Have we grown tired of all the breathless references to the current state of television as a second Golden Age? Maybe so, but whatever you want to call it, there is no fatigue with the wealth of quality programming that has arisen over the last few years on so many platforms — from streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon, to basic cable, to premium cable and, yes, even the resurgence of network series.
And while the multitude of platforms can provide an increased quantity of programming, that golden sheen of quality shining so brightly from our screens is largely because of the show runners — those executive producers who create the series and generally oversee the writing.
FULL COVERAGE: Emmys 2015
For this year’s Emmy Roundtable, the Envelope invited some of the most distinguished show runners in the business: Robert King (co-creator with his wife, Michelle, of CBS’ “The Good Wife”), Mark Duplass (co-creator with his brother, Jay, of HBO’s “Togetherness”), Jill Soloway (Amazon’s “Transparent”), John Ridley (ABC’s “American Crime”) and Peter Gould (co-creator with Vince Gilligan of AMC’s “Better Call Saul”) for a conversation that touched on the influence of streaming, TV versus film and the importance of authenticity in the writing.
Here are edited excerpts from that April conversation at The Times.
Robert, as someone who is doing a show that was considered kind of a boutique show for CBS, where the bar for ratings was much higher, what’s been the benefit of the new streaming and Netflix, Amazon models?
Robert King: We’re not one of the higher rated on CBS. CBS has “NCIS,” which has got, like, triple our audience and also the demographic question is always very difficult for network shows. So the very fact that we’re streaming, that they make so much money in syndication with streaming on Amazon, I think extends the life of the show. Also creatively it’s given us more freedom. We don’t get the talk that, “You’ve got to reach out to the younger audience. You’ve got to do this, you’ve got to do that, or you’re going to be dead in a year.” It really frees us up. We don’t get notes from the studio network anymore. I mean, it’s kind of amazing when you think about a network show getting that.
Does anybody get notes anymore? John Ridley, you brought “American Crime” to ABC. It is a raw, multilayered look at violence and how it affects thos involved. It’s a pretty unvarnished hour of television in every aspect. What kind of pushback do you get?
John Ridley: ABC, the studio as well as the network, were really good partners. There were notes but they were always presented in the form of conversation. They were not dictatorial. There were a lot of questions about why we chose to do things the way we did them, whether we would remove the score, the way that we cut, our lack of coverage. But it was never, at least in my opinion, it was never in the sense that it was coming from a place of fear. It was really, “Why are you doing this? What are you trying to achieve?” And if we could explain it in a way that they could understand or understand what we were trying to impart to our audience, they were extremely good partners.
You’ve been around television for a long time — there was a slight sidetrack into film where you won an Academy Award for “12 Years a Slave” — but this is a very different situation than what you’ve seen in the past.
Ridley: It is but as you were saying, the metrics have changed and the — I don’t want to say the competition has changed because when all of these spaces are making everybody elevate their game, it’s not really competition. It’s very supportive. So when folks at the network are looking at what’s going on in streaming, what’s going on in cable, and quite frankly what’s going on on other broadcast networks, and saying, “We need to get to a place where it’s not solely about the numbers but it’s about having some kind of a cultural density,” it’s an amazing benefit for us.
Mark, you come to this world from independent film and yet your show, “Togetherness” on HBO, it really preserves that intimacy that you have in all of your movies. What was the process in adapting that sort of sensibility to episodic television?
Mark Duplass: It was pretty seamless. They knew exactly who we were — we had already made about six movies so we didn’t have to explain it to them. We could just say, “The types of things we make are what we want to make here. Is that what you guys want to do?” And they said, “Yes.” And then honestly they were helpful on the growth we had as storytellers and the sort of long narrative form of dealing with four hours of content as opposed to an hour and a half. They would ring our bell a couple of times and say, “You know what? You’re thinking like a 90-minute film maker. You’re trying to close this stuff out. Open your world. Put this in and throw more balls in the air.” And they were right most of the time. It was really good.
