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In this week’s issue, New York Magazine surveyed fourteen of the top TV showrunners about their process and craft. All during upfront week, we’ll be running longer transcripts of these conversations: some will include extended answers to our questionnaire, some will break free altogether, but all will provide a revealing and insightful look into the minds of the people who make our appointment television. Two of those people are Robert and Michelle King, the creators of The Good Wife, which has its season finale tonight. We spoke with the Kings about how Christine Baranski’s laugh kept her from being a bad guy, how lawyers are a bit shady, and what’s in store for Alicia.
Okay, things are getting very intense. Are there plot points that you’ve had since the beginning of the series that are coming out now? Because the Peter-Kalinda thing you had planned out from the beginning.
Robert King: That was part of the original pitch, so yeah. The last three or four episodes were built in or baked in from the — “baked in” seems to be the TV way of saying “built in” — baked in from the pitch, so yes. I mean, we’re changing. But those were kind of part of the original thought.
When you started out, how much of what we’re seeing now was part of the original idea?
RK: Umm … 5 percent. I mean, there’s so much that has happened along the way. We kind of thought the Will Gardner character played by Josh Charles was going to be kind of serving the function he is now … We were thinking along a more accelerated schedule than this has turned out to be.
Michelle King: Yeah, and I would say the other big difference — if you’re talking about from the moment of when we pitched the show to where we’ve come now — is that we kind of fell in love with the antagonist, so … at least in my head, Diane and Cary were both going to be bigger obstacles. Then they ended up being more nuanced characters in part because we were fortunate to get such fabulous actors in Matt Czuchry and Christine Baranski.
RK: One of the reboots from the first year to the second year was trying to get the Cary character played by Matt Czuchry to have more of this antagonistic position just by throwing him over to the prosecution side. Because we were just loving him as an actor. He did an episode where he was on mushrooms and it was cool and funny, and so it was very difficult to kind of make him that antagonist again.
When you said that you thought they were going to be obstacles, obstacles to just Alicia’s progress? Like, you had envisioned that Diane would be someone who wouldn’t want her to advance at this firm?
MK: Yeah, I mean just a harsher person than she ended up being.
RK: We probably all have had mentors who actually start as mentors, but kind of get in our way. They actually kind of want to stay in a teaching position; they don’t want the student to get better than the teacher. That was the original instinct there, and then it was just, you know, you can’t just keep using Christine Baranski in that way. There was one episode where her laugh was just so great! It was like, “How can you get someone who has that great laugh kind of always playing the person who gets in the way?” And you know, that’s the fun of network TV, is that you can learn from the dailies you’re seeing four episodes ahead.
When you said Will is serving the function that he now serves, is that as a slightly morally shady character?
RK: No, I would say more as a romantic complication for Alicia. I mean, Alicia is someone who’s a good girl fighting with passion. She’s a good girl who kind of believed all the values that kept her from exploring what her passionate side wants to do. And what Will does is provoke that passion. Will is a little bit of what you said about shady, but what I was talking about is with him Alicia is always tempted to step outside the suburban housewife she was for fifteen years. What we’ve learned from watching Josh Charles dailies is how much he can make a character likable even though he does sometimes do morally shaded things.
He seems to be doing more of that this season.
MK: To my mind, it’s not that he’s corrupt, he’s just extremely pragmatic; and I mean basically, if he weren’t doing the things he was doing, there would be a whole lot of people out of a job.
RK: It is funny. It only seems original because on TV usually lawyers are portrayed as standing up for people and they’re always saying “I’m going to get you off” or “You’re never going to jail” and it’s kind of like, does that really happen in reality? So there’s just a little bit of the con built into Will’s character, and just Josh Charles, the charm of his performance keeps it within the realm of someone who is a romantic lead and someone who is enjoying the fact that he’s enjoying it. I like that we’re always wondering whether Alicia is making the right choice. And yes, we always want her to push herself towards the Grey’s Anatomy choice of, you know, get laid. You’ve been restrained all this time — go get laid. And that’s the choice you want to shove her towards, but then there’s a side of you wondering whether someone who splits up and makes the same choice all over again. Sometimes Michelle and I don’t even know which way we’re pushing the characters. But there’s dramatic interest in the fact that Josh is not the knight in shining armor on the white horse.
