First, a little intro: Years ago, entertainment journalist Diane Haithman and I were hired as staff writers at the Los Angeles Times a month apart. Later, we shared duty on the TV beat for Calendar. I eventually left, but she stayed until just recently when she was laid off after 22 years. Their loss is my gain. Now a freelance writer, Diane will be interviewing TV showrunners on assignment for Deadline Hollywood. Here, she sits down with ED BERNERO at his production offices in the Old Animation Building at Walt Disney Studios in Burbank.
Edward Allen Bernero parlayed 10 years as a Chicago police officer into a successful career putting cops on the TV screen. Entering the TV biz as a freelance writer for Brooklyn South, Bernero created the long-running crime series Third Watch, rising to the position of showrunner and remaining the series’ most prolific writer. Now, Bernero just passed the 100th episode milestone at the helm of the scariest show on television: CBS’ Criminal Minds. In fact, according to Bernero, the only thing scarier than the serial killer “unsubs” (unidentified subjects) is the TV development biz.
He talks candidly and controversially about the writer’s strike, network/studio notes, declining TV viewership, why he hates Hulu, how it’s hard to make a man’s show, and what he’d rather be writing instead of crime, cops, and serial killers.
ON THE STRIKE
DH: You were very vocal during the strike on Nikki Finke’s Deadline Hollywood.(“TV Showrunners Would Come Back To Work If AMPTP Comes Back To Table”)
EB: I did a lot of talking — not as much background talking as a lot of people because I’ve never been someone who is too afraid of saying what I feel. I just don’t see any reason to. If you don’t like me, you don’t like me. You can call me anytime; I’ll have an opinion on just about anything. I will also tell you if I shouldn’t have an opinion on something – I just make television shows.
DH: Do you feel that, after the fact, the strike was worth it?
EB: Well, it was an interesting phenomenon, because I come from a very union town — I come from Chicago. And have been involved in unions most of my life. I think in a lot of ways unions aren’t necessary anymore, because what they were started for, I think a lot of those conditions don’t exist. And this union is so odd, because any sort of fight we do in this union is not for us, it’s for future generations.
We don’t have a whole lot of people living hand-to-mouth in the Writers Guild, we get paid really well, and a lot of the things we fought for, in my case, I can negotiate. I can negotiate higher DVD rates or anything I want, it’s not going to be a minimum basic agreement. But I do think it was important to stand up to them. I do think that we got things in the deal that we wouldn’t have gotten had we not stood up to them.
I think there’s an element to this business that writers especially are overlooked in many ways and this made everybody kind of look at us differently. I do think that an interesting thing happened during it, which was being on these picket lines and looking at the huge amount of executives coming and going that you realize don’t really add much to the equation. And we would talk about: “I wonder if, when this all shakes out, how many of those people are going to still have jobs?” They’re going to have us back – they need us to make the content, and it’s actually turned out to be fairly prophetic that a lot of those people are gone now; a lot of those executives in the middle have lost their jobs. A lot of them are friends of mine, I wouldn’t have wished it on them, but sort of when everything grinds to a halt and you sort of re-evaluate what you need; I think that one of the things that people realized is you don’t need that much in the middle, that sort of infrastructure that built up in the middle.
In some ways I think it [the strike] was important. I’m not sure that “worth it” is the right term, but it was important. A lot of people lost a lot of things – I was greatly concerned for our crews. Those are the people who really sort of paid. A lot of us in quiet ways did everything that we could to help people pay mortgages.
One of the most painful things for me was Jay Leno, Jay Leno going back on the air and saying to people that it was a choice between his writing staff and his crew, I think that really hurt a lot of show runners, because it was never a choice between our writers and our crew. It was always about the future of writers, and about the way writers are treated in the future, and I think that was really hurtful to a lot of people in my position who had 160 people who depended on them to get this over with. So there was a lot of pain in it, and in that sense it will never be worth it, but I do think it was important.
DH: I live near Universal and everyone was picketing there, and I loved listening to the writers, just the way they would talk, they were so funny, even though they didn’t mean to be.
EB: My deal was with CBS Paramount at the time but my picket place was right here, this gate, the Alameda gate, because ABC Studios is our studio, it’s a co-production with CBS Paramount. I drive in the gate now where we used to picket, and I’d never been to that gate before we started to picket, and we wouldn’t even jaywalk. We would wait for the light to change to green and then we’d walk to the other side of the street, and we’d be like: “Hell no, we won’t go,” and the cop would say: “No swearing,” and we’d go: “OK, sorry.” And I’m from Chicago. This is not a strike like Chicago strikes. We barely even killed anybody.
