All things equal
Showrunners Terri Edda Miller and Andrew W Marlowe tell DQ about reimagining vigilante drama The Equalizer for US network CBS and producing the Queen Latifah-led series during the pandemic.
Since last year’s coronavirus-enforced pause, the production of US network dramas has more than got back up to speed. So much so that when DQ speaks to the showrunners of CBS drama The Equalizer, they have just started shooting episode six, are finishing episode five, writing is underway on episode seven and they already have the entire 13-part season mapped out.
It’s an astonishing accomplishment considering filming on the series began in November, eight months later than originally planned. Adhering to the traditional pilot model still embraced by the major US broadcast networks, the series had been put into development in November 2019 and a pilot was ordered in January last year, with production slated for March. Two days before filming, however, the project was put on hold because of the pandemic. Undeterred, CBS bypassed the pilot process and took The Equalizer straight to series.
That faith appears to have paid off, with the series drawing an eye-catching 20 million viewers on its debut in the coveted post-Super Bowl spot on February 7, before eight million tuned in for episodes two and three. Part four airs this Sunday.
It all adds up to an extraordinarily busy year for husband-and-wife showrunners Andrew W Marlowe and Terri Edda Miller, who are best known for creating long-running detective procedurals Castle and Take Two.
“The truth is we put down a challenge to ourselves and the whole production because we wanted to try to make it feel as if we weren’t shooting during the pandemic,” Miller says of their ambition to make the cinematic drama they had originally envisioned. “The script we went into shoot in March, we ended up shooting that same show when we came back in November.
“Every single department in the production is affected and people have had to learn to work in new and different ways, like [adjusting to the limited number of] people who can be inside a structure at the same time. If you’re shooting in a small apartment or, in our show, a small diner, you’re counting how many folks are inside because we all want to keep everybody safe.
“People are learning that if you have a camera crew in there, this is how many actors can be in there, and then everybody else is outdoors and running back and forth. The timing of everything is different and the way people behave on set is different. It’s like going to a completely new country and learning how to make a film or TV show.”
The crew of the New York City-set show spent a couple of days on location to film scenes for first episode, before the production moved across the Hudson River to New Jersey and the show’s base inside the former IZOD Center, which is part of the Meadowlands complex in East Rutherford. Each department has been housed in a separate dressing room, meaning the entire production team can live together in the same complex.
“Our sets are centre stage of the old arena so we’re surrounded by all the seats. The offices we have are the old skyboxes, so it’s an interesting experience to be able to repurpose some of these old buildings and give them a new life at a time when there’s an explosion of content and people are looking for stage space,” Marlowe says.
Production was briefly paused earlier this month through an “abundance of caution” after a crew member thought they might have been in contact with someone who tested positive for Covid-19. “There was never anybody who was sick or in harm’s way but there was a possible contact that made everybody think the best thing to do was take a couple of days and assess the situation,” Marlowe says. “We’re back up and running now, filming as we speak.”
Based on the 1980s crime series starring Edward Woodward, and the more recent films starring Denzel Washington, The Equalizer stars Queen Latifah (Chicago) as Robyn McCall, an enigmatic woman with a mysterious background who uses her extensive skills to help those with nowhere else to turn. In episode one, she comes to the aid of a young waitress framed for murder and on the run from the police. At the end of the opening instalment, Robyn sends out an anonymous online message offering to help anyone who has “the odds against them,” thus setting up the rest of the series.
The cast also includes Chris Noth, Lorraine Toussaint, Tory Kittles, Adam Goldberg, Liza Lapira and Laya DeLeon Hayes. Produced by Universal Television in association with CBS Studios, the show is distributed internationally by NBCUniversal Global Distribution.
When they were approached to take on the project, Marlowe and Miller were already developing ideas for series that had some relevance to the state of the world. They felt the premise of The Equalizer – a vigilante helping people let down by the very agencies there to support them – was the perfect fit. Latifah was already on board as an executive producer.
“Coming out of the last several years here, it feels like we’re living in challenging times and people on all sides of the political spectrum don’t necessarily trust the institutions that are there to serve and protect them,” Marlowe explains. “There’s a sense that the little guy just doesn’t have a chance to win because there are so many institutional forces stacked against them. Because we’re in this particular time, we thought it was the right time to go back and take a look at the DNA of The Equalizer to see if we could update it for this particular moment.”
Miller adds” “We felt it was right because there isn’t anybody in the world who at any time wouldn’t like to have somebody come in and help them solve a problem that seems unsolvable; somebody who has resources and the ability to break through whatever systems are in place that don’t allow justice to be served.”
