Cultural Interview: Awkward. Creator Lauren Iungerich on “Surprise!” and S3

IungerichPhotoWhen Awkward. closed the first half of the third season earlier this year, it was with the promise of ten more episodes to debut this fall. Around the same time, however, we learned those ten episodes would be the final ones for creator Lauren Iungerich, who left the show to explore other opportunities.

I’ve been covering the show for The A.V. Club since mid-way through its first season, and Iungerich has been kind enough to drop into the comments and engage with viewers on occasion (and has already weighed in on some of the comments on my review of “Surprise!”, tonight’s premiere).

Having spoken to Lauren about the show ahead of its second season here at Cultural Learnings, I got in touch with her this week to get some perspective on “Surprise!” and the final ten episodes as we march toward her “series finale.” Schedules permitting, my goal is to have a few of these conversations throughout the season to get further perspective, likely with a more retrospective interview to follow later in the year.

In the meantime, some Q&A on “Surprise!”, Jenna as—a sort of—anti-hero, and Season 3’s arc as a whole:

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Why The Homeland Twist Works [For Me] [Mostly] [Okay, Barely]

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“Game On”

October 20th, 2013

Last year, The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum had a theory about Homeland. She argued that Sgt. Nicholas Brody’s panicked communications with Abu Nazir as Carrie Mathison was held hostage were all an act, and that he was in on the plan from the beginning.

It was an interesting theory, one she gave me credit for partially debunking by noting that Abu Nazir and Brody continue speaking in the same manner once Carrie is no longer listening to their conversation. For me, that was the sign that the theory couldn’t work: while an interesting idea, I did not believe Homeland was a series that would so actively mislead the viewer with information that—in hindsight—would contradict the intended truth of the situation.

If you saw last night’s episode of Homeland, and have been following some of the subsequent conversation, the above may sound familiar. Indeed, this season’s central storyline almost feels inspired by Nussbaum’s theory, as though the writers took it as a challenge as to whether the series could sustain a twist that in retrospect contradicts many of the storylines and character actions displayed in earlier episodes and maintain its reputation.

The response to “Game On” suggests that they can’t, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I’m no longer on board.

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Homeland – “Tower of David”

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“Tower of David”

October 13th, 2013

It’s been a few months since I watched the first two episodes of Homeland‘s third season. They were made available to press ahead of the show’s panel at the Television Critics Association press tour, which was logical—in that it allowed those in attendance to ask informed questions rather than random guesswork—but also daring. It was daring because in the two episodes screened for critics, Nicholas Brody did not appear for even a brief sequence, and yet Damian Lewis was seated on the panel at the Beverly Hilton.

I tweeted in advance of that panel that I was interested to see how the room responded to this (among other facts about Homeland‘s third season, specifically the increased focus on Morgan Saylor’s Dana), but Showtime was quick to offer clarification: a trailer revealed early footage of Brody’s first appearance in “Tower of David,” and the panel confirmed he would return in the very next episode beyond the ones we had seen. Part of me had expected them to treat Brody’s return as a surprise, leaving his fate open-ended, but from the beginning Brody was something the series was very open about, creating a certain suspense to see how the show planned on reintegrating the character into the narrative.

“Tower of David” works as a structural exercise in character development, drawing a parallel between Brody and Carrie’s respective prisons. However, it fails to acknowledge and mitigate the issues that plagued the two characters’ development last season, leaving an episode that works up until the point you look into the past rather than the present/future.

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Interview: Hell On Wheels Showrunner John Wirth

JohnWirthWhen veteran writer/producer John Wirth took over as showrunner on AMC’s Hell on Wheels, it was a somewhat strangely public process. John Shiban, the showrunner for the show’s first two seasons, backed out unexpectedly after the series was renewed, leading AMC to make the series’ pickup contingent on finding a new showrunner. With series creators Joe and Tony Gayton departing as well, Wirth stepped into a series with established characters, existing storylines, and more or less complete creative freedom to take the show in whatever direction he desired.

That direction has made the show a strange sort of success story for AMC, shuffled off to the prestige-less refuge of Saturday nights where it’s been quietly outperforming expectations (see Kate Aurthur’s report at Buzzfeed for more). It concludes its third season tonight at 9/8c on AMC with the expectation that it has earned a fourth season, and having successfully transitioned from a slightly underperforming prestige AMC drama to a successful translation of their film western audience into original programming on a normally dead night.

At July’s TCA Press Tour before the season premiered, I had a chance to talk to Wirth about his perspective on showrunning, how he came to be involved with Hell on Wheels, his planned use of social media (which I’ll be reflecting on soon elsewhere), and how—despite the strange circumstances—Hell On Wheels marks a meaningful period in his career as a showrunner-for-hire.

This is far from your first time serving as showrunner on a series; in fact, the Internet suggests you were part of a “Showrunner Training Program” at some point? How do you train someone to be a showrunner?

JW: I put together a committee of writer-producer-showrunner types. We did a small book called A Television Writers’ Handbook. And it was the first time in the history of the Writers’ Guild that anybody had codified what it is to work on a TV show and what the various positions are and what’s expected of you when you’re in those positions. And we had a big chapter on showrunners, and how to behave as a showrunner, and so forth.

