During a panel titled “Showrunner Superpanel: where do we go from here” at the virtual edition of the BANFF World Media Festival, a roster of some of the top shows on television talked about their journeys to Hollywood. Steven Canals (Pose), Tanya Saracho (Vida), Anna Winger (Unorthodox), Liz Tigelaar (Little Fires Everywhere), Kerry Ehrin (The Morning Show) and Liz Feldman (Dead To Me) were joined by moderator Lorraine Ali from the Los Angeles Times to not only unpack their experiences but also address how they think the TV landscape and storytelling will shift after the pandemic and the long-overdue cultural shift taking over the world as a result death of George Floyd and the racial injustices faced by Black people and other marginalized voices.
“Nina Simone famously said ‘How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?’ — that’s a given,” said Ehrin. “People who do what we do are like a vessel that just takes stuff in and repurpose it and put it back out as something creative.”
She continued, “There’s no doubt, that this is going to impact everything we do. I’ve never lived in a year like this — and I’ve lived a while. It’s important, scary, emotional and moving things happening and, of course, that is going to enter all of our work.”
Canals adds to Ehrin’s sentiment saying that “the best work always reflects our humanity and is culturally relevant.” He points out how the each panelist’s show addresses an array of issues including race, gender, class, sexual orientation and religion. “Those stories are important and there’s a way for us to find that intersection between education and entertainment,” he said. “I hope that all the other showrunners out there and certainly anyone who is up and coming will continue to keep their fingers on the pulse of the conversations that need to be happening right now and allow that to fuel the work.”
He adds the caveat that all the work that is presented doesn’t need to directly address all of the issues we are facing today. There doesn’t need to be a flood of shows about global pandemics.
“There are very specific communities being impacted by COVID-19 in disproportionate numbers compared to other groups,” he points out, adding there is a way to address this disparity in storytelling without being so on the nose and hitting the audience over the head with a message.
He references how on Pose they do exactly this with an honest story about the HIV epidemic. “We aren’t necessarily pointing a finger at the audience, as much as we are just bringing them into this conversation…there was a whole group being affected by this and this is how it happened.”
Feldman talked about how Dead To Me did something similar when it came to addressing families being separated at the border. Even though the show doesn’t necessarily rip from the headlines and make it the centerpiece of an episode, she said that this issue affected her and many of the writers. “None of us were not directly affected by it — but how can you not feel something about that?” she said. “We ended up telling an allegorical story about motherhood and what happens when you separate a child from their mother.”
The panel which included all women showrunners with the exception of Canals, a queer person of color, is a sign that Hollywood is moving in the right direction when it comes to inclusion and the panelists feel that change.
“Of course it’s changing — we’re in it and it’s happening,” said Ehrin. “Any of us who are in a position to hire, you better believe we are thinking about inclusion every minute. It’s not just about us being the leaders, it’s about the next generation of people coming up working with us.”
Ehrin points out how in her career, she has always been the only woman in the room. She also mentions how it is even “more retrograde” in Europe when it comes to being male-dominated. She looks to change all of that by hiring people of color, LGBTQ people and other underrepresented voices.
Feldman adds that she was in a similar position to Ehrin and has witnessed the progress in her own trajectory. “My first job 25 years ago in a writers room I was the only woman and they had hire a woman because it was mandate,” she said. “That’s the only reason why I was hired in the first place.” She was the only woman in the room for many jobs and now she is the woman who hires all the people.
“I’ve experienced the evolution and progression…especially when a woman is in charge,” Feldman said. “We are the providers. We get to support our community.”
Canals chimed in, “I think what’s really important for men to acknowledge is that we all participate in the system that obviously privileges men and disadvantages women. I think it’s just essential for any males, specifically male showrunners, to acknowledge that you have a lot of privilege because of your identity so it is essential that you think of the ways you work within that system and continue to advantage from it.”
“Hopefully, as a result, you will start to shift and make certain choices on projects you are working on,” he adds. “Whether it’s hiring women not because you need a token voice in your room, but because it’s important to have different types of opinions and perspectives in a writers room…whenever this conversation comes up, I feel like more often that it is punted to women with the expectation that they are the ones to solve the problem as if men are somehow removed from the conversation. I think it’s important that we participate in creating this culture and to be part of the solution as well.”
Saracho talked about how Starz gave her access and how that is important. She also addressed how this “moment changes our practices.” She mentioned how like Feldman, she entered the industry as a diversity hire and said “it was bad” because no one is overseeing how many of those programs are executed and how “diverse hires” are hired are not ideal.
“I hope that bones are broken and reset in the practices in Hollywood,” she said. “Not just in the stories we tell, but industry-wide.”
Tigelaar added that she was touched by Little Fires Everywhere not only by the show itself but the journey on how it got to screen — this includes everyone who was hired to make the series. “There’s always way you can do better,” she said. “It really fundamentally matters how you create…it’s vital.”
Saracho punctuated the thought stating, “How you make the thing is as important as the thing you are making.”