10 TV Showrunners That Left Before Their Time

Did they jump or were they pushed?

by James White |
Published on

In a surprise move, Community creator Dan Harmon has announced that he’s coming back to the sitcom he was unceremoniously fired from. It’s a rare thing to make a show, be fired from a show, then come back to a show, but it’s not unheard of, as this list-of-producers-who-were-pushed proves…

Show: Community (Seasons 1-3, Season 5)

Previously… Community has always been more of a critically adored show than a ratings monster. But its dedicated (if relatively small) fan base has helped it – along with the troubles of US network NBC – stay alive for years. Harmon forged an iconoclastic blend of meta references, wacky slapstick, emotional bonding and witty wordplay into a sitcom that felt fresh even as it traded in tropes. Unfortunately, he was also difficult and demanding to work with (and for), frequently clashing with his bosses and cast member Chevy Chase. Harmon was eventually removed at the end of the third season and Moses Port and David Guarascio (who happen to be the guys behind the American IT Crowd pilot{ =nofollow}) replaced him for the fourth, but their attempt to create a sort of Harmon-lite Community didn’t catch on with fans or the cast, who lobbied for Harmon’s return.

***Next time… ***Aside from wallowing online and touring with his live Harmontown show, Harmon began developing pilots for both Fox and CBS, but has surprisingly returned for Season 5, tweeting, “Yes yes yes! I'm back I'm back I'm back." The big question now is whether he can bring Harmon-y to the show and get it back to former glories.

Show: The West Wing (Season 1-3)

Previously… There is no denying that Aaron Sorkin sometimes writes genius scripts (and sometimes, he writes the same things over and over). The slight problem on this show about the political machinations around the US president was that he never seemed to be able to deliver them on time, causing logistical headaches and problems with the other producers. Even scoring Emmys, Writers Guild Awards and the Humanitas Prize didn’t stop the studio deciding that enough was enough. ER overseer (and Wing co-executive producer) took over for the remainder of the show, which Sorkin wouldn’t watch, saying, “It’s like watching somebody make out with my girlfriend.” The show struggled to follow in his footsteps for a season and a half, before finding a new tone that worked.

***Next time… ***Sorkin didn’t vanish: he went on to create the short-lived Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip for TV, then enjoyed big success back on cinemas screens with Charlie Wilson’s War, The Social Network (which won him an Oscar) and Moneyball. He’s currently the man in charge of HBO series The Newsroom, which returns for a second season this summer (even if a lot of its writers didn’t).

***Show: ***Gilmore Girls (Season 1-6)

***Previously… ***Amy Sherman-Palladino has admitted that Gilmore Girls was born more out of desperation than anything else, cooked up in a pitch meeting after her other ideas were rejected. It was a stroke of luck that led to six years of Lauren Graham and Alexis Bledel as a mother-daughter pair who were more like best friends as they struggled through relationships, drama and a lot of coffee. But then, after six seasons, a dispute between Sherman-Palladino (alongside husband/co-show-runner Dan Palladino) and the show’s home network The CW saw them leave. “Despite our best efforts to return and ensure the future of Gilmore Girls for years to come, we were unable to reach an agreement with the studio and are therefore leaving when our contracts expire at the end of this season. Our heartfelt thanks go out to our amazing cast, hard-working crew and loyal fans,” they said in a statement. Writer/producer David S. Rosenthal took over for one final season.

Next time… The Sherman-Palladino team went on to co-create sitcom The Return Of Jezebel James, about a sister agreeing to carry her sibling’s baby. The show only managed three episodes before it was cancelled. They’re currently overseeing dance-flavoured drama Bunheads.

Show: The Walking Dead (Season 1)

Previously… Frank Darabont had been trying to get Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore and Charlie Adlard’s zombie horror comic on to screens for years, considering a movie, but then pushing to get it onto network TV across the pond via NBC. It didn’t work out – which was for the best – and five years later, Darabont pitched the show to Mad Men/Breaking Bad home AMC. With a pilot written and directed by Darabont, it was an almost instant ratings winner and got strong reviews, especially for its commitment to zombie carnage. Despite the success, Darabont announced at the end of that first year that he’d be stepping down. Rumours circled about him being unable to cope with the demands of TV, but the truth proved to be AMC’s somewhat notorious attitude to budget-snipping, which caused friction between the director and executives. Former Shield writer Glen Mazzara, who had been serving as one of the show’s main producers, replaced him. But Mazzara himself has now left the show after the third season after disagreeing over future plotlines. At least, that’s the official word…

Next time… Darabont shrugged off the disappointment and has dug back into television with period noir drama series Lost Angels, which features Neal McDonough, Jon Bernthal and Jeffrey DeMunn in 1940s/50s Los Angeles (think Gangster Squad, but with a better script and less high-pitched Goslingness). It’s set to premiere on the TNT network next year. He also polished the script for the Gareth Edwards’ new take on Godzilla, which is shooting now and will stomp on to screens in 2014.

Show: Chicago Hope (Season 1, Season 6)

***Previously… ***Steven Bochco mentored prolific TV creator Kelley before the padawan kicked off his own long run of shows. He was approached by network CBS to create a series while in the middle of making Picket Fences, and initially developed Chicago Hope planning to only write the first few to get it started. But the workaholic producer ended up writing many scripts for both shows, at least until the desire to focus on his production company lured him away from them. Fences was cancelled, but Hope – about a high-end hospital – continued on, sparring with behemoth E.R. in the ratings and eventually facing cancellation itself at the end of its fifth season. Kelley came back, set about completely overhauling it (by firing almost all the new cast members hired since he left, bringing original star Mandy Patinkin back and working on it for one final season.

