John Wells in his freshman series Shameless “is carving out a tone that is truly unique in the television landscape — equal parts drama and comedy,” to quote Showtime Entertainment President David Nevins. But will Emmy voters appreciate the mix? Wells, who just announced he won’t seek a second term as Writers Guild West president, is the veteran TV producer (ER, West Wing, Southland) and the showrunner of this drama-com based on Paul Abbott’s award-winning British series of the same name about the dirt poor and dysfunctional Gallagher clan. He speaks to Deadline TV contributor Diane Haithman:
DEADLINE: I know you don’t go into a series hoping to win an Emmy, but….
JOHN WELLS: You hope the people recognize it and say it’s good work. I’m very proud of it, I don’t think there’s anything else like it on television, I don’t think it feels like anything else that’s on television, for better or worse. We hear a lot of great things about it, but you never really know until you’re into it how people are going to react to it.
DEADLINE: What does an Emmy mean for a new series?
WELLS: It can really mean a lot for new shows. If a series or someone on the series gets an Emmy, you’ll see a huge increase in the number of people watching the next year. It’s certainly not as valuable for shows already on the air and successful. It actually can have sort of a negative connotation—if you have been getting Emmys for a while and then there is a loss, the perception is that the show isn’t good any more. So there’s an upside to it and a downside to it. You have toremember these are peer awards, a very select group, and a very self-selecting group. Certainly, when a show is very, very popular, there is also a perception among the groups that vote that they don’t really need to help. There is a real desire to point out and nominate those series that can really use the audience.
DEADLINE: How did this show come to be, and where did your passion for the subject come from?
WELLS: I met British writer Paul Abbott, and he talked about working on the British version of Shameless. It really reminded me of people I grew up with, so we optioned the rights from Paul. But it took us almost two and a half years of negotiations with Channel 4 because the show became a big hit, so their expectations of what they would want from us as part of the option changed. And then we couldn’t sell it anywhere. No one was interested. Everyone was worried that Americans wouldn’t respond to the lead characters being thoroughly impoverished and yet still enjoying their lives. And it has very adult sexuality and language and situations. We took it to Showtime first, and then we had a brief conversation with NBC. And then HBO did develop it for three and a half years, but it got a little bit lost in the shuffle of the change of administration. And then we took it back and, fortunately, Showtime wanted to look at it again. So it had many homes.
DEADLINE: What made Showtime eventually warm to the series?
WELLS: I think what happened is the mood of the nation changed. There were a lot of people who were struggling. The jobs that were there for working people just aren’t there anymore. And what had seemed like something that only a few were going through, seemed a lot closer to many people’s lives than it used to. I think there’s been a growing ability for us to put the real world on television. And then they liked the script that we developed for it, and we thought of Bill Macy, and that was that. It took eight years to get to that moment where they just said: ‘Oh, OK, let’s make it.’
DEADLINE: When you get notes on Shameless, what do they say?
WELLS: It’s about whether we are going too far. But it’s also about taking the characters too far. It’s called Shameless, so how shameless can we be? There’s a real concern that there’s a point when audiences are turned off to the characters one way or the other. And we don’t know the right answer to that. We’re always going back and forth. The notes are almost always thoughtful.
DEADLINE: What are your favorite TV shows?
WELLS: I’ve been watching Modern Family — love it — Game of Thrones, The Killing, Deadliest Catch, and a lot of news programs. I watch Breaking Bad when it comes back. I watch a lot of my friends’ shows because they ask: ‘Hey, did you see my episode?’