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When Citizen Rose debuted with a two-hour special in January, there were some who expressed surprise that a show centered on a polarizing leader of the #MeToo movement — and alleged assault victim — was being broadcast on E!.
The style of the opener — which returns as a three-part limited series on May 17 — further showed that Citizen Rose was going to be unlike anything else on the channel. The special interspersed raw moments of women speaking to each other about sexual trauma at protests and Rose addressing viewers, dressed in all-black, from her bathtub; along with abstract sequences of McGowan performing and documentary-style frank interviews with McGowan’s friends and family.
It “lacks the reality TV gloss that is more typical of E! programming,” Vulture‘s review said, while Slate argued the gritty special did emotional work “that an E! reality series is rarely asked,” and The Hollywood Reporter‘s television critic Daniel Fienberg expressed some confusion that a show “about the corrosive effect of hollow celebrity culture is airing on a network that has played no small role in advancing and perpetuating the hollowest of celebrity culture over the years.”
The show’s idiosyncrasy from the rest of the channel’s content is intentional, according to Amy Introcaso-Davis, head of development and production at E!. “Is it a little darker than some of our other shows? Yes,” Introcaso-Davis says. “But that is the truth of Citizen Rose.”
How E! ended up wanting to convey that truth begins with McGowan’s own aspirations for where the limited series would air. In August 2017, McGowan pitched the idea of the docuseries to Bunim/Murray, the storied entertainment production company behind unscripted titles such as Project Runway, Bill Nye Saves the World, Born This Way and E!’s Kardashians, among others.
The justice-conscious McGowan was familiar with the company’s work on the third season of MTV’s The Real World, which featured AIDS activist Pedro Zamora and was one of the first examples of a gay man with AIDS appearing on a popular television show. She also knew about the company’s Emmy-winning Born This Way, centered on individuals with Down syndrome. “She felt like it was a good home for what she wanted to do,” Bunim/Murray founder and Citizen Rose executive producer Jonathan Murray says.
Bunim/Murray was intrigued by McGowan’s idea, two months before bombshell investigative stories in The New York Times and The New Yorker jumpstarted the #MeToo movement. A team began shooting in September. “We felt an urgency, an importance, to support her and her message, so we started shooting it,” executive producer Andrea Metz says. Still, Metz thought the team was shooting a sizzle reel — until Weinstein exposés put the project on the fast track.
McGowan, an executive producer, was an early supporter of pitching the series to E!. She wanted to “reach the masses,” Metz says, and E! broadcasts in 160 countries. (Citizen Rose reaches all of them, according to the network.) Distributors of high-end docs HBO and Netflix felt “not egalitarian,” McGowan has said for a show intending to document the experience of an alleged trauma victim.
Bunim/Murray, meanwhile, has worked with E! on Kardashians, Total Divas and Total Bellas, among other titles. “We were convinced that E! wanted the kind of show that we were ultimately going to make,” Murray says.
Citizen Rose wasn’t a tough sell to Introcaso-Davis or her network. By the time the head of development and production heard the pitch in October, the Citizen Rose team had compiled footage of McGowan as the first #MeToo articles arrived, including The New York Times‘ story on Harvey Weinstein, which mentioned McGowan’s settlement with Weinstein. (McGowan alleged Weinstein raped her a week later, and tweeted other accusations.) Introcaso-Davis, who joined E! from GSN in September, had aimed to assert E! as a “place for strong women with distinctive voices,” she says, and found McGowan “magnetic in person” during her pitch — a unique lens through which to document the start of the #MeToo revolution.
The series also aligned with one of E!’s core franchises, Introcaso-Davis says. “It is, ultimately, an E! True Hollywood Story because it started in Hollywood, it came to light in Hollywood, and so ultimately we also felt that was a reason that it fit our brand,” she says.
During editing, McGowan’s personality shaped the show’s cinematic, raw and occasionally art house tone, its creators stressed. McGowan has said she filmed herself for three years before allowing professional camera crews into her life, video that Citizen Rose‘s editors cut into E!’s limited series. Her ethereal music (an album, titled Planet 9, may be forthcoming) forms the film’s soundtrack. “She was the one who would always say ‘Keep rolling,'” Metz says of the many tense and teary moments in the limited series and special.
Meanwhile, E!’s experience with the quick clip of reality-show production helped get McGowan’s message in front of viewers not long after her Twitter feed began making headlines. The network aired its two-hour special in January after filming began in September to ensure the show would arrive when the subject of #MeToo was still “timely,” Introcaso-Davis says, but delayed the series until May in order to finish shooting.
Even so, thus far, the Citizen Rose-E! pairing has not overwhelmed TV-rating analysts. The premiere special, which aired the same night as Trump’s State of the Union address, had only 188,000 viewers in January. (The special reached over 1.5 million total viewers on all platforms, according to the network.)
Still, some are optimistic that the show will continue to drive conversation during its return in May. “What was really smart about going to E! was that it was not a safe choice for either E! or for Rose,” Linda Ong, television-branding veteran and Civic Entertainment Group’s chief culture officer, says. “The fact that it was a head-scratcher for some people or was provocative for others is exactly what you need to do in culture today to break out of the clutter.”
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