Hearing that Alan Ball will step down as showrunner of HBO’s True Blood for season 6, when season 5 is still on the horizon for this summer, may make it difficult for you to process how you feel about the change. In a statement, HBO made it clear Ball will remain available to consult with and advise his replacement, while he develops new shows for HBO and Cinemax. That, combined with the fact that I can name multiple writers on the show’s staff because I rewound to note them while recapping particularly great episodes, makes me confident that the show will be just fine.
But it also begs the question: As a viewer, do you always feel a shift in a series when the showrunner changes? I mean, I know Gilmore Girls fans are still lamenting the loss of showrunners Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino for that final season — and it ended five years ago. (In our gallery of 23 TV Shows That Missed a Cue for a Grateful Exit, we posited that it might have been better to end with the season 6 cliffhanger than resolve it with a slow descent in a “lunatic last season.”) Fans of The West Wing felt it when Aaron Sorkin, who defined the voice of that show, left after season 4 (though ratings had already dipped that year, as had the quality, some would argue). Buffy the Vampire Slayer devotees know Joss Whedon stepped down as showrunner after season 5, during which he gave us the tearjerkers “The Body” and “The Gift” (just reading those titles makes me tear up). He remained an EP through the season 7 series finale, but the best episode of those final two years — the musical episode — was one he wrote and directed.
Looking at those shows, I find myself asking a second question: Is it just the change on who’s holding the reins that affects a show or is it also where that former showrunner leaves the series when he or she exits? SPOILER ALERT: Lorelai had ended up in bed with Christopher, President Bartlet had temporarily transferred his power, and Buffy had died sacrificing herself to save the world. Those are big bombshells, just like Rita’s fate at the end of Dexter‘s fourth season, when it lost a showrunner. And they’re tough to follow, like Supernatural continuing for seasons 6 and beyond after creator Eric Kripke, who had a five-year plan for the show, departed. Maybe the question we should be asking is what epic ending Ball has in mind for the season 5 finale and what impossible turmoil he’ll leave the characters in for season 6?
Your turn: When have you felt a showrunner change? (Note: It doesn’t always have to be negative: Michael Piller became showrunner on season 3 of Star Trek: The Next Generation and is usually credited with expanding that show’s reach.) Have fans of The Walking Dead noticed a difference since episodes produced under Glen Mazzara began airing earlier this month? What about fans of 90210, which switched showrunners for its current fourth season, or Law & Order: SVU, which also suffered the more visible loss of Chris Meloni this year? Go!