Courting drama

Courting drama

Michael Pickard
By Michael Pickard
August 28, 2018

SHOWRUNNER

Ahead of the finale of the fourth season of US drama Hit the Floor, showrunner James LaRosa discusses the show’s move from VH1 to BET, why sports are perfect for TV dramas and his unconventional journey to running a series.

For a series entering its fourth season, Hit the Floor should have been well into its stride. Yet when it returned, it was on a new network, with some cast members deciding not to return.

It could have been a bumpy ride for showrunner James LaRosa, but the writer, who also created the sports drama, is relaxed when he looks back at the changes that afforded him some elements of creative renewal.

First airing in 2013, Hit the Floor explores fame, money, power and sex in professional basketball through the eyes of the fictional LA Devils and its dance team, the Devil Girls. The show launched on VH1, where it aired for three seasons before moving during its most recent off-season to fellow Viacom-owned cable network BET, where the on- and off-court drama of the most recent eight-episode season culminates in tonight’s finale.

The hiatus between the end of season three and the start of season four – amounting to more than two years between March 2016 and July this year – meant some of the original cast members opted not to return, most notably Taylour Paige (who played Devil Girls star Ahsha Hayes) and Adam Senn (basketball player Zero). Returning actors included Kimberly Elise, Dean Cain, McKinley Freeman, Katherine Bailess, Jodi Lyn O’Keefe and Brent Antonello, alongside new signing Teyana Taylor.

James LaRosa with (L-R) writers Holly Henderson, Sarah Fahey, Carla Waddles and Kristen SaBerre

Despite the potential behind-the-scenes difficulties season four posed, LaRosa praises BET for allowing the show to continue as it was at its former home. “Every network has its own personality but, coming from VH1 to BET, the only thing they asked of us is that we didn’t try to be anything different,” he recalls. “Fans obviously love the show for what it is, so they just told us to keep the show the same. So in general, the show is the same in terms of the feel and the pace of story and the kind of dialogue and tone we have. But having new characters definitely gives it a creative jolt.”

While the influx of new characters presented Hit the Floor’s writers with plenty of new storylines to explore, arguably their biggest challenge was writing out those who failed to reappear at the start of season four – particularly as both Ahsha and Zero were in romantic relationships. “It has partially been about picking up the pieces with those characters who aren’t in those relationships anymore and why and what those new relationships look like,” LaRosa says. “It’s not like one of those Happy Days things when a character goes into the attic and then we never hear from them again.”

Hit the Floor first took shape in 2010 when former MTV and VH1 head of scripted Maggie Malina approached long-time friend LaRosa about a soap-like drama set in the world of professional basketball. “Being a soap, it would be through the eyes of the female characters, and that has always been my bread and butter,” he says. “So Maggie called me and that’s how the show came to be.”

LaRosa then pitched the series – originally called Bounce – to VH1, with the show revolving around the basketball side’s dance team and filled with romance, intrigue, sex and murder. Notably, individual scenes rarely stray more than two pages of the script, giving the show a snappy pace.

While Friday Night Lights (2006-2011), which centres on a high-school American football team, is perhaps the undisputed champion of television sports dramas, basketball-based series aren’t without precedent, with One Tree Hill, Survivor’s Remorse and The White Shadow all centring on the game to varying degrees.

The show focuses on a fictional basketball team and its dancers

But why choose sport as a backdrop for drama in the first place? “Winning or losing is always great stakes,” La Rosa says. “The money that goes into professional sports is insane in terms of endorsement deals, contracts, salaries and all that stuff, so there’s always a lot on the line, and it’s great for our show because it’s a sport in which there are wealthy African Americans with power. And you really get to see ‘players’ in every sense of the word.

“They’re very active, their lives are very glossy and high-end and wonderful. When we first started, there was none of that. We came before Empire, Star and How to Get Away with Murder. There weren’t a lot of places where you could see affluent black characters, so that gave us an opportunity. Now there are more, it’s amazing.”

As well as featuring a diverse cast, Hit the Floor also tackles themes including race, gender and sexuality. LaRosa says he wants to make the kind of show he would want to watch, adding that any viewers who have yet to see a character in the show to which they can relate can expect one at some point.

“We have characters with many different types of faces, characters with different sexualities and economic situations. What I like to do is throw everybody in the soup but not point out that everyone is different,” he says. “This isn’t a political show. We’re not pitting people against each other in any other way except for real basic human stuff.

“The captain and star of the team is black, the owner of the team is gay, the sideline reporter is a gay man, the head of the sports network is female. I just don’t want to see the same shit on TV all the time. I want to mix it up and see what happens. So the kind of storylines we have as a result vary wildly.”

Hit the Floor came ahead of a wave of other shows depicting black characters with affluent lifestyles

Furthermore, the showrunner says sports setting allows him to tell stories in a slightly different way. “It’s not about, ‘Oh, the owner of the team is gay. Here’s a storyline about how crazy that is.’ It’s just normalised,” he explains. “One of my highlights is being able to tell stories about gay and lesbian characters or people who don’t label themselves, who are in these types of relationships, because then you can just focus on the relationships.”

LaRosa adds that the show puts its money into the whole cast, whether spending big on set pieces including a Malibu wedding for two black characters or bringing in the rain machines for a kiss scene between two men. “That’s the kind of stuff that we have on the show that I love. They’re not just supporting characters who are happy to be there, they are central lead characters who we get to see things play out for in a way that we would traditionally see played out for other types of people – white people or straight people,” he continues. “We had an episode with a whole kiss-cam storyline where every couple on the kiss cam, I made them all interracial couples because I could – and why not? Welcome to the world.”

LaRosa moved to Hollywood in 1997, landing his first job two years later on DC, a drama about young interns in the US capital that briefly aired on now-defunct US network The WB in 2000.

The writer had expected to rise up through the writers room hierarchy, from staff writer up to story editor and producer and eventually executive producer, but things didn’t quite work out that way.

“I found it difficult because I was impatient. I was doing TV movies and I was writing pilots; I was going from project to project. It wasn’t like I just hopped on Desperate Housewives and worked my way to the top. I knew the show I would be excited to write would be one I had created, so I focused on that and sold Hit the Floor,” LaRosa says.

The New Adventures of Superman star Dean Cain is among the cast

But despite lacking the “battle scars” earned by years working in writers rooms, he admits he is perfectly suited to the multi-faceted role. “If being a showrunner requires 37 skills, I seem to have them. I can’t do anything else. I might be terrible at every other thing in life but somehow being the mother, being the father, being the psychologist, having the energy, dealing with the political side, all that seems to add up to something.”

The unconventional way LaRosa came up the ranks is mirrored in the way he tackles the top job, with every episode written before production begins so he doesn’t have to split his time between the writers room and the set. Filming is also wrapped on a season before post-production begins.

“I don’t run a room in a way that is traditional. In my room, nobody’s higher than anybody else,” he notes. “If you have an idea and it’s a good idea, everybody listens to it. I’m very sensitive to how people are feeling, so I refuse to be in a situation where I see someone getting ganged up on or ignored or dismissed. You’re here to work hard but this isn’t going to be one of your traumatising jobs. I don’t have battle scars and I don’t take out those wounds on anyone who works for me.”

Though a fifth season of Hit the Floor has yet to be confirmed, LaRosa says he already knows where the show is heading – and he vows that viewers won’t have to wait another two years if the show is recommissioned. “We’re a show that is built by the fans and the fans are so patient and amazing with us,” he adds. “That is what keeps us coming back.”

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