Zombies have treated the brains behind AMC's The Walking Dead very well. But Robert Kirkman, who originated the comic book series that inspired the show, admits the early days of his career were slower than, well, the undead. "You have to be crazy to get into [writing]," Kirkman tells SundanceTV's The Writers' Room, which digs into the art of creating some of TV's biggest series. "I went massively into debt."
On April 25's special comic book-themed episode, Kirkman recounts some of the obstacles he faced in getting the TV adaptation of The Walking Dead made. That includes the NBC development executive who gave Kirkman a disheartening note: "I love this, but does it have to have zombies in it?"
Also in this episode, Smallville creators Al Gough and Miles Millar discuss how they fought the odds to get their show on the air in 2001 — back when comic book adaptations weren't in vogue. "Pre-9/11, the reaction was negative," Millar says of his series. "But after that, people were ready for a hero."
Smallville aired at a time before social media, streaming and time-shifting changed the way viewers experienced television. Kirkman admits it's tough now to ignore all that chatter, but in the end, "we only try to satisfy ourselves. That's the big truth."
In Season 2, The Writers' Room also features the writers, executive producers and stars of Scandal, House of Cards, The Good Wife, Sons of Anarchy and Pretty Little Liars. Jim Rash, who plays the naive Dean Pelton on NBC's Community, returns as host.
Thanks to The Writers' Room, the actor may be TV's biggest binge-viewer. Rash, who is also an Academy Award-winning writer (for 2011's The Descendants, which he coscripted with Nat Faxon), had to bone up on many of these shows via marathon screening sessions. "I was either already a fan or spent long weekends watching television, which is not a hard thing to do," he says. "But, good Lord, Pretty Little Liars is a tough beast at 100 episodes. Too much stuff happens on that show to keep up with! It was quite a task in itself to try to get to a place where I felt I could have a discussion."
This golden age of TV drama has also created some household-name showrunners. In an upcoming episode, Rash and Sons of Anarchy creator Kurt Sutter discuss the impact that social media has had in creating a dialogue between producers and viewers. "Before you reacted to the wonderful [stories] on screen, a group of people were up until 3am giving birth to these dramatic moments and twists that you enjoy," Rash says. "It's great that we're now appreciating these creative minds."
In April 18's season premiere, Scandal executive producer Shonda Rhimes demonstrated her power as a successful producer by pointing out that ABC has given her virtually no notes on the series. One that the network did pass along — requesting that Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) and President Fitz (Tony Goldwyn) not hook up — was ignored.
"Everyone loves hearing stupid network notes," SundanceTV president Sarah Barnett says with a laugh. She lauds Rash's "cheeky charm" in hosting the show. "He asks questions from the point of view of the fan, but he also knows what it's like to be a writer."
Rash may have an Oscar, but he's still eager to learn from others. "I'm opening myself to new shows I haven't been watching and speaking to showrunners I respect."
The downside? Rash had to jump ahead and watch episodes of series he had not yet caught up on. Laments the host: "I had to get spoiled!"
The Writers' Room airs Fridays at 9/8c on SundanceTV.
Check out an exclusive clip from tonight's special comic book-themed episode: