The New Generation of Evening Soaps

Diane Haithman is an AwardsLine contributor. This story appeared in the June 19 issue of AwardsLine.

What two popular TV show titles are least likely to occur in the same sentence?
There is no single answer, but British producer Gareth Neame was decidedly taken aback when a family member came up with this combo: “We used to have Dallas. Now we have Downton. ”
“Downton” is, of course, the PBS Masterpiece hit Downton Abbey, the sprawling saga of the fabulously wealthy Crawley family, unfolding at the family’s English country estate. And “Dallas” is, well, Dallas (1978-1991) CBS’ soapy saga of Texas oil baron J.R Ewing, set on the lavish Southfork Ranch.
While the worlds of feathered bonnets and 10-gallon hats couldn’t seem more different, Downton executive producer Neame says the comparison confirmed what he’d been thinking when he proposed the series to creator-writer Julian Fellowes: Once again, there is room for the nighttime soap on the TV landscape.

TNT's Dallas revival features several of the original cast members.
TNT’s Dallas revival features several of the original cast members.

As in the era of Dallas—which spawned Dynasty, Falcon Crest and Knots Landing—the primetime soap has surged in popularity with viewers. Along with the crown jewel Downton Abbey, witness the appearance of new and glamorous multigenerational sagas including ABC’s Nashville and Revenge. To prove the point, there’s even 
a new Dallas on TNT, with some of the original stars 
including Linda Gray and Patrick Duffy (J.R.’s “good” brother Bobby) returning to ruin each other’s lives for 
a new generation of viewers.
Neame adds that the evening soap is going through a revival in TV development as well: While the producer says that he and Fellowes have not been inundated with requests to create another Downton, “I certainly know that of pitches that have been (made) in the last year, nine out of 10 say: ‘It’s a bit like Downton…’” (For the record, Fellowes and Neame are currently in development on The Gilded Age for NBC, a similarly highbrow soap about New York’s real-life wealthy families in the 1880s.)
Neame says his Downton inspiration was the Masterpiece series Upstairs, Downstairs. (The original series ran from 1971-75). But to make such a soap work for a young generation, he believes, it needs the fast pace pioneered by Dallas. “We throw every other scene away. We do in three scenes what would take six in a traditional soap.” He adds that the series focuses on the technology advances of its historical period (1910-1920s) to highlight the similarities between Downton times and contemporary life. “For them, it might be electricity or a motorcar or a new toaster or something. For us, it’s the latest Apple product,” he observes.
Of course, even when geared to a younger audience’s taste for a fast pace, it’s unlikely that Downton or any other TV soap will capture an audience as big as Dallas did. On Nov. 21, 1980, 83 million people in the U.S. alone tuned in to find out who shot J.R. Ewing. That’s more people than voted in that year’s Presidential election. Loraine Despres, writer of the episode, recalls that show producers were so paranoid about the secret leaking that they filmed multiple endings in which J.R. was shot by just about everybody. (The second-choice shooter after J.R.’s sister-in-law Kristen Shepard was J.R.’s alcoholic wife Sue Ellen, played by Gray). It’s unlikely any primetime soap will ever match those kinds of numbers again.
