Interview: 'Gang Related' showrunner Scott Rosenbaum on antiheroes, 'Shield' comparisons and more
"Gang Related" comes on strong with a confidence that you don't expect to see from a show premiering a week after the network upfront season. The pilot, written by Chris Morgan and directed by Allen Hughes, is brash, explosive and features a strong cast ably chewing scenery. It is, in short, like a summer movie only on TV.
As often happens with the transition from pilots to series, subsequent episodes maybe don't have quite the same scale, but they still offer tight pacing, terrific use of LA locations and an interestingly twisty narrative focusing on Ryan Lopez (Ramon Rodriguez), a cop torn between his gang task force and the gang family (fronted by Cliff Curtis' Javier Acosta) that raised him.
With most of Morgan's credits coming from the big screen, FOX brought in Scott Rosenbaum as showrunner for "Gang Related." While Rosenbaum's more recent credits include "Chuck" and ABC's "V" reboot, when he comes on-board an LA-set cop drama, it's immediately going to raise questions about one thing and one thing only: A little FX drama called "The Shield." The Shawn Ryan-created Emmy winner is one of the genre's pinnacles and Rosenbaum was there from the beginning, rising to the rank of EP and standing with Ryan, Glenn Mazzara, Kurt Sutter and Scott Brazil in the show's creative core.
I got on the phone last week for a lengthy conversation with Rosenbaum about his work on "Gang Related" and, naturally, "The Shield" was where I started and it comes up a lot. But "Gang Related" isn't "The Shield" and it doesn't do much good to compare the two shows, so Rosenbaum discusses many of the other things he tried to explore in his new gig. We discussed the challenges of making a good anti-hero in a post-Vic Mackey/Walter White world, the difficulties of making a network show without any chance for feedback and the advice he got from Kurt Sutter about reading reviews. He also explains FOX's expectations for "Gang Related" given that a 2014-2015 schedule was already announced without "Gang Related" being mentioned.
Click through for the full Q&A. And check out "Gang Related" on Thursday night...
HitFix: So I guess my first question is how much of your not wanting to do another police show after "The Shield"" was about not wanting to answer questions from reporters about you doing another police show after "The Shield"?
Scott Rosenbaum: Okay, it’s funny you say that, because I was very terrified and when you work on a show like "The Shield" the expectations of a show in that genre, specifically a cop show are so high. I remember when Kurt Sutter and "Sons of Anarchy" was coming out and although you might not say it’s a cop show, it's certainly a show that was in the spirit of that show in terms of serialized character drama. And you get really nervous. And I kept saying to myself, "I can’t do a cop show. I can’t do a cop show." I don’t think I’ll ever be able to do anything that was as good as "The Shield" and surpass what Shawn and the rest of the team was able to do. So it was very nerve-wracking for me and, to be honest with you, I think about it a lot. And then essentially when the opportunity presented itself, there were things that were attractive to me about "Gang Related." There were things I had not explored in "The Shield" and I sort of figured I’m gonna go at it and I’m gonna just do the best I can and hope that if people make comparisons they’re somewhat kind. It’s scary and it’s difficult, you know? That’s one of the reasons why I went in totally different genres afterwards. That’s why I went to "Chuck" and that’s why I went to "V." And but this one, when I read Chris Morgan’s script and spoke to Brian Grazer and Francie Calfo over at Imagine and the studio about it and what they were gonna allow us to try to do, I decided that I was gonna give it a shot. You can’t hide forever, right?
HitFix: Well what was sort of the kernel that got you thinking, "OK, maybe this is the exception that I can make"?
Scott Rosenbaum: I think the thing that for me was the most intriguing aspect for me and actually it was something that was not directly in the pilot, it was something that I sort of surmised out of the pilot, discussed with Chris Morgan and we sort of talked about it as something that – because I was so interested in it that – that that would become a thrust of the first season, which is the idea of this Acosta family trying to get out of the gang. So many of the cop shows are about the cops and the difficulties they’re having with the gang and you meet the gang members, obviously in "The Wire," you really get to meet the gang members. But in this case, I saw sort of an opportunity to sort of see both sides of it: The cops’ point of view and their, you know, their frustration and their need to create safety on the streets but then maybe this unique perspective that we don’t always see about a gang family who, like many of the gangs, especially the early gangs of the Italian families and the Jewish families and the Irish families that came over at the turn of the century, it was a means to an end. And the end was not to kill, but it was a means to move up and achieve the American dream.
