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June 11, 2010

The lowdown on showrunner showdowns


By Shawna Malcom

Ann Biderman remembers exactly when she lost faith in NBC.

It was May 19, 2009, when the network announced it was turning the Monday-Friday 10 p.m. slot over to the ultimately ill-fated "Jay Leno Show."

"That was the first clue that they didn't know what they were doing," says Biderman, who feared what the plan meant for "Southland," her critically acclaimed series about the gritty lives of LAPD cops.
"We were promised that (moving to) 9 p.m. wouldn't affect content," she says. "But then, of course, they started worrying."

So much so that, in early October, a mere three weeks before "Southland's" Second 2 premiere, the network abruptly canceled the series.

"At first I thought it was a joke," Biderman says of hearing the news from fellow exec producer John Wells. "Like, where's the 'Punk'd' camera? We were devastated."

Fortunately, execs at TNT were fans of"Southland" and by Nov. 2 the cable network closed a deal for the show, which was recently picked up for a third season.

For producers like Biderman, the process of crafting quality drama can be every bit as dramatic as the story lines they create.

The challenges to the creative process can be relatively small (wardrobe, scheduling) or utterly vital to a show's future (deciding the right time to kill a main character or when to kill a series).

For Graham Yost, creator/executive producer of FX's "Justified," the obstacle was a cowboy hat.

As worn by Timothy Olyphant, who plays U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, the hat isn't merely a wardrobe piece, but a symbol of rebellion against his criminal father.

Author Elmore Leonard, who also serves as an exec producer on the drama, felt strongly about which hat Olyphant should wear. He thought it was a given that the lawman would sport the same well-worn, small-brimmed businessman-style Stetson his character did "Fire in the Hole," Leonard's short story in which Givens first appeared.

But a test run on Olyphant left Yost underwhelmed.

"It just didn't fit right with Tim's head and face," he says. "It needed to be bigger."

Like one of his own tell-it-like-it-is characters, the 84-year-old author stood his ground.

Yost tried to compromise and e-mailed Leonard pictures of Olyphant in numerous hats during the course of the next month. He found himself torn between selecting the right wardrobe for the story and pleasing the man whose books and short stories he'd long admired.

Shortly before production began on the pilot in California, Yost decided to go with a large, crisp cowboy hat he loved.

Leonard still isn't thrilled. (Lucky for Yost though, the author loves the show. He's even been inspired to write another Raylan Givens novella.)

The breakneck pace of creating television leaves as little time for wardrobe debates as it does for international casting crises.

Neal Baer discovered this the hard way in 2006 when he offered a guest role on "Law & Order: SVU" to French actress Leslie Caron too close to the start date for her to easily get a work visa.

"We had to go to the late Sen. Kennedy to have his office expedite things," Baer recalls.

Eager to avoid a similar scenario again last season, the showrunner began courting French movie star Isabelle Huppert in February with an eye toward casting her in the May 11 season finale.

He handcrafted for her the meaty role of a grieving and unstable mother. An impressed Huppert eagerly signed on.

The visa was secured. All was well.

Then, on April 12, as Huppert was preparing to fly from Paris to New York, where "SVU" shoots, the Icelandic volcano erupted and grounded thousands of European flights.

Baer was left scrambling, again.

" 'Can we drive her to Madrid?' " he wondered at the time. "Some planes were getting out of there."

Ultimately, forming a contingency plan was moot. At the last minute, Huppert escaped Paris on an overnight flight and went straight to the New York set.

The actress told Baer she felt "like she did three movies in five days."

"To have her in the show was thrilling," he says. "What we went through ... it was certainly worth it."

For "Dexter" executive producer Sara Colleton, Season 4 of her Showtime hit revolved around one pivotal question: Could the drama's central character -- a blood-splatter analyst, husband, new father and serial killer -- really have it all?

The most dramatically satisfying answer, of course, was no.

In mapping out the season's arc, Colleton and her stable of writers decided that Dexter (Michael C. Hall) would need to pay for his hubris, and the price would be steep.

"It had to be what mattered most to him," Colleton says. "It came to feel inevitable."

That inevitability became the series' most shocking moment.

In the finale, having finally disposed of the Trinity Killer (John Lithgow), Dexter returns home to a gruesome scene: His lovely blonde wife Rita (Julie Benz), Trinity's final victim, lay dead in the bathtub with his baby son Harrison sitting on the floor in a pool of his mother's blood.

Filming Benz's death scene was "very emotional," she says. "The night on set was also respectful, and quiet. Everyone there understood how important that moment was."

Following through with her creative vision proved more difficult than she anticipated. Colleton calls killing Rita and, as a result, letting go of a series regular she loved, her "toughest decision" of the entire series.

"I hope I never to have to do something like that again on this show," she says. "I can't handle it. For me, it was like a death in the family."

Killing a main character is one thing. Asking network executives to end your series while it's still Nielsen gold is nearly as wild a notion as a show about an island inhabited by polar bears and a smoke monster.

Luckily, wild notions work well for Carlton Cuse.

During "Lost's" third season in 2007, the executive producer and his co-showrunner Damon Lindelof thought hard about their drama's future.

"The audience was recognizing that we'd slowed our narrative storytelling to a crawl," Cuse says. "But we were really fearful of burning through story fuel too fast because we didn't know how long the mythology had to last -- two years or nine."

Announcing an end date would reassure fans they had a master plan for the complex ABC drama and hopefully keep them invested, but also save "Lost" from what they saw as a fate worse than brevity.

"We didn't want an 'X-Files' trajectory," Cuse says. "If Chris Carter had been able to end that show earlier, there would be a vastly different perception of it now. It's terrible that the end seasons negate the incredible accomplishment of the first ones."

Although confident in their decision, Cuse felt "high anxiety" when he and Lindelof made their pitch to Stephen McPherson, president of ABC Entertainment Group, and Mark Pedowitz, then the president of ABC Studios.

They were prepared to quit if the execs balked.

But to their immense relief, McPherson and Pedowitz agreed to wrap "Lost" after a total of six seasons, and Cuse and Lindelof signed lucrative deals keeping them at the helm for the extent of the drama's run.

Today, having secured "Lost's" legacy as one of the most respected and influential shows in TV history, Cuse is gratefulhe andLindelof stuck to their guns.

"Getting the end date was the most significant moment in the history of the show," he says. "We told the story we wanted to tell and we stand by it."


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