ATX Television Festival Diary, Part 2
THE WEST WING ADMINISTRATION -- TEN YEARS LATER (6/11)
While Friday certainly had its highlights, Saturday was ATX's biggest and most jam-packed day. It would be impossible - as it was on Friday - to attend everything, and I no doubt missed some excellent stuff. But, what I was in attendance to experience was absolutely stellar. We started with the event many outside of Austin were most envious to be a part of, as one of television's most beloved dramas finally sat down for a reunion. While three integral players couldn't make it, from moderator to panelists, this was an incredible two hours.
The line outside was crazy - for lack of a better word - both for those with passes and those with badges hoping to be included in the group that made it inside before the Paramount before it filled to capacity. As a result, the panel started a bit late, but once Caitlin and Emily hit the stage and welcomed us to Day Three, we were treated to the first West Wing "walk and talk," featuring John Spencer running into basically every major player as he traversed the hallways. Then came the theme song and the open, which brought loud cheers, and as the lights came back up, the long row of empty chairs on stage were empty no more.
MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell, who served as both a producer and political advisor to The West Wing, led the conversation, which featured creator Aaron Sorkin and his partner in crime, director Thomas Schlamme, and actors Bradley Whitford, Richard Schiff, Dule Hill, Janel Moloney, Joshua Malina, and Melissa Fitzgerald, who also serves as Senior Director for Justice for Vets. That organization was featured later in the discussion, as the JusticeForVets.org PSA ran on the big screen. Most cast members were in the video, including Martin Sheen and Allison Janney, who sadly couldn't attend the reunion.
What was continually apparent about those on stage, as well as those that were absent, was that they believe today that they were doing something bigger than a television show, although as Richard Schiff pointed out, at the time the show began, they didn't really see it that way. Bradley Whitford, who passed popcorn to Schiff, was the most vocal panelist outside of Sorkin, and put it beautifully:
"We realized pretty soon this will be the first line in our obituary."
Whitford also spoke of the politics of the show mirroring his own. "There is no distinction between my political point of view and Josh Lyman's." Sorkin said what he often does about his own intellect, that he isn't a politically savvy individual and that it was O'Donnell who was responsible for so much of the depth on that side of the show. "If there's a scene that you love in The West Wing, I can assure you Lawrence O'Donnell played a starring role in making it happen."
Of all the shows featured at ATX, it was The West Wing where both the panelists and fans spoke about the program using episode names rather than just, "The one where Bartlet sang." There's a level of aptitude about the show, ten years after it concluded, that remains indelibly imprinted on the brains of Aaron Sorkin, his team, his stars, and his audience. For instance, Sorkin mentioned having a difficult time "putting the bat on the ball" when it came to Schiff's character of Toby Ziegler. He remembered writing "The Crackpots and These Women," the show's fifth episode, and said he finally discovered "true north" on his role and how to write Toby effectively.
Schiff compared Ziegler to the oboe of The West Wing symphony, an instrument you don't recognize is there until everyone else gets quiet and it's time for the solo. He also informed us that he developed Toby's rubber ball habit as a tribute to Steve McQueen and The Great Escape.
When asked what he might have been in the orchestra, Joshua Malina - who always finds the right line, especially when it's self-deprecating - said the triangle. Underused, underappreciated, undervalued.
Malina was the running joke of the reunion, as he didn't speak much and just about everybody took a veiled shot at him, including when it was time for the Q&A. All questions came from one microphone, except for any directed to Josh, where there was an invisible microphone on the left side. He took it in stride and fought back effectively, saying Whitford was just upset because Malina is still on a high rated show that takes place in Washington D.C., and for Bradley, "it's been a while." Smiles all around, as it was obvious this cast greatly enjoyed their time working with one another.
John Spencer, who passed away of a heart attack in 2005, was a man everyone associated with The West Wing cared for deeply. O'Donnell referred to him as "a stunning actor to see in the range he has." The scene we were shown off the top of the reunion showed just how brilliant a performer he was, which Lawrence also mentioned. Schlamme called Spencer a "gentleman among gentlemen," and said there was a "maternal, loving quality" to his very existence. The audience, as well as the panel, all applauded loudly when O'Donnell mentioned him.
