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With Emmy season underway, Hulu is betting on its original politics-driven series Battleground.
Originally developed for Fox, the 13-episode documentary-style show from J.D. Walsh follows a group of campaign workers led by manager Tak Davis (Jay Hayden) in Madison, Wis. working for an underdog candidate trying to get elected to the U.S. Senate.
Filmed on location in Madison, Walsh wrote (or co-wrote) and directed every episode of the series, which wrapped its first season May 8. As Walsh tells it, the move from network television to Hulu was a blessing in disguise. “What made Hulu so great is we were able to carve our own path. This is the tone of the show and it’s obviously reminiscent of other shows (think NBC’s Parks and Recreation) that you’ve seen before but it also has it’s own take,” he says to The Hollywood Reporter.
Hulu has submitted Battleground in several Emmy categories, including outstanding special class: short-format live-action entertainment programs (“We’re hoping to be nominated for the longest-named award,” Walsh jokes), cinematography, editing, writing and editing. Though numbers weren’t readily available, Battleground‘s online viewership is “on par with the other primetime cable shows on the platform,” Walsh says.
Walsh spoke to THR about the likelihood of a second season, the mysteries surrounding the show and its characters and reveals a big clue to Battleground‘s series-long arc (hint: It has something to do with index cards).
The Hollywood Reporter: The final episode of Battleground was left open. Was that intentional?
J.D. Walsh: Yes, it was intentional. I felt like our contract with the audience was to deliver on who wins the election. That’s the most important thing, that the audience walks away from the season and feels like, “Hey! We’re gonna find out who won.” And they found out. Obviously there are other mysteries of the show that we were going to expand on and we wanted to make sure we didn’t just close it after one season. We wanted to leave that a little open-ended.
THR: I thought it was interesting that the series included talking heads with the supportings players but never with Tak.
Walsh: That’s part of the bigger picture. We wanted to leave a little of that mystery. Some shows have gotten hit recently because they made a promise to the audience that at the end you’ll hear what the verdict is or you’ll hear who the killer is and then they decide, “Well, maybe we’ll wait until the second or third season.” I didn’t want to do that. “You followed us, you followed this candidate. Here is this person’s story and the end of that candidate’s story.” We wanted to make sure we built in a story so that you could follow the same people as they go around to other campaigns.
THR: What’s the likelihood of Battleground returning for a second season on Hulu?
Walsh: I will say this, it looks really positive. Things are going in the right direction. We get a lot of support from Hulu who is very proud of the show. I do live in a city that crushes dreams for breakfast. I never believe it until I’m on the set or I see it on my TV. We’ve got a following of the show and people seem invested.
THR: What was it like being the guinea pig of Hulu’s venture into original programming?
Walsh: It was quite a whirlwind. We were this little production in Madison and because of Netflix and Hulu both coming out with original programming, it became this battle between giants that we were one of the participants in. It was interesting to be part of this tiny production to all of a sudden be at TCA and the upfronts.
THR: This project was also developed at Fox. Now that the season has played out, how would it be different if it actually made it to air on that particular network? Would the format or content change?
Walsh: I think what people are reacting to and what they are enjoying is the mix of comedy and seriousness. If it was at a network, it’d either be a 44-minute drama or a 22-minute comedy. It would have been pushed to a broader base in one of those two directions. If it was a drama, the stakes would have to be higher. Somebody would have to have a gun or a virus would have to be unleashed in the campaign office. If it were a comedy, there would have to be some sort of foreign exchange student who didn’t understand English. What made Hulu so great is we were able to carve our own path. This is the tone of the show and it’s obviously reminiscent of other shows that you’ve seen before but it also has it’s own take.
THR: There where several moments that stuck out, especially the flashback episode late in the season where the characters’ backstories were revealed and explained.
Walsh: That’s the perfect example of the freedom you have working with a place like Hulu because you’re able to experiment a little bit and take risks a little bit more. You’re not stuck in the tried and true ways of “this is what works and this is what didn’t” and they can embrace a whole episode that takes place eight years ago.
THR: Were there other ideas like that that didn’t make it to the show?
Walsh: Especially as we think about other seasons, we’d like to put in a special episode for the fans [every season].
THR: Were you surprised by what viewers latched onto?
Walsh: I’m surprised how into some of the mysteries the audience is into. I thought they would be more into the comedy of the show.
THR: It’s still unclear how many years have passed since the documentary filmmakers were following the campaign team to when they were doing their talking heads. That in itself is one of the series’ big mysteries?
Walsh: We wanted to tell a story a different way, which is, you know these characters end up in a certain place but you don’t know everything about where they end up. The show will start filling in some of those pieces of that jigsaw puzzle as the years go by. We want to build a show that can last and keep the audience intrigued about how does it all end?
THR: It seems like you have a blueprint for this show ..
Walsh: Our show takes place in purgatory and that’s how the mystery is solved at the end. I do have one little secret that I can give you. If you watch the show, in the back right corner of the campaign office there are 3×5 cards that are on the wall and those 3×5 cards are the same cards that we used when we talked about mapping out the show and the story arc of all the characters. The actual story that we’re telling is in the back right of the office.
THR: Are you developing other projects?
Walsh: No, this is my life. This is all I do. Morning, noon and night. I go from the editing room to the writing room, sleep and then I repeat.
THR: Would you ever return to network TV?
Walsh: I’m very content. I don’t know a place where I would be able to go where I could get this much creative freedom. I don’t know where I would be able to go and have this kind of freedom to tell the stories that I want to tell
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