Leading the blind

Leading the blind

Michael Pickard
By Michael Pickard
November 13, 2015

SHOWRUNNER

Martin Gero gives DQ the inside track on his series Blindspot, and reveals how his comedy experience has influenced his approach to drama.

A woman is found naked in the middle of New York’s Times Square with no memory of who she is or how she got there. Her body is covered in dozens of cryptic tattoos, and one is impossible to miss — the name of FBI agent Kurt Weller. Together, they realise that each image etched on her skin is linked to a crime, but who is she and who did this to her?

So begins perhaps the most intriguing new series to launch this fall on US network television. Blindspot, which launched on NBC in September, stars Jaimie Alexander (main image) as the focal Jane Doe, who partners with Sullivan Stapleton’s Agent Weller to try to solve the mystery of her identity.

Blindspot showrunner and executive producer Martin Gero
Blindspot showrunner and executive producer Martin Gero

The cast also includes Audrey Esparza, Rob Brown, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Ukweli Roach and Ashley Johnson.

And since its first episode, the show has been one of the biggest new shows of the season, earning itself a second-season renewal after establishing itself as the number-one new series in the 18-49 demographic. According to Nielsen ratings, it has averaged 12.7 million viewers per episode through the first six weeks.

It is also one of the most time-shifted shows on television, rising to 15.1 million viewers after live+7 viewing is accounted for.

“I’m a big fan of treasure maps and treasure hunts, riddles and puzzles, so I’ve been trying to figure out how you do a big mysterious puzzle show on television every week,” says showrunner and executive producer Martin Gero.

“I’ve also been playing around with the idea of a private eye who loses her memory and has to investigate her life. Those were both in the back of my mind, and I was in New York when they cleared out Times Square because of a bomb threat. It was such a striking visual image. I woke up one morning and it just all cemented into one. It came to me – this image of a woman in a blast suit going towards a big duffel bag thinking it was a bomb and having this tattooed woman emerge from it. It was a great teaser so I had to figure out if there was a show there, and thankfully there was.”

To bring his story to life, Gero partnered with producer extraordinaire Greg Berlanti, who had been a fan of Gero’s previous series The LA Complex. The pair pitched Blindspot to Warner Bros Television and then took it out to the networks. NBC picked it up and ordered it to series in May, with Warner Bros International Television Distribution handling sales.

Gero says NBC was “very excited” about the project, perhaps in part because of its similarities to another of the network’s recent hit dramas, The Blacklist. “It feels original and new,” says Gero of Blindspot, “but it goes well with what’s done great at NBC. It’s not unlike The Blacklist, so this type of action character drama with great mythology week-to-week fits a mould without feeling too familiar.

“I love The Blacklist. The pilot is one of the best I’ve ever seen. That and The Good Wife, which doesn’t get enough attention for being a spectacularly great character drama, just because it’s on network television. The fact they can do 22 episodes that are all pretty amazing got me excited about doing something in that space and not worrying about the mild procedural element. This is a procedural for people who hate procedurals and a character drama for people who maybe wouldn’t watch a character drama.

Geo describes the debut episode of The Blacklist, starring James Spader, as 'one of the best pilots I've ever seen'
Geo describes the pilot episode of The Blacklist, starring James Spader, as ‘one of the best I’ve ever seen’

“The close-ended case of the week is important but it’s not the main thrust of the episode because the central arc is who Jane Doe is, where she comes from, and why Kurt Weller’s name is on her body. Those things are deeply personal to the characters so even the cases they investigate have high personal stakes.”

Finding the balance between character and plot is “the difference between a show people can’t get enough of and one everyone’s sick of,” Gero says. “Blindspot begins and ends with character. People come to pilots for the huge production values and the shock and awe and high concept. But if you’re not with those characters at the end of the show, it doesn’t work. It’s character over everything, and then we make sure every case moves the story along.

“The good news is that the backstory we’ve come up with is extraordinarily complex, which is good for a TV show because it means we can turn a lot of cards quickly and not run out of steam. Every new episode could contain some major reveals without telling the whole story by the end of season one.”

Gero does, however, promise a satisfying conclusion by the time viewers reach the end of the first season, suggesting that questions surrounding the identity of Jane Doe and why Weller’s name is tattooed on her back will be “mostly” answered.

“For the TV shows I love, every season feels like a book in a series,” he says. “The season has to have a beginning, a middle and an end, but that doesn’t mean the world is wrapped up. Questions will mostly be answered by the end of season one, but that’s just the beginning of the master plan of the group that’s done this to our Jane Doe.”

Gero landed his big break in television when he became a writer on Stargate SG-1 and later Stargate: Atlantis. From the age of 23, he had been earning a living writing travel shows and movies “that were never going to be made” before he landed on the science-fiction franchise.

