Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The ‘Mad Men’ Season That Almost Wasn’t: An Interview With Matthew Weiner

Part 1

Get ready to disconnect your rotary telephone, pour yourself a cocktail or 10 and tell your secretary-turned-fiancée you won’t be receiving any visitors: in two weeks, “Mad Men” returns for its fifth season on AMC after a 17-month absence. When we last saw the men and women of the struggling Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce agency in a new installment of the show – in October 2010 – the year was 1965 and Don Draper (played by Jon Hamm) had made a seemingly out-of-nowhere offer of marriage to his assistant and nanny, Megan (Jessica Paré); Betty (January Jones) was at a crossroads; Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) was in ascendance; Joan (Christina Hendricks) was pregnant with a child that may have been fathered by Roger (John Slattery); Lane (Jared Harris) was British; and Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) was a win-at-all-costs jerk.
Iris Schneider for The New York Times Matthew Weiner, executive producer and creator of “Mad Men,” in his office at the Los Angeles Center Studios.

What has since happened only a few people can say (and aren’t saying). But in brutal, present-day reality, this season premiere follows a hard-fought negotiation between Matthew Weiner, the “Mad Men” creator and show runner, and AMC and Lionsgate, the studio that produces it, a dispute during which Mr. Weiner says he quit the series.

In an article in the Arts & Leisure section this weekend, Mr. Weiner discusses the resolution of this off-camera drama and how he and his colleagues have been preparing for the new season. In this first installment of a two-part excerpt from that interview, he shares his thoughts on Season 5 of “Mad Men” and explains how he almost walked away from it all.

Have you been feeling the absence of “Mad Men” in the same way as the audience? Was there a period of readjustment you had to go through when you went back to work?

I like to think the way the audience does, and it’s a been a long time and I’m bummed about that. But I also feel like I miss my people. I know how I felt when I got to back to work, and got to start working on the stories and see people showing up in makeup and hair and dusting off the sets. Whatever events that were out of my control – the ones that were in my control have conspired so that people, by the time [the premiere] gets here, might have forgiven us. That’s why I have a two-hour premiere. I did not want to be gone. Here is a double helping. Stuff yourself. Don’t be like that snake that Don talked about and choke on it.

Did you feel you had to do anything to reset the stage for viewers, to remind them who these characters are?

I will never do that. I love that feeling I used to get with “The Sopranos,” where I would see a character and say, “When did that happen? Did I miss an episode?” And what you realize is, those people are going on with their life. This is a separate season. They’re all the same people. Those things really happened to them. I’m not telling the story of Don being divorced and punishing himself and sinking into liquor and losing Anna and becoming close with Peggy and almost losing the business. That was the story of Season 4. And honestly, it’s a TV show. No matter what happens, you’ll be able to understand it. It’s not “Finnegans Wake.” There’s people, they’re in costumes, they’re kissing, they’re arguing.

The fourth season ended with Don’s surprising decision to propose to his secretary, Megan. What did that story line mean to you? Was it meant to show Don’s impulsiveness, that he would chose her over Dr. Faye, who seemed a better match for him?

I think it was very abrupt for people that he suddenly did this. It seemed very impulsive. But a man of that age and era will not stay on their own. And in the end, the choice was a youth versus age thing. It’s not about the substance of the people. Faye is substantive; we don’t know anything about Megan, if she’s not substantive. Faye is saying, “Grow up, get a lawyer, become the man that you are.” Megan is saying: “I don’t care who you are. You can make yourself who you want to be.” And I think that we were faithful to that choice, that Don wanted to be in that lavender haze, as we described it, of having someone look at him who doesn’t know him, who admires him, who represents what youth brings to every society, which is hope. As opposed to, “My feet hurt.” That mind-set versus, “You know what? Let’s get roller skates.”

There was also a scene, in the Season 4 finale, in which it looked like Betty was open to the possibility of patching things up with Don.

She is there to reconcile with him in some way. We see her before Don comes in, primping, and we know how she feels. And we saw her fight with Henry and Don didn’t. But I think that she offers herself to him. Don on some level enjoys saying to her that it’s too late. I always quote Lisa Albert, one of my writers. After Betty ran off with Henry, before we even did Season 4, she said, “My feeling is, this character of Betty Draper will learn as little as possible.” And I think that’s really what it is. And her running back to Don, let’s face it – that was a bad marriage. He’s a terrible husband. But what about the compromise of life?

Does it ever feel to you like Betty has to bear more of the audience’s resentment than other characters? She also had that devastating scene in the finale where she suddenly fired the family maid, Carla.

I think the audience does not like looking in the mirror and seeing a wart. We see a lot of her private behavior and her private behavior is no worse than anybody else’s. They want her to be better and I think that her beauty works against it all. They think, “You’re so beautiful and you have everything – you should put up with more.” But Betty is not a racist. I think Betty thinks everyone in the world works for her. I really do. I think she’s constantly disappointed that she can’t get good help.

Since we’re obviously not going to get into plot specifics, can you talk in general terms about how you prepare for writing a new season?

