Standalone Episodes Give Showrunners Creative Freedom

Ari Karpel is an AwardsLine contributor. This story appeared in the June 19 issue of AwardsLine.

The first four episodes of Season 2 were pretty much business as usual on HBO’s Girls. Hannah (series creator Lena Dunham) kicked her roommate out after she discovered he slept with her best friend; then she procured coke and had sex with her neighbor as research for an article she had been assigned to write.
That’s when something unexpected happened. In the fifth episode of the love-it-or-hate-it series’ second season, Hannah went down the proverbial rabbit hole.
After a brief scene at the Brooklyn café where Hannah works, the rest of the episode tracked her with a brand-new character, handsome doctor Joshua (Patrick Wilson), playing out a relationship of sorts in his beautifully appointed brownstone. There was topless Ping-Pong, sex in the kitchen and, by the end of the half hour—which took place over two days—an emotional awakening unlike any Hannah had previously experienced. “I don’t think I realized before I met you that I was lonely,” she confesses to Joshua, who turns out to have no interest in her inner life. We never see Joshua again.
“That’s the first hard thing for her that’s leading to the OCD,” showrunner Jennifer Konner explains, referring to the dramatic obsessive-compulsive disorder symptoms that Hannah would manifest later in the season. “We looked at this episode as the rampup.”
And yet even Konner admits that “One Man’s Trash,” as the episode is titled, wasn’t part of the original plan for the season. “Lena wrote it two nights before the table read, like in a fever dream,” says the executive producer. “She came to us with it and said, ‘I don’t know what this is, but I wrote this.’ It was such an insane little movie, we had to make it.”
Girls is not the first serialized TV show to take breaks from its ongoing storyline for filmlike vignettes that upend the usual episode structure, but it employs the technique more often than most. Two episodes later, viewers found themselves far from Hannah’s Brooklyn stomping ground, at the upstate New York home of Jessa’s (Jemima Kirke) parents. “It’s a cliché to say about HBO, but they give you an unbelievable freedom to do what you want to do,” says Konner, who acknowledges HBO’s recently canceled Enlightened as another series that uses so-called standalone episodes to great effect.

David Chase intended for every episode of The Sopranos to feel like a short film.
David Chase intended for every episode of The Sopranos to feel like a short film.

The practice arguably goes back to Star Trek, and it was used quite a bit in such 1990’s sci-fi/fantasy series as Deep Space Nine and The X-Files, and continued with Lost and Dr. Who. But TV writers single out one series, also on HBO, for inspiring the spread of standalone episodes across the contemporary TV landscape: The Sopranos. “David Chase took it to such a masterful level,” says Konner. “In the writers’ room, it’s become shorthand. (Executive producer Judd Apatow) will say, ‘The Russian in the woods!’, and we’ll know what he means.”
She’s talking about the “Pine Barrens” episode of Sopranos’ third season, in which Christopher (Michael Imperioli) and Paulie (Tony Sirico) get lost in the woods chasing a Russian mobster they’re trying to kill. (It has also been acknowledged as inspiration for the carjacking-kidnapping episode of Six Feet Under, titled “That’s My Dog.”)
But a funny thing happened when Sopranos creator David Chase rewatched the 2001 episode before speaking with AwardsLine about it: He discovered that it isn’t actually a standalone storyline. “There was a B story and a C story,” reports Chase. “People think of it as standalone because that part of the story is so memorable, and the writing (by Terence Winter, with a story credit by Timothy Van Patten) and acting are so good. What I take from that is they forgot the other stuff. I created the show, and I had forgotten the story about Jackie Jr.”
Nonetheless, when Chase conceived The Sopranos, he wanted it to feel like a series of short films. Looking back, he believes he achieved that best in “College.” The fifth episode of the series’ run has Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) taking his daughter, Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler), to visit schools in New England, where he spots a former mobster who has been in witness protection. Back home, Carmela (Edie Falco) receives a surprise visit from her priest. “You have all the information you need going in. It doesn’t refer to the episode before it, or after. It stands on its own.”
Chase thinks it’s wise of showrunners to submit such episodes for Emmy consideration. Like series pilots, which dominate the writing and directing categories, these episodes play well with voters who might not have seen the whole season. (Indeed, “College” earned Chase and James Manos, Jr. an Emmy for outstanding writing.)

"The Suitcase" episode of Mad Men.
“The Suitcase” episode of Mad Men.

