The Re-Rebirth of Showtime
First, Bob Greenblatt brought the heat. Then newbie David Nevins supersized it with a surprise slate of anti-artsy hits charged with action, sex, currency -- and, yes, even awards -- that have the town talking.
"This is so f--ing great," says Nevins as he watches Jon Voight, 73, dance topless with a hooker amid a cloud of marijuana smoke.
It is mid-March, and Nevins is sharing dailies on his iPad from his Ray Donovan pilot, a Liev Schreiber-led drama about a fixer with his own demons. Minutes earlier, Nevins had been making his way around the Malibu set with the kind of excitement of a budding actor getting his break. Schreiber had just completed a scene in which he breaks the hand of another man, one of many windows into his character's complexities, and now a fully clothed Elliott Gould is standing knee deep in the Pacific as his character unravels in the wake of his wife's death.
As costumers, dialect coaches and a sizable crew scurry about the beachfront property on day seven of a 15-day shoot, Nevins keeps his distance from the cameras to avoid falling back into producer mode. With those around him inching down the cliff to capture the beach scene, he grins widely from his perch above the California coastline, knowing the drama has the hallmarks of a Nevins show: masculinity, contemporariness and the kind of in-your-face sexual content that separates pay cable from even edgy fare on FX and AMC. Showtime viewers are no stranger to that onscreen raunchiness, having seen explicit sex scenes on Homeland (in a car), House of Lies (girl on girl in a bathroom) and Shameless (in a sink).
"Ray Donovan has all of these different shades of men in transition, which is why I like to say it feels like Passages for men," he says, referencing Gail Sheehy's book about adult life stages as he waxes on about the modern-day Los Angeles pilot, featuring Schreiber, Voight and Gould's characters at significant turning points in their own adult lives. "It's so interesting to me that it is written by a woman [Southland's Ann Biderman] who really seems to understand male psychology with a depth." Nevins is still several weeks away from making any decisions about the future of Ray Donovan.
Also in contention for a slot on Showtime's 2013 schedule is Masters of Sex, adapted from Thomas Maier's book about the intriguing lives and unusual relationship of married professor William Masters and his former assistant Virginia Johnson, 1950s era pioneers of the science of human sexuality. This project, too, plays into Nevins' desire to offer what the other networks cannot with both its explicit language and many sex scenes, including an early one in which Masters observes a prostitute and her client having intercourse.
"I've been leery of doing period fare, but I think the subject is so specific, so provocative and so contemporary that I got over it," explains Nevins, who was urged to read the Maier book when he bumped into producer and longtime friend Sarah Timberman on a plane ride to New York shortly after taking the gig. "By the time the plane landed, I said, 'Yes, we have to do this,' and she said, 'I think I can get [The Pacific writer] Michelle Ashford, who both of us have known for a very long time,'" he recalls, adding of the New York-based project starring Lizzy Caplan and Michael Sheen, "It was at the top of the list from that moment on."
He has spent multiple days on the set of both pilots, one of the perks of working in cable, where far fewer projects are in production at any given time (Showtime typically has three to four projects going, with plans to expand). That freedom to be hands-on, as he was for nearly a decade at Imagine -- where he produced such series as Friday Night Lights, Arrested Development and Parenthood -- is chief among the reasons Nevins agreed to take the gig. (Although this time around, he sits before the bank of cameras with a headset dangling from his neck taking stock of what the producers have gathered, since he has been off running the network.)
To hear Nevins now tell it, he had considerable doubt as he drove to Moonves' house to discuss the job opportunity on a Sunday morning in June 2010. "I went from, 'No, I love being a producer,' to 'Yes, it's the one network job that could be really fun where I can still sort of feel like a producer' in 36 hours, and there was very little of the calculation that you're supposed to do," recalls the onetime NBC and Fox executive, chuckling as he continues, "And clearly the handbook says you're supposed to go into a network when it's sucky, and then you can be the hero and bring it back."
Friends and peers reveal that they felt for Nevins in his first year on the job. Despite his reputation and track record, he spent the first year and a half in the position hearing comparisons to his revered predecessor. "I didn't tell him at the time, but I thought, 'Wow, how's he going to do that?'" recalls Gordon. "I felt not only scared for David, but also pressure because by being so all-in on this show and putting that kind of support behind it, he was laying a lot of his eggs in our basket. In many ways, I wanted this show to succeed as much for David as I did for Alex and me."
Nevins downplays any pressure he might have felt. "There may have been a little bit of the, 'OK, prove it to us. What does this guy got?' " he says. "But I had confidence that when we put the stuff out there, it would at least be interesting, and I understand what it meant to be doing premium television."