The group also reveres Sorkin's writing and credits the show for helping each of their careers. Whitford took a few jabs for Revenge of the Nerds II and some of his other, less dignified efforts, and Malina thanked Aaron for giving him "every break he's had," from theater to television to film. Sorkin dropped his head, a little embarrassed at the praise, but he was moved.
There were stories of Dule Hill dancing to Yo Yo Ma, which Schiff called, "one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen," and the tale of Janel Moloney deciding to quit show business, just a few weeks before she was brought onto The West Wing for what was expected to be a small part. It ended up being one of the largest, most important roles on the show, and the relationship between Donna Moss and Josh Lyman is the one most fans point to when they speak about possible romance in the Bartlet Administration.
Sorkin explained how The West Wing tackled its biggest issues. "We can't sure homelessness on our show. We have to use one guy...we have to get it that small." The entire concept was taking an issue and finding one face for it, one person that could encapsulate and get across the overall point in an episode, or perhaps a few episodes.
There was so much covered in the two hours that I could easily write a full article just on that one event, and maybe I have. So I'll cut it short by mentioning Sorkin's ability to conjure up the perfect line, even if it wasn't on a prompter. He was the last to speak, and closed by saying, "In television, you never get to see the audience. It is great to finally meet you."
THE SHIELD WRITERS REUNION (6/11)
It was a lucky break that The Shield event took place at the State Theater, right next door to the Paramount, because The West Wing ran long and it was a quick transition to get to the next event and not miss much more than the introduction. Entertainment Weekly's Lynette Rice moderated, but to her credit, she basically sat back and let Shawn Ryan, Kurt Sutter, Scott Rosenbaum (Skeeter), Chic Eglee, and Glen Mazzara talk amongst themselves. These are five accomplished television vets, with Sutter going on to create and run Sons of Anarchy, Eglee moving on to work with Mazzara on The Walking Dead and also to be the showrunner of Hemlock Grove, Rosenbaum joining the staff of Chuck, V, and Gang Related, and Ryan, who went on to develop and produce Mad Dogs, Terriers, and The Chicago Code.
We got the most f-bombs of the festival from these guys, just as expected, and what was fascinating about the panel was how often each one of them attempted to convince the audience that there was no real competition between the writers to supersede the others. With each declaration, it was clear there WAS competition (likely friendly, but intense), and these men used it to drive them to greater creative heights. The Shield took more risks than perhaps any show we've ever seen, from Aceveda's sexual assault to every dingy crime and scumbag tactic known to man, and listening to the five men on stage, they had a blast doing it, but it also drained the hell out of all of them.
Rosenbaum illustrated how things worked within the group. "We were always trying to get our ideas past Shawn, but never did we not collaborate with one another." Eglee added, "The Shield was never a show where any writer took credit for an idea." All of them played a pivotal part in every concept. When the subject turned to Michael Chiklis, whose portrayal of Vic Mackey rivals even the best performances in recent memory, we learned quite a bit about him, as well as how much respect everyone in the room had for him.
Mazzara talked of Chiklis as an actor who was "protective of the written word." He also looked out for the writers, never looking at the show as some kind of personal star vehicle. Shawn Ryan said the Mackey character was incredibly difficult to cast, but Chiklis walked in and "took the role from everyone's reluctant hands." They feared the tie-in to Michael's previous work on ABC's The Commish, but Chiklis ended the debate. Ryan watched numerous auditions for Mackey and asked one of his colleagues whether he was actually a good writer. He started to doubt himself because no one could make these lines work. Then Michael Chiklis read for the part.
"No, I'm a good writer."
Some of the show's more audacious moments were discussed in greater detail, including the drilling of Armadillo's face, which led to a huge Kurt Sutter smile. According to Ryan, almost everything Vic Mackey did came with at least a small sense of understanding or something the audience could defend, but when Vic burned Armadillo Quintero's face on the stove, there was zero justification. As far as the David Aceveda sexual assault, Eglee said it "took that character and put it in motion for the rest of the show." It gave the role purpose and emotional resonance.
