Whether it’s planting seeds from which future plot twists bloom or hiding Easter eggs to tantalize die-hard fans, the showrunners of this year’s Emmy-nominated drama series recognize the high level of scrutiny their shows face from eagle-eyed viewers in the social media age.
“Better Call Saul” executive producers Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould say they’re both reading a book about the original “Star Trek” and while fan scrutiny was acute during that classic show’s run, fan theories now get distributed at warp speed. “What’s changed is the technology nowadays — some form of social media allows folks like Peter and I instantaneous reaction from these hardcore fans if we choose to partake in it,” Gilligan says.
“Fan theories 50 years ago might have been published in a mimeographed fanzine. Now it’s up on Reddit or up on Twitter and spreads really fast,” Gould says.
“The Americans” creator Joe Weisberg says the scrutiny has always been there, showrunners are just more aware of it now. “I remember when I was a kid, I watched TV with a careful eye but I didn’t have anybody to talk about it with,” he says. “I wasn’t posting about it online. I think we just know what everyone’s thinking now.”
Showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss of last year’s Emmy winner, “Game of Thrones,” say the online discussion after episodes air encourages more scrutiny. “One person can only notice so much, especially on a single viewing,” they say. “But collectively, hundreds of thousands of people notice pretty much everything. When they share those details with each other, then go back and re-watch, lots of people end up noticing things they wouldn’t have otherwise. And, of course, HD helps.”
The “Thrones” showrunners say the knowledge that viewers pay close attention encourages them to work in details that set up future plots and can be a bonus for the extra-attentive. “Knowing where the story is going lets you layer major developments in gradually,” they say, noting how they introduced the dogs of uber-villain Ramsay Bolton early knowing the role they would ultimately play. “For a long time we’d known that they would be the end of him. So using them as his particularly gruesome instruments of cruelty was also setting up his own demise.”
“Homeland” executive producer/director Lesli Linka Glatter says her team sweats the details in replicating places they can’t go to film, including Syria in the show’s most recent season. But they can’t match some locations exactly — or catch rogue production personnel. Street artists hired to decorate the set with graffiti wrote “Homeland is racist” in Arabic script on the wall. “When you do something that asks a lot of questions, you’re going to get people who feel strongly one way or another,” Glatter says. “Obviously we wish we had caught it, but it opens up another dialogue.”
Alex Sepiol, executive vice president of scripted development for NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment, says “Mr. Robot” showrunner Sam Esmail makes deliberate, sometimes cheeky, choices, including the song that played after the revelation about the nature of Mr. Robot near the end of season one. It was a cover of “Where Is My Mind,” a Pixies song used in the movie “Fight Club,” which had a similar twist to the turn in “Mr. Robot.”
“That was very purposeful,” Sepiol says. “There had been a lot of dialogue on Reddit and in other places and whether people called [‘Mr. Robot’] an homage or a ripoff, the notion of a reference to ‘Fight Club’ was Sam wanting to be in communication with the audience that he was aware of that dialogue that was happening.”
Easter eggs encourage viewers to re-watch episodes because on a second viewing they’ll see things they “don’t necessarily catch the first time, which is a fun part of the show,” Sepiol says.
One of Esmail’s Easter eggs in season one was intended for an audience of one: Sepiol. “In episode five, Elliott goes to All Safe and gets a badge with a different name: Sam Sepiol,” Sepiol says. “I didn’t know it was coming — they actually said the name several times — and I got a little flushed when I first read it in the script.”
Most Easter eggs are intended to have a broader audience, even if showrunners don’t expect the eggs to be quickly discovered. Gilligan planted a hidden code in episode titles in season two of “Breaking Bad” (circa 2009) and no one caught on. But in the most recent season of “Better Call Saul,” Gilligan and Gould planted hints in episode titles and they were discovered sooner than the executive producers expected.
“If you took the first letter of each episode title and rearranged the order, it said ‘Fring’s back,’” Gould says, a reference to the character Gus Fring, played by Giancarlo Esposito in “Breaking Bad,” but not yet glimpsed in the world of “Saul.” “We thought we were super-clever and no one would catch on or maybe they would when the Blu-ray comes out,” Gould says. “And my God, people caught on as soon as there were enough letters out. Part of it is I think people are working together using social media.”
Gould says that experience was a good reminder about the care required when crafting a TV series in the social media age. “Far be it for us to complain — we’re so happy people are looking at the details — but it puts the onus on us,” he says. “There are a lot of things you may have been able to get away with in the past, especially in shows that weren’t serialized.”
Sweating the details means keeping the show’s internal consistency intact.
“Partially that’s just our bent, playing by the rules we’ve set down,” Gould says. “Every once in a while there’s something one of us pitches or I fall in love with and then someone brings up the fact it conflicts with something in ‘Breaking Bad’ and I’ll pound my fists and we’ll think of something different.”
The “Game of Thrones” showrunners say when the show began they wanted the world to look dirty and lived-in but after watching it, they weren’t convinced the costumes looked dirty enough. “We saw that we hadn’t gone nearly far enough,” they say. “Now the costume department spends almost as much time beating the shit out of the costumes as they do making them.”
At “The Americans,” every hour of the day in each episode is accounted for. If the characters watch a TV show, producers aim to have them watch a program that actually aired at that exact hour on that particular day. “It’s hard for viewers to be ahead of us in the nutty department,” Weisberg says.
“That doesn’t mean mistakes don’t get by us, but I think they pain us more than the viewers,” Fields says, noting they caught a Steve Jobs biography left on set during a scene and digitally erased it from the 1980s-set show. But they were unable to alter another scene a few years ago that prominently displayed a Tom Clancy novel that had yet to be published during the episode’s time period. “The lining of our stomachs continues to shred when we think about it.”