Envelope Emmys Panel: Television show runners run with the ball
Doing math and writing poetry simultaneously — that’s one way a show runner’s job has been described.
If we are indeed living in a golden age of television, as a chorus of critics contends, then much of the credit must go to the person who manages the tedious day-to-day tasks of a TV show while also charting an inspirational and compelling course into an uncertain future. Last month, The Times sat down with five show runners — Alex Gansa of Showtime’s political thriller “Homeland,” Vince Gilligan of AMC’s Mr. Chips-to-Scarface drama “Breaking Bad,” Glen Mazzara of AMC’s zombie tale"The Walking Dead,” Liz Meriwether of Fox’s hit sitcom"New Girl” and Graham Yost of FX’s country cop show"Justified.”
In a lively, often humorous discussion, the show runners spoke about the appeal of their programs and how they feel as the town heads into Emmy season. Other topics taken up during the wide-ranging talk included what their shows say about family, why they kill off characters, what sparks debate in the writers’ room and whether a zombie can climb a ladder.
This is an edited transcript of the discussion, held in The Times’ Chandler Auditorium and moderated by Times television editor Martin Miller.
What do you think people are keying into about your shows?
Graham Yost: I think it’s Elmore Leonard. I think that he’s always had a pretty big reading audience, but on a weekly television show I think he’s being exposed to more people. And I think people enjoy what we get to do with language, for one thing, and his odd sensibility about good guys and bad guys. And so it gives us a lot of freedom to play.
Glen Mazzara: I think what people like about our show is for some odd reason everybody can buy a zombie apocalypse. Like people just get that, you know? Like, and so then they put themselves into the show. Like, oh, I would do that. Or, I would leave that guy there. Or, I would rescue that guy. Like it’s sort of, you know, people are screaming at the TV like when they watch a horror movie.
Liz Meriwether: I feel like people tune in for the zombie apocalypse on [‘New Girl’] …. Yeah, I feel like it’s our cast.
Alex Gansa: You know, honestly, I wish I knew. ... You know, we spent a lot of time in the story room trying to figure out why people were tuning in every week. And it’s kind of ineffable. ... I think that at some level we have tapped into some anxiety that is happening in the country.
Vince Gilligan: This is going to sound weird talking about a show about a guy who decides to cook crystal meth, but I think it’s wish fulfillment.
Gilligan: Not about the meth per se but about the idea of being a guy who has played by the rules his whole life and, you know, colored within the lines and tried to be a good law-abiding citizen and, finally, given a certain set of circumstances he finds himself in, saying to hell with it and breaking bad. You know, in the old Southern sense of the expression, which means to raise hell.
All your shows deal with family in one sense or another. What are your shows saying about family?
Gilligan: We cribbed quite a bit from “The Godfather,” right? And its family is of course everything. Of course we’re dealing with a character who ostensibly is doing what he does in defense of his family to protect their financial well being. But of course as the show progresses these protestations of his ring hollow, “I do this for my family. That’s what I do it for.” When in fact as the show progresses you start to realize this guy is doing it for him. He’s doing it because it makes him feel alive.
Gansa: Well, our family dynamic started because we wanted to tell the story of what it is like to return from war and how to re-integrate back into one’s family after a period of absence. So our story begins where a family is completely fractured and where it has to welcome back the patriarch of that group, and to really portray and to dramatize how difficult that can be.
Meriwether: Why am I so nervous?
Meriwether: Everyone is so smart. I mean, I think it’s a show that tells a story about a time in your life when you’re moving from your 20s to your 30s and you’re building your own family as opposed to living with the family you grew up with. And so I think it’s a show about the family you choose, whether it’s your friends or people you meet on Craigslist. I really do see them as a family, and Schmidt’s the mom.
Mazzara: On our show, this family has stuck together. It’s sort of a makeshift family where after this social crisis, you can imagine your family and neighbors and people you meet in your town being stuck together and trying to figure out how to survive, and who do you trust. And maybe you can’t stand this person but you’re stuck with them ‘cause that’s who’s around. So it’s about forming a family and how that family drives you crazy, but yet that’s really what you have to lean on to survive.
Yost: There’s sort of three families in “Justified.” One is Raylan’s family of birth and his father, Arlo. And in the first two seasons, Aunt Helen. And, you know, in our story he ran away from that, you know, got clear of that, got free of that. Not a big fan of his father’s. And then there’s the family of choice like you guys were talking about, which for Raylan is the Marshall Service. And we’ve always said that Art, played by Nick Searcy, is Raylan’s good father. ... And then the third family is Raylan and Winona, his ex-wife, and getting back together with her. And now they’ve split up again and what will happen there in the future. And I said there were three families, but there’s really a fourth, which is Boyd, Walton Goggins, and now him putting together something with Ava and even his little criminal crew. So, yeah, very interested in that sort of interplay and the work family, the real family, family of choice. And we steal from “The Godfather” too.
