Sera Gamble on Her Banner Year and Deconstructing Tropes in 'You' and 'The Magicians'

Penn Badgley - Sera Gamble -Jason Ralph -Split-Getty-H 2019
Courtesy of Netflix; David Livingston/Getty Images; Eike Schroter/SYFY
Sera Gamble has two shows on the air, two writing staffs at work and two bustling production offices on either side of L.A.'s famed Melrose Avenue, which should provide a snapshot of the kind of 2019 she’s having.
Syfy’s The Magicians, which has steadily gathered critical buzz and a cult following since its debut four years ago, just reopened its writers room for season five. Meanwhile, buzzy Lifetime-turned-Netflix drama You is in the thick of production on season two: its final episodes are being broken in its writers room, while earlier episodes are in production and postproduction. “I schedule my day so that I start in one room and end in the other,” Gamble tells The Hollywood Reporter in late March, taking a seat in her office on the Magicians side of Melrose. “It’s mostly hard on my assistant.”
Gamble is quick to emphasize the role of others in making her juggling act possible, in particular her co-showrunners John McNamara on The Magicians and exec producer Greg Berlanti on You. But her deep creative involvement in both shows is clear, and going between the two in the space of hours seems daunting, since they seem to share little in common besides a broadly dark tone. One is a fantasy drama replete with black magic, talking animals and surreal musical numbers. The other is a sharp, soapy deconstruction of toxic masculinity in the digital age. But “they actually feed into each other a lot,” Gamble says, pointing out that both shows take a meta approach to narrative and to established norms about gender. “You is very much about point-of-view, and a subversive take on the romantic tropes that we grew up loving, and peeling back the romantic comedy score to say, ‘Actually, he’s a stalker.’” 
As Gamble and Berlanti developed their adaptation of Caroline Kepnes’ novel about charismatic stalker Joe Goldberg, they spoke a lot about “how quick we are to forgive a character like Joe because he fits the bill of a romantic hero: he looks like Penn Badgley, he’s thoughtful, he works in a bookstore, he frankly is the straight white guy of the story. We were struck by how easy it was to make you judge Beck [the object of Joe’s obsessive affections] and how easy it was to make you forgive Joe.” The show has as much to say about narrative tropes as it does social media — the season one finale, in which Joe’s obsession with Beck finally curdles into violence, is not titled "Bluebeard’s Castle" for nothing. 
Meanwhile on The Magicians, Gamble says, “we talk a lot about the way that fantasy stories are told, because there’s something very meta and knowing about the show, and it’s a fantasy story about fantasy fans.” As in You, there is a white male protagonist whom you initially assume to be the hero of the story, but Jason Ralph’s Quentin Coldwater soon comes to realize that in fact he’s not the Chosen One, but one part of a larger and more diverse ensemble.

“Sometimes being a hero means admitting that your girlfriend’s a better magician than you!” Gamble says. “In order to move the story as far and as deep as we want to on The Magicians, we have to make it really clear to the audience that we’re not interested in telling the same old fantasy story, and that it’s actually about the people you might expect to be off to the side.” A central episode in the show's fourth season — which wraps up its run Wednesday — sees one character calling out another for his "classic case of White Male Protagonism," explicitly challenging the notion that fantasy stories can only be told through the lens of one type of hero. “In that moment,” Gamble says, “I really felt the two shows talking to each other.”

