Q&A: The truth about show biz, according to Javier Grillo-Marxuach

Javi Grillo-Marxuach

Show runner Javier Grillo-Marxuach (right) on the set of 2008 ABC Family series “The Middleman.”

(From Javier Grillo-Marxuach)

If all he had ever done was create “The Middleman,” a madcap, madly allusive mix of sci-fi adventure, celebration and parody that ran for a season in 2008 on ABC Family (now Freeform, whatever), Javier Grillo-Marxuach would have a place on my figurative shelf of culture heroes. (It is stocked with figurative figurines.) There has been more to his career before and since than that, of course, with stints as a writer and/or producer on series, including “Lost,” “Medium,” “Charmed,” “Helix” and “The 100,” and he is writing the pilot for the “Xena: Warrior Princess” reboot for Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert.

But he has also maintained a sideline in public reflection, self-reflection and professional recommendation. There is the “Children of Tendu” podcast he shares with fellow television writer Jose Molina, a “makeshift film school” based on their years of good and bad experience in the business.


Feb. 3, 12:13 p.m.: An earlier version of this article referred to Rob Tapert. His name is Rob Alpert.


And there are occasional essays, which you can find collected in the volume “Shoot This One” (available in paper and pixels). These include “My Year Without Star Wars,” “So You Want to Write a Television Pilot?” and 2014’s much-circulated “Finding the Next Lost: What Is an ‘Operational Theme’ and Why Don’t I Have One?”

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Recently, he added to this store of shared knowledge and opinion with “The Eleven Laws of Showrunning,” a long-gestating reflection on what can go wrong, from the writer’s standpoint, in the making of a television show, posted on his website, The Grillo-Marxuach Experimental Design Bureau — where he has also made available a generous selection of pilots, pitches outlines and scripts, most of them unproduced, or in the unfair usual term, “failed.” Although the essay, which Grillo-Marxuach and Molina discuss at length on a new edition of “Children of Tendu,” is a kind of plea for sanity nominally directed to those who already hold the job by one who has held it, it really is just an extension of the “Tendu” curriculum, pitched to writers who may be looking forward to a career in the business.

One of Grillo-Marxuach’s repeating themes is that at any level of the business, it’s important to know yourself and your place in the chain: “There’s no pouting when you’re a staff writer,” he said on one podcast. In the new essay, as elsewhere, he advocates a sense of proportion, a sense of humor, a sense of community and a sense of shared purpose as necessary to getting the job done, but more important, as necessary to one’s mental health.


The following interview was conducted by email.

You’ve worked on this essay for 10 years. Why have you released it now?

Grillo-Marxuach: I became a co-executive producer-level writer in 2006. I had worked my way up the ladder from staff writer for 11 years, worked as a network executive for two years prior, gotten a master’s degree in screenwriting before that, and sold and produced several pilots — always with a more powerful auspice attached above me. I was finally in a place in my career where I could make some selfish decisions about my future. Primarily, I wanted my agents to go out with a script called “The Middleman,” which I had written a while earlier, but they had not seen as commercial enough. I was finally in a place to say, “This is what I want to do.” I knew that if I sold that piece of material, I was going to be in charge, and I would have to figure out how to be in charge. I also felt remarkably undereducated in that respect, so I began to quantify the behaviors I had seen from the best of the people with whom I had worked, and the mistakes of the worst, including myself. As for why now … putting these thoughts down into an organized presentation is a natural outgrowth of the “Children of Tendu” podcast, which I have been doing on and off with my friend and fellow Puerto Rican Jose Molina (who is also a high-level writer/producer and has worked on shows from “Dark Angel” and “Firefly” to “Agent Carter”) since 2014.

‘The Middleman’

Matt Keeslar and Natalie Morales fought monsters and aliens in the 2008 ABC Family series “The Middleman,” created by Javier Grillo-Marxuach.