Still, Downton seems to have spawned a raft of hopeful imitators —the most obvious being Masterpiece Classic’s own series Mr. Selfridge, starring Jeremy Piven as real-life department store entrepreneur Harry Gordon Selfridge. Downton producer Rebecca Eaton has stresses the differences between the two shows: Downton is pure fiction, whereas Selfridge is based on a real-life character. But all one has to do is look at the costumes to see that both shows are cut from the same expensive cloth.
For his part, Fellowes doesn’t mind the phrase “soap opera.” “When I hear it, I don’t want to reach for my gun,” the British producer says. “That’s why we call it soap opera in real life—‘Oh, darling, have you heard the latest in the soap opera’—because that sort of succession of dramas is what life is. Life is solving problems, and then you die.” Family feuding is also key to the proceedings, whether it’s the fights of the Ewings, the drama of Downton Abbey’s Crawley clan or havoc in the Hamptons on Revenge.
Despres quotes Dallas producers in outlining the key to that soap’s success: “If you don’t like your neighbor, it’s conflict. But if you don’t like your family, it’s drama.”
Probably because it’s named after a Southern city and highlights cowboy chic, ABC’s Nashville, created by Callie Khouri, gets the inevitable comparisons to Dallas. Khouri, however, is more likely to invoke Downton in describing her show.
“I’m addicted to Downton Abbey, “ Khouri says. “In some ways, the comparison would be that we’re going into a very rarified world where there’s both privilege and ambition, and you are watching your characters deal with problems at both ends of the spectrum.” She adds that Nashville strives to depict reality even amid the glamour. Despite the rivalry between veteran singer Rayna (Connie Britton) and pop-country princess Juliette (Hayden Panettiere), you’ll never see a “Who Shot Rayna?” episode, Khouri says. “They are two women in a very competitive world. They have their differences, but it’s not something you wouldn’t see in real life. “
Patrick Moran, senior vice president of creative development at ABC, has his own theory about why the soapy Downton, Nashville and that network’s Revenge are capturing the public imagination: Viewers’ general procedural fatigue.
“Trends come and go,” Moran says. “Just as for a while there was an appetite for that kind of show, with CSI and all its spinoffs, and NCIS and Cold Case, I wonder if the audience was just craving something different.”
Moran says that maybe today’s Wall Street has something to do with the zeitgeist of Downton Abbey, Revenge or Nashville. “These kinds of shows, Revenge in particular, are about the haves and the have-nots,” he says. “We are culturally sort of experiencing class distinction. I think those conversations are going on.”
Fellowes says finding skeletons in the closets of the super-rich provides “a double element of wish fulfillment. These people are very rich and have pretty houses, and they spend a lot of time having lunch,” he says. “We tend to think, ‘Blimey, it’s all right for some!’ But by going into what’s wrong as well as what’s going right, they get the sense of seeing the beautiful setup and the lovely clothes, but also sort of a relief that they’re not part of it.”
Despres points out that any trend in TV starts with one hit show. “I wasn’t a network executive; I wasn’t in those meetings. But if a show’s a success, they copy it,” she says.
Despres also wrote for Falcon Crest (1981-1990), the third in the primetime serial kingdom that included Dallas, Knots Landing (1979-93) and Dynasty (1981-1989). Set in the California wine country, Despres explains that producers’ instructions to the writers were simple: “Just make them richer than Dallas.”

