The 2018-19 broadcast television season made strides with on-screen diversity, but there is still considerable progress to be made off-screen.
During the “Inside a Writers Room: Power Dynamics” at the ATX Television Festival Saturday, moderator/executive producer Glen Mazzara (“The Walking Dead,” “Damien”) acknowledged the panel — which consisted of Liz Tigelaar (“Little Fires Everywhere,” “Life Unexpected”), Christopher C. Rogers (“Halt & Catch Fire”), Shawn Ryan (“Timeless,” “The Shield”), Rina Mimoun (“Mistresses,” “Everwood”), and Patrick Sean Smith (“Greek”) — was white, plus had more men than women. He asked the group what they could do to be more inclusive with their writers’ rooms going forward.
Rogers, whose first room experience was on “Halt and Catch Fire,” the show’s natural evolution during season 1 into an ensemble led to the writers being more cognizant that there needed to be better representation in the room.
“We decided going forward, we needed to be at least fifty percent in the writers’ room and behind the camera,” he said. “That is a thing we wish we didn’t have to learn from experience.”
But when the team reached out for female writers, particularly ones who were older and experienced the ’80s-set time period, there was an obvious lack of suggested people.
“You get the same eight names,” Rogers said. “That category of writers is so gutted from it just being white guys [in the past]. I think it’s getting a little better. The way the deck was stacked was really eye-opening to us. We had to go outside the traditional agency slots.”
Mimoun credited producer Greg Berlanti with giving her the opportunity to showrun his series “Everwood” when he departed—over the objections of Warner Bros. studio head Peter Roth, who worried about her experience level. (Berlanti ran “Dawson’s Creek” at 26; Mimoun said she adores Roth now.)
“It is incumbent among people going to bat for you,” she said.
For the upcoming Hulu series “Little Fires Everywhere,” which stars Kerry Washington and Reese Witherspoon, Tigelaar intentionally sought out a group of writers with varying life experience.
“I’m looking at what the book is about, who the book is about, and what voices will lift that material up — who really needs to be represented in this room. Not in a token way, [as if] I checked the box, but a deeply, deeply substantial [way],” Tigelaar said. “It’s a much more thoughtful approach than I’ve had in the past. This book in particular deals a lot with race and class. I’m adopted, but I want people who have had other experiences with adoption. I want a lot of mothers, but I also want a dad. I want people who don’t have kids.”
And then there are those who have been blacklisted for being vocal about the lack of representation behind the camera. Mazzara pointed to director Lexi Alexander and her experience with whisper smears. Context matters, he said.
“If a woman is in a sexist or misogynist environment. [The showrunner] is not going to say she was fired because he’s a misogynist — he going to say she didn’t get the show. Very often the studio or the network will say we’ve heard she’s difficult,” Mazzara said.
While Mimoun may have never been blacklisted, she shared that she experienced moments of misogyny and sexual harassment in writers’ rooms earlier on in her career, specifically and notably in “half-hour rooms” (comedies) where she had to “represent all women” because most of the time there were no others there.
“It [was] rape joke after another,” she said of a show she did not want to name but on which she said the studio pressured the showrunner into hiring her because they needed a woman on the staff. “It was a constant hazing. It was a constant level of naked pictures being drawn of me. Or questions about who I was sleeping with. What’s crazy is there were two showrunners. One of them, I, to this day, would lie down in front of a train for, and his poor job was constantly coming up to me and going, ‘Are you OK? I’m sorry.’ And I’m like, ‘I’m fine.’ I was just so happy to be in the room. I can’t imagine that happens now. I think what happens now is so much more subtle.”
Having an ally in the writers’ room was key to Mimoun then, and it still proves vital for more inclusive hiring, better treatment and perhaps most importantly, growing the next wave of creative leaders today. Ryan, whose drama “SWAT” is returning to CBS next season, said he reached out to Alexander after hearing about her troubles finding work due to her reputation.
“I’m instantly intrigued by someone who has been blacklisted,” he said. “She’s going to direct an episode of ‘SWAT’ for us. These are the kinds of things we can do. We can’t just accept the own rumors, we have to do our own research, and give equal access. If everyone has equal access, the talented will rise.”
(Pictured: “Halt and Catch Fire”)