At Showtime’s panel for Shameless this morning, John Wells (who gets his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame today) suggested that the aperture of network television has narrowed such that he wouldn’t be able to sell some of his most popular shows today.
“It took us a long time to sell West Wing and it would be increasingly impossible now. You would take it to cable,” he said, suggesting that he also wouldn’t have been able to get China Beach on the air. “We never would have been able to sell ER…I can tell you that even at the time it was turned down by all the major broadcast networks twice before we actually got NBC to make it.” But he suggested that the combination of a return to profitability and the rise of smart, sophisticated storytelling on cable might pry the doors open again. “I’m hopeful about the network business,” he said. “They’re starting to see the competition for high-end programming, programming that’s going to be watched by a more sophisticated and affluent audience, that they have to compete with cable. I find it to be a very good time to have ideas that are different.”
He also suggested that even if the Supreme Court declined to overturn the rules against indecency on network television, the key to pushing the boundaries was to provide clear context and emotional basis for both events and language, pointing to ER as an example.
“We spent a lot of time intentionally pushing against where we knew the fence to be because we knew the audience was ready for more than what the government was prepared for us to do,” Wells said. “The audience is always very prepared to accept something that is done within the context…It was an episode I wrote and directed in which Anthony Edwards was dying and fell out of bed and started screaming ‘Shit!’ because he was so frustrated with where he was in his life…We didn’t get a single letter because the context, people understood.” In a different philosophy than that laid out by CBS Entertainment president Nina Tassler and 2 Broke Girls executive producer Michael Patrick King yesterday, Wells questioned indecency for indecency’s sake. “Is the audience going to understand what we’re trying to get at, or are we trying to inflame or do the thing that you do in elementary school where you wave around words and try to get a reaction?” he asked.
Wells also spent some time discussing the role of Ian Gallagher, the young gay character on Showtime who is not just romantically, but sexually active. He said that Cameron Monaghan’s turning 18 meant that Shameless would be able to be somewhat more explicit about Ian’s sex life without having to worry about violating federal child pornography laws. And Wells said he’d been touched by how the story had resonated with young gay teenagers who told him and Monaghan that they appreciated how the show reflects the complexity of their lives. Especially given the role of Roscoe on Showtime, it will be interesting to see if the network is digging in as a grittier alternative to shows like Glee, which focus more on the emotional lives of teenagers than the details of their sex lives. That’s not to say that you’ve got to be explicit to explore emotion, but it’s true that sometimes the details of sexual experience (or of exploring gender identity) do create specific emotional reactions, and it’s nice to have a commitment to exploring that.