77-83. TV’s Head Of The Class

Once a wasteland, TV is now the most thoughtful, creative entertainment medium of them all. Here, the creators of six great shows talk about how the magic happens.

It's a golden age for TV, where on any given night, viewers can find multiple examples of American comedic and dramatic genius. We asked Ben Blacker, himself a TV writer, to interview the creators or showrunners of six stellar shows: Breaking Bad, Nashville, Key & Peele, Justified, Homeland, and New Girl. What follows are edited highlights of those conversations--a master class in creativity for anyone in any industry.

OPENING REMARKS

Ben Blacker: Ian Roberts and Jay Martel, why do you think you're on Fast Company's Most Creative People list?

Jay Martel: No idea.

Ian Roberts: Are we on the list . . .?

Martel: . . . because Ian's T-shirt matches the microphone perfectly?

Blacker: Liz, when last we met, four episodes of New Girl had aired.

Liz Meriwether: Yeah, I was a lot happier and skinnier.

Brett Baer: That was 45 episodes ago. That is not accurate.

Meriwether: I was full of energy.

Dave Finkel: You still had an ounce of wonder in you.

Meriwether: Yeah, I still had wonder.

Baer: There was also a lot of swearing.

Finkel: It's actually worse now.

Blacker: Howard, I know you're crazy busy so let's talk about why.

Howard Gordon: That's between me and my analyst.

Blacker: Vince, when we complete something, there is this avalanche of emotion. You've been living with [Breaking Bad] for seven years, if not longer. How are you feeling now?

Vince Gilligan: We had our last day on the set a week and a day ago, and it still hasn't quite sunk in. The last day, I was able to just be a fly on the wall, and I kept thinking, I'm gonna start crying. After the last take, I said, "That's a cut!" and I thought I'd start tearing up. Then the Champagne bottles came out and we had a wonderful, heartfelt little moment with our crew. And still no tears. I'm thinking, What's wrong with me?

Blacker: The show turned you cold.

TV AS AUTOBIOGRAPHY

Blacker: How much of you is in this show, in these characters?

Callie Khouri: I used to live in Nashville in the late '70s and early '80s, and I waitressed at music clubs. So I had that point of view where I was kind of where Scarlett [the aspiring songwriter played by Clare Bowen] is. I don't sing or play anything. But plenty of the people who I worked with, you would ask, "Why are you working as a . . .?" So great. But it still would take years for somebody to get discovered. I saw so much incredible music when I lived here that I just felt like people have got to see this. You can come here and just walk down the street and hear fantastic music any night of the week. The bench here is 10 deep.

Blacker: Howard, looking at the shows you've developed and worked on for the past 10 to 15 years [Homeland, Awake, 24, Angel, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The X Files], it seems you clearly have topics you're interested in and ways you care to explore them. Have you been reflective in that way?

Gordon: My voice is not as overt or identifiable as, let's say, Aaron Sorkin's, but I suppose I do have one. It sounds pretentious to actually talk about these kinds of things, so I offer that caveat, but the truth is, I can trace what's interested me in every single show I've been part of. And they are basic questions of what it means to be alive, what it means to be a good person, or a person trying to do something that matters to you in this world. And I have obvious interests in foreign policy and a curiosity about the world and some of the challenges that we're all facing, whether it's issues of terrorism, security versus privacy, or the rights that we have as citizens in an open democracy. And trying to ask questions and have characters live through the complexities of those questions without offering too many answers. I've always been interested in how characters are put in a tough situation and have to navigate making the better of two bad choices.

Blacker: Vince, you've had this journey in mind for your protagonist [in Breaking Bad], to turn him into this antagonist. As you lived in this world with the writers, did you ever think, I don't want to do this to this guy?

Gilligan: In the early going, thinking in Walter White terms was not so bad because he was basically me. On the Venn diagram of Walter White and Vince Gilligan, there was a fair bit of overlap. Frustrations, hopes and dreams, anxieties, free-form fears and middle-age crises. The darker he got, we still shared a lot. Because we all have darkness within us. When he got really, really dark, the more I felt like he was taking me along with him. So many, many months on end--years--of living with this mendacious son of a bitch in my head, what's the worst of it? Is it all the killing? The disregard for other people's feelings? The lying? Some combination of all of it? It's been hard, year after year, to live with this guy. There were times about a year ago where I was thinking, It's gonna be a relief when this ends because I can free myself of this guy. But these final eight episodes were different because, not to give away any plot details or anything, but as the writers and I were into a slightly different part of Walt's journey, I started to feel more sympathy for the devil, as it were.

THE COLLABORATIVE ART OF MAKING TELEVISION

Khouri: I had never worked with other writers [before Nashville]. It's a lot less lonely. The luxury of having all those people there to help you, it's like the best deal ever. Really? Everybody's gonna help? Wow. Great.