(From Javier Grillo-Marxuach)

Several years ago, Jose and I were getting drunk before our “Dungeons & Dragons” game — you know, like you do — and had a very dark conversation about some of the abuse we each felt we had received at the hands of some of the more terrible bosses in our careers. Rather than leave it at that, we began to talk about how we could make it better, and we came up with the idea of doing a nuts-and-bolts podcast about how to not only navigate the business of television, but how to behave as a writer, producer, and collaborator while preserving your decency and integrity. We also wanted to give our knowledge away for free -- we wanted everyone to be able to benefit from what we have seen in our 40 or so combined years of experience, and feel that way too many people with far less experience than us make way too much money selling the dream and not the reality. After doing the podcast for some two years — by which time I had been a show runner and a co-executive producer/second-in-command on several shows over the course of 10 years — I figured it was time to put my thoughts out there and stop worrying about the possibility that it would result in blowback from other show runners who might not want to hire me for being so publicly vocal about the management culture in the industry. The bottom line on “why now” is this: For all intents and purposes, I am a middle-aged white male with a reasonably well-established career and a bit of success. If I don’t use all that privilege to try to challenge some bad behavior, then what was the point?

There was an earlier “angry” version.

It was twice as long, had a ton more profanity, included -- without naming names — some very specific anecdotes from my career and those of several others who spoke to me in confidence, and featured a huge amount of bile and contempt. I wanted to make the rhetorical gesture that sustained exposure to abuse and incompetence makes otherwise good people mean, and had made me mean. A good friend asked me a very relevant question when I approached him with my concerns about whether to publish it: If this is the last thing you put out there, do you want to be remembered on your best day or your worst?

It’s interesting to me that in “Children of Tendu” and the essays in “Shoot This One” and on your website, you’ve made it your side business to share knowledge and information, and even your “failures.” Many people, especially in rarefied, risky businesses, tend to want to keep what they know to themselves as a form of self-protection. Can you comment on your sharing/teaching impulse; is it an attitude that comes naturally to you, or something you’ve had to learn?


My failures are pretty easy to figure out for anyone with access to IMDb or Google search -- busted pilots, canceled shows, being fired from things, quitting successful series for mysterious reasons, things that get announced with great fanfare and then never see the light of day -- so why not control the narrative myself and make something good out of all that agita? This business is not just rarefied, mystified and parochial -- it’s also very difficult to break into and to understand even when you take all that away. I’m doing all this because I hope that, on the other end, people start showing up in writers rooms I work on who are a little bit better prepared for it. There’s not nearly as much altruism to this as you may think: I just want to make my life easier!

What reactions have you had to the show runner essay?

I have received some very nice comments about it on social media and received private communications from both rank-and-file writers, and show runners who appreciate the sentiments. By and large, people outside the industry feel that these are principles that are workable in a lot of other management contexts -- I find that very rewarding, and it’s an ongoing response to the “Children of Tendu” podcast as well.

Who were some of your own important teachers and mentors?

I’ve had a lot of them, and I thank them privately every chance I get. But on a broader level, the “patron saint” of the “Children of Tendu” podcast -- and someone I look to as something of a model, even though I had one very limited working experience with him -- is a man named Michael Piller. He was the show runner of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” after its second season, and co-created “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” and “Star Trek: Voyager.” I worked with him very briefly on “The Dead Zone,” and Jose interned with him on one of the “Trek” shows. What’s most interesting about Piller’s career is the depth of his “coaching tree” -- if you go back and look at the credits for “The Next Generation,” and the other “Star Trek” shows on which he worked, you will see a very interesting group of people whose careers started on the ground floor at “TNG,” came up in the ranks on those shows, and went on to become show runners. Many of them got into the business because “Star Trek” was unique among shows in that it had a legendary “open submission” policy -- literally anyone who wrote a “Star Trek” script could send it in and it would be considered. I have worked with more than a few of the offspring of that show and find that their methods are very similar -- very rigorous, very collaborative, very humane and mentorship driven ... and all began in a writers room over at Paramount in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. In my -- and most people’s — experience, Piller was not the crunchiest guy around, but the number of quality people who owe their genesis to the shows he stewarded and the methods he championed, speaks for itself.

The show runner essay offers a positive approach to doing the job learned in a great part from negative examples. Have you also had experience of the positive examples as well – dream situations you made your own model?