The Sopranos creator has been particularly impressed by standalone episode work done on shows created by two Sopranos veterans: Matthew Weiner (“The Suitcase” is arguably the best episode of Mad Men, standalone or not); and Terence Winter (Boardwalk Empire delved into incest in “Under God’s Power She Flourishes”). “It’s like a vacation,” Chase explains. “You go away for a week, even for work, and you come back feeling like you’ve learned something.”
In Season 2, “Higher Power” was done from the point of view of Levi (Luke Wilson) at rehab in Hawaii, and “No Doubt” from the POV of White’s own character, Tyler. Those episodes even had those characters’ voiceovers. “I think it helps clarify that character,” says White. “You really get into their inner psychology, and that’s something harder to do in dialogue. With the voiceover you could get into the internal mind of a character, especially mine, who was more of an introvert.”
Had the series continued, White could imagine using a standalone as a jumping off point for a whole new series, in much the way that episodes of Happy Days spawned Laverne & Shirley, Mork & Mindy and Joanie Loves Chachi. “It’s like we created a whole new pilot in Hawaii,” says White. “There was a whole new cast, new sets, different locations. It was fun.”
The standalone episode phenomenon is not exclusive to shows on HBO. NBC’s Community is more like a traditional comedy, meaning its storylines mostly stand on their own. But as often as possible, its fourth-season showrunners, Moses Port and David Guarascio, have followed the tradition established by creator Dan Harmon of doing ambitious episodes that break the show’s rules. In the current season, that meant doing one episode acted out by puppets.
There is one rule that must be followed by all showrunners doing standalone episodes, says Moses, “There has to be a reason why you’re telling your story.” In the case of the puppet episode (“Intro to Felt Surrogacy”), he explains that the school’s dean was using puppet therapy to resolve tensions among the group. “As silly as that might sound, it gives you a reason for going far afield.”
Sometimes the reason is not made explicit to viewers. The Girls episode with Jessa’s parents was inspired by a very real-life need. “We decided to do it because we had to get rid of her,” Konner says bluntly. “Jemima was pregnant, so that episode was going to be her leaving.”
In typical Girls fashion, Jessa’s departure was fairly obscure, signaled by a note on the counter. Hannah headed back to the city on her own. Jessa hasn’t been seen in an episode of Girls since.

Emmys Q&A: Allison Williams

Michael Slezak is senior editor of TVLine and an AwardsLine contributor. This story appeared in the June 12 issue of AwardsLine.

You know those people who brag about not having a television? Girls’ Allison Williams has a handy response for ’em. “I always say very dryly and very honestly, ‘You should invest in one. I’m not even saying you would necessarily like our show. But TV is so good right now.’”
Williams’ awareness of the number of great performances under consideration this Emmy season makes it all the more “exciting and unbelievable” when her name gets floated as a possible contender for supporting actress. And while she’s quick to credit Girls creator and star Lena Dunham—as well as the show’s writers, directors and hair and makeup staff—for helping her bring to life the rudderless Marnie Michaels, Williams admits that “it’s a really fun challenge to play someone who seems to have it all together and yet has this anxiety bubbling beneath the surface. It’s an anxiety she isn’t necessarily aware of herself.”

How did you view Marnie’s season journey overall?
It was really hard. I really feel for her. We are certainly different, but we have enough in common that I look at her and I root for her and I want the best for her. I wish for her that she had something that she was passionate about so that in moments where everything else seems to be unraveling, she could turn to those things that she really truly loves and believes in. But that seems to be another thing that she’s lacking.

One of the more shocking moments of the season was when artist Booth Jonathan (Jorma Taccone) takes Marnie home from her hostessing job and locks her inside his art installation—a tiny box with walls made of TV sets—and later has sex with her. How do you approach a scene like that?  
The scenes of her crawling into and out of the booth were shot about two months prior to the scene inside the booth—just a little fun fact. The craziest thing about that latter scene was how those old-school TV sets emit quite a bit of static, and that sound is unmistakable. And of course, those images on the screens were just gross. But I’m the kind of person that has to fast-forward parts of True Blood. I get easily queasy.
Anyhow, we shot Marnie’s emergence (from the box) in so many different ways. There was one where I came out and sprinted away. There was a version where he kissed me afterward. But I loved that the one they chose was where Marnie is like, “What the fuck?” You know, total PTSD, and then she says, “You’re so fucking brilliant.” I don’t know if she really means that. She just knows that that’s what she’s supposed to think. She values his perspective on the world because he takes her down, and Marnie has always had this perverse love of people like that.

