Producers of some of TV's top dramas talk about how they do it

McClatchy-Tribune News ServiceJuly 15, 2014 

PASADENA, Calif. - How do the wizards of television keep audiences coming back for more? With so much competition it requires a mysterious alchemy to spin straw into television gold. And it's an uber-challenge when some of the shows run a marathon of 24 episodes.

Robert King and his co-producing wife, Michelle, are show runners for the popular series "The Good Wife."

They manage, he says, by cautiously approaching any explosive change in the plot. "We only want to go someplace if we think we have enough story to go there. And we always worry about painting ourselves into a deeper and deep corner. So we only tend to go to some place if we think we can stabilize it afterwards," he says.

"So much of our instinct is to try to keep blowing things up just because you're so aware of TV being comfort food, and just establishing a family that makes you feel comfortable with it."

Their leading character is Alicia Florrick, an attorney played by Julianna Margulies. "It felt like Alicia's life from the very beginning, the very moment that started, the series was about her life exploding," says King.

"And we've always told ourselves the show is the education of Alicia Florrick and that can only happen with change. And so each year there's change."

Rob Doherty is the executive producer of CBS' "Elementary," the tale of a latter-day Sherlock Holmes. He says his magic wand was making Dr. Watson a woman (Lucy Liu).

"Part of the plan from the very beginning was to establish a female Watson. There was a symmetry to the plan that I liked, and the rest of the staff really liked. It also seemed the best way to break our Holmes was to say he made the mistake of falling in love once. And, again, we were excited to tell the story of a Moriarty that was devious enough to romance him and then break him down."

What happens, though, when a favorite character decides to abandon the ship? That happened with the character of Ziva David, played by Cote de Pablo, who left "NCIS" last year to fierce fan resistance. Gary Glasberg, who oversees "NCIS," admits it was a sucker punch. "The way that this whole season unfolded was a bit of a surprise for many of us," he says.

"To suddenly lose a character that has been a part of the show for nine seasons is significant. And when you replace that character ... I wanted to do something that was different. I wanted it to feel incredibly different but not change the chemistry and the mix of what makes 'NCIS' work."

Emily Wickersham replaced de Pablo. She plays NSA analyst Emily Bishop. "Bishop is different," says Glasberg. "She comes at things differently. She handles herself differently, and Emily has brought all kinds of layers to the character. And I'm really excited about what she brings to the table, how it changes things ... It's been fun for us as writers to figure out how to do this 11 seasons into a show."

Every series suffers its own unique problems: casting, location, scheduling, last minute rewriting. For "The Good Wife" coordinating the actors' schedules can be torture, says Michelle King.

"Because we're not looking to just do closeended procedural stories, there are these arcs. And the arcs do not just involve principal cast members. They involve a guest cast. And so if you've cast someone, say, to be Alicia's brother and then you need to tell the story with Alicia's brother ... and he's not available, you've got a problem. And that comes up constantly. And you'll think you have someone that you've introduced and then suddenly they're not there 48 hours before you start filming. So you need to be creative."

Greg Plageman, who oversees CBS' "Person of Interest," reports that shooting in New York is no walk in Central Park. "NewYork is a whale. I mean, we have made two standing sets two days in, sometimes three. But the rest of the show is this huge, rambling wreck in the streets of NewYork City," he says.

"And whether there's a hurricane coming or it's going to snow or the there's 20 other shows shooting or the U.N.'s in session or the president's in town, it's tough ... We send writers out to the set for every one of those episodes, but sometimes you don't know what you're going to get back. And we're a heavy point-of-view show too, so getting all those pieces to come together into a coherent whole in the end is a real challenge sometimes."

And what do these TV gurus like to watch themselves?

Jonathan Nolan, co-producer on "Person of Interest," says, "The thing they don't tell you about television before you start working in it is that the second you start working in television, that's the last time you ever watch television.

"I don't think anyone (among these producers) probably sat down and watched an episode, certainly in three years. Maybe people talk about cable shows as much as they do because that's the one show you have the time to kind of digest. You can watch 10 episodes of 'Breaking Bad.'"

Sony has released the haunting soundtrack for FX's "Fargo" by Jeff Russo. Russo is a composer, guitarist, vocalist and producer. He is the lead singer and founder of the rock band Tonic, with which he still plays. You may have heard his compositions for television's "Hostages," "FreeFall" or "Necessary Roughness." But none of those quite match the gripping score for "Fargo," which includes chimes, sleigh bells and unaccompanied drums.

Agatha Christie's popular little Belgian, Hercule Poirot, will be back for two more mysteries on "Masterpiece Mystery" July 27 on PBS. David Suchet has returned as the fastidious fact finder in "The Big Four," a complicated puzzle that plunges Poirot into the world of espionage. On Aug. 3 he'll return in form in "Dead Man's Folly," where Poirot attends a party that might turn out to be a severely sinister soiree.

If you're one of the few unfortunates who missed "Breaking Bad," now's your chance to make up for it. AMC has scheduled a marathon airing of the now-classic series starting Aug. 10 through Oct. 10. Every episode will air in order from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. ET/PT on Sundays. Set your DVR or dust off that old VCR, but don't miss the chance to watch this treasure of a series and see Bryan Cranston in his underwear more often than his wife does. PHOTOS (from MCT Photo Service, 202-383-6099):

TV-TINSEL

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