Madam Showrunner

Madam Secretary’s Barbara Hall shares her veteran wisdom on creating show bibles, why it’s still important to talk about women in television, and her keys to a long and fruitful career.

©2014 CBS Broadcasting, Inc.
Téa Leone in Madam Secretary.
October 31, 2014 Written by Denis Faye
Heather Wines/CBS Barbara Hall

Sometimes people muscle through [showrunning], but you have to set the template, believe passionately, be able to communicate what it is you want, but then let them do it.

A common question that aspiring writers ask about successful showrunners is “What has she or he done leading up to heading up a major network show?”

But when it comes to Madam Secretary’s Barbara Hall, a better question might be “What hasn’t she done?”

Since getting her start writing for the ‘80s sitcom Family Ties, Hall has dabbled in just about every small screen genre there is, from Moonlighting (detective), to Northern Exposure (dramady), to Joan of Arcadia (metaphysical—a surprisingly robust genre), to Judging Amy (drama), to Homeland (fancy pay cable drama). And then there are her four CDs and 11 novels. In other words, if it involves the alphabet, this veteran showrunner has probably taken a crack at it.

In some ways, Hall feels Madam Secretary is the culmination of all this genre-hopping. Starring Téa Leone, it’s the story of a former CIA operative suddenly thrust into the world of politics. Although the show can be as edgy as drama gets, it’s also not afraid to go for the laugh. “I love juxtaposing comedy and drama, which is what life feels like to me,” explains Hall. “That's still the goal on Madam Secretary.”

A hard-boiled, paranoid, political comedy thriller? How do you pull that off? Hall elaborated recently for the Writers Guild of America West website.

Madam Secretary has sort of a Mr. Smith Goes to Washington meets Syriana kind of feel to it.

That’s the first time I’ve heard that combo used! That's good.

It's a really interesting combo of naiveté and cynicism—and it works. Was that intentional?

It was a bit because in the political landscape. I thought, What can I bring to this that will make it at least slightly different? Tonally I wanted to address the issues of world events, but I wanted to do it through the lens of an outsider—but not too far outside. I didn't want it to be someone who had no experience in foreign relations, so to make her someone who's from the CIA gave her a lot of depth of knowledge about international relations but from a different point of view—it's not diplomacy. In fact it's the opposite of diplomacy!

But she understands certain parts of the world and how they think and how they operate so she can bring that to the job. What she has to learn is politics and diplomacy and inter-office politics in particular.

Téa Leone’s character is almost a reversal of a trend right now. You have a lot of shows with the anti-hero who has likeable elements where she is a hero, but she's got that little bit of darkness in her.

That's much more my motor as a writer, and I certainly think it's a little refreshing to have someone who has a dose of true believerism and idealism and a desire to really fulfill a belief about how a job like that should be done. But when you create that character, you have to get them a little bit of darkness or they will flatten out and become unbelievable.

Unless they're Jimmy Stewart.

Unless they're Jimmy and then you pull that off.

When you guys are in the writers’ room, are you trying to make this something that can really happen or is it just pure fantasy?

I would say it clocks in a little more on the side of reality. Truthfully, my approach was to pull back the curtain on how the State Department operates and mine it for stories that would really happen and are interesting. We try to stay in the realm of reality. We think of approaching a story as not what would happen but what could happen and stay on the edge of that. We don't want to cross over into pure fantasy.

So that's different from, say, The West Wing where sometimes that show felt very much like “Gee, we wish the president would just do this!”

There's an element to her character where you might say, “I wish the Secretary of State would or could do this.” And “I wish that international issues could be resolved this way.” At the same time, I don't think we want to cross over into pure fantasyland. We want to operate within the laws of how things really do operate in Washington.

A lot of dramas now have these protagonists with these massive, massive backstories and a big part of the show is about unraveling the backstory. Why do you think that’s occurring more and are you doing it on this show?

That it's important not to have a massive backstory. I don't think you can have a backstory that's so elaborate that every time you do another show you have to re-introduce the premise. I want people to be able to turn on an episode and just walk into it and not be confused.

But that the trend of giving characters deeper backstories and stronger backstories just has to do with the sophistication level of the writing on TV rising and people understanding, “Oh, this is the game I'm getting into.”

How deep does your bible go? Do you make up quite a bit of it as you go along?

I don't have a deep bible because I don't like to hold myself to that. One of the best things about doing a TV series is the fact that you can let it evolve and it lives and breathes. What happens is you discover your strengths and weaknesses, and you see how actors are together, and you see how their characters develop. I don't want to limit myself to something that's planned too far in advance. I like to let it have a life of its own.