Why We Love Emmy Season

This story appeared in the June 5 issue of AwardsLine.

Though campaigning and jockeying might be tough on talent, AwardsLine can’t resist the lure of the Emmys. Here are a few reasons we keep coming back for more.

The Americans follows two Soviet spies living in the US during the Cold War.
The Americans follows two Soviet spies living in the US during the Cold War.

Reason No. 1: Because politics isn’t reserved for behind-the-scenes drama.

Where once there were nothing but doctors, lawyers and cops, the primetime television landscape seems to have swung open its doors to welcome ruthless politicians, a Secretary of State, a Vice President, spies, CIA operatives, even (gasp) television journalists.
Yes, the politicizing of the dial is in full bloom during an Emmy season that doesn’t even fall during a national election. The contenders this year include the acclaimed Netflix freshman House of Cards starring Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright; the FX Cold War spy drama The Americans; the ABC hour set in Washington D.C., Scandal; the USA Network spy hour Covert Affairs; the 2012 USA miniseries Political Animals; the HBO cable news drama from Aaron Sorkin, The Newsroom; and the HBO comedy Veep starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus as the Vice President of the United States. And that’s not even to mention the canceled Starz drama Boss featuring Kelsey Grammer (still eligible for Emmy consideration this year).
It might be notable that these series are finding audiences by covering issues more complex than how to catch bad guys. But we have certainly seen it before in Sorkin’s The West Wing and any number of David E. Kelley projects. The difference now is that this appears to have evolved into a genuine trend, with pilot season auguring more on the way.
Perhaps the answer is as simple as writers and producers finding political- and issues-oriented backdrops to be captivating canvases on which to paint compelling characters. So believes Joseph Weisberg, a former CIA agent who created and serves as head writer on The Americans. “The political explorations are simply allegorical extensions of the characters,” Weisberg emphasizes. “It’s always about the human dynamics and never really about just making a political point. In the real world, that’s what makes politics engaging and interesting. When policy intersects with real lives, it suddenly becomes very powerful.”
Political Animals exec producer Greg Berlanti agrees that the political setting itself is secondary to how compelling the people are who populate it. But he found in his miniseries that politics is rich with the kind of larger-than-life characters that rivet viewers.
“Our elected officials are kind of like rock stars, and America is fascinated with that world,” Berlanti says. “All of the shows seem somewhat circumspect of our people in office, which tends to match the vibe in the country right now. I think we’re endlessly fascinated by how the private and public lives of politicians contrast.”
Indeed, The Americans executive producer Joel Fields points out how shows like his have adroitly broken down the storytelling barrier between the political and the personal, keeping the action lively and the tone from growing mundane and distant. “When Jeff Daniels rants about the things he rants about on The Newsroom, we don’t feel like he’s raging about politics but about our lives and the things we all care about,” Fields says.
–Ray Richmond

Reason No. 2: Because getting nominated can actually be better than winning. Just ask Bill Maher.

Reason No. 3: Because even a swan song doesn’t mean a show is gone forever. Welcome back, Arrested Development.

Lena Dunham created and stars in HBO's comedy Girls.
Lena Dunham created and stars in HBO’s comedy Girls.

Reason No. 4: Because the writers’ room isn’t a boys’ club anymore.

Is Lucille Ball rolling her eyes that we’re still not quite done marveling at funny women making strides? While no one’s denying that the writers’ room, especially for comedies, has historically been a big ol’ boys’ club or that shows still exist (that shall remain nameless) that don’t claim a single female staff writer, these are—at long last—the minority. Sure, headlines have been informing us that Tina Fey and Lena Dunham are funny and can create and run shows—and Emmy certainly has concurred. Although the latest WGAW briefing acknowledges that, despite strides, female writers are still significantly underrepresented, there are definitely more funny women at the helm than at any other point in TV history.
“It would be nice if it just weren’t an issue,” says Eileen Heisler, cocreator of the ABC comedy The Middle with her former college roommate and longtime collaborator DeAnn Heline. “But it’s typical in our business, and in all business, that fewer women get to the top.” Heisler, whose writers’ room at The Middle is more than 50% women, remembers an incident when she was a staff writer. “All the women were saying, ‘A woman wouldn’t say that!’, and the executive producer turned to a guy and asked him if he agreed.”
Emily Kapnek, creator and showrunner of Suburgatory—whose writing staff is 60% female—bemoans that on every single show she’s worked on she will invariably get mistaken for a hair or makeup person. “I’m always hoping my show will get recognized for more than just me being a woman,” Kapnek says. “It’s not my favorite thing to be singled out for. I’d much rather the attention go to the show and what we’re doing.”
When Mindy Kaling, creator and star of the Fox comedy The Mindy Project, got her start writing on The Office at age 24, it appeared as if she were the token female in an all-male writing room. “On The Office, yes, I was working with a lot of guys,” Kaling stresses, “but these were very sensitive, sweet, feminist guys, and they were very open to hearing what I had to say and were encouraging of it.”
On the flip side, when Michael Patrick King of Sex and the City fame wanted to develop the CBS comedy 2 Broke Girls, he sought out a female partner in what he calls a “Scarlett O’Hara search.” He eventually teamed up with comedian Whitney Cummings. “I wanted that unique thing that (Cummings) brought, partly because she’s a woman and partly because she’s really funny and has an interesting life perspective,” King says. “It would be a tragedy to hire someone just because of their sex. Listen, comedy is a tough realm for writers, and that doesn’t have anything to do with genitalia.”
But what each showrunner circles back to is having a diverse viewpoint. Kapnek describes the Suburgatory writers’ room as a mix of scribes from reality TV, one-hour drama and stage. She prefers to choose her writing staffs based not on spec scripts, but from other types of writing, including essays.
Still, all things being equal, there’s something to be said for a woman’s touch in running the writers’ room. “We are organized, and we don’t thrive on chaos,” Heisler believes. “On our show, the women go home to their kids’ school functions, and the guys go home to their kids’ school functions.” Now that’s what we call progress.
–Cari Lynn

