Sure, the paychecks are lovely, as is the recognition. But that doesn’t mean the role of showrunner is devoid of anxiety and heartache, which became clear when The Hollywood Reporter gathered six of the industry’s top drama producers for a candid conversation about working in television in the year 2016.
For Jessica Jones‘ Melissa Rosenberg, 53, crafting a storyline about an interracial relationship for the first season of her Netflix series landed her on a Nazi hate site. In the case of The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story‘s Nina Jacobson, 50, the very idea of a team of white creatives taking on a racially polarizing case had her in a cold sweat. And for American Crime auteur John Ridley, 50, exploring a male-on-male sexual assault case in the anthology’s second season knocked him and the executives at ABC into a panic far outside their comfort zone. On the following pages, the three showrunners — along with Sam Esmail, 38 (Mr. Robot); Julian Fellowes, 66 (Downton Abbey); and Marti Noxon, 51 (UnREAL, Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce) — expand on those concerns along with, yes, some of the happy surprises along the way.
Between the six of you, you’ve touched on powerful, if at times risky, themes including suicide, rape, murder, sexism, classism, addiction and mental illness. As storytellers, when was the last time you were genuinely scared to tell a story?
FELLOWES With that list, I thought you were just talking about Downton. (Laughter.)
ROSENBERG I was dealing with a lot of different issues on Jessica Jones: rape, abortion, interracial relationships, feminism — all this stuff. What made me nervous was how the audience was going to [react]. The one I thought was really going to get the most flak was the abortion story; the one that actually got the most, much to my horror and disappointment, was the interracial relationship.
ROSENBERG Yeah. I got put on a Nazi hate site. It was terrifying.
FELLOWES When we did the story where Anna, the maid, was raped, a woman said to me, “There is one thing I don’t understand.” Now on Downton, we used to repeat last week’s show on Sunday afternoon and then show that week’s episode in the evening. So she said, “I watched that program on Sunday and then I watched it again on Sunday afternoon the following week and you had re-edited it.” I said, “What do you mean?” She said, “Well, you’d taken all the graphic stuff out of the rape.” There was no change in the edit at all; it was in her head. She was so horrified by the story that she had actually elaborated it in her brain to something that was almost unacceptable.
JACOBSON I was scared of taking on O.J. overall as a white person, knowing that this is a polarizing case. We made every effort to have an inclusive team, but ultimately you started with a bunch of white people, and we know that the case means different things to different people. That was much scarier to me than, say, what we were talking about with episode six, the “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia” episode, taking on issues of feminism and sexism in the workplace.
I imagine you have found yourselves inspired by other television shows at points in your lives or your process. Anyone have one?
NOXON Hill Street Blues. I went back and watched it for a project that I was doing and God, that pilot is incredible. NYPD Blue, too. I want to do a police drama at some point.
ESMAIL For me, The Twilight Zone. It just made you lean into the TV as you were watching. It’s the very definition of, “I want to know what happens next,” and that excited me.
FELLOWES For me, television is getting involved with the characters. It isn’t enough for me to have a new story every week, like a small movie. I like movies, but there’s something about the extended narrative [that TV offers.] In the days of ER and The West Wing, they rediscovered that you can have a relationship with television characters that you don’t have in the cinema. And often they’re more grown-up [stories], and you get strong women in television far more often than in film.
NOXON Although I would say most of [West Wing creator Aaron] Sorkin’s gender politics are pretty retrograde. I have a real problem with his gender stuff.
RIDLEY But other than that, the shows were terrific.
NOXON No, he’s brilliant. Brilliant. I went on a rant about this to a friend [because] I have a whole thing about The Newsroom. I do the impressions and everything. And I did this for my friend because she had mentioned that she knows him and maybe we could go to dinner, and I went through this whole thing and at the end she went, “Oh my God, he’d love you.” (Laughter.) Which is a scene out of The Newsroom.
Which character do each of you most identify with on your respective shows?
ESMAIL Elliot, in every way. He’s a thinly veiled version of myself. I wrote what I knew because a lot of the details of his life and the loneliness were issues I’ve dealt with basically my whole life. I know, poor me.
NOXON I was gonna say Mary [on UnREAL], who went off the roof. (Laughs.)
FELLOWES I think there are bits of us in all the characters we write, particularly as we put them into predicaments where we’ve often lived through something fairly similar.
If each of you were to turn the cameras on yourself and do an autobiographical series, what would be the logline or working title?
ESMAIL Mr. Robot. (Laughs.)
NOXON I’m a little bit like Sam. It’s called Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce. That’s pretty ripped from the headlines. (Laughs.)
RIDLEY It would be about a 50-year-old black dude writing in Hollywood. Titles are not my forte. Ironically, you know what the original title of American Crime was that I went and pitched to the network?
NOXON American Crime Story?
RIDLEY No, it was called The People Vs. They said: “That’s too arcane. How about American Crime?” These two shows cannot get away from each other.
ROSENBERG The content of mine would be about failure — I’ve gotten fired more than all of you put together. If I were a white dude, I’d probably have failed a fraction as many times before I hit it big.
FELLOWES I’d call mine Uphill. I was 50 before anything happened.
JACOBSON I’d probably go with There’s Gotta Be a Pony in Here Somewhere.
This story first appeared in a special Emmy issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.