Gilligan: I'm gonna miss the writers' room and I never thought I'd say that. Any of my writers who read this are gonna laugh their asses off. I'd be moping around every morning--Oh, God, another day of this shit. Their company made it more palatable, but another day of rolling the rock up the hill, you know? But what's the alternative? Writing movie scripts all by myself. A good day was maybe getting a paragraph written, and I hated myself.

Meriwether: Coming from theater and writing a movie, I was very afraid of group writing for most of the first season [of New Girl] and then half of this year and then . . .

Finkel: Literally, January 3rd.

Meriwether: . . . I gave up.

Baer: When you work on a lot of sitcoms, like Dave and I have done, if the creator's voice isn't strong and you get that groupthink going, then you end up with banal, middle-of-the-road garbage.

Meriwether: But holding on tightly to the creator's voice can be really debilitating for a show. Our episode "Parking Spot" was the first one they group-wrote, and I didn't have that much to do with it. That's our funniest episode this year, and I didn't feel like, Oh, I wish I had had more of my hands on it. The real victory as a showrunner is when you've finally broken through with a group of people what you want the show to be and they're giving you that.

Graham Yost: We've got a big writers' room [at Justified]--nine people including me. When you get later into a series, you need more minds. [With the recently concluded fourth season] I asked everyone if it would be okay to start really early. I wanted to get a jump on the season. Tim [Olyphant, who stars as U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens] has a lot of input, and it's better to get that earlier rather than as we're scrambling and doing rewrites and while we're shooting. That's gonna happen anyway, but we're trying to reduce that. We did well. We had four scripts ready before we started shooting. Then we kind of hit the mud, and by our last episode, we were prepping off an outline.

Blacker: That's nuts.

Yost: My experience on [the 2002 cult NBC crime drama] Boomtown was much more, This is what we write, this is what you say. On Justified, it can get pretty wild sometimes: Even guest actors have ideas, notes. That can be very dangerous, though what we've found is, "Hey, bring it." If it's a good idea, we'll use it.

Blacker: Would the show be the same in a more controlled environment?

Yost: It wouldn't have the life. One of the things about Elmore Leonard [Justified is based on his characters] is that he doesn't outline. He just starts writing. He doesn't always know where he's going and he will surprise himself. We do that as much as we can. We do need to kind of plan for the whole season; we don't wanna completely make it up on the fly. But within the box, we can play. We've just got to get here by the end of the scene. What's the most interesting and unexpected way we can get there? Sometimes that comes up on the set; sometimes it's in preproduction; sometimes it's the writer's first draft.

TRIUMPHS IN SHOWRUNNING [spoilers ahead!]

Roberts: My highest ideal in improv is when the enjoyment is "I know that! I had that idea!" But you didn't. It's just that it's so good. That's what a lot of our most humanly observed scenes are. I shouldn't give away scenes that are gonna be in next season [of Key & Peele], but anyway, some guy realized out there that his whole life he thought prog rock was rock that was from Prague, not progressive rock. Off that, we said, Everybody has those--those things you've been saying wrong your whole life and then you realize it.

Martel: "For all intensive purposes." "It's a doggy dog world."

Roberts: We have to challenge ourselves to say, "That seems old. I feel like that's been done." And sometimes, yes, it's been done. Other times it's that the scene is done in improv a lot, but that doesn't mean the average person knows it. The really interesting one is where it's so universal, it seems old.

Martel: That's what everyone is striving for.

Khouri: I have seen on television many, many times an older-man character with a younger woman, and I had to find a way to make the relationship [on Nashville] between Deacon [Charles Esten] and Juliette [Hayden Panettiere] not a stomach churner for me, you know? Because I wanted to have the Juliette character wanting to write with Deacon and aspiring to have somebody like that in her band; I had to find a way to take that relationship very quickly out of the fantasy part of "here's a guy who's gotten extremely lucky" into "guess what, her mom is a drug addict and you're gonna have to take her to rehab and this girl is gonna lean on you in a whole lot of ways that aren't gonna always be that much fun for you." All of that. All of a sudden, you're taking the polish off of that kind of relationship and putting it into the realm of reality that makes it something else entirely.

Yost: There were elements to this notion of crossing the line that Ava [Joelle Carter] really personified in season 3. At the end of season 2, she said, "No whores," and by the end of season 3, she is running a whorehouse and she smacks around one of her prostitutes. It's that sense of, How did I get here? You've crossed that line and you don't realize you've crossed it. Raylan does some things in season 3 as well, which sort of cross the line, especially toward the end when he confronts Wynn Duffy [Jere Burns] in the trailer and you don't know if he's palmed the bullets or not. We don't tell the audience that, and we don't know for sure in a way, even in the writers' room. Was he gonna kill Wynn Duffy just to get this information? So that was sort of a thematic thing in season 3. In season 4, we wanted to explore the cliche "The road to hell is paved with good intentions." So Raylan has good intentions, which is making some extra money, maybe advancing his career for his child on the way. For Boyd [Walton Goggins] and Ava, it's trying to build a future together. They end up doing all these things that they can excuse because they're for "the future," but they'll have harsh consequences.