So with Kalinda and Peter, the network asked you to hold off, to make the revelation of this season sort of play out over two seasons. Is that correct?
MK: They didn’t necessarily put a number on it, like, “Wait until the latter half of season two to reveal that.” It was just a far more generalized, “Oh — let’s hold off on that for a bit.”
RK: I think there was a strong sense of the first six or eight, you should really establish a world and don’t start throwing, you know, Molotov cocktails into it.
Because it would play out better in the series, or was it your instinct to throw out all the Molotov cocktails right away?
RK: We’re kind of Molotov-cocktail-throwing people. But they didn’t need to convince us that much. We’re the good kids in the room. We want to be very much like, “Okay, what will make our show very attractive?” Part of it is no one would expect this to happen and yet it’s built into who Kalinda is, and who Alicia is and Peter. So I think and — correct me if I’m wrong, Michelle — the original instinct is, we thought it would come around episode six, that Kalinda slept with Peter. And there was this sense, it was like, “No, take your time to build your world, and let people … ” There’s a real sense that network TV is about establishing a family. A family that people feel comfortable in. And we thought it would just even be greater if you establish that family and you kind of go, “Woah, I didn’t see that.” And yet the best surprises are the ones that sort of seem inevitable, that were built into the character. So there was something really great about allowing the network sense of, “Get comfortable with the world.” Play into this feeling like, “Let’s get people comfortable and then you know, pull a Hitchcock of some kind.”
If you knew at the end of last season that you wanted to develop Cary more, that you wanted to make him an antagonist, are you planning on concentrating on anyone next season?
RK: One of the things we would reinvigorate is the Peter-Alicia tension. The bottom line is making them as antagonists seem interesting to us. These are the two formidable people. Peter probably slightly undervalued Alicia, thinking, a little patronizing toward the housewife, and then she really asserted herself. But I think it would be fascinating to see what these two do when they are really on the opposite sides of things. I would say that’s one. The other thing I’d say is seeing Eli, the Alan Cumming character, really being at loggerheads with Alicia, because he’s very much been deferring to Alicia. So what we’ve been thinking about Cary, bringing him back to his roots, now we would want to do with Eli and Peter.
Were you married at the point when you started doing the TV stuff?
RK: Probably about ten years.
MK: Yeah, we married in 1988.
RK: 8, or 9.
MK: No. When was the strike? ‘88. We married in ’87.
RK: [Laughs.] We’re dating things based on the strikes. That’s real L.A.
MK: So we married in ’87, and I think that 2001 is when we were writing TV together.
And what’s the style of how you write a script together?
RK: When we actually sit down and write the pilot, it’s very much like all hands on deck. We’re structuring it together; we don’t have a writers’ staff at that point, so it’s Michelle and I bouncing ideas off each other. I would say Michelle is probably the more structuralist. I’m probably more about developing character. And then when we get to the show, I would say probably —
MK: Probably Rob gallops ahead …
RK: We do the outline together; I write the script, Michelle then basically — we talk through the rewriting. The producing duties are split pretty much down the middle. I probably take the lead on editorial, unless Michelle takes the lead on editorial and I fall up. And producing duties are kind of hard. We just kind of split them right down the middle.
How do you decide which ones you’re going to do versus which ones you’re going to have someone else write?
RK: It’s a little bit — we get behind. So we did four in a row, like 213, 214, 215, 216. The thirteenth episode through the sixteenth, and that was really because we were falling behind and it was like we needed to catch up. So we did those four. That was not the original plan. We did the first one just because we could dive in right away and set the tempo.
MK: Occasionally, ideas are so goofball, like we have something upcoming where Hugo Chávez is a character, the Venezuelan dictator, where you think, Okay, we can’t foist that on a staff member.
RK: And The Social Network one was like that, too. We just, you know, it was like a lot of times it’s like no one else can see, like, “Well, what is it?” Because it’s very particular and it doesn’t touch upon — there’s nothing that kind of has a shared language about it. I mean, usually, if there’s a shared murder, there’s a shared language you can talk about it. But if it’s like, “Okay, this is about suing a movie and it’s Social Network–ish,” I mean, how do you talk about what should that even be about?
How much do you care about what fans think?