What really happens is there’s about a three-week rumination period, which involves a lot of napping, a lot of holding books. Whether I’m reading them or not, I cannot say. A lot of conversation, unrelated to the show, where I think about my own life. I get a sense of where I’m going and what I think is the next part of these people’s lives. Before the premiere of Season 4, I didn’t tell anybody whether or not they had a new agency, or whether or not they’d failed. We could have come back and they could have been back at Sterling Cooper in those offices. Just taking [Don's] engagement: so is that going to go through or not? What is the next stage in this person’s life? What is the story I want to tell about that?

Are you taking input from your writers at this stage?

No. The writers aren’t working yet, but I try things out on people. There are people like Bob Levinson, who is on my staff as a consultant. In 1960 he was on the Lucky Strike account at BBDO, and then he became a television agent. Before Season 4, I said: “All this stuff is starting to happen. ’64, ’65, the Watts riots, there was so much stuff going on that summer. What was the feeling?” And he goes, “Oh, you know, I had just gotten my first big raise and we were looking for a house.” And that’s the thing I always have to remember, is don’t assume that because you’re living in tumultuous times that people are not living their lives. I’ve committed to how old Don is, I’ve committed to how old Peggy is. And then Pete, Joan. And then it’s just a matter of remembering what the consequences are and trying not to repeat what I’ve done. Don’s going to start here and end here. Peggy’s going to start here and end here. It’s always about change, I’m starting to realize that that’s all that I’m writing about. And I think it’s because we are living in a time of tremendous change and you can’t pretend anymore.

So that will be a theme of the new season?

There’s a line in Episode 3, which is Week 2, where somebody says: “When is everything going to get back to normal?” Who hasn’t felt that right this minute? And that is a lot of what the season is about. That sensation that, well, this is normal. I don’t think that’s my age or anything. I think that’s the state of the United States. And it’s not because we were riding so high and all of a sudden we got knocked down. It’s been a fairly steady stream of [awfulness]. [laughs] Maybe this is part of being an adult, living in a state of “this may not last forever.” Maybe I’m too much like Don and I only like the beginnings of things, I don’t know. And there’s a lot this season about every man for himself, about looking out for yourself. We know the people that need to learn that lesson but it’s really an unpleasant thing. I guess because I’m a liberal I think it’s not people’s natural instinct to be completely self-interested. It’s an ugly thing to see ambition and to see people satisfying themselves. But that’s what the story is. [pause] Does that sound juicy?

There’s a traditional model of television writing, where stories are pitched in the writers’ room, assigned to individual writers and then the scripts that come back get rewritten in the room. Is that how “Mad Men” operates?

No, no, it’s not like that at all. The outline comes out of the room. Maria and André [Jacquemetton] drive the train on that. I have story ideas, people have story ideas, we break the A, B and C stories. This is all the way “The Sopranos” did it. That’s the only way I knew to do it and we have our own version of it. We cut them into strips and we tape them into an outline of like 45 beats. Some of them we assign to a writer and they go off and write a draft. I see that draft, and if I have time, I give notes. Sometimes it’s like an audition. There are people who write a draft and it’s the end of it. You say, “I don’t think this is going to work out.” But whatever happens, eventually the script comes to me and I start fresh to some degree. And then I do a draft and that goes to the room. They give me their notes, I do another draft, I do another draft, I just keep doing. If I change less than 80 percent of it, I will leave their name on it, by themselves. Now, it’s unfair on some level, because I’m deciding what I change.

Do you think that’s commonplace at other shows?

Everyone who has my job does this. They don’t usually put their names on it. It was important for my mental health, to see my name on there for work that I had done almost all of, in some cases. And I never understood it, why a person would want their name on a script if they didn’t write all of it. I would never want my name on something that I did not write most of. Part of television is you get rewritten. When I wrote for David Chase, I kept saying, “I’m going to write a script he can’t rewrite.” That was my mode. Not, “You’re just going to change it anyway.” So that’s the way it works here and I’m very open about it also, and not everybody is.

Were you ever concerned, during the negotiation process, that maybe there wouldn’t be a Season 5?

I quit. I had come to terms with the fact that it was over. And I always end every season like it’s the end of the show. So, yeah. There was a terror in me that someone else would come in and do it. And I don’t know how they would do it, but I would have to live with that. In the most protective and demanding way, I did not feel that it was worth going back to work to make a show that was not the show I’d been making. I had this argument with my wife, where I said: “You don’t understand – it’s not just a matter of changing the show. I don’t want to go to work and do it different. I just figured out how it works.” This is what the audience likes, these are the characters the audience likes, and this is the length of the show. And I definitely feel that the longer part of the show is part of its commercial uniqueness. And it’s a scarce product to begin with. There’s 13 a year. So you have to give them that in the form it is. It’s like changing a novel into a short story, to me.

So, just to be clear –

Yes, I quit, at the negotiation. During the negotiation. And in the end, everything worked out.