On “Boomtown,” Graham Yost excelled at defining the targets and giving his writers room the latitude to find the best way to hit it, and he was also great at energizing a staff with his own vision of what was a pretty revolutionary show at the time: He truly was an exceptionally empowering and decent leader who always kept us in the loop in a very positive way. On “Jake 2.0" and “The Chronicle,” Silvio Horta was a tireless advocate of letting writers develop their own unique voices and sense of style within the parameters set by the show. On “Lost,” every script written by David Fury was a master class, and Damon Lindelof’s style of selling a story on the page and the pitch continues to influence me to this day. If I had to be completely honest, my favorite year in TV was the first season of “Lost” -- even though that was like trying to saddle and ride a tiger through a burning city.


My first thought reading the essay was that you were addressing yourself to show runners, as a call for behavioral change in the industry, but reading on, and after listening to the podcast, it seems more of a piece with the rest of “Children of Tendu,” as notes to writers who are looking ahead toward the career they’d like to have (which might also affect behavioral change in the industry, down the road). Whom were you thinking of?

By the time most people get to the top, they have become way too enamored of their own hagiographical inner narrative of struggle -- and are way too well paid and validated for their “visionary" qualities -- to think that they need to change their way of doing things. I wrote this for those coming up because the path to the show runner position is so much shorter nowadays and few get to have a sustained period of employment in multiple shows in which they get to see it done both well and poorly -- and have a chance to parse out those experiences. My favorite scene in the history of television is in an episode of “The Sopranos”: Carmela goes to see a psychotherapist who straight up tells her that her husband is an evil man and that her only option is to leave him. The therapist then refuses to take Carmela’s money for the session, telling her that now “You can’t say you were never told.” That’s who I wrote that essay for -- the next person who gets the brass ring and thinks it gives them license to indulge themselves and run a bad ship? I don’t want them to say they were never told.

How pervasive a problem is this sort of dysfunction?

It’s pervasive, and it comes out of two root causes. One is that there is just so much television out there -- which is awesome, by the way, you won’t find me making dire pronouncements about “peak television” -- but, as a result, a lot of it is being created by novices who may be wonderful writers, but have no idea about how to manage a staff of writers or a production as a going concern. The second cause is this idea that “my creative process” is some mystical intangible that requires complete genuflecting servitude, and the subjugation of all other concerns; that’s a pernicious disease that affects both novice show runners as well as a shocking number of highly experienced people who really ought to know better. There are only two sins for which a show runner can be fired: squandering money and wasting time. Beyond that, television is a collection of entrepreneurial fiefdoms in which most of the behavior of upper management goes unchecked as long as the show is delivered on time and on budget.

What are the effects of the new streaming media on show-running? Especially with writers sometimes writing a series on their own -- which in some ways seems the perceptual equivalent of a “written and directed by” credit on a movie.

On the plus side, all of the new technology and media -- from the cusp of Amazon and Netflix, which operate on huge budgets and are pretty much an extension of the mainstream television model, to a bunch of kids who make a series for YouTube on their iPhone -- allows more points of view and more forms of expression. The more the definition of “profit” changes (in the network system it’s very narrowly defined by whether or not the shows reach a broad enough audience for the advertisers to invest) the more likely shows are to experiment with form, diversity of representation and content. On the negative side, any time someone gets handed millions of dollars for their vision and sees it as license to be a monster …  that’s a bad thing.

Is there such a thing as auteurist TV?

Of course not. Yech. Let me give you a very specific example from my own life -- my series “The Middleman” was about as idiosyncratic as they come. Within the span of 12 episodes, the majority of the writers of my staff could not only write my voice like me, they were also expanding the universe of what could be done in that show in a way I couldn’t have done alone. Show creators and show runners have to provide the spark and the vision -- but the true art of show-creating and show-running doesn’t come from hoarding that and making yourself the only one capable of expressing it, but rather from whether others can then carry the flame. One of the things TV does better than film -- in a huge way -- is express the flaws in the idea of the auteur, because it requires such a vast volume of output that anyone who insists that only their voice be heard soon winds up doing little else than providing a primer on their own limitations. Collaboration is what turns mere good ideas into limitless wells -- in television that is crucial. And I’m not just talking about long-running network series here -- you would be shocked at how quickly most “auteurs” flame out into repetition and self-parody when facing a relatively short order, like 10 to 13 episodes.

