wrote for one of the greatest medical dramas ever in "St. Elsewhere," and penned that show's celebrated yet divisive final episode, which would have made the Internet explode had it aired 20 years later. He was the showrunner for one of the greatest cop dramas ever in "Homicide: Life on the Street," and he created the first HBO original drama series "Oz," which made "The Sopranos" and everything that followed possible.
The latest trail he's in the process of blazing involves "Copper,"
a very different kind of cop show, set in New York City in 1864, and the first original scripted series in the history of BBC America, which to this point has existed solely to import shows from the UK. "Copper" (it debuts tomorrow night at 10) stars Tom Weston-Jones as Kevin Corcoran, a Civil War veteran turned NYPD detective, who closes cases with the help of both his partners and another veteran, Matthew Freeman (Ato Essandoh), an African-American physician using a very primitive kind of forensic science.
I spoke with Fontana about returning to the police beat, about once again being the first in the door at a cable network, the advantages of the period setting, and more.
You did cop shows after Homicide. You did "The Beat." How often in the time since have people been saying, “Tom, we want another cop show?”
Tom Fontana: Always. Constantly. And the problem is all of them are sort of pale imitations of shows that already exist. They're like, "Well, what we really want to do is Interpol." And you go, "Yeah, yeah." Everybody wants to do Interpol. So, yeah, it doesn’t really appeal to Barry and I. Certainly, I have a healthy disrespect for the whole "CSI" phenomena because to me, it’s the cold version of a cop show. It’s the by-the-numbers version of a cop show, and so I’ve been secretly waiting for the tide to come back around to when people want to tell stories about characters. On "Homicide" we solved a murder, we didn’t solve the murder; it wasn’t all that important. And I think this show gives us an opportunity to really take the cop show element — because it’s not just solely about being a cop show — and really play with it, because you have to strip down everything we assume we know about detective work.
Where did the idea come from? Was it something that was brought to you or something you came up with?
Tom Fontana: Yeah, AMC was developing this show and Will (Rokos) had written a draft and they asked me to come in and work with him on it and then we really got in sync. It’s very funny, because it was something Barry and I had been talking about. So it really was like fate that brought it all together. And then AMC passed, and it sat around for five years waiting for this moment to come, and here we are.
I was talking to (former HBO executives) Chris Albrecht and Carolyn Strauss recently, and they both said that when you did "Oz" for them, it was basically not a big deal: "Well, we’ll try something, we’ll see. Tom has an idea, all right, fine. Let's do it." There was none of the pressure that they have today.
Tom Fontana: No, no. It was remarkable. We made a presentation of "Oz." Barry and I flew to L.A., we sat in Chris’s office and watched it with him. So there was not even the cone of silence that normally deals with a network executive. Can you imagine that? Walking in with a DVD, going "Here it is," and the three of us are like that, and it ended and we talked about it and he went, "Okay, let’s do it."
Now you're someone doing the first show for yet another channel. Admittedly, they bring in lots of other stuff from their partners across the sea, but this is their chance to put themselves on the map. How would you compare this environment to that of 16 years ago?
Tom Fontana: Well, that really was the Wild, Wild West. With this, I don’t know the dynamics that well, but my sense is is that the mother ship BBC is a very complex corporate structure and there’s a need for it to fit in to the BBC culture. Having said that, (BBC America general manager) Perry (Simon) has been extraordinary — as enthusiastic as Chris was about "Oz," Perry has been about this as and involved in the best way. Not in an intrusive way, but in a supportive nurturing way.
How much of either the original script from Will that you saw or the one that you two then worked on together at AMC has survived to what we are now seeing that’s going to be on in BBC America?
Tom Fontana: Actually the one that Will and I got to is the script you will see. The only difference is that our first episode was the first two episodes (of the BBC America version). And there was so much ground to cover and so much kind of textural stuff that we wanted to get in that I had the idea that we should split them in to two episodes. So the first and the second episode was actually one episode once upon a time.
But in splitting it up in that way, you start off with a case about child prostitution, and now your first two episodes are predominantly about that subject. Why did you decide on that as the subject matter of your initial case?
Tom Fontana: I think that it automatically engages the audience emotionally. And it allows a character that is rough and morally dicey to let the audience go, “Oh, but he’s a good guy because he’s taking care of what we would want him to take care of.” It allows the audience to identify with a character who’s maybe not as overtly likeable as a leading man in a TV series usually is.
But moving forward I assume it’s not going to be every week Corky is just saving child prostitutes.
Tom Fontana: No, no, no. The third episode is a white man is lynched the way that black people were lynched, and the case is really about trying to figure out who did it, you know.
Have you ever read "The Alienist"?
Tom Fontana: I haven’t. But that’s a later period.
