Having got her big break on Sex and the City, Amy B Harris is now showrunning Wicked City for ABC – but the two shows couldn’t be more different. She tells DQ about fulfilling her appetite for something a bit darker.
With credits including Sex and the City (SATC) and The Carrie Diaries, Amy B Harris admits she might not be the obvious choice to run a show about serial killers in 1980s Hollywood. But it’s her experience writing character dramas and series about relationships that she hopes will keep viewers tuning into new ABC crime drama Wicked City when it debuts this October.
The show, which debuts tonight, follows a Bonnie-and-Clyde-like serial killer couple who are rampaging along the Sunset Strip and the police officers charged with tracking them down. It stars Ed Westwick, Erika Christensen, Taissa Farmiga, Gabriel Luna, Jeremy Sisto and Evan Ross.
Created by Steven Baigelman, it is produced by ABC Studios and Mandeville Television and distributed by Disney Media Distribution.
Harris joined the limited series as showrunner in June – after the pilot had been picked up to series – as part of her new overall deal with ABC Studios, and says studio bosses were surprised when she expressed her desire to come on board. “They sent me a bunch of shows to watch and I told them I loved Wicked City and would love to meet on it,” Harris recalls. “They said, ‘Is it not too dark for you?’ but I told them it was right up my alley – perhaps revealing too much of the inner workings of my brain!
“It was something I was intrigued by, and when I talked to Steven (Baigelman), a lot of what he talked about were things I’m interested in – why we crave relationships or attention, or our need to be recognised and seen by people. Sometimes that manifests with positive effects and sometimes with very dark effects.”
Unlike traditional cop dramas, Wicked City’s viewers will be informed of the killers’ identities from the start, which Harris says allows the writing team to explore the characters rather than trying to keep them hidden from view.
“Although I probably wasn’t the most obvious choice for a show about serial killers and the cops who chase them, as someone who’s written a lot of shows about relationships, I’m hopeful viewers will come and want to keep returning because they’re intrigued by the characters they’re seeing,” she says.
But while writing about relationships is something in which Harris has plenty of experience, running a series she hadn’t created herself was an entirely new prospect. Previously she had joined other people’s shows (SATC) or created her own (The Carrie Diaries). However, she is extremely positive about the experience so far, highlighting the role she has taken on to help bring Baigelman’s ideas to screen.
“There are always growing pains as you’re trying to figure out what the first season
of a show actually looks like – not just for the creator but for all the writers on the team and in production, figuring out how many days you can be on location and then on set,” she says. “We have a terrific team of people, so those natural growing pains are made a lot easier by that.”
Another exciting proposition for Harris is that Wicked City is the latest in a growing trend towards limited series on US television, benefiting viewers in that they aren’t left hanging for a resolution. Harris says this is also advantageous to writers, allowing them to “blow through story” while building towards an explosive finale.
“Our hope is we’ve created this incredibly compelling season where we know right from the get-go who our bad guys are and, in a strange way, we know that our bad guys are more complicated than just evil,” she continues. “The fun for us if we get to continue (next season) is that our police officers will continue on and follow a new case. We haven’t decided yet if we’ll know right away who our bad guys are. The audience knows now and our detectives don’t, but we haven’t figured how that will play next season.
“It gives you an opportunity to explore a variety of different ways of getting into a story, which is really fun. As terrific as it is to work on a story where you really understand the template, we can play within episodes – some with a voiceover or flashback – and because there aren’t any really rules, it’s kind of anything goes.”
Growing up with parents who were both lawyers, Harris thought her career path was laid out in front of her – college, then law school. But after her father advised her to take a break following her college graduation, Harris landed in New York, where she got a job writing for Vanity Fair.
“That’s when I started to realise that this was my passion, that I had a voice and stuff I wanted to say,” she explains. “I met really great people who were very supportive of me.”
Harris worked as an assistant to Darren Starr before he created SATC, and then became a non-writing producer on the iconic HBO series. It was during this time that showrunner Michael Patrick King became her mentor and biggest supporter.
“I started writing because he said I might be a writer,” she says of King. “He was generous and kind enough to read my work and then hire me on SATC, which was a dream first writing job. It was like being at Harvard, except they paid me. It really taught me a lot about how to be a mentor when the time came. For my first script, the night before it went to the reading table, he sat with me for four hours and punched up jokes and made sure it was perfect.