ON HIS LONGTERM DEAL WITH ABC, RELATIONSHIP WITH CBS, AND HAWAII FIVE-O
DH: So explain this to me: Criminal Minds is a CBS Paramount deal, the show is on CBS, but you have a long-term deal with ABC?
EB: Now it’s with ABC. Originally my deal was with CBS Paramount; I had a deal at Warner Bros that expired when Third Watch was up, then I signed a deal with Paramount before it was CBS Paramount, at the time it was just Paramount. And for the first four years of Criminal Minds, my deal was at CBS. Like this show was originally pitched I think to ABC and they passed on it, Mark Gordon took it out and CBS bought it. And as part of that generally, because they own a studio, it becomes a co-production between the two studios. Which means nothing to the public, and to someone like me all it means is an extra set of notes.
You get notes from two studios and a network instead of a studio and a network. Although we early on forced them all to do their notes together. I make them all talk to each other first. Because we went through the pains of getting notes from ABC and at the time it was Touchstone, that were opposite – and then CBS notes that were opposite again. So it was, you guys are going to have to work it out as to what is the most important note.
And the other thing it has done for us is, it has kept us off online, which I think is good for us. We’re one of the most repeatable shows on television, we do almost the same numbers with our second and third run as we do with our first run, and it’s because the only place you can see us is on television. Because the two studios have never been able to agree on the sharing of the revenue, we’ve never been on line. You can’t download us, you can’t watch us on Hulu, you can’t watch us on anything but CBS.
DH: I know, I tried.
EB: And now we’re on A&E, but you can’t watch us online. Personally, I believe we should all stop putting stuff online. We went the music route of, oh, people are going to steal it if we don’t put it on line for them. Well, I don’t think people can steal these TV shows as easily as they can a song, and pass them around. I think it was a knee-jerk reaction. Our example should be, whoa, if you don’t put it online, people will watch it over and over on reruns. They will watch it on television. That’s our revenue stream. A show like Glee, which I happen to love, is against my show – but there are so many ways to watch it, it’s never an issue. I’ve never had to watch it during Criminal Minds, I can sit here at my desk and watch it, and I don’t know why that is of value to them.
DH: Could it be that their audience is so young that that’s the only way they can get to them?
EB: Glee is only one example — there are a lot of shows, adult shows online. I just don’t understand why we’ve decided that we want to throw everything we can out there on the Internet, I don’t know how it helps us. I think being exclusive, that you can only see something on CBS, you can only see something on ABC, is a good thing.
What’s missing from the online experience is community. Married couples are still going to need something to do on Tuesday nights, right? And it’s not going to be individually retiring to their offices to watch on their computers. It’s: “We just put the meat loaf dishes away, let’s go watch television.” It’s going to happen. We shouldn’t be so led around by other models.
DH: Just let TV be what TV is?
EB: I think it works if there’s something online that is not in the show, or in a newspaper, if there’s some added value to it – reading a newspaper on line, sometimes you can get video, which you can’t get from reading a newspaper. But I think you should be very sparing about it. I used to do the LA Times crossword puzzle everyday, but now it’s online, free. I just do it on my computer.
DH: I taught my dog to fetch the newspaper, so I do use it for something. So under your deal with ABC, if you create new shows, they’re going to be for ABC?
EB: First, they go to ABC Network, and if they pass on them…this year, we took two things to them and they bought them. But ostensibly we can go anywhere if they pass on them. The vertical integration of it all – in some ways it’s helpful that you have a place that your studio has a conduit to, and in some ways it’s easier. You don’t have to sit down and figure out what network this is right for, it’s sort of this first conduit. In some ways it’s easier, in some ways it’s no different.
DH: And it hasn’t changed your relationship with CBS?
EB: Well, for years I had a deal with CBS, and this is a different kind of deal. It’s more an old-fashioned kind of deal that we’ve put together going forward — it’s more of a Spelling, Cannell kind of thing where I have some shared responsibility for the backend, and if I go over a certain budget number I have to pay it. But I have a bigger share of the front. We just wanted to try something new and Paramount CBS just wasn’t interested. I mean, I love David Stapf and Nina Tassler, I think there was a little bit of hard feelings at first but we’re all fine now, it’s just business stuff.
DH: Hard feelings?
EB: Oh, just in the fact of moving. People get hurt and… you know. But people are hurt on Friday, and on Monday it’s, I’m still working with you, so it’s no different.
DH: I understand that you had planned to do a revisitation of Hawaii Five-0 for CBS?
