Five insiders’ TV views
Have we grown tired of all the breathless references to the current state of television as a second Golden Age? Maybe so, but whatever you want to call it, there is no fatigue with the wealth of quality programming that has arisen over the last few years on so many platforms — from streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon, to basic cable, to premium cable and, yes, even the resurgence of network series.
And while the multitude of platforms increases the quantity of programming, that golden sheen shining so brightly from our screens is largely because of the show runners, the executive producers who generally create the series and oversee the writing. For this year’s Emmy Roundtable, the Envelope invited some of the most distinguished in the business: Robert King (co-creator with his wife, Michelle, of CBS’ “The Good Wife”), Mark Duplass (co-creator with his brother, Jay, of HBO’s “Togetherness”), Jill Soloway (Amazon’s “Transparent”), John Ridley (ABC’s “American Crime”) and Peter Gould (co-creator with Vince Gilligan of AMC’s “Better Call Saul”) for a conversation that included the influence of streaming, TV versus film and authenticity in the writing.
Here are edited excerpts from that April conversation at The Times. Robert, as someone who is doing a series that was considered kind of a boutique show for CBS, where the bar for ratings was much higher, what’s been the benefit of the new streaming and Netflix, Amazon models?
Robert King: CBS has “NCIS,” which has got, like, triple our audience, and also the demographic question is always very difficult for network shows. So the very fact that we’re streaming, that they make so much money in syndication with streaming on Amazon, I think extends the life of the show. Also, creatively, it’s given us more freedom. We don’t get the talk that, “You’ve got to reach out to the younger audience. You’ve got to do this, you’ve got to do that, or you’re going to be dead in a year.” It really frees us up. We don’t get notes from the network anymore. John, you’ve been around television for a long time — there was a slight sidetrack into film when you won an Academy Award for “12 Years a Slave” — but this is a very different situation than what you’ve seen in the past.
John Ridley: It is, but as you were saying, the metrics have changed and the — I don’t want to say the competition has changed, because when all of these spaces are making everybody elevate their game, it’s not really competition. It’s very supportive. So when folks at the network are looking at what’s going on in streaming, what’s going on in cable and, quite frankly, what’s going on on other broadcast networks, and saying, “We need to get to a place where it’s not solely about the numbers but it’s about having some kind of a cultural density,” it’s an amazing benefit for us. Mark, you come to this from independent film, and your show, “Togetherness,” really preserves that intimacy that you have in all of your movies. What was the process in adapting that sort of sensibility to episodic television?
Mark Duplass: It was pretty seamless. They knew exactly who we were — we had already made about six movies, so we didn’t have to explain it to them. We could just say, “The types of things we make are
[ what we want to make here. Is that what you guys want to do?” And they said, “Yes.” And then, honestly, they were helpful on the growth we had as storytellers and the sort of long narrative form of dealing with four hours of content as opposed to an hour and a half. They would ring our bell a couple of times and say, “You know what? You’re thinking like a 90-minute filmmaker. You’re trying to close this stuff out. Open your world. Put this in and throw more balls in the air.” And they were right most of the time. It was really good.
Jill, you won a Golden Globe for “Transparent.” It’s really a game changer in terms of subject matter. What do you do to make sure that you’re getting it right?
Jill Soloway: When I first came up with the idea, I was really responding to what was happening in my life. My own parent came out as trans. I had that sort of feeling like, “I’ve got to tell this story.” I was really very uneducated about the world of trans folk. If you read the pilot, it has the [main character’s] name Mort all the way through, and we never really used Mort again. We started calling her Maura because by the time we got to Episode 2, we really understood that she was Maura and that she had always been Maura since she was born, that Mort had been a performance she had been doing, a costume she had been wearing. That was a learning curve for me in Year 1. I mean, understanding the difference between crossdressers and transwomen, that was a learning curve. We brought in lots of trans people, consultants, did all the research that we could to really get it right, because we felt that this was going to be the first real portrayal of a trans person in a family, and we wanted it to be right.
Peter, you were a writer on “Breaking Bad,” and you created a breakout character in Saul Goodman. “Better Call Saul,” though, is a prequel. What’s the process of reverse-engineering the characters?
Peter Gould: We felt we knew who the character was, because we’ve done however many episodes with him as a support-
ing character. And then as we started digging into it, we found out we didn’t know who he was. And part of that was just Saul Goodman per se is a static character. We wanted to feel something for him, we wanted to get under his skin, and that meant going back in time. And you bring up an interesting question, which is if you have a sense of where this character is going already, does that mean that you’ve lost interest? And I have a theory, and I don’t know whether it’s true or not, but it’s my working premise, which is how things happen is more interesting than what happens.
John, you came to television with this new stature as an Academy Award win-
ner. By the way, where do you keep that Oscar?
Duplass: Oh, he walked in with it. [Chuckling.]
Ridley: I have it on my other charm bracelet that I normally wear, but I just thought it might be inappropriate. I started in television, I was on sitcoms, I was on “Fresh Prince” and “Martin.” And I worked as a novelist, I worked in film. I’ve always had a desire to tell stories, but telling stories in television really has evolved. So to be in a space now where you can focus on the story that I’m telling, actually see where it’s going but at the same time be different from film — I think about the things we’d have to rush through to tell “American Crime” in two hours.
Mark, are people telling you they’re recognizing their situations in your show?
Yeah, we definitely get a little bit of the, you know, “I feel how hard and how wonderful the marriage is.” And a friend of mine describes it very well, when he talks about his marriage and his children, he says, “It’s 51% worth it.” And I think it’s a very apt description, and we find a lot of people kind of feel similarly. But for myself and for Jay and our group of friends, it seems to be … I don’t know if it’s the right word, but there’s a sweetness in which we approach it. That was something I hadn’t seen yet necessarily in in-depth relationship studies, was that sense of sweetness that can be there.
So right around the time that we’re doing this, the news has come out that Netflix is remaking “Full House.” Now, to me, when I heard that news, I said, “Well, OK, the second Golden Age of television is officially dead.”
Soloway: It jumped the Stamos.
To me, this says that the resources that have been given to very creative people are now going to compete with sort of an old-style, lowest-common-denominator television. Is that something that concerns anybody, or is there room for everything?
King: It’s room for everything. I mean, everybody thought the death of it would be “The Walking Dead” doing so well, because then cable would just go after genre-esque material. But the pool is so large and everybody’s jumping in. Everybody I know from features is diving in, and they’re coming in with good ideas. The best ideas should rise to the top. Yes, there’ll be junk because — or, I’m sorry, “Full House” might be the best “Fuller House” ever.
Soloway: Robert King calls “Full House” junk. That’s going to be the …
Ridley: ... the only take-away from this whole thing.
Duplass: I’m thankful for it to a certain degree. I mean, this is a little bit of a different thing, but my brother and I are in business with Netflix. They commissioned us to make four original —
Soloway: Clearly they’ll buy anything. [Laughter.]
Duplass: They signed Adam Sandler to do four huge, like, $80-million movies, right? And then that makes them very, very popular and makes them lots of money essentially. To a certain degree, it subsidizes their ability to make four weird independent films with us. So their arrival in that space, I’m very excited about that.
DISSECTING TV’s current Golden Age are, from left, show runners Robert King, Peter Gould, John Ridley, Jill Soloway and Mark Duplass.
ROBERT KING, left, Peter Gould, Jill Soloway, John Ridley and Mark Duplass.