Diversity of content and of character has always been of paramount importance with the Showtime structure which is definitively reflected in their highlights for their Winter TCA presentations.
Our Cartoon President This animated romp from Stephen Colbert balances from his main gig on “The Late Show” but he speaks to the inherent challenges of both endeavors. The first has to do with the constantly changing aspects of the Trump administration: “Many a day [at The Late Show] at 5:15…no shit…we have to throw out 10 minutes of monologue.” But that said he says the approach for the animation is an interesting one: “[It is] the relationships you imagine they have animated. I think Michael Wolff [in his book] stole all 10 of our episodes…and we just guessed. We treat this series like a documentary crew came into The White House.” The irony of the current political climate shows how fluid the changes can be. Colbert explains: “In a pinch, tomorrow’s show could have a cold open on how Trump is a very stable genius.” (laughing) But he is quick to point out that Trump’s behavior shouldn’t be considered normal: “I don’t think we are complimenting him by making a cartoon out of him. I don’t think there is anything normal about his behavior. While we are doing comedy, we remind [the audience] that this is the kind of behavior you don’t want in The White House.” Despite this, Colbert realizes the comic potential: “The great benefit comedically is how uncontrolled his communication with the world is. However I love my country more than I love a good joke. He does it so often that you always have fresh material. I don’t want to hang out with him but he is the President of the United States. I go out to ‘The Late Show’ audience every night and we have this shared catharsis to laugh at. It is not jokes about what he did. It is character comedy.” Colbert also speaks to the difference in tone with his former home: “The Colbert Report”: “It is totally different vibe. ‘The Late Show’ is easier than the old gig. This guy is very different. We give our opinion on what they have heard today. But it is important that I don’t break news to my audience. It is about sharing the audience’s experiences back to them with my ideas. I am their buddy. My job is to talk about the policy the audience is already worried about.”
Billions This show continues to be a Machiavellian mediation on the notion of power but also the ambition and overuse of its influence. Brian Koppelman, co-creator of the show with David Levien with whom he also wrote “Ocean’s 13” & Rounders speaks on the elements of power and control: “It is about privlidge, It is about people that don’t have to. It is simply [dictated by] the societal region. [The other aspect] is about kings who want even more. We have long been fascinated about ambition which sometimes stands in for true character.” Damian Lewis, who plays eccentric billionaire Bobby Axelrod, speaks to the characters’ focal point: “A dramatic device that is being used here is about [the accumulation] of desire and want. We enjoy watching the desperation and ambiguity in these lives. In terms of these guys [in perspective of] the real world, they do good things and they do bad things. I think trajectory of any kind for an actor is interesting. People go down in this show but they come back up pretty quick. I think that buoyancy is why it is so fun to watch.”
The Chi The aspect of ambition from humble beginnings resonates in Lena Waite’s tale of Chicago’s urban neighborhoods but for her it is about maintaining authenticity: “Our big thing is that I want to make [sure] people can trust us. We are making sure the actors get the lingo and the swag [right]. [Whether it is] rollerskating, block parties…there are very complex [aspects] about the city…very layered. I started with the characters first and I named them with people from my life so you always have people that you care about.” Common, who exec produces the show and is also a Chicago native, talks about the texture of hope but also reality: “Joy is finding a bright place even when it is tough. Our city is unique but it resembles other inner cities in America. As Lena says, Chicago’s roots come from the South. Our history is thick. [And] the fact that Lena wrote this is valuable. She doesn’t have to talk about anybody about what is like to be a black person. The dynamic and depth of those things has to be told by us. We have to show people of color as colorful. I like it because it is fresh. We are not fitting into any stereotype. When we talk about black life, we just part of this pie too. And part of that is having relationships with other nationalities.” Waite adds to this point describes the intricacies of the details and the relationships between the characters: “My whole house looked like ‘True Detective’ when I was figuring it out. That way I had a road map to where I wanted to go.”