Next time… Kelley went on to make successes of The Practice, Ally McBeal, Boston Public and Boston Legal. Known for his witty scripts and eagerness to address issues, he’s had less joy in recent years with some series faltering at pilot stage and others surviving for a few episodes before being cancelled. He managed to get Kathy Bates legal comedy drama Harry’s Law on the air for two years and most recently made medical show Monday Mornings. But even the power of Alfred Molina couldn’t keep that one alive past one season. Fear not: he has sitcom The Crazy Ones starring Robin Williams and Sarah Michelle Gellar set for this fall TV season.

The show: Seinfeld (Seasons 1-7)

***Previously… ***After a decidedly shaky start with threats of cancellation almost from the first episode, Seinfeld went on to become the comedy behemoth of the 1990s. Blending caustic observations about life with characters often acted like complete gits, the series followed the maxim “no hugging, no learning” to huge success. David, who co-created the show with Jerry Seinfeld and wrote a large chunk of the episodes, decided he’d had enough and amicably left at the end of season 7. He stayed in contact with the show, dropping into the recording booth to keep playing the voice of New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner and returned to co-write the controversial series finale.

Next time… Though his Seinfeld syndication revenue meant he never needed to work again, David kept busy – or as busy as he wanted to be – with HBO show Curb Your Enthusiasm. He even managed to pull off a reunion of the Seinfeld gang on the series. While he’s not the biggest fan of acting, he also showed up as a nun in the Farrelly brothers’ recent film of The Three Stooges and will share the screen with Mad Men’s Jon Hamm for HBO TV movie Clear History this year.

***The Show: ***Moonlighting (Seasons 1-3.5)

Previously... Before Community and its ilk began playing with the ideas of self-aware characters and smashing the fourth wall, there was Moonlighting. The series, created by Glenn Gordon Caron, launched Bruce Willis’ career and helped Cybill Shepherd become a big TV star. The show, about a model whose accountant embezzles her fortune and leaves her with a struggling detective agency to run, experimented with formats and ideas and was a hit from the start. But the ratings began to decline and the series was declared as one of the earliest examples of a show where letting the lead characters' bubbling sexual tension boil over caused trouble. Also problematic were the fights between Caron and the notoriously tough Shepherd, which caused production to get behind. By the middle of season three, Caron was out. The show slumped and was cancelled after the fifth year.

Next time… Caron bounced back from the disappointment, throwing himself into directing movies and creating other TV series. He’s since worked on Now And Again and the successful Medium, which starred Patricia Arquette as a psychic working with the police. The show, which features small elements of Caron’s trademark format tweaking, ran for seven seasons.

***The Show: ***NCIS (Seasons 1-4)

Previously… A spin-off from Navy legal series JAG, NCIS (originally called Navy NCIS, which makes it, er, Navy Naval Criminal Investigative Service), the Mark Harmon-starring series began life as an unloved joke. It has since grown into a beast, the most watched show currently on US television despite few people claiming they know it’s on and critics largely ignoring it. This autumn it will kick off its eleventh series. Bellisario, the man behind such TV favourites Airwolf and Quantum Leap, was the big boss for the first four seasons before clashes with Harmon over the producer’s reportedly “chaotic management style” saw him ousted.

***Next time… ***With medical issues including a neurological condition hindering his health, he’s largely retired from active TV development and appears to mostly be interested in getting his due from NCIS’ own spin-off, NCIS: LA. Despite having no active involvement in its creation, he’s sued to claim that because he birthed JAG and the original NCIS, he’s entitled to a cut of the profits. The show’s home network, CBS, has since settled the case out of court.

The Show: Supernatural (Seasons 1-5)

Previously… After writing the script for 2005’s horror misfire Boogeyman and working on a short-lived 2003 TV take on Tarzan, the man who would become known as The Kripkeeper to fans, hit cult success with the show about Dean (Jensen Ackles) and Sam (Jared Padalecki) Winchester, brothers trained from an early age to fight demons and other spooky creatures. The pair travels around the US (which, like early seasons of The X-Files, often seems to resemble Vancouver, Canada and its surrounding areas), quipping, squabbling and sleeping in dodgy motels. Supernatural has grown a fevered, dedicated following, and has just finished its eighth season. Kripke, who developed the show for 10 years, originally envisioned a three-year arc, which he expanded to five and then decided to leave after his take on the story was told. It has since gone on to be just as entertaining thanks to the efforts of his fellow producers and writing team, who took over the show.

***Next time… ***After stepping down from Supernatural, Kripke began developing other projects, and ended up collaborating with J.J. Abrams and (for the pilot at least) Jon Favreau on Revolution. The series, about a world where all electronics and power have been shut down by a mysterious experiment (cue lots of steam trains and swords) just completed its first season and is set to kick off the second in the autumn.

The Show: Star Trek (Seasons 1-2) / Star Trek: The Next Generation (Seasons 1-3)

Previously… The Great Bird Of The Galaxy created what would become one of the most iconic science fiction series of all time with Star Trek. Even as it battled critical dismissal in the early days and low ratings all through its three years on the air, it became a showcase for great sci-fi writers and big ideas. Roddenberry was actively involved in the first half of the first season, before stepping back for much of the rest of the show’s run. He was reportedly angry that NBC attempted to lure him back for the third season by promising the series a great timeslot then burying it in the Friday night rest home. With The Next Generation, he once more captured lightning in a bottle, though his ill health made saw his input into the show fade quickly.

Next time… Roddenberry died on October 24, 1991. But his legacy was carried on by TNG and the other Trek spin-offs, which flourished in his absence. His name was also on lesser-known SF series Andromeda and Earth: Final Conflict, which were based on his unused ideas. With Star Trek Into Darkness keeping his universe (albeit a parallel one) alive, the Great Bird’s future is still flying.

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