TIME SHIFTERS AND CORD CUTTERS

Khouri: Broadcast television is in a very tough place these days because even I don't watch television at any appointed time.

Gordon: My viewing habits have changed since having an iPad. That kind of changed everything for me.

Khouri: Every single thing I watch is delayed to some degree. I don't know that networks have found a way to adapt to this new model. It's still really important to them that people are sitting there watching at the appointed time. The ratings are all based on that. Plus, the schedule is a little bit puzzling to an audience, because you're on for a week and then you're off for two weeks and then you're back for another week and then you're off for a month. It makes appointment television even more difficult than it is normally. There's only so much you can say about it. It's their schedule; you just want to keep being on it.

Martel: We hope people actually watch Key & Peele on TV. That's our hope. Please.

Blacker: Is that not what's happening?

Martel: Please, please watch it on TV. I think everyone knows about the show, but 80% of the people who know about the show just watch it online.

Roberts: I've had people self-identify as huge fans of the show, so I'll mention something that puts it on TV: "Did you see it last night?" They'll say, "Oh, no, no, I don't watch it on TV."

Martel: There is not going to be a fourth season unless people start watching it on TV.

Blacker: No kidding? Comedy Central's not cutting any slack, like "This is how people watch TV now"?

Martel: No. This show happens to be at this interesting intersection between these two eras.

Roberts: It's especially bad for a sketch show that's in pieces. You've only got so much time to watch anyway, so you catch half of it online; good enough. But not good enough. America, you're missing lots of good stuff.

Martel: You know they're gonna edit this.

Roberts: That's gonna go in. Martel: That's good enough. Ian, what are you fucking doing? [Laughter] We'll get calls from the network.

LEARNING ON THE JOB

Khouri: This is my first television show. I know about writing, but the form and the storytelling is just a different pace and a different everything than feature films. I just kind of kept quiet as much as I possibly could and listened and asked questions and tried to learn. I wasn't gonna fool anybody. And hopefully if you're going into something like this, one of your strengths is that you have the good sense to know what you don't know.

Roberts: Although I've never had this kind of job before, my opinion about comedy is if you're not having fun while you're doing it, how is it gonna be funny at the end? On a dramatic show, if you could feel like you're kidnapped all day, it would help the drama.

Blacker: Vince, as you finish this experience of running [Breaking Bad] and putting it together, what have you learned that you'll take with you?

Gilligan: The best, first answer is confidence. I've been confidence-deficient my whole life. It's like rickets or something. I'm going to state the screamingly obvious here, but I didn't know going into this job if I could run a show. I was scared shitless from day one. But if I had known how little I knew back then, I would have been scared to the point of petrification. I do not go forward brimming with confidence, because that's just not me, but I know I can run a show. And that's a wonderful, freeing thing.

Gordon: If this were a company, I'm a guy who started out on the assembly line. I've been doing this since 1984. I'm not a genius and not the best writer, but I probably have about as much experience as anyone doing it. And to the extent that I've kept my eyes open and learned a thing or two, I am able to leverage that and help other writers become better writers and other showrunners become better showrunners. Unlike other producers who don't write, I am able to take a pass on a script or speak a language that writers understand and that executives don't necessarily, because they haven't done it. There is a difference to managing talent. I have to persuade other people to see their own blind sides and hopefully also emphasize their strengths.

Blacker: Liz, when you were just starting, you told me that you had no idea what you were doing. Tell me how the last year and a half has been. What have you learned?

Meriwether: Shockingly little. This job is really humbling. It's great, but it definitely challenges you in a new way, every day, in things you didn't even think you would have to be dealing with. Like badger problems. We have a badger in the finale, and it's just like, Why am I in this situation? It's so many episodes, so much time, and so much work. It really pushes you to the brink of what you can do. And it's good because you're forced to get better, be a better person, a better leader, and a better writer. But it's not easy.

Baer: You're running an organization, ultimately, of about 200 people, if not more. Everybody's got personalities and needs and desires and wants. And you're talking about big money. Every episode is a multimillion-dollar endeavor, and people's jobs are always on the line.

Meriwether: For people like us who are perfectionists, there are moments where it's just not gonna be exactly what you wanted. Those are hard, but it also can be liberating. Okay, it's not exactly what I had in my mind, but then there is this other thing that might work.

Blacker: You can't be precious, right?

Meriwether: It ain't HBO. It's fucking TV.

[Photo by Hugh Kretschmer]

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