Rice asked where Vic Mackey is today, and Ryan responded the way he always has to that question, saying, "I have some idea where Vic is, but I have no idea where Vic is." He explained by stating there would be no way to adequately determine Mackey's whereabouts without returning to that writers room and sitting down with his team to make those decisions. When attempting to talk about the Strike Team's "locker room mentality," Ryan inadvertently also may have described the writing team, who held a similar bond. As for the cast, Shawn said the camaraderie within the Strike Team and the show as a whole was the kind of thing "you cannot buy" in the entertainment business.
This was a fabulous panel, one that easily could have gone another hour. These five guys were utterly addicting to listen to and proved why The Shield has withstood the test of time to remain one of the top dramas of the century, with the best series finale...ever.
The State Theater was packed, with no empty seats and people left outside. Lifetime's hit drama has really struck a chord with television enthusiasts, and as my review last week indicated, it certainly ranks highly on my list. The event opened with a screening of Season 2's second episode (which at the time had not aired), and while I'd already seen it, I certainly had no problem re-watching an excellent 42 minutes of fast-paced storytelling. Most of those in the room had not seen it, so there were some strong natural reactions to some of the twists of the episode, including the major character reveal during the conclusion.
On stage with BuzzFeed's Jarrett Wieselman was creator Sarah Gertrude-Shapiro, executive producer Stacy Rukeyser, along with Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman (Jay) and Genevieve Buechner (Madison). This was a lively chat, and Wieselman was very good at getting the most out of the brief time he was allotted to moderate the panel. Clearly an UnREAL superfan, he was able to give his opinion on a character and have one of the panelists respond in a very personal way, particularly as he mentioned his dislike of the Madison character in the first season and the shift we've already seen from her in the early episodes of Season 2.
Rukeyser never thought she and her colleagues were doing something revolutionary, and the critical and audience response has been overwhelming for them all and has really pushed them to stay the course and keep the show its unflinching self. Lifetime has been very supportive, and while it had already been announced, one woman in the crowd screamed out, "Congratulations on Season 3!" That nearly brought the State Theater to its feet, but instead the audience applauded their approval, as did everyone on stage.
Sarah Gertrude-Shapiro was charismatic, irreverent, rapid-fire, and loud. She was exactly what she needed to be. She said UnREAL is indeed a feminist show, but one that also feels it necessary to focus on the male characters, while ensuring the women have power and confidence. She also mentioned the show's propensity for developing unlikable female protagonists. Rukeyser commented here, saying she spoke to Glen Mazzara, whom she called a mentor, and he advised her that if people say a female character is unlikable, "the way to fix it is to give her vulnerability." This is a show about Quinn King and Rachel Goldberg, first and foremost, according to Sarah. She then said the "Money Dick Power" tattoos were supposed to show them as women who decided they would be men.
Jarrett turned the discussion to Bowyer-Chapman, who talked about being an openly gay man in Hollywood who had to play straight roles, which he didn't have any problem with, but that UnREAL has permitted him to finally be himself as part of his job. Jay, a gay producer on the fictional "Everlasting" program, enabled him to be Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman. He's now involved in charity work and got very emotional as he tried to express his love for Sarah and for Marti Noxon and the cast for how they've accepted him and let him just be the man he is. It got a thunderous round of applause, and Jeffrey fought back tears attempting to let us into that part of his world.
Gertrude-Shapiro also talked about her obliviousness to hype. She tries to ignore it, and said, "I definitely have seen shows I love in Season 2 play to the cheap seats." She also told the story of how badly she wanted Constance Zimmer to play Quinn. "It was hard. She turned us down like 16 times." Eventually she said yes, and the rest has been history. As for Jarrett's thoughts on Madison's growth, Sarah made it clear that it was a credit to Buechner that she was able to do so much more with the character. The idea of Rachel getting pleasure from darkening Madison's soul is deliciously UnREAL.
The panel was full of energy and everyone on the stage seemed to project a sense that they recognize they're on a special project right now. Day Three was nonstop folks. I didn't even get a chance to eat until around 10 PM, outside of popcorn that I blame Bradley Whitford and Richard Schiff for, because I watched them eat it and it reminded me I had not ingested anything other than a beverage since the night before. So I ate theater concessions during a panel.