Patrick Melrose The essence of addiction and excess plays into the texture of this character within a privileged world but also the effect of mental illness. Made popular by a series of novels by Edward St. Aubyn, Benedict Cumberbatch takes on the title character in a 5-part limited series. Cumberbatch, speaking via satellite from Atlanta, comments on the texture of the character: “Relevance is always won by the universal truth in a story. If told, any story that is as mammoth in its spokes as this, goes beyond beyond analysis of class critique. We need to reminded about the damage that can be done to innocence.” Cumberbatch then speaks on the different layers within the character: “Paranoid schizophrenia rears its head and this is when [Patrick] is in the throws of drug addiction. These voices don’t just emulate from inside of him. Patrick is someone who has a great deal of tenderness but is a damaged human being. It is very different to play a character whose chaos is manifested all the time. The real goal is achieving truth but not to heighten yet still keep true to character. I’d always go home at the end of the day thinking ‘Did I do enough or too much.’ But then the very definition of externalizing emotions is role playing them inside a hotel on your own.”
By Tim Wassberg
Equating the ideas of major networks as well as their cable spinoffs and genre casings poses special challenges as creating edgy fare comes with its own contrivances about how to make things but economically and creatively viable. CBS though seems up to the task.
“The Arsenio Hall Show”, which brings back the once stalwart cool man of late night who abruptly fell off the scene, comes with an interesting delight: how to make this older man who epitomized the 90s into the fold two decades later. He told us two years ago at a cable function in a small group that he was planning this. What is interesting is that he is doing it with the same people as before and by extension the same company with a couple extras. Arsenio himself notes the change in times with the technology saying “Debbie Gibson [back in the day] sent me a FAX that she wanted to sing on my show. That was my text”. Another example he gives is “I remember Barbara Streisand calling me with a Bill Clinton question. Now she can tweet”. Sounding a little too much in the play, he speaks that “with a joke, you are able to Google now”. One of the things that he thinks gave him the confidence to return to this specific fray was his win on “Celebrity Apprentice” because “I have been Number Two at anything I have ever done” so “it was nice to win”. The aspect that also promoted it was the enticement of his son. He relates that he left the late night show he had at the top of his game but it was to spend more time raising his son. He explains “I needed balance in my life” and “the compliment from me to Paramount was that they don’t want you on the air if you know you’re going” which was the reason for the show’s abrupt end. Now that his son is older, when the finale of “Apprentice” came along, his son told him “we could win it!” This showed to him that his son had some investment in what he was doing. Arsenio was known in breaking music acts back in the day but the actuality is that “the stats point that music doesn’t get as good numbers as the talk”. He points that someone who has been supportive is Jay Leno, whom he says many people think as combative but he explains that this is true only when they are in direct competition with him. Jay, Arsenio explains, just wants to win, making the comparison that “Ali & Frazier didn’t get along initially”. His end game is that “at the end of the day, I am a stand up comic and I am there to get laughs” but “I just need to be funny in the way that I do it”.
“The Good Wife”, continuing its much ballyhooed run on CBS, recently received a watercooler boost with the campaigning of the infamous Anthony Weiner back into the New York mayoral race. Robert King, who exec produces the show with his wife Michelle, says that “there is a certain demand in telling the story” but “sometimes the audience is [only] inches ahead of us [and] sometimes yards ahead of us”. In comparison to the real life reflections with the recent Weiner situation, he says “we are the happiest people since we have so much to write about” saying “the Weiner thing hit it right on the head” though “Julianna [Maguiles] creates a good temperature on set”.
“Mom”, a new series starring ever blonde Anna Faris and Alison Janney, seems like an interesting mix especially with its addiction background of the story thrown in the comedy mix. After having her baby with husband Chris Pratt (from “Parks & Recreation”), Faris says “I wasn’t ready to get back to work” but he read it and pushed her to do it. Of her character, Faris admits “She’s so dimensional and a mess…basically like me”. Addressing her longevity in the business and getting that first job, she explains “I slowly came to realize that getting your first job is hard but not as hard as the second one” because “you have to peddle yourself around town”. At this point in her career, she says “there is a difference in that you graduate as a woman into a different element in your 30s”. Asked to what her mom might think of her portrayal on-screen in this series, Faris jokes that “my mom is a prude but half the time she doesn’t know what the vocabulary means” adding that “she says she’s never seen a condom”. Chuck Lorre, who continues to build his empire here after the successes of “Two &A Half Men”, “Big Bang Theory” and recently “Mike & Molly”, concludes with the admission that “I once asked Norman Lear what he did [with all his shows] and he said you go where the fire is burning the brightest and where you are most needed”.