I loved the scene after Marnie realizes she’s not Booth’s girlfriend, just his paid assistant. We see her bravely lying to Hannah (Lena Dunham) on the phone that everything is perfect and happy.
One of the reasons that scene was heartbreaking was that Marnie is wearing the skeleton of this (expensive) dress that she had bought to impress Booth. She realizes how silly it is, and she’s completely stripped of her dignity. It was really hard to shoot that moment, and it was hard to watch.
We also have to dish the scene where Marnie goes to see her ex-boyfriend Charlie (Christopher Abbott) at a work party celebrating his huge success. I loved every post-relationship interaction that Charlie and Marnie had. Those scenes were the most fun for me because if I haven’t been in that situation, my best friends have been in that situation where you’re out of a relationship yet you still want that person in your orbit. It’s not even necessarily a narcissistic thing; it’s just human that you want to be sure that that person is thinking about you, consumed by you. So all of those scenes to me were about that. She’s standing there outside the bathroom and suddenly jabbing Audrey (Gelman), just so subtly while simultaneously trying to make herself seem really cool and nice and understanding. Charlie sees straight through it for most of the party.

She grabs the mic to give the most oblivious performance of Kanye West’s “Stronger.” How did that scene come to such vivid, awkward life?
I knew I had to sing it decently, but not as if I were performing at Carnegie Hall. And what ended up in the episode was recorded live in the moment. It’s not like I recorded it in the studio and then lip-synced it on set. So it was as agonizing as you’d imagine, except I was wearing an earwig, which means I was the only person there who could hear the (music) track. All of those extras who were standing there for every single take, they could only hear my voice a cappella. The looks on their faces were very organic. Anytime I hear (the song) now, I just have this Pavlovian response: Music, blush, embarrassment.

Comedy Race Handicap

Michael Ausiello is founder and editor in chief of TVLine and an AwardsLine contributor. This story appeared in the June 12 issue of AwardsLine.
The gap between Modern Family and the rest of the Emmy comedy field has been so wide that even an imperfect third season landed the ABC family comedy a third consecutive best series win last year. But Modern Family is wrapping another uneven season, and with its ratings slipping and challengers gaining on it, a fourth statuette is far from guaranteed.
HBO’s Girls is coming off a Golden Globe win, there’s a growing sentiment that CBS’ Nielsen juggernaut The Big Bang Theory is past due to be recognized, and former best comedy series Emmy winner Arrested Development is back. Will Modern Family’s winning streak come to an end this year? Here’s our assessment of the show’s chances, as well as the rest of the contenders.

It's tough for a series to earn an Emmy in its final season.
It’s tough for a series to earn an Emmy in its final season.

An air of “been there, awarded that” might surround Tina Fey’s NBC comedy—it has won three times, after all. But in its seventh and final season, it went out on a high note creatively. And, considering this is Emmy’s last chance to give it a back slap, it can’t—or shouldn’t—be counted out. So its series nomination is a relatively safe bet (as are nominations for one-time lead actress victor Fey and two-time lead actor winner Alec Baldwin).
In the same way that Netflix’s House of Cards is shaking up the drama race, the subscriber service’s resurrected Fox favorite was initially poised to set the comedy derby on its ear. (HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm is ineligible to be nominated this year, so there’s even an open slot.) But reviews have been lukewarm at best, suggesting a best comedy nom is no longer a foregone conclusion. The show’s cast might stand a better chance. At one time or another during the show’s three-season network run, Jason Bateman, Will Arnett, Jeffrey Tambor and the sublime Jessica Walter were all recognized with noms, but none of them ever took home the gold.

The Big Bang Theory is riding high creatively and in ratings.
The Big Bang Theory is riding high creatively and in ratings.
A best comedy nomination is long overdue for Louis C.K.’s FX series.

