How 'Ten Days in the Valley's' Creator Learned to Break All Her Own Rules on the ABC Drama

Showrunner Tassie Cameron talks creating an inside-baseball series and flawed female leads.
Eric McCandless/ABC

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from Sunday's series premiere of Ten Days in the Valley, "Day 1: Fade in."]

The jury is still out on whether Jane Sadler (Kyra Sedgwick) is a "good" mother, but at least viewers can now rest assured that her daughter is alive and well — wherever she is — thanks to the final shot of the episode.

The pilot of the ABC drama Ten Days in the Valley set up a season-long arc in which Jane, a TV showrunner, has her world turned upside down when her daughter is kidnapped in the middle of the night, kicking off a mystery involving a complex world of secretive characters. As the first episode made clear, everyone from the assistant (Emily Kinney) to the ex-husband (Kick Gurry) is a potential suspect as the clock ticks down in the hunt to find Lake (Abigail Pniowsky), and law officials — led by John Bird (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) and Jane’s sister Ali (Erika Christensen) try to piece together what happened that night.

Over the course of the 10-episode first season, the mystery of who took the child and why remains front-and-center as Jane also attempts to manage running a successful cop drama and hide a fairly large secret of her own, all while dealing with people questioning her abilities as a mother because she was out writing in her shed at the time of her daughter's disappearance.

The premise of season one stemmed from creator and showrunner Tassie Cameron following a recurring nightmare she had about her own 8-year-old daughter being kidnapped in the middle of the night while she was working.

THR caught up with Cameron, who most recently served as showrunner on Canadian cop drama Rookie Blue to break down the inherent mom guilt that comes from juggling a career and family, the dangers of writing a show that might be too meta for some audiences, and how the series could potentially evolve into a second season down the line. 

This show was originally shopped as a cable series, why did it land on ABC?

I didn't have a real agenda; I had imagined that it would probably fit more comfortably into cable but then when ABC had such a passion for it and they seemed to get it so much that they were willing to greenlight it to series without making a pilot, it was very convincing. I have a really positive relationship with ABC and the fact that they sort of specialize in strong, complicated female heroes felt like a good fit.

Demi Moore was originally attached, but then Kyra Sedgwick replaced her when it landed at ABC. How did Jane's character change as a result?

When I first write something, I never think of an actor in that part, I just think of the character. I would have been thrilled to work with Demi, too. They do have a different kind of energy. But when I sat down with Kyra, I realized I could use a lot of the stuff she was bringing in terms of ideas and the backstory … I always tailor-make the part a little bit for the actor that I'm working with. In this case, I would say primarily in Jane's backstory, we kind of made it together.

What else did Kyra bring to the show as a producer?

She was invaluable in a bunch of different ways. She had great ideas about where the script should go and she was very enthusiastic about pushing some more of the unusual elements of the script, like the show within the show. Then in terms of the backstory of the character, we decided that Jane was going to come from this investigative journalist background in San Francisco. Kyra was also incredible with casting. She would go to many of the sessions with our shortlists and she had very, very strong instincts on cast.

Was it important to you to hire an equal mix of male and female directors?

Yes, very. It was really, really important to me — we have four female directors out of 10. I would have done 10 out of 10 if we could have booked them, although that’s kind of a silly thing to say because having quotas isn't really the way to do it. But it was very important to me to try and have as many female directors as possible. Also diverse directors; we had three or four diverse directors too.

How did you land on 10 as the episode number?

Because that's the number of episodes I like to watch. I like shows with six, seven, eight, nine, 10 episodes, those limited runs where you get into it and you're not trying to commit for 22 or 15 or even 13. I like a mystery to be contained.

Speaking of a contained mystery, what's the pacing involved here? How does this mystery unfold?

There's a little bit of suspects dropping off as we realize that their secret either does or doesn't connect to the main mystery, but the main players stay in play throughout the season. There are a number of reversals throughout.

You've said the mystery will be resolved by season's end, so how does that open the door for a second season?

