It was the television writers’ turn in the spotlight at the Writers Guild of America West’s Sublime Primetime event Thursday night, which was moderated by “Better Call Saul’s” Bob Odenkirk.
An assembly of TV scribes from across Emmy writing categories assembled at the Writers Guild Theater in Beverly Hills for a freewheeling forum on the work that earned them nominations this year. The event, introduced by WGAW president Howard Rodman and Variety‘s Debra Birnbaum, was presented by the Writers Guild of America West, the Writers Guild Foundation, and Variety.
Each of the scribes recounted various issues they encountered in their series over the past season. “The Americans” showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields noted that many of their notoriously long-simmering plot lines finally reached a boil after four seasons — a welcome payoff for patient viewers (prompting Odenkirk to quip, “This is what I was thinking: ‘Oh my God, this show’s slower than mine!'”) and that they think they’ll get to every plot and character point they intend to when the series concludes in two seasons.
“We tend to move through more story than we expect to,” said Fields, “but so far this season is breaking in the right places.”
“UnReal” co-creator and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro recounted how her “breakdown” after several seasons of working on “The Bachelor” led her to move back to Oregon from L.A. where she focused on creating the short film that inspired the show. “Being a feminist working on ‘The Bachelor’ was sort of like a vegan working in a slaughterhouse, and so it felt like that’s what I had to talk about,” she said.
After seasoned showrunner Marti Noxon signed on to help Shapiro develop the show for TV, she brought the lessons she’d learned about anti-hero casting as a consultant on “Mad Men.” She credited “UnReal” leads Shiri Appleby and Constance Zimmer for adding depth to the material.
“Key and Peele” writer Alex Rubens had similar praise for how his series’ stars Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele with whom he also wrote the feature film “Keanu,” could elevate any material to a more hilarious place. “Over the course of the entire series I thought there were one or two sketches that were kind of bad. When they came on TV, I was really bracing myself for them–and then they were really funny,” he said. “So I was like ‘Oh–we [writers] don’t matter!’”
“When you have characters who are really compromised in what they’re doing every day, you have to have actors who have likability – they’ve got to have soul,” said Noxon. “Both of those actresses are so strong we were really able to compromise them.”
When an audience member’s question about writing for the opposite gender was raised, prompting a flip on some conventional wisdoms, Shapiro pointed out that she is frequently teased by her staff that her male characters are weak to the point that she asked her friends to put her together with groups of their male friends in order to better understand them. “You guys have feelings about things, right?” she said.
Amid early career war stories about working with producers who wouldn’t even pony up a $1 option, “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” writers Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander revealed how David Schwimmer, their choice to play Simpson’s friend and confidante Robert Kardashian, prompted them to write the character in a considerably more compelling fashion.
“I will give points to David Schwimmer,” said Alexander. “He was challenging us: ‘What do you have for me?’ I get it – I’m the friend and I’m loyal and all that. What else?’” Alexander admitted the early conversation “provoked” the duo, who promised to call the actor back with a response. “It really pushed us to do a lot more with the Kardashian arc, in terms of him being the moral compass and the one character who’s completely selfless and comes to regret what he’s gotten into,” he said.
“We looked on YouTube at the moment of the verdict, when he’s standing next to O.J., and when it’s not guilty you see Kardashian’s face fall,” Alexander continued. “And we thought, ‘Wo – he stuck with him for that whole year, but he didn’t want to be there. We made much more of a meal out of Kardashian’s turmoil than we would have if David hadn’t provoked us.”
“Veep” writers Alex Gregory and Peter Huyck also participated in the panel discussion along with “The Simpsons” scribe Carolyn Omine.