dimension of people’s favorite programs, raising awareness in the public eye of the creative and commercial systems that produced television. Television writers and their allies in other production roles helped publicize their cause through direct appeals to viewers through YouTube videos, letters to the editor, and personal blogs, and evidence suggests that they were able to recruit most viewers to their side of the debate with the production companies. One of the most successful outcomes from the strike that helped reframe television authorship was Joss Whedon’s independently produced web musical Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, a three-part video distributed online and later on DVD. Dr. Horrible was launched as an experiment to see if successful creators like Whedon could work around the commercial industry to create and distribute a program outside the system—the experiment was quite successful commercially, with over a million paid downloads and even more via DVD, and was broadly hailed as a great addition to Whedon’s body of work. Interestingly in this context, the DVD came with a sung commentary track (Commentary! The Musical) that directly addressed the politics of the strike and the ambivalences of authorial paratexts, furthering the discursive production of authorship through reflexive paratexts. Although Dr. Horrible did not spark a revolution of web-based seriality competing with television (yet), it did exemplify the possibilities of television creators leveraging their authorial images to create alternate modes of creative work and distribution.
Paratextual extensions such as authorial podcasts highlight the role of serial form within the discursive circulation of television authorship. The gaps between weekly episodes allow time for speculation, conversation, and engaged fan practices, with the industry and creators happy to fill these gaps with official paratexts encouraging fans to focus more of their attention on the ongoing series. For fans of such serials, the podcasts and other official paratexts become another form of serialized textuality, with their own intrinsic norms and routines (Moore’s weekly choices of scotch and cigarettes), running gags (Darlton’s satirical promise that Lost’s seventh season will focus on zombies), and particular content expectations (Breaking Bad’s emphasis on filmic technique and production processes). From personal experience, I can attest that particular moments on a given episode will frequently prompt me to get excited about how that week’s podcast might discuss what I just saw, suggesting that authorial paratexts can function as serial texts themselves, creating their own ritualized engagements and intrinsic norms. The importance of such paratexts to some fans’ serial experiences suggests that we must consider the ongoing ways that serial television relies upon authorship as a facet of viewer comprehension and engagement, beyond just the industry’s construction of authorial discourses.
Producing Authorship Through Serial Consumption
It might seem that authorship is best seen as a facet of television production, both in the material ways that television is created and the rhetorical production of authorial identity and practices. But authorship is also produced through the act of reception, as television viewers use authorial paratexts and textual features to construct notions about authors that help guide their understanding and engagement with a series. Arguably, authorship is most vital in the reception process, as that is where the rhetoric of the author function becomes active, shaping viewer processes of interpretation, evaluation, and engagement. But to understand how authorship operates as part of the viewing process, we need to take a detour into literary theory to explore the concept of the implied author.
As originally proposed by Wayne Booth more than 50 years ago, the implied author is a hotly debated and much misunderstood concept within literary theory, and certainly this is not the place to weigh in on the broader debates. For the purposes of discussing television authorship, it is best to look at the two most prominent participants in the debate of the term within film studies, Seymour Chatman and David Bordwell. Chatman argues that the implied author is distinct from the biographical “real author” who created the work (whether literature or film), but serves as the source of a narrative’s origination, “the agent intrinsic to the story whose responsibility is the overall design.” Chatman’s concept of the implied author serves as the embodiment of textual intent, and thus functions as reference point for viewers trying to interpret a film—when we ask “what does that film mean?”, we are seeking to understand what the implied author meant to convey, as contained within the text (not the biographical author’s statements).
While Bordwell and Chatman agree on the bulk of their narratological terms and approaches, Bordwell denies the usefulness of the implied author as a concept, suggesting that it is better to view a film’s narrational process as the source of storytelling agency itself:
As for the implied author, this construct adds nothing to our understanding of filmic narration. No trait we could assign to an implied author of a film could not more simply be ascribed to the narration itself: it sometimes suppresses information, it often restricts our knowledge, it generates curiosity, it creates a tone, and so on. To give every film a narrator or implied author is to indulge in an anthropomorphic fiction.
Bordwell refuses to use an implied author in his model of cinematic narration because it seems to contribute little to our analytic abilities as critics, where the film’s storytelling techniques themselves are sufficient for conducting narrative analysis. Chatman and Bordwell agree that the text itself is an agent of storytelling, and their debate boils down to whether such agency is best understood as an anthropomorphic author or a system of narrational properties. Personally, I find Bordwell’s approach to viewing a text as self-sufficient for containing its own agency and intent convincing, and agree that we do not need to claim that only authors can actively narrate.
But I believe by shifting the question somewhat, we can see a vital use for the implied author within the television storytelling process—instead of looking at the way an implied author may or may not be lodged in a text as a scholarly heuristic, we should ask how viewers use the concept of authorship to guide their processes of reception and comprehension. I believe that we can see many viewers themselves “indulging in an anthropomorphic fiction” by constructing notions of authorship within their viewing practices. Such authorial construction is not solely lodged in the text, as authorship exists in the moments of television reception, working within the broader contextual circulation of author function discourses as discussed above. It is connected to the material practices of television production, but only through the windows of text and context, and thus is not a direct link to authorial biography or intent. By looking contextually-situated reception practices of television serials, we can certainly see notions of authorship posited by viewers as active agents in the process of reception.