“Although I had written that script, it was just as much down to Michael helping, encouraging and supporting me that I had a successful first experience – because when you’re new, the muscles you need to do this job aren’t quite developed yet. He was unbelievably supportive through the entire process and really gave me the confidence to know I could write and work and continually improve. It was a thrilling experience that set me on my way.”
If she started at the top, Harris is still riding the wave, having added a string of hit series to her name. Her other credits include Lisa Kudrow’s The Comeback, also on HBO, and teen drama Gossip Girl. She then created SATC prequel The Carrie Diaries for The CW, where it ran for two seasons.
“Running my own show made me realise that’s what I love doing,” she reveals. “I like having my hand in all of it. It was an amazing experience. The shows have all been different and unique but I feel I’ve learnt a lot from them all. I can’t pick a favourite.”
Yet the rise from writer to showrunner wasn’t an entirely smooth ride, with Harris describing leading a writers room for the first time as “the thing I was most afraid of.” But, again, King was her mentor, giving her confidence to differentiate between good and bad ideas and to follow her instincts.
“He was right,” she says. “So much of TV is trusting your instincts and moving forward. There’s a million ways a story could go but you have to pick the way that sparks you and drive towards it. It was scary for me at first, not knowing whether I would have the right instincts.
“The other stuff was all great – casting, looking at locations and picking the directors. That was thrilling. If you collaborate the right way with talented people, it just works. You have to be a control freak but, at the right moment, let go and trust you’ve hired great people who are going to bring their own talent to it. It’s a weird combo plate of letting go and never letting go of the reins.”
Now in charge of Wicked City, Harris says she’s keeping the same mindset and bringing together ideas from the room that follow her central vision. And when individual writers are charged with bringing a script together, she hopes they have enough room to express their own voice while following the season’s story arcs that have already been broken down to their barest bones.
She explains: “I want writers to own their episodes and feel like they have a lot to say within that episode, but I also want them to feel incredibly supported through the process. I know other people do it differently, but we break everything pretty much in the room.
“On a serialised show like this, you have to drive the story forward episode by episode. We do a lot of story arcing early so we know where we’re heading. And then once we dig into an episode and I’ve assigned it (to a writer), we talk through stories. I won’t ever break a story based on ad breaks or where I think a fun twist might happen. It all has to drive from character and then we’ll find the great moments within that.
“On SATC and The Carrie Diaries, I always broke Carrie’s story first. There’s always the A story, then it’s a debate over which character gets the B story or C story. On Wicked City, the fun of it is that – because it’s an ensemble piece and we’re following lots of different people throughout – we can really change that up. Sometimes we’ll break the procedural aspects of what the police are doing first, or sometimes the killers’ story, or a police officer’s personal story. That’s the unknown on the show that I really enjoy – figuring out which story will rise to the surface as the big story for the episode.
“Then we break each story out in its entirety and get all the beats down for each one. After that comes what I call the ‘smush’ – we merge all the stories so we see them as an entire episode and talk about it one more time. The writer goes off and does a beat sheet with their questions and concerns. Then they go to outline. My whole thing is ‘your episode is your episode,’ but if it’s not working, it’s not your fault – it means we haven’t broken it properly. If it’s working and it’s great, then you’ve done a great job finding it and we’ve done great job supporting you.”
Akin to running a multimillion-dollar company, being a showrunner can bring no end of pressure. But Harris says the volume of original drama now being produced in the US means the weight on her shoulders seems lighter, rather than feeling even greater strain from the added competition.
“Five years ago when you woke up in the morning, there was a certain number you were supposed to hit and if you didn’t hit it you knew you were going to be off the air in three episodes,” she says, citing the shift in focus away from overnight ratings as an example of how the industry is changing. “Now, if a network head likes a show and supports it, the programme stays on the air. What you find happens is they find out the ratings plus three, live plus seven, on-demand and from iTunes. Suddenly there’s this whole new way of looking at the success of a show.
“Do I wonder what it would have been like to work on M.A.S.H. and know that 27 million people watched my show? I’m sure that was thrilling. But what I love is that I feel like people are coming to shows and loving them, and getting focused on them. Now networks, studios and streaming platforms are finding ways to make money with shows that are specific and particular. That’s really exciting. We don’t totally know how it will play out, but I’m thrilled by it. I will still feel sick on the morning after the premiere waiting for the ratings because that’s who I am, but I appreciate that it is less about that now than it used to be.”