Has increased public awareness of show runners -- some knowledge of what they do, and that a job with that name even exists -- had any effect on the job itself, or the way the business is run? How might this relate to public perceptions that we are in a Super Platinum Age of Television in which art rules industry?

Only insofar as fame and fortune are an expedient way of revealing what people truly are when they no longer feel an obligation to censor themselves. On the second one, it’s a beautiful fantasy, that art rules industry ... sure it does ... as long as “art" brings in viewers, sells ad time or premium cable/streaming subscriptions, and stays on time and budget. Find me a show runner who truly believes, deep in his heart, that he is above the necessity to deliver an audience on time and budget and I’ll show you someone who will be fired before the run of his show is over.

You seem to have what to an outsider (and maybe to an insider) might seem a greater than usual respect for the industrial aspects of your work, where we have become accustomed to regarding business as the enemy of art. True?

That’s because they are not the industrial aspects of the work at all! I have so little patience for the idea that what happens in the mind of the show runner is “art" and that everything below the line is somehow different. A show runner’s paints and brushes are his writers, cast and crew -- that so many of them choose to break them is inexcusable to me!

Were there mistakes you made as a show runner? How do you rate yourself?

If I had been truly great at my job, I would today be running the ninth season of “The Middleman” to great critical acclaim and cultural relevance, and all the writers in my inaugural staff would have moved on to overall deals and their own shows.

You’ve mentioned the management-guide tone of your show runner essay. In the nuts and bolts of it, it feels a little military as well, with writers of different ranks and a general up above. Does that interpretation hold any merit?

It’s funny that you should say it sounds “military” -- maybe I have a pejorative association with that word because of the connotation of violence. What I am trying to do is to rescue the idea of hierarchy as a positive: Our business has a tendency to prize the spark more than the fuel -- the fuel is experience, knowledge and the ability to keep the trains running on time. I simply believe that if you have more experience, you have a duty to teach and train those with less, and if you have less experience, you have a duty to know what you don’t know and be open to collaboration, coalition-building and being taught.

It’s interesting how much of what you say comes down to a question of character, not just a matter of how you do your work but who you want to be in the world.

I say in the conclusion of my essay that the Eleven laws of Showrunning are in fact, fully optional. Most show runners achieve success by all the conventional metrics -- critical acclaim, wealth, fame and commercial success -- without being empowering, nurturing leaders. I suppose that what I am trying to do is to expand the definition of “success” to include teaching the next generation by good example instead of bad.

Are you trying to break a cycle of abuse?

As treacly and mired in the language of self-help and recovery as that may sound ... yes.

What’s the impulse behind posting a selection of your scripts, pilots, pitches, etc., for public view -- especially including things that “failed”?

Because that information is either not out there, or people are charging money for it. Again, what good is whatever success and privilege I have if I don’t pass it along to other people who might be able to improve the art form, and who may not have other means to get educated about it -- what good is having the Internet and all this freedom and access if I don’t use it to share what I have learned? There are no mystical secrets in the stuff I’m sharing, it’s all just craft, respect for process and a dollop of real inspiration -- and failure is part of that. It’d be nice if people can figure out how to fail in new ways rather than have to repeat my mistakes before they get it right!

Something that struck me from one of Jose Molina’s Spanish translations on the podcast: the Spanish word for “success” or “a hit” has its roots in the Latin for “to go out” or “to leave.” I don’t think this is a question, but it feels interesting somehow.

As a lifelong clinical depressive with an extensive history of psychotherapy, one of the benefits is that you eventually get to the point where you have to make something positive of the sustained contemplation of your own mortality. I like the idea that success is the thing you go out on -- the thing you get remembered for -- and that speaks to both why I did not circulate the “angry” version of my essay, and why I want to help people become good at this job while remaining good people. There are much worse things to go out on.

Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter: @LATimesTVLloyd

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