As World Screen celebrates its 35th anniversary, we want to present a series of articles that recap and highlight the best of the interviews we have conducted. We are focusing on the evolution of scripted TV series.
In our last article, we focused on the phenomenon that was Breaking Bad and its prequel, Better Call Saul. Today we look at how the broadcast networks, in the early 2000s, upped their programming game in response to the innovation that was coming from cable channels.
THE BROADCAST NETWORKS FIGHT BACK
In the early 2000s, cable channels’ first original productions were gaining attention and introducing audiences to not-so-perfect characters and new ways of telling stories—Monk on USA Network, The Shield and Nip/Tuck on FX. The broadcast networks took notice, and some risk-taking showrunners and executives thought the time was right to try some mold-breaking show ideas.
In 2001, 24 premiered on FOX and featured a counterterrorism unit (CTU) whose star agent, Jack Bauer, played by Keifer Sutherland, was tasked with stopping an assassination attempt against the president of the United States. In a completely innovative style for network television, the series 24 was 24 episodes long, instead of the usual 22, and each episode unfolded in real-time and represented one hour in a day. The 24 episodes added up to one action-packed 24-hour day. The series also broke traditional norms by having storylines that continued from one episode to the next, while network series always had self-contained episodes. It also featured split screens with multiple scenes appearing at the same time.
I had the pleasure of moderating a panel with the cast of 24 and executive producer Howard Gordon at the Monte Carlo TV Festival in 2003. “The conventional wisdom in television is that an episode of a series has a beginning, a middle, and an end,” said Gordon. “The series reaches 100 episodes and it is sold in syndication. The episodes can be seen out of order, and shuffled around, and make a lot of money for everyone. And so the idea of serialized or soap-opera-type of shows was really so against conventional wisdom and routinely passed on. In fact, we had to assure the network, “Oh yeah, we’ll write a close-ended show, yeah absolutely.” And they were worried. We said, “Don’t worry, every episode will be closed; we’ll be fine.” We quickly learned that the very thing they were afraid of, like the cliffhanger, is our stock and trade. It’s an old-fashioned narrative technique, but it keeps you wanting to come back for more. I think they were scared; they still are. I don’t think anyone knows how 24 will do in syndication. I think they are starting to feel a little bit better about it based on the way the DVD is selling and the way the show is received critically and in terms of the ratings. It has the chance of redefining how people watch TV.”
Actor Xander Berkeley, who played the director of the CTU, George Mason, added, “The other thing that 24 has over any other TV show series I had done was that it consistently stayed ahead of the audience, rather than hitting the audience over the head. And it was so great to be able to explore the minutia and subtleties of human behavior under dire circumstances and all the things that can be brought out of a person under pressure in real-time. That was amazing.”
When asked the reasons for 24’s success, Dennis Haysbert, who played President David Palmer, listed, “Let’s start with the writing. It is just incredible. The casting. All of us, the ‘ancillary’ casting, the casting of the extras, the casting of the people that float in and out of our lives. They were so bloody good—really, really good actors and you could tell this was something you wanted to be a part of. There was so much meat. The split screens. The telephone conversations. Those conversations take up at least a third of the show. And I knew it was going to be successful when people would come in on their day off and participate in the telephone conversations off-camera. When we were on camera talking, there was somebody offstage speaking on the phone, and the phones actually worked. Our prop department is incredible. It sounds like a cliché and really politically correct saying all this, but everybody was like a big family that got together and said, ‘Hey, we’re just going to make this work.’ It wasn’t just talk; we did it.”
24 was a bet that paid off. It was a hit with viewers and financially remunerative for the studio, Twentieth Century Fox Television. So much so that it spawned several spin-offs. The first one tailor-made for viewers who were beginning to enjoy content on their handheld devices, 24: Conspiracy in 2005. Then came 24: Live Another Day in 2014 and 24: Legacy in 2017.
Gary Newman, the co-chairman and CEO of the Fox Television Group in 2016, said, “A show like 24 is almost a perfect series to bring back because as the world changes you can put new issues through the real-time storytelling prism with a hero like Jack Bauer. Specifically, when we brought 24 back, it was just after the Julian Assange and WikiLeaks issues, and those became the spine of the last 24. It made for an incredibly compelling story.
MYSTERIES AND HUMAN NATURE
The 2004-2005 TV season ushered in several innovative shows. One in particular, Lost, shattered established storytelling norms. In the cinematic series pilot, which reportedly cost $12 million to produce, a plane crashes on a mysterious tropical island. As the series unfolds over six seasons, the survivors, each harboring secrets, are forced to work together against an unknown monster.
Created by J.J. Abrams, Jeffrey Liebner and Damon Lindelof, Lost featured flashbacks, flashforwards and even flash-sideways, as it wove stories of complicated characters into a mix of adventure and science fiction.
Carlton Cuse, one of the executive producers and writers on the show, said in a 2014 interview, “My goal was to make a show that I wanted to see. Damon Lindelof and I would sit in my office every morning over takeout breakfast from the Disney commissary and we would talk a lot about what is the show that we want to see. If we both thought something was cool it would go in the show. There is a real danger in overthinking things. We also weren’t afraid to fail. If you do anything great artistically, you have to not be afraid to fail. We would have been very happy if Lost had been a 12-episode cult classic on DVD that people passed around like The Prisoner that was 17 episodes or Twin Peaks, which was 30 episodes. We would have been happy with that result.