In their review of the various uses of the implied author, Tom Kindt and Hans-Harald Müller suggest that the concept might be relevant within actual reading practices, but that traditional literary studies have not addressed these issues empirically, and thus they focus more on the notion of textual intent like Chatman. To avoid confusion with that use of implied authorship, I call this reception-centered notion of authorship the inferred author function. “Inferred” highlights that authorship is not (solely) being construed through textual implication, but in the act of consumption itself; Foucault’s “function” retains the centrality of context and discursive circulation. To briefly define the term, the inferred author function is a viewer’s production of authorial agency responsible for a text’s storytelling, drawing upon textual cues and contextual discourses. In more practical terms, when we watch a program and wonder “why did they do that?”, the inferred author function is our notion of “they” as the agent(s) responsible for the storytelling. While certainly some viewers might ground agency within a less human notion of “the show”—as in, “why did the show jump forward in time?”—the prevalence of authorial discourses circulating within the industry, sites of criticism, and fan-created paratexts and conversations all suggest that for many television viewers, agency is lodged within an imagined construct of a personified authorial force. It is difficult to say what portion of viewers use inferred author functions as narrative consumers, but I believe the popularity of authorial discourses, as well as evidence of how fans discuss shows in venues ranging from online forums to casual conversations, suggest that authorial agency is a part of the reception process for a significant enough number of viewers to warrant discussion.
This model of the inferred author function could be generalizable to all narrative media, where readers, theatergoers, and film buffs all might construct an authorial agent in the process of narrative comprehension, although critics of other formats seem skeptical. As Torben Grodal suggests, most films are immersive narratives where viewers are encouraged to engage “downstream” with the diegetic storyworld, focusing on the agency and choices of characters rather than filmmakers; he sees moments when focus is attuned “upstream” toward authorial choices as exceptional, either through special effects that shift attention away from the narrative, in uncommon modes of reflexive film practice such as art cinema, or in atypical viewers like film critics and cinephiles whose attention may be directed at technique and narration more than immersive experiences. However, as I discussed in the Complexity chapter, much of contemporary serial television offers moments of reflexive engagement that do not shatter the narrative frame, but instead simultaneously encourage diegetic immersion and astonishment at the operational aesthetic of narrative mechanics. These moments invite viewers to infer authorship, drawing upon clues in the text and surrounding contextual discourses to parse out what the show’s creators were trying to accomplish and what it might mean for the narrative going forward. For savvy viewers of complex television, the author figure itself becomes a ludic site of engagement and forensic fandom, attempting to parse clues and separate truth from hype about these semi-public creators, echoing a mode of cultural consumption that Joshua Gamson claims is typical of many fans of celebrity gossip who treat their paratextual pleasures as an elaborate game. Given the prevalence of conspiratorial and mysterious storytelling within complex television shows like Lost, 24, and Homeland, the quest to discover who is behind the stories we are watching and deduce the veracity of what they claim to be doing is often integrated directly into a program’s ongoing plot itself, inviting us to experience the narrative in both upstream and downstream modes.
Not only do thrillers and mysteries create thematic parallels with issues of authorship and attribution, comedies can also embed issues of authorship directly into their texts themselves, as with the experimental programs Curb Your Enthusiasm and Louie. The former focuses on Larry David, who stars as himself, playing the role of misanthropic television writer who co-created Seinfeld, inviting us to imagine the fictionalized David as the authorial voice of the landmark 1990s comedy. Curb itself is widely known to be more collaboratively created than most series, despite its central and pervasive author figure, as every episode is improvised by the cast based upon a story outline created by David. Watching the series, especially in moments where the process of creating television itself is portrayed, is a highly reflexive process of imagining multiple levels of authorship and identity, trying to separate the fictional Larry (as we might call the fictional version of Larry David) from the actual David, and merging both into an ever evolving inferred author function. This reflexivity took center stage in Curb’s seventh season, with the ongoing plot of Larry creating a Seinfeld reunion episode and thus portraying a retrospective vision of that show’s creative process. As is typical of Curb’s plotting, things fall apart during the production process, leading to a scene in the season finale episode (called “Seinfeld”) where Larry takes over for Jason Alexander to play the role of George Costanza, a character that was originally based upon David himself—the resulting sequence reflexively shows the real actor/writer David playing the character Larry, playing the character George, as created by David based upon himself. Through moments like this, it is hard to imagine how viewers might not consider issues of authorship as an active part of the comprehension process, as discussed more in the Comprehension chapter.
