I am going to write today about what it takes to get a show on the air. I am a playwright, and one with virtually no experience in television. But I have entered a new world, and I am no longer who I was. I used to be a New York bohemian art-boy, one who grew up working in the not-for-profit theater, which is as far removed from the passionate fear-driven chaos of network television as can be imagined. I would read, swim, write a little, or a lot, and own my day. That changed when I was invited to try my hand at creating a TV show in July 2005. I had worried that the audience for my plays was aging and dismayingly white and limited to those fortunate New Yorkers who could afford the price of a ticket, which is anywhere from $40 to $75 a pop Off-Broadway. The theater was starting to feel like opera to me: rarified and beautiful, but like Venice, sinking into the sea. So when Ken Olin offered me the chance to try a TV show, I took a breath, left Sag Harbor, New York, and came out to L.A., my original hometown.
Two weeks ago,
Brothers & Sisters
went on the air. The premiere followed a year of writing, rewriting, shooting two versions of the pilot, recasting and navigating the hazing process known as "development." (That means notes from executives upon notes from more executives, and more notes from more executives - all of whom have other shows, other constituencies and other problems to think about.) It followed a year of rage and joy in equal measure, and of honoring my decision never to give up, and never to back away from the fight to get the show on. The fight has changed me for the better, I believe. I needed to know one thing if the show failed - I needed to know that I had done everything I could to make it work, that there was nothing left for me, and that I had not flinched, had been a grown-up and had fought for what I believed in in the way a politician fights for election to high office.
For years as a child, I never even had a television, because my family left California and lived in South Africa, where there were none, and where, when TV finally arrived in the mid '70s, the programming was limited to lugubrious Dutch Reform church services, creaky old British soaps set in industrial towns, and dubious, canceled American detective shows featuring middling crime solvers. Or, at the golf club my parents belonged to, there would be 16-millimeter copies of
or something about a blind detective, shows projected on to white sheets on African terraces for boozy golfers.
It never occurred to me to become a television writer; I was a playwright. I had never paid attention to the medium, and so my learning curve has been - well, picture the north face of Everest. The transition from mounting a play in New York once every couple of years to putting on a large ensemble drama for a gigantic network week after week is exhilarating and harrowing. This is what I've learned so far from the process: Every day, admit you don't know what you're doing, but do not apologize for it. And that's it. Write well, write quickly, write shorter scenes. And don't forget why you're there.
I'll tell you why I'm here: I believe in the story we're trying to tell - that of an American family who loses its blessings and tries to reclaim them. I believe in the face of Sally Field, which carries her experience and her age with pride, undeniable light and fierce intelligence. I love seeing an American woman over 40 who has not succumbed to the temptations of altering her features. I believe in the power of women, the women in our show, and their sensitivity and pride. I believe in Rachel Griffiths and the way she brings confusion, gentleness and bravery to her character, and I believe in Calista Flockhart, and her mercurial, evasive essaying of Kitty Walker, a woman who has had to face life in a new way, in which her decisions have real consequences, in which the shield of politics and ideology can no longer protect her. I believe in the Walker family as Americans struggling to hold on to their ideals and struggling to love one another, or risk losing the delicate, invisible web of interconnection that sustains them. I believe in boys trying to be men, and in men trying to do the right thing. I believe in a large ensemble cast, and collaborating with my partners Ken Olin and Greg Berlanti, and writers Craig Wright, Molly Newman, David Marshall Grant and Jessica Mecklenburg, who have written the episodes so far. I believe in the young staff writers who are about to go to bat.
And I believe in an avid, hungry audience who could see the possibilities in these characters; their love, their flaws and the bonds that can't be broken, despite the conflicts between them about money, power, sex and politics. I said yes to television when I realized that I had to try to understand what holds this country together, during a time of war and economic disparity and red-state/blue-state mistrust and rage. I thought that a television show could talk about that, and if it worked, if it was funny and real, there would be a place for it. I hope I'm right. The response to the first few episodes offers hope that I am.
When Greg Berlanti joined the show, the two of us went on a walk around the lot. He knew we were labeled the "troubled show" without having yet aired, and that we were under scrutiny from the press because of the high-profile cast and the departure of his predecessor, Marti Noxon. He knew how exhausted I was; we had become friends almost instantly. So we walked around the lot and he gave me some advice. "Just treat everything like you're putting up a play; it's the same. Work is work, solve the problems you encounter here the same way you would in the theater. Work is work." And I thought about it: It was July, it was hot, the light was fading, and he was as right as he was wrong. But we were walking on a studio lot, we had a show to fight for, and we both believed in it - and it was one of the happiest moments of my life.