It used to be that, by autumn, viewers were as hungry for new TV as everyone observing Yom Kippur is right now. Summer was the land of reruns and new shows that weren’t important enough to merit space in the school year schedule. But in this era of Too Much TV, some of the best, buzziest series air during what was once the least likely season — and, in the case of 2015, on the least likely networks.
A betting person might have put his money on the much-anticipated season two of True Detective to win the summer. That person would be a loser right now, and he would probably be very sad and confused, much like season two of True Detective. The undisputed, dark horse victors of summer TV? UnREAL on Lifetime and Mr. Robot on USA.
Both were renewed for second seasons; in Mr. Robot’s case, the order came before the series premiere even aired. UnREAL was the youngest-skewing drama in Lifetime’s history; the same for Mr. Robot on USA.
Fair to say viewers familiar with USA’s and Lifetime’s usual offerings weren’t expecting to find these shows on their slates: A dark thriller on hacking centered around an unreliable narrator struggling with mental illness on the network that brought you quippy, shiny Suits? An excavation of our cultural obsession with The Bachelor about two cutthroat, manipulative women in a toxic workplace on the same channel as Dance Moms?
To find out how these breakout hits came to be and what these successes mean for the future of their respective networks, I spoke with Jackie de Crinis, executive vice president of original programming at USA, and Liz Gateley, head of programming at Lifetime. Read on for their thoughts on what audiences want, how to deal with viewers’ preconceived notions and outdated reputations, and why any network can be just one Mad Men away from achieving prestige TV status.
Embrace the rise of serialized storytelling
De Crinis left USA’s headquarters to run current programming from Hawaii — not a bad site, as teleworking home bases go — for four-and-a-half years, and returned to L.A. to run scripted development last year. “From the time that I left to the time that I came back, the TV world changed extremely drastically,” she said. The rise of streaming players like Netflix and Amazon “allowed other networks like mine… to tell serialized stories unapologetically.” Linear viewing (one episode at a time, week by week) is “still the gold standard for us,” she said, but the “paradigm shift” brought on by technology that enabled binge-watching empowered USA “to tell new kinds of stories.”
I think it was the riskiest thing we had produced, to date.
When she came back to town, de Crinis said, USA “went out to the community and said, ‘we’re open to different types of storytelling now.’” Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail’s pilot came in “in the early stages of that” process of “going out and saying, ‘This is what we’re looking for.’”
“We were able to tell long-arc storytelling because of the audience’s willingness to DVR and stream,” de Crinis said. “Television has become almost like the book club of the millennium. People are like, ‘Did you see that?’ and they’re not even talking about the episode anymore; they’re talking about the season. And you’re almost left out of the conversation if you haven’t ‘read’ a series.”
Invest in a creator’s vision, even if the creator is a rookie
“Writer’s voice” is paramount, said de Crinis. “We start with that before we even start talking about concept. And it was Sam Esmail’s voice on the page, and this character of Elliot, that spoke to us.” Mr. Robot is Esmail’s first television series and he only made his feature length directorial debut last year, when Comet was released.
“I’ve given a lot of people their first shots at being showrunners,” said Gateley, who came to Lifetime from MTV, where, among other things, she created reality-genre-shaping Laguna Beach and developed and executive produced its spinoffs, The Hills and The City. “When you find a young person like [co-creator] Sarah Shapiro, who has really experienced something and has a vision which was so clear from her short film [Sequin Raze], it’s a very special thing, because the person can see it in their mind. [And we paired] her with Marti Noxon to get all of that amazing experience on the page.”
“It’s a great thing to allow someone who might be more junior to see their vision through,” she said. Shapiro and Noxon “had a vision, and we let them go there and we kind of stayed out of the way and let them do their thing.”
Don’t be afraid of the dark
“Certainly as a script, it felt bolder than anything we had done,” de Crinis said. “ Once the pilot was shot, it certainly felt different from anything we ever did. I think we all knew, in our gut, there was something very, very special and worth whatever risk [there was of], ‘Oh it’s too different for USA.’”
Some of the headlines actually said, “This show is surprising, coming from Lifetime.”
“I think it was the riskiest thing we had produced, to date,” she said. “But exciting.” Though she remembers everyone being on board with Mr. Robot in spite of (and, in some cases, because of) its strangeness, “no one ever knows that something is going to be a hit,” she said. “We can only go with our gut and our experience and take it one step at a time. But there’s always concern when there’s something different.”
