Written by Dylan Callaghan
Just because he grew up in Beverly Hills, one should not assume that Jonathan Prince, co-creator of the Benjamin Bratt-starring A&E series The Cleaner, was an industry baby whose ticket to the Biz is stamped “nepotism.”
“Nobody in my family is in show business,” explains the sharp, fast-talking writer, who got the idea for The Cleaner (co-created with Robert Munic) from real-life junkie-turned-addict interventionist, Warren Boyd. “My mom taught deaf children and my dad was an eye doctor,” he says. In his education-oriented family, Prince’s work as a writer and producer on TV series such as Cane and American Dreams made him “completely a black sheep.”
Of his 90210 rearing, Prince says, “Back when I grew up in the ‘70s, if you weren’t in the industry, you didn’t know it.” Yet in the same breath, he confesses a high school friendship with then teen heart-palpitator Sean Cassidy (whom he still knows and praises as, “an amazingly creative, smart writer”).
Prince spoke with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about the challenges of writing about an ambiguous, not-ready-for-prime time world of addiction where the “good guys'” hats aren’t so much white as dirty gray.
Tell me briefly about the origins of this idea of a recovering addict becoming an obsessive savior to other addicts.
A fellow named Jay Silverman, who’s a producer on the show and a family friend, told me this story about a friend in his life who had trouble with drugs and alcohol and this amazing man who saved him. Then I met Warren Boyd, the real Cleaner, and he said, “I was a bad guy. I did lots of drugs. I spent time in jail. I was not a good husband or dad. When I missed the birth of my second child because I was slamming dope, I realized I had to change my life. I made a deal with God that if he would make me clean, I would be his avenging angel and help get others clean.”
Photo: © 2009 A&E
Benjamin Bratt in The Cleaner.
So he cleans others so he can be clean.
As he told me his story, I thought, “You’re not just a guy, you’re a TV series…” [Eventually] I went into A&E to pitch it, and I’m telling them all about his life and the deal with God and everything, and the whole time they’re staring at Warren who’s busy texting because he’s always got people his team is helping, so he had two devices he was texting on at the same time. He was trying to be surreptitious… [and] the night before he’d been in some kind of scrape, so his knuckles were raw and bloody. So they were just watching this guy texting and bleeding, and finally I stopped my pitch and just said, “Yes, he’s the show.”
What writing concerns did you have initially that were unique to navigating this plot line?
That’s a great question because clearly the subject matter was uncharted waters in either network or cable scripted drama. To tell the story of drug and alcohol abusers and those that enable them, [you have] an unlikely group of heroes. It’s not like a lot of crime shows. There aren’t good guys and bad guys. The world of drug and alcohol abuse, whether it’s legal prescription drugs or hardcore street drugs, is a gray world.
So obviously this hero is a nebulous one.
Absolutely. It’s like his wife says, “You went from being hooked on drugs to being hooked on saving people. You’re still an addict! You still don’t see your kids.”
So this was a great concern to us because I still think people want their heroes in black and white. They want their good guys and their bad guys.
Was there a concern about the fundamental story of saving addicts giving you enough material for a series?
There are shows like Law and Order that have made a great living… House does the same thing every frickin’ week. If I sound envious, it’s only because I am. His character is at the heart of it. The characters that they’ve created is what makes it so entertaining.
So we had to deal with the fact that, in this very real world of addiction, there’s like a 60 or 70 percent recidivism rate, so most stories do not have happy endings. But TV needs happy endings, so we had to think of two main things: a) how do we not make it the drug of the week? And b) How do we use the days out [off the lot]? We’re a seven day show. We shoot five days on the lot and two days off the lot. How do I make those two days of production value so spectacular that it can compete with network quality? One way is to create addicts who live in worlds that are extraordinary – a jockey, and you go shoot at the track for two days, a surfer and you go to the beach, a ballet dancer, etc. It’s more interesting to viewers, but it also allows the viewer to say, “That’s not me. I’m not a jockey.” That allows them to be comfortable embracing the grey area.
Finally, giving ourselves permission to have certain characters die, overdose or fail, opens up more varied stories within the season.
So then how most does the writing here differ from previous shows you’ve worked on?
The newest element of writing on this show is the lack of definition of what’s good and what’s evil. Even in doing Cane with Jimmy Smits, it was clear that, like The Godfather or like King Lear, the family was good.
Benjamin Bratt’s character has actually been responsible for much of the destruction of his own family. So how do you write that guy? And cleaning up other people’s lives doesn’t really absolve you of the mistakes in your own life. That’s what’s unique about this show.