How to make TV shows in Hollywood without compromising morality
I sat across from the genteel Fox executive in his posh office in West L.A. He leaned back in his plush chair, listening as I pitched an idea for a TV series. It was going pretty well; he hadn’t nodded off or interrupted me because he was confused. After giving my spiel for fifteen minutes, I finally wrapped it up: “And that’s the show.”
He thought for a moment, then spoke up. He liked the pitch. If he decided to buy the idea, the next step would be taking it to a network to air it. The exec started rattling off potential networks: CBS, USA, TNT…
I played it cool, but I was thrilled. Those all sounded like a great home for this particular show.
“I think there’s even a version of this show for Cinemax or Starz,” he said. Then he locked eyes with me. “Of course, if we took it there, we’d have to ‘dirty it up’ a bit,” he said. “Would you be OK with that?”
Now wasn’t the time to pick a fight with the executive who controlled the studio’s purse strings and the possible fate of my show idea. I had to tread carefully. Was I OK with “dirtying it up?” Well, it depended: what exactly did he have in mind?
As a Christian TV writer, I take my responsibility to my audience – and my faith – seriously. I’m helping create content for the masses, so what I expose them to matters to me. I’m not talking about being puritanical – just responsible and faithful to my values.
“Well,” I said, “I think we could certainly make it a little sexier or grittier. But I wouldn’t want it to be lurid. That’s not what this show is.”
I think there’s a place for sexual content and violence in a TV show, if it’s organic to the story. Many great works of art depict blood and lust, the Bible chief among them. After all, grace builds on nature, and if we’re going to show the world as it really is, we have to show the risqué and dark parts of it too. For the Christian artist, though, I believe the challenge is to not make sin look appealing. If my TV show’s depiction of sex and violence makes a viewer lust or want to go punch someone in the face, then I’ve crossed the line as a Christian storyteller.
But many shows, of course, cross that line. They make sin look fun and glamorous (which it can be, but that’s another theological discussion) without showing its consequences. That’s not what I wanted my show to be.
This was not the first time I’d been presented with this challenge. I once worked on a prime time TV show that, in content and philosophy, was fundamentally opposed to my faith. Before I took the job, I struggled with whether I could work on the show in good conscience. Several older, wiser Hollywood mentors told me to take the job because the show needed a Christian voice at the table – the whole salt and light thing.
Salt seasons. Light reveals. But if you use too much salt, you could give someone a coronary. And if your light shines obnoxiously bright, it can blind others rather than help them see. So I had to find a way to work on this show and let my faith influence my actions in an organic way.
One day, all the writers were breaking a story for the latest episode. It was a story about a bank robber who seduces an impressionable girl into joining him on a crime spree, ala Bonnie and Clyde. At the end of the episode, the ill-fated duo is barricaded inside a house that’s surrounded by police. That’s as far as we’d gotten. We were stuck on the ending. How should we resolve it? The room thought in silence. Finally, I spoke up.
“What if when the cops raid the place, the guy comes out and takes the bullet for the girl?”
The executive producer peered at me. “So what you’re pitching is… he sacrifices himself for her?”
“So he dies for her sins?”
“Yeah, I guess so,” I said.
“Like… on a cross?”
The room burst into laughter. They thought it was a joke… but that is what I was pitching. Despite their amusement, we decided to go with that ending. Christian or not, almost all people respond to the redemption story. I believe that’s because we’re wired by God to do so.
On another show, the producers wanted a scene in my episode where a bunch of kids play with a Ouija board, summoning a demon that communicates with them. This made me uncomfortable, but they wouldn’t budge. I pitched several alternative ideas, trying to get them to cut that scene. But in the end, the Ouija board stayed in the script. You can’t win them all. The point is that in Hollywood (and many industries, of course), you’ll often be asked to compromise your vision and ideals.
This brings us back to that posh office at Fox. The exec stared at me: “We might have to ‘dirty it up’ a bit. Would you be OK with that?” I smiled and told him I’d be open to discussing changes if they decided to pick up the show. Then and there wasn’t the time to fall on my sword. I’d have plenty of opportunities later to fight for the kind of show I wanted to produce.
So did I end up changing the show to please the executive? I didn’t have to. Fox decided not to buy the idea, so it was a moot point. But I know that the struggle not to compromise never ends. In fact, I’m pitching another series to USA next week. Wonder if they’ll want to “dirty it up.”