6:15am PT by Emma Dibdin
Sera Gamble on Her Banner Year and Deconstructing Tropes in 'You' and 'The Magicians'
“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.”
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.”
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.
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.”