UGLY BETTY REUNION (6/11)
Entertainment Weekly sponsored the night's biggest celebration, a reunion of ABC favorite, Ugly Betty. The theme of ATX's fifth season was television and social change, and here was one of the more progressive and culturally significant shows of the century. Not only did Ugly Betty tackle homosexual issues and feature Latino and Hispanic stories and characters, it did so with gusto and a gigantic feather boa. Though the show was often serious, the laughter was infectious, and at every opportunity, Ugly Betty's creator, Silvio Horta, pushed the envelope.
EW Radio host Jessica Shaw moderated the panel, as the show's stars and creator sat on plush white sofas after walking through what could best be described a fashion runway entrance. It fit well with the show's subject matter and setting, and visually it was quite striking. Shaw did her homework. She was a fan, but she had gone back and watched certain episodes, read past interviews and articles, and when she sat down to lead the panel, she was in complete control. She also knew when to let the show's stars take the conversation in different directions, and had a very good sense of when to reassert herself and narrow the focus.
Ugly Betty was a show that did well for two seasons, struggled in the third, then reacted poorly to a time slot change, and just couldn't regain an audience. Very few shows are able to grow years after their inception, because a potential viewer feels intimidated by what he or she might have missed. The panel was loaded, with Horta, America Ferrera, Eric Mabius, Ashley Jensen, Michael Urie, Tony Plana, Ana Ortiz, Mark Indelicato, Judith Light, Rebecca Romijn, and Vanessa Williams.
As much as costume designer, Patricia "Pat" Field, was talked about, she was basically there as well. Almost everyone did an impression of her during some kind of a fitting or while they were deciding on outfits. They called her an "artist," saying what she did and her eye for fashion and what was right for a scene was impeccable. The cast adored this woman, even when she used the term, "cunty," as a descriptor for certain clothing items.
Just watching Ferrera and Ortiz talk amongst themselves from time to time, sharing secrets as if they were in the back row in freshman algebra, was terrific, because they had stories and they laughed and their smiles lit up the entire Paramount Theater. This was another show with a cast that was tight knit and unhappy to have had to leave each other. Tony Plana compared the feeling to being in a plane crash, and said when the show ended, he "lost all these people."
Prior to the panel, there was a red carpet for the event. I was inside the building, where the cast was walking out to greet the press and the fans that were close enough to catch a glimpse of them. Romijn and Williams both walked directly past me as I had my back turned, and there was a definite excitement to the proceedings. Reunions are often hard to put together, but Caitlin and Emily said this one took about 24 hours. They contacted Ferrera, who had wanted to come back to the Festival, she emailed the cast, and everybody was immediately interested in being a part of the experience. If that doesn't show what Ugly Betty meant to those people, nothing will.
Ferrera said what she learned from the experience was to savor every moment, appreciate the time, and really spend every second with the people around you. Nothing lasts forever, but this was a four-year span that none of them have really been able to duplicate in terms of the family atmosphere of the ensemble.
Indelicato spoke candidly about how he and his character, Justin Suarez, were both discovering their sexuality at the same time, and said the role actually helped him mentally understand himself and find peace in it. He stopped short of thanking anyone for the character, but he was able to live through Justin and allow his own experience to inform his performance. His coworkers helped him as well, as they might have realized he was gay before he was fully ready to embrace it, and Ferrera and Ortiz both remarked that they were supremely excited about it and almost saw him as their son.
The subject of a reboot came up and Horta said it would be a dream come true, but the only way it could happen is if everyone on the stage, and a few who couldn't make the trip, were involved in the entire process. A hashtag was pitched, which trended for a while, and the network potentially involved was Hulu, where the entire series can now be streamed. I'm not saying it will happen, but I wouldn't be the least bit surprised. This was something that started as a bit of a joke and then kept coming back up, again because these people love the hell out of each other and Horta has more story to tell. He said exactly that.