I always use the analogy of Javier Acosta is trying to be Joe Kennedy. But the question that I posed sort of in my mind and to the writers and Chris and I always talked about it was, "But can he ever, because he’s not white?" These are a lot of things that turn out as the season progresses and we go through the season, but you see the struggle of: Is it a fair playing field? Is it easier for a Caucasian to escape like the Kennedys did and more difficult for a Latino gang? But that was something that was really sort of fascinating for me in exploring those, that family and those characters. And obviously that took us directly into Ryan’s conflict which is, you know, he believes that Javier, despite the bad things he does, ultimately has this bigger vision for the family and that’s to get them out. And unfortunately to get out, he needs Ryan’s help to sort of, you know, block for him so to speak and to protect the family long enough so that a lot of these illegal dealings that he has done can become legitimate and they can actually safely walk away. But in order to safely walk away and in order for Javier just to be free, as you sort of see what he does in the first couple of episodes, he has to make a little bit of a deal with the Devil to finally get out. So a lot of bad things are gonna have to happen in order to get there. And that’s where I think we sort of got to the crux of the drama which is: How much is Ryan going to allow? How many bad things is he gonna allow to happen for the cause of letting his “adopted family” gang family go free? What is his sort of moral compass and where is it gonna land and what’s he going to do? And is he gonna continue to protect the Acostas? We never really got into that kind of stuff on "The Shield." With "The Shield" it was very geared towards -- in some ways it was similar -- but with the Strike Team guys and sort of I think thematically for the viewers watching the show as we would watch, you know, how long are we gonna be with Vic as he breaks rules and breaks laws even though we know he’s trying to protect us? He’s trying to protect civilians, at least in his mind. How far are we willing to let him cross that line to do so? And in some ways there’s a parallel I think here. And I don’t mean to compare the shows by any stretch in terms of quality or acting. I’m not trying to say our show is like "The Shield," but these are areas of "The Shield" that I found really interesting and fascinating and hadn’t seen that side on the gang side of the streets, so to speak.
HitFix: To some degree the pilot has the template that’s kind of "Infernal Affairs" or "The Departed" but you were sort of attracted to the template that was more "Godfather II" it sounds like?
Scott Rosenbaum: You know what? Yeah, I think that’s a good analogy. What I think we wanted to do, though, is you sort of combine the two of them. Because the central dilemma that Ryan has in the pilot is a great one. What does he do as he’s split between these two families? He starts to really love his cop family. He loves his Acosta family, they raised him. And here’s this dilemma of "What do you do?" But what I wanted to do, at least in Season 1, was lean a little more into the Acosta family rather than take a cop family, you know? We get into the cop family a lot, we spend a lot of time with them, but I really thought it would be interesting is to, the way to differentiate it from "The Shield" was that in "The Shield" we spent almost all of our time with our cops. We would meet our bad guys but we didn’t really know them incredibly well. And we didn’t really see them go home to their families. So the opportunity I saw that I really liked was to take this amazing central dilemma that Chris created and then well, you know what? Why don’t we spend some more time with the Acosta family and hopefully that will make the show feel fresh and different than sort of "The Departed" or "Infernal Affairs."
HitFix: When you’re spending time with the Acostas what is the line to which their behavior can go where they can’t be brought back? Where you can’t expect people to sympathize with them, empathize with them, whatever. How bad can their behavior be and then how much did you guys want to sort of play with that line?
Scott Rosenbaum: It’s a very good question because that exact idea was something that at the very beginning of the season was gonna be the key to where Season 1 went, because ultimately the person who has to make that decision, in the show dramatically, is Ryan. And we all really spent a lot of time thinking about, "If you were Ryan and were this character what would that line be?" And now I can’t tell you what that line is because then I’d be giving away something that’s gonna happen which I really want to preserve. It would be giving away story. But Javier crosses that line at some point.