EB: Yeah, it was for CBS, and there was a script written. They bought three things from me last year, CBS did — and I realized at some point that they were only going to make one, and realized I was in competition with myself, which I sort of learned a lesson from. They ordered a pilot of a thing called Washington Field, that was one of the three that I did. It was about the Washington field office of the FBI. And Hawaii Five-0 kind of went sideways. Now I think they’ve hired some movie writers to come in and do it as a show. It was never mine; I was kind of a hired gun. I kind of just hope they treat the property well – it was the ring tone on my phone before I did it. That’s my favorite show.
DH: What do you like about it? It’s such an old classic.
EB: I think I liked it because, for me, it made being cops cool. And also for me and my mother, we used to watch it, and it was almost like going to Hawaii each week. It was like a vacation, because we didn’t have anything growing up. We were pretty poor. I think it was just kind of fun to share with my single mother. And I loved Starsky & Hutch, too, I’ve always liked Starsky & Hutch.
DH: I remember sitting in cold Detroit watching Hawaii Five-0 and it was like my trip to the beach.
EB: I now love Hawaii, the island of Kauai is the place I’m going to retire, I love Hawaii.
DH: So this is a show you’ll definitely be watching.
A: I’ll be watching, and I wish them luck. I hope it goes well. I just hope they respect it. Too many times on remakes, they don’t respect the original material. The Starsky & Hutch movie was like that, I was pretty disappointed in that. They made Hutch a criminal, and Starsky gay. What?
DH: I guess everybody wants to be edgy.
EB: And if you watch that movie, the crime is solved by Huggy Bear, the Snoop Dogg character. Snoop Dogg was the one who saved the day. My Starsky and my Hutch lost, and Huggy Bear won.
DH: Did you make a deal with ABC instead of CBS because of what happened with Hawaii Five-0?
EB: No, it was a completely different kind of deal that we wanted to do. The Hawaii Five-0 thing hurt me a little bit — but it was never mine, it was theirs. They called me up and asked me if I wanted to do that. I got paid very well to do my take on it, I thought what I did was very respectful of the material, and it was never mine, so I don’t have a sense of, it was taken away from me, it was never mine in the first place, I was honored that they even thought of me to write it.
So that didn’t have anything to do with the move; and in fact the move had been during the decision process of whether Washington Fields got put on. So in some ways I think I more hurt myself than anything by having these discussions about moving. It wasn’t about: They put something on, they didn’t put something on, and then I made my decision — it happened at the same time. My deal was up independent of anything else happening.
I talked to my attorney and my agent who is now the president of my company, and said how can we get to where we benefit more from syndication and things like that, it’s sort of gone away from people who create the shows, so what can we do? And my attorney and agent came up with this sort of unique way of setting up a company with much more back-end, much more first-dollar and sort of more exposure up front. And CBS just wasn’t interested in that, Paramount wasn’t interested in that deal. That was the bigger issue than anything else.
DH: I understood that Nikki had spoken to you about Hawaii Five-0 and then spoke to Les Moonves, and Moonves said something to the effect of, we’re passing on that. Had you been told?
EB: I hadn’t been told — but it wasn’t surprising to me. That is a great example of what I had been talking about, about male-female. Because I always found Hawaii Five O to be an exceptionally male show, and had written it with the notion of this son competing with his father, and I don’t think many people processed it.
The other difficult thing about development is, nobody tells you the truth. They’ll call you up and say, oh, I loved this or I loved that, but don’t say I said that. And guys liked what I did, and I don’t think women got it.
ON WHY TV VIEWERSHIP IS DECLINING
EB: Television viewership has been declining for about 10 years. The internet has been blamed. Everything has been blamed. Except for what I think the problem is: that the networks own the shows, and they completely think that they make them. They don’t any longer let the people who make shows just make them. The networks have notes about everything. They are intimately involved in every aspect of the process. And I think it’s hurt the process.
DH: All the networks? Or just CBS?
EB: All the networks. It’s not a network specific thing. This will be my 13th year of specifically making cop shows. In development, I get notes. I don’t know where the basis of those notes comes from. It’s just an odd thing that’s come up, we’re going to take the people who specifically make these shows for a living and then anyone that we put in that office, who has never made anything, can give a note. And no one has ever investigated the sort of homogenizing of television — and the fact that CBS has 12 of the same show — stems from the fact that these networks are sort of running roughshod – they don’t just display things any more, they feel like they’re making them, and I think it’s hurt the product.
DH: They are not creative people, but they begin to believe themselves to be?