Louie similarly represents the author onscreen, as Louis C.K. writes, directs, and edits every episode while playing a fictionalized version of himself. Unlike Larry’s character on Curb, Louie (the character) is not portrayed as a television author, but as a stand-up comedian and divorced father, like C.K. himself. On both Louie and Curb, viewers are invited to playfully imagine what elements of the series are true to real events and characters, versus fictionalized versions or outright inventions from their central authors, issues highlighted in the episode “Oh Louie/Tickets.” The episode opens with Louie shooting a conventional sitcom that he quits due to its lack of realism and authenticity, a moment that both evokes C.K.’s failed CBS sitcom pilot “Saint Louie,” and reminds viewers that Louie itself is much more unconventionally authentic and legitimated by C.K.’s performed author function. The second part of the episode focuses on Louie reaching out to Dane Cook (played by Cook), the highly successful comedian who was accused of stealing jokes from C.K. years before this episode aired. The scene between the two directly addresses their real feud, with both asserting their perspectives in a dialogue that feels completely organic and even-handed—viewers and critics speculated about the scene’s creation, generally imagining that Cook had a part in authoring the conversation to make it accurately represent his perspective. However, C.K. recounts that the scene was written solely by him, refusing to take Cook’s suggestions for revisions, and that Cook “took my directions. He read it verbatim as I wrote it. And nailed it!” For the many fans aware of the high-profile history between the two, the episode all but demands that we imagine the issues of authorship (especially given the topic of originality in writing jokes), blurring the lines between real comedians, fictional characters, and television creators in making sense of this complex episode.
Seriality itself encourages the inferred author function, making such inferences more prominent and vital. As discussed in the Complexity chapter, serial form is defined by the gaps between installments, where viewers are forced to pause from the diegesis, and thus interrupting “downstream” immersion; such gaps are even more prominent in commercial television, where individual episodes are interrupted by commercial breaks. Studies of fan practices, as explored in the Comprehension, Orienting Paratexts, and Transmedia Storytelling chapters, highlight how many viewers fill such story gaps with other ways of engaging with serialized narratives, often operating at both diegetic and meta-narrative levels of form and storytelling mechanics. The inferred author function becomes prominent in these gaps, both through widely-circulating authorial discourses and speculative discussions about what the creators might be up to. Such authorial attention is typical of many serial forms, as we can see when Dickens’s 19th-century readers, fans of comic strips and books, and soap opera viewers fill such serial gaps with correspondence with authors, participating in speculative conversations about authorial intent, and creation of paratexts designed to celebrate or critique their inferred authorial agents.
For an example highlighting how showrunners can directly engage with viewers within these serialized gaps to mold both their persona and our assumptions about their programs, Dan Harmon wrote a long blog post in reaction to some fans taking offense at the use of stereotypical gay representations in the Community episode “Advanced Gay.” In his self-described “mea culpa” written two days after the episode aired, Harmon owned the critique, admitting that they had used the gay characters as a “tool” to address issues and conflicts within the show’s main characters, rather than treating them like real, humane characters. He offered his post as a promise pointing to a serialized future: “This blog entry is a sort of ‘receipt’ I’m giving you, proof that I’m conscious of the fact that some of you might have been abraded, because if I spent this long typing about this, you know it’s left a mark on my circuit board. I’m bound to offend you again but it won’t be in the same way, and it will be an accident then, too. This time, it was because I was focused on a story that had nothing to do with the ‘issue’ we’re discussing. I cut corners.” For Community fans engaged in Harmon’s online presence—a significant number, with more than 114,000 followers on Twitter—statements like these work to constitute his persona as both a blogger and television showrunner, which then inflects how viewers consume the program and imagine his authorial voice as part of an inferred author function that colors future reception practices.
Such television programs, like serialized literature and comic books before them, not only serialize their storyworlds, but also their inferred author functions themselves, as the authorial figures to whom we grant narrative agency evolve and change over time through their own public performances of identity, our transforming inferences about them, and the interaction between showrunner-as-text and paratextual-consuming viewers. As viewers consume more paratexts, including explicitly serialized paratexts like podcasts, we come to develop new inferences about such authors, which impacts our narrative consumption. If we conceive of authorship as a discursive phenomenon, constructed by paratexts and other forms of rhetorical circulation, then the inferred author function is itself a serialized phenomenon, changing over time and working in dialogue with the core text itself. Additionally, fans come to feel that they have an ongoing relationship with inferred authors, just as they develop relationships with serialized television characters—Harmon addresses his viewers as “you,” engages in public Twitter conversations, and invites us into his own thought processes (as well as more intimate personal details elsewhere on his blog, signaled by its scatological title Dan Harmon Poops). Through such modes of address and engagement, an inferred author function develops and changes over the course of a serial, and a viewer’s relationship to a showrunner’s public persona is a similarly fluid ongoing phenomenon.
