Doug Jung, co-creator of TNT’s sophomore undercover cop series Dark Blue, answers the question – when it comes to TV, how dark is too dark?
Written by Shira Gotshalk
Just before the writers strike, Doug Jung was contacted by Jerry Bruckheimer. “Danny Cannon had an idea to do an undercover cop show set in Los Angeles and asked if I would be interested,” Jung remembers. This is simply not an offer you to which you reply, thanks, but no thanks. Jung thought there was something unusual and fun about Cannon’s vision and combined with Jung’s ideas, Dark Blue began to take shape. Their roadmap started with broad discussions about favorite movies and characters they both liked, images they had floating in their heads, waiting for the right vehicle to come to life, and season one went from concept to pilot.
Born and raised in New Jersey, Jung, 39, attended the NYU film program wanting to make movies. “Ultimately, that’s not something that you can do alone, and I started to get some encouragement in my writing during college,” said Jung, adding, “For the sake of some paper and some time, you can actually produce something.” His career as a writer was on. His first major feature, Confidence, opened doors in both the film and TV (Big Love) worlds.
In its second season on TNT, Dark Blue is a tightly-paced, atmospheric drama about an LAPD team so deeply undercover that sometimes the line gets blurry between cop and con, even for them. Jung recently spoke with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about how dark is too dark, what happens when you fall in love with one character in an ensemble show, and what makes good drama.
Is it challenging to write a dark show?
The question, especially in television where the survival of the show depends on many different factors, one being the tone, is that it’s hard to know when you’re going too dark – when it becomes overbearing or unrelatable or just not entertaining anymore.
How do you find that balance?
Well… [laughs] in the case of Dark Blue, you look for moments where those police officers, who deal with things that normal people would see and be horrified by, deal with them in a very different way. Some of that reaction is to make light of it and have a very dark sense of humor. You also combat some of that through the relationships between the characters and their camaraderie, their friendship and banter with one another. Those things tend to foreground the more relatable, fun aspects of it.
Photo: ©2010 Turner Broadcasting System, Inc.
Dylan McDermott in Dark Blue.
We dealt with that a little bit in season one. If it’s so overbearingly, soul-suckingly tragic, why would anybody want to be there? In the second season, we geared more toward a wish-fulfillment element and the idea that there is an adrenaline rush to doing this job. These characters find gallows humor in certain situations and they have an understanding of one another as people who share an uncommon experience; these are the things that we tried to platform a bit more. That’s how you deal with the darkness of some of the storytelling, but at the same time, we liked not shying away from things taking a toll on the characters.
Did the addition of Tricia Helfer [Battlestar Galactica] help move the tone in that direction?
She added a dynamic to a group that had been well-established. Coming in, she shook up the dynamic and added a couple more levels to play with. She humanized Dylan McDermott’s character quite a bit.
You’ve worked mostly in drama. What is it about this genre that speaks to you?
That’s just the way I think, emotionally. I enjoy the world that way. Not to say that funny things can’t be just as or more poignant than dramas, but trying to write “funny” just isn’t a natural fit for me. With drama, I like the longer form, and human stories that are more examining have always resonated more with me.
How do you map out the story arc for each season?
We only have 10 episodes each season. The writers get together and loosely talk about where the character should go. A large part of it is leaving it loose and free and easy, which gives us a level of flexibility, allowing other things to come in that weren’t expected. Without being so rigidly stuck on certain ideas, you have more creative latitude for discovery. To me, that’s very important.
What is the atmosphere like in the writers room?
We only had four writers each season, including Danny and Rick [Eid, the current showrunner]. The writing process is very collaborative, even in the notes process. Everybody is involved and allowed to take as much control of the episode as they wanted.
Writing an ensemble show, do you ever find yourself favoring one or two of the characters and letting others sort of drift off into the background?
Inevitably, yes. Maybe unconsciously, or sometimes consciously, I guess. When you have an ensemble show and a finite amount of time, you can’t help but have an unbalanced level of attention for each of them. How you contend with all of them and give them specific, individual things to do, we try to always come at it from a character point of view first – this would be an interesting dilemma or storyline or situation for this character – and then we might build a whole episode around that idea.
It’s a little bit of a Sisyphean task. There are so many factors that go into literally how many words each character has and what they have to do.
Do you enjoy a 10-episode season or would you prefer an expanded year?
I really like 10 episodes a season. The benefit of writing for a basic cable network like TNT is that they order 10, and it’s extremely rare for them to order more mid-season. When you have a set amount of episodes, and by and large, they’re going to air consecutively, you’re not burdened with this “proving yourself” kind of thing where you might get a back nine order. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, and you can plot things out a little bit easier.
It’s more of a sprint than a marathon…
It’s a huge sprint [laughs]! Since we’re a basic cable show, we don’t have quite the budget of a network show, and you really have to make do with certain limitations. That’s where someone like Danny, who’s an expert producer, as much as he’s a director, and Bruckheimer, they know what shortcuts you can take without killing things. There’s not a lot of navel-staring that goes on.
Once production begins, the train is moving, and it’s going to move with you or without you. Being able to adapt quickly and change things and not be so precious about certain elements is just a necessity for a writer in this capacity. That was really eye-opening for me and luckily, I got to work with people with more experience. They didn’t get quite as freaked out as I did.
Do you prefer the collaborative writing process or a more solitary one?
I like both. I was lucky with Dark Blue, in that I personally really enjoyed the people I worked with and again, that’s a format and a schedule that you kind of have to have good collaboration or it just becomes hellish. It would be unsustainable if it wasn’t a good collaborative experience.
And that being said, like most writers, I do enjoy my quiet, alone time where you can shut the door and you’re doing your thing – that’s kind of great, too. With movies, it’s a little bit of a different mindset – there’s a longer gestation period, you don’t feel this big machine behind you that’s constantly moving. On the series, you gotta keep putting those things out to keep the train moving, because it’s not going to stop. And if it does stop, that means something is very, very wrong.
With no budgetary limits or studio strings attached, what’s your dream project?
I don’t even care, as long as the final product is something you’re really proud of and that you got to do something in its purest sense. That’s why I like something like Breaking Bad or Mad Men. Aside from the great writing, you can feel that there’s a purity and clarity of vision.