That would be tricky on a show like this where there's a lot of political chess going on because three seasons from now you're going to have to keep track of how the pieces were moved in this season.

Yes, but I always plan. Part of this is not getting ahead of myself in terms of how many seasons I'm going to be able to have. I always approach it season to season, so at the beginning of a season I have a theme or a through line for what I want to do in this season, what I want to accomplish. For example, we have an underlying mystery of a possible conspiracy and I knew going in that I wanted to play that out over the course of the year.

The plan is really to resolve that conspiracy at the end of this first season and maybe we'll introduce another one on the second season.

That would be tricky, to wrap everything up in a bow by the end of the season, at the same time leave people hungry for what comes next.

Yeah, that is the trick. It's the trick of the season, and it's the trick episode by episode. We are somewhat serialized, but we're not highly serialized and so we have to, every episode, tell a story that can be resolved within an hour, which is tricky when you're dealing with international dilemmas.

Because they don't solve themselves in an hour.

They don't tend to do that, but what you try to do is find an aspect of the international dilemma that can be resolved within an hour, not the whole thing. We're not going to present peace in the Middle East in one-hour television.

I assume you're going to have her fail sometimes?

Yes, we are ramping up to failure [laughs].

Looking at your career—and this isn’t uncommon—you went from sitcoms to dramedy and now you're in super hard drama. Why?

I have no idea! No, I really think the evolution of my work is that I started out as a comedy writer, but in terms of the format I was really much more drawn to drama, so originally I just made the switch because I didn't like the room writing thing, I liked to sit alone with a computer and make up a story by myself.

One of those tortured soul writers.

I am one of those. I started out as a novelist, so that's my dirty secret. I wrote a novel before I wrote anything for TV and that was my process. That's what writing felt like to me, to sit alone. Some famous writers say you just stare at a page until drops of blood form on your forehead. So I wanted to do that in the TV format and then I started working with Josh Brand and John Falsey and did pretty much all of their shows and that felt like novel writing. But the thing is that I was able to use comedy in that world was to help the drama, fix the tones.

You’ve been in TV since your early 20s, so you must have been young when you wrote that novel.

I wrote it right away when I just graduated from college. It was the first thing I did. I moved to L.A., and I realized that I was walking around in L.A. saying I was a writer but, well, I also wrote poetry in college, so I had published poetry but it wasn't much of a calling card. So I sat down and wrote a novel. It took me five years to get it published because especially back in that day if you had a novel in L.A. nobody knew what you were talking about.

Yeah, kind of a weird choice back then. What was it about, that novel?

That novel was called Skeeball and the Secret of the Universe. It was a coming-of-age story about a local kid in a resort town—poor kid in a rich town. He falls in love with a tourist and to impress her he tries to become a champion skeeball player. Skeeball is a metaphor for coming of age, I guess.

Now everyone does that. People don't bother with writing their spec script, they write a young adult novel and that seems to be the calling card. You were a visionary.

I was so drawn to that, I wanted to write novels, and of course when you're 21, the only perspective you have is on being a teenager. I didn't even understand that I was writing a young adult novel or that it was even a thing. But then I established myself and I wrote, I think, three more young adult novels before moving into mainstream fiction.

So does that mean you’ve worked in the CIA so that you have perspective for Madam Secretary?

Yeah, but don't tell anybody.

I'll cut that out because you'd have to kill me if I don’t.

Exactly. I'm worried about your safety.

What is the key to a long and fruitful career? I mean besides having talent.

In terms of creating shows and running them, it is a very specific skill that you have to learn. It has to do with knowing how to hire people, it has to do with being able to delegate. This job is just too big to try to micromanage. So if you have a vision for what you want to do and a passion for what you want to do, you put yourself out in front of it because you really are the guardian of that vision, but then you find the right people to help you do it and you let them do it, you empower them to do their jobs. That's the way it's always worked for me.

So showrunning is not a career for people with trust issues.

It is not. Sometimes people muscle through, but you have to set the template, believe passionately, be able to communicate what it is you want, but then let them do it, don't follow around behind them.

One last question. I'm not going to ask you a single question about being a woman showrunner. How do you feel about that?

That's the world we all want to live in one day!

I'll tell you a story that Secretary Madeline Albright told me. She said that her granddaughter one day asked, "What's the big deal about Grandma Maddy being Secretary of State? All the Secretaries of State are women." That's the perspective of her generation and so that's the way we want to feel about female presidents. It's certainly the way we want to feel about female showrunners. So I understand what you're saying, and I appreciate that perspective. We still have to talk about it, though, for a while, because I don't think we're necessarily there yet.

© 2014 Writers Guild of America West

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