At a 1962 dinner honoring a group of Nobel Prize winners, President Kennedy observed, "I think it's truly the most extraordinary collection of talent that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone". It was JFK's way of recognizing Jefferson's exceptional talent and versatility. The same case could be made for another Virginia-born genius, my friend Barbara Hall, who once wrote a TV pilot about a female super hero, which, I'm convinced was autobiographical.
Barbara is the lead singer for a band, author of eleven novels, has been honored by the American Library Association, and was awarded the Humanitas Prize for her television writing. She's also a lecturer, a dedicated Mom, and one of the most successful producers of prime time dramas since the Millennium began. Her writing and producing credits include "Northern Exposure", "I'll Fly Away", "Judging Amy", "Joan of Arcadia", "Homeland", and most recently, the critically acclaimed "Madam Secretary", starring Téa Leoni.
"I was approached by Lori McCreary who runs Morgan Freeman's company Revelations Entertainment, and they had an idea to do a TV series about a female Secretary of State", said Hall. "They had some story ideas, then I came in and fleshed out the show, and we developed it".
"Madam Secretary" is Revelations' first foray into television, and Freeman is pleased with the result. In an email to me, Morgan said of Barbara, "Lori and I have never had a more satisfying, rewarding, and delightful collaborator".
I first met Barbara when she participated in my "Women in Drama" event for the Television Academy back in the Fall of 2000. Last month we spoke by phone about "Madam Secretary".
JL: You once told me that you only like to write shows that you would watch. Is that still true?
BH: That's absolutely true, and sort of why I lay low for awhile, because there just wasn't anything on the TV landscape that I would want to do or watch. But then with "Madam Secretary", suddenly there was room for a show that I would want to watch.
JL As Producer and show runner, how much writing are you getting to do on the series?
BH A lot. I wrote the pilot and the first episode, and I wrote episode 14 which will air in February, and I'll write the last one. But that's sort of a tricky question because I'm involved in breaking all of the stories, and overseeing the story meetings and scripts. I'd like to do more, but the problem is that writing a script takes you out of the loop on everything else.
JL Television audiences have been dumbed down over the past couple of decades, feasting on shows like Jerry Springer and Honey Boo Boo. With "Madam Secretary" are you trying to elevate, educate and engage viewers to some degree, or do you just set out to entertain them?
BH (laughs) Well I want to do both. But I don't think you should use the word "educate", because it's not school. It's just that I wanted to work in an arena where there are a lot of interesting stories to tell about a world that people might not understand. And so, really sort of pull back the curtain is more our approach, and show people, because I've done the research, and I've been able to go into this world to reveal the aspects of government that they might not know about, and they might find interesting at the same time. And, we have a secret plan to entertain them (laughs).
JL Not too many years ago, trying to get a political show on the air was almost impossible, and now they're all over the place. Shows like "House of Cards", "