What draws viewers to a TV show? Sometimes it's the spark between the actors, or opening a window onto a new or rarely seen world. And sometimes seeing Bryan Cranston in his tighty whiteys is all it takes.
Meet the show runners, the people charged with spearheading a show's creative punch even as they must deal with the network brass. The Envelope invited five such executive producers (and, in many cases, the creators) of some of television's most compelling series — Alex Gansa of Showtime's "Homeland," Terence Winter of HBO's "Boardwalk Empire," David Benioff of HBO's "Game of Thrones," Glen Mazzara of AMC's "The Walking Dead" and Vince Gilligan of AMC's "Breaking Bad" — to join together for a discussion of what makes a show work, violence in the media and the often troubling choices that need to be made in deciding a character's fate.
Here is the transcript of that April 29 conversation; it has been edited for length:
All of your shows have enjoyed popular and critical success, but I think what draws people to each of your shows is probably different. What do you think it is that people are connecting to?
Alex Gansa: Well, can I just first say does being here guarantee us a nomination?
It does, yes.
Glen Mazzara: What're you worried about?
What about their relationship do you think people are attracted to?
Gansa: I think it's their damage. It's that they're flawed, damaged people who recognize something in each other. And investigating that relationship is what makes sitting in the story room fun. Figuring out how they actually connect, and through what, and over what, and all the lies, and truths that exist in their relationship.
Terence Winter: I think for me what drew me to the project initially is probably what draws audiences as well. I mean, it's an era that has been seldom depicted on TV. There's something tried and true about the gangster genre that grabs people automatically. And also, for me, coming off "The Sopranos," that was sort of the end of the gangster era and this was an opportunity to explore the beginnings of that. It's a window into a world that doesn't exist anymore. And yet, what I think makes it relatable is there's so many issues that almost feel ripped out of today's headlines. I mean, basically, prohibition or illegal alcohol is really the illegal drug business. We did a story line last year involving women's fertility rights and that stuff is in the headlines. So, it's topical and yet it takes place a hundred years ago.
David Benioff: George's books [George R.R. Martin, the writer of the novels the show is based on] were certainly already really popular before the show came out. But Terry was saying it's a world that we don't know very well anymore, this is a world that's actually never existed and there's something great about, for me as a TV viewer, going someplace I've never been before.
Mazzara: I think people are drawn to "The Walking Dead" because they seem to buy into the concept of zombie apocalypse for some reason. They immediately put themselves in that set of circumstances. So, they, in a sense, play along at home. What would I do? We write the show so that people have to make moral choices, they have to make decisions about how to survive, who to partner up with, that sort of stuff. And we have terrific actors and they've brought these characters to life in a tremendous way.
Were you surprised at the ratings this year? I mean, you're beating broadcast shows.
Mazzara: It's something we don't take lightly. I think all of us, when we do our work, you're like, "Oh, I hope somebody watches this," (Laughs) and you just focus on making it as good as possible. And then, to put it out there, and these numbers come in, that's pretty exciting and something we're all very appreciative of.