'Unforgettable' Producer: This is Not Another 'Gimmicky Procedural' (Q&A)
Executive producers Ed Redlich and John Bellucci talk to THR about the new CBS series with Poppy Montgomery, dark twists and challenges of working in broadcast television.
Ed Redlich had one stipulation in coming back to CBS. The Without a Trace executive producer was not interested in doing another straight-up procedural, the bread and butter of the most watched network.
When he and his childhood friend-turned-writing partner, John Bellucci, serve up Unforgettable on Sept. 20, viewers will see a character-based procedural in the vein of CBS' The Good Wife.
The series centers on Poppy Montgomery's Carrie Wells, a former detective with a rare condition that makes her memory so flawless that every moment is forever embedded in her mind. The only thing that she can't remember are the details that would help solve her sister's murder long ago. Unable to detach from that troubling past, Carrie is unexpectedly reunited with her ex-boyfriend and partner, NYPD Detective Al Burns (Dylan Walsh), when the pair consults on a homicide case.
The producers caught up with The Hollywood Reporter to discuss his original pitch, the tussles with the network and what this show would have looked like elsewhere.
The Hollywood Reporter: This series is two years in the making. What took so long?
Ed Redlich: Yeah, literally two years ago my wife, Sarah Timberman, who's one of the executive producers on this and [CBS' new series] A Gifted Man, found a short story, The Rememberer. John and I read it and were just taken by this notion of what it would be like to live with inability to forget. I had done procedural stuff at CBS with Without a Trace, and I wasn't really looking to go back into doing procedural TV. But given that CBS is now doing shows like The Good Wife, which are really open to more character stuff, we said, “let’s take this character and explore what it’s like to be her and put her in this crime-solving situation.” We felt that her ability —it's a gift, burden and ability — sort of lent itself to that kind of storytelling.
We wrote it, and CBS apparently liked it very much but we couldn't cast it that pilot season. [CBS entertainment chief] Nina Tassler said, “We're just going to continue to call this ordered and as soon as you find the right person we will make it.” You're never sure whether to believe the network when it says something like that, but that's what happened. Then [Without a Trace star] Poppy Montgomery became available, sort of at the same time that 60 Minutes independently ran this huge story on highly superior autobiographical memory and identified Marilu Henner as someone who has the condition. Suddenly, we had this confluence of events and we were ordered.
THR: While CBS is exploring more character-based fare with The Good Wife, that is not what the network is known for. What did that conversation with CBS entail?
Redlich: It really wasn't much of one. It was more of a conversation with my wife and with John because I may have some sort of gift for telling twisty-turn-y stories and that kind of storytelling that you could see on Without a Trace... but if you're just doing that it can tend to be creatively stifling. So when we came in and pitched this to Nina, we didn't talk about crimes. We talked about nothing but what it would be like to have this condition. And this was before the 60 Minutes piece, so it was a condition that no one had heard of.
THR: What was your pitch?
Redlich: I literally brought my journal to the pitch. I've known Sarah, my wife, since 1976, when we were at summer camp together. The journal was from 1983, and I was very frustrated in love with her at various points when she was my girlfriend. I read some outrageous things that I had written out of anger and frustration to Nina Tassler and then I said, 'Imagine what it would be like if I could never have gotten over these feelings. I couldn't be married to this woman. The fact that I was able to selectively remember and forget has allowed this relationship to happen.'
CBS has promised us that what they are really interested in is developing this character and we hopefully have the room now to get away from what I call the Bruckheimer model of twisty-turn-y procedurals and really get a chance to hang out with Poppy and Dylan Walsh's character. It’s a really tough balance: part of me wants to make the stories even more twisty and turn-y and the other part wants to find time to just hang out with her and explore the way she views the world. We went back and forth with CBS on how much of a burden versus a gift or how much fun versus angst there would be.
THR: Which side were you on?
Redlich: Not to be pretentious, but we were interested initially in the drama --what makes life in some ways difficult-- because we knew we could always find the fun of this condition. The fun of it you see in the pilot: she can count cards, and she knows all kinds of information. But we were interested in trying to be real about the other side of it, so we were drawn to that and it’s been about trying to get everything into the show.
THR: What's the most challenging piece about being a showrunner in today's TV's landscape?
Redlich: I've been a showrunner many times and I've made many pilots, but this is the first time that I've been doing a show that I created. There’s a big difference between helping someone else achieve their vision and keeping track of your own vision, and there's so much to get done that it’s very easy to lose track of what you're trying to do just because of the deadlines and everything that’s coming at you. So it’s sort of being able to step back and say, 'Hey, why are we doing this in the first place?' I know it’s cliché, but John and I don't watch that much TV and you'd like to think that you're making something that if you came across it, you'd go, 'Hey, there's something cool there, I'd watch that.' The challenge of doing that on network television and not on cable is what’s interesting to us. We're interested in pushing this as far as we can in the CBS universe.
For more of the Q&A, go on to the next page.
THR: Assume the 10 p.m. time slot helps?
Redlich: We have a great time slot, but, for instance, we wanted to write off very early the issue of Carrie's sexuality and how she functions in relationships given that her pain doesn't go away. We did some episodes that I would have thought that CBS would say, 'Let’s wait before we do that, that's a little complex," but they haven't. They've embraced every strange turn we've wanted to take.
THR: If this were a show that you guys were doing for cable, where would you want to take it that you wont be able to on broadcast?
Redlich: I think if we had developed this for cable, we wouldn't have put it in a procedural format. It might have been a different group of people with this woman at the center.
Bellucci: The character would have been basically the same, it's just what she was doing that would have been different. But we were entranced by the character and then sort of put her onto this vehicle.
Redlich: We'd use different language occasionally and the pace of story telling might be slower as befits cable. Maybe people would take their clothes off a little more, but the truth is the essence of this character would be the same.
THR: What about the characters themselves?
Bellucci: We have such a powerful dominant central character in Carrie that it’s a little challenging at this stage to get more than a moment or two [for the others]. Hopefully we will be able to address their individual stories more fully later on. On cable we'd have a lot more time to do that, which would be gratifying because each one of them could hold up huge story lines.
Redlich: I should say that CBS Marketing has done a wonderful job of promoting the show that we are actually making. I know you can look at this as a one-liner and say, 'Oh, there's another gimmicky procedural show on CBS, what ability does this person have?' People may see it that way, but the origin of it was really, for us, was this woman. Again, I wasn’t drawn to do another procedural show but it was just so cool to think about. .
THR: Any thoughts as to who else you would like to see come do a cameo on the show?
Redlich: Carrie’s back-story is that her sister died and in a way this memory condition of hers dates to that traumatic event. Her mom is already in the show as a character with Alzheimer’s. We’ve been talking a lot about who her dad might be and what’s happened to him because we feel like the family kind of broke up in some way in 1984 after the death of the child and who would Carrie's dad have been? What kind of powerful persona is he? We also want to find someone for Carrie to be in a relationship with and see how that works out.
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