Jill, Amazon Studios winning a Golden Globe and you winning a Golden Globe for “Transparent.” It’s a remarkable show and it’s really a game-changer in terms of the subject matter. What do you do to make sure that you’re getting it right in terms of the world that it’s portraying?
Jill Soloway: When I first came up with the idea I was really responding to what was happening in my life. It was a true story. My own parent came out as trans. I had been a writer, a TV writer, a filmmaker for many years, and I had that sort of feeling like, “I’ve got to tell this story.” I was really very uneducated about the world of trans folk. If you read the pilot it has the name Mort all the way through and we never really used Mort again. We started calling her Maura because by the time we got to Episode 2, we really understood that she was Maura and that she had always been Maura since she was born, that Mort had been a performance she had been doing, a costume she had been wearing. That was a learning curve for me in Year One. I mean, understanding the difference between crossdressers and transwomen, that was a learning curve. We brought in lots of trans people, consultants, did all the research that we could to really get it right, because we felt that this was going to be the first real portrayal of a trans person in a family and we wanted it to be right.
Peter, you were a writer on “Breaking Bad” and you created a breakout character in Saul Goodman. “Better Call Saul” though is a prequel and if you see that idea on paper you think, “Uh-oh, this could be trouble.” What’s the process of reverse engineering a show like this or the characters on this show?
Peter Gould: I think getting into this was more an act of stupidity and not really looking before we leapt. Vince Gilligan, who created the show with me, had this feeling that this was—well, it actually started out as a joke in the writer’s room, that, you know, “This isn’t an idea that fits into ‘Breaking Bad,’ maybe we’ll do this in ‘Better Call Saul.’” We felt we knew who the character was because we’ve done however many episodes with him as a supporting character. And then as we started digging into it we found out we didn’t know who he was. And part of that was just Saul Goodman per se is a static character. He just is who he is. We wanted to feel something for him, we wanted to get under his skin, and that meant going back in time. And you bring up an interesting question which is if you have a sense of where this character is going, does that mean that you’ve lost suspense? Does it mean that you’ve lost interest? And I have a theory and I don’t know whether it’s true or not but it’s my working premise which is how things happen is more interesting than what happens. So I kind of held on to that hoping it was going to work. And so far people seem to like it but, as you say, it was a little bit intimidating.
John, you came to television with this new stature as an Academy Award winner. By the way, where do you keep that Oscar? Where is it?
Ridley: It’s in—
Duplass: Oh, he walked in with it.
Ridley: I have it on my other charm bracelet that I normally wear but I just thought it might be inappropriate. I started in television, I started back in the day. I was on sitcoms, I was on “Fresh Prince” and “Martin.” And I worked as a novelist, I worked in film. I’ve always had a desire to tell stories but telling stories in television really has evolved. And to be able to shepherd a show from beginning to end, quite frankly for me—I don’t know how you guys do 22 episodes anymore. I have to be honest with you. I’ve done it.
King: We look back at it and we can’t figure it out. Like at the end of this season we’re, “What?” But also when you reach 13 you’re just very exhausted and you’re like, “OK—”
Ridley: Very exhausted. So to be in a space now where you can focus on the story that I’m telling, actually see where it’s going, but at the same time different from film. I think about the things we’d have to rush through to tell “American Crime” in two hours. There’s so many things that we’d have to dispense with, some of them seemingly not very important. In our pilot episode, we have a father who’s just arguing with his daughter about nail polish and making out with boys, but it has large ramifications episodes later. So I really enjoy film, I really enjoy what it’s about, but being in television and, as you were saying, be able to come back with these things that you’ve learned in a cinematic space, bring them to television, but be in the space now where people are amazingly supportive of it, it really is—with no disrespect to film—it is, I think, the best of all worlds for writers.
Mark, are you taking the kids to the playground in the neighborhood and people are telling you they’re recognizing their situations in your show?