Scott Rosenbaum: I can’t tell you what the line is because that would be like giving you the plot twist. Do you know what I mean? But yeah, we have that line. We discussed it. We felt like this is who Ryan is, this is his moral compass, this is how far we believe he’s going to go to protect the family and then so the fun is what happens when Javier crosses it. What’s Ryan gonna do? And he does.
HitFix: Given those circumstances, I mean is it harder to create that kind of dilemma in a TV world where, you know, viewers have embraced Vic Mackey, where they’ve embraced Walter White, you know. We’ve sort of seen what the line is. Apparently Walter White could kill dozens of people and some people still thought he was the hero. Ditto with Vic Mackey. I mean is it easier now? Have viewers been sort of trained to accept behavior?
Scott Rosenbaum: I think that they have and I think that’s a really interesting thing you bring up, because I can tell you that when we were on "The Shield", one of the things that was really interesting was, you know, Shawn had always said we have to keep things balanced. He’s like, "Vic isn’t a hero. He is a hero in some people’s mind but he does enough bad things that if it’s a Rorschach test it has to be fifty-fifty. Half the people think he’s good, half the people think he’s bad." And we would purposely find things for Vic to do that we thought was bad so we could level the playing field. And amazingly what we would find is the audience, pretty much no matter what we did, would still root for Vic. And it became like, "Wow," like we liked that he was for Vic but it started to feel like we don’t want to build this unrealistic superhero that people don’t like. And there was something about it and it was the acting and it was the directing and the writing all together, but something happened where they would follow Vic down an alley anyway and there was pretty much nothing he could do.
So that being said, I did think about that and we all thought about that. So the way that we approached was that I felt that in order for the audience to be able to... we sort of decided to tell the story directly through Ryan’s eyes, so that the audience could be in Ryan’s head, understand Ryan’s moral dilemma, begin to have him be the person that you’re rooting for the most, establish what rules are important to him and then if you take something from him, if you hurt him in a way hopefully the audience is feeling that same hurt. And you will look at some of your anti-heroes as, you know, you will root against them maybe. And by the way, I am really looking forward to see if we’re able to accomplish that because like you said, it’s right. Javier, he might end up being charming enough and likable enough and have enough good in him --- which he does have a lot of good in him -- that the bad is overlooked. That will be fascinating because we’ll know, hopefully we’ll get a Season 2, when you’re writing a show right now you don’t know how the audience necessarily is gonna react. You have a sense of how you think they’re gonna react. You want to push them to react in a certain way obviously. But until people start watching the shows and you start hearing their feedback and the way they’re interpreting things, there’s nothing we can do. I mean you can’t change it but there’s no doubt that there’s a possibility that if the way the audience reacts to how the season plays out is different than what the intention was, I’ll probably, Chris and I and the rest of the group will probably have to change some of the stuff we do in Season 2, because we’ve designed Season 1 to go to a very specific place in Season 2 and expect the audience to have a certain reaction to that.
HitFix: Speaking sort of audience reaction, you’ve done it both ways. This is a show where it’s gonna be in the can before it ever premieres. Every bit of it locked, done. But you’ve also had the "Chuck" experience where the audience has seen things and the audience is reacting and you know how they respond to things. What would be your own preference in terms of how much you’d be able to see how people are responding to you and the show?
Scott Rosenbaum: Okay, personally I guess I’m gonna sit here and say I like reaction. Now granted let me just say this like, and you know what this is like and the show’s gonna get put out there and all shows get put out there and some, every individual has a different point of view. Some people are gonna like the show, some people are gonna hate the show, some people are gonna say It’s the best they ever saw, some people are gonna be like I can’t believe they made it. And then ultimately though, you have to sort of ignore the extremes. It’s the middle where I think the truth is often laid, where people like it and sometimes you’ll get like constructive criticism. And sometimes even, you know, the worst reviews there’s always something in there that might be real and something you can use and something that’s valuable. But for us we made the show. We like the show. We think it can be better. We think we can work on it where we’re finding it, it’s a first season show.