We use these serialized notions of authorship to develop assumptions about how a show is created, especially concerning how much is planned out in advance, and consume the program in search of clues using the codex of our notions of inferred authorship as a guide. For instance, the second season of Breaking Bad featured an ongoing set of flash-forward scenes in the pre-credit teasers of four episodes, mysteriously showing the aftermath of some major violent occurrence outside Walt’s house. On podcasts, Gilligan and the other producers alluded to this mystery and suggested that it would be revealed at the end of the season, thus framing expectations for the season’s arc and inspiring forensic fandom to analyze both the text and paratexts for clues to reveal the events in advance. Such authorial paratexts presented the narrative ambiguities with a sense of ludic play, encouraging viewers to play along with the show while guaranteeing resolution, rather than coyly obscuring details or refusing clarification, as on other serialized programs.
Another example from Breaking Bad highlights how ambiguity and intent can manifest differently. In the final scene of season three, Jesse appears to shoot Gale in an act of desperation; however, the camera angle shifted in such a way that we never saw Gale being shot and seemed to indicated that Jesse changed the aim of his gun, a camera move that some viewers interpreted as suggesting that Jesse did not actually shoot Gale. In the first wave of interviews after the finale, Gilligan highlights that any ambiguities were unintentional:
In my mind, no, I don’t intend for there to be any ambiguity. Let me start this by saying I always am reluctant to tell the audience afterward what to think or how to feel. I really prefer it when the audience comes to their own conclusions. But in honest answer to your question, I never really intended for there to be any ambiguity. But it’s funny: in the editing room, my editor and some other people were saying that the way it counter-dollies around, it looks like he’s changing his point of aim before he pulls the trigger. For what it’s worth, I did not intend for it to feel that way. I’ve been hearing from the people who’ve already seen it that it looks like he’s changing where he’s aiming. That is not intentional. I did not see it that way when I was directing. It’s not wrong for you to think he shot this guy.
While Gilligan explicitly asserts his intent here and elsewhere, he also embraces ambiguity and goes on in other interviews to say that the unintentional openness means that he might revisit his own intent for season 4. Not surprisingly, fans posited their own speculation, drawing upon different facets of Gilligan’s statements to support their own theories on whether Gale would live or die. The next episode opened, after a 13-month gap in screen time filled with paratext-driven speculation and anticipation, with a scene of Gale alive and well. It was soon revealed to be a flashback, with the next scene showing Gale’s dead body at the crime scene. Such a sequence invites viewers to posit an authorial presence, playing with their expectations and building on the paratextual conversation about Gale’s ambiguous shooting—we can almost hear Gilligan speaking to viewers in this scene, playfully referencing speculations and debates. Although we could follow Bordwell’s anti-anthropomorphic approach and regard it as the series playing with audience expectations, the prevalence of the showrunner’s voice in paratexts encourages viewers to personalize such intentionality, attaching it to a hypothetical construction of Gilligan, who embodies the entire collaborative team in the mind of fans.
Of course, savvy viewers are well aware of television’s collaborative production process, and frequently use paratexts and forensic fandom to analyze who might be responsible for a given choice or outcome. Such questions of collaboration can stretch beyond the writers’ room—for instance, African-American actors on The Wire were frequently asked in interviews how much of their dialogue was improvised or self-written, as many found it doubtful that David Simon or his mostly-white writing staff could be responsible for the program’s vivid vernacular (which they actually were). In other instances, viewers parse collaborative creative partnerships to figure out how to map authorial discourses and intertextual track records, as with Homeland’s dual showrunners Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa. Although the pair had shared credits on a range of programs in the 1980s and 1990s, Gordon was best known in the 2000s as showrunner for 24, while Gansa’s solo credits were more eclectic until he reunited with Gordon for 24’s final season. In an episode-by-episode breakdown of Homeland’s first season on The A.V. Club, Gansa highlights some of their differences in approach, linking Gordon’s more mainstream and conventional choices to his time on 24, while Gansa takes credit for more ambiguous and unconventional choices; the commenters embrace this distinction, suggesting that such creative tension might undo (or help fuel) the show’s success. Of course, viewers don’t know how much this creative divide actually manifests itself in the writing process or how much Gansa is exaggerating his own role, but such paratexts help create an imagined authorial role with multiple voices in tension, and provides a framework to view future episodes as a product of that inferred author function.
Another important function for inferred authors concerns fan-created paratexts that have become more widespread and popular in the digital era. In an influential post in her Dreamwidth blog, pseudonymous fanfic writer obsession_inc proposed two general kinds of fandom that directly relate to authorship: affirmational vs. transformational. Affirmational fans generally work to reinforce an author’s vision (as they infer it) and canonical narrative content, fleshing out the details through fan productions as discussed more in the Orienting Paratexts chapter; for such fans, authorial podcasts and blogs provide insight into the creative process and intentions of an inferred author, extending their narrative experiences. Transformational fans treat an original text not just as a canonical work to be appreciated on its own terms, but also as the raw material for productive play, creating non-canonical extensions like fanfic, fanvids, and other paratexts that frequently go against the presumed intentions of the original’s creator. Transformational fans, who are more likely to be pseudonymous female creators avoiding public acknowledgement outside their fan communities, engage in dialog or sparring matches with their inferred authors, not treating them as powerful figures to be revered, respected, and treated as the source of creative authority, which often typifies the predominantly male affirmational fan’s attitude toward the television author. This is clearly an over-simplified dichotomy that requires more analysis than can be given here, but it seems that inferred author functions can play important if differing roles amongst the most committed productive fans of all persuasions and practices.