Nonetheless, straddling the worlds of The Magicians and You requires a particular kind of brain, and Gamble’s deep, almost encyclopedic knowledge of both shows is striking. “She’s always very present,” says Berlanti, who has more than a passing familiarity with the challenges of running multiple shows. “The group of people that she’s with always feel like her No. 1 priority, and I don’t think you can do multiple things in this business without being exactly where you are in that moment. Your mind can't be on the budget that came in last night, or the rewrite you haven’t finished, you have to be with the group of people that need you right at that moment, even if they know you have a whole other universe across the street. She makes everybody feel equally first priority, and I think it’s because she’s genuine about it.”
Gamble grew up an ardent fan of horror, fantasy and fairy tales (“the darker the better”), but hungry for representation that often seemed lacking: “I grew up looking for fantasy that involved people who felt and looked like me.” She wrote poetry and began a career as an actress, but noticed when she wrote pieces to perform that she received consistently strong feedback on the writing. Coupled with more practical realities (“at a certain point, you kind of want health insurance”) that feedback pushed her and her then-writing partner Raelle Tucker to enter Project Greenlight in 2003. The duo made it through to the finals, which led to both an agent and a meeting with McNamara, Gamble’s current co-showrunner on The Magicians who would become her first boss.  
“My first impression, when I saw Sera and Raelle on Project Greenlight, was that they had such composure and such maturity and also such a sense of humor about the whole thing,” McNamara recalls. When he met with them for a potential job on his 2005 ABC drama Eyes, “they showed a very acute and nuanced understanding of the pilot, and where it could go as a series.” After giving them a staff writer position on the short-lived show, McNamara also entrusted them with producing an episode, “and they did a great job. That began a good relationship where I knew I could delegate to possibly the youngest and least experienced writers on the staff.” Though the show didn't last a full season, Gamble's relationship with McNamara would become one of the most enduring of her career. “We just have amazing creative chemistry,” Gamble enthuses of McNamara now, “and he hates it when I say this, but he’s been a mentor to me. Before we specced The Magicians together, I’d called him many times over the years to ask advice.” 
One such occasion came in 2005, when Gamble and Tucker were trying to decide between gigs on a few network shows, one of them being a quirky WB Network drama about two brothers who drive across the country hunting ghosts. “John walked us through a series of questions about how to pick, and we were like, ‘I guess we're gonna take the job on that weird little horror show on the weird little network that surely will be canceled almost immediately!’”

Though Supernatural is now one of the longest-running scripted shows of all time, back then it was a long shot. “We thought it was cool, and it was obvious that Jared [Padalecki] and Jensen [Ackles] were very, very special,” Gamble says. “But we had no particular reason to believe that that show would go on more than a season.” But go on the show did, weathering the transition from The WB to The CW as Gamble moved up the ranks from staff writer and story editor to executive producer. “It was like graduate school for me. We had eight days [per episode] to do very very ambitious stunt work, VFX work, we had no standing sets, so in the first couple of seasons I just got a whole education in how to make produceable fantasy TV.”

Five seasons in, Gamble and the entire staff were confident the show was about to end. “Entering that season, we had this kind of giddy excitement because we were gonna blow everything up in the finale.” Instead, creator Eric Kripke walked into her office with unexpected news: the show had been renewed for a sixth season, but he was ready to pass the torch, and wanted Gamble to succeed him as showrunner. “I was intensely flattered and grateful, and then also terrified, because what’s the story beyond the ending we had all planned for?”

Taking over the mantle for seasons six and seven taught Gamble a number of lessons she’s taken into future projects, she says, including an understanding of “how the gender dynamics in our culture damage men.” Supernatural was originally designed as a vehicle to explore urban legends — from Bloody Mary to wendigos — in a weekly format, but it swiftly became clear that the horror wasn’t the heart of the show. Instead, it was the moments spotlighting the Winchester brothers’ emotional bond that resonated with fans.

“I realized there’s an expectation that in order to be a manly man who can use a hunting knife and kill a monster, you have to set aside your emotional inner life,” Gamble explains. “In the same way it’s easy for a woman to be slut-shamed and deemed unworthy, it’s easy for a man to lose his manliness card. We have a very narrow definition of masculine behavior in our culture, and the fact that Sam and Dean are the kind of heroes who get to have an emotion, I learned a lot from that.”

