It’s not often that a network executive gets to take over in a period of prosperity. Usually, the previous guy was fired, and usually because things haven’t been going well. But Showtime entertainment president David Nevins took over the pay cable channel last summer not because there was a crisis, but because predecessor Robert Greenblatt was looking for new challenges (in this case, trying to resurrect NBC) after seven successful years.
Under Greenblatt’s watch, Showtime went from HBO afterthought to a channel with its own clear identity, with a roster of shows that became Emmy contenders from the moment they were announced, and in the case of “Dexter,” a very clear hit.
At the same time, Greenblatt’s stamp on the network started to feel like a formula after a while, with several signature series – “Dexter,” most notably – running in place creatively rather than taking the kinds of chances you’d expect from a pay cable channel where ratings aren’t the be-all, end-all.
Things promise to be more unpredictable under Nevins’ watch. His first new series, “Homeland” – in which a CIA analyst (Claire Danes) suspects a recently-released Iraq War POW (Damian Lewis) of being a terrorist sleeper agent – debuts on October 2, and it feels like a significant departure from the Greenblatt era. Though I haven’t seen his first new comedy, “House of Lies,” Nevins emphasizes that it is, in fact, a comedy, which wasn’t always easy to tell with some of the Showtime series that kept being nominated for and winning comedy Emmys.
I sat down with Nevins – who, prior to this, was a top executive and producer for Imagine’s television division, working on series like “24,” “Arrested Development” and “Friday Night Lights” – towards the tail end of the Television Critics Association summer press tour for a state-of-the-network chat about the new shows, the old ones (and, in the case of “United States of Tara,” the canceled ones), and what he sees as his mission statement. (Note: our conversation includes significant plot details from some of the most recent Showtime drama and comedy seasons, including “Dexter” and “Nurse Jackie.”)
I watched the “Homeland” pilot a few nights ago, and my first thought was, “This is not a Bob Greenblatt show.” There was a very successful brand under Bob, but this is not the sort of thing he would have put on. Is it almost a statement show for you?
You don’t think about it that way. It’s impossible not to follow your own sensibilities. It’s not as strategic as, “I’m gonna make a statement about what I stand for.” I’m just trying to make something that I think is compelling and different, can stand out and is relevant. Relevance is important to me. I had been aware of that show for a while. Howard (Gordon) and Alex (Gansa), I’ve worked with them (on “24”) and am friendly with them, and I was aware they were working on some show based on an Israeli format. I wasn’t really paying attention, and I got to Showtime and Howard said, “Would you read this?” And I said sure. I don’t know that they were thinking pay cable for it, but I started talking to them about ways the show could be developed in a different direction to go for pay cable, and it came together. They really developed the Claire character in different ways, and changed the trajectory of where it goes.
I guess what I’m getting at is that your sensibility is your sensibility, but Bob had pretty clearly established that, “This is what you should expect from a Showtime drama, and this is what you should expect from a Showtime comedy,” and this is not quite that. So how do you transition into this?
We had gotten to a point where the last several shows on the air had a similar formula, and I generally don’t believe in formula. I think there are certain things that had been established that Showtime needs to maintain, which is excellent characters, deep psychology, characters that great actors want to play. But a woman with a dysfunction and her family life, generally in a suburban setting, I think we needed to challenge some of those precepts. I think you see both continuity and a new direction in “House of Lies” and “Homeland.” They’re a little bit more ensemble, they have more than one big actor, and I think they’re a little bit more engaged in the world that we live in. Both in their own ways, they’re very relevant to our world. “House of Lies,” you haven’t seen yet, but on top of being funny – there’s a little more emphasis on comedy – it’s about all the insane ways that capitalism works in the world, underneath it all.
But there’s got to be some feeling of risk, in that, “We have this thing we’ve done for years, it’s gotten us Emmy nominations and wins, it’s gotten us a certain audience, and people expect this.”
I think that people who watch Showtime, “Homeland” is designed to appeal to. I think it’s going to be highly compatible with “Dexter.” I think it’s not going to be, “What is this?” But I think audiences are looking for the next new thing. I think audiences are ready, I think critics are ready, I think people inside Showtime are ready. “Okay, what’s the next iteration?” Change is good in an organization.
You talked before about the shows about suburban women with some dysfunction. “United States of Tara” was one of those shows, and probably my favorite of those shows. But at the same time, I came to the end of the finale and could see, “Okay, that’s a stopping point.”
They came to a really legitimate endpoint for the show. They didn’t know when they wrote it that it was going to be the end, but they knew it was a real possibility. I think they handled it really well. It just felt like it was time. That was maybe, at least audience-wise, the weakest of those shows.
But – and I’ve talked about this with the heads of HBO, too – how much does that need to be a factor for you?
