The essence of comedy is making the balance between heart and sarcasm, reality and fantasy a texture of perception. The different structures and ideas within NBC’s new series point to interesting and conscious form of diversification both in stories and in casting while still playing to its strengths. During the main NBC presentations at TCA Winter Press Tour, the rhythm of the ideas rings true.
Good Girls This crime comedy about 3 women pulling a heist for each of their own personal reasons speaks to the different kinds of chemistry and dynamics between the characters. Creator Jenna Bans explains “It definitely leans into the fun and chemistry of these 3 women. These character need to say what they are doing is for good so they will be able to cross the line. They are definitely breaking rules and laws.” Christina Hendricks, known for her role on “Mad Men”, plays Beth. She explains: “We have carved out our own little space. That blend of desperation and comedy. The tone is tricky and we play every moment as real. Sometimes they are over the top, hysterical and bizarre. [When these characters] experience crazy things, you can be funny. I feel like Beth in this situation is making decisions to protect her family. But unlike Joan [in “Mad Men”], she enjoys it. Beth is selfish. She likes adrenaline. She likes power.” Mae Whitman who plays Christina’s younger sister Annie also explains: “In every episode there comes up an element of moral justification. The fun thing is to see how far into that we go. Is what they are doing right or wrong and who is getting hurt in the process. To me one thing is that Jenna creates a whole world without it being preachy. I felt like I knew the people.” Bans also comments on the style of performance needed: “I am a hug fan of improv in these shows. The best are when [these girls] are shooting the shit.” Retta, best known from “Parks & Recreation, plays Beth’s best friend Ruby, speaks about what interested her: “It is rare I read a pilot and I cry and I get into it.” Hendricks had her own reservations: “I was worried about being on network. It was so edgy and dark. We have many discussions. I said you have to promise you won’t back down from this and it was going to be what it was going to be. I could also feel myself [as a person] in the role.” Whitman’s approach was slightly different: “I feel like I am always the weird girl. One thing I loved about this show is that it is 3 interesting people in the leads and they happen to be bad ass women. And so much of the comedy of it comes from the absurdity of it.” Bans concludes her perception of the show itself: “This show becomes about these characters balancing their personal lives. They are trying to keep going with life as normal…but they are in a buttload of trouble.”
Rise By comparison, the musical/drama examines the texture of a drama department within the high school and the struggles therein. Jason Katim, exec producer who also worked on “Friday Night Lights”, explains: “Having a show like “This Is Us” has cleared the path. Shows that are very character driven, are the shows that appeal to me as a viewer but also those I like to tell. [But] I also wanted it to be a show where you were amazed to see the singing but that you connected into the singers with what was going on in their lives so it would weigh on another level.” Damon J. Gillespie, who plays Robbie Thorne, one of the students who is between the two worlds of football and the theater program in the show, talks about his approach to the role: “I kind of changed my lifestyle. My uncle is a personal trainer so I wanted to get physically fit. However when you are a dancer you already do those things. That aspect felt at home but relearning how to do a blocking rehearsal.” Katim continues about how to balance the perceptions of the different areas within the school in terms of the story but also the challenges of telling certain aspects (like which musical that could be performed): “I really felt that I needed to make it my own story. In terms of the football angle, what I love about the show is that as much it is about high school theater, it is about the football team. I like the idea of striking a balance. When I took on the show, they happened to be doing “Spring Awakening” at Pacific Palisades High School. I talked to the director afterwards and she told me about the challenges like the school wanting to censure certain parts.” Gillespie continues on the parallels in his education but also the differences in showing theater on stage versus shooting it for television: “In theater, you have 2 ½ half hours to get to the aspect of the story while with TV you are doing it sporadically. So it becomes…what makes me cry…what makes me happy. It was very layered. My cousin went to public high school. It was the normal every day high school student. For me at an arts school, it was completely opposite. There was only 40 in my graduating class. So I only know the arts school but it shaped who I am and how I think.”
