In a wide-ranging chat with Fast Company multimedia editor KC Ifeanyi, TV showrunners Christina M. Kim (Netflix’s Kung Fu), Courtney Kemp (Starz’s Power Book II: Ghost), and Laurie Nunn (Netflix’s Sex Education) weighed in on the state of television in 2021 and how that landscape has dramatically changed over past year and a half. First there was the pandemic, which ground much of Hollywood to a halt during 2020; Kim was in the process of shooting a pilot when COVID-19 hit, leading her to fear that “the dream was dead.” There was also BLM and the racial reckoning that has led to more promises from studios and production companies to better represent people of color both in front of and behind the screen. The three women discussed whether these changes so far feel meaningful enough, as well as how they individually try to infuse their shows with multiple perspectives and viewpoints.
“There has been some kind of change—even this Zoom that we’re on right now. Look at us,” said Kemp, referring to having three females on an industry panel, two of whom are women of color. “That’s changed from when, I mean, I’ve known Christina since before, and this was not possible [then.]
“But I will say that the people making decisions at the top haven’t shifted entirely. Things have changed kind of, they’re going that way, and things are changing, certainly. You know there’s Bela [Bajaria, Netflix’s TV head]; there’s Pearlena [Igbokwe, chairman of the Universal Studio Group]; there’s Channing [Dungey, chairman of Warner Bros. TV]. It’s happening. But . . . I would like to see even more change just at the top ranks. Because I find myself in conversations with people having to say, ‘Well, my audience wants to see this,’ and people not necessarily knowing what my audience is looking for.”
Nunn weighed in, saying, “I think Sex Education is a show where we are trying to improve in that department. But something I’ve noticed is, I think the writers’ rooms that I’ve seen are kind of opening up space for people that come from different backgrounds like women, LGBTQ, or writers or color. But I would really love to see more white men engage in this conversation and not just have a token person, a token woman, in the room, who’s probably going to speak for the one female character in the show. Everyone’s going to turn to them and go, ‘So, what do you think about, you know, vaginas?’ “
Kim admitted that “big strides have been made since I started in the business,” but said “there’s a long way to go.
“I’ve probably worked in some of the most toxic writers’ rooms in Hollywood over my career,” she added. “Some that have been the subject of Variety articles, some that have yet to be exposed. As I was coming up in the business, I said to myself, ‘When I become a showrunner, I’m not going to do it this way.’
“With hiring, first of all, let’s have a room with half the room that’s female. Like, why isn’t that a norm? Why is that a strange thing? Why do we rely on one person to speak for all women? That’s crazy.”
Kemp said that as a showrunner she makes a point to hire a staff that is diverse in the sense that everyone is from a different background, whatever that background may be. “What I mean by that is, if you are from the Northeast, Ivy League-educated, African-American—a lot of the boxes that I check—I tend not to hire that person because I know that perspective. The script’s going to go through that anyway.
“So if you’re Black but you’re from Texas—great. Bring it. If you’re white and you’re from Ohio—yes. I want a diverse room and not in a way that . . . . They’re using the word ‘diverse’ now to mean something that it doesn’t mean, which makes me crazy as a word person. A person cannot be diverse by dint of being one human being. You can not be diverse.
“I like a diverse writer’s room. I want one that has multiple perspectives, multiple genders, multiple sexualities, multiple races, all reflected. That’s important to me, because I want to be able to write about all kinds of people. And I can’t write about all kinds of people authentically all the time. Humans are human. We all love, hurt, laugh, cry. But the little details around that are really specific and I want those to be represented.”