RK: A lot. I got to tell you, I’m trying to keep track of what fans think, and when they think we’re getting too easy or too simple or when they guess what we’re doing. One of the things we thought was kind of cool is that we thought breast enhancements would turn out to be breast cancer. I think a lot of people were ahead of us on that and we’re aware of that and trying to change it next time around.
You’re talking about Wendy Scott Carr?
RK: Yeah. When the judges seem a little goofy, we try and pull back a bit from that, because they weren’t intended to be that goofy. They were intended to be the kind of, the element of surprise, the element of chaos that you’re not sure which will throw us and we just want to avoid, like a David Kelly would, not because it’s bad, but just because someone’s done it before. We really want it to be an element of the judge being, you know, suddenly you’re playing a chess game with someone and yet there’s this judge that comes along and keeps knocking down pieces of whichever side he wants. Or she wants. So that’s what we want the judge to be, is not some goofy thing as much as something that adds a third-dimensional aspect to chess.
How are you keeping track of what fans think? Are you going on blogs?
RK: Blogs and following tweets, trying at least to observe. We don’t participate. Some of the discussions on Television Without Pity is just extraordinary and deep and not always friendly, but good critical. Critical in the way that you kind of wish people were about material and not just saying, “Gosh, this person looks like she had Botox or he did.” It’s kind of like they’re engaging on the substance. I think fans are extraordinarily encouraging, because it makes you feel like you’re writing to specific people. I mean, I’ve read fans and gone, “Okay, instead of turning left, I’m just gonna turn right.” Because they anticipate left.
Can you name a specific instance where fan feedback has either sort of informed what you were going to do or changed what you thought you might do or made you regret what you did?
RK: I’m trying to think. There was a lot of guessing about which way Leela was going with this identity of Kalinda, and I think we were very aware of keeping track of it so that we could kind of stoke it in one direction or another based on it. The whole idea of Leela was to try to feel like the audience thought we were going to take things operatic, where it was going to go bigger, when in fact the eventual solution was very small and very human. So we kind of kept track of it or just to know whether to stoke it in one direction or another, based on where the audience thought it was going to go. And again, that’s another good aspect of network TV, because you’re only writing four or five episodes again; you can kind of see what people are seeing based on the episode just shown, so that one was kind of keeping a temperature on
Do you have a showrunning philosophy?
RK: David Mamet had a great quote, which is, “Features is running a marathon and TV is running until you’re dead.” And that has always come back to us as we’ve been doing this. We don’t know him, but that has been a quote we’ve basically been stapling our head.
How does that help you?
RK: It doesn’t help us, but it does make us realize this is not supposed to be easy. That it really is — that the bottom line is at any point, I don’t care what show we’re talking about — there is failure built into it, that at the end, you’re going to run out of steam, no matter what.
MK: That sounds right.
Does it really feel like you’re running until you’re dead?
MK: Well, we’re still running. And there’s no cutting corners. You simply have to give it your all, every single step of the way.
RK: We were talking about this — we’ve had two or three episodes this year we haven’t been as happy with, and the bottom line is they’re just as hard to do. When an episode sucks — we won’t tell you which ones — but the ones we haven’t been as pleased with, they actually take as much effort. And you can’t save plot. In theory, we heard about a show where they’re holding on to their reveals, you know — wouldn’t it be great if this happens — and so they thought of the first six to eight episodes as setting up, kind of moving their pawns into place, their knights into place, and then it was supposed to be that all these surprises start popping in the last half of the year. And the bottom line is they were canceled after the first three or four episodes. So just don’t hold on to plot thinking, Won’t this be cool when this happens or this happens? You just have to keep hoping that you get, or counting on the fact that you’ll create more plot and you’ll have more fun with characters. So don’t try and save a kiss between Will and Alicia until the fifth year, because you’ll never make it.
Other Showrunner Transcripts:
Community’s Dan Harmon
30 Rock’s Robert Carlock
Breaking Bad’s Vince Gilligan
How I Met Your Mother’s Carter Bays and Craig Thomas
Justified’s Graham Yost
Cougar Town’s Bill Lawrence and Kevin Biegel
Grey’s Anatomy’s Shonda Rhimes
Parks and Recreation’s Michael Schur