EB: Exactly. And I don’t know that they are even great watchers of television, I think it’s interesting that NBC had Ben Silverman, who I would bet a million dollars doesn’t watch television, and he was the president of the network. I talked to a network executive who had never seen any of the AFI’s top 100 films of all time. I don’t know where the chutzpah comes to hand me the note. It’s such an interesting phenomenon, and no one ever says, I wonder if that’s the reason that people are turning away from television. Because believe me it happened at the same time. The relaxation of the fin-syn rules, where the networks could own shows, began the erosion of television viewership. That’s an interesting thing for you to look at.
Also the fact that the networks own the studios now is something to look at, it’s a big problem. It used to be that the studios would defend the process, defend the writers, but that doesn’t exist anymore — it’s just you, swimming upstream against everybody now.
DH: Nobody’s backing you up.
EB: Right. Everyone’s opinion is of equal value, which is bizarre to me. It’s so hard to get anybody cast because you’ll be on the phone with 15 people, and if anybody says I don’t know about that guy – move on. Wait a minute, why is that person’s note valid? It’s such a bizarre process that’s sprung up around it.
DH: And you say this is due to fin-syn [financial interest and syndication rules]?
EB: ER actually caused it, because NBC said: “We made ER a hit, now we have to pay $14 million an episode for it? That’s not fair.” So they [Congress] relaxed the rules so networks can actually own the shows. Just on a business sense, it’s actually hurt people. People in my position could actually get a big payday at some point when the show went into syndication. But that’s not even what I’m talking about. It’s when you get to the creative part of it.
Look, I make way more money than I ever thought I would make in my life, so I’m not complaining about the money part of it. But on a creative level – there’s a feeling like, writers over 50 can’t work in this town. But shouldn’t those people be giving you notes? Shouldn’t they form a panel of 55 year old writers who have spent their whole life writing and then go, look, we’ve read the script, and here’s our notes? They ‘re business school people who have never written anything, never directed anything.
There’s a famous note that was given to a friend of mine, and the note was, “It starts with this kind of nonspecific shot.” And the director said, what a minute, this is a very specific shot, what does unspecific even mean? Or we get notes, “Is there a better take?” Did you think we were holding the good takes? We get that so often, and I know that all producers, all show runners feel it, whether they will say it or not. You want to go – who are you?
I got in an argument with someone about whether or not some actor seemed like a cop. Well, I was a cop. The pilot we did had two FBI agents in the room when we wanted to cast the person. Why is it that your opinion of whether that person seems like a cop even valid? It’s just an odd process.
DH: Network/studio idiocy is infamous. But if you can link it now to network ownership…
EB: That’s when the erosion of viewership began. I also think one of the things that’s really hurting us is political activism of any stripe. Michael Jordan had it exactly right, he was my idol — when he was asked about a political question at one point and he said I’m not going to answer it, and they said why not, and he said: Because Republicans buy gym shoes too, right? That doesn’t exist anymore, that kind of smarts.
Any time someone says anything right, left, whatever, I think we lose viewers. And somewhere around the country somebody says, I’m not going to watch what Hollywood does anymore. I wish we would go back to just being entertainers. Anytime we sign a petition that says let’s ignore the fact that Roman Polanski raped a 13-year-old, we lose viewers. And I think that has reached a critical mass. We live in a very polarized country right now. So why would someone like Megan Fox want to diss middle America?
And it’s not just that they’re not going to watch her material, they’re not going to watch mine. There are people in Kansas who are going to say, you know what? Screw Hollywood. Because we are sort of thought of as this monolith, and I wish people would take that into account.
DH: That probably comes from the fact that you are from the middle. The Rust Belt.
EB: Yes, very much from the middle. I eternally fight internal battles about developing things that only appeal to the East Coast and the West Coast. For years I’ve been trying to do a Western, nobody’s interested in doing a Western, how can that be? Every time someone does a Western movie, people flock to it. It’s like, we’re continually programming to people who are least likely to watch us. People in Nebraska aren’t watching things on the computer, they’re watching television. Why aren’t we programming things for them? We only program things that appeal to New York and Los Angeles and in many ways spit on the rest of the country.
ON TV CONTENT FOR MEN, WOMEN, AND THE NETWORKS
DH: When you look at the CBS lineup, I guess it’s the network that seems to have a lock on crime with the multiple CSI’s and Criminal Minds – but it’s controlled by two women, Nina Tassler and Nancy Tellem. And my understanding is that they are looking for more shows that have more female appeal. I just wondered what the deal is.
EB: That’s a point I’ve thought about a lot in developing over the last few years. Let’s see if I can say this without ending my development career. It’s very female, development. Development staffs are almost all female. It’s not that easy to get a male skewed show through development.