In the first installment of an interview with the “Mad Men” creator and show runner Matthew Weiner, who is the subject of an article in this weekend’s Arts & Leisure section, he disclosed that at the height of a tense contract renegotiation, he quit his own show.

Since we know that’s not how the story ends, how was Mr. Weiner brought back to the table? How have his deal and other developments at AMC resonated in the television industry? Why is he such a stickler about spoilers? And how is “Mad Men” going to end? He answers most of these questions in this final excerpt.

So, just to be clear –

Yes, I quit, at the negotiation. During the negotiation. I certainly told my representatives that. I don’t know if they ever told AMC that. [laughs] But I had come to terms with it. I was with my two oldest sons, and I called Jon Hamm. It was rough.

What did you tell him?

I said, “I’m sorry, it’s not working out.” And the battery had just died on the phone — and my son said to me said, “Don’t worry, Dad, you’ll get another show.” It was really one of the great moments. I was so angry at the tenor of the negotiations, it had so hit me by surprise. All I could say was, I don’t want to do it. The world will know the truth when I don’t go back to work. And then they compromised, and I compromised. A little. I don’t even want to exaggerate how wonderful it’s been since then. I turned in my first episode and everyone was like: “That’s what we paid for. We’re very happy.” It worked out so well that I actually hope this is the last time I have to talk about it.

You won your fights to keep the show’s cast and running time intact, but not to have Season 5 make its premiere on AMC in 2011.

I accepted that, yeah. They are a small company, they cannot put on five shows a year. But I knew that in January, at the Golden Globes, that it wasn’t going to happen. I was like, “Really?” They were like, “Go make a movie or something.” I was like, “I don’t even know if I’m coming back.” But in the end, they negotiated, businesses negotiate through lawyers. It’s like prizefighters. They talk trash. And in the end they go back to work. And for an artistic person, this can be a horrible experience that can change you. I just turned to the people who love me and started taking it out on them. [laughs]

When Kurt Sutter, the show runner of “Sons of Anarchy,” recently closed his three-season deal at FX, he wrote on his Twitter account: “no headlines, no pushed schedule, no stealing from paul.” I think we know who he was referring to.

I don’t know Kurt Sutter. I’m very happy for him. I’m very supportive of creative people being paid for the work that they do. That’s my comment on it.

But are you concerned that your “Mad Men” deal might have alienated you from other industry peers?

Well, the concept that I was taking money from other people at AMC is ridiculous. Frank Darabont [the former "Walking Dead" show runner] and I had a conversation a year ago about his budget being cut and what he was going to do. Vince [Gilligan, the "Breaking Bad" show runner], too. It’s very hard to turn writers against each other, believe it or not. Some people don’t think I’m deserving, the show’s too small, it’s not financially successful enough, that’s fine. I think the most striking thing about all of this is, I am an individual and my salary was revealed to embarrass me, and there’s no one on the non-artistic side whose salary is being revealed, and it is embarrassing. You can better be sure that if I’m making what you consider to be an outrageous amount of money, this is a very, very valuable property. Writers’ salaries have been going down quite steadily for the past 10 years, and my deal was one of the first things that started going up. People realize that these shows can be international cash cows and can last for 30 years.

After your “Mad Men” deal was closed, AMC had a very tough series of months where “The Killing” took some critical backlash for its season finale, “The Walking Dead” abruptly changed show runners and the “Breaking Bad” renegotiations turned ugly. Were you following these developments and did they affect you?

Oh my God, absolutely. That’s my brand, I work for them. I’m so proud of the fact that they went from being the third-choice, second-run movie channel, to a competitor with HBO. But there are growing pains. They were not used to having people scrutinize anything that they did, because they’re underdogs and were kind of a charity case on some level, in the beginning. So once you start having more than one success, people really start looking at it. Between myself, Veena [Sud, show runner of "The Killing"], Vince, Frank and now Glen [Mazarra, who took over "The Walking Dead" from Frank Darabont], you’re talking about a stable of show runners who come there with some experience. And I don’t think they ever expected to have more than one thing hit. So they started having to learn the show-business part of the business. After making my pilot and seeing us go on the air, for Christina Wayne [the former AMC programming executive] to show me the “Breaking Bad” pilot, it was a thrill for me to think: “Oh my God, this is going to be on this channel, too. That’s pretty cool.”

One phenomenon that seems like it’s become more pronounced in the months since “Mad Men” has been off the air is that every network now has its signature serial drama, from “Homeland” on Showtime to “Downton Abbey” on PBS. Do you worry that you’ll have to work harder than ever to maintain the loyalty of your viewership?

I am a competitive person. But more good TV is more good TV. I think this has all happened since “The Sopranos.” HBO, they’re in the same groove they’ve always been in. You’re never going to compete with “Boardwalk Empire” for many things. No one else has that business model to support that. Showtime, they’ve always had “Dexter,” they’ve had “Weeds.” I love that our absence was felt. I still don’t think anyone’s doing what we’re doing. We’re the aging show, but I still feel like I just started, and I will always fight to keep people’s interest and to hope that the show remains No. 1 in their heart.

