David Crane had the kind of success most TV writers could only dream of when he created Friends, the era-defining NBC sitcom that ran from 1994 to 2004. But in 2006, when Crane and his partner Jeffrey Klarik, a former producer on Mad About You, created The Class, it was canceled after just 19 episodes. Frustrated with the network system, they took a break until the BBC expressed interest in a pitch they had for a show about a British couple asked to come to the U.S. to recreate their British hit TV show for the American market and then subjected to all the pitfalls of Hollywood, as their show is twisted beyond recognition by studio execs and focus groups. On July 1, that series, Episodes, returned for its second season on Showtime (Showtime has co-financed the show with the BBC). The show stars Matt LeBlanc as a parody (or is it?) of himself, starring in the TV show within the show.
Initially Klarik and Crane only planned one season, but the accolades and audience response convinced them to sign on for a second season, with at least one more run currently under discussion. Crane and Klarik have savored the many ways the process of creating episodes for Showtime did not mirror the experience of their fictional, British counterparts and they don’t seem to be looking back wistfully at the network world. We spoke with Klarik and Crane about the real creative upside of premium cable and what you can’t do on network TV.
Klarik and Crane are part of a larger movement of talented showrunners with network bona fides (see The Newsroom’s Aaron Sorkin and Homeland’s Howard Gordon) who have moved to cable. They join an already pronounced cable influx of Hollywood talent like Martin Scorsese (Boardwalk Empire) and Gus Van Sant (Boss). At Showtime, Klarik says, "We’re autonomous, nobody gets involved. No one is saying you can’t do this or you can’t do that. There’s an amazing freedom." Crane adds: "The experience has been the exact opposite of what we’re dramatizing on the show." Klarik and Crane did have a particularly unhappy experience with their show The Class. They were disappointed with the show’s ratings, as was their network at the time, CBS. Just as the pair felt the show was beginning to find its voice, it was cancelled, a move Klarik describes as "heartbreaking." Of the network ratings game, Crane says "You’re a slave to those numbers. On premium cable they look at the numbers, but not with the same level of anxiety." Premium cable channels have shown a willingness to stick with shows even if ratings are less than stellar. Crane and Klarik feel that this freedom has allowed them to do some of the best and most creative work of their career.
The same freedom, say the pair, allows them to tell better, more nuanced stories. Working within the cable structure allows a whole series to be written before filming begins (as opposed to network shows which often begin filming the earlier episodes while later episodes are still being written). For Klarik and Crane this means that they can plan out longer story arcs so that they know exactly where those arcs are going from the moment the cameras start rolling. With a fast-paced production schedule of shooting 22 episodes for a network show, the rush to produce new pages to shoot, rarely leaves writers time to sit back and reflect on each episode and how it plays into the season as a whole. This season Klarik and Crane’s show has just nine episodes.
Crane had worked with Matt LeBlanc on Friends and knew his extraordinary abilities. Klarik felt that LeBlanc was the most underrated of the Friends actors. "He was so good at being Joey that people assumed that was who he was. I knew that wasn’t true." Klarik and Crane approached LeBlanc early on for Episodes, and decided that he was crucial to the casting mix. Luckily, LeBlanc was enthusiastic about the project and has inhabited the role with glee, drawing some of the strongest critical reviews of his career and winning a Golden Globe for his performance in season one. "Knowing you don’t have to have a joke every couple of lines, gives you some freedom. You can delve into character development and have the humor come from an organic place," Klarik says.
While network comedies are 22 minutes, Showtime’s comedies run about 29 minutes. Crane says that those seven minutes can make all the difference. On network TV, you can often tell that an episode has been edited down to its bare essentials. But Klarik and Crane relish the ability to have moments where characters breathe, where they don’t say anything, or even, god forbid, engage in an off-story scene. In a scene from the next episode, Beverly and Sean, the creators of Pucks!, the show within the show, are receiving notes from a TV executive who takes issues with the pauses in their script. Beverly and Sean suggest keeping them in during shooting, with the network having the ability to take them out later if they still have an issue. The executive takes a long pause to consider this before saying "Okay." Crane says contently, "That pause is so much fun and you could never have done that on a network show, there just wouldn’t be the time."