Jon Robin Baitz, the creator of ABC’s hit drama Brothers & Sisters, recently stopped by BuddyTV to talk to us about his new show. Jon is an accomplished playwright who, before Brothers & Sisters, had little experience in the realm of television. Jon talked to us about the the origins of the show, its rocky start, and the political leanings of its main character.
How did you come up with the idea for Brothers & Sisters?
Actually, Ken Olin came up to me; we had been friends for a long time. He’s always threatened to drag me out of theater and into television, and I was sitting at home at my house in New York in the middle of summer, and he said, “I have a deal at ABC Touchstone to do a family show and they would all like you to write it.” So, initially this was very much a notion about doing a show about adult siblings that wasn’t based on a torturous high concept. So they came to me and it was deceptively easy at first. We had a bunch of conversations. I came back to LA and we would meet and talk – a few executives and Ken and I. Slowly the family started to piece itself together in my mind. The sort of mix of problems that real grownups face today, real brothers and sisters, and how the family could be the microcosm of America in some way. So, I was looking at the mood of the country. I was looking at what it’s like to grow older, how it feels to be part of a group of a people that love you no matter what, and what the challenges are. We just went off from there. You know, what it’s like to develop a TV series – you do an outline, you do another outline, you do yet another, and eventually you do a script and you do another version of it, and another. And finally we were at a consensus. That’s how it all came about.
It was always going to be on ABC from the get go?
One thing that I find different about Brothers & Sisters is the way the siblings interact. I have three siblings myself, and you see a lot of drama on TV where siblings tend to yell and scream, and basically hate each other. But, I think there’s a general camaraderie that rings true on Brothers & Sisters that’s different. How did you tap into that?
Yeah, I have two older brothers, and we always stuck together. We always looked out for each other. We were a very close family and all three of us felt the enormity of our parents love for us no matter what we did and no matter what they did. And I think that’s something that I’ve tried to carry on in my own life. I don’t have children, but I try and live a life in which I see myself in everyone and everyone in me, and I try to look for things that link us. And I think that’s very much what the show reflects. And I think Greg Berlanti brings a lot of it too because he has experience doing family shows, so there was a lot of thought about loyalty and love that carried over from “Everwood” and “Jack and Bobby”. And Ken, of course, is a father of two wonderful children, one of whom is a writer on the show who has just written his first episode of the show, which is truly magnificent, our holiday show. So, all of us are grasping for ways in our own lives to be the best person in the family that you can be.
There were some well documented changes in the staff, cast, and the crew early in production. Now that you guys are situated and you have episodes on the air, production is rolling and people are watching, is it nice to have that feeling of having everything up and running?
It’s extraordinary. I vowed to myself that I’d never give up on this, and there were so many opportunities to. But I needed to know that if it failed, there would have been nothing else I could have done. But one of the things that made it possible is that we’ve had the unconditional support of Steve McPherson, who’s the head of the entertainment division of the network, who, when we were in trouble, always saw the potential of the show. And when we had to remake the pilot because of some chemistry issues and because, structurally, there were some problems, said, “I’ll do this, I’ll go ahead. It’s the right thing to do.” We kept fighting and fighting and now the reward has been there’s an audience for the show, and the audience has grown and it’s terribly gratifying. We don’t feel like we’re beleaguered, constantly under attack. Before the show ever aired, we became the problem show. It was almost like a Zen exercise to ignore all that and shut it out and keep writing good scripts and making good shows, which is what we did, we focused. It’s much easier now and all of that belief in us paid off, and we were able to reward the network and studio’s belief in us with something that looks like it’s sustainable.
To me, there always seems to be this weird stigma about shows that get reworked or re-shot, or re-cast. I always look at it as they don’t want to half ass it, they want to make it good.
That’s right. That’s exactly right. I don’t quite understand…I think what happened was when we didn’t show the first pilot to the press, rather then them being patient, there was sort of a hunger for more bad news, rather than understanding that we’re just trying to get it right.
How big of a writing staff do you have?
It’s growing. Right now we just brought in three new people, so I think we’re at ten right now.
Do you have the whole season mapped out already?
Well, we know where we’re headed but you have to follow the emotional logic that emerges in the writing of each script. So, we try not to adhere to any high concepts or anything, but every episode leads to the next episode, and we plan three ahead at a time. So right now, I know where we’re headed for the next five episodes. And then we’ll regroup in a couple of episodes, and we’ll all sit down together and we’ll talk about what we’ve set up and where we’re going. I mean, we do know the direction, and it’s very exciting, and I’m not going to spoil it.
You’ve been a successful playwright, but you haven’t had a ton of TV experience. Was that something you’ve always wanted to get into, was it something Ken Olin got you into or something you just fell into?
I started to fall in love with the way TV was going and all the good writing on television all across the board. Not just the cable shows, but even on the networks. Aaron Sorkin was very much an influence on me doing it. He had come to me and asked me to write an episode of the West Wing, which we then shot as I wrote it. I saw how good it could be, and all the best actors I know have come to work in television and all my friends in New York who did my plays for years. Because in theater, it’s very hard to sustain a life in theater in New York now because there’s so many great actors out here. I think it was, in a weird way, inevitable that a playwright who has some ambitions not to be stuck in one media would come to television. I certainly don’t know that I can work on somebody else’s show, but this has been exhilarating.
Is it tough writing for an all-star cast? Do you feel an obligation to write really good stuff for Sally Field or Rachel Griffiths?
I think you feel that you have these extraordinary talented people and they are so diverse in their capacity and they can do so many different things, that yes, it is a challenge. But not in a sense that you have to satisfy the beast within them, but in the sense that you want to stretch all of your capacity as a storyteller, as a thinker, as a writer, as a writer who loves actors, who believes in the athleticism of actors, who believes that actors allow us to experience things that we don’t know we’re experiencing. So I don’t find them intimidating, but you know, I’ve worked with Al Pacino, Donald Sutherland. I’ve worked with Gena Rowlands, I’ve worked with Annette Benning, and so on. I think when it comes to the work itself, everybody meets on a very level playing field. Everybody tends to want the same thing and work from the same place. They want good stories to tell and we want that.
How soon did you guys know about getting the old Grey’s Anatomy time slot after Desperate Housewives?
I found out in a hotel room when we were at the up fronts. I found out the day after they picked us up. I was naive enough not to know what that meant, except people kept trying to explain to me. And that actually only reinforced my understanding that the network had great faith in us and we had to succeed and it would be tragic if all of our hard work came to not, given the opportunity they had given us.
What would Kitty have to say about the outcome of our recent mid-term elections?
That’s a great question. I think that Kitty would be the first to argue for bipartisanship, for a return to working together, an examination of the factors that led us into a runaway war. I think she struggles very hard with the extreme neo-con elements of her party. I’ve never seen her as someone as driven as the extreme right. I wanted to create a thoughtful conservative, but still a strong one. I won’t accept a blanket demonization of either the left or the right that both sides tend to gravitate towards. I think she would say that this might be the beginning of the start of something big. A lot of the people who got elected were very conservative democrats. So, she would say this country wants thoughtful and compassionate politics.