I ask this with all due respect, but what’s the deal with your policy on spoilers?

It’s very simple. I don’t understand why the critics get to have a different experience watching the show than the people who it’s really made for. I love my Agatha Christie, I love my soaps. I love “Law & Order,” where there’s a binary ending, they’re either going to be guilty or innocent. But this is a different thing. This is a story where there’s not a huge plot. There’s no gunplay. And I don’t want to dole that information out, because it is part of what’s keeping people interested. The people who really love the show, they really don’t want to know. They want a “scoop” if they are in the blogging business.

Since it’s been announced that the seventh season of “Mad Men” will be its last, are you starting to think about how you will end the series?

I’ve never done this before, that’s all I’m going to tell you. I hope that in hindsight, it will look like it was all planned out. The same way I come in with an image for the end of the season, I have an image for the end of the show. But I take every season as if it’s the last season. I did not say, “Oh, I’ve got three more seasons, I’m going to plot them out right now.” I do not have the ability to do that. I took everything that I could possibly think of and did it this year. My plan always, and it’s how I pitched the show to AMC, is, let me show the difference between these people at the beginning of the ’60s and the end of the ’60s. You see how adult they are when it starts. But I guarantee you when we look back after the finale, you will say, ‘Look how young they were.’ And you will look back with nostalgia.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Friday Night Lights' showrunner Jason Katims post-mortems the series finale

Jason Katims has had a lot longer to say goodbye to "Friday Night Lights" than the rest of us. The series' longtime showrunner already wrote or co-wrote two previous episodes - season 1's "State" and season 3's "Tomorrow Blues" - that might have had to serve as series finales if not for 11th-hour renewals from NBC and/or DirecTV, and he wrote the series finale, "Always," which wrapped production back in the summer and just finished airing on DirecTV's The 101 Network. (You can read my "Always" review here.)

The day before the finale aired, I spoke with Katims about letting go of these characters he's shepherded for five years, about opportunities missed, about the controversial season 2 murder plot, and about the many things that made "Friday Night Lights" so damn great.

This is, by my estimation, the third series finale you've written. How different was this experience, going in knowing it was definitely the end this time?

It was very different this time, because with the other season finales we knew they had to live one or the other: as a season finale or a series finale. However, we were very much hoping it was going to be a season finale and we were very much wanting to lean into what was provocative about the ending, and what was open-ended about it. In this case, since we knew from when we first started breaking the stories for season 5 that this would be the final season, we were really able to steer towards a true ending. And while I'm not happy about the show ending and still very much miss the show and think we could have continued to do good work, I'm so happy to have been able to be in the position to write a real ending for the show. I'm very happy with how that episode turned out.

How did you come to decide on this ending, for both the Taylors and the team?

I had that image in my mind, kind of early on in doing the show, that the end of the show would be Coach and Tami leaving Dillon, and have it be bookended with the pilot, where he's coming to this town to coach this team and he's just arriving there. I always have that image of them leaving, because what we tried to do above everything else on "Friday Night Lights" is we tried to be as honest as possible about what would really happen. And I do feel that that is often the life of a high school football coach, where they wind up going from town to town and making those towns their home. I had that idea in mind, and coupled with that was our desire to find a story for Eric and Tami and put them front and center in this fifth season - to find a story for them that was going to be worthy of all the work that they've done previously on the show, and worthy of the relationship they had created. We wanted to figure out what would be a conflict that would be real for them to play and resonate. And we thought the idea of Tami being offered this opportunity, first of all seemed very believable to us because we had seen her grow as a professional over the course of the entire series. I do believe that Tami Taylor has a lot going for her, and somebody would offer her a job like this. And we thought that that would create a really great conflict for them. As wonderful of a couple as they are, they've always been following Eric's dreams. That's what's brought them from town to town and job to job and place to place. It seemed that for Tami to be offered a job in a place where Coach didn't really want to go, or took some time to get there, seemed to be very compelling to us, and a conflict that we hadn't yet played with them.

In terms of the team, it was one of those things that, while we had made this move to East Dillon, ultimately Dillon was still Dillon. West Dillon still held this power. I thought it was an interesting way to go, ultimately, where we leave this town not that different of a place than where we found it. There's a lot of back-office politics around how the football programs are run. The other thing that was interesting to me was about how the budget was affecting this town. They could only support one football team in the town, which alluded to where we find ourselves now.

Who, by the way, is the new coach of the Panthers? We see Crowley and Billy and Spivey in the final montage, but it's not clear if any of them is in charge.

The head coach is somebody new that comes in who we didn't really highlight in the cut. It was just the next person. You did see the familiar faces that were kind of back and part of the team. I think the the intention was it was somebody we had never met. Similar to how Coach Taylor was brought in.

Was there a particular rhyme or reason to which of the original castmembers came back here at the end? Was it just actor availability, or did you specifically want Tim and Tyra as opposed to Tim and Lyla or Tyra and Landry?