EB: Most of the network television audience now is primarily women, but I think that’s because the shows are developed to appeal to women. I don’t know that there are too many shows that appeal to guys anymore. I’m not sure why that is, but I think that it may have something to do with the fact that most development staffs are women. I know it’s the case at CBS. I know it’s the case at ABC. Not that these are not brilliant women, but there’s a completely different sensibility in men and women, in what men watch and what women watch. Part of the erosion of network television is that men watch sports – there’s not that much on for them. There are not shows that have male themes. That’s all I want to say about that.
DH: And yet at CBS, besides the crime shows even the popular comedies are male-oriented, Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory.
EB: But Two and a Half Men is not male-oriented, it’s made to appeal to women. Charlie Sheen is playing a bad boy who can be changed…
DH: It’s got a lot of jokes that my husband likes.
EB: But it’s safe.
DH: What is male oriented?
EB: For example, almost all dramas are families, they are work families – ER is a good example, Criminal Minds is a good example. We have a character who is the mother, a character who is the father, a brother and a sister, we have the younger brother that everybody protects, we have the cute cousin…it’s very much a family, and I think that very much appeals to women.
You don’t see loners anymore, you don’t see a Mannix or a Rockford Files or something where it’s a tough guy standing against the world. It doesn’t appeal to women. Guys like a guy who stands up for right, and the Hawaii Five-0 that we were going to write, the issue was sort of like living up to your father, being a cop in a world where your father was a great cop, that’s really a male theme. Women don’t really compete with their mothers; men compete with their fathers. I know I had gotten into many conversations where people didn’t understand why it was important that the character be in competition with his father…men compete with their fathers.
DH: Men compete with everybody. Everything’s a competition.
EB: Right. Two and a Half Men is an example. Those two don’t really compete with each other. It’s not really two brothers living with each other, because two brothers living together don’t get along that well.
DH: Aren’t they like The Odd Couple?
EB: But The Odd Couple is different, because in the 1970s, the “Odd Couple” didn’t like each other. They competed with each other in ways that these two don’t. Because at the base of it all, they [Two and Half Men’s characters] really love each other.
DH: More like My Two Dads.
EB: It’s a subtle thing, but it’s very female-centered. Now, I don’t mean to say that I don’t love doing shows that women like – women like Criminal Minds, and women weren’t supposed to like this show. Our core audience is 35-40 year old women, who I think are an amazing audience. It didn’t surprise me at all, when you put on the show where those women are the primary targets of these monsters, and you put on a show where our team saves women from them every week, I don’t know how this couldn’t appeal to them.
DH: And women are very interested in character, as opposed to what you’re saying — that sometimes men just like a straight-on hero who does it right.
EB: Yes, I think it’s extremely difficult to get a male themed show on television.
DH: The people who are running the networks are men, but the so-called creative executives, that whole level is mostly female.
EB: If you say this, make sure that you say that I’m not necessarily saying that’s bad…
DH: Just that it’s true.
EB: The TV audience is primarily female, so it’s not a bad thing…
DH: But if you have something that works on that male level, it’s hard to get it through.
EB: What gets made that’s considered for men – it’s really just T&A stuff. It’s not stuff than any guy I know really wants to watch, you know, the stuff with jiggling boobs and all that. Something with real sort of male themes and male strength and things I want to watch in a drama….
DH: The things men want to be respected for…
EB: Yeah, sort of the things that appeal to us, the things we compete for. Macho in a different sense, the kind of things that we think makes us a man. It doesn’t really exist right now. I really don’t want it to seem that I think it’s a problem that women are in development, I don’t think it’s as problem at all, I just think it’s an interesting time that we’re in. And maybe long overdue – maybe television for a long time was made for men and it’s long overdue.
DH: I’m hearing the hero thing, how important that is to men, it’s not just about being understood in a touchy-feely way.
EB: No, not at all, it’s more about being misunderstood, but doing right anyway — it’s Rockford and Mannix and all that kind of thing. Those kinds of icons don’t exist anymore. But I also love Glee. I watch it with my wife; I loved Desperate Housewives in the first couple of years. It’s not bad, it’s just something that I notice. And I think specifically what happened with Hawaii Five-0.
DH: What you are saying is that there’s a structural thing at the networks right now, not just CBS.
EB: Make sure that Nikki knows that I don’t have any hard feelings, that [ABC deal] was in the process months before Hawaii Five-0.
ON CRIMINAL MINDS, VIOLENCE, AND HIMSELF
DH: I just find the fact of your coming out of Chicago as a cop and coming to Los Angeles fascinating — having the nerve to just say: “Here I am”.
