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Envelope Emmys Panel: Television show runners run with the ball

The leaders of 'Homeland,' 'Breaking Bad,' 'The Walking Dead,' 'New Girl' and 'Justified' talk shop at a Times-hosted round table.

June 17, 2012
  • The Los Angeles Times show runner Round Table included Glen Mazzara of "Walking Dead," left, Graham Yost of "Justified," Alex Gansa "Homeland," Liz Meriwether "New Girl," and Vince Gilligan of "Breaking Bad."
The Los Angeles Times show runner Round Table included Glen Mazzara of "Walking… (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles…)

Doing math and writing poetry simultaneously — that's one way a show runner's job has been described.

If we are indeed living in a golden age of television, as a chorus of critics contends, then much of the credit must go to the person who manages the tedious day-to-day tasks of a TV show while also charting an inspirational and compelling course into an uncertain future. Last month, The Times sat down with five show runners — Alex Gansa of Showtime's political thriller "Homeland," Vince Gilligan of AMC's Mr. Chips-to-Scarface drama "Breaking Bad," Glen Mazzara of AMC's zombie tale"The Walking Dead," Liz Meriwether of Fox's hit sitcom"New Girl" and Graham Yost of FX's country cop show"Justified."

In a lively, often humorous discussion, the show runners spoke about the appeal of their programs and how they feel as the town heads into Emmy season. Other topics taken up during the wide-ranging talk included what their shows say about family, why they kill off characters, what sparks debate in the writers' room and whether a zombie can climb a ladder.

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This is an edited transcript of the discussion, held in The Times' Chandler Auditorium and moderated by Times television editor Martin Miller.

What do you think people are keying into about your shows?

Graham Yost: I think it's Elmore Leonard. I think that he's always had a pretty big reading audience, but on a weekly television show I think he's being exposed to more people. And I think people enjoy what we get to do with language, for one thing, and his odd sensibility about good guys and bad guys. And so it gives us a lot of freedom to play.

Glen Mazzara: I think what people like about our show is for some odd reason everybody can buy a zombie apocalypse. Like people just get that, you know? Like, and so then they put themselves into the show. Like, oh, I would do that. Or, I would leave that guy there. Or, I would rescue that guy. Like it's sort of, you know, people are screaming at the TV like when they watch a horror movie.

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Liz Meriwether: I feel like people tune in for the zombie apocalypse on ['New Girl'] …. Yeah, I feel like it's our cast.

[LAUGHTER]

Alex Gansa: You know, honestly, I wish I knew. ... You know, we spent a lot of time in the story room trying to figure out why people were tuning in every week. And it's kind of ineffable. ... I think that at some level we have tapped into some anxiety that is happening in the country.

Vince Gilligan: This is going to sound weird talking about a show about a guy who decides to cook crystal meth, but I think it's wish fulfillment.

[LAUGHTER]

Gilligan: Not about the meth per se but about the idea of being a guy who has played by the rules his whole life and, you know, colored within the lines and tried to be a good law-abiding citizen and, finally, given a certain set of circumstances he finds himself in, saying to hell with it and breaking bad. You know, in the old Southern sense of the expression, which means to raise hell.

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All your shows deal with family in one sense or another. What are your shows saying about family?

Gilligan: We cribbed quite a bit from "The Godfather," right? And its family is of course everything. Of course we're dealing with a character who ostensibly is doing what he does in defense of his family to protect their financial well being. But of course as the show progresses these protestations of his ring hollow, "I do this for my family. That's what I do it for." When in fact as the show progresses you start to realize this guy is doing it for him. He's doing it because it makes him feel alive.

Gansa: Well, our family dynamic started because we wanted to tell the story of what it is like to return from war and how to re-integrate back into one's family after a period of absence. So our story begins where a family is completely fractured and where it has to welcome back the patriarch of that group, and to really portray and to dramatize how difficult that can be.

Meriwether: Why am I so nervous?

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[LAUGHTER]

Meriwether: Everyone is so smart. I mean, I think it's a show that tells a story about a time in your life when you're moving from your 20s to your 30s and you're building your own family as opposed to living with the family you grew up with. And so I think it's a show about the family you choose, whether it's your friends or people you meet on Craigslist. I really do see them as a family, and Schmidt's the mom.

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