Can the Kings Be TV’s Next Super Producers?

Can the Kings Be TV’s Next Super Producers?

For the last decade, the television producers Robert and Michelle King have thrived in the courtroom.

The husband-and-wife duo created the celebrated CBS legal drama “The Good Wife,” which lasted seven seasons and won five Emmys. They did it again with “The Good Fight,” a spinoff that has received a rapturous response from critics since it went live on CBS All Access two years ago.

But what happens when the Kings turn to something that’s a little bit different? Something that exchanges the legal briefs and back-stabbing for demons and miracles?

Viewers will find out on Sept. 26, when the couple’s latest effort, “Evil,” premieres on CBS. The Kings’ first thriller, “Evil” centers on an investigative team made up of a psychologist, a priest-in-training and a carpenter who are assessing whether people who committed crimes, ranging from homicide to workplace harassment, had a psychological break. Or something else. What if the devil or some supernatural element was at work?

The series represents a big step for the Kings who are expanding their portfolio at a time when entertainment companies are demanding new original series to help them compete with streaming behemoths like Netflix and Amazon.

Now, with a network series, a streaming series and, soon, a premium cable series called “Your Honor” — it will be on Showtime and stars Bryan Cranston — they are poised to join other top producers like Ryan Murphy and Greg Berlanti with multiple shows on multiple platforms.

“They’re very, very ambitious, and skilled at handling that ambition,” said David Stapf, president of CBS Television Studios, the Kings’ longtime home.

“Evil” also is something of a risk for the hands-on producers.

Despite abundant critical acclaim for “The Good Wife” and “The Good Fight,” neither commanded large audiences. And the Kings have yet to prove that they can make successful shows outside of “The Good Wife” universe. Other efforts — a quirky science-fiction political series called “BrainDead” on CBS in 2016 and a legal drama titled “In Justice” on ABC in 2006 — ended with quick cancellations.

There have been some encouraging early signs for “Evil.” When CBS debuted the trailer for advertisers at its annual so-called upfront in May, it was just terrifying enough to fill Carnegie Hall with theater-wide gasps. CBS executives heard that reaction, and haven’t forgotten it.

“This one has generated a lot more buzz than anything I can remember over the last few years,” said Kelly Kahl, the president of CBS Entertainment. “If subsequent episodes live up to the pilot, I can’t see this being anything less than a really successful show.”

Inspired by a debate the Kings have been having for three decades, the show asks, What makes people do bad things?

“It could be Jeffrey Epstein, it could be anything,” Robert King said recently at the “Evil” production office in Greenpoint in Brooklyn. “It could be this series of villains in the world who seem to get away with anything they want. And then to have this honest, intellectual discussion of: What makes this person? Is it genetic? Is it upbringing?”

Or is it something else?

The couple do not exactly see eye to eye on it, battle lines that are grounded in the Kings divergent views on religion. Robert, a devout Catholic who regularly goes to church and confession, believes “there is a component that is beyond us, that is outside of our physical bodies, that encourages some people to do evil.” Michelle, an agnostic Jew, thinks there are more earthbound explanations for why bad people do bad things.

Whatever the disagreement, just don’t call it an argument.

“It’s been a discussion,” Robert said. “And I wanted characters who had very different points of view on these subjects to be able to listen to each other respectfully, and they do throughout the series.”

The Kings have been thinking about a series like this for years. Part of the reason that it exists now is because of a reordered television landscape where companies like CBS, Warner Media, Comcast and Apple have created or are about to launch streaming services to compete with Netflix, Amazon and Hulu.

For the better part of a decade, the Kings have had one show at a time: “The Good Wife” ran on CBS from 2009 to 2016, “BrainDead” premiered later in 2016 and was quickly canceled, and then “The Good Fight” debuted on CBS All Access in 2017. Over the past decade, they have been pitching CBS to do more shows, only to be met with something of a stiff arm.

“Remember when we went in with them with that Matthew Perry thing?” Robert said to his wife during an interview, without elaborating on what that Matthew Perry thing actually was. “It was a little bit like, ‘Ehhhh, they don’t want, they don’t want.’”

He continued: “People aren’t as held in check as they used to be. CBS, which is our studio, seems to have more of a willingness to explore things that four, five or six years ago they would never explore.”

Stapf, the CBS Studio president, confirmed that the Kings have wanted to expand their slate since the early 2010s. He used to be more reluctant.

