Doing great, deep character work is not only something that network series can do as well as, or better than, other broadcast storytelling, but it really should do it.
“We come with angst,” creator Martin Gero says of the Blindspot writers’ room, last year’s top-rated freshman series, returning for season two this month on NBC.
A kinetic, corkscrew-plotted blast of weekly adrenaline—think Girl with the Dragon Tattoo meets The Fugitive, generously seasoned with Alias—Blindspot last May aired a season finale that left its most ardent fans dangling from the side of a treacherous cliff by a single finger. Hence, the angst. And that’s just the way Gero, 39, likes it—especially now that he and his crackerjack team of writers have broken the first half of the forthcoming season, jam-packing it with madcap plot twists, hairpin character reveals, silver screen-quality action set-pieces, and simmering, to explosive, relationship conflicts.
Born in Switzerland, raised in Ottawa, smitten as a child with series television and big screen adventure tales, Gero has tread what he believes is “a pretty charmed” path to blockbuster career status. Intent from early adolescence on becoming a professional storyteller, Gero wrote and directed countless short films—and two features—while still in high school. He often took roles in his own projects, owing to a relative paucity of qualified, available and, uh, interested performers in his rural neighborhood. Gero’s earliest professional credits are in front of the camera and onstage, where he invested Outlier-style hours in the craft of improvisational comedy—an intensely immediate, collaborative process that very much informs his work on scripted fare, like Blindspot.
If the younger Gero was all about slapping knees and tickling ribs, the passage of time has made it increasingly difficult to predict exactly what he’ll do next. Gero is either a richly gifted, versatile journeyman, or he is marching to the beat of an entire drum circle. You try to connect the dots between Canadian cult sketch comedy underdog, The Holmes Show, Sci-Fi Channel’s Stargate Atlantis (for which Gero received a Writers Guild of Canada nomination), CW’s Fame meets Melrose Place soap, The L.A. Complex, HBO’s stony noir comedy, Bored to Death, and the high voltage, top-spinning gut-punches and whiplash thrills of Blindspot.
“I figured I’d eventually get around to doing a big, loud, fast, exciting adventure show,” Gero says, “because those are the kinds of things I really loved as a kid. I don’t know if how I got to Blindspot makes any more sense to me than it does to you, but everything I’ve done has prepared me for—and made me better for—the next job. Right now, I’m just having the time of my life with Blindspot—and I hope the audience is too.”
While you’re feeling very satisfied about having left 10 million viewers with breath held all summer long…
And even more satisfied with the episodes we’ve made coming back from hiatus…
How much consideration—or pressure—is there to deliver those mammoth surprises in a season finale and then building a season premiere that both satisfies your devoted viewers and, hopefully, opens the door for new audiences?
We live in a day and age where you can’t not end your season with that kind of bang. The pace in television storytelling has changed so dramatically in the past four or five years. The series on cable television and the streaming services have become such a huge deal, and their end of the business has gone with a model of 12 or 13-episodes in a season, right? That doesn’t mean they’re doing half the story we’re doing on network. They’re just jamming all of that story—because you can’t keep great ideas down—into 12 or 13 episodes. Well, that ramps things up for everybody on network television, if they want to keep current with audiences and the grammar television stories demand these days. Sometimes I’m very thankful we have the extra episodes to really get the story right, and other times it seems like 22 episodes take an entire lifetime to make! I try to convince myself that we’re not doing one long, 22-episode season, but two, shorter mini-seasons. A fall season…And a spring season. It’s a little easier to swallow.
More specifically, what were your purview and your mission preparing Blindspot’s second season?
The nice thing for us was that we had a season two pickup very, very early in our first season, so we already knew we were coming back—which allowed us to write the show a certain way. That allowed us to do a giant cliffhanger with no fear at all of leaving devoted viewers stuck forever in that terrible purgatory of cliffhangers left unresolved by show’s cancelled too soon. So we did that, the big cliffhanger stuff, and after a little bit of time off, we got together in the writers’ room and collectively decided: “We are not going to rest on our laurels.” We were the number one new show on TV last year, which was amazing and kind of a fluke and a once-in-a-lifetime thing probably, but we all figured: “Well, what else can we do? Can we do this even better?” We all feel really proud of season one. We know that it worked really well for a pretty large television audience. Well, that’s cool. Do it once, that’s a magic trick or just dumb luck. Do it twice, and you know what you’re doing. We’re showing people—and ourselves—that we know what we’re doing!
Blindspot, in many ways, carries on the cultural trend of the antihero. Jane Doe is a profoundly damaged human being capable of nearly apocalyptic violence. Clearly, audiences are more comfortable than ever at inviting sociopaths into their living rooms, but there’s still a mindfulness required of showrunners. How much does it press on you, keeping your characters, however mad, likable enough, and how might casting cut the deck in your favor?