Throughout this discussion of the inferred author function, I have focused on how the imagined role of the author fuels narrative comprehension rather than interpretation. It certainly could be useful in both, as viewers can project assumed political beliefs, ethical goals, or worldviews onto an imagined author that would thus shape an interpretation of a show’s politics or themes. Certainly we read the politics of The Wire and Treme off each other and in the context of David Simon’s copious writings and interviews, providing an interpretative frame based on an authorial identity that is more unified and consistent than the actual creative processes. But in this project, I am more interested in how the inferred authorial function operates in the moment of viewership to construct a sense of narrative coherence and shape emotional reactions, as well as guiding our gap-filling efforts to analyze what has happened and speculate on what is to come. Per Bordwell’s account, viewers do not need to construct an authorial figure to comprehend a narrative—but per pervasive fan discourses and accounts of personal viewing practices, many often do.
This returns us to the call to “Trust Joss”—in this phrase, Joss was not the biographical creator of Buffy nor the industrial discourses that constructed his public persona, but the implied author function constructed by viewers out of their textual and paratextual consumption. Viewers invested in Buffy’s ongoing storytelling confronted their doubts about this new narrative development by turning to the authorial and authoritative figure that had served them well for the first four seasons, imbuing the show’s creator with knowledge and power that they trusted would provide ultimate answers. This call to trust in Joss despite lagging faith is a religious move, invoking the author as calling out to a higher power, a supreme creator who must have a greater plan that will be revealed to us mere mortals in due time. As with religion, the powerful author is a figure only experienced through discourse, via texts and paratexts, and glimpsed through oblique moments where we infer something greater at work than just the characters living their lives, as we hope that the events seen on screen are not just random occurrences, but all part of a larger plan that a creator has worked out in advance. Of course the belief in a master plan does not stop religious believers to pray to their deity to ask for particular alterations to that plan—just as television fans regularly lobby showrunners to respond to their feedback at the same time they assert the need for authors to have a plan beyond “making it up as you go.”
We can see religious metaphors running through the language of serial television, as with a “show bible” that lays out a program’s core tenets and story arcs, the idea of “canon” standing in for the authoritative version of the fictional world, fans referring to a show’s producers as “The Powers That Be” (which is also the term that Whedon used to reference the guiding deific forces on Angel), or transformative fans willfully committing “blasphemy” through acts of transgressive remixing. It seems clear that for ongoing serial storyworlds, many viewers want to imagine a creator with full knowledge and mastery guiding the outcomes, and in moments of doubt or confusion, they put their trust and faith in this higher power—or renounce such authority and take control in their own transformative hands. The inferred author serves this role, and our faith in the author’s ability to shape a well-told story carries us through the serial gaps—or when the story goes off the rails, we might lose faith and abandon a series. This act of faith is a form of subjectification, where we willingly give over our power to something greater in hopes for future payoffs—for all the expansions in participatory culture and fan production in recent years, there is still an active desire for many viewers to be the recipient of a well-told story, not a productive partner in its telling. As narrative consumers, sometimes we want to give over some degree of control to authors, placing our attention in their hands to guide as they see fit. If we doubt that they know precisely what they’re doing, our pleasures are weakened, losing faith in the coherence and rationale of their narrative vision. I’m not suggesting that serial television is only for the religious-minded, or that we have to imbue the author with deistic powers—I write as an affirmed atheist, but also as a television fan who has experienced awe and reverence at moments of authorial prowess and creation that borders on worship.
Of course the actual creative process is much more messy, collaborative, and contingent than the image of an all-powerful creator with a master plan. In the real world, many people find the complexity of biology much too vast to be accounted for by the bottom-up emergence of evolution, so they seek the assurance of an anthropomorphized notion of intelligent design. Similarly, complex stories can seem far too elaborate to be designed by a decentered team beset by contingencies and unplanned interference, so we look to an imagined authorial power to account for narrative complexity and provide ongoing serial assurances that somebody is actually in control. The inferred author function offers a model for the pragmatic use of an imagined, all-powerful creator to guide our faithful narrative comprehension, while the realities of production studies highlight the messy collaborative realities out of which our serial stories evolve.
 See Horace Newcomb, TV: The Most Popular Art (Garden City, NY: Anchor Press, 1974); Horace Newcomb and Robert S. Alley, The Producer’s Medium: Conversations with Creators of American TV (Oxford University Press, USA, 1983).