It doesn’t. It’s certainly not deciding. But you do have to make decisions about where you deploy your resources, marketing dollars, programming dollars. It wasn’t just me. We all collectively felt like, “Time for the next chapter.”
So that went away. “Nurse Jackie” continues, and that’s a show I was interested in at the beginning and now feel like it has gotten very repetitive. We got to the end of this season and, again, Jackie gets away with everything: Akalitus throws out the drug test, and her husband has been cheating, so she doesn’t have to take any grief from him about what she was doing.
Next season of “Jackie” is going to be all about consequences. I’ve been really pushing them to shake up their formula and show consequences. And by having consequences, changing some of the nature of the show. Jackie is a fantastic character, with real richness and depth, but this is going to be an important crux year for the show. It’s its fourth season. It needs to set itself up for more years. It’s either going to change and adapt, and you’ll go, “Oh, there’s life left in this show, in these characters,” or you’re going to feel like, “That was a really good four-season show.” I think there are things that can be done in that show, and you’re going to see them. I know what they’re doing. And Jackie’s going to be dealing with the consequences. It’s not going to be right back into the hole of her getting away with her bullshit.
Well, speaking of that, “Dexter” is your biggest hit. It’s done very, very well for you. But that is a show where it seems, no matter who is behind the wheel, it has certain things it does each and every year. Last year, we were told, “This will not be like any other year. We’re not going to have a big bad who winds up strapped to Dexter’s table,” and that’s pretty much what happened with Jonny Lee Miller’s character. You said in the executive session that that’s a show you’d like to see go on for many more years to come.
As a programmer, I believe in change. I’m not scared of change. I know where they’re going this season and have some sense of where they could go in subsequent seasons. Just as you have to keep seeding your network with the next new thing, in long-running shows you have to make changes, and I think sometimes people get very conservative about, “Don’t mess with the formula. It works.” In the same way I think it’s good to mess with your programming formula, I think long-running shows mess with the formula. The difference between “ER” and “Ally McBeal” is that “ER” changed a lot over the years and ran for 14 years, versus “Ally McBeal,” which burned bright, didn’t change and went away. I think “Jackie” and “Dexter” both are into that moment where they need to mess with what they’re doing. There’s going to be some things that happen over this season of “Dexter” that can change some of the DNA in the show.
When “Jackie” was renewed and “Tara” was canceled, I wrote a story that mentioned in passing that “Weeds” is the one Showtime comedy that significantly evolves as it goes along, and that not everyone was happy with that. But when I actually looked at the numbers, they’ve been very strong over time.
The numbers really hold up. I think it’s ballsy. It was one of the great advantages of “24” every year: you wipe the slate clean, start with a new story, and you can pull things forward that you want to pull forward, you can change presidents or not, if you get sick of someone you can kill them, etc. And every year, if you were sort of disappointed with the season you just saw, next year might be better. There were up and down seasons of “24,” and I think “Dexter” and “Weeds,” each in their own way, can reinvent themselves. “Dexter,” there have become certain tropes in the show they need to change, and you’re going to see some changes.
You talked in the session about going for comedies that are more comic. You’ve got all these quote-unquote “comedies” that are sometimes funny, very often not, and can still be very good shows. What’s your intention for half-hours going forward? Is “House of Lies” a more overtly comic show?
Yes. “House of Lies” is really cast for comedy. Cheadle, because he’s such a great dramatic, may be underappreciated as a comic actor, but he’s a great comic actor. Kristen Bell, I think for different reasons, is slightly underestimated as a comic actor, but she’s got real edge to her, and she’s wickedly funny. Ben Schwartz is there. It’s partly in the casting. I like hard funny, in the way of “Arrested Development.” “House of Lies” it’s sophisticated, it’s real, it’s in our world, these are very real, messed-up characters living craven lives, but there’s a real comic voice at the middle of the show. I think there’s opportunity there.
“Shameless” submitted as a drama at the Emmys. Do you think that show is a drama, or a comedy?
Emmy categories are hard, and there’s always some degree of arbitrariness to it. I think “Shameless” is a drama, although I pushed really hard, when I got there and John (Wells) was putting together his writing staff, to really emphasize the comedic elements of the show. I thought it was a really good set-up for comedy. He hired a very comedic-leaning writing staff, and that’s one of the great things about the show. One of the reasons we didn’t quite pop at the Emmys this year is that, tonally, people are going to take time to get used to it. And that is potentially a really broad hit show, and we saw some signs of it bubbling up at the end of the season. It looks like it’s going to be a top-echelon show, up with “Dexter” and “Weeds.”
What’s interesting is the show has two leads. Macy is pretty much all comedy, and Rossum is about 80% drama.
Well, you’re going to see more comedy out of Emmy this year. A lot of this season is about Fiona, while Steve is away, her sowing her oats, trying to figure out – she’s really young – who she wants to date, what kind of guy she really wants, as she’s working things out with Steve.
