I found myself a little star struck on Sunday night while covering the backstage quip room at the Writers Guild Awards.
From Tom Stoppard and Tony Kushner to Vince Gilligan and Matt Weiner, a steady stream of renowned scribes came through clutching their winged trophies (which are heavy enough to double as barbells). But the pair that made me turn into a sputtering fangirl for a few minutes were Josh Brand and John Falsey, winners of the Paddy Chayefsky laurel for television achievement.
I knew in advance that the veteran showrunners had been selected for the honorary kudo, of course, but it wasn’t until the clip reel unspooled in the ballroom of the downtown L.A. Marriott that the legacy of their shows really sunk in: “Northern Exposure,” “I’ll Fly Away,” “St. Elsewhere,” “A Year in the Life,” “Amazing Stories” and “The White Shadow.”
It was clear that the occasion of receiving the Chayefsky kudo had both of them thinking about the television business then (1980s and ’90s) and now. I asked if they felt they would have found a more welcome environment for the kind of offbeat fare they were known for in the contempo landscape with dozens of channels offering original series, compared to three when they got started. Their answer was illuminating.
“All good shows are flukes,” Brand said. “They’re always the shows that no one ever thinks are going to work.” The two were quick to note that “Northern Exposure,” a clear forerunner of today’s quirky cable dramedies, was initially seen by CBS as such a misfire that it was set for a six-episode summer burnoff run in July 1990. But it caught on with critics and viewers, lasted another five seasons and won the Emmy for best drama in 1992.
I noticed that Brand didn’t say “hit” shows — he said “good” shows. The choice was a telling sign of humility. As hard as any writer may work to put brilliance on the page, the confounding part of any narrative TV venture is that it’s a highly unscientific mix of luck, timing, casting and the state of the competition that determines whether it succeeds as an artistic endeavor, let alone as a commercial property.
Falsey recalled the days when they were “young and hungry” and game for any challenge — like the time when Brandon Tartikoff gave them an order for the “Year in the Life” miniseries (a family drama set in Seattle) with all of three weeks of prep time. They were shooting scenes before scripts were even written, and yet the 1986 mini aired to acclaim and yielded a series order the following season.
“I chalk it up to being young and hungry,” Falsey said. “If someone was going to pay us to write and produce something, we weren’t going to say no.”
As hot as Brand and Falsey were in their early 1990s heyday, it’s been an uphill climb for both in getting shows on the air during the past dozen years. Brand at present is working as a consultant on FX’s “The Americans.” He’s fielded pilot scripts for FX, TNT, CBS, ABC and NBC, while Falsey has recently turned his attention to writing again after a long break.
Falsey mentioned that they were overwhelmed after attending on Saturday night a “Brand and Falsey” reunion dinner with many of the creatives who came up through their shows. It was hosted by Henry Bromell, a “Northern Exposure” and “I’ll Fly Away” grad who is now part of the murderer’s row on “Homeland.” Other notables on the alumni roster include Mitchell Burgess and Robin Green, Diane Frolov and Andrew Schneider, Thomas Carter and Eric Laneuville.
By any measure, Brand and Falsey have done their duty for the cause of quality TV. It’s a lesson they learned by the fluke of having been in Grant Tinker’s office (at MTM Prods.) on the day that NBC made the call to renew “Hill Street Blues” after its low-rated first half-season in 1981. Tinker kept presssing the point that the show was good, and that’s what mattered. “That show changed everything,” Brand said, with certainty.