 For an overview on the role of showrunners and how they have been studied, see Alisa Perren and Ian Peters, “Showrunners,” in The Sage Handbook of Television Studies, ed. Manuel Alvarado et al. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Forthcoming); see Jason Mittell, Television and American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010) for more on the pilot production process.
 This room-based model is less common in other national television systems, where individual episode authors frequently have more independence; see Matt Hills, Triumph of a Time Lord: Regenerating Doctor Who in the Twenty-first Century (I. B. Tauris, 2010) for a discussion of authorship in the British case of Doctor Who.
 Quoted in Tim Molloy, “Damon Lindelof’s History of Lost (A Show He Longed to Quit),” The Wrap, September 23, 2011.
 For more on Lost’s authorship, see Denise Mann, “It’s Not TV, It’s Brand Management,” in Production Studies: Cultural Studies of Media Industries, ed. Vicki Mayer, Miranda Banks, and John Thornton Caldwell (New York: Routledge, 2009), 99-114.
 See Vicki Mayer, Miranda Banks, and John Thornton Caldwell, eds., Production Studies: Cultural Studies of Media Industries (New York: Routledge, 2009).
 Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author,” in Image-Music-Text, trans. Stephen Heath (New York: Hill and Wang, 1978).
 Michel Foucault, “What is an Author?”, in The Foucault Reader (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984).
 See Michael Z. Newman and Elana Levine, Legitimating Television: Media Convergence and Cultural Status (New York: Taylor & Francis, 2011) for a discussion of television’s authorship and cultural legitimation.
 Newman and Levine frame television authorship’s evaluative function solely as a process of legitimation, which is too narrow of an understanding of the various ways authorial identity can brand a program’s aesthetic roles.
 Quoted in Jonathan Kirby, “Not Just a Fluke: How Darin Morgan Saved The X-Files,” PopMatters (October 29, 2007).
 For more on these validating discourses around The Wire, see Jason Mittell, “All in the Game: The Wire, Serial Storytelling and Procedural Logic,” in Third Person: Authoring and Exploring Vast Narratives, ed. Pat Harrigan and Noah Wardrip-Fruin (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009), 429–38.
 These interviews can be extremely popular, as with the showrunner “walkthrough” series on The AV Club—according to TV editor Todd VandDerWerff (personal email), these multipart interviews received high readership in 2011 for showrunners including Community’s Dan Harmon (over 163,000 hits), Parks and Recreation’s Michael Schur (92,000) and Louie’s Louis C.K. (81,000).
 See Kurt Lancaster, Interacting with Babylon 5: Fan Performance in a Media Universe (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001).
 See Myles McNutt, “Replying with the Enemy: Showrunners on Twitter II,” Antenna, November 11, 2010.
 Suzanne Scott, “Who’s Steering the Mothership? The Role of the Fanboy Auteur in Transmedia Storytelling,” in The Participatory Cultures Handbook, ed. Aaron Delwiche and Jennifer Henderson (New York: Routledge, 2012). For more on the fan-friendly author, see Matt Hills, Triumph of a Time Lord: Regenerating Doctor Who in the Twenty-first Century (London: I. B. Tauris, 2010); and Derek Kompare, “More ‘Moments of Television’: Online Cult Television Authorship,” in Flow TV: Television in the Age of Media Convergence, ed. Michael Kackman et al., (New York: Routledge, 2010), 95-113. See Jonathan Gray, Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts (NYU Press, 2010) for more on authorial paratexts.
 Kompare, “More ‘Moments of Television.’”
 See the semiannual Hollywood Writers Report released by Writers Guild of America, West; the last available statistics were that women writers were 28% of the television writing workforce in 2009.
 For more on the strike and its public circulation, see Miranda J. Banks, “The Picket Line Online: Creative Labor, Digital Activism, and the 2007–2008 Writers Guild of America Strike,” Popular Communication 8, no. 1 (2010): 20–33.
 For more on Dr. Horrible, see Anouk Lang, “‘The Status Is Not Quo!’: Pursuing Resolution in Web-Disseminated Serial Narrative,” Narrative 18, no. 3 (2010): 367–381.
 For a compelling history and synopsis of the various ways the concept has been used, see Tom Kindt and Hans-Harald Müller, The Implied Author: Concept and Controversy (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2006).
 Seymour Chatman, Coming to Terms : the Rhetoric of Narrative in Fiction and Film (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990), 130.
 David Bordwell, Narration in the Fiction Film (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985), 62.
 Jan Alber offers a similar model for cinema under the term “hypothetical filmmaker,” although that model seems less derived from reception practices and contextual discourses. See Jan Alber, “Hypothetical Intentionalism: Cinematic Narration Reconsidered,” in Postclassical Narratology: Approaches and Analyses, ed. Jan Alber and Monika Fludernik (Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2010), 163–185.
 Kindt & Müller, 152-54.
 Torben Grodal, “Agency in Film, Filmmaking, and Reception,” in Visual Authorship: Creativity and Intentionality in Media, ed. Torben Grodal, Bente Larsen, and Iben Thorving Laursen (Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2005), 15-36.