EB: I get a lot of credit for that, but I think it was a lot more ballsy for my wife, because I came out here with belief in myself, and she came out here with belief in someone else. I don’t know that I could have done that. My wife is a surgical nurse and I was a cop, so we figured the worst thing that could happen is she could be a surgical nurse here, and I could be a cop in Los Angeles. I’ve always thought it was more courageous for her than for me because I’m cocky, I’ll be fine.
I talked to a police department recruiter before I decided to move and I asked him whether I could be a cop there, he said no problem — being a cop from Chicago, you’ll just have to take a couple of law classes. And I said, but do I have to live in the city, because in Chicago you have to live in the city. And he said: “Buddy, you don’t even have to live in California if you can make it to roll call in time.” They are very undermanned in the LAPD.
DH: I discovered Criminal Minds sort of late in life, in the past year or so. I had been watching all the CSIs, the Law and Orders, I just liked those kinds of dramas. But then I saw this one and thought, this is cool.
EB: We are very different from those shows, because at our most procedural, our show is about character. Our show is about the character of the person committing the crime, so it’s all a character study. It’s all psychology and human motivation, so it’s different from any other show. I’ve said numerous times that what’s unique about our show is, in every other cop show, if they don’t do their jobs, somebody might get away with a crime. In our show, if we don’t do our jobs, more people are going to die. Every other show investigates crimes in the past. We investigate crimes in the future.
I also think it’s the scariest show on television. We very much want it to be horror movies, every week. We try to make the victims as everyday as possible. We do shots with horror movie shots in mind; we want people to be sitting at home saying: “Wow, this is really scary.”
DH: It is. This is the kind of show where you watch it and walk to your car much more carefully the next day.
EB: You should write it. For five years now, it’s changed a lot of our behavior. Paget Brewster has gotten bullet-proof windows. Her entire house has bullet proof windows in it.
DH. Insanity is about the scariest thing there is, because it’s uncontrollable, and undetectable.
EB: Yeah, and I have a lot of compassion for someone who is insane. Because there’s nothing scarier than the wrong perception of what’s around you. When I was a police officer, a couple of times we had this woman who believed there were vampires, and she’d go off her rocker every once in awhile. And we would have to take her into the hospital, and they had a quiet room, which was sort of like a padded room. And I would watch through the window and she would be screaming about how these vampires were in the room with her, and I couldn’t think of anything more terrifying than you seeing something that’s completely real to you and nobody believes you. To her mind, it’s completely real.
DH: In a way it’s what we do – we walk around saying: There are no serial killers out there. But there are. In a way, she’s right.
EB: The chances are like being hit by lightning – but at least that’s quick. You are talking about a psychosexual sadist who is actually going to enjoy torturing you — that’s a pretty scary thing to think about it.
DH: Now, you read all over the place that this is one of the most violent shows on television – but it seems like, for gore, the CSIs win.
EB: We actually imply a lot. I think it feels like you see more than you do on Criminal Minds because we very much want it to be a horror movie, so we want you to be scared and uncomfortable and not really be sure where it’s coming from. I’ve always felt, and my fellow producers would agree wholeheartedly, that what you imagine is going to be way worse than what we show you anyway. In our 100th episode, we had a guy kill a character with his bare hands, but it was just under the camera. All you saw is his face while he was doing it, but people have said: “Oh my God, that’s brutal.” That’s because they’re imagining what’s happening underneath the screen.
DH: Which is much scarier than seeing someone in an autopsy scene pulling out an intestine.
EB: The gore on other shows is a whole different thing, and I don’t think it works very well on them. It looks like a TV thing when you see real gore.
DH: I think we know that’s not a real eyeball in his hand.
EB: Our standards issues that come up all the time, the difference between sex and violence – we’ve never had them say we went too far with any kind of violence. But we can’t show the swell of a breast. We can’t show an ass. I just think it’s a bizarre system that we have that sex is not to be seen but violence is.
DH: America is weird that way.
EB: We just got a note saying where, we have a character in a show who collects mannequins, we should make sure that the dolls are all clothed. That we couldn’t have naked mannequins in the episode. I find that so bizarre – it’s an episode about little girls being murdered and the concern was about the mannequins. I just don’t understand it. I don’t understand why teenagers can go see Nightmare on Elm Street but they can’t go see people making love. Why is that something teens can’t see, but they can see Freddy Krueger cutting people’s heads off? Especially if they are having sex, they can have violence done to them.
DH: That’s the scariest part.
EB: In horror films, that stuff gets mixed together. I was a street cop for 10 years, I would much rather have people screwing than shooting each other. It would have been a much easier job for me. If people spent all their time thinking about how to sleep with each other instead of robbing and killing each other.
DH: So keeping the show alive for 100 episodes, were those the kinds of issues you had to defend?
