Interview: Matt Nix talks about ‘The Good Guys’

Senior Television Writer
06.07.10 11 Comments


Last month, I reviewed “The Good Guys” before its “American Idol”-adjacent sneak preview. The show is back tonight at 9 on Fox in its regular timeslot, and I spoke with the show’s creator, Matt Nix from “Burn Notice,” about some of the inspirations behind the show, Fox’s reaction to the disappointing ratings for the sneak preview, and more. So read on, and feel free to use this post to discuss the episode after it airs tonight.

So I think we have to start, obviously, with the mustache. What was its origin?

It was actually in the script that I first wrote 10 years ago. It was something I would have to drop if someone couldn’t grow a mustache, but Bradley – man, can that guy grow a mustache. It’s gorgeous, it’s amazing.

But what was the impetus behind making Dan be a guy with a mustache?

It’s a visible representation of what is absolutely a retro nod in the show. The impetus for the whole show was to do a modern take on a classic show, by which I mean a quite modern take. Not just do a show that might have been on in the late ’70s or early ’80s, but with HD cameras, but to actually do something that uses contemporary narrative techniques. But if you want to say to an audience, hey this show has some retro elements, there’s nothing like a mustache on a cop.

Was there a particular mustache that loomed large in your consciousness growing up?

The ur-mustache for me is really Tom Selleck’s mustache. My great aunt was Tom Selleck’s publicist for most of his career, and so I grew up sort of watching “Magnum PI” but also being aware Tom Selleck was a real person, and there was a thing called show business and you could be in it. The mustache had a mystical significance for me beyond that it was on a guy who solved crimes in Hawaii.

Mustaches aside, what are some of the shows and movies from that period that most influenced this? When you were staffing up, you told writers, “You need to watch this, this and this,” right?

“Get Shorty” was a huge one. A lot of it was the movies and filmmakers that influenced me the most, I was looking at these classic shows through the lens of those movies. The movies were “Get Shorty,” “Pulp Fiction” and to a somewhat lesser extent, “Raising Arizona.” So basically, kind of an Elmore Leonard/Coen Brothers/Tarantino, and also Edgar Wright. I thought “Hot Fuzz” was great, and I freely acknowledge a debt to it.

And TV shows?

“Starsky and Hutch” would be a big one, and “CHiPs,” but also cop movies: “Lethal Weapon,” “48 Hours.” But it would also be “Dragnet” going way back. I confess, like, some of those shows, I was more aware of culturally. I knew the Mad Magazine “Dragnet” parody when I was a kid but it was a little before my time. I would read the classic Mad Magazine. Funnily enough, a lot of my television education came that way. There are movies that I still feel like I’ve seen, but I just read the Mad parody.

How would you say cop shows were different in that era from what they are now?

The one thing about those shows is you watched them for different reasons. I’m not slamming cop shows, but if you look at the biggest cop shows these days, the premise behind them is that there are monsters out there. Monsters are coming after the innocent at an alarming and constant rate. If you watched American television and drew your knowledge from it, you would probably say that serial killing is the leading cause of death in the United States. And all the ripped from the headlines stuff. What was the worst crime in the last 4 months? Great, let’s put it on television and make the bad guys worse, the victims more innocent, and let’s have our cops solve it but with lots of bodies left behind. I feel like cop shows these days are kind of animated by a lot of fear, and there’s a lot of anger, and a lot of general upset. They’re not shows you would watch with your kids. “Law & Order: SVU,” I’m sure it’s a great show, but not a show you should watch with your children. That’s not what cop shows used to be. What they used to be is portraits of heroes, and kind of affirming and fun and heroic and action. It was action, it was doing. Is it fun to see cars drive over the streets of San Francisco in “The Streets of San Francisco”? Yes. It was fun. There were stakes in those old shows – you had to get to the old warehouse in before the drug dealers got on the boat, and then your guns fell to the ground and you had to karate chop each other for a while. Those were the stakes. It wasn’t a bunch of women in cages were going to be murdered. That changes the color of action, as well. So for me, “The Good Guys” is about that kind of show. When I watched “Starsky” or even “Dukes of Hazzard” as a kid, you’re watching from a different place, and it’s about a different thing. It’s about watching heroes be badass and action be fun. and ultimately justice is served. Huggy Bear in “Starsky and Hutch” was a criminal, but not really a criminal. He did crimes, sort of. In “The Good Guys,” there’s a villain who’s just a medium villain. That also is a very different tone.

The way you write Dan Stark, and the way Bradley plays him, he’s a throwback hero, but he’s also kind of a buffoon. What’s the balance you want for that?