 Joshua Gamson, Claims to Fame: Celebrity in Contemporary America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994).
 Quoted in Nathan Rabin, “Louis C.K. Walks Us Through Louie’s Second Season (Part 3 of 4),” The A.V. Club, September 21, 2011.
 See Jennifer Hayward, Consuming Pleasures : Active Audiences and Serial Fictions from Dickens to Soap Opera (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1997) for a historical account of such serial consumption practices.
 Dan Harmon, “Mea Culpa for Those Needing One. Onward and Gayward,” Dan Harmon Poops, November 5, 2011.
 See Ivan Askwith, “‘Do You Even Know Where This Is Going?’: Lost’s Viewers and Narrative Premeditation,” in Reading LOST: Perspectives on a Hit Television Show, ed. Roberta Pearson (London: I.B. Tauris, 2009).
 Quoted in Alan Sepinwall, “Interview: Breaking Bad Creator Vince Gilligan Post-mortems Season Three,” HitFix.com, June 13, 2010. See also Noel Murray, “Vince Gilligan,” The A.V. Club, June 13, 2010.
 Todd VanDerWerff, “Alex Gansa Walks Us Through Homeland’s First Season (Part 1 of 4),” The A.V. Club, January 24, 2012.
 obsession_inc, “Affirmational Fandom Vs. Transformational Fandom,” Obsession_inc, June 1, 2009.
 For more on authorial practices and affirmational vs. transformative fandoms, see Suzanne Scott, “‘And They Have a Plan’: Battlestar Galactica, Ancillary Content, and Affirmational Fandom,” in How to Watch TV, ed. Ethan Thompson and Jason Mittell (New York: New York University Press, 2013); Louisa Stein and Kristina Busse, “Limit Play: Fan Authorship Between Source Text, Intertext, and Context,” Popular Communication 7, no. 4 (2009): 192–207.
- See Horace Newcomb, TV: The Most Popular Art (Garden City, NY: Anchor Press, 1974); Horace Newcomb and Robert S. Alley, The Producer’s Medium: Conversations with Creators of American TV (Oxford University Press, USA, 1983).
- For an overview on the role of showrunners and how they have been studied, see Alisa Perren and Ian Peters, “Showrunners,” in The Sage Handbook of Television Studies, ed. Manuel Alvarado et al. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Forthcoming); see Jason Mittell, Television and American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010) for more on the pilot production process.
- This room-based model is less common in other national television systems, where individual episode authors frequently have more independence; see Matt Hills, Triumph of a Time Lord: Regenerating Doctor Who in the Twenty-first Century (I. B. Tauris, 2010) for a discussion of authorship in the British case of Doctor Who.
- Quoted in Tim Molloy, “Damon Lindelof’s History of Lost (A Show He Longed to Quit),” The Wrap, September 23, 2011, http://www.thewrap.com/tv/print/31281.
- For more on Lost’s authorship, see Denise Mann, “It’s Not TV, It’s Brand Management,” in Production Studies: Cultural Studies of Media Industries, ed. Vicki Mayer, Miranda Banks, and John Thornton Caldwell (New York: Routledge, 2009), 99-114.
- See Vicki Mayer, Miranda Banks, and John Thornton Caldwell, eds., Production Studies: Cultural Studies of Media Industries (New York: Routledge, 2009).
- Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author,” in Image-Music-Text, trans. Stephen Heath (New York: Hill and Wang, 1978).
- Michel Foucault, “What is an Author?”, in The Foucault Reader (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984).
- See Michael Z. Newman and Elana Levine, Legitimating Television: Media Convergence and Cultural Status (New York: Taylor & Francis, 2011) for a discussion of television’s authorship and cultural legitimation.
- Newman and Levine frame television authorship’s evaluative function solely as a process of legitimation, which is too narrow of an understanding of the various ways authorial identity can brand a program’s aesthetic roles.
- Quoted in Jonathan Kirby, “Not Just a Fluke: How Darin Morgan Saved The X-Files,” PopMatters (October 29, 2007), http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/not-just-a-fluke-how-darin-morgan-saved-the-x-files.
- For more on these validating discourses around The Wire, see Jason Mittell, “All in the Game: The Wire, Serial Storytelling and Procedural Logic,” in Third Person: Authoring and Exploring Vast Narratives, ed. Pat Harrigan and Noah Wardrip-Fruin (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009), 429–38.
- These interviews can be extremely popular, as with the showrunner “walkthrough” series on The AV Club—according to TV editor Todd VandDerWerff (personal email), these multipart interviews received high readership in 2011 for showrunners including Community’s Dan Harmon (over 163,000 hits), Parks and Recreation’s Michael Schur (92,000) and Louie’s Louis C.K. (81,000).
- See Kurt Lancaster, Interacting with Babylon 5: Fan Performance in a Media Universe (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001).
- See Myles McNutt, “Replying with the Enemy: Showrunners on Twitter II,” Antenna, November 11, 2010, http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2010/11/11/replying-with-the-enemy-showrunners-on-twitter-ii/.