When we knew it was coming on the last season, I did have a desire to bring as many of the original castmembers back as we could. But what we did was what we'd always done: let story drive those decisions. As we had done earlier in the series where we said goodbye to these beloved characters - Smash and Street and Tyra, etc. - we felt like we'd tried to do it at a time that was right from a storytelling point of view in a way that was authentic. The decisions about who we brought back was based partly on actors' availability, but beyond that it was who we felt we could service storywise. We didn't want to bring people back as window dressing, and I'm sure they wouldn't have wanted to come back that way. We felt like the Tim and Tyra connection was alluding to where we first started with the series. I thought it would be surprising, and I really wanted to see where Tyra had been. We hadn't gotten to revisit that character. We had tried to bring her back in the fourth season but weren't able to because of her schedule. We thought that was a story, that connection between them, first of all alluded to the beginning and would be a surprising story to tell, and it felt right that the two of them would wind up, if not together, with the potential to be together

One of the things I often hear your counterparts at other shows say is that there is nothing more boring to watch than a happily married couple. And you have spent five years proving how ridiculous that statement is with Coach and Mrs. Coach. What was the secret to that? What did you understand that nobody else seems to? Is it Kyle and Connie? The writing? What?

I would say there's two things. When you look at the success of that marriage, you have to start with Kyle and Connie and what they did with those roles. They had incredible chemistry together, they had such integrity about how they approached each of their roles and their relationship. I think a lot of it is that. The other thing I would say is that we tried to approach the stories with them in a way that would be real conflict - real things that would come up. And I do believe that within a marriage and within a good marriage, there are always challenges to that. There are always conflicts, where you don't wind up on the same page of things. And we explored many of those things. There was a tremendous amount of conflict between Eric and Tami over the years. It was just that the conflicts didn't feel put upon. We didn't go to the place of having them have affairs, or having an alcohol problem, or a divorce. We didn't want to go there, we didn't particularly believe that this couple would be going through those things, and we found conflicts within the things you wouldn't think of as a big storyline. The idea of whether or not to buy a house was a story you wouldn't necessarily think, "That's a story I want to see on TV," But what they did with that story was they made it incredibly real, and it became much more than the house - it became where they found themselves at this age, at this time, and would the dream be something they would ever be able to capture. These are things that people can relate to. We tried to stay with material where we knew how great Kyle and Connie would be, so it would be honest and real. Try to find real conflicts between them and not lean into melodrama.

You talked before about the move to East Dillon, which was a pretty radical thing for a show to do. Most high school series would have sent all the kids off to UT-Dillon, and Eric would have gotten a job coaching them there. Was there ever any discussion in the early seasons about doing it that way as opposed to that reboot?

In the first two seasons, we didn't deal that much or think about it that much, because we didn't necessarily think - we were living hand to mouth in terms of our life on television. We didn't know how long the show would last. We were really trying to tell the best stories. It was at the beginning of the third season where we as writers felt like we had to make some decisions here. We had sort of skirted around who we said was a sophomore and who was a junior, and we took a little poetic license with the logic of that stuff to keep the characters there as long as we did. But we decided that rather than try to skirt around the reality of it, we would lean into it, and we would make the third season about graduation, and make that the main theme of the year. And that allowed us to start looking at stories of where these characters were headed, what their future was going to be, whether they'd get out of Dillon or not. We found once we'd committed to that decision, it put us in a very great place from a storytelling point of view. That arc with Smash having his tryout and Jason leaving to go east, Tim taking the trip with him, to be with his child, and Tyra getting into college - all of those stories, I thought, were some really strong stories. While it was difficult to make that decision and we loved those actors and the characters they had carved out and dimensionalized in this time, we felt we really had to always stay with the basic premise of the show, which was to try to make it as authentic and real and honest as possible.

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I have to ask about season 2 and the Tyra/Landry murder storyline. In hindsight, is there anything you could have done differently with that so people wouldn't have reacted the way they did, or do you think it was fundamentally the execution of it - pardon the horrible pun - that was always going to be a problem?

I definitely think that it was that people rejected the idea of that story at a seminal level. I don't think people were really responding to the execution of it. They just didn't believe this was the show they'd signed on for, they leaped to, "This is the network forcing a story," which wasn't true. I don't know that doing differently would have really affected how people responded to it. But then again, I could be wrong about that. We told that story in a similar way as we tell other stories. It wasn't that different. I think people just rejected it from the basic idea of it.

Well, you and I talked about this back when that episode aired, and you said the idea was to create a circumstance that brought Tyra and Landry closer together. Do you feel that that worked, or do you regret having done it in any way?

Bringing Landry and Tyra together?

No, no. Just doing it this way as opposed to "Landry joins the football team, Tyra sees him in a different light," or any number of different options instead of "Landry brains a guy with a lead pipe."