A.P. Bio This show from Mike O’Brien who wrote for “Saturday Night” would seem to come from a more sardonic point of view especially with its casting of Glenn Howerton (known for “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia” as a Harvard philosophy professor turned interim science teacher. Howerton talks about the challenges with having a successful show but also creating a new character: “I did officially leave “Sunny”. The hard thing about people seeing you in the same thing is that they have a hard time seeing you in about everything else. I think there is some real heart [this character which is] key. I don’t think he is as hardened as Dennis [his character in “Philadelphia”. I am compartmentalizing. There is a little more tenderness to this guy although he doesn’t want people to realize it. [But] I am always looking for some sort of truth. This is about a man who is a grieving but doesn’t believe that he is grieving. I like to think that he is a guy who has big feelings who has to play it like he just doesn’t care. Because it stop serving you to feel things so openly. That’s funny right?” O’Brien speaks to the design of the character to match Howerton: “I was very excited about the idea of having a fun silly playful show that has an extremely intelligent lead. Not that it hasn’t been done before. I have many character [integrated] in the size and shape that Jack does. You friends that abandoned you when you were stalling out.” To the idea of philosophy as a construct within the character, Howerton continues: “You can use a philosophy to justify almost any behavior…if I am ever called out on it. What I love is that Mike wrote a character that is intellectually smart but emotionally immature.”
Super Bowl LII The greatest show on earth at times always can have the essence of Al Michael’s voice. Like John Madden, his calls have become synonymous with the NFL. Michaels reflects on the many years he has called the fields his home: “I have always said the NFL is the greatest unscripted show out there. I think back to the first one we did where James Harrison ran back the interception 100 yards [in Super Bowl XLIII]. In a way the Super Bowl is the easiest game to do. [You] just let the game break. I am a production junkie too. We all work hand and glove. [But] at the end of the day, I am a fan like anyone else. I like to watch games myself.” However, he explains the difference when he is with friends and family watching a game: “If you go to a party, there is always a guy who thinks he knows more than you do.” He also speaks of some of the more challenging games he has called: “There was a Skycam game when we had the fog in New England. And, at that point, we couldn’t see the field from our upper field camera. We had to watch from the point of view of the quarterback. It really gives you a different perspective but you couldn’t do the whole game that way. However, that night in Foxboro was cool.”
The Voice In this upcoming season, Kelly Clarkson, famously known as the main breakout from the original “American Idol” show, adds her perception moving to the reverse side as a judge. Clarkson speaks on the irony and competition in this new role: “It is definitely awesome to fight the three other coaches. I still feel like the same kid that entered this industry. [But] I can’t hide excitement. My favorite part [so far is] to be a coach. I hate to be a judge. I feel shitty afterwards. When I started singing I started by singing opera music. But, at the core, people like talent over aesthetics.” She continues about her interaction with the other judges, obviously all music stars in their own right: “It is hilarious how much we grovel. They constantly remind me they all won.” But she then explains her own rise to stardom: “I don’t fit the pop star image that people have had in their mind. [But] it is a different world now. Success is rated differently with streaming. What happened in my life was incredible. People dream for that moment and not everybody gets to achieve it.”
By Tim Wassberg
Moving into the cable structure of NBC/Universal with dramatic outlays from SyFy to USA to E! The approach is multi-faceted appealing to demographics and textures of stories that continue to diversify.
Krypton (SyFy) This anticipated series follows the angle of Seg-El, Superman’s grandfather and the challenges he must face on their home planet. Creator David Goyer explains the approach: “We do roughly have a 7-8 year plan. Everyone know Krypton blows up. But this is an untold story. As you saw from the promo there is time travel involved. It is advantageous being its own thing with its own story. Not that much is know about Kryptonian society. We play and subvert into the expectations of what Superman’s grandfather would be like.” Cameron Cuffe, who plays Seg-El talks about the challenges of the role and his approach: “I am a fan. I have always loved Superman. He has always been there. I know what that symbol means and that keeps you grounded. These roles and these symbols mean something very real. The legacy seems very far away from him when the show begins.” Goyer continues on working in story elements that are unknown but also how it relates to today: “I can say that even when [Christopher] Nolan and I were working on “Batman Begins”, [we figured out] when there is a blind spot [it can be good]. Science fiction can act as an allegory for today. We’ve got 10 hours over the stories of the first season. It may not be hard to write Superman but it is hard to cast. It is an ineffable quality. Even if it is his grandfather, it is hard to cast Superman.” In terms of finding accessibility for the audience, the creators found the point of view through another DC mainstay character: Adam Strange. Geoff Johns, CCO and President of DC Entertainment, explains that engagement: “We wanted Adam Strange to be from Michigan, He doesn’t honor the same things Superman does. One of the great things about Adam Strange is that when he travels by Zeta Beam to the other planets he becomes this hero…an unlikely hero to shoulder a burden.” But as to the essence of Seg-El as a character: “He will at least try to make the right decision. He is meant to be better than us. But he is not perfect.”