Another lesson from Supernatural: how to navigate a very, very ardent fandom. “My mentions are a fucking mess!” Gamble laughs on the day we meet, in the wake of the announcement that Supernatural is ending next year after 15 seasons. Though she hasn’t been on the show in years, fans still have a lot of opinions to share with Gamble — not all of them positive — and she understands the impulse. “I just have this essential respect for somebody who identifies as part of a fandom, and beyond that I believe in the prime directive of letting fandoms be fandoms, and being very clear on what my job is as a storyteller, which is to make the coolest, funniest, deepest, saddest, most awesome version of the story we’ve been promising we will tell. Sometimes that means that fandoms will jump up and cheer and give you a standing ovation, and sometimes it means they'll be like 'you bastard!' in kind of a loving way. And sometimes,” she adds dryly, “it means that you’ll get death threats.” 
While there are no death threats coming from Magicians fans — Gamble recently posted a Twitter thread praising the fandom’s supportive, inclusive spirit — this season has had its divisive moments, and Wednesday's season finale may prove to be another. “Fantasy stories are so deeply archetypal, and they really have the ability to click into something deep inside your psyche,” Gamble muses. “And for that reason, people take the story really personally. I think it can be hard to watch something that can give you such catharsis, or give you such a deep understanding of yourself, and not feel like it's personal when the story then goes in a direction you do not prefer. I understand that.”
Gamble left Supernatural after season seven, and it was then that she and McNamara found their way back together. “We were both egregiously, viciously unemployed in 2012,” McNamara says, noting that Gamble was voluntarily taking a breather after years of grind on Supernatural. Using their own money, they optioned Lev Grossman’s best-selling novel The Magicians, and so began “the most intense and most satisfying part of our friendship,” McNamara continues. “It felt like we had gambled on something we love, and using our own money gave us the courage to say no to certain buyers who wanted to make big changes.”
They wrote the pilot on spec in McNamara’s garage, drawn by the Narnia-esque story of a group of misfits who learn that the magical world they love from a book series is not only real, but incredibly dangerous. The characters in The Magicians would watch The Magicians, and that self-awareness allowed the show to experiment with tone and format from day one. “We all saw that amazing Buffy episode where no one could talk, and so did every character on this show,” Gamble notes. “So we don’t go into it consciously trying to challenge conventional structure. We just make room for it, and we don't get scared of pitches that require us to throw out the TV rulebook.”

Before The Magicians was even picked up to series, Gamble had begun working on the You pilot with Berlanti. Having optioned Kepnes’ novel, Berlanti knew he needed a female co-showrunner, as well as “somebody [who] had experience with darker tones, and that I knew could teach me about thrillers and horror and the difference between the two.” After he sent Gamble the novel, "she connected with it right away," and the pair hatched a Joe Goldberg-worthy plan to make themselves memorable at the pitching stage.
“We cyber-stalked a bunch of executives that we were meeting with to pitch,” Berlanti recalls with a laugh. “I took some, Sera took some, our assistants took some. And we went in and told these executives where they got their hair appointment on Saturday, and where they drop their kids off at camp. Somewhere in the middle of that process, Sera turned to me and said, ‘I will either never work again after this, or we’ll have a show!’” Showtime bit, but after Gamble and Berlanti spent a year developing the pilot through three different drafts, they passed on the final script. By the time Lifetime eventually picked You up to series, Gamble was two seasons into The Magicians and about to start the third. “At that point it was just like, ‘Well, I'm gonna either do this or die trying. Don’t make me pick, please!’ I thew myself on John and Greg’s mercy, both of them, and was like, I really want to do this, do you believe that I can?” 
They did. “Being a showrunner is like being a CEO of a small company, but you also have to write poetry on the side, and the poetry is the product of the company,” McNamara says. “Sera is someone who really understands schedules, budgets, the real world, and then she can simply close the door and slip into this world of whimsical, dark, sometimes terrifying fantasy. Many showrunners can only do one or the other, and Sera can do both. It’s rare combination to balance, and I think it’s not only serving her well in this busy present, but I think will serve her well in an even busier future.”
You premiered to disappointing ratings on Lifetime last fall, and despite having given the show an early renewal the network backed out of producing a second season. “They just really couldn’t make it work with their business model,” Gamble says. But Netflix had already secured international and U.S. streaming rights, and were quick to swoop in to save the show and rebrand it as an outright Netflix original.
When it debuted on Netflix in late December, Gamble expected a modest bump, in line with what The Magicians and many of Berlanti’s other shows had seen. Instead, “it started to feel like people were watching it, there were a couple of memes, and then Greg walked in with the craziest look on his face. He’s like, ‘They’re about to announce this number, and just stand right there so I can see your face when I tell you.’ It was one of my favorite moments of my entire career, just getting to walk into the writers room and share that number with the writers.”
That number was 40 million viewers in the first month of release, which stands out as one of the few pieces of ratings data Netflix has chosen to release. “I still can’t really process that number,” Gamble admits. “I've spent my whole career very happily working on shows that are well-known in the line for Hall H at Comic-Con only. And that’s cool, those are my people, so I feel a bit like an anthropologist studying mainstream television for a moment here!”