Reason No. 5: Because after the rigors of Oscar season, everyone on the Emmy campaign trail looks a little more relaxed, relatively speaking.

Reason No. 6: Because DVRs and streaming delivery mean high-quality series don’t just appear in primetime anymore. Timeslot? What timeslot?

Tony Soprano informs many of primetime's current slate of antiheroes.
Tony Soprano informs many of primetime’s current slate of antiheroes.

Reason No. 7: Because TV is still living in a Sopranos state of mind.

Whether it’s Don Draper bedding his neighbor’s wife on AMC’s Mad Men, Emily Thorne on ABC’s Revenge setting a house afire or South Carolina House Majority Whip Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey) suffocating an injured dog while speaking to the camera about his intolerance for weakness on Netflix’s House of Cards, viewers can’t resist being an accessory to the crimes of dramatic antiheroes these days—no matter the foible or sin.
In fact, the last decade’s resurgence of flawed protagonists can be blamed on Tony Soprano, who helped usher in a whole new generation of TV antiheroes. After 20-plus years of good guys like Andy Sipowicz (ABC’s NYPD Blue), Bobby Donnell (ABC’s The Practice) and Jessica Fletcher (CBS’ Murder, She Wrote), Tony ultimately broke down a door that J.R. Ewing on Dallas cracked open.
“Prior to The Sopranos, there was a resistance toward painting people in all their colors,” says Terence Winter, creator of the HBO drama Boardwalk Empire and a producer on The Sopranos. “The characters had to be all one good thing, or have a moral compass or if they did something bad, they had to balance out the good. J.R. Ewing might have been bad, but a lot of people around him had to be balanced out in a good way.
“There was a huge resistance (by networks) to having an unlikable protagonist, but that’s changed completely.”
So what is it about our love affair with homegrown meth kingpins and sociopathic Hamptons socialites? Does evil truly lurk in the hearts of the TV-viewing nation? Not really, says House of Cards creator Beau Willimon. Our obsession with the despicability of man has been going on since the days when Oedipus murdered his father and wed his mother.
“What’s attractive about these characters is that they allow us to access part of ourselves, the part we don’t have the liberty or courage to display in our own lives,” says Willimon. “What’s complex about all of these characters is that they show their human side, which is the curveball for the viewer.”
In creating the facets of their lead characters, these critically acclaimed showrunners say the obvious truth is that their bad guys don’t walk around in everyday life thinking, well, that they’re bad. Guys like Nucky Thompson on Boardwalk and Walter White of AMC’s Breaking Bad simply have a to-do list, and they go about crossing them off each day.
“Viewers will take out stuff that’s disturbing and only focus on the stuff they think is cool. It’s interesting to see how audiences interpret these characters,” says Winter. “Tony Soprano changed the game: Part of the fun of writing that character and all these characters is that they can be despicable, and you find yourself liking them and hating them. And that is what’s fun about taking that ride.”
–Anthony D’Alessandro

Reason No. 8: Because L.A. doesn’t know what to do when there’s no awards campaigning going on, anyway.

History's miniseries The Bible had stellar ratings that surprised everyone in Hollywood.
History’s miniseries The Bible had stellar ratings that surprised everyone in Hollywood.

