Last night, an odd bit of TV news popped up: according to TVLine, thirtysomething creators Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick have been hired to run the fifth season of Nashville.
Now, first Nashville has to be officially renewed for a fifth season, which may be harder than it seems now that the show's biggest fan, Paul Lee, is no longer running ABC. But assuming it comes back with HerskoZwick at the helm, it'd be among the weirder showrunner transitions in TV history.
Now, series change showrunners all the time. Dee Johnson, whom the thirtysomething guys would be succeeding, was already a replacement for Jim Parriott, who was himself brought in because Nashville creator Callie Khouri hadn't run her own show before. Sometimes, new showrunners come from within, like The Walking Dead's transition from Frank Darabont to Glen Mazzara to Scott Gimple, or L.A. Law staff writer David E. Kelley taking over when co-creator Steven Bochco left, or John Wells going from hands-off West Wing producer to very hands-on in the post-Sorkin years. At other times, new bosses are brought in from outside like Johnson, or like Port and Guarascio on the gas leak season of Community. TV is often a mercenary business, and people go where the work is.
But Herskovitz and Zwick are different. Every show they've done from thirtysomething on is either one they created themselves (see also Once and Again and Quarterlife), or one created by their proteges (My So-Called Life, Relativity), where they were involved from minute one. They have a very distinct storytelling style and aesthetic – and one that would seem wildly at odds with the very soapy approach ABC has always seemed to want for Nashville – and they don't work as hired guns on other people's projects. They haven't even made a TV show since Quarterlife back in 2007-08, and that one was really a web series that briefly wound up on NBC as filler programming during the writers strike. (It was also pretty dire, playing like a parody of their navel-gazing style: in one episode, the heroine's mother complains that she was difficult as a baby, to which she responds, “Did you ever think that I was just fighting to be who I was?”)
Even after so long away from the business that gave them their start, they're big and very specific deals; for them to swoop in out of nowhere and run a show like Nashville is… bizarre. Every now and then, you hear talk of older shows trying to bring in improbable new bosses – the best example of this was probably an exhausted David Milch trying to convince playwright David Mamet to take over Hill Street Blues near the very end – but the only historical precedent I could come up with (with some help from Twitter) was Steven Bochco (an even bigger deal) coming into Commander in Chief midway through the Genna Davis drama's first and only season, and even there, he'd been active at the network very recently prior to that, with NYPD Blue ending only a few months before this went down. And Bochco has a much more diverse resume, such that you could imagine him taking over many different kinds of shows, even though it only happened the once. I've never seen an episode of Nashville (admittedly, it's been many years since I've watched) or Limitless or iZombie that made me think, “You know who'd do a great job writing for this? The guys who made thirtysomething.”
So why is this happening? More for business reasons than creative ones, apparently. Nashville is produced by Lionsgate. Zwick and Herskovitz just signed an overall deal with Lionsgate to develop new series. Sometimes, those deals involve writers working on pre-existing shows the studio makes while they're dreaming up their own stuff. Usually, though, the match-up is a more natural one than this seems to be.
And yet… if this really happens, it will get me to watch my first Nashville episode since late in the first season. I'm not exactly the show's target demo, but I want to see what on earth HerskoZwick are going to do to put their stamp on things. Will they be able to sublimate their own style for the sake of tonal continuity? Or is Nashville about to take a huge turn towards the introspective?