Gero (centre) on set while filming his previous series The LA Complex
Gero (centre) on set while filming his previous series The LA Complex

“You’re lucky if you’re on a show nowadays and you get to write a script your first year on staff,” he says. “I wrote six episodes immediately and started producing from episode two, just because we were massively understaffed. Seven writers were responsible for 40 hours of Stargate a year.

“It was a great thing to cut your teeth on, as the shows are so complicated to produce. Everything is built, and there’s an enormous amount of stunts and visual effects. It was like doing a doctorate in television on Stargate. By the time I was 30, I’d written just under 40 episodes of TV and produced 150 hours. That’s an amazing thing to walk away into the world with.”

Half-hour HBO comedy Bored to Death followed, before Gero created Canadian drama The LA Complex for CTV and The CW. The show, about an aspiring actress who moves to LA, ran for two seasons and Gero says it provided a great platform to learn how to be a showrunner.

“Running your own show is always a nightmare in the first year; there’s a huge learning curve,” he explains. “The LA Complex was a much smaller show (than Blindspot), with less than half the budget. Being able to work as a showrunner on a show that did not have the scrutiny that this show will have was kind of a blessing. Blindspot is set up and expected to succeed, whereas the last thing I did was a little show from Canada. It’s like going from coaching college football to the NFL. I know what the job is, it’s just on a much bigger scale.”

That job is to be a curator, not a dictator, says Gero, adding that the key is to hire people “who are smarter than you and potentially have a contrary vision to what your show is.” His writing staff came together in May and, after Gero outlined his vision for the series, they broke up the story and matched each character’s story arc with the procedural elements in each episode. Then a writer would outline an individual episode before penning the script.

“I learnt from comedy that I like to rewrite on the big board,” he says. “We put the script on a giant television and go through it line by line, which is very common in comedy but people don’t really do it in drama. It’s time-consuming but I haven’t found a better way to orientate the room so that we’re all moving the same direction. It’s one thing to give notes on something, but another for all of us to rewrite the script together and learn what the show is. That’s relatively new for most drama writers.”

Blindspot stars Jamie Alexander, who emerges sans memory from a bag in Times Square in the pilot
Blindspot stars Jamie Alexander, who emerges sans memory from a bag in Times Square in the pilot

In common with showrunners on all other freshman US dramas launching this fall, Gero says his biggest challenge is putting together 22 episodes all at once from scratch. Blindspot had something of a head start, however, kicking off production with seven scripts already written and allowing Gero to focus on filming and then post-production. But once episodes start to air, that cushion is eroded away week by week and Gero admits it can become too much to manage the equivalent of three full-time jobs running the writers room, production and post-production.

“At some point you have to surround yourself with people you can trust and start to delegate away the show, which is really hard in the first season when there’s no shorthand with anyone. You can’t say, ‘Do it like we did in episode four,’” the showrunner explains. “I spend every day motivating, trying to communicate. It’s a fascinating thing trying to move stuff from your imagination into the real world for 350 people. It’s hard aligning everyone – it’s never going to happen. You have to slowly get everyone pointing in the right direction by sheer force of will.”

The pressure of running a network drama is considerably greater compared with a cable drama, particularly when it comes to time management and the smaller episode orders associated with pay TV. “I heard terror stories of what it’s like to work on a network show,” admits Gero, “but so far that’s not been the case. The luckiest thing that’s ever happened to this show is the people who are paying for it agree with the show we want to make. A friend of mine got to episode two on another show before being told by the network that it wasn’t the show it wanted, and by then it’s very difficult to get everyone back on the same page. You have to thread the needle very carefully.

“The fact we were able to get seven scripts approved before we started shooting illustrates not only how on top of it we are but also how great NBC and Warner Bros have been to work with. I don’t feel like we’re being over-noted. The stuff they’re worried about is typically right and has brought a fresh perspective.”

As for the industry at large, Gero says it’s a “staggering” time to be in television, considering the sheer number of hours of original drama being produced.

“I got into television only really to justify how much television I watch, and even I am at a point where there are shows that I love, like Orphan Black, but I haven’t watched their latest season. Not because I don’t want to but because there’s so much to watch.”

But despite being unable to find time to watch his favourite shows – not surprising, considering his day job – Gero doesn’t think the content bubble is likely to burst in the near future. “Television is more profitable now than ever,” he says. “With the burgeoning of so many international platforms and the widening of what they are willing to put on air, these shows can go into profit much quicker than ever.

“It’s definitely a bubble but I don’t know it’s going to collapse like the housing market. Certainly it’s a golden age of television as far as the volume of extraordinary shows being produced is concerned. And because of the internet, there’s a record amount of critical thinking being done about television as a legitimate art form that is equal to cinema and literature.

“With that comes a whole crop of young writers who have not only been brought up on the same shitty television we secretly all love, but who are also learning how to tell stories in a way that feels more legitimate than when I was getting into television and The Sopranos had only just happened. I don’t think we’re near the end of this great television boom.”

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