Showtime swoops with interest into the battle with the return of “Homeland” and the texture of how you change up the show with two red hot Emmy winners on the roll. Claire Danes, whose lead character is always on the verge of exploding, says that “Carrie is always sitting on her own personal ticking bomb” adding that “it is an impossible dilemma”. In terms of the recent progression, she continues that Carrie “is not great on the meds and she is even worse off them” posing that “it is pretty bleak”. When asked about her recent quotes about having trouble finding work after her lauded performance as “Temple Gradin” for HBO before she started “Homeland”, she explains that after the former, “I think I emerged energized and emboldened” and “I wanted a similar type of challenge” but “there wasn’t any roles like that” adding that “I didn’t have patience for the regular old stuff”. She says that she guesses “there was a dirth of material in general at that moment” but, for her, “to do a job for the sake of it is a really bad idea”. She postulates that ”we are freelance, dare I say, artists”. Despite the bent of this series, she says “I have not become a political creature” though, for this season, “I have returned to my bipolar books” admitting “they are right near the bed” because “it is our job to interpret the heavy lifting the writers do”. Damian Lewis, for his part as Brody, is not seen for the first two episodes of the new season, which is unusual for the most recent Emmy winning Best Actor – Drama, but he says “it is a function of the story that we have to see Brody”. He explains with a little chicanery that “he disappeared into a tunnel system” because “he is the most wanted criminal in the world so he has to lay low”. Asked whether he sees his character’s bleak end coming in droves, he jokes that “these guys [the creators] have been trying to kill me since Episode One”.
“Masters Of Sex” continues the predilection with an piercing view into taboo and science in the late 40s with a kind of voyeurism that apparently pushes the boundary. Michael Sheen, who plays the lead character Bill who is studying the science of human sexuality in a conservative time, says that, with the series, it is about seeing the time as “prudish” but more about seeing it as a journey about “a sense of control in this man’s life” since “he is a mystery to himself”. The idea for him of this man is that “he has a locked-down desire to keep control”. In comparing the sense of sexuality to our perception of sex today, he explains “the same problem of intimacy applies now”. The key is “with the sexuality of the piece, it has to be realistic” but “your have to find a way to set the tone with all the right things” adding that “you discover through experimentation”. In terms of his relationship with his study partner Jane (played by Lizzy Caplan), he says “you find your way with the chemistry” because “the humor comes out of the situation” because (let’s face it), “it is interesting how sex is done on-screen” but “there is an awkwardness”. From his perspective, in “Masters Of Sex”, “there are a lot risks, not just the nudity”. What he likes about this character and the challenge is that “in the multiple episodic format, you can get to the complexity of a novel”. The disconnect for Bill, he says, is that “he tries to keep sex and attraction separate”. As for his view on sex after doing the series, he says “I found myself talking about relationships more” because “the more you are doing [or watching] a show about sex, you are finding more how you connect with human beings”. The take-away is that “sex is a conduit for any area you feel shame about”.
Lizzy Caplan, from her point of view playing a period woman after she had played many outspoken modern women, says “when you are telling a story in present day, you can [show the modern woman] with clothes and a strategically placed tattoo”. With all the sex and nudity floating throughout the series, she says “some of the situations were ridiculous but accurate” but “there are moments of levity”. She says “the idea of Jane is that every step of the way she is a contradiction” using the comparisons that “she is a secretary but she is also a partner” and that “she is sexually adventurous but she is a mother of two” and most specifically “she becomes close with Liddy [Bill’s wife] but she is also the other woman”. What throws her is that people were told different underlying falsehoods about sex (like masturbation) and, as she puts it, “you just needed to tell people that what you were doing was normal but people weren’t doing that…and that is some bullshit!”
CW closes out with the consideration of “The Tomorrow People” which is based upon a series that Greg Berlanti (who also produces the CW’s “Arrow”) saw as a kid. He speaks of it with glee saying “Julie [Line, the exec producer] and I have been talking about this show since we were in college” adding that “the originals played in reruns on Nickelodeon”. Mark Pellegrino, recently of “Lost” as Jacob, returns to genre here with a multi-facade character teasing that “I don’t consider myself the hero of the story right now” but explaining that “I am protecting the human race and you have to do dirty things”.
The triumvirate in CBS, Showtime & CW continues to show that the separation of brand and knowing the angle at which to engage the audience is decidedly important in facilitating bigger and bigger ratings.