You just grabbed onto something that is incredibly important: casting. It’s so extraordinarily important in every medium, but definitely on television—because, like you were saying, you are asking people to hang out with these characters for an hour every week of their lives. There has to be something about an actor that is alluring or irresistible, even when they’re doing vile, horrifying things. But a great actor who is well cast can really elevate a piece. A great actor can sometimes make a mediocre piece of writing sound really good! Don’t be fooled. You should do better! That same piece of writing can also sound much, much, much worse if delivered by a less talented actor. On Blindspot, we’ve just really lucked out. Jaimie [Alexander], Sully [Sullivan Stapleton], and the rest of our amazing cast, they were all our first choices, which just never happens, especially in TV. That makes life so much easier in so many ways.
By virtue of how television is made, 22 episodes over nine or 10 months, over—if you’re really lucky— five seasons or so, the actor and the character and the writers become sort of intertwined. Everything starts reflecting everything. You start writing to what you know the actor is great at, or toward pushing them to an interesting shade of something they’ve done well before but maybe hadn’t taken to that next level. Great actors mean greater possibilities for the writers. Also, in television, it’s a really critical, oftentimes very complicated, process. The network gets involved. The studio gets involved. There are a lot of voices involved in casting a television show because, as you know, it can really sink your ship—or, if the stars align, it can really put you up on a pedestal.
How has your improv training manifested itself in your career?
Comedy is very important to my process, if not always obviously from the show that appears on your television. I think that if a show doesn't have a sense of humor, it’s probably a little bit dead to me. Some shows can be totally humorless, but that’s definitely not me. I can’t write that show. I probably won’t watch that show. Levity engages me. Levity engages all audiences. It can deepen the characters. It can deepen the relationship between characters, between the characters and the audience.
Is there a difference, writing drama and comedy?
The only real difference is one usually comes in one-hour installments and the other one is shorter. That, and also, you don’t really get a lot of notes on your jokes in a drama because no one figures it’s your job to be funny on a drama, so that’s kind of nice.
Your Blindspot writers’ room reportedly has a very improvisatory, collaborative vibe to it. Talk about that.
It’s just basic teamwork, really. The writing process, and definitely the rewriting process, its done as a team, writers room, roundtable. Its something I’ve been doing since my improv days at L.A. Complex. When we have a draft of an episode, we put it up on a big screen in the writers’ room, and we go through it, line by line, as a staff, and we basically rewrite the show right there on the spot with everybody present. If it’s a comedy, you offer up punchlines. You offer clarifications, simplifications, or you argue for a scene that not everybody loves. We have sometimes broken down to arguing over comma placement, but for the most part, it’s been an essential part of how I work.
It probably helps expedite the “growing pains” a lot of new series experience, trying to find its voice, its strengths, and its full identity.
Yeah, the first six episodes of a series, by which point the show has probably been cancelled or picked up, are critical—and they’re also, often, almost impossible to do because the learning curve is so steep. Everyone is really trying to find out: what’s our tone, what’s our theme, what do these characters sound like, how do they behave? On a lot of shows, the discussion ends with the showrunner’s edict: This is how this character talks. But the collaboration is always a better choice. I don’t know everything and, reluctant as I am to admit this, I don’t always know best. That’s actually really comforting to me, that I’ve surrounded myself with people who are that good at what they do, that it’s okay for me to not know everything all the time. When the team rewrites me, it’s actually a lot of fun for me. It’s like, “Oh, yeah…I totally see what you did there. That is totally better.”
That kind of “in front of everyone, show and tell” can be somewhat daunting, even for the seasoned professional. How does it work in your writers’ room?
When you’re going through this process, every single member of the team doing it in front of every other member of the team, it pretty quickly becomes a very democratic process and one with which everyone feels comfortable and even empowered. They start to feel ownership over the show, which is always a great thing for writers. Everybody has an opportunity to contribute, which means everybody has the opportunity to be their best. We had staff writers last season on the show who had really great notes while in the writers’ room, and they’d help rewrite scenes in very serious ways. Working like this, everyone feels present, they feel a clear vision of the show, and they’re invested. More than that, they’re trained from inside the very show they’re working on. What I mean is: if you’re a staff writer in the room throwing out rewrite ideas for eight or nine episodes, you are so far ahead of where another writer—an outside hire—might be. You’ve already had the chance to learn from everyone else’s mistakes and seen how a team can work together to create a greater work. It creates a flow in the room, while putting senior writers in the position to mentor younger writers, and that’s always a good thing.
For a showrunner of your professional status, the temptation to cut bait with the networks and go to cable or streaming, where the budgets, timelines, workload, and prestige are all now pretty well in place, must be fairly pressing.