“When they were doing ‘The Good Wife,’ 22 episodes a year is a ton, particularly if you do it the way they do it,” he said. “Which is so specific and so intimate that I admit I was worried at times that putting something else on their plate was going to burn them out.”

But things have changed. For one thing, episode orders are shorter now. “The Good Fight” runs for 10 episodes a year. “Evil” is slated for 13 episodes, with the possibility of two more if it is successful.

And then there are the business reasons. As the streaming land rush intensifies, entertainment companies are in the midst of a buying spree of super producers like Murphy, Berlanti and Shonda Rhimes. In return for massive salaries, companies expect these producers to supply many new shows.

The Kings, who signed an overall deal with CBS last year, have their own production house and tapped the development executive Liz Glotzer to help them expand their output.

“The environment has changed,” Stapf said. “Their own situation has changed by adding Liz and by having success in two different platforms in network and streaming.”

“They’re going to be able to do a lot more,” he continued. “And it can be as expansive as they want it to be, and their own internal bandwidth allows them to.”

“Evil” will be an early test to see if the Kings can have a new standout success. “The Good Fight” is on CBS’s streaming platform, which means no one really knows how popular it is. (CBS said earlier this year that CBS All Access has 8 million subscribers; Netflix has more than 151 million worldwide.) “The Good Wife,” though remembered warmly, “was not that good with ratings,” Robert acknowledged.

“Your Honor” will go into production for Showtime later this fall (the Kings are only producing this one — they are handing off showrunning duties). They have another show in the works at CBS All Access about female soldiers in the Israeli army, and are actively pitching at least one other series.

The Kings say the increased output is less about enlarging their footprint than ensuring their future.

“Our worry is about falling out of the business,” Robert said. “It’s not thinking about the positive, it’s worrying about the negative. The negative is not having a show on the air, and that’s a tense place for us to be in.”

The couple does not aspire to be like Rhimes and Murphy, Robert insisted; the goal is to maintain “a little boutique.”

Michelle King added, “It’s not, for me, being fueled by, ‘Oh I want an empire.’ It’s more like, ‘Oh, these are interesting ideas it would be a pity to watch go away.’”

One of the things that made “The Good Wife” and “The Good Fight” such critical hits is by upending a television convention. The Kings took the hoary procedural format and infused it with social commentary.

They hope to do the same thing with “Evil,” which Stapf described as a mash-up of genres: investigative, family and horror.

Katja Herbers, who plays the skeptical psychologist, said that’s the reason she took the role.

“I’ve never read a procedural before in my life because I wasn’t interested in it,” she said. “Then this script came along and my people were like, ‘You got to read it, it’s actually not a procedural, it’s sort of in the middle, but most of all, it’s the Kings.’ That’s when I was really interested.”

Mike Colter, who portrayed a recurring character in “The Good Wife” and plays the priest-in-training in “Evil,” also underscored that point.

“I don’t think people will be expecting what they’re going to see,” he said. “It’s like bringing someone to a great steakhouse and then they find out they’re going to get an excellent seafood dish.”

“The Good Wife” and “The Good Fight” both had loyal fan bases, in part, because of the series’s aggressive topicality. If “The Good Wife” was an examination of the liberal state of mind during the Obama years, “The Good Fight” has done the same in the Trump era, and arguably more effectively than any other series.

Though the Kings said that “Evil” will not be quite as of-the-moment, it will deal with general contemporary trends. There will be a plotline about lone gunmen. Social media and 4Chan were invoked in the pilot and will show up in subsequent episodes. One episode will even examine a Broadway producer who is an abusive boss, particularly toward his assistants.

“When you’re going into a show that is going to do a lot of episodes, you want to make sure there’s a deep well there,” Robert said. “The deep well of ‘The Good Wife’ was pragmatism versus idealism. How much do you give up your own moral sense because that’s what’s required of you in the job?”

“Evil,” he said, is a response to the world as the Kings see it in 2019.

“This came about through recognizing the villainy that was entering the world and trying to figure out if science can answer that, or religion needs a place in that,” he said. “Basically, anything you can point to into the world that is evil, we’ll go there. It’s a sadly rich territory.”

John Koblin covers the television industry. He reports on the companies and personalities behind the scripted TV boom, and the networks that broadcast the news. He previously covered fashion. @koblin

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