I don't know how to answer that. I clearly didn't intend to do anything that viewers of the show would reject. I wasn't trying to piss anybody off. I kind of learned from doing it how invested people become in something that is, and if you're going to change what that is, how that is and how it looks, you should have a good reason to do it and be careful doing it. On the other hand, there were lots of choices that we made in doing the show before that and since that that were bold choices that we went with that people might have rejected. You could say the idea that we're going to take the show we've lived with for three years, throw away two-thirds of the castmembers and the school and we were still going to have a good show, you could say that was not a good idea. And I think that was the best idea - literally the single best thing we did in the show.

Season 2 got truncated by the writers strike, and it did feel like you cut the cord with most of it when you came back for season 3. Santiago wasn't mentioned again, Smash's problems were unrelated to the problems he'd been having in those last few season 2 episodes, etc.

We had two issues to deal with between seasons 2 and 3. One was that people so rejected that storyline in season 2 that I did feel at that point it was important to not do something that people would reject. We almost got canceled at the end of season 2, and so I felt it was our stay of execution and I wanted to make those 13 episodes we got as good as they could possibly be, and make up for the fact that we didn't have an end for season 2, and had that been the end of the series, I would've been bummed forever. Because the end of season 2 was aborted, we didn't really get a chance to finish the show. The other thing about season 2, other than the murder storyline, that I felt was problematic was that it was very light in football. People responded to that, and we were about to go into a very big football storyline when the strike happened. We were faced with this decision of would we tell this arc that we knew where we were going, so do we just pick up and tell those stories for four or five episodes and then jump to the next fall? Any way we thought of that, it just felt like it wasn't whole cloth. It felt like we would be starting and stopping, so we decided to make a clean break and move forward to the next year of school, and with that, there were some leaps that the audience had to take with us. It was a bigger jump, not only in terms of time but in terms of story that we would normally do. We never got to see what happened to these characters for what would have been the last seven or so episodes of that season.

Whether in season 2 or in those shorter later seasons, were there any specific stories you never got to tell, or even just general topics of this universe that you never got to address?

We might have told them in slightly different ways than if we'd had more episodes and time to explore, but we got to explore a lot of stuff. When we moved to a 13-episode season, we really tried to make our storytelling as aggressive as we felt was right for the show, and tried to push story forward. I think for the most part, the show benefited from the sense of urgency that came with the 13-episode season. 13 episodes more reflects the amount of games in a football season, that really helped energize the third or fourth or fifth season. You're really following a season of football, so even if you don't see a game, you know they're two games away from the playoffs, etc. That sort of engine helps feel like the story's moving forward.

I don't have any huge regrets in terms of stories we didn't tell. The beauty of the show is we had such an incredible cast. Not just the series regular cast, but the extended cast was so wonderful. I wanted to tell stories about all of them. I regret certain things, like not being able to bring Smash's mom back and do more stories with her. grandma Saracen since Matt left, we couldn't find ways into story for her. We lost Tim Riggins for the greater part of the fifth season. That was a decision made because of a movie role that he had. I would've liked to have brought him back earlier in the season and done more with him. What Taylor brings to that character is just indescribable and the heart of the show. But this is all to say it was a good show. We told a lot of great stories, but there were always more we could have told.

So something like Coach Stan being gay and in the closet is the sort of thing you could've dealt with, but you're okay with having not.

That was a good example of a story that we didn't feel we had time to follow up on. There were a couple. We didn't have many. Following up on that story that we planted, we never had the opportunity to follow up on that story because we were on such an accelerated pace in the fourth and fifth season. We couldn't find the real estate

In looking for publicity photographs to accompany my finale story, I saw a shot of that final scene of Billy and Tim building the house on Tim's property, only Jason Street was there, too. Was he just cut out of that? Was he going to be in more of the finale? What happened?

Scott Porter really wanted to be part of that moment. It wasn't that he was cut out. It was something that we shot as a potential alternate for the ending. It's a good example of having an embarrassment of riches in terms of your cast and your story. We knew that final image was going to be Tim on his land. The question was who is he going to be with on the land. At one point it was Tyra. We shot the possibility of it being Jason Street. But we felt that we had to come back to what was most right and most honest. And we felt that those two brothers, after what we had seen them go through, the image of them together at the end was the one that we felt was the most correct version.

And finally, one of the things that made the show great was that rawness of emotion, in moments like Matt staring at his father in the coffin. Did that just come from the filming style you used, or was there more to it than that? And are there ways other shows can learn from that, or do you think that rawness in any way helped prevent the show from being a bigger hit than it was - that people don't want to feel that deeply about the characters they watch at 8 o'clock on NBC?

The reason why some of these moments resonated as they did was a combination of several things. I think the incredible cast, I think the writing and directing, but I do think that a part of it is that the filmmaking process, the vocabulary of how we shot really allowed us as an audience to really get inside this world in a way that sometimes you don't. Sometimes a lot of filmmaking doesn't allow you to be as intimately there in the space with these characters as our show did. And also the filmmaking style allowed the actors to expand on what was in the script and improvise and live in these moments, and never know when the camera was on them for the close-up, or whether it was on them at all. They never knew, and that was really a part of it. They were able to exist in the moment and not have to think about the artifice of what they were doing. They didn't have to worry about the technical part of being an actor at times and free themselves to be inside the moment. I do think that was a part of it.

