Material Traction & Genre Progression: The 2019 CBS Network & CBS All Access TCA Winter Press Tour

CBS Networks’ progression of the day indicated the breathe of material but also the specific detail intonated in each of their respective programs. This becomes more apparent even as the network found the balance between purely broadcast and All Access, which is quickly gaining traction as the place to watch new genre series (as the newly announced “Twilight Zone” spearheaded by Jordan Peele attests).

The World’s Best The reality genre, specifically the idea of what this consists of, has considerably changed over the years. Mike Darnell, who produces this new “variety show” on CBS per se has led the way. Currently as President Of Alternative Programming at Warner Brothers Television, he understands the way things work. The idea here was finding acts that had not been seen before that don’t necessarily need to be “found” to guarantee their success. He explains how he approached this show: “Sometimes we say it was expensive and you can see it on the show. [But] CBS stepped up to make it big. The sale of the show was based on a built concept. When I was working at Fox and we did ‘Idol’, a lot of singing shows came along. [With] “The Voice”, [we] took the singing show and added a game show element. Here we have was spinning chairs [but also add] the aspect of the “Will of the World”. This adds a global feel of selling it, making it fresh and new.” Darnell continues: “There are so many singing shows. There has been only one variety show. While ‘America’s Got Talent’ is the best in the world, the format has got to change.” Executive Producer Alison Holloway, who has also worked on “America’s Got Talent”, had to find those acts that were perhaps a little harder to uncover: “I have a small casting team because it is very hands on. The Internet is a great tool for casting. That is where a lot of work is done. But talking to your contacts…seeing what the local papers in China are talking about…[that is how] we want to get something [that] is a little different.” Darnell also explains the changing directive of what alternative programming means: “Alternative covers this wide umbrella of variety. Other genres are fairly well defined. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard in my career that reality is dying. [But] the networks rely on them, especially for same day numbers, which is important for advertising.” Ru Paul Jones, one of the judges on the show, concludes with a perception of the talent: “In our lifetime, we have had a lot of things happen. These [acts we see] are people who have spent their lives perfecting what they do. [As judges] we weren’t prepared for the emotional journey and the expertise.”

Red Line This new dramatic/event series uses the texture of the Red Line which is a force in terms of geography that both connects and separates Chicago’s different sides, both financially and racially as a train system. The two show runners come from independent cinema with their film “A View From Tall” playing the Los Angeles Film Festival. Their play “A Twist Of Water”, which played Off Broadway was actually the inspiration for the show. Caitlin Parrish, one of the show runners, explains their trajectory: “We come from theater but with a cast this sprawling there was something enticing about the longer form. The red line is one of the main lines in the city from the very north to the very south. For as segregated as Chicago is, this touches upon every person in the city. It was our metaphor of choice.” Her co-showrunner Erica Weiss continues: “I think Chicago has a lot to say in the national communication. We did our research to make sure we are giving the fullest picture possible. The socio-politcal element in Chicago is rich and we’re telling stories about characters and their personal choices.” Noah Wyle, who plays Daniel Calder, wanted to try something perhaps more grounded than his recent roles like “The Librarian”: “The emotional reaction I had to the first reading of this script was so intense. It was about leaving a lot of my creature comforts as far as wearing hats and doing it differently on every single level.”

The Neighborhood In the first of quick freshman show highlights, this show moves forward in a structure like a reverse “All In The Family” where it is more based in a white family moving into a black neighborhood. Show runner Jim Reynolds, who has written for such shows as “Samantha Who?” and “The Big Bang Theory” offers his perception: “I don’t think the show is written from a black perspective. I think it is balanced. It is based on my experience of moving into a predominantly African American neighborhood.” Cedric The Entertainer who plays Calvin talks about the show: “Calvin is the patriarch of the neighborhood. This is where the character is rooted, where he is grounded. In a lot of ways, ‘All In The Family’ was set up where that character has the biggest perspective to have the greatest change. [For me] it was trying to get across a point of view. Luckily the way I have discovered Calvin in his hubris and how he discovers who he is is endless. [But] no one wants to see [the two sides] bicker or him being mean. It is about that line.” Tichina Arnold, who also starred on “Martin”, explains the balance: “Racism comes from fear, the fear of unknowing. I think that it is important that this conversation does happen. When two households get together and have conversation, they learn from each other.”