Reason No. 9: Because there’s still room for surprises.
When the first-night ratings came in for the 10-part History miniseries The Bible March 3, there were eyes bugging out of heads all over Hollywood. It drew a massive 13.1 million viewers, second only to the network record-shattering audience of 14.3 million that flocked to last summer’s Hatfields & McCoys miniseries debut. By the time The Bible concluded on Easter Sunday, it had averaged more than 10 million viewers each week, including 11.7 million for its finale.
No one expected these kinds of numbers. No one, that is, except perhaps executive producer Mark Burnett and his wife and fellow exec producer, Roma Downey. Burnett saw it as a huge wakeup call for a Hollywood community that Burnett believes consistently underestimates the power of projects with spiritual themes.
“You wouldn’t have believed the number of people rolling their eyes when we began this,” Burnett recalls. “What people didn’t take into account was the fact that my wife and I live this. We walk the walk. It was just a matter of having the support of people who felt as we did.”
Burnett and Downey got that support from A&E Networks president and CEO Nancy Dubuc. “It took courage for Nancy to decide, ‘OK, go make The Bible,’” Burnett adds. “They could have taken massive heat had this been made badly. I think they were relieved that it was so beloved by so many people.”
Dirk Hoogstra, History’s executive vp of development and programming, notes that the network was thrilled with both the production and the numbers it generated and is proudly submitting The Bible for longform Emmy consideration. “We knew it could be big, and it was,” he stresses. “This is a sort of go-to subject for us, so we felt pretty good about its chances, given the execution.”
For her part, Downey—the Touched by an Angel star—attributes the fact that nearly 100 million people watched all or part of the mini to “a perfect storm coming together. It happened at the same time as the Pope stepping down and waiting on a new one. It was nearing Easter. All of the stars aligned. But in general, people are hungry for God, and this series allowed them an entry point.”
“The thing is, I’m not surprised by any of this; I prayed for it to happen, and it has,” Burnett emphasizes. “We gave permission for millions of people to say they love God, and they showed us just how much they do.”
–Ray Richmond

Reason No. 10: Because avant-garde comedic voices have a place at the Emmy table. Thanks, Louis C.K!

American Horror Story rocked last year's race by entering as a miniseries.
American Horror Story rocked last year’s race by entering as a miniseries.

Reason No. 11: Because who can resist a little controversy?

No Oscar race goes by without scandal, but the Emmys, for whatever reason, seem to power through season after season relatively unscathed. Most hiccups never make their way to full-blown scandal, which gives the Emmys a much breezier feel than their film-industry counterpart.
Reasons for this could include the fact that there are 99 categories to deal with, and the Emmys just don’t carry the cachet or pressures of the Oscars. Another reason is that when potentially controversial problems do arise in the labyrinthine process of awarding Emmys, the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences finds a way to make them go away.
For instance, last year some thought Ashley Judd’s entry into the movie/mini lead actress category was completely ridiculous because her nomination came for an ABC procedural series called Missing that was canceled after just a few episodes. If it belonged anywhere, it was in the more competitive drama series category, but the TV Academy let it slide with an obscure rule that made Missing eligible. End of scandal. (By the way, they simply go in and change the rules for the next year whenever problems like this come up.)
Also last year, creator Ryan Murphy came to the TV Academy with a proposal to classify his latest series, FX’s weekly anthology American Horror Story, in the movie and mini category even though it had a pilot and was billed as a regular series. Murphy reasoned that because the cast would be playing completely different characters each season, it doesn’t fall in line with competing drama series contenders. Though the vote was divided right down the line, the decision was forwarded to the board, and Murphy got his wish. He now gets to compete every year with the show classified as a miniseries. In its first season, it tied drama juggernaut Mad Men to lead all Emmy nominees with 17, a number it wouldn’t have gotten anywhere near had it been forced to compete in the drama series contest.
Before this year’s Emmy race even began, controversy reared its head again when the board decided to abolish the supporting acting categories for movies and miniseries, unfairly making them compete against the leading actors in those projects. The board cited diminishing entries in movies and minis as a reason for the downsizing, but this became a thorny issue for some performer members of the TV Academy. Suddenly, media reports surfaced about a resurgence in the genre, and in April the Board of Governors completely reversed themselves.
—Pete Hammond

And Reason No. 12: Because the TV Academy isn’t afraid to change its mind about rules.

