Kathleen McGhee-Anderson
“Before writing, don’t talk about the story incessantly; we do this to avoid sitting down and facing the blank page. You must spend your energy writing -- otherwise the impulse to tell the story is diminished.”
A New Home in the Old Neighborhood
Written by Shira Gotshalk

Throughout her varied writing career, Lincoln Heights showrunner Kathleen McGhee-Anderson has explored the many-splendored facets of families on television, from the outrageously funny and tragic to the everyday mundane. With her latest effort, McGhee-Anderson, whose credits include Benson, Charles in Charge, Touched by an Angel, and Soul Food, is again focused on the intimate portrait of a family -- this time coping within a world of crime, drugs, and violence.

Now in its third season on ABC Family, Lincoln Heights follows Eddie Sutton, a police officer father who moves his middle-class family into a former crack house in his old boyhood neighborhood in Los Angeles. It’s not a popular decision with his family, even turning dangerous at times, but together, they work to make it home.

The premise is a controversial one for a family network. “We get to deal with problems unlike ones you’d see in an upper middle-class suburb or in a mansion in Beverly Hills,” says McGhee-Anderson.

In a recent e-mail interview with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site, McGhee-Anderson discussed included finding the balance between edgy and family-friendly, making sure the middle child gets enough attention from the writer’s room (yes, it’s even an issue for TV families), and why a good cup of tea is essential for a successful script.

There are a lot of controversial issues addressed on Lincoln Heights. What are the challenges you face with trying to push the envelope within the constraints of a family network?

Our show deals with issues like gangs, crime, drugs, and violence since we’re set in a gritty world. The network’s main concern is that we make these issues resonate with our characters. They have to be directly involved with the issues, not in a tangential way, but directly affected. There are no creative constraints, as long as the stories are personal and we abide by standards and practices.

Photo: © 2008 ABC Family
Left to right: Russell Hornsby, Nicki Micheaux, Erica Hubbard, Mishon Ratliff and Rhyon Nicole Brown in Lincoln Heights.
How do you balance writing family drama plotlines with the more gritty cop scenarios?

The mantra of writing this hybrid show, which combines two genres -- family and procedural -- is to make the cop stories have stakes with the family. If there’s a procedural problem, it has to have personal ramifications. Some of our best storylines are the ones in which gritty aspects of life in Lincoln Heights put the Sutton family is jeopardy, like when Lizzie is kidnapped by street thugs or when Tay is threatened by gang members and gets his father’s gun to protect himself. In general, we try to strike an equal balance between stories generated by Eddie’s world and stories that come out of the home and family. Blending those distinctly different tones is the biggest challenge.

Which character is the most difficult to write? Which is the most fun for you?

They each have their challenges. In the beginning, the character of the middle daughter, Lizzie, seemed to be the one who we’d have trouble making interesting. The whole middle child syndrome, the kid who is usually overlooked or overshadowed, was the challenge. Interestingly, the young actress attacked her role with such ferocity, there was a time when most of the new story pitches in the writer’s room centered on her character.

I love all of the characters, kind of like a mother has a special feeling for each child in the family. Lately, Tay’s character has been breaking out. He’s been moving away from classical music into rap and hip-hop and this has created clashes with his father with interesting cultural, generational resonance. We’ve used some of the actor’s [Mishon Ratliff] original music on the show. Art mirrors life, and that’s been dynamic and fun.

Eddie Sutton’s character has always had great complexity. Here’s a man who, in an attempt to better things for his family, moves into a great house, but comes to question his choice because of the danger it puts them in. Now his kids don’t want to move, but it’s not necessarily the safest place for them. At what point does Eddie give up on the American dream, uproot them and move back into an apartment?

Is Eddie Sutton based on a real character or do you have a research connection with a police department?

It’s great when you can draw inspiration from people in your life. My favorite cousin is a cop in Philadelphia. He’s been sharing stories with me for years. I’d even gone on ride-alongs with him in the squad car prior to writing Lincoln Heights. He’s a take-no-prisoners, tough-ass cop and also a dedicated father, so I have an Eddie Sutton prototype.

Are there any autobiographical elements in this story?

I’m from Detroit, a city I’d love to see revitalized, rise again from the ashes. Lincoln Heights is my Detroit. The series gives me a chance to see people reinvest in an urban area that flourishes again.

How far in the future do you plot the story arc and how does that affect the individual character development?

At the beginning of the season, the writer’s room hashes out a general arc -- we know where we’re headed for the family and for each character. The over-arching theme is how life in Lincoln Heights affects the characters. We usually also know where we’re going with Cassie and Charles -- the Romeo and Juliet of our series -- but part of the fun is discovering where the characters take us.

What is the collaboration process in your writer’s room?

We flesh out the story concepts together. We board our stories in the room beat by beat, act by act. Everyone is involved unless they’re writing an episode or sitting on the set with the director while their episodes are being filmed. Each writer gets to do his own rewrite. It’s a process that promotes and supports ownership and each writer’s voice and strengths. We’re a team.

Do you have any writing rituals or superstitions?

Yes. Before writing, don’t talk about the story incessantly; we do this to avoid sitting down and facing the blank page. You must spend your energy writing -- otherwise the impulse to tell the story is diminished. Also, while writing a cup of tea and listening to movie soundtracks are a must.

You have successfully written both comedy and drama. Is there a genre you prefer?

I’m a playwright, and I love tragedy. But there’s nothing more satisfying than writing a good joke. TV drama gives me the chance to write the serious stuff and then cut it with humor -- we’ve got to laugh to keep from crying. Especially in Lincoln Heights.