You wrapped up on a note of such perfectly horrifying symmetry that a second season feels hard to imagine; after a full season of obsessing over Beck (Elizabeth Lail), Joe finally realized that the flesh-and-blood human woman could never match up to the fantasy he’d built up in his head, and killed her after she discovered his murderous secrets. Continuing into season two, which uproots the action from New York to Los Angeles, Gamble is keenly aware of the tightrope she’s walking. “We came back in knowing that we would never be able to repeat the beautiful simplicity of the story of season one. The interesting challenge of season two is to modulate Joe’s level of self-awareness, because he's not stupid and a couple of relationships have ended very poorly for him! It’s interesting to explore with the writers, and with Penn, the question of how much does Joe really understand Joe? And what does he think happened with Beck? What lessons did he take from that?” No good ones, it’s safe to assume. “When you talk about the line between love and obsession, it's not one line. There's a lot of fucked-up lines you can cross, so we're exploring a couple of new ones this season.”
As a fandom veteran, Gamble was not surprised by any of the reactions to You, including the viewers who romanticize Joe to the point where Badgley felt compelled to intervene. “Penn plays Joe beautifully, and he doesn’t comment on the character while he’s playing him, but he’s entirely on the same page about the fact that we're burning that character to the ground. The point of the show is to peel back the veneer of sparkly romantic heroism, and just lay bare how fucked up the thinking is around how men should be to women.”
Gamble’s deep awareness of gender dynamics goes beyond her onscreen worlds; she is quick to note that even in an era where inequality and privilege in Hollywood are being openly addressed, women still represent “maybe 15 to 20 percent” of showrunners. “It’s not great. I frequently was the only woman in the writers room coming up, but I never had the particular expectation of fairness or parity, to be totally honest with you. I expected my career to be a fight.” There’s a clear-eyed pragmatism to the way Gamble approaches the business, which she attributes in part to her upbringing. “I was raised by really hard-working, sort of cynical immigrants, and they were very clear with me from a young age that if you want something, don't expect it to come to you easily.” As a result, she never spent much time dwelling on how alienating it was to be the only woman in the room. “I always figured, eh, stuff's gonna be weird, let's keep our eyes on the prize. There are people who have it better, and there are people who have it a lot worse.” 
It’s only since the Harvey Weinstein story broke that Gamble’s being asked to speak to the inequality that she’s long since learned to navigate as a part of daily life. “At first I was a little reluctant to engage, because I thought it was reductive. The showrunners that I know and admire, the fact that they’re women is maybe 20th on the list of interesting things about them.” One of Gamble’s closest friends is Dirty John showrunner Alexandra Cunningham, whom she texts regularly for a gut check, “usually when I figure I’m not doing something well enough, or that I have to be perfectly prepared to take on a new challenge, and she’ll remind me that that’s ridiculous bullshit. She and I really encourage each other to have the bravado of a mediocre white man sometimes!” 
Gamble emphasizes that many of her closest collaborators, from McNamara to Kripke to Berlanti, have been men, and that “not every man in Hollywood fits the profile of somebody who's deathly reluctant to work with anyone who's not like themselves. But it is just a fact that we hold anyone who doesn’t look like our expected version of a showrunner to a higher standard. We’re more likely to dismiss their work as girly, or only made for their subculture. And that is essentially unfair.” Gamble is not about to dwell on that injustice; she’s too busy doing the work. But she does bristle at the oft-repeated myth that if women are underrepresented in a field, it's because they lack interest. “It is a lie that girls don't love fantasy and science fiction and action and horror. It’s a lie that women don't make TV every bit as deserving of the ‘prestige’ label as the dudes. The whole premise is bullshit. It's a lie. If this is the game we're playing, then whatever, but while you people tell lies to yourselves, I'll just be over here making as much TV as I possibly can for as long as people will have me.”