Yes, that’s around the turn of the century and even there a lot of the scientific stuff that we take for granted are very rare. Fingerprints seem like voodoo, for instance.
Tom Fontana: Yeah, that’s right.
So what research did you do into the science of the period?
Tom Fontana: Well, I’m not a criminologist and I’m not a scientist. So my interest is only in does it help tell a good story. I was reading medical pamphlets from the 1850s, 1860s, not something I would normally curl up with as I go to bed at night. And you would find these things where you would go, "Well, I don’t know about this." So I did a lot of research but only because I don’t really understand medicine and science. It only had to be about how well it played dramatically and how quickly I could tell that as an event as opposed to having to explain a whole big scientific explanation, because who wants to sit around and listen to that?
Now, "Homicide" itself wasn't especially high-tech — that's a show about people talking in a room — so was it that great of a difference in that respect, in terms of how you approach the other one to going back here?
Tom Fontana: Absolutely. This is the rawer version of Homicide because there isn’t even the telephone or the car.
We're used to police partners being duos, and you have a trio. Why?
Tom Fontana: I think because we were trying to reflect what it was like back then, which is that it wasn’t the kind of organized police department. There were actually two police departments in New York at the time. So the idea was is that it’s whoever — it’s this guy, it’s three, it’s four, it’s whatever — and also there’s this sort of a nice three musketeers thing. I didn’t know BBC America was going to be doing a musketeers show, but there’s a kind of nice musketeers thing to it because it’s all for one and one for all.
I want to talk about something you've said about how this period is a reflection of what we’re going through now. How much of the writing is actually driven by that as opposed to just, "Here’s the story we’re telling and maybe at the tail end I can figure out something that’s thematically taut"?
Tom Fontana: It is definitely a part of the genetics of the storytelling, asking what are the parallels, but the trick is to not have it feel like a polemic because we’re still just trying to tell a ripping good story. We’re not trying to change anybody’s mind here and so it is inherently part of the storytelling.
So just using this two-parter, how did you go into that and say, "All right, here’s what it has to say about today"?
Tom Fontana: Well, in this particular case, one of the elements is the child abuse thing. I mean, you look at the Penn State thing and you say to yourself, “How is it possible in our lifetime that these kind of things can go on and the authorities ignore it?” (There's a scene in the pilot where) clearly there has been a political choice to fuck with the truth. That’s what the Penn State story is. It was a choice to fuck with the truth, and so I mean that’s just an example. The other elements are the position of the immigrant in reference to the uptown world, you know. When you’re invited up town and when you’re not invite up town.
"Homicide" was really famous for not quite colorblind casting, but not really concerning itself with, "Okay, we’ve got the one token black guy in the squad." There's the famous scene where five cops are in a room and they’re all black and it’s not a big deal and it's not about them being black. "Oz" obviously had tremendous minority representation. Here Freeman and his wife are characters, but how tricky is it to work with them given these social limitations at the time?
Tom Fontana: Well, you know, because their part of the story does directly relate to them being African Americans, you can’t ignore it. You can’t say well there’s just this nice couple and they happen to be black. The struggle they’re going through is a substantial struggle. So what we tried to do was to create this history between Freeman, Morehouse, and Corcoran that where they have a shared humanity and then therefore each of them can be in each others stories when we need them to be.
Something else Carolyn told me was, "Tom came to us at a time when nobody was coming to us just because it seemed like a thing to do." So I mentioned that I would be seeing you about this show, she said, “Tom doing the first BBC America show, that seems a very Tom thing to do.” Do you see yourself with someone who wants to just try something nobody’s tried?
Tom Fontana: I’d certainly want to be somebody who’s known for trying something that nobody’s tried. I will also say I’m more interested in working at a place that will let me tell the stories I want to tell than being forced to tell stories that I don’t want to tell just so I can get on the air.
Content-wise, what are you allowed to do?
Tom Fontana: Well, you know, I can’t say that we’ve been limited in much. Somewhere between broadcast and HBO is where this show lives in terms of sexual content and language.
Have you been given a list? I know that FX and AMC, for instance, can’t say "fuck." That’s one thing where they draw the line at.
Tom Fontana: We weren’t given a list but we actually didn’t want to say "fuck."
So you’re not taking the David Milch approach of, "It’s the 19th century, people just cursed."
Tom Fontana: People said whatever they wanted. No, no. What we’re saying is the fun and the hardest part of this was finding the language that was somehow not archaic and not modern. I think when you have a character say "fuck" — and I do it on "Borgia," they say "fuck" all the time on "Borgia" — the audience does go, “Huh?” You know what I mean? Now sometimes that’s good to make them go "Huh," but I think with this show it wouldn’t work. I don’t know why.