If you look at the stuff that Dan does. One of the things that I really loved about Bradley in talking to him from the beginning is that he got this. There’s always three levels to any thing that Dan does. On a sort of surface level, he is being a buffoon or doing something that is sort of retro and ridiculous. But one of the thing that’s really important about the writing of the show is that everything Dan is doing is ultimately really good police work. It’s from another era, follows different rules, but it’s somehow validated. So in the pilot episode, when he sleeps with the victim of a crime, he’s not coming onto her in a sleazy way. The conceit is not, “Oh, there’s this guy who doesn’t understand the rules of the modern world, and the modern world is right. It used to be that women are not respected and now they are and look at this dinosaur being a jerk.” The conceit is more, “No, for a really great cop from that era, there wasn’t anything sleazy about it at all.” He might sleep with the victim, who would absolutely want to sleep with him for her own reasons. It’s a very important distinction. As the show goes on, everything Dan does is validated. He’s not just a buffoon. If he announces that bloodwork shouldn’t be done and crime should be fought by tasting evidence instead of looking at it under a microscope, he has to ultimately be validated. It’s more fun if the conceit is there is something important in classic, action-tastic 70s and 80s policing that has been lost. Here is a preserver of a great tradition. And the fact that we no longer fight crime by leaping through the air and shooting with two guns, that is a tragic loss. That is an important tool in our crimefighting arsenal, and Dan is preserver of a great tradition.

Well, I remember Bradley from around this period when he was doing things like “Revenge of the Nerds 2,” and so my eyebrow raised initially at the idea of him playing a cop from this era. What was it you saw in him that made you say he was your man?

A lot of it, frankly, is that he’s really smart. As a comedian, he understands a certain kind of extreme deadpan. Bradley can say something utterly ridiculous with total commitment and a completely straight face. As the show has gone on, he has been able to bring himself to actual tears making an impassioned speech about something completely absurd. It brings a heart and a reality to the character. What I loved about him is that he profoundly understood the premise and the conceit. In casting people, I always look for who is the person who knows the line behind the line and the line after the line? Who can go beyond what I’ve written and understand at a deep level what that’s about? The fact is Bradley really embraces the humanity of Dan. (Nix mentions a scene in tonight’s episode where Dan is hurt by something Jack does.) When he’s hurt? He’s hurt. He’s really hurt. And he plays it. and the fact that he can play it with total commitment and sell it, it’s great. We met in
(“Good Guys” producer) Mikkel Bondesen‘s office, and Bradley showed up in the exact same outfit I was wearing. Same shirt, same pants, same shoes. It spoke to the fact we were pretty simpatico. There’s certainly not much in Bradley’s body of work to suggest this. A lot of it was just hearing him talk about the script and really getting it on a deep level.

And in terms of Jack, we start the series with him as a careerist who’s desperate to get away from Dan Stark, and by the end of the pilot, he’s jumping out of cars and mainly playing along with Dan’s way of doing things. How do you see his character progressing over time?

A lot of it is just that, what is on a very fast boil in the pilot is on kind of a lower simmer in the series as it goes on. On some level, the arc of every episode is “What does Dan learn from Jack and what does Jack learn from Dan?” Not on a profoundly moral sense, but there is some little arc there. Basically, the idea is that by inches, Jack is dragging Dan into the 2010’s, and Dan is dragging Jack into the late ’70s/early ’80s. They do it by inches. As far as Jack goes, he no longer needs to yell at Dan, he no longer needs to object, like, “I’m leaving right now, and I no longer want to be your partner.” It’s now, “Really, Dan? You’re actually going to do that? Really? Okay.” It’s on a lower simmer. Like co-workers do, they have their recurring themes that they do.

Will we see the return of Pedro, who I guess is now the world’s best assassin?

Our plan is, yes. When we were only doing 13 episodes, we loosely planned on bringing him back for show 13. Now that we’re doing more, we’re planning on bringing him back later. It’s fun. In Pedro, he’s a really fun actor to work with. But if you’re bringing back Pedro, it had better be something huge, with lots of gunplay.

When Fox did the sneak preview before “Idol” last month, the ratings probably weren’t what they expected. What have you heard from them on that and what it means for the show?

They’re experimenting with summer TV. They called and said, “Oh, maybe we shouldn’t have done it this way.” It wasn’t like a profound mea culpa, but a realization that we might have been well-served to have a more traditional launch. Saying, “This show is on one time, before ‘American Idol,’ which you wouldn’t normally pair it with, but we will for the purposes of this, and it will be on again in quite a while, in a different timeslot,” it was just odd. Obviously, they would have preferred the numbers be higher, but they were also aware that if you air a show on a Wednesday before “American Idol” and people don’t know when it’s on and it’s not an ongoing thing, you may not blow everyone away with your numbers. And this is a show that’s being made more in a cable model, sort of for a cable budget on a cable timeframe. We’ve got 20 episodes, and I think they’re in it for the long haul. And they’re aware that, as the show has gone on, they’ve liked what they’ve seen. “Burn Notice” numbers started out at low 4’s, and it’s built a lot since then. Hopefully, this can do the same.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at

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