FBI From Dick Wolf, creator of “Law & Order” and the “Chicago” franchise, this look into the Bureau is built to be a launching board for a whole new world of spin-offs. Missy Peregrym, who recently guested on “Hawaii Five O”, takes up the lead as Special Agent Maggie Bell. She explains the balance and challenge in creating a new character in this world: “The first season is really tricky [as far as] developing the dynamics. It is a grind but it is such a win when it works. Z (her co-star Zeeko Zaki) and I have had a lot of conversations as to how that works. We’re not making a judgement about what is happening.” Zaki portrays her partner, Special Agent Omar Odom. “I was surprised at how a lot of pieces that are not FBI are within the family. It is such a bigger thing without egos,” he explains. “They shoot these episodes really big to make them as big and intense as reality. That is the goal of the show. [And we are] doing 22 [episodes]. I am not sure it is normal.” Peregrym also discusses her trajectory in the law enforcement genre as she started with the ABC show “Rookie Blue”: “I was a rookie and I had to go through every mistake and embody it. [With] every single person here I interview [here for my role]…I really want to listen and give them the respect of being a human being no matter what the situation is. I had to really grow up to do this.”

God Friended Me This other new freshman series has a unique perspective in its use of social media but with an intriguing religious balance (which brings to mind the defunct 2018 series “Living Biblically” which was covered at CBS TCAs last year in addition to an exclusive one-on-one with Ian Gomez ). But the texture is always timing within the zeitgeist. Brandon Michael Hall, who previously was the lead on ABC’s “The Mayor”, plays Miles who gets a text from God. His approach to the material is the essence of creating “a deep and honest friendship” within the show. Bryan Wynbrandt, the show runner, who also co-created “Alcatraz” with JJ Abrams explains: “We haven’t put any restrictions on topics. The show is no really about religion but rather humanity [because] religion is just one aspect of being a human being. Nothing is really off limits but we don’t let religion drive the show.”

With CBS All Access, CBS has begun to engage a new audience with originals shows that occupies even a different space than CW and Showtime, thereby ensuring its uniqueness.

The Good Fight This spin-off of “The Good Wife” starring Christine Baranski as Diane Lockhart allows the acidic wit to simply wash with delicious aplomb over the audience. Robert & Michelle King, who also created “The Good Wife” as well as the short lived “Brain Dead” starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead, looked to find the right tone as they molded the show. Robert explains: “What you try to do is stay as close to the zeitgeist as possible. We are not real fans of shows that preach to the choir.” He continues that in creating story lines “a lot of it is about a satire to the left.” Baranski talks about how her character continues to build: “It is quite serendipitous is that [my character] was emboldened by what happened in history (Trump being elected instead of Clinton).” As a result, she explains, “it is a show with a lot of people dealing with what is going on. [Diane] was always the woman in the room when it happens [but she is] trying to keep her balance in a dystopian world…[which is] inspired for me.

Star Trek: Discovery Heading into its second season, this flagship show for CBS All Access does have to walk the line between new storytelling and the aspect of canon. With Alex Kurtzman taking full helm of showrunning duties this season along with the new cast fodder in Anson Mount as Captain Pike and Ethan Peck as Spock, the texture of how it all fits together still continues as a puzzle. Kurtzman explains: “We see canon as an amazing opportunity. There is amazing grey area where we didn’t know what happened to Spock in his life. [But] we certainly know that in order for ‘Discovery’ to live on, we have to be able to operate outside of canon. The common denominator among the cast is that they are empathetic [But from what you are seeing] these are the proto versions [of these characters]. Mount speaks to taking on a character straight out of canon: “Ethan had a tougher job that I did. Obviously it is an enormous sense of responsibility. I grew up with Kirk as my captain. [But] my favorite character was Data.” Ethan Peck, grandson of Gregory Peck has the undeniable pressure of taking on the iconic character of Spock: “It is a huge responsibility [but] I had the faith of people. I spent a lot of time of Nimoy’s performance. [This space in canon” exists] 3 years after the TOS pilot “The Cage”. Finally Sonequa Martin-Green, who plays the lead Michael Burnham, (whom IR has interviewed for both Season 1 and Season 2), knows that the character is still evolving in many ways: “The guilt is going to take a long time [for her] to process and set aside. It is a big part of the overall feeling that needs to happen [for her]. There is a deep desire to rewrite history to make up for these major mistakes. [For Michael], reinstatement into Starfleet is a big step forward. There is a lot of healing on Discovery…[and] a journey towards restoration.”

By Tim Wassberg

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