Unsolved: The Murders Of Tupac & Notorious B.I.G. (USA) Doing dramatic interpretations of current events, especially ones as intrinsic as the murder of these two rap stars and the investigations thereof creates an interesting dichotomy. Exec producer Anthony Heminway, who directed “Red Tails” on the Tuskagee Airmen for Lucasfilm as well as episodes of American Crime Story: The People Vs. O.J. Simpson”, speaks on the approach to the story: “This is a way to really lay into the friendship [of Biggie and Tupac]. Even seeing the detectives point of view intersecting at the same point with different goals. The show really gives us this human study of what we are seeing today in our culture. It was about who [these men] could they have been today.” Marcc Rose, who plays Tupac Shakur, speaks of keying into his character: “It is just the layers of who he was. I am used to seeing the artist but behind the scenes [it is about] why he said certain things. He was filled with passion. His brother was on set [for this] and very helpful. To just be around him and also to meet Tupac’s mom before she passed [was invaluable].” Wavyy Jonez, who plays Christopher Wallace aka Notorious B.I.G., talks about his perception and engagement with the character: “This killing of Biggy and Tupac was a tragedy. But going back [if is about] what could have disconnected these two. But to go back and research and look at the friendship. Everything Biggy talks about is so yum. Coming from a single parent home and become so massive and then to lose your life.” Hemingway continues, discussing the impact of the music but the essential family stories at the core: “The music was the fun part of it. It was the soundtrack of my childhood. [But it was also] about having the opportunity of today and now. We really touch on a family story: a mother dealing with loss and watching her explore the voice and pain as well as triumph and courage.”
Citizen Rose With recent take down of Harvey Weinstein and his fall from grace no one has been more crucial and outspoken than Rose McGowan having spearheaded the movement. With her new reality show on E!, the camera will explore her everyday life which continues to develop every day. Sitting in front of the press at TCA, McGowan speaks: “I scare because I care. My father said I was born with my fist up. It is not important to be seen as anything. I don’t respect those who don’t respect. My platform is really raising consciousness by 10%. The narrative that has been run by me for 20 years has been erroneous.I think it is a time of reckoning and a reset button.” As to her decision to do a show with E!: “I really like the people at E.I feel comfortable working there because I know what I’m doing.” McGowan also speaks to the current state of women in the directors chair in the entertainment industry: “You have 96% directors in the DGA [that are male]. Fix that. 3 years ago when I was preparing for this show. I realized that I could not speak on camera without a script. I have trained the past 3 years to exist just as me. It is sometimes not pretty. It is raw and it is my truth. This is my form of volunteer work. [But] the terms are different this time. I was waiting so long for this guys. I don’t have a lot of trust. I am down with calling this “reality”…this is mine. It is not an accident that I am sitting here. I fought for this.” Speaking to her continuing activism. McGowan continues: “It is about freeing your mind. I wanted to be like Gertrude Stein and have a discussion with the world. “Rose Army” I trademarked 3 years ago in all forms. What it can do is eventually exert force. I know a lot of things so people think I make pronouncements.” She also speaks of dispelling myths but also the continued struggle: “I never signed an NDA. That is a mistake the press made. We have [also] found out a lot of them can be broken. [That said] I am having to sell my house to pay off legal bills to fight the monster.”
WWE RAW 25th Anniversary Wrestling is and continues to be a major draw despite any other sports criticism of it. The mix of persona and physicality is undeniable. Stephanie McMahon, Chief Brand Office of World Wrestling Entertainment, explains the power that this kind of sport provides: “We are more socially engaging than “Game Of Thrones.” This being the 25th Anniversary edition, the essence is on the moments of history that stand out. The Miz, one of the biggest draws of RAW, speaks on his memory: “Everytime I come out into the arena with 20,000 people saying “You Suck”. There is no better feeling in knowing with an audience that you have them.” McMahon believes in the progressive nature of the sport finally coming full circle: “In terms of real, one of my most memorable raw moments was a couple weeks ago, when I came out and surprise all the women in the ring when I was able to announce the All Women Royal Rumble match.” Retired WWE wrestler Sean Michael concludes the thought and infers the texture of his experience: “The most important thing here is the relationships. I am the only guy to be able to look at this in the rear view mirror. Taking a lot of it in and even though it is the silly WWE wrestling business, we are thankful to have it.”
By Tim Wassberg
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