At a time when superheroes are dominating the big and small screens, they felt there was also room for a “guardian angel” figure to look out for people, with Marlowe describing Latifah as the face of justice for a new generation.
“As much as we loved the old Equalizer, there’s a little bit of the ‘white saviour’ aspect to it, and to have somebody come in who has a fresh look for these particular times was very exciting to us,” he continues. “The danger of the superhero myth is that it [can imply] we are all victims until a larger-than-life figure comes along and saves us, and that we have no power. One of the things we’re hoping to do in the show is have our character show the people she is helping what their power is and how they can stand up for themselves.
“One of the concepts we really wanted to include in The Equalizer is that not only does the Equalizer help people, she also offers them a chance to improve themselves and empower themselves to see their lives improve going forward. With Jewel at the end of the first episode, Robyn gives her the opportunity to go forward and achieve the things she wants to achieve in her life.”
The show’s writers room began on Zoom, a difficult medium for a people used to sitting in a room together throwing out ideas about how a storyline or character might develop. Miller admits missing the camaraderie of running a writers room in person and says they had to find a way to carve out time to talk about things other than work or to celebrate a birthday.
“One of the learning curves [on Zoom] is how to have that same human interaction and have that same feeling of creativity and those great bursts where you discover things together along the way,” she notes.
“On previous shows, we would always refer to the restroom as being the ‘idea room’ because somebody would get up in the middle of a story break, go to the bathroom and come back and say, ‘Oh, I have an idea,’” Marlowe says. “On Zoom, we have to create these breaks and moments for people to step away from the problem and then come back and solve it. There’s a lot of adjustment. It’s like kids with remote learning – it’s wearying to be on screens all day. But we’re making it work for the most part, like all shows are.”
Then in production, “you just have to be in there,” Miller says. Marlowe picks up: “There was a lot of adjusting in the beginning, trying to create a safe emotional space for the actors to do what they do when they walk on set and it becomes incredibly foreign because you don’t see friendly faces, you just see mask and shield. For them to be able to exercise their craft, hats off to them for what they’ve been able to do. Visually, things can look unfriendly when you walk on a set just because it’s a little bit like something out of a sci-fi movie.”
As new streaming platforms continue to launch and US cable networks can still claim to be the home of prestige drama, those early Equalizer ratings suggest broadcast TV has plenty of life left. With extensive experience working in network television, Miller highlights the broad reach that a series on one of the main five broadcasters can have, while Marlowe warns of the dangers of relying on streaming recommendations to find your next TV fix.
“Curation can also cut you off from being exposed to new ideas,” he says. “One of the things about broadcast television is, if you’re doing interesting, compelling storytelling, you may have the opportunity to engage in social conversation people might not get in their curated bubbles.”
In The Equalizer, they believe they have found a story with a universal premise that can appeal to viewers across the US and beyond, with Robyn coming to the aid of someone struggling to overcome a problem in each episode. In this reimagined version, viewers will also see Robyn managing trouble at home as she tries to look after her teenage daughter, while the tension is further dialled up by a cop, Marcus Dante (Kittles), who is on Robyn’s tail and believes things should be done by the book.
“One of the things we’re interested in exploring here is Robyn’s personal life,” Miller says. “When you’re a vigilante but also a working mum, how do you balance the work you’re doing out in the world that’s incredibly important, which may have life-or-death stakes, but also be there for your family?
“We really wanted to have a real woman who, when she’s hit, she’s hurt and has to deal with that. And when she has obligations, she has to make decisions about priorities, and she’s really torn like everybody else in real life is. She presents a humanity that is relatable to the people she helps and will hopefully be relatable to our audience as well.”
“We also have a cop who is pursuing her and we want to explore that friction between the institutions that are failing people and the people who are trying to do the right thing, and what it means when you cross the line,” Marlowe says. “We have some interesting conversations coming up in the series that will be fun for us to delve into and which we hope the audience responds to.”
The showrunners don’t ever want to be didactic or preachy, however, with their main priority to ensure audiences come to The Equalizer for a fun, relatable and emotional ride. With its initial 13-episode run taking The Equalizer to the end of the broadcast year in May, their thoughts have already turned to a potential second season – but just making it to the end of season one amid all the challenges of filming in a pandemic will feel like a huge success for Marlowe and Miller.
“We feel like if we shoot 13, that’s victory,” Miller says. “Our cast and our crew are very brave, just like everybody who’s shooting everywhere.”