Kyle Killen’s first television series, Lone Star, was the undisputed network hit of the 2010 fall season, launching with great critical reviews of its lush pilot, directed by (500) Days Of Summer’s Marc Webb. Killen, who wrote the heavily acclaimed screenplay The Beaver, became a cult figure among those who like smart, literate scripts about people in complicated situations, like Lone Star’s lead, a man in love with two women and trying to juggle two identities to keep both of them on the line. Then Lone Star debuted to apocalyptically bad ratings that had some wags suggesting Fox should pull it after one episode. The network put one additional episode on the air, but that was it, and Lone Star became a test case for a particularly bad fall for TV drama, when it seemed like every promising show would be yanked. Adding insult to injury, The Beaver sank without a trace, thanks to its difficult content and the PR nightmares involving star Mel Gibson.
Now, Killen is back on TV with NBC’s new drama Awake, debuting March 1 at 10 p.m. Eastern. (Read the review here.) The new show is another complicated drama about a man leading two lives, this time bouncing between one world where his wife survived a horrendous car crash, and another where his son did. Killen talked with The A.V. Club at January’s Television Critics Association press tour about what he learned from Lone Star, balancing case-of-the-week elements with a complicated premise, and why he’s still commuting from Austin, Texas to work on the show.
The A.V. Club: You’ve done film and TV, but you seem to be focusing on TV right now. Is there something you particularly like about the TV medium at the moment?
Kyle Killen: The opportunities, once you take them, they tend to take over your life. It’s very hard to do anything and write a TV show. But there’s also a level of creative control, or at least the opportunity for it in television, that there’s nothing analogous for a writer in film. Only the director gets that job in film. In TV, the director’s only there for a week, so they’re all looking back at the writer to find out, “What is this, how do we do this?” That is very appealing.
AVC: What did you learn from Lone Star when putting together Awake?
KK: [Fox president] Kevin Reilly was very open about taking a big swing, trying a cable show on network. And I would hate to have our name on the epitaph of cable shows on network, because I think there’s so many other factors, like time slot. So I hope they keep trying stuff like that. At the same time, I learned that a lot of what made it potentially appealing for a cable audience was a stumbling block for a broader network audience. You get the hook really quick these days anywhere, but especially on network. So it’s incumbent upon you to come up with something that will bring a large group in the first week, because they’re gonna get winnowed down from there. With Lone Star, some of the elements, I think people were like, “Would I like a show like that?” And if you have to convince them in week three that they would have liked it in week one, it’s kind of too late, especially for a super-serialized show like Lone Star.
AVC: Awake isn’t a traditional cop drama, but it has cop-drama elements. Are you a fan of the genre?
KK: I am a fan of really well-done cop dramas. More of Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue kind of cop character dramas. I think Prime Suspect, hat notwithstanding, would have evolved into something in the vein of those other cops-as-characters shows. I respect the Law & Orders of the world, but it’s just never been my genre.
AVC: How are you figuring out how to write the episode-by-episode cases within such a high-concept premise?
KK: We have a mix of people [on our staff], and I think we’re all trying to figure out what the episode-by-episode case thing means in the context of this show, where you also have two lives, two families. It’s been a puzzle where even if you put it together this week, it hasn’t necessarily helped you when you get to next week with a whole new set of pieces. We’re all figuring it out together.
AVC: What’s been the single greatest stumbling block in breaking these episodes?
KK: Probably making sure you have the mix that is promised in the pilot. You know that you’re going to deliver some sort of personal, emotional content and story, while simultaneously delivering two fully fleshed-out police narratives, based on clues that cross over. It’s getting that mix right and having different elements feel like they don’t completely crowd out others. Sometimes they have to. It changes episode to episode. Just seeing how different levels of one vs. the other plays, that’s been the most educational thing about seeing the cuts come in.
AVC: Lone Star was also about a guy leading two different lives. What about that idea appeals to you?
KK: Anybody looks back at their life and thinks, “What if I’d done this instead of that? What if I’d taken this job? What if I’d stayed with that girl?” I think we all feel that fork-in-the-road question, and I tend to be interested in characters who try to go both ways at the same time, who believe they can somehow have it all. That’s an interesting, weirdly sympathetic dilemma. I felt, even in the case of Lone Star, he’s trying to have two wives, which may not be particularly sympathetic, but I felt that, oddly, you could sympathize with his dilemma. You could argue he was genuinely in love with both of them. We’ve all been in places where we genuinely wanna go both directions. But most of us have to pick.
AVC: Are you still living in Austin and commuting to L.A.?
KK: I am, yes.
AVC: What about that setup appeals to you?
KK: When I am here, all I do is work. I literally live in my office. There’s no distractions. I show up on Monday. I’m here through Thursday night. I never leave the office. I never have to think about anything else. There’s nobody to pick up. It makes it very easy to focus on the show, and then when I’m home, it makes it super-easy to focus on being a dad and a husband and just enjoying myself. It’s a separation that that 1,500 miles gets me. It gets hard having writers on the staff—they need to be at home with their kids, but our [episode] break is going long. I don’t have to wrestle with that every day. I just have to wrestle with it Sunday nights.