If the CBS smash was only TV’s top-rated comedy or if it was only firing on all cylinders creatively, it would stand a good chance of taking the Emmy away from Modern Family. But its numbers are through the roof and it’s as funny (and touching) as ever, which means the two-time contender actually stands a great chance of coming out on top. Johnny Galecki might even manage to rejoin two-time lead actor winner Jim Parsons among the nominees. (If there’s any justice, so will the underrated Simon Helberg, if only for the sweet episode in which Wolowitz sorta learns the contents of a letter sent to him years earlier by his father.)
You could argue that this show belongs on our list of longshots, rather than on this list. But the HBO underperformer had a huge fan base among Hollywood types—exactly the sort who are Emmy voters. So, although even cocreators Laura Dern and Mike White weren’t recognized last year, they actually do stand a chance this year. After all, is anything better than a nomination to say, “We’re sorry you got canceled!”?
After its much-debated freshman season, Lena Dunham’s HBO series came close to claiming the comedy Emmy from Modern Family. Now, coming off a pair of Golden Globe wins and a second season that was just as controversial as the first, the show seems even better positioned to pull off an upset. Whether or not it does, another nom for both the series and its star-writer-director is assured. Of the supporting cast, Adam Driver, who plays sensitive Neanderthal Adam, seems likeliest to be nominated.
Emmy-wise, the Fox musical has sung its swan song: After being nominated in 2010 and 2011, the series didn’t make the cut last year (and didn’t earn a Golden Globe nom this year, either). Emmy voters seem to have moved on.
Nominated for lead actor in 2012—and having just won the Golden Globe—Don Cheadle is a shoo-in for a nom. As for the show itself, the racy Showtime comedy has yet to land a major best series nomination.
Solid as the CBS sleeper might be, the field is too crowded for it to break back into the race. (It was only nominated once, in 2009.) Even Mr. Popularity, Neil Patrick Harris, hasn’t been given a nom since 2010.
In the wake of Louis C.K.’s writing win last year—and his nominations for lead actor and director—his FX series stands a fair chance of getting a long overdue first best series nomination. If not, it will have to wait two years for another shot because C.K. is taking extra time between seasons. Nevertheless, the comedian himself is sure to be among the contenders (and probably in multiple categories).
At best, CBS’ full-figured romcom has a slim chance of eking out a nod. But its movie-star leading lady, Melissa McCarthy—2011’s surprise lead actress winner and a nominee again last year—is assured another nom.
It’s probably too early for Fox’s freshman romcom to see any love from Emmy. Its creator, Mindy Kaling, however, is familiar enough—and sharp enough—that she could end up with a lead actress nod.

Modern Family is the reigning Emmy champ in comedy.
Modern Family is the reigning Emmy champ in comedy.

Though the ABC comedy’s numbers aren’t quite as strong as they once were—and buzz about the show has quieted to a faint murmur—it’s still a lock for a fourth consecutive nom. A fourth win, on the other hand, isn’t a sure thing—especially with The Big Bang Theory enjoying one of its most successful (in every way) seasons, Emmy darling 30 Rock taking a victory lap and Girls being on such a roll. Maybe two-time nominee Ed O’Neill will finally take home his well-deserved golden girl.
Having lost none of their sparkle in this Fox romcom’s second season, “adorkable” Zooey Deschanel and Max Greenfield are safe bets to be nominated again for lead actress and supporting actor, respectively. And, in addition to Jake Johnson—trying his luck in the lead actor category—the show itself could grab that open Curb Your Enthusiasm slot and slip a New face into the comedy race.
Pass the painkillers, because Edie Falco’s Showtime series has no shot at a nomination. (In fact, looking at its chart, it hasn’t been in the running since 2010.) If the show gets recognized at all, it’ll almost certainly be through a nom for its star.
The longrunning workplace comedy hasn’t received a single nomination since Steve Carell’s 2011 exit, so it would be an understatement to call the show a dark horse for its final season. If Emmy is ever again going to recognize its 2006 comedy winner, it’s now or never.
In spite of glowing reviews, Amy Poehler’s small-town political comedy will have to pull off an upset to get back into the comedy series race. (It’s only received a nom once, in 2011.) A more likely scenario is that this will finally be the year that the show’s thrice-nominated leading lady takes home a statuette. Maybe Nick Offerman will even sneak into the supporting contest by a (mustache) hair.
Given the mixed critical response to Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ HBO comedy, it was a surprise that the show landed a nomination in 2012. It is questionable whether Veep will be able to pull that off again, but Louis-Dreyfus, whose performance has been universally praised, is fully expected to repeat as a nominee after snagging the Emmy (her third, having also won for Seinfeld and The New Adventures of Old Christine) last year.

LONG SHOTS: Ben and Kate, Californication, Community, Cougar Town, Episodes, Happy Endings, The Middle, Raising Hope, Suburgatory, Two and a Half Men, Weeds.

Andy Patrick contributed to this report.