But what does happen with audience interactions which is why I do like it is that I wouldn’t change something that I 100 percent believed in just because audience members are like, "We hate that you did that." That’s not a good way to create a show, but what I do find interesting is the emotional buttons and the reaction to the characters. When we want you to like them, are they liking them? And when we want you to don’t like them, are they not liking them? Those are things that become valuable because if audiences are reacting different than the way we intended and hoped that they would, that allows us to course-correct a little bit. Again, if I create a character and I want everyone to hate him and that’s purposeful and everyone loves him, no matter how convinced I am that they’re wrong, obviously something’s happening between my brain and the final product that the intended sort of emotional response is not getting there. And you do have that chance to react. Then there’s also sometimes like even, you know the "Chuck" fans were so vocal -- and "The Shield" fans were to -- and we would listen to them, but we would also if there was something that we felt like absolutely would be a mistake – and a lot of times too, a lot of sometimes fans don’t realize that, you know, the goal is to do as many multiple seasons and so there is value, for instance, in Chuck and Sarah not getting together immediately, you know. So you get the frustration of, "Well why don’t they just get together?" and as writer and storytellers we look at it as like, "We want to get them together at the right time but there needs to be that room to breathe and to have the fun of the audience aching for them to be together." And instant gratification for audiences. We like it but believe... I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched a show and have been so mad that like something happened. I mean like "Game of Thrones" I was like, "I’m never watching this show," I was so mad at them when they killed Sean Bean’s character. But I kept watching it and then I realized, I was like, "Wow, they had a vision for this and it made sense. And I’m glad that I wasn’t in charge because I might not have killed him and the show wouldn’t have been as good." And it happens all the time. It's hard, though.
HitFix: Following along that line and also sort of following along the idea of, you know, you make a TV show so that you can make five or six seasons of a TV show. We talked about "The Departed," "Infernal Affairs" structure and that’s a story that had to wrap up in two hours and in both versions of the story wrapped up in a very sort of negative, sort of pessimistic, you can’t live a double life kind of, you know, I guess bow. Now obviously you can’t do that on TV. What is sort of your thought on how this story plays out long term? How long can Ryan be this double agent whatever?
Scott Rosenbaum: Okay, this one’s tricky. I don’t want to give away what’s gonna happen. But let me use an example of "The Shield", right. Because I know it so well. You know, a lot of people would have said, you might have asked the question and it would have been a very good question is, "How long can a guy like Vic Mackey get away without getting caught?" And I think that the answer to this question is I think: Yes. Do I have a plan, is he gonna just balance both sides potentially throughout the entire run of the show? No. I don’t think that’s gonna happen. I think there is gonna be a point where he’s either caught or he switches sides and changes but the question is, even with that happening, you still have the question of, "Well once he switches sides or once he gets caught that how do you maintain the show and the sort of the drama and tension?" And I think that just comes down to getting to a point where you love the characters, you’re completely intrigued by them and you’re bringing in new story and new twists and turns and keeping, though, being that it’s credible. I mean one of the things that is a struggle and we worked really hard on in Season 1 is even though we know that we want to have a Season 2 and a Season 3 and we have a direction of where we want to take that, we have to make sure that the audience doesn’t watch the show and say, "Oh this is bogus. He would have been caught by now." And so we always worried about that with Vic, which is if the audience ever starts to believe that Vic should have been caught we’re in trouble so how do we get out of it? Well, we use all of our brains doing Vic smarter, so smart that when he gets out of stuff you actually believe that he would have gotten out of it.
And I think that’s a challenge for us. And I think we have a really good plan actually.. Some people say, "Oh I know what seven seasons are." I have ideas of where it can go, but what we do have is – and with a show like this it’s very important in these serialized shows to have a game plan well ahead of time -- we have a very good strong plan for at least through Season 3 of how to maintain the tension but also – and again I don’t want to give away what happens at the end of the season and hopefully you’ll stick with us and watch it because I think it’s a really fun, interesting turn -- we have a plan that I think we can keep people credibly believing that the things that are happening in the world are happening. It’s interesting and sometimes people don’t care which I always find interesting. Like sometimes when people joke about "24," like, "How did he get away with this?" or on "The Following," like, "How come the FBI guys didn't catch him? We in our writer’s room really try to look at the show as with as much critical attention as possible to say we want to make sure the people who are kind enough to watch our show and stick with it that we respect their intelligence and make sure that we know what they’re thinking which is, "How’s he gonna get away with it?" and if he does we want to make sure it’s clever and it feels real. And it is real actually.