In terms of other shows, I can only speak to "Parenthood." In doing "Parenthood," which is a very different show visually, I absolutely have tried to take from "Friday Night Lights," to the degree that is appropriate for that show, to its great benefit. We shoot with three cameras, try to shoot both sides of coverage if possible. That allows the actors to overlap and to find moments that feel more authentic and real than what you sometimes would normally get in a scripted drama that's shot more classically. And that's something in Parenthood that has evolved. The pilot was done in a very classical style of shooting. And over the series, the show has evolved. it continues to grow and deepen as the episodes go on. You absolutely take from it what you can.

The other side of it is the look of the show was cinema verite, and that allowed us to shoot in that style. We never did rehearsals, the lighting, while beautiful, was pretty much set up. We would never light specifically for a close-up the way most shows would. It worked for the look of the show. It's not easily done. It's not appropriate, necessarily, for other shows. To shoot in that extreme of a way would only work if the subject matter, if it made sense.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at

Saturday, July 16, 2011

A ‘Friday Night Lights’ Farewell


There are few series I can think of whose conclusions occasion feelings of sorrow. “The Sopranos” ended amid confusion and awe. We may miss the narrative and the ingeniously black comedy of it, all if not the actual characters, none of whom you really want tucking you into bed at night. The same can be said of “Big Love,” another of the greatest family dramas ever on television. Though we may miss its intelligent social commentary, we do not necessarily pine for the people in it to re-enter our lives. HBO renders characters ambiguously; we are not supposed to fall in love with each and every one of them.

As a network series, “Friday Night Lights” operated under certain constraints and the result was not only an exquisite bit of anthropology — life in a small, working-class Texas town – but a show in which beloved characters became intimates in our own lives. The series is over now, and I can genuinely say, I’m sorry that I won’t be able to see how these lives further unfold — how Tami and Eric make out in the Northeast, how Tim and Tyra do as a married couple, how Becky and Luke manage his time in the military, how Billy and Mindy will manage with twins.

The world of “Friday Night Lights,” was, for the most part, a world of exceedingly good people. The closest our hero –Coach Eric Taylor — ever comes to being morally unpalatable is resisting marital compromise. The final episodes have Tami anguished over the prospect that Eric might want to stay in Texas forever, depriving her of the best career opportunity of her life. The scene in the final hour, when she and Eric take Matt and Julie out for dinner to explain the challenges of marriage, was heartbreaking for Eric’s blindness to his own hypocrisy. But, of course, he comes around, giving up the chance to coach the East Dillion-Panthers super team and hitching his wagon to Tami’s new academic career. One of the hallmarks of this series has been the extreme close-up, as faces forlorn or contemplative consumed the whole frame. I liked the way the camera was so often pulled back in the finale, putting some distance between us and our adored Dillon-ites, readying us for goodbyes. The device seemed especially noteworthy in the shot of Eric and Tami outside the restaurant. This is among the most intense and difficult moments we’ve ever witnessed between them — “It’s my turn, babe,” she tells him — and the direction, in a sense, gives the characters their privacy to experience this.

Eric and Tami do abandon the Lone Star life and move to Philadelphia. In that last montage, some months after East Dillon has done the inconceivable and won the State championship, they are shown as the East Coast peopl, Eric thought they could never be. Tami is the dean of admissions of a pseudo-Haverford and Eric is coaching football somewhere nearby. Julie and Matt are in Chicago; whether they have married I’m not sure, but we know that they are together and happy. I’d like to believe that they are not married, that they’re saving that for the time when they are at least both 25. And I’d like to know that Julie has transferred to Northwestern.

It’s clear that Tim and Tyra will be together. We know that Tim will be in the hands of a woman who really loves him and also one who will accept his deficiencies and challenge him where she knows he can grow. Tyra wants to do something useful in the world. Tyra tells him she has plans (to which he affectionately replies, “Don’t.”) I wish I could see the extended Riggins family Christmas, 10 years down the road, with Billy and Mindy’s brood and Tim and Tyra and their kids in Tim’s house with, by then, its newest addition.

Vince, we imagine doing fantastically on the super team, and heading to a top-notch SEC program. And Landry, of whom we saw not nearly enough, will surely do something wonky. Do we worry about Luke? Sending him to the military was realistic but I wish we’d be guaranteed a happy future for him. And I wish, in some small way, that “Friday Night Lights” were a cheesy enough enterprise to promise us a reunion show.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Actor Basil Rathbone hams it up with Milton Berle 1951

Distinguished actor Basil Rathbone, best known for his role as Sherlock Holmes in the 1930s and 40s, hams it up with Milton Berle in a comedy sketch set on the high seas on The Texaco Star Theater, broadcast live September 29, 1951. Comic actors Milton Frome and Arnold Stang also appear.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

TV Series That Ended in a Dream

Coming up with a good series finale is a very tricky thing. There’s a lot of pressure for the writers to find a unique idea that will, in some way, cap off the series. Of course, no matter how good it is, one way or the other, they’re not likely to please everyone. Popular themes for finales have included moving out, job changes, graduations, births, deaths, and the return of a significant character from the past. And then, there’s the “big dream” explanation.