I’m curious how you felt about the execution of the Frank character. Macy’s the biggest name, is a really phenomenal actor, and my own reaction to the show and the reaction of a lot of my readers was that Frank was an uneven element.
I think he’s great in that role, and it’s a great character, but he’s the instigator in the show. He’s the rub and the obstacle that everyone else on the show has to deal with. I find him fascinating and I find it fascinating to put a character like that on television: a full-blown alcoholic where we don’t shy away from the ugly parts of that. He’s a guy who’s very clever and scamming but has his own integrity. I like that character a lot.
Well, in terms of the whole balance between comedy and drama, it seemed there were times where the show said, “This is their life, we don’t apologize for it, they’re just going to do these absurd, outrageous things and we’ll have fun with it,” and then there are other times where they realize, “Oh, wait, maybe we’re raising Carl to be a sociopath and that’s very bad.” Do you think that those two ideas can co-exist?
I really do. I like challenging people’s assumptions, like, “Are they just doing this to be funny, or is this real?” I like surprising people with reality in the midst of comedy. Like in any show, you take risks. There are moments where you step over the line, but I think that show has great vitality to it. So much of television has no vitality to it.
I want to go back to the idea of renewable resources. (Nevins has said he wanted to focus on ongoing series rather than movies and miniseries because it makes more sense to devote time and money and marketing on series that could be around a while.) I watched the “Homeland” pilot, and while it was very good, I thought it could easily be a 13-episode miniseries where whatever happens with Damian Lewis’ character happens, and that’s it.
Absolutely, but those characters have long lives- where they’re going, and where it can go. You figure out television one hour at a time, one season at a time. I have a very clear idea what season one is, and I have a fairly clear idea of what season two can be, because I know where season one ends. I don’t know season three or season four yet, but we’ll evaluate as we go. But that’s a show that will not stand still. It will not be in stasis. Maybe in season five it would repeat itself, but it has advantages over other shows that are just about, “An event happened in the past, and let’s uncover that event.”
With the broadcast network model, the idea is to keep a show on as long as you possibly can for it to be profitable, even if creatively it’s not the best idea. In pay cable, do you have more leeway to say, “This is a great show, and maybe it’s still pulling numbers for us, but we don’t want to be the place where it just goes and goes forever”?
You could. I do have that probably easier than a broadcast network. You’re constantly evaluating the creative vitality of a show.
Then how do you decide? Obviously, you did with “Tara,” but that was also not a show pulling much of a number. How are you going to know when it’s time for “Dexter” to go?
It’s a creative partnership between actors, writers and a network, and it’s a decision you all make together, when you feel like you’ve run out.
We’re in a period right now where HBO is doing well with its shows, FX has its originals, AMC, etc. What is it that you think distinguishes the Showtime originals specifically from the others that says, “This is a Showtime show” or “This is a show we can do that nobody else can”?
One thing that I think distinguishes the two new shows is a deep engagement with the world that we live in. I think they have relevance and zeitgeist on their side. And I think we have the most interesting characters, and characters and actors that are iconic. Truth is, certainly HBO is in a premium environment as well. They could do the same things, but it’s defined by the sensibility of the programmers.
How are you feeling about where “The Big C” is creatively in season two?
I like where it is. It’s been a little harder-hitting in season two. Watching her deal with her situation as opposed to avoiding it has been really good. I’ve really liked Hugh Dancy in the show and what he does. If you go to the end of the season, it builds to a really powerful climax over the last 4-5 episodes. It’s building to the sweet spot of what that show is about and what Laura Linney is about.
In hindsight, do you think they should have gotten to that point sooner where she tells people about the cancer and starts dealing with it?
Maybe, but that wasn’t in the conception. I’m happy to be there now, and I sort of pushed them to go there and look at the hard stuff. I think that’s a strength of the show: it can take regular people and really look at the hard stuff. The subject of the show is mortality, and that’s both a really powerful subject and a great subject for comedy. I think actually, death is a really commercial subject, too.
Overall, you have these creators with very clear visions, and that’s why they come to pay cable in the first place. What do you feel your role is in terms of nudging them, telling them that something isn’t working?
I’m very clear that they’re in control. It’s their show, though every show is a cooperative effort between actors and writers. The power is jointly held between the actor and the writer. I ask a lot of questions. I express my opinions and try to be a helper, a booster, occasionally a niggler. I try not to be, but I sometimes can lean in that direction. But a tie goes to the showrunner. I did the same thing as a producer. I was a non-writing producer, so I’m used to, “I’m not the guy saying the lines, I’m not the guy writing the lines,” so you hope you can bring something additive. Ultimately, it’s their show, and you’re only in control of what you put on the air or not. I like things sometimes that surprise me. Television that surprises you is a great and rare commodity.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com