The Paramount Theater wanted it. The cast wanted it. Jessica Shaw wanted it. Then Twitter started wanting it. But, if it doesn't come to fruition, this was a magnificent sendoff for the show, in front of an audience that loved Ugly Betty as much as Ugly Betty loved them.
One event on Sunday completed my ATX Season 5 experience, and it was the right one with which to close the book on the 2016 Festival. Terriers is the best show you've probably never watched, and the one with the worst name imaginable. 13 freaking episodes, that's it, and it's one of the most unique, fun, well structured, well acted, well everythinged detective shows to come down the television river in decades. Critically acclaimed beyond belief, but no one watched.
Creator Ted Griffin was on stage with executive producers Shawn Ryan (The Shield) and Tim Minear, and one of the two leads, Donal Logue. Michael Raymond James was unable to make it to Austin, but he still took part in the panel, thanks to the magic of Skype. HitFix's Alan Sepinwall moderated the discussion, and he was the man responsible for putting Terriers on my radar back in 2010. Before the chat, we were treated to a big screen Alamo Drafthouse screening of "Fustercluck," one of the series' premiere episodes.
Without just repeating what many of the panelists said all weekend, this was a complete love fest from moment one. Michael Raymond James talked of "chasing the feeling" with all the work he's done since, calling Terriers "the best job I've ever had." He and Logue became close friends, bonding while shooting an episode of Life and coming together over a shared love of Jack Kerouac. The pair then became roommates during the filming of the show. While living under the same California roof, MRJ said there wasn't much goofing off, that the two ran lines and were always "ready to jam."
Tim Minear joked that he's been a part of many failures in his career, and, "of all the failures, this one's my favorite." Ryan said this is one of those shows he'd be open to revisit if the money, the interest, and "Donal and Mikey" were on board. He believes Terriers was a few years ahead of its time, and added that the only person that liked the show title was his mother, who raised show dogs. The original poster did seem to intimate dogfighting, which is as far from the Terriers premise as the practice is from my daily activities.
Logue talked of the family atmosphere of the cast and crew, saying everybody was always so excited to come to work every day. He also noted a statistic he'd seen, revealing Terriers as the most downloaded show in Maine and Washington (which brought forth a grin), and Ryan mentioned how pleased he was to see how well the show has been received now that it's found a streaming home on Netflix. Ted Griffin asked for a 100,000-dollar donation from everyone in attendance at the panel, saying that would be enough money to at least do a movie. I didn't have it on me, but maybe someday.
Fans of Terriers know the finale was satisfying, and Logue called it "beautiful" and believed it ended on the perfect existential note. Between coffee refills, Michael Raymond James echoed those sentiments.
Skype seemed to confuse MRJ a few times, and resulted in unintentional hilarity that some might term adorable. At the end of the panel, he remained on screen asking what was happening, and at times he couldn't hear those on the microphones and just had to smile or fight a bewildered look as everyone laughed...and then he laughed. This was a fun 90 minutes.
All in all, it was an outstanding weekend. I want to thank ATX for their accommodations and access, and offer my gratitude to Caitlin McFarland and Emily Gipson for creating such a one-of-a-kind event. It's laid back and relaxed, in contrast to the rigidity of Comic Con and other large pop culture experiences. The industry, the media, and the fans all in one place, and the opportunity for these groups to actually talk to each other, both during panels or just milling around Austin, is unique and special.
The work that goes into putting ATX together - and then actually executing it - is unbelievable. It requires many volunteers and a major team effort, and the two ladies behind the curtain are truly magnificent. If they could control the weather and bring the temperature down about 20 degrees, it would be perfect. Maybe they'll learn how it works for Season 6. I wouldn't put it past them.
This is just the beginning for Outkick. Next year, we plan much more extensive coverage, plus interactive conversations, interviews, and so much more. I hope you enjoyed ATX from my perspective, and if you follow me on Twitter @GuyNamedJason, you already knew much of this, as I live tweeted every panel I attended. Let's talk about TV there, let's talk about pop culture there, and let's sit back and use entertainment as the escape for which it's intended.
I am indeed @GuyNamedJason. Follow me there. We'll talk.