What considerations go into putting a character in jeopardy, particularly children? On [Glen’s] show, I started watching Season 2, you know, Carl gets shot and then the little girl is a zombie and …
Mazzara: Yeah, kids get shot on the show a lot. ... It’s something we talk about because it obviously has a huge impact on the characters. It’s something that has to generate other story. You can’t just do it to be gratuitous or to be a shocking moment. It’s got to be earned. The pain that would be involved with a child being killed or hurt or missing, that pain doesn’t go away. And that becomes ingrained in the characters and then screws them up and makes them make bad decisions in the future and you can find the story that way.
Last season you had that with the little girl Raylan was protecting.
Yost: Right, Loretta.
What sort of went into that?
Yost: You know, we did that just to get ratings.
Yost: There is that fear if you’re introducing kids into this — I mean, in “Walking Dead” it makes perfect sense. You’ve got this little community that’s traveling together, there are going to be children. It can feel a little forced in our world that a kid is gonna be in peril. But it worked out OK.
Gansa: Well, we have kids, but we didn’t really put them in situations that were exploitative like you guys clearly did.
As a comedy, your show tests the limits more in sexual situations. How do you know when you’re getting close to the edge?
Meriwether: Other people tell you.
Who tells you?
Meriwether: Standards and Practices. I recently was sent an email about the amount of guttural sounds in one. But it was, like, second by second by second. And then it was, like, if you take a smile out here, you can keep three more guttural sounds. ... I love that kind of comedy. I think sex is really funny. And I think it’s, it’s a great area for the age that the characters are at and who the characters are. And they’re all, like, you know, at the beginning of the season they’re all single and just total weirdos and broken and awkward. And that always leads to terrible sex.
Meriwether: And terrible sex is always funny.
There’s been was a rash of major characters killed off. There was quite a send-off for Gustavo Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) this year.
Gilligan: As little as we liked the thought of losing Giancarlo from our cast, because we love him, and as little as we liked the thought of losing that character on the show because he’s a great character, we knew we had to do it.
Gansa: But you did it in a spectacular way.
Gilligan: Well, thank you.
Yost: What was the genesis of that?
Gilligan: Everything comes out of the room. ... I’m not being disingenuous when I say I have no idea whose idea it was. And you guys probably know what that feels like. You’re in a room, and it’s like being on a sequestered jury that never ends. You’re in that writer’s room, and you’re just there, day after day, arguing, arguing. I mean in a good way, arguing. But, you know, it turns into the hive mind. It turns into the group mind. And I don’t remember whose idea it was.
And that at a certain point early on in the season we knew we wanted to blow him up. And we knew we wanted the character, Tio, played wonderfully by Mark Margolis, a fellow who’s in a wheelchair and only has the use of one finger, to do it. When he rings his bell, we knew we wanted Tio to be the process by which the explosion happens. And then the question is, does he know he’s blowing him up? All those kind of questions arise. … I remember I had the image in my head of him coming out and you think, “Oh, he’s dead for sure. And, oh, my God, he’s walking out. He’s fine. Why is he fine? What kind of crap is this?” And then you come around, “Oh, my God, he’s missing half his head.”
Mazzara: We had two big deaths. We had, you know, Shane played by Jon Bernthal. And that was in Robert Kirkman’s comic book. ... We were having a lot of discussions about, well, this group is on this farm and is the farm dangerous? And we need people to be killed by zombies. We need to have a mean character because otherwise it’s gonna feel like … you’ve got these scary zombies but nobody’s getting killed by them. They can kill each other, but you need some zombie action there. So we decided to kill Jeff DeMunn’s character, Dale.
What’s the biggest argument you’ve had in the writers’ room?
Gilligan: We had a character named Jane who was Aaron Paul’s girlfriend and she dies. She chokes to death on her own vomit, as happens when you overdose on heroin. And Walter White watched this happen and didn’t step in to save her. And that was probably the biggest argument I ever had. Not so much with the writers but with the network and the studio.
Gansa: I have the privilege and curse of working with five other show runners, previous show runners in the room. So I’m not sure that I do have your veto power ultimately.
Gansa: But we did have a huge argument in the first season. And it grew out of: How was Brody going to perpetrate an attack against the vice president? And we went through a litany of possibilities. Plants a tracker inside the drone, sends a surface to air missile in there. He comes in “Taxi Driver"-style with a gun that comes out of his …. I mean, just, we just went through every possibility. And my feeling was always the suicide vest was going to be the most interesting thing. ... But there was a lot of disagreement about whether a United States Marine would actually go that far.
And the argument didn’t stop there because once he had the vest on we knew obviously we weren’t gonna kill Brody at the end of the first season. Damian is just too fabulous an actor and there’s so much more of the story to tell. So we knew we weren’t going to do that. And it felt a cheat not for him to actually flip the switch at the moment of truth. And that was the other wonderful thing about a vest, is that it could malfunction. So we were able to sort of honor Brody’s journey through the course of the season by having him actually go through with pushing that button, with flipping that switch. And the click and the sudden realization that the vest had malfunctioned gave us everything we wanted without actually having him disappear into a thousand pieces.
