On Tuesday night, Fast Company and Ben Blacker, No. 83 on our Most Creative People 2013 list and host of the Nerdist Writers Panel (and cocreator of The Thrilling Adventure Hour), convened a gathering of some of the best creators and showrunners in the television business to talk about their creativity and their approach to their craft. Onstage at the Largo Theatre in L.A. to benefit 826LA were Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad), Carlton Cuse (Lost, Bates Motel), Greg Daniels (The Office, King of the Hill), Liz Meriwether (New Girl), Ian Roberts and Jay Martell (Key & Peele), and surprise guests Mike Schur (Parks and Recreation) and Bryan Fuller (Hannibal, Pushing Daisies). Together the group discussed:
While everyone embraced the idea of taking Netflix's money—"Netflix gave David Fincher $100 million to create two seasons of television, so yes," said Cuse when asked if he'd take that deal—Daniels and other worried that consuming TV in great gulps is so threatening to the way that most TV is made that it puts the "old model in jeopardy." That said, Gilligan admitted that binge viewing—on DVD, Netflix, and iTunes—saved Breaking Bad, finding it new, passionate viewers who came on board as the series progressed.
Schur went on a hilarious riff about Darth Vader versus Luke Skywalker, Superman being the most bland character in the history of Western Civilization, and how Tiger Woods should have embraced villainy when his scandal broke, all because we love flawed characters. This was part of a compelling conversation about likeable main characters and how far you can take your protagonist and not lose people. Gilligan admitted that he and his writers flirted with having Breaking Bad main character Walter White inject his partner Jesse's girlfriend in season two (spoiler alert, if something that first aired in 2008 can still be spoiled) with the heroin overdose that killed her rather than just watch and do nothing when she started to choke on her own vomit. Daniels and Schur admitted that they considered having The Office's Michael Scott kill Meredith when he accidentally hit her with his car. Schur admitted that they also considered having Scott realize he hadn't killed Meredith, but then grab a tire iron and at least consider finishing the job, which Daniels called a "series ender."
In a deeper exploration of character, the group discussed how sometimes the way to guide the viewers' reaction to a character is to change the way the characters around them react rather than change the character. Schur credits The Office's and Parks and Recreation's long-running successes to their calibration of its tone from its earliest episodes. Michael Scott and Leslie Knope didn't change so much as how the people around them changed in how they dealt with them, which helped guide viewers to see the main characters more favorably.
In great comedies and dramas, there's no such thing as being just a comedy or a drama. The best dramas like Breaking Bad stuff as much comedy into their episodes as possible, and the best comedies like New Girl put serious stuff in as well. Meriwether said one of the show's worst episodes was one in which Jess wanted a bathtub, because the stakes were too low. Drama can leaven comedy and vice versa, if there are real stakes at play. Roberts and Martell admitted that there are no dramatic stakes to make a Key & Peele sketch funnier, but they strive to make everything as real as possible and then let the thing that's funny be the one thing that skews that reality, making it pop. They also imbue sketches to be about an issue—political, relationship, or otherwise—to create their own version of stakes.
Gilligan admitted that the end of Breaking Bad hasn't completely sunk in, Daniels seemed unable to discuss his emotions in thinking about the conclusion of The Office this past spring, and Cuse, based on his pointed, hilarious comments about how he's the wrong person to ask about how to properly end a beloved television series, indicated that he's still slightly stung by the angry reaction to the end of Lost.
Don't change that channel and tune in here again to learn more from last night's panel, which will be released later this summer, and to listen to it in full.
[Photo Mashup: Joel Arbaje | Popcorn Image: Ktsdesign via Shutterstock]