EB: Yeah – it doesn’t happen very often, but when it does it comes so out of left field…we have had a great relationship with our standards people, there were a few things we didn’t think we’d be able to do and they were fine with it.
DH: Things have changed a lot – I remember years ago there being a big debate about a little girl who said “That sucks” on a sitcom, but now…
EB: That’s another thing now, that language is that important. But I do think it’s lazy for a writer to say this show has to be on cable so we can say “fuck.” It’s stupid.
DH: There’s not a lot of profanity on Criminal Minds.
EB: And I don’t think you miss it. That’s why I say it’s lazy – OK, we’ll think of some other way to say it.
ON HOW HE CAME TO CRIMINAL MINDS
DH: So how did you bring this show into being? How did you sell it?
EB: I didn’t actually sell Criminal Minds; I started on in the second episode, it was Mark Gordon and Deb Sparrow. A guy named Jeff Davis created it. At the time that they were shooting this pilot, I came up and met everyone, but we were shooting the last episode of Third Watch in New York at the same time. So I didn’t actually sell the show. When I decided that my deal was with Paramount, they sent me five shows and said: “Pick the one you want to run,” and frankly I said I’ll do anything but that Quantico – Criminal Minds was called Quantico at that time — and there’s like dead silence on the phone. And they said: “We thought you’d pick Quantico.
I didn’t really want to be in that world again. I’m very much sort of a method writer in that I do tremendous amounts of research, and it’s very important to me that it be realistic, that the cops be portrayed fairly and properly – we are doing an episode now about potential suicides and I spent the last two weeks just reading about suicides and survivors of suicides.
DH: And that’s a tough thing to do.
EB: Yeah, so I didn’t really want to immerse myself in that. At the time there was a script called “Commuters” about people who lived in upstate New York and commuted to the city and how they had two different lives, a city life and a suburban life. And I thought, oh, that seems fun. And I had done 10 years of being a cop, a year of Brooklyn South, and 6 years of Third Watch, and I kind of wanted to do something other than cops. But they asked me to meet with Mark Gordon and Deb Sparrow, and I was so completely disarmed by them.
Someone like Mark Gordon wouldn’t have the best reputation in this town, a mega-millionaire movie producer, and Mark is so not that guy. I said, yeah, I’m going to go meet them but these are going to be dicks. He was so funny and charming, and Deb Spera, our families have become very close, it was so surprising, I came home and I told my wife: “I actually like these people.”
DH: So it wasn’t something about that show that made you say: “Let me do this one.”
EB: No, everything about the show made me not want to do this one. I mean, it’s dark subject matter, it’s another cop thing – I think my biggest victory is that someday somebody’s going to come to me and let me do something that doesn’t have a cop in it. I ‘m not that it’s not a great thing to be thought of as “the cop guy.” It’s way better than being thought of as “the accountant guy.”
DH: Not that many shows with an accountant hero.
EB: No. But the first thing I ever wrote was a movie about Christmas. I’m not that interested in cops, to be honest with you. It was called The Christmas Star.
DH: And Washington Field …more cops, right?
EB: Yes, it was actually written by myself and two FBI agents, actual FBI agents, one who was in the field office, and one who has just retired from being a profiler. That was CBS. It didn’t get picked up; we made a pilot last year.
This year, we have two shows in contention, we have a show called The Chase, a very action, street cop show, and a thing called Wish.com, a very sci-fi, bigger idea kind of thing that’s being written by Peter Bushman, who’s this amazing feature writer. This is for ABC. They’re just in script stage now. No orders have even been made.
ON THE 100TH EPISODE
DH: On Criminal Minds, being at 100 episodes is a great thing, you’ll be around forever.
EB: I feel very lucky, because this is actually the 2nd 100th episode I’ve gotten to write and direct in my life, which I think is a pretty incredible thing.
DH: A lot of pressure, though.
EB: It’s funny, it never seems like it’s going to be difficult until the first day of shooting. You think it’s just another episode. But really in the back of your mind, it isn’t. You want to pay respect to the people on the show who have worked so hard, mainly you want to satisfy the audience who’ve watched 100 episodes.
We very much want Criminal Minds not to be something that you can not watch and then one Wednesday to decide to tune in and be fine, you are not missing anything. We almost never have a “previously” on an episode… But we also try to put what we call “cookies” in episodes, if you’ve invested 24 hours in a season, you should get something for that. Our last episodes of the season have a lot of things that you are going to see next year, sort of shout-outs to our strong fan base. Our 100th episode was the same: every good guy who appeared on the show we wanted to appear on the 100th episode. You won’t know it if you haven’t seen all 100, but there are going to be people that was really important to.