Out of that, Jeff Melvoin—who I had asked to be a part of that committee—had the idea: is this something we could teach? And I didn’t believe that it was, and he believed that it was. He said “I’m going to try to put together this program, will you work on it with me? “And I said sure, but I don’t want to be in charge—this little book we did took five years, and I thought it would take a couple months.

We put together the Showrunner Training Program, which has been enormously successful. I still don’t believe you can teach someone to be a showrunner, but you can expose them to the things they’re going to experience when they are showrunners. That’s really the goal of that program, to let people know what it is they’re going to be experiencing when they get that job.

What’s that job like?

The job itself is ridiculous. You’re the hardest working man or woman in show business – the hours are incredible, you have to be a writer/producer and manager, you have to manage up down and sideways, you have to be a priest, you have to be a magician, you have to be a wife – it’s nutty.

So why you do you think AMC came to you to fill that job on Hell on Wheels?

JW: I think they got to the Ws in their rolodex and were like “Damnit!” Who’s after this guy? We’d better like him. Continue reading

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Series Finale: Breaking Bad – “Felina”

BreakingBadTitle“Felina”

September 29th, 2013

A series finale is different from any other episode of a television show; the biggest test for a series finale is whether or not it feels different from any other episode of that television show.

Breaking Bad has been an often messy show, driven by complex moral agency and characters who seem simultaneously the architect and the victim of chaos. It was a series that continued to grow in scale but largely followed the same principles of tight characterization and almost claustrophobic connections with those characters. In the show’s third season, it delineated between “half measures” and “full measures,” and the series was ultimately a narrative driven by the former: while some were explosive and others were tragic, there was never a moment when one could say that Breaking Bad had solved or even dramatically mitigated its central conflict.

It was this quality that gave the series its momentum, and enabled it to grow an audience of devotees from a series that many people—myself included—had not given much of a chance in its early seasons. It was also this quality that by the very nature of a series finale was forced to change in “Felina,” a clean end to a messy show that very purposefully limits its capacity to embody the series it brings to a conclusion.

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It Came In Like a [Carefully Calculated] “Wrecking Ball”

Earlier this year, Billboard announced that it would be including YouTube streaming in its calculations for its Hot 100 chart. The same week, “Harlem Shake” became the number one song in America based on thirty seconds of it being used in thousands of viral videos.

Billboard chose to implement its new rules that week because it saw an opportunity to draw headlines, furthering their relevance while damaging their legitimacy (see the elder McNutt on that particular subject). They could have implemented them a week earlier, or a week later, but I’d bet money on them waiting for a moment to debut the metric when they could claim a song debuted at #1 because of their new streaming numbers that put Billboard on the pulse of how people are listening to music (Billboard’s Silvio Pietroluongo suggests it just happened to be that week, but I call shenanigans).

The impact of streaming has been less dramatic in the weeks since Harlem Shake’s five-week run atop the Billboard charts: One Direction’s “Best Song Ever” broke a Vevo record for most views in its first 24 hours and debuted at No. 2, but the single failed to gain traction and plummeted out of the Top 10 the following week (to No. 15). “Breaking the Vevo record” has become a new way for fans to support an artist, as Miley Cyrus set a record with “We Can’t Stop” (unseating Justin Bieber, who had unseated One Direction, who had unseated Justin Bieber), which was broken by One Direction, then tested—with some controversy—by Lady Gaga, before being claimed again by Cyrus with “Wrecking Ball.”

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Reaching for ‘The Leftovers’: HBO’s Return to Studio Productions

HBOWBEarlier today, HBO announced it was picking up Damon Lindelof’s The Leftovers; this wasn’t a surprising pickup given the talent involved, but what was a bit more surprising was that the series is not being produced in-house at HBO.

Although HBO has been developing drama projects through other studios for a while now—always through big-name producers like Lindelof, or Shawn Ryan, or Ryan Murphy, or J.J. Abrams who are under overall deals with studios like Warner Bros., Sony Pictures Television, or 20th Century Fox—it was still a surprise to see a press release show up in my inbox from Warner Bros. Television about an HBO show. The Leftovers is the first such show to be ordered to series, and thus the first in what is likely to be a string of new HBO shows that they don’t fully own (although as was noted on Twitter, Time Warner owns HBO, so this remains in the corporate family).

It’s not uncharted territory for HBO (who co-produced Sex & the City with Warner Bros., and who entered a similar deal with ABC for Stephen Merchant’s Hello Ladies due to their overall deal with co-writers Stupnitsky/Eisenberg), but it’s a reversal of their more recent policy of owning shows they air and also the opposite of what’s happening in basic cable. At the same time AMC is shying away from working with studios like Lionsgate or Sony Pictures Television in the wake of disputes with those producers on Mad Men and Breaking Bad, HBO is reopening its doors to other studios, an interesting shift that privileges an emerging trend in development while—potentially—de-emphasizing a focus on distribution central to the HBO model.

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