Carlton Cuse's TV Goal: "The Important Thing Now Is to Not Be Everybody's Favorite Show"

NYTVF/Lauren Caulk
New York Television Festival Creative Keynote Discussion with The New Yorker’s Andy Borowitz and showrunner Carlton Cuse at the SVA Theatre

The showrunner of 'The Strain,' 'Bates Motel' and 'Lost' reflected on career missteps and doled out advice in a New York Television Festival keynote conversation

Carlton Cuse confirmed that long-standing fear for Lost fans: The show was being created as it went along.

"We knew parts of the ending — we knew very early on that the show was going to start with Jack's eye opening and end with Jack's eye closing. After a while, we knew that we wanted Hurley to be in charge of the island," Cuse said on Tuesday night at New York City's SVA Theater, as this year's New York Television Festival creative keynote speaker. "Pieces of it came over time. It was an evolving thing. But I think that's the creative process. I don't think it emerges all at once. Anyone who claims that is, I think, not being truthful."

Cuse was interviewed by longtime friend and New Yorker contributor Andy Borowitz, who also revealed that the character of Carlton (Alfonso Ribeiro) on his own show, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, had a real-life inspiration. "Let's say, named after," the curly haired Cuse said in his low-pitched voice. "I think people are actually shocked when they find out there's a connection between those two things."

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The conversation charted through Cuse's decades-long career as a showrunner spanning past shows Nash Bridges and Lost, current projects The Strain and Bates Motel, and his upcoming work on Colony and Point of Honor. He also offered career advice about having multiple mentors and maintaining determination.

"You can't really do anything that's good or special without risking failure," he said, citing Lost as an example. "I was under a deal at another studio at the time, working on projects that I was not really enjoying, and it was this moment where I decided to make a decision and take a leap based on passion. I remember calling my agent and saying, 'I want you to get me out of my studio deal, and I'm going to go work on Lost.' My agent was like, 'Are you nuts? That show is 12 and out.' So I approached it with this idea of, 'I don't care. We'll make 12 cool episodes of television and even if it does fail, how bad can that be? Because everybody's already expecting us to."

That disregard for failure led Cuse, J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof to take chances onscreen, "things like having a 16-person cast or having them do really bad things like murder people," he said, "or intentionally ambiguous storytelling. Those very things that you were not supposed to do were what made Lost unique and special and different."

As Cuse sees it, that rule-breaking freed television to pursue more complex goals. "There was a lowest-common-denominator approach to what you could put on television, and you'd always get network notes like, 'Be more explicit' and, 'Explain this.' Now, television, there are so many choices. The important thing now is to not be everybody's favorite show, it's to be somebody's favorite show. Quality is a highly valued commodity right now. Financially highly valued."

Lost's 121-episode run over six years included the type of fluid, character-driven plotting that Cuse said continues to be necessary. "Mr. Ecko — great character, we loved him, we had all these plans for him, but he did not want to be on Lost. The actor, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, was from London; Hawaii did not suit him and he wanted off the show. So we had to truncate Mr. Ecko's part. This left room for Michael Emerson to come on the show — Michael Emerson was supposed to be a three-episode, guest-star part, and we loved him so much we wrote eight episodes for him in the second season, and then in the third season he became a regular. And it's hard to imagine Lost without Benjamin Linus."

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He also explained the often difficult task of a showrunner is keeping all the pieces moving. "You have to have this two-sided personality," he said. "You have to have a business half of your brain and a creative half, but most people fall into one or the other."

Cuse, who said his favorite shows this year were Fargo and True Detective, also recalled a tennis match with Hunger Games director Gary Ross that led to heading his first long-running show, Nash Bridges. "It's funny how small little things can change your career in very dramatic ways. Right before we started playing, I got this call: Would I be interested in meeting with Don Johnson? I remember Gary saying, 'You have to go meet with Don Johnson. How cool is that? That'll be fun.' I took the meeting and I thought Don was charming and funny. Miami Vice was so nihilistic, I thought, 'Well, I could do something that was funny with him.' "

Borowitz then asked how Cuse typically takes on new projects: "I think I have a lot of inherent optimism," Cuse responded, "and I also have a lot of perseverance. And I think those two things have gotten me a long way."

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