DH: Is there any way of summing up why this show has lasted for 100 episodes?
EB: Believe me, if I knew that I’d be really, really wealthy. I think it’s a number of things, it has very strong appeal to women, I think in most households men hold the remote but it’s women who tell them when to stop. And I think it’s unique in that it’s genuinely frightening. We encourage writing, and we encourage directing – when we have a director come in we don’t tell them don’t do this kind of shot, don’t do that kind of shot. Or writers. We want every episode to be different, much like the real BAU [Behavioral Analysis Unit] doesn’t know what’s going to happen in a day. We’ve done episodes that looked like comic books, we’ve done episodes where you’re inside the killer’s mind; I think that’s part of the appeal.
I think we have talked many times about how there’s a very Arthurian base to our stories, on purpose. We realized early on, as a show runner what you need to do is get a sort of box for the story telling to fit in, because you have to know pretty quickly that a story is not going to work, when somebody comes in to pitch a story you can’t spend six weeks developing it to be able to go, no, that’s not going to work. We realized early that the Knights of the Round Table was a pretty good analogy for our team. They set out in the world, and they battle monsters, and they come back and all is right with the world. On purpose, when they sit in the office it’s a round table, and in the scripts we call it the Round Table Room.
DH: They get on a plane and go “into the woods” – a strange environment.
EB: And they battle dragons, they battle monsters. I just also think there’s a real fascination with serial criminals, with serial crime. The argument can be made that they are the most human people, they don’t have any mores, they are completely free. People read books about serial killers, they see movies about serial killers, they watch TV shows about serial killers. I’m just grateful that people watch it for whatever reason, because we enjoy making it.
DH: I look at other crime shows now and see everybody’s got a Garcia.
EB: I don’t know that we were first, I do know that a lot of it is Kirsten [Vangsness] – at first the role wasn’t even for a woman, it was a guy, it was a heavy, Hispanic guy. At the last minute Kirsten was hired for the pilot, and didn’t even go to Vancouver [where the pilot was shot], she was just going to be a voice. But she has brought such light to the show. Her whole world around her, she brought in a lot of that stuff — the trolls and all that stuff that’s around the character, she’s very much that world.
DH: You run a risk in letting your characters get damaged by what’s happening around them; they’re not the same next week.
EB: Hotch is the perfect example of that. The Thomas Gibson character is a button down, perfect suit, perfect FBI G-man, he allows all of the other characters to be eccentric, because he looks like a G-man, he doesn’t smile, he doesn’t cry, he’s sort of stoic. At the beginning, I don’t think a lot of people appreciated how difficult what he is doing is. But I think everyone appreciates it now.
EB: We have a very strong base of Criminal Minds fanatics. And they were very important during the strike. I think that all those sorts of online fan site played a very important role in putting pressure on the networks and it was interesting. It’s a very interesting time because nobody ever knew the names of the writers and show runners before. Now, when something happens, they are among the first people that we think of to tell.
We had a pretty famous incident where somebody left the show [Mandy Patinkin, replaced by Joe Mantegna] before the beginning of the season, a star. And it was online that I saw some people start blaming the show, “they should have given him what he wanted”. I went right to the fans to say, you don’t understand. I wrote a long letter to the fans about what happened and how surprised we were. You go right to the fans. You used to go to TV Guide or The Hollywood Reporter and sort of dance around subjects and not say things. I had a lot of people in the industry who would call me up or whisper: “Way to go,” because I was pretty nakedly upset by what I considered a very selfish act by somebody. But I went right to the fans of the show.
DH: You always think of writers as being the people that nobody knows. But that’s changed.
EB: Our writers do a chat almost every week with the fans. And it’s interesting, it’s the writers that they have questions for, more than the actors. I think Lost is part of the reason, getting this behind the scenes look, people feel way more a part of their shows than they ever did before. I think it’s a really interesting, fun time to be in this business. Thursday morning, the first thing we do is go to the fan websites and see what they thought of the episode. We go to Criminal Minds Fanatics at criminalmindsfanatic.blogspot.com or TV.com.
We also, in crafting shows, we’ll talk about, oh, the fans are going to hate this show because it doesn’t have enough of this or that, but you want to draw other viewers too, you want to go outside that safe mode. I don’t know that this has ever existed before this age of television.
DH: This is sort of a healthy interaction.
EB: It’s hugely healthy, it builds loyalty to the show, and it works both ways.
DH: But you don’t think it makes sense to just give the show away on the Internet?
EB: No, there are people who have gone to business school and may be it makes sense to them on some level – but this little old cop from Chicago doesn’t get it.