“We ended up violating a lot of rules of television that we were told were inviolable: we had a complicated mythology, we didn’t make a lowest-common-denominator show, it required that you sit forward and pay attention, it wasn’t spoon-fed to you,” continued Cuse. “There was intentional ambiguity, which was something that really intrigued me as a storyteller because I was enchanted by it in shows like The Prisoner or Twin Peaks or in movies made by Michelangelo Antonioni or Fellini. There were characters who had done really bad things like murder people, and on network television you weren’t supposed to have guys that did stuff like that. But all those things that broke the rules of television were the very things that people found interesting and made them want to watch the show.”
2004 also saw the premiere of House, which starred British actor Hugh Laurie as the damaged but highly gifted Dr. Gregory House, who is able often through the most unorthodox means and with the worst bedside manner, to solve difficult medical cases. The show combines brilliant diagnoses, crazy antics and thought-provoking questions about human nature. It was successful in the U.S. and sold in more than 200 markets.
Part of its appeal was its unapologetic analysis of human behavior wrapped in a medical whodunit, as House led his team of doctors as they debated cures and treatments for their patients, often victims of confounding illnesses. Among the themes the show explores are individuals’ resistance to change, the search for truth, and emotion versus intellect, which showrunner David Shore saw as an extension of the pursuit of objective truth.
“It’s pretty clear watching the show that life is about striving to change,” said showrunner David Shore in a 2012 interview. “You may fail, but you’re doomed to fail, and you’ll take steps backward if you don’t strive to change. We certainly see that—striving. Even if you fail, it’s about striving.
“The truth is elusive, and people’s views of the truth are often very, very wrong,” he continued. “We all look at the world through our own subjective lenses and our own subjective lenses distort the truth and House is striving to find an absolute truth. So it’s not so much that people say that something is white when they know it’s black, or vice versa; it’s when something is gray, some people will say it’s black and other people will say it’s white and truly believe that.”
Hugh Laurie immediately found Gregory House appealing, as he said in a 2010 interview. “I thought he was a fascinating and at the time, as far as I could tell, a unique combination of wit and dissidence and unease and a whole list of qualities that I hadn’t seen combined in a single character, particularly not at the center of a drama. One could argue that there have been characters a little bit like House here and there, but they were usually peripheral characters. The hero was always a solid upright citizen, usually with blond hair and a dog, and they would do the right thing.
“He was a good guy, and you could tell who the good guys were,” Laurie continued. “And this is a rather troubled and conflicted, damaged character who presented this problem for the audience, I suppose, which is that here is a man that has a gift with which he can heal. He can help mankind and yet the gift comes at a cost—it comes at a cost to him and it comes at a cost to any of the people around him. He’s always asking the question, “Am I worth the cost?” and it’s a constantly interesting question, and I grew to like him immediately. I felt within a couple of pages I really liked this guy. It doesn’t mean I think he’s a good guy or a nice guy, but I like him.”
House marked the first time Laurie starred as the lead in a U.S. network series. This entailed shooting 22 episodes, which took up most of the year, walking with a limp, as Gregory House suffered an injury to his leg, and speaking English with an American accent, rather than his native British accent.
When asked what stretch as an actor did the role of Gregory House present, he replied, “Most of the stretching I find is of a mechanical kind—it’s the volume of work you’re having to do and the number of decisions you are having to make in a day to actually keep something real and true and funny—to keep it alive. This is not something a stage actor does; you can’t just go and do this thing for two hours and be done. This is something you are having to think about and very actively think about, for 14, 15 hours a day for nine, ten months of the year. And it’s those mechanical things, the volume of it—dealing with the actors and dealing with the physical disability and all those sorts of things are actually harder than the emotional side, which I always felt, I can’t say that I found it easy, but I felt that I understood it. I knew what it should be, even if there were times—plenty of times—when I felt I hadn’t been able to do it right, I knew what it should be. From the moment I first read the script I had a very clear sound in my head of how it should feel.”
When I mentioned to Laurie that the most refreshing aspect of the show is that it makes viewers think, he enthusiastically concurred. “That’s right, that’s right! Well, I’m glad that you think that because I agree, I’m very proud of it. I’m very proud of it for lots of reasons, and while we don’t always succeed, I still think we have the energy and the will, and David certainly has the skill to continue to put difficult questions that make people wonder what is the right thing to do and what is the right way to behave.”
When asked who held the moral compass to the show, Laurie said it was Shore. “It has to be that way. Of course, it is a very collaborative medium, and he has a team of nine or ten writers who are all working on different stories. The only way it can work is that it has to be one person’s voice. He and I, we discuss things at great length sometimes, and I will tell him what I think about a particular script or suggest what about this or what about that, but it has to be his decision—it is his creation. The character is his character. The character, to be honest, is him—David is much closer to House than I am, I think.”
The moral dilemmas displayed in each episode, along with House’s unconventional behavior and bedside manner, resonated with audiences across the globe. “It’s absolutely fantastic as a writer and as a person with a point of view on the world, to be able to spout off my own personal point of view and have millions and millions of people in countries all around the world watch it and respond. That’s what’s really gratifying—having people respond to the same things in all nations.”
Another show premiered during the 2004-2005 television season, and it’s still on the air today. Grey’s Anatomy, about a group of competitive interns at a hospital in Seattle, debuted in March of 2005. It was created by Shonda Rhimes, who went on to become one of the most prolific creators and showrunners in the business. We visit Shondaland in our next post.