“I think what was also unique about UnREAL and Lifetime is, we went much darker,” said Gateley. “I think the audience now wants to play. They want to be shocked. They want their emotions to be played with. They’re almost waving at the TV saying, ‘let’s play, I want you to make me think beyond this hour of television and make me think about this tomorrow.’”
Stay on-brand… sort of
“I think UnREAL fits squarely into my brand vision for this channel: It’s provocative, it’s truly a female anti-hero, and yet it also plays against this sort of bright, shiny world of Everlasting,” said Gateley.
That said, “what’s exciting about UnREAL for us is, it does reflect our audience and play into the female antihero and this romantic princess fantasy that we all know doesn’t exist, but it’s set against real issues that women face: Depression, divorce, eating disorders, work, politics. So for us, when you’re looking at shows, you always have to say, is it great? And is it going to be great on our channel?”
For Gateley, it reminds her of her days ushering in the “why doesn’t MTV play videos anymore?” era with Laguna Beach. “It feels the same, definitely,” she said. “You can tell everyone is ready for the next chapter here, inside the building.”
De Crinis disagrees with the perception that Mr. Robot is a radical choice for USA. “I have a very strong opinion about that,” said de Crinis. “I would argue, and I’ve said this to the community and internally, the one thing that has not changed about us… I believe this development team, and we’ve been together for 15 years, has always developed and valued writers and character more than anything.” Which brings us to…
Take backhanded compliments in stride
How does it feel to hear people say they never watched USA until they got hooked on Mr. Robot? Is that an insult masquerading as a compliment? “I don’t think it’s meant to be a backhanded compliment, but I’ve even read it in the press,” de Crinis said.
“Some of the headlines actually said, ‘this show is surprising, coming from Lifetime,’” said Gateley. “And when Sarah did the press around the show, she was asked about [being on Lifetime] a lot. And she responded to the fact that we said yes and believed in it so much.”
“People have their preconceived notions of what Lifetime is,” Gateley continued. Citing the Christina Ricci-starring Lizzie Borden and Flowers in the Attic with Ellen Burstyn, Heather Graham and Mad Men’s Kiernan Shipka, “We feel like we’ve already gotten there in terms of our cool factor,” said Gateley. “It’s going to take a while for the audience and the industry to catch up. But we’re there, and we have been for a while… The Lifetime that’s been around for the past three years is a very different Lifetime. And just like any other channel, it takes a while for the audience to catch up.”
It takes one show like this to redefine you. For AMC, it was Mad Men. This is a game-changer for us.
Still, isn’t it safe to consider UnREAL more sophisticated than the fare people are used to finding on Lifetime? “I think you’re right, that it is more sophisticated,” she said. “I think that the audience we have is very smart. And the audience right now, especially the female audience, we know this, they want strong female characters. And I think for me, what this show did for us was it showed women who are morally flawed, and that’s okay. We all compromise in our lives for romance, relationships, getting ahead in our work… UnREAL is so special because it taps into what’s really going on with women.”
Once you get your Mad Men, find your Walking Dead
“We have a new bar to hit of kind of extraordinary,” said de Crinis. “I hate to use the word ‘zeitgeist’ because it’s so overused. But I hope that we are going to hold ourselves to the high standard that we created in Mr. Robot and find the next thing that is not derivative of anybody else, or even ourselves, and just keep pushing ourselves to be bolder and more authentic.”
The success of a show as “complex” as Mr. Robot, de Crinis said, “has opened up a door” for USA. “People are looking at us differently.”
“Nancy DuBuc [CEO and president of A&E;] has a great saying: The smaller the box is, the easier it is to develop,” said Gateley. “For us, the box is so small now, because we know how special UnREAL is, and we want to develop a lot of things. It doesn’t mean that the list is going to be small, but it has to be so, so special. It can’t feel like you’ve ever seen it before. I think Mr. Robot is an example of that: It’s something you’ve never, the pacing, the editing, it just has a different feel that you’ve never seen before.”
“You look back to a lot of channels, it takes one show like this to redefine you. For AMC, it was Mad Men,” said Gateley. “This is a game-changer for us.”
“I keep saying, we have our Mad Men and now we need our Walking Dead. We need something that’s not parked right next to this but is equally provocative and fun.”