- Suzanne Scott, “Who’s Steering the Mothership? The Role of the Fanboy Auteur in Transmedia Storytelling,” in The Participatory Cultures Handbook, ed. Aaron Delwiche and Jennifer Henderson (New York: Routledge, 2012). For more on the fan-friendly author, see Matt Hills, Triumph of a Time Lord: Regenerating Doctor Who in the Twenty-first Century (London: I. B. Tauris, 2010); and Derek Kompare, “More ‘Moments of Television’: Online Cult Television Authorship,” in Flow TV: Television in the Age of Media Convergence, ed. Michael Kackman et al., (New York: Routledge, 2010), 95-113. See Jonathan Gray, Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts (NYU Press, 2010) for more on authorial paratexts.
- Kompare, “More ‘Moments of Television.’”
- See the semiannual Hollywood Writers Report released by Writers Guild of America, West, http://www.wga.org/subpage_whoweare.aspx?id=922; the last available statistics were that women writers were 28% of the television writing workforce in 2009.
- For more on the strike and its public circulation, see Miranda J. Banks, “The Picket Line Online: Creative Labor, Digital Activism, and the 2007–2008 Writers Guild of America Strike,” Popular Communication 8, no. 1 (2010): 20–33.
- For more on Dr. Horrible, see Anouk Lang, “‘The Status Is Not Quo!’: Pursuing Resolution in Web-Disseminated Serial Narrative,” Narrative 18, no. 3 (2010): 367–381.
- For a compelling history and synopsis of the various ways the concept has been used, see Tom Kindt and Hans-Harald Müller, The Implied Author: Concept and Controversy (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2006).
- Seymour Chatman, Coming to Terms : the Rhetoric of Narrative in Fiction and Film (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990), 130.
- David Bordwell, Narration in the Fiction Film (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985), 62.
- Jan Alber offers a similar model for cinema under the term “hypothetical filmmaker,” although that model seems less derived from reception practices and contextual discourses. See Jan Alber, “Hypothetical Intentionalism: Cinematic Narration Reconsidered,” in Postclassical Narratology: Approaches and Analyses, ed. Jan Alber and Monika Fludernik (Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2010), 163–185.
- Kindt & Müller, 152-54.
- Torben Grodal, “Agency in Film, Filmmaking, and Reception,” in Visual Authorship: Creativity and Intentionality in Media, ed. Torben Grodal, Bente Larsen, and Iben Thorving Laursen (Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2005), 15-36.
- Joshua Gamson, Claims to Fame: Celebrity in Contemporary America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994).
- Quoted in Nathan Rabin, “Louis C.K. Walks Us Through Louie’s Second Season (Part 3 of 4),” The A.V. Club, September 21, 2011, http://www.avclub.com/articles/louis-ck-walks-us-through-louies-second-season-par,62050/.
- See Jennifer Hayward, Consuming Pleasures : Active Audiences and Serial Fictions from Dickens to Soap Opera (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1997) for a historical account of such serial consumption practices.
- Dan Harmon, “Mea Culpa for Those Needing One. Onward and Gayward,” Dan Harmon Poops, November 5, 2011, http://danharmon.tumblr.com/post/12377752020/mea-culpa-for-those-needing-one-onward-and-gayward.
- See Ivan Askwith, “‘Do You Even Know Where This Is Going?’: Lost’s Viewers and Narrative Premeditation,” in Reading LOST: Perspectives on a Hit Television Show, ed. Roberta Pearson (London: I.B. Tauris, 2009).
- Quoted in Alan Sepinwall, “Interview: Breaking Bad Creator Vince Gilligan Post-mortems Season Three,” HitFix.com, June 13, 2010, http://www.hitfix.com/blogs/whats-alan-watching/posts/interview-breaking-bad-creator-vince-gilligan-post-mortems-season-three. See also Noel Murray, “Vince Gilligan,” The A.V. Club, June 13, 2010, http://www.avclub.com/articles/vince-gilligan,42064/.
- Todd VanDerWerff, “Alex Gansa Walks Us Through Homeland’s First Season (Part 1 of 4),” The A.V. Club, January 24, 2012, http://www.avclub.com/articles/alex-gansa-walks-us-through-homelands-first-season,68143/.
- obsession_inc, “Affirmational Fandom Vs. Transformational Fandom,” Obsession_inc, June 1, 2009, http://obsession-inc.dreamwidth.org/82589.html.
- For more on authorial practices and affirmational vs. transformative fandoms, see Suzanne Scott, “‘And They Have a Plan’: Battlestar Galactica, Ancillary Content, and Affirmational Fandom,” in How to Watch TV, ed. Ethan Thompson and Jason Mittell (New York: New York University Press, 2013); Louisa Stein and Kristina Busse, “Limit Play: Fan Authorship Between Source Text, Intertext, and Context,” Popular Communication 7, no. 4 (2009): 192–207.