Lifetime TV Network’s military family drama Army Wives is in its 5th season airing Sunday nights. But veteran TV producer Jeff Melvoin, whose lengthy credits include stints overseeing the series Alias, Picket Fences, Northern Exposure and Remington Steele, was underwhelmed when his agent asked him to consider doing triage duty during its debut back in 2007. Created by Katherine Fugate based on Tanya Biank’s book about the lives of five couples on a Charleston, S.C. military base, Army Wives enjoyed the largest series premiere in Lifetime’s 23-year history. But by the time Melvoin showed up for Episode 3, the series had been shut down. He ran the show for one season, then left for the second season so other showrunners took oversight. Then he returned for Season 3 and is still on board. This interview by Deadline TV contributor Diane Haithman took place in Melvoin’s office at Raleigh Studios in Hollywood:
DEADLINE: How badly did you not want to be the showrunner on Army Wives?
JEFF MELVOIN: My agent said: ‘There’s a show on Lifetime called Army Wives that’s interested in you,’ and I said, ‘Well, I’m not interested.’ All the connotations I had were negative, at least for me: Lifetime is a women’s network, and Army Wives sounded just too close to Desperate Housewives. I thought it would be an over-the-top type of show, which is not the kind of stuff that I’ve done. But my agent said: “Please, just look at the pilot.” And I thought, this is really good. This was a show about real people, who were in a situation that I’d never seen before, written with intelligence and heart and humor, and in an area that I thought was very significant considering the all-volunteer army we have. And most Americans aren’t touched by these conflicts in Iraq and whatever comes next. In a curious way, not since Northern Exposure did I feel there was a chance to work with people in a drama that was unpredictable. I never looked at it as a soap opera. It’s a serial drama, it’s a family drama, but mostly I just saw it as a bunch of good stories about people I was interested in.
DEADLINE: You were brought in to fix the show. What was wrong with it?
MELVOIN: It’s something that a lot of people in my position would be hesitant to characterize, but I don’t really know what was going on behind the scenes. I know the situation that I inherited was that they only had one script ready and no other scripts in the hopper, and they didn’t think it was shootable, and they wanted it fixed.
DEADLINE: So they were just way behind.
MELVOIN: I just knew that they were in crisis. Usually what happens is there is some sort of dysfunction between the person who is running the show and some of the people who are paying for the show. And there are all sorts of reasons for that. But the bottom line is it’s a killer business, and it’s like a shark. In our case, it eats a show every seven days. So every seven days you need a script, and once you get behind it is so hard to get ahead again, and you’ve got this thing coming after you. I think Jeff Sorkin said that being a showrunner is like being torn apart by horses every day, and it is in some ways — and that’s on a good day. So there are a lot of reasons why you can get behind. A network can throw out a script you already worked on, ideas can change, or people just might not like the execution. But the bottom line is they’re not happy.
DEADLINE: For that first season, how did you and Katherine Fugate work together?
MELVOIN: I was the designated showrunner responsible for keeping the trains running on time. Katherine was an executive producer whose responsibilities were principally literary. We discussed stories and she did a prodigious amount of writing and rewriting. With such a tight schedule, I tended to break stories and refine outlines with the small writing staff and some selected freelancers while Katherine was working on rewrites. I did some writing and rewriting myself, naturally, and coordinated with the directors and the Charleston production team and oversaw post-production.
DEADLINE: You ran the show for one season, and then left. What happened that made you decide to leave?
MELVOIN: It was very satisfying for the most part. I was working on outlines and drafts with the limited staff that I had inherited. And Katherine was doing the majority of rewrites and polishes. The great majority. She did really heroic work. But as the season progressed, Katherine and I had the classic disagreement about where the show should go. There was a big cliffhanger that she was building toward for the end of the season, and respectfully I knew it was her show. I sat across from her the first time I met her and said: “It’s your show. All I’m trying to do is to help it get on its feet and be the best that in can be, to steal a line from the Army.” Truly, all I was trying to do was to help her realize her vision, because I thought it was a strong one. But as we got towards the end of the season and it became clear to me that we didn’t see things the same way, I did not want to get into a protracted discussion. And I just thought I had done what I had been asked to do. The show was on its feet and it was a success. So I talked to the studio and the network about it, and it was just one of those things where I really felt that you couldn’t have two people in charge. And it was not a battle that I even wanted to initiate. It was a very amicable situation, at least on my end, and I went off and I taught for a semester at Harvard. That was a lot of fun because both of my sons were there at the time. I wrote some original stuff. And then I came back into town and was working on a pilot about Pan Am stewardesses that never got made.
DEADLINE: Several showrunners were put in charge of Season 2 during your absence. What was it like to come back for Season 3?
MELVOIN: I found out that the second season staff wasn’t returning and there was an opening again, and this time there was an opportunity to hire a staff, which I hadn’t had before. So I thought that sounded good because I really loved the show, the cast, and the crew. I thought, OK, I could now take the ball in my court now. By the time I sat down to discuss my return, all I knew was that I was given full license to hire a new staff, which I did with the exception of co-executive producer Bruce Zimmerman, who I had hired as a freelancer for Season 1 and who was hired full time in Season 2.
DEADLINE: That was an unusual situation.
MELVOIN: But a very happy one for me. So I sat down with Joann Alfano [who had replaced Suzanne Daniels as EVP of entertainment at Lifetime in late 2008], Nina Lederman and Lucia Cottone and Morgana Rosenberg. I had first gone over it with the Mark Gordon Company, and they in turn encouraged me to say to the network: ‘Here’s what I’d like to do for the season’, and it was a very good meeting. I remember Joann turning to me after the meeting and saying, “When can you start?” One of the things that I like about Lifetime is I feel that they genuinely love the show. And so we may disagree sometimes, but it’s not because they are trying to answer any checklist. Let me put it this way, they never presented me with any kind of ultimatum or marching orders. And that’s continued to be the way it is. We’ll always discuss creative points, but generally speaking I’ve never felt handcuffed or in any way seriously impended.
DEADLINE: Because the show is about the Army, is there an assumption that the people making it are politically conservative?
MELVOIN: It’s interesting because the show is mostly written by liberal Democrats. But we are very careful to be true to the experience that we are trying to portray. We do a fair amount of first-hand research. We’re not shy about politics, but it doesn’t enter into our stories very often. We had a case in one of the first episodes where somebody was protesting an incident of friendly fire. We had a story line about how one mother wants her son out of the Army with a medical discharge because of what’s happened to him in Iraq. But it’s must more personal than political. If I felt we were advocating something that went against some personal belief of mine, I’d have more trouble with it. But I think one of the beauties of the show is that it explores the dimensions of being part of a military family, and that for the most part transcends politics.
DEADLINE: Should the show get more respect within the TV community?
MELVOIN: That’s a good question. We’re on Lifetime, so we’re not heavy in the awards spotlight. But I have never worked harder on story creation for a show in my life. Because, while you can’t tell five independent story lines in every episode, you have to account for everybody. We do a five-act structure: we do five acts and a slight little tease, but we don’t go to six. We don’t cut after the tease. Having five couples as a focus is very challenging, and you could give each of them an act. We don’t do that, but we could. But I am a believer that the best storytelling is essentially a three-act structure: beginning, middle, and end. If a story was told in a four-act structure [as was the standard with hour dramas several years ago], it was still basically a three-act structure and you were cheating with one more act break. Once you go to five and six acts, you are almost deliberately favoring ensemble shows with multiple story lines. Back in the days of theater, you determined where the act breaks were going to be. It was much more purely creative. Once you get into the broadcast world, commercial things intrude on the art.