The universe has quickly become the place to be. Such companies as Marvel have taken over the film world with their intricately plotted universes, in which individual projects are tied together by sharing characters, settings and plot points. DC Entertainment has films including “Justice League,” with plenty of other examples either already released or on the way.
The trend has also carried over into television. Marvel has five series on Netflix alone, four of which played into “The Defenders” crossover event series in 2017. The fifth, “The Punisher,” was launched off the title character’s appearance in “Daredevil” season two. Then there’s the “Arrow”-verse on the CW, which features such DC heroes as Green Arrow, the Flash and Supergirl.
The shared universe phenomenon is not limited to superheroes, however. AMC launched the “Walking Dead” sister series “Fear the Walking Dead” in 2015, with original series character Morgan Jones (Lennie James) joining the latter show for its current fourth season. AMC also recently upped “The Walking Dead” showrunner Scott Gimple to chief content officer, overseeing the entire “Walking Dead” television universe. Gimple’s role will include overseeing “potential brand extensions on a variety of platforms,” leading many to speculate that a third series set in that shared world could be in the works.
TV legend Norman Lear — who’s exec producer of Netflix’s “One Day at a Time” reboot, an update of the hit series he had developed in the mid-’70s — believes the motivation for creating such associated shows is rooted in the desire at the heart of all TV producers. “I suspect they’re not trying to create shows in the same world so much as they’re seeking the next hit,” he says. “It’s entering a world that seems to be selling. They just work it differently.”
And sell they do, in incredible ways in some cases. What then are the necessary qualities for a showrunner who will rule over an ever-expanding TV universe?
“You need communication skills, an understanding on the necessity of delegation, the ability to mold, shape, teach and ultimately empower each individual member of your team — and a therapist on call at all times,” says Julie Plec.
Plec oversaw the CW series “The Vampire Diaries” before creating its spinoff “The Originals,” currently in its final season. She is also executive producing “Legacies,” a spinoff of “The Originals” for CW’s 2018-19 television season.
While the idea of overseeing multiple shows may seem overwhelming, Plec says she welcomes the challenge.
“I like to make television and if I have more than one good idea at a time, then I like to make multiple pieces of television,” she says. “Because you can go years without any good ideas at all. So I don’t think there’s ever too much content so much as you always have to remind yourself that you have to be doing something because there is something that you love about it. …I’ll do three shows at once if I can, in anticipation of the day when I don’t have any ideas or stories to tell and am not doing anything at all.”
In fact, Plec says that doing multiple shows is actually easier in many ways than doing just one. Juggling more than one series allows her to delegate more to trusted team members.
Lear knows a thing or two about working on more than one show. In his storied career, he developed groundbreaking shows, many in a universe of their own: “Maude” began as a spinoff of “All in the Family,” subsequently spawning the series “Good Times.” “The Jeffersons” was also spun off from “All in the Family.”
Lear notes that developing shows around characters on his other shows happened organically. “I’m doing ‘Maude’ and the character that became Florida, Esther Rolle’s character, she was a sensation on ‘Maude,’” he recalls. “So we ended up doing a few things with her as a result of her being as good as she was. We wrote stories that featured her relationship with Maude. At some point I said, ‘There’s a show in this character.’”
But then there are those like Cheo Hodari Coker, the creator and showrunner of the Marvel-Netflix series “Luke Cage,” who oversees one show within a multi-show universe. Coker says that when he pitched his idea for a “Luke Cage” series to Marvel, he had to go through a series of interviews before eventually “leveling up” to a meeting with Marvel TV executives Jeph Loeb and Karim Zreik.
“One of the things that Jeph said is that, he described the Marvel television way as kind of an eight- or nine-lane highway,” Coker says. “That means you can drive, you can cross lines, and if you hit a guardrail, they’ll let you know. And that’s really what it is. It’s not that we plan so succinctly with all the shows, but any time we kind of are interfering with things that could affect the other shows, we let each other know. And it’s been that way since the very beginning.”
A perfect example of this approach came in the casting of Mike Colter as Luke Cage, says Coker. The character first appeared in the inaugural season of fellow Marvel-Netflix series “Jessica Jones.” That show’s showrunner, Melissa Rosenberg, ultimately had final say in who would be cast, but Marvel sought Coker’s input before she made the decision. Luckily, they all agreed that Colter was the perfect choice for the role.
“[It’s] not my ‘Luke Cage.’ It’s ‘Marvel’s Luke Cage,’” Coker says. “[Marvel] understands the power of their brand. They’re very particular about the brand, period. As a result, they’re very involved in protecting what the brand is. So the trick is to create a singular experience but at the same time work within that framework. So what I’ve learned is just be very communicative.”
Of course, try as networks and producers might, the launch of some universes simply will not work. Plec says the key is to focus on the basics if you want to be successful.
“It all comes down to character and concept,” she says. “If you get the characters right within the concept then you might be able to build those characters into more concepts.”
“You can’t give people something they don’t want,” Coker agrees. “I think that’s the problem with people trying to build these universes. You wouldn’t want to hear from Method Man or Ghostface if the first Wu Tang album wasn’t hot. So build your foundation, then invite people into your house. So I think the problem with some of these other properties that are trying to copy Marvel and failed is they say, ‘OK, we’re going to come out with these five properties like this.’ It’s like, the one drops and then the whole thing falls apart, instead of focusing on making one thing the best it can be and then spinning off from that.”