When Ryan Murphy began developing HBO’s “The Normal Heart,” he didn’t go about it with his usual eye for unabashedly entertaining commercial fare with a social theme (or two) layered into the plot.
Murphy, best known for creating Fox’s “Glee” and FX’s “American Horror Story,” bought the rights to Larry Kramer’s 1984 play about the early days of the AIDS epidemic with his own money and worked on the script with Kramer for three years.
“‘The Normal Heart’ was way different,” says Murphy. “It was so personal to me, because it was a thing that I had lived through, and I lost so many friends. I guess it does fit in my career scheme if you want to look at things as a whole, but that certainly was not the reason I did it.”
Whatever the reason, the project has earned five Critics Choice TV Award nominations. Cedric the Entertainer will host the fourth annual ceremony, which will take place June 19 at the Beverly Hilton and, for the first time, air live on the CW, has always been about bringing attention to high quality, important programming. Being nestled in the middle of the Emmy balloting period is helpful to the industry, says Broadcast Television Journalists Assn. president Joey Berlin.
“We are a group of professional television watchers,” Berlin says. “For us to weigh in at this time of year when Emmy voters are trying to get their minds around ‘which of this giant stack of screeners and links do I focus on?’ is extremely valuable.”
Though socially relevant issues, both historic and current, make their way onto TV for different storytelling reasons, they are a running theme among this year’s Critics’ Choice TV nominees.
Four programs that deal with the headlining issues of racism and gender inequality earned nominations this year, including CBS’ “The Big Bang Theory” and “The Good Wife,” FX’s “Fargo” and Showtime’s “Masters of Sex.”
“Masters of Sex” producer Sarah Timberman says telling the story of sex researchers Bill Masters and Virginia Johnson holds a mirror to today’s attitudes about everything from gay rights to sexism.
“It shows that there’s been a lot of progress, but that some of these things do still exist, and people should examine their thought processes,” says Timberman, who also produces CBS’ “Elementary” and FX’s “Justified.” “With any luck, the show will give people an opportunity to reflect on some of those things.”
Weaving relevant issues into a series is all about making characters relatable to the audience, says “The Good Wife’s” Michelle King.
“We never start out saying, ‘Let’s take a stand on racism,’ ” she says. “It’s more about, these are the characters we’re dealing with, this is the landscape they’re living in, what would they be bumping up against?”
And while sparking a conversation is valuable in writing a series, it has to be a part of the entertainment, rather than the focus.
“The one thing we’re trying to avoid at all costs is earnestness,” says King. “So if we are ever getting close to sending a message, we are very uncomfortable.”
Murphy, however, says sending a message is precisely what he hoped to do with “Normal Heart.” “The ball has been dropped. For many, it was such a painful thing, and with the drugs now available that can make the disease manageable, I think a lot of people have forgotten,” says Murphy, who is starting an AIDS living memorial project called the Fight Continues Project. “Because if you can remember history, it won’t repeat itself.”
Nevertheless, Berlin says that the critics who vote aren’t swayed by messages about the greater good.
“We certainly have had several examples this year of shows that combine great entertainment and insight into important issues,” Berlin says. “To do great storytelling, you have to touch people’s lives, (and) these issues are the issues of our lives. (But) it’s really for us a strong belief that quality can come in any format, in any genre, and we’re looking for great execution.”