Top TV shows rip up old blueprint

Emmy-nommed series able to embrace change

Compare a recent episode of NBC’s “30 Rock” to the pilot episode, and it almost seems like a different show. Do that in front of “30 Rock” creator-exec producer Tina Fey, and she’s likely to cringe.

“If I never see that pilot again, it will be too soon,” Fey says of her series’ first episode. “Pilots are difficult. I’d never written a pilot script before, and I was by myself, trying to figure out how to do this.”

Fortunately, the pilot process typically involves a learning curve, and “30 Rock” is just one show to evolve from its original blueprint.

“We changed a few things. We changed a couple of actors, but that’s not a reflection on them,” Fey says. “One thing we figured out that’s been important to me is that no matter how elastic and insane their world is, crazy things can happen to these people, but the people must be real at their core and care about each other.”

Despite the early adjustments, Fey says it wasn’t until the episode “Tracy Does Conan” that the showmakers discovered the breakneck pace that’s become a trademark of “30 Rock,” which led all primetime weekly series this year with 17 Emmy nominations.

Other shows ad lib their approach because of budget, especially in the case of basic cable series like FX’s Emmy-nommed “Damages.”

“We didn’t have the money to build an office in the pilot for Ray Fiske (Emmy nominee Zeljko Ivanek), so we decided we’d pick him up wherever he happened to be in his life,” says “Damages” co-creator and co-executive producer Todd A. Kessler. They showed the attorney on his cell phone and even holding meetings at a dog park.

“It actually lent a great deal of character to Fiske,” Kessler adds, “and made it seem that he was always out doing things as opposed to just being in his office. We ended up building an office when we got ordered for a series, but it was a great way — just by necessity — to establish his character. … If we had to do it again (with a bigger budget), we’d probably opt to do the same thing.”

Sara Colleton, co-executive producer of Showtime’s “Dexter,” learned that high-quality work can be done quickly, on budget — even through hurricanes.

“Coming from a world where there are 60 shooting days, seeing what you’re able to do in eight is a revelation,” she says.

Gradual development of Dexter’s character helped viewers adjust to the concept of a serial-killer protagonist: “From the beginning, we knew it was going to be a slow and steady process. If we kept it true, (viewers) would come.”

With one of the largest pilot budgets ever, money wasn’t an issue for “Lost,” which returned to the Emmy drama finals this year after a two-year absence. Co-creator and exec producer Damon Lindelof says the show developed atypically, effectively “dodging” pilot season.

“We didn’t really have a lot of time before the pilot to think about what the show was going to be either creatively or in production,” he says. “For that period, it was just organized chaos.”

They quickly learned that given the large cast, “Lost” had to be character-driven, so they implemented the now-famous flashbacks to illuminate each character’s pre-island life.

Fellow executive producer Carlton Cuse says another key was approaching “Lost” with few expectations: “Before it even premiered, people thought it was a fantastic pilot, but there were enormous concerns about whether it had viability as a series. That gave us the freedom to try things and break conventional rules because we really thought it was going to be 12 episodes and out. With that license, we did things differently than other shows, and that helped establish the unique things that define ‘Lost.’ ”

For AMC’s “Mad Men,” which joined “Damages” and “Dexter” as rookie drama nominees, the biggest lessons involved keeping the period piece real. “This is the hallmark of our entire philosophy, which we learned early on,” showrunner Matthew Weiner says.

Lindelof says one thing remains the same for any show in development: “Sometimes you have to forgo your initial plan and either enhance it or completely cut bait.”

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