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

Network Equation & Special Challenges: The TCA CBS/CW/Showtime Summer 2013 Press Tour – Feature

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.

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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”.

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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”.

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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”.

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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”.

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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”.

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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!”

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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.