Once you see where the season goes, you'll see how many different elements we've uncovered and revealed and explored and touched on that could lead very organically to a second season. The primal mystery of the season will be solved and be solved in ways that at times that are going to surprise people, I hope. But there's a lot of hanging chapters at the end of it in terms of the people that Jane has met and the enemies that she's made and the corruption she's revealed and that kind of thing.

At that point, does the show turn away from its origins of working mom guilt and a missing child?

I think so, although that guilt is really, really who Jane is. Part of her whole identity is built around that sense of being conflicted and torn. It won't ever go away; the conflict between Jane's professional life and her personal life will always be at the heart of the series.

Is she a good mother?

That's a funny question. They asked that at the TCA panel and all my fierce colleagues were like, "Who asked that? Would anybody ask a father or a male character if he's a good father?" Is Jane a good mother? Yes, I think she is, but I don't want to tell people that. She is a passionate, adoring mother and you'll see the lengths to which she'll go to in order to protect her daughter. But this is a show about that; that being a mother whether you're a good one or a bad one doesn't change who you are. You're still yourself for good or for bad. Therein lays the drama and the mystery.

Hollywood series with meta elements like this don't always perform well, so what kinds of notes did you get on that setup?

Everybody was quite nervous about that part of it, as was I. I kept thinking, "This is dumb, I shouldn't do this. I know these things don't work very well sometimes." But honestly, I was writing it for myself so I didn't worry. I made a list, this little manifesto that I pinned up to my pin board and I said, "Break all your rules, including writing about journalists, writing about the industry itself and being scared that people are going to confuse you with your main character. Don't be afraid to make your main character female and really flawed." I set out to break all these rules that I've made for myself just to see what I was made of as a writer.

How does the Valley factor in as a character?

I wanted to explore L.A. as the setting for a number of reasons. First of all, as a Canadian foreigner I find L.A. so weird and beautiful and surreal and spooky sometimes. To use a foreigner's eye on that city in a story set in the world of entertainment I thought would be really interesting for me as a writer and creator. It was going to be a shorthand to who Jane is and what she's doing in a way that you wouldn't want to have to explain if she were from Toronto. It's not the same shorthand. Second of all, the title came to me pretty early on. I always imagined her living on the valley side of Laurel Cannon and its whole Joni Mitchell, '70s mystique. And then lastly, it just kept reminding me of that psalm, "Though I walk through the valley through the shadow of death, I will fear no evil." It was kind of a mix of things.

How similar is your writing shed to Jane's?

It is not dissimilar to the one on the show. I light a candle — that exact brand of candle, Tevo red currant — before I write. It's very, very specific. I don't have a cool Bob Dylan poster in my shed. Hers is a more cluttered environment. I don't like having a lot of art around, I like it to be pretty sparse. But it's not dissimilar.

Given the other real-life inspirations behind the show, are you concerned about any blowback from Jane"s drug habit?

I haven't heard any reactions about it; we'll see how people feel about it. I was nervous to have her do that, but she needed a secret that she didn't want to reveal to her ex and to her sister and to the police. She needed a profound, real secret and that seemed like a believable one to me. I don't [use drugs], but we all have our bad habits. There are some very pure writers who write in the morning with their cup of green tea and then there are other writers who write very late at night and they mix it with junk food or online shopping. Everybody has their thing and but yeah, it happens. For sure it does.

Do you have any words or reassurances for mothers watching this who will have a hard time seeing another child-in-peril situation?

It's hard for me to watch too, and it's hard for me to write, which is why you see the child's face in the first episode. We follow the daughter throughout the season as well. I would turn it off if I felt like there was a chance that this kid was going to be found in a dumpster, dead somewhere. I would not watch this show. I can assure you that is not my intention. My intention is to show that the child is alive and kind of well enough throughout the season. It's much more a whodunit, why-dun-it than a horror show about grief and loss.

Ten Days in the Valley airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on ABC.

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Twitter: @amber_dowling