Meriwether: Sorry. I’m just, like, what am I doing here?
Meriwether: We actually did an episode where Nick has a cancer scare. I was pretty scared of it because it was really serious for a sitcom. And there was a lot of conversation about if we kind of were going too far into the serious direction. And I don’t know just if it was too much, just not enough jokes in the episode. And we originally had broken it so that the A story was that Nick has a cancer scare and the B story was that like Schmidt gets stuck in Cece’s house with, like, Russian models. And we wrote it that way. ... And we handed it to Jake Kasdan, who’s our director, and one of our executive producers and he read it and he was like, “Guys, I think the cancer scare is the episode.” And we were, like, “Oh, yeah.” Like, “We can’t have Schmidt call Nick and be like, “Oh, uh, you might have cancer great. I’m in the house with Russian models.” And then when it came out I was really proud of it, and I think it’s one of my favorite episodes in the season.
Mazzara: We will have different opinions, and there’s a lot of debate about, you know, would a zombie do that?
Mazzara: I wrote a scene in which a zombie climbed a ladder and everybody told me I was an idiot because zombies can’t do that.
Mazzara: I was, like, if I wrote it down it happens. And they’re, like, no, no, no. So we cut that.
Meriwether: What does a zombie do? Do they, like … ?
Mazzara: They just kind of bump into it. They just …
Mazzara: They’re brain dead.
Meriwether: Oh, yeah. OK.
Mazzara: We had a debate about the young boy, Carl. And everyone wants to know why Carl’s not in the house. Well, it’s boring to sit in a house. And he’s a little boy and he wants to mix it up and stuff. And he’s walking through the woods and finds a zombie trapped in the mud and he starts doing what any Huck Finn would do and starts throwing rocks at the monster. And then later that is the same zombie that pulls itself free and kills Dale. And the writers were very nervous about that, you know? It feels earned, but it’s a risk. Because Dale is a beloved character and if this other character is involved and responsible for that death, is the audience going to now hate Carl? But I thought the story was worth the chance.
Yost: In the writing room people are free to, you know, challenge me and they’re free to get a different job the next day.
Stories seem to move much faster today than they did a generation ago on TV. Do you feel pressure to accelerate the narrative? A particular example I can think of is in “Homeland” in the middle of Season 1 Carrie confronts Brody with her theory he’s a terrorist.
Gansa: All of us have been in the television business for a long time. And all of us have tried to launch shows in the past. And we were so insecure and uncertain about what we had, and we felt like we have one chance to do this right. And so we wound up compressing the story in the most profound way we could. At the beginning, there was a lot of talk about"Moonlighting” and how they stretched out that relationship forever. And so, we said, that’s clearly not going to happen between these two characters. And they were so unlikely, Brody and Carrie, it was so unlikely that they would ever get together, and so preposterous if you really think about it, that just as soon as we had them in a cabin with each other, they were under the sheets....
I think Graham mentioned that you want to tell the story to an audience that surprises them but that they really want to hear. And one way to do that is to have events happen before they expect them to happen. And that was one of our real narrative strategies on “Homeland” this year, was that things happened at an accelerated pace so people, even though they knew the event was inevitable, it happened before they were expecting it.... We really did realize that we had one chance and we were either going to go down spectacularly in flames or we were going to engage an audience.
Sitcoms have different sense of timing.
Meriwether: What we do and went into the season wanting to do was to give the characters emotional arcs. I don’t write, well, the sort of"Seinfeld” kind of perfect structure of sitcom. It’s, like, that twist and turn and the reveal. I can’t really write unless it’s from character. The things that I think are the funniest things are the weird moments that are small and maybe not even a punch line. Just, like, a look or an awkward way of getting up from a chair or something. You know what I mean? So I really wanted to base the show on these characters and make them feel like real people, and make their world feel really real.
We are here, after all, for awards season, and often people have mixed feelings about it.
Gilligan: The first time we ever got nominated ... I just never thought it would happen. And so now, you know, once you get a little hope in your life, suddenly it’s like everything changes, for good and bad. It’s all good. It’s mostly good. The night before anything like that I turn off all the phones in the house because you’re laying in bed all night. And if the phone doesn’t ring at 5 in the morning, you’re like, “Is it 5 in the morning yet?” Is it whatever.... It’s just, it’s neurotic. I’m neurotic as hell.
Yost: You know, I think this is the worst time in the history of television....
Yost: ... to do a show that’s a pretty good show. You know? I think that 10 years ago “Justified” would’ve been “Oh, my God. That’s....” But now it’s like, “Yeah. No, it’s a really good show.” It would be great to get a nomination, but we were lucky last year to get a lot of acting nominations. But, I mean, there are four or five other shows that aren’t represented here that are just fantastic. I mean,"Game of Thrones”.... We’re really lucky to be on television at a time where there are so many good shows and that we get to do different things, that we’re not just doing a cop show, a law show. It’s shows about zombies and terrorists and homeland security, and cooking meth and …
Yost: Ok, the 30-year-olds ….
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