AVC: Was there a single image or moment that came to you when you were coming up with this show?
KK: Having had dreams where in the dream I asked myself if it was a dream and it taking a while to sort of figure it out, I think that was probably the impetus. But the end was always the thing. Once I knew how the show was going to go, I sort of had a picture of the first 10 minutes and the last four, and I knew I needed a show to go between those, but I knew I was interested in those two moments.
AVC: The last four minutes of the pilot, or the last four minutes of the show itself?
KK: The last four minutes of the pilot, that idea that people would tell you, essentially, “This is the road to madness,” and you would say, “Really, if it means I get to keep my wife and my son, I’ll take that deal every day.”
AVC: You said in the show’s TCA session that these two storylines are going to diverge more and more. It sounds like something that would be a huge turnoff to a mass audience. How do you keep that understandable to people who just want to tune in for the cases?
KK: If you just want to tune in for the cases, I would argue a show like ER would have entertained you, despite the fact that at some point, it became about “Are Dr. Greene and whoever, are they gonna get together?” It still delivered on a weekly basis. Somebody came in; they were sick; they went out; they either lived or they died. They always delivered those elements. For me, ER very quickly became about, “Fine, they’ll fix people or they won’t, but now I care about these people, what happens to them.” I think that’s kind of the model we’re hoping for. I don’t really know that it would be a turnoff. You know, other critics have asked, “How quickly will he date this tennis coach?” That’s a way your life strongly diverges. That one takes on a life of its own in trying to balance that. You’re right! You’re right back to Lone Star! Obviously, Lone Star sounded interesting to me, but maybe not. [Laughs.] Maybe you’re right. Lone Star with cases! [Laughs.]
AVC: The use of colors and visual cues in the pilot is intriguing. In a pilot, you have more time to do stuff like that. Are you finding ways to do that in the regular episodes?
KK: Yeah. They’ve really developed a shorthand that’s not just dependent on filters, but it’s everywhere. The red’s in one world, the green in the other. I think you tend to feel it, rather than seeing it. I think you just know.
AVC: What has been the biggest surprise about working on this show so far?
KK: [Long pause.] It’s kind of a tie. It’s kind of the same. It’s both having actors come in—Cherry Jones, for example, that part was written for, like, a 28-year-old girl, so to bring Cherry in, have her re-invent in your mind what it could be, and see them run with that. It’s really when you see people take something you’ve thought of and make it real and make it cool and make it different in a way that you wouldn’t have imagined but that you’re excited about, that’s awesome. And it’s the same way with writers. You take people—especially the lower-level writers—to take a chance on, in a way that it would have been awesome to see someone take a chance on you, however long ago. And then to see them step up and deliver, that’s maybe cooler than anything, that feeling of “Oh my God, you guys are gonna be great!” It’s very cool.
AVC: How are you building the relationship between the two therapists, where they have a connection, but they can never meet?
KK: That’s what’s intriguing about it to us, this idea that they’re having an argument through an intermediate party who doesn’t even want to entertain the very thing that is most important to them. They are very intent on proving to him what’s real and what’s not, and he doesn’t even want to engage with that question. It’s an interesting way to stage an argument.
AVC: You’re producing this season in a vacuum. What’s that experience like?
KK: It’s good and bad. It’s good in that you’re gonna do what you wanna do, or as close to it as you can get, through the thing that just is producing television. At the same time, there’s things you wonder. “Will people get this? Would they like more of this?” That’s the thing where an audience would be fantastic to have in your pocket. If you’re giving out pluses and minuses, had Lone Star gone forward, I think the audience engagement… [Laughs.] There was no audience engagement. But even just critics, reading people who it’s their job to take it apart, what are they getting vs. what did we intend? And knowing, “Okay, they’re missing all that.” Being able to verify that, even if you’re five episodes ahead, that’s valuable. We’ll be missing that.
AVC: Was there something people missed about Lone Star you were surprised they weren’t picking up on?
KK: No. Not the people who saw it. I think what was most instructive to me was going to places like film festivals and showing it, and having people say, “Wow, I really liked that, and I would never have watched it, because I thought it was going to be a show about a cheater.” I think when you’re staff, and you’ve been living with it for eight months, and you know it’s not about that, it doesn’t even occur to you that somebody else will be able to reach that conclusion. It was amazing how quickly people coalesced around the idea that that’s what the show was fundamentally about, and that just wasn’t for them, and how surprised they were to find out it kinda wasn’t that.
AVC: Do you think some of the other episodes you shot might be put together and shown?
KK: They’re all put together. We did six episodes, and we finished them in the hopes that we might find a cable home for them. Honestly, it’s kind of a music-rights clearance issue. There’s just so many hurdles, and ultimately, what’s the upside? So we got to screen them all in Austin once, and that may be it.
AVC: What are some other things coming up this season on Awake?
KK: I think we continue to play with and develop the idea that there’s a cost, a mental strain, and that as predicted by Dr. Lee, the road to madness, we get a little bit further down that as we go. We play with what can he trust that he’s seeing, vs. imagining, and how hard is it to keep track of what’s real in any given moment.