Still, he was eager to make his mark quickly, deciding Homeland and House of Lies would be the first two series he'd champion after just days on the job. He sent both scripts to Moonves, who was as impressed by the projects as he was by Nevins' tenacity. "David was really taking hold of the job and saying, 'I'm going to push for what I want to do,' " Moonves says, recalling his new hire voicing slight concern that Homeland might be "too network" initially. "I remember saying: 'That's OK. I'm a network guy,' " Moonves says, " 'and just because it's on Showtime doesn't mean it has to be way out there.' "
Nevins spent the year or so that followed making certain both series fit with his mandate for Showtime, or "the inappropriate network," as his young children with wife Andrea Blaugrund, a filmmaker, have come to know it.
Now, some 20 months into the job, Nevins, an avid reader who has helped found an L.A.-based synagogue and a charter school, has proved he can launch a series. Next on his agenda is to go where his competitors are not. Straight-ahead genre fare is off-limits, for instance, because HBO (Game of Thrones) and AMC (Walking Dead) are already there, though many suggest he's clamoring for their commercial impact. Genre comedy, on the other hand, is an area Nevins hopes he can own, and he's working to get the script right on an adaptation of the graphic novel Chew, about an FDA agent who cracks cases by tasting his evidence.
Coming into the role, he had high hopes for doing straight-up comedy, particularly because so many cable half-hours -- many on his network -- feel more dramatic than they do funny. But getting the genre right has been harder than anticipated. "I thought the fact that I could do R-rated comedy and go to places that even basic cable cannot would be a huge advantage," he says. "But I still need sophisticated and smart, so just a bunch of frat-guy humor isn't going to cut it, and that's what I get pitched."
Nevins is now developing a comedy about a young couple exploring an open marriage as well as one about a group of brilliant, quirky young people who move to a lavish apartment in Las Vegas to pursue the $10 million prize at the World Series of Poker's Main Event. Also of interest are higher-profile stand-up specials, though he's coy about which comedians he's courting.
Similarly appealing are documentaries, a genre where he believes he can stir the pot with larger-than-life characters, dead or alive. Nevins' first foray includes Dick Cheney (the former vice president has agreed to participate in an R.J. Cutler film), Suge Knight and Richard Pryor docs. He'll look to acquire documentaries from the festival circuit as well. Nevins, whose wife has directed such docs as 2011's The Other F Word, will start with four a year but has plans to ramp up to six. Miniseries, long dominated by HBO, hold considerably less appeal, he says, but one need only look to the recent media generated by Game Change to see the potential for timely telepics.
That leaves sports. He's particularly excited to add a weekly Jim Rome series to his network, which already airs sports documentary series The Franchise, set to follow the Miami Marlins this season, and weekly football show Inside the NFL. Although Rome's day-and-date show will start as a truncated series, Nevins foresees expanding it to a year-round offering. Politics, a passion for the liberal exec, also is something with which he has toyed; he says he "takes a lot of exploratory meetings with interesting people." (A drama project in development with Salman Rushdie came about through Nevins' desire to sit down with the British-Indian novelist.)
These days, there are many more interesting people seeking time on Nevins' schedule. A leading TV agent acknowledges the perception shift within his agency: "Now people are saying, 'Well, wait a second, I don't have to go only to HBO,' " he says of Showtime. And the network's entertainment chief, who wasn't instantly sure he'd accept the gig, is now thrilled he did. "I'm cynical about a lot of things," says Nevins, "but not television. I still really feel a sense of possibility."
SHOWTIME'S CACHET GROWS THROUGH THE YEARS: The network's nominations and wins at the Emmys, Golden Globes and SAG Awards
1988-1995: 24 noms, 3 wins
In 1988, It's Garry Shandling's Show nabs four Emmy noms. Later, Beau Bridges and Laura Dern are nominated for series work.
1996-2003: 120 noms, 17 wins
Helen Mirren earns an Emmy for starring in The Passion of Ayn Rand; Jack Lemmon (Inherit the Wind) collects his final Globe.
2004-2012: 212 noms, 43 wins
Dexter nabs four Emmys and two Globes. In January, Homeland picks up Showtime's first drama series Globe.
THE PRICEY BATTLE FOR SUBSCRIBERS: A mix of the networks' ratings drivers and critical darlings.
- True Blood: 12.6 million
- Boardwalk Empire: 8.6 million
- Game of Thrones: 9.3 million
- Luck*: 4.3 million
- Enlightened: 1.7 million
- Dexter: 5.5 million
- Shameless*: 4.8 million
- Homeland: 4.4 million
- House of Lies*: 3.4 million
- Episodes: 1.9 million
- Spartacus: Vengeance*: 6.0 million
- Boss: 2.9 million
* Season to date. Includes digital, on demand and live+7 viewership.