CBS drama showrunners panel at TCA: CBS shows just how seriously it's started taking its dramas 

CBS drama showrunners panel at TCA: CBS shows just how seriously it's started taking its dramas 

There's an important statement embedded in the very existence of CBS’ Drama Showrunners panel, held during CBS’s half-day at the Winter 2014 TCA Press Tour. As CBS said at the beginning of the panel, its shows have had game-changing storylines, introduced new characters, and evolved in meaningful ways in the past season—none of which is atypical for ongoing dramas. But by choosing to bring out the showrunners responsible for those storylines, rather than the stars that brought them to life, CBS is making the statement that its shows now have the reputation necessary to sustain an entire panel devoted to their long-term development.

For The Good Wife’s Michelle and Robert King, this isn’t shocking: The show has always been a critical favorite, and early on it was identified as a series shepherded by “The Kings.” So it’s no surprise they drew the most questions during the panel, as they’ve been in front of this audience before and have been open about their control over the creative vision of their series. They didn’t seem surprised when they had to field more questions on Kalinda’s husband—the handling of which Robert King described as a “nightmare” once they realized it wasn’t working—or the earworm status of “Thicky Trick,” because they’ve been fielding those questions in interviews, on Twitter, and everywhere in between. As they said, The Good Wife has an embarrassment of riches with its deep cast of characters, so much so that even the Kings admitted Kalinda has been drifting this season. (They promised she will, figuratively speaking, explode in the back half of the season.) Their humility further demonstrated that they are fallible storytellers working, not coasting, to make the best show possible.

In some cases, the work of storytelling means changing a show dramatically, as was the case with Alicia leaving Lockhart Gardner, or Person Of Interest’s choice to kill off a major character earlier this season. POI’s showrunners, Jonathan Nolan and Greg Plageman, claimed they had nothing but support for their decision, and felt CBS’s response contradicted everything you hear about broadcast being unwilling to take risks or be creative. Person Of Interest was one of the shows that made claims to “cable aspirations” when it premiered, but was nonetheless swallowed by the reputation CBS has for procedurals with no focus on long-term character development.

In decisions like that one, and in the show’s general storytelling evolution, Nolan and Plageman can more comfortably make those claims without the room feeling they’re grasping at prestigious straws. They even have a leg to stand on when it comes to their prescient engagement with the NSA and issues of surveillance, and they lightly chided those critics who claimed at their first TCA experience that the show’s premise seemed fantastical. The show has evolved into a distinctive beast, sitting comfortably beside The Good Wife when it comes to bold storytelling in CBS’s drama landscape.

Elementary was the newest series on the panel, and it hasn’t made quite the same dramatic choices. (Although the clip reel covered the “fallout” from Detective Bell’s shooting, Detective Bell lived through that shooting.) Rather, showrunner Rob Doherty fielded questions on the series’ characterization, a subtler conversation that sometimes gets dismissed as being the realm of more heavily serialized shows. In truth, procedurals depend on their characters, and Doherty argued that the benefit Elementary has is that it’s completely natural—and inherent to the Sherlock Holmes story—that it follow Sherlock and Joan home to the brownstone. They said that while they still start in the writers’ room by finding the right procedural story for each episode, they then focus on filling in the gaps with what their characters will be up to in their “normal lives.”

Speaking against the temptation to have the two reflect one another, Doherty joked that his own “B-stories” are rarely tied to his “A-stories,” and that he wants Elementary to keep from feeling too much like a television show. Although Doherty also shared details on the casting of Jane Alexander in an upcoming episode and the return of both Lestrade and Mycroft by the end of the season, and confirmed that Natalie Dormer will not reprise her role as Moriaty this season, he was primarily there to discuss how he tells stories, rather than discussing the details of those stories.

NCIS showrunner Gary Glasberg didn’t get as many of those questions—but then, he’s also not the person who created his show. Whereas we typically think of showrunners as those who have full control over their series’ creative vision, people like Glasberg have been hired to run a show created by someone else (in this case, six years before Glasberg joined the show in 2009). This made the questions Glasberg received different, as they were based more on specific character choices than on large-scale strategies, but it’s important that he was invited to participate. As he said in answering a question about the value of broadcast television, one of those values is the sheer number of people watching. Although he’s telling stories that may not be breaking the mold of procedural storytelling or creating game-changing new developments, he’s still telling stories for 20 million people a week, a privilege he doesn’t take lightly.

At TCA panels, it’s often the showrunners who receive the most questions. Some aren’t available for one-on-one interviews as readily as the “talent,” and there’s also something interesting about hearing how they talk about the show in a more public forum. By creating that forum exclusively for those producers, CBS demonstrated its confidence in those series and their showrunners, and seeing that a panel for returning series could generate as much consistent interest as it did further proves we’re experiencing a real resurgence for CBS’ dramatic output. While only NCIS can be considered a true broadcast-sized hit, the other three shows can rest a bit easier knowing that CBS considers them an asset in settings like this one, regardless of whether they draw the ratings they might deserve.

Stray observations:

  • The Kings shared a story about how Christine Baranski was supposed to be the lead counsel on the recent “Thicky Trick” case, but scheduling conflicts with Into The Woods forced them to change it. It makes you wonder how different that episode would have been, and how many other episodes have been changed through last-minute scheduling issues for actors like Chris Noth or Alan Cumming.
  • One challenge Doherty cited for Elementary was giving fans the Joan/Sherlock interaction they want, while also finding time for the actors to get a break during filming. They think they’re getting better, but it’s a problem they recognize will never go away.