Duplass: Yeah, we definitely get a little bit of the, you know, “I feel how hard and how wonderful the marriage is.” And a friend of mine describes it very well when he talks about his marriage and his children, he says, “It’s 51% worth it.” And I think it’s a very apt description and we find a lot of people kind of feel similarly. You know, the show is not necessarily autobiographical for me and Jay. It’s more kind of like built from the soup of our community and hearing just a lot of people talk about how this wonderful dream you have to sleep on the pillow next to someone every night and have children can be very exhausting and crushing in a lot of ways. But for myself and for Jay and our group of friends, it seems to be… I don’t know if it’s the right word but there’s a sweetness in which we approach it and what it does to us and how we — it’s tough but we laugh about it and we tend to want to have this intimacy. And that was something I hadn’t seen yet necessarily in in-depth relationship studies, was that sense of sweetness that can be there.
So right around the time that we’re shooting this, the news has come out that Netflix is remaking “Full House.” Now, to me, when I heard that news I said, “Well, OK, the second Golden Age of television is officially dead.”
Soloway: It jumped the Stamos.
To me, this says that the resources that have been given to very creative people are now going to compete with sort of an old style, lowest common denominator television. Is that something that concerns anybody or is there room for everything?
King: It’s room for everything. I mean, everybody thought the death of it would be “The Walking Dead” doing so well, because then cable would just go after genre-esque material. But I just think the pool is so large and everybody’s jumping in. Everybody I know from features is diving in and they’re coming in with good ideas. The best ideas should rise to the top. Yes, there’ll be junk because—or, I’m sorry, “Full House” might be the best “Fuller House” ever.
Soloway: Robert King calls “Full House” junk. That’s going to be the…
Ridley: The only takeaway from this whole thing.
King: It feels like streaming has opened the floodgates. You only have so many hours in a day to watch TV. And you’ll watch the best stuff or you’ll watch the stuff that is the lowest common denominator because that’s what you want to watch. I don’t know. It feels all good.
Duplass: I’m thankful for it to a certain degree. I mean, this is a little bit of a different thing but my brother and I are in business with Netflix. They commissioned us to make four original—
Soloway: Clearly they’ll buy anything.
Duplass: They signed Adam Sandler to do four huge, like, $80 million movies, right? And then that thing there that makes them very, very popular and makes them lots of money essentially, to a certain degree, subsidizes their ability to make four weird independent films with us. So their arrival in that space, I’m very excited about that.
We’re several years now into a period where there are just so many great actors coming into television. Is it bringing something new to the shows?
Ridley: When I was a very young writer it was all about the script and I didn’t want to hear anything else. I would write with a rhythm in my head and if the actor didn’t hit that rhythm, you know, I’d step in and do everything short of a line read. And very fortunately some of the directors I worked with showed me that there are moments where there are things the actors are doing that are not even about changing the words.
With “American Crime” and clearly with the level of talent — Felicity, Tim, Regina, Lili Taylor. You just put the camera somewhere and you let them do some things and you’ve got to be mature enough—and I’m saying this about me, not about anybody else—you’ve got to be mature enough to say what they’re doing right now is just a little more special than what we were expecting on the page.
That scene in the pilot of Tim breaking down, crying, that’s all Tim. You can write in a little line, “Russ breaks down.” What Tim did, that was Tim.
Peter, you experienced that as well with some of the actors on your show.
Gould: To me, one of the glories of television specifically is that the show talks back to you, that you learn from what you’re shooting — and certainly the characters on the show surprised us a lot. One of the examples that comes to mind is Michael McKean’s character Chuck. We conceived him in a particular way. We conceived him as really kind of a helpless burden on Jimmy. And it was a way to get into the character’s head.
But when Michael came on the set, he didn’t change a word really, but he brought a pride to the character, he brought kind of a gravity to the guy that really surprised me. I was on the set when we shot the first scene and I was like, “Wait, there’s another dimension.”
And we went back to the writers’ room, and this is a good argument for having writers on the set, we went back to the writers’ room, we started looking at the show again. How does he really feel about his brother? What’s going on under here? And what happened was that it changed the arc of the show. It completely changed where we went for, like, maybe the last four episodes. And it’s really because Michael brought a dimension to the words that we had written.