Emmys Q&A: Kerry Washington

Matt Webb Mitovich editor at large of TVLine and an AwardsLine contributor. This article appeared in the June 5 issue of AwardsLine.

Looking for a female TV character who’s as fierce in her work life as she is in her (messy) love life? It’s been handled. As Olivia Pope on ABC’s Scandal, Kerry Washington—building on a career that has included Oscar-winning films such as Ray and Django Unchained—stands in the eye of a pop-culture storm, fronting a show that drops jaws with astounding frequency, makes Twitter all atwitter and offers, at long last, a chance for a black woman to win a lead drama actress Emmy.

You have said that your decision was not so much to do TV, but to do a Shonda Rhimes show.
Even more so, my decision was to do this show. When I read the script, I was blown away. And knowing that this (was a Rhimes production) reinforced the idea that this could be a really amazing opportunity.

With your first full season behind you, how has the product met the promise?
I will just say that the level of excellence that the people around  me produce on a daily basis continues to astound me. The writing that I’m able to hold in my hands, the level of acting I’m surrounded by, the cinematographers, the costume design—all of it feels like a magical product.

What is Rhimes doing that activates viewers so much?
One of the reasons we (on the cast) like to live-tweet the show is because when we are online with our “gladiators,” the viewers, we get to see from them exactly what we went through at our table reads—the gasps and screams and cries of shock and awe. People are responding to how unpredictable this show is. (Also,) Shonda is not writing the typical archetype of good guy/bad guy. That is part of why you never know whom to trust.

Some choose to view your success through the lens of being among the first African-American actresses to star in a hit TV drama. Do you lament there is still that distinction to be made in 2013? Or do you welcome the opportunity to flag it?
It’s a balance. I feel very proud that we live in a world where this show can be a success, so I think it’s worth noting that progress for all of us to claim and all of us to take responsibility for. We’ve created a place where a black woman can be at the front of the show, but a lot of our success is in how strong of an ensemble it is, and so many people can see themselves in it. We have a lead male who’s Latin. We have two black men. There’s a strong gay character. I look forward to the day when a show like Scandal is a success and it’s not newsworthy. We’re not there yet, but we’ll get there.

Do you think about the significance of possibly earning an Emmy for this role?
I’ve been on the award campaign train several times in my career, with the success of The Last King of Scotland and Ray and Django Unchained. Jamie Foxx and I joke about it, what happens to people when they’re “chasing Oscar.” So I try not to think about my work leaning toward that goal. But it’s interesting that television and the Emmys have been around this long, and (a black woman winning a lead drama actress Emmy) has never happened. I was just beginning to have a career when Halle Berry (won a best actress Oscar)—and not just (as the first) black woman, but a woman of color.

Over the past year, you’ve been seen significantly engaging in the real world’s political conversation.
It’s important for me to be clear that I don’t engage politically because I’m in the public eye. I actually made a promise to myself early on that I would not stop because I was in the public eye, because I feel like it’s my responsibility as an American to be engaged. If my participation encourages other people to participate, no matter what party, I’m glad, because that’s democracy.

Your college major combined theater with anthropology and sociology. How did that inform your skill set?
My mother’s a professor, so the idea of research is something that I grew up around. One of the things I love most about acting are those moments that don’t happen every day, when you truly do something raw and you forget who you are. That’s bliss. The other thing that I really love is the research—pulling articles, learning things, interviewing people, and then you study, study, study, from an anthropological perspective.

Is there an actor you looked up to as you embarked on your career?
The actors that I loved—not even looked up to because I didn’t think I was going to be an actor in any way—were the ones who did comedy and drama, people who worked on the stage and film and television. People like Julie Andrews, Rita Moreno, Diahann Carroll, Barbra Streisand, women who were never limited by just doing movies or just being actors. That’s a part of their longevity.

And if you could give Olivia Pope one piece of advice…
I wonder how things would be different if she had a really great shrink in her life. It’d probably be a lot less interesting!