Among the many offering at this year’s Banff World Television Festival are a series of master classes led separately by three of the most innovative voices in TV today — Ali LeRoi, co-creator of “Everybody Hates Chris”; Paul Scheuring, creator of “Prison Break”; and David Shore, creator of “House.”
Each will bring varied expertise to his class, covering such topics as meeting network standards and practices, creating cliffhangers and maintaining series lifespan, doing proper research for shows that take place in specialized milieu, and building sympathy for a show’s villains.
All three men have affected TV in some way, though they are often reluctant to claim credit, insisting that some things on the tube never change no matter how much it may appear that they do.
Shot like a drama
LeRoi is a longtime associate of Chris Rock, with whom he co-created the half-hour UPN comedy that bears Rock’s name. According to LeRoi, the original idea was “Chris Rock Meets the Wonder Years.”
“The whole idea of the show is how did this guy, Chris, turn into Chris Rock,” says LeRoi. “What happened to him along the way to become this man? Because other kids grew up in Brooklyn, and they’re not famous.”
Yet don’t be misled by the title character’s name or Rock’s narration of the show; “Everybody Hates Chris” is not exactly autobiography.
“We were going to make it about a kid growing up in the early 1990s,” he adds. “But then we figured we’d set it in the 1980s, because it had a fresher feel. Chris was actually a teen in the mid-1970s, and he’d have been in his mid-20s then. So we used poetic license and made him 13.”
LeRoi attributes his show’s good fortune to two things: the fact that it’s character driven — a perennial formula for series success — and that “we don’t treat the show like it’s funny. It’s shot like a drama. We don’t use funny angles or sounds. It looks more like ‘NYPD Blue’ than ‘Malcolm in the Middle.’
”The funny jokes are the ones that are unexpected. We’re not trying to make you laugh all the time. But when we try, we really try. So in terms of the look and in terms of the pacing, it’s not a typical comedy.”
Less than nice
If Scheuring and even LeRoi have some hope of altering the basic construct of their shows, Shore, creator of “House,” another Fox hit, operates under stricter constraints. Each week, the acerbic Dr. House (Hugh Laurie) annoys colleagues and patients alike as he invariably solves medical mysteries. Shore describes the show as “a hybrid between a procedural and a character-driven show” in which “neither one works without the other.”
For keeping the balance and preventing the good doctor from becoming either insufferable or adorable, Shore gives his star much credit. “Hugh helps a lot,” he says. “There’s something innately likable about the man — even when he does the most obnoxious things. I think the challenge is to always have a motivation for that obnoxiousness. It’s not for the sake of annoying someone. It’s very tricky. We actually worry about making him too nice. Oddly enough, that’s a bigger concern. People love him as he is, and they tune in to see what he’s going to do. I think as soon as we make him nice, we kill the series. That’s not who he is, and that’s what makes him interesting.”
Yet Shore eschews accepting kudos for novelty. “I think good shows appear to break the mold more than they do,” he offers. “I love ‘Everybody Loves Raymond,’ and that didn’t really break the mold, did it? In fact, I think there’s a danger to setting out to break the mold. I just set out to write a show that I found interesting.”
The great escape
Scheuring, who calls himself a TV novice, credits the basic idea of the Fox hit “Prison Break” to Francette Kelly, but he’s the one who refined it into a series. His greatest influence, he says, was “The Great Escape,” the 1963 Steve McQueen starrer.
“I knew that we had to have a multicharacter piece,” he says, echoing some of what LeRoi says. “Michael (played by Wentworth Miller) is all about truth; Sucre (Amaury Nolasco) is all about love and revenge.”
That’s where fealty to convention stops, though. Already planning the series’ second and third seasons, Scheuring maintains that future episodes will not be set within prison walls. “Season two will be markedly different,” he says. “It will still have the same characters, but the series will become ‘The Fugitive’ instead of ‘The Shawshank Redemption.’ That’s one of the mandates inherent in a conceit like this. The studio’s instinct is not to mess with a formula, but if these guys stayed in prison for three seasons, it would be pretty silly.”