Just a handful of TV series have attempted to go out this way. Sometimes it works and sometimes not. What’s the difference between a finale that’s dreamy and one that’s simply a nightmare?

It ultimately comes down to what’s right for the particular show. Does the dream scenario fit in with the rest of the series? Or, does it seem like it was just tacked on to the end because the writers couldn’t think of anything better? The good ones are surprising but satisfying. The bad ones feel like a bad case of bait and switch that make you question why you watched the series to begin with.

Here are five examples of shows that were all a dream, from best to worst. Take a look and give us your opinion below.

Newhart — “The Last Newhart”
In the final few moments of the show, Dick Loudon (Bob Newhart) is hit on the head with a wayward golf ball. When he wakes up, we realize that the entire series has been a dream of Newhart’s character, Dr. Bob Hartley, from his previous sitcom, The Bob Newhart Show.
Which dream ending was the best?

Though the dream ending wasn’t planned very much in advance, it fits perfectly. Newhart plays essentially the same character in both shows and, as Dick Loudon, he runs into a few characters that are very reminiscent of those from The Bob Newhart Show. There are also plenty of bizarre events in the series that are best explained as the result of having eaten bad Chinese food the night before. Not only does Newhart’s clever series-as-a-dream scenario work, it ensured that the quiet 1980s sitcom will never be forgotten.

Life on Mars (US) — “Life is a Rock”
Sam Tyler (Jason O’Mara), a 2008 detective who’d been inexplicably been thrown back to 1973, wakes up in a space capsule that’s just landed on Mars. It turns out that the 2008 scenario was part of sleep-induced fantasy that went wrong as the result of spaceship malfunction. The other members of his Mars crew are people he encountered in the 1973 dream and his strange 1973 memory flashes make sense.

You have to hand it to the writers of this UK series remake for coming up with this clever ending. They had this ending in mind from the start and crafted the series in such a way that they could end it at any time. Even though the ABC show was cancelled rather abruptly, they assembled an unforgettable finale that works. And, like the car that hit Sam in the pilot, it was something that nobody saw coming.

Life on Mars (UK) — Series Two, Episode Eight
After two short seasons and finally getting acclimated to living in the 1970s, Sam Tyler (John Simm) wakes up from a coma in the present day. Once he recovers, Sam returns to his regular life but feels terribly out of place. He realizes that he’d prefer to live in his coma dreams and leaps off a tall building. That ending was a little too dark for some so an epilogue was tacked on at the end. After jumping, Sam ends up back in the 1970s and, with his friends and girl, drives off into the sunset.

The original Mars has a satisfying (though still quite dark) finale but it hardly comes as much of a surprise. Considering the outstanding series as a whole, the finale is a bit of a letdown.

Roseanne — “Into That Good Night, parts one and two”
The long-running sitcom was set to end at the end of its eighth season and John Goodman’s Dan was going to die of a heart attack. At the last minute, ABC decided to bring the show back for an ninth year. Roseanne Barr decided to go out with a bang and turned the last season of the blue collar sitcom into a crazy version of Absolutely Fabulous.

Goodman was only contracted for some of the episodes and so Dan and Roseanne have marital problems in the show and he’s not around very much. In the last season, the family wins the lottery, battles terrorists, and meet celebrities.

In the show’s final moments, we learn that the entire show has been in Roseanne Connor’s imagination. She’s been writing her memoirs and has changed the details of her life that she didn’t like. We learn that, in reality, Dan had died of the heart attack, daughter Becky married David (instead of Mark), daughter Darlene married Mark (instead of David), and sister Jackie is gay (instead of mother Beverly). Barr then reads a very long T.E. Lawrence poem that seems to go on forever.

The whole dream twist comes out of left field and feels completely out of character for what began as a simple blue-collar sitcom. So many could identify with it for so long that to end it this way feels very cheap.

St. ElsewhereSt. Elsewhere — “The Last One”
This groundbreaking and critically-acclaimed medical drama effortlessly mixes issues like life, death, and AIDS, with elements of black comedy. The strong ensemble includes actors like Ed Flanders, Norman Lloyd, William Daniels, Denzel Washington, Alfre Woodard, Mark Harmon, and even Howie Mandel.

By the end of the series, the struggling St. Eligius hospital is about to be closed for good, characters have left or are leaving, and Dr. Auschlander (Norman Lloyd) dies at his desk. There are comic elements in the last episode as well, including the cliche fat lady singing and bits that are reminiscent of other finales.

In the final moments of the show, it’s revealed that the entire series has been imagined by Donald Westphall’s autistic son, Tommy (Chad Allen), as he stares into a snowglobe that contains a tiny hospital. Though the big twist is a shocker and has gone down in history as one of the most memorable finales in television history, most faithful viewers couldn’t help but feel cheated.