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Showtime Chief Talks Free Speech, ‘Homeland,’ ‘Twin Peaks,’ ‘Happyish’

Showtime Chief Talks Free Speech, 'Homeland,'
Eric Charbonneau/Invision for Showtime/AP Images

“It’s been a bad month for free speech around the world,” Showtime topper David Nevins observed during his exec Q&A session Monday at the Television Critics Assn. press tour.

Nevins noted that there’s never been a more dynamic time for a network to be in the business of producing provocative high-end scripted programming. He acknowledged that recent events — from the politically motivated cyber-attack on Sony Pictures to the Charlie Hedbo slayings in Paris — have been nerve-wracking.

“It’s a scary time to be a maker of controversial, political-boundary breaking shows,” Nevins said.

Showtime veered into the volatile world of global politics with “Homeland’s” fourth season, which was set in Pakistan and depicted the country’s internal struggle in connection with fighting terrorism in its backyard and its relationship with the U.S. The Pakistani embassy in the U.S. put out a formal statement of complaint about the show’s portrayal of its government and intelligence services — which is far better than the hack Sony suffered at the direction of North Korea because of its objection to the comedy film “The Interview.”

“The Pakistani embassy handled it the way it’s supposed to be handled. That’s how the game is suppose to be played. I respect how they handled it,” Nevins said. He cited the amount of research and reporting that informed the “Homeland” storylines about factions within the Pakistani government. While “Homeland” is ultimately a work of fiction, he’s confident that the picture painted by the show “was very defensible.”

Even with the heightened threat of retaliation by extremist groups, “The show’s going to go back at it next year — they’re not going to shy away” from sensitive and complicated geopolitical issues. “I hope nobody bringing us shows shies away from the difficult stuff,” Nevins said.

Also during the session, Nevins announced the renewal of “Shameless” for a sixth season and the series order for dark comedy “Happyish.”

“Happyish” was ordered to series at this time last year but was derailed after star Philip Seymour Hoffman died of a drug overdose in February. Steve Coogan was recast in the role of a man facing a midlife crisis. Kathryn Hahn plays his wife. The series will bow April 26.

Nevins said the series created by playwright Shalom Auslander represents an efforts to bring a new breed of comedy to Showtime.

“It’s got a lot of heart, a lot of emotion and big funny moments,” Nevins said. “It’s absorbing but it’s not too cool. .. It’s been frustrating to me that I haven’t launched more comedies. I don’t think comedy (on TV) has been breaking ground in the same way (dramas) have been breaking ground. I feel like there’s opportunity there.”

Nevins’ session opened with a surprise visit from Kyle MacLachlan, who has been formally cast in the pay cabler’s revival of the “Twin Peaks” franchise. MacLachlan channeled his FBI Agent Dale Cooper character after walking out to hand Nevins “a damn good cup of coffee,” a reference to the original series that aired on ABC from 1989-91.

Nevins said “Twin Peaks” creators David Lynch and Mark Frost have been very “specific” in their approach to the new batch of episodes, which will bring some closure for the characters. “What I’ve seen lives up to expectations and then some,” Nevins said. The show will go into production by late summer, Nevins said.

Showtime’s TCA presentation came the day after the cabler won big at the Golden Globe Awards, earning the best drama series trophy for “The Affair,” along with lead drama actress for star Ruth Wilson. Nevins said the show’s success has been gratifying as it is “not as high concept as some of the shows we’ve done.” He thanked the assembled TV scribes for helping to bring attention to “Affair.” “A lot of the people in this room have been nice to it,” he said.

In an unguarded moment while discussing the state of TV, Nevins expressed some frustration with the new mania for limited and anthology series productions, or what he described as “this weird idea of moral superiority of close-ended, eight to 10-episode miniseries.” Although “Twin Peaks” is in that wheelhouse, Showtime’s focus remains on grooming shows that have the goods to run for multiple seasons.

“They’re the heart and soul of television,” he said. Viewers “want to make bonds with characters over time.”

After the formal Q&A, Nevins said that two other original series, “House of Lies” and “Episodes,” are looking good for renewals. And he said that Beau Bridges and Allison Janney are likely to reprise their roles on “Masters of Sex” next season, when there will be “a big jump” in the time frame of the period drama revolving around the famed sex researchers William Masters and Victoria Johnson.