Well, I watch television because I love characters. If the writing is excellent and the acting is excellent, then on network television, with 22 episodes or so, you have that extra time that you can devote to going much deeper into a character. Not every show does that, but it should probably at least try to. Doing great, deep character work is not only something that network series can do as well as, or better than, other broadcast storytelling, but it really should do it. With a network series, you are, basically, occupying a certain, fairly concrete space in peoples’ lives. They come to you weekly. Even if they’re DVR-ing or streaming it later, it’s still, more or less, on a schedule or with an appointment. So reward the audience that makes that commitment. Give them more.
There’s almost sentimentality there about the “pre-binge viewing” days of telling—and consuming—stories.
Look, I love basic cable television, and I love premium cable, and I love Netflix and Amazon and all of that, but telling stories there—and watching stories there—it takes up a very different space in my life. For example, I loved [Netflix’s] Stranger Things, but that was, basically, a weekend of my life. Blindspot? We’re in your face all year long. People get invested in network TV because there is that week-to-week, hand-to-mouth aspect to the storytelling. That week between episodes can, in and of itself, be a powerful storytelling tool.
What are some of the things you’ve learned along your Byzantine career path?
Well, first and foremost, I love telling stories—and I believe it’s a huge privilege to get paid to do so. I’m very lucky to be employed today as a writer, and I was even luckier to get one of those first big jobs, something like Bored to Death. As someone who now hires other writers for series work, it’s difficult to figure exactly how critical someone’s track record is, but it is pretty important, so when Jonathan Ames took a chance on me and hired me for Bored to Death, that was just very, very lucky for me. I’d been working on Stargate. The show ended. At that point, it was like, “All bets are off as far as what your career is going to be about.”
Perhaps that’s a bit of your improv training kicking in: “Yes, and…”
Yeah! Maybe that’s true! I came up doing a lot of improv in Canada, all through high school and college. It plays a huge role in how I write. It still does. But it’s more than that; Improv is just a great tool to have for life in general. I remember my first day on Bored to Death, thinking, Oh, my God…I do not have the skillset required of this job. I’d just written five years of laser battles on Stargate, and now I’m supposed to do this very quiet, very weird, surreal, funny show in Brooklyn? Um, okay.
So how did you get over that block?
What I realized is: once you get into making a show, it’s all basically the same thing. It’s all TV, and good TV is good TV. The sensibilities are the same. The requirements for excellence are pretty much the same. How you make the shows is the same. What you care about at the end of the day, no matter what show you’re doing, is telling compelling stories through fascinating, complex characters. The base skillset is still, Oh, it’s my job to make someone care about something. That’s an incredibly transportable, transferrable truth, whether you’re doing half-hour comedy or one-hour action drama or a television soap, or whatever. It’s all kind of the same stuff. The problem solving that’s involved in producing all of those shows is terrifyingly similar.
Your working model of the writer’s job—“to make someone care about something”—how do you do that?
Your first and most important task is writing something that you care about. If it has no resonance or thrill or movement for you, then it probably won’t have those things for anyone else. If you’re a writer, hopefully you get ideas all the time. Not all of them are going to be great ideas. Not all of them are going to be ideas you love. A lot of them might be ideas you would never even want to write. That’s okay. Write those down and move on to something you really love right now. Every show I’ve worked on has been, basically, made to entertain me—however selfish that sounds. It’s gotta make me laugh first. It’s gotta make me tear up first. It’s gotta surprise me first. If I’m not engaged, how can I expect you to be? So distilled, that little tidbit is: Don’t let it leave your desk unless it’s moving you.
The concept of mentoring and teaching within the WGA is a powerful one. What is some particularly useful advice you’ve received through the years?
This was true when I was a kid, just dreaming of being a filmmaker, but it’s even more true now. In fact, if you’re not following this advice today, it’s kind of inexcusable. Here it is: you really should be making your own stuff today—all the time! Every writer should be making something. I happen to believe that every writer is probably at least a decent director. With technology where it’s at today, if you can’t get a job writing on a show right away or you haven’t sold your blockbuster script to the studios yet, don’t worry about it. Pick up your cell phone and go make a movie. The software that’s available is unbelievable. You can shoot. You can edit. You can add effects. It looks really great. There was a feature film—Tangerine—that was recently released theatrically that had been shot along those lines, if you can believe it. There’s just no excuse to not be making things. They might not be great. They might not be the projects that propel your career to great new heights. They might never even be seen be anyone. But no matter what, they are practice.
You must have done a fair amount of practicing then, yes?
When I was in high school, I made two feature-length films. They were terrible, but they taught me the basic skillset required of making a film—and that’s a skillset I use even today. Though the movies are terrible, by the time I finally got to the point in my career where I had an opportunity to work professionally, I wasn’t going through the paces for the very first time. It wasn’t a shock to the system. I had some experience! So I guess that’s the advice: if they won’t pay you to become experienced, you have no excuse. Go out there and make something; get your experience for free. Making stuff is not only good for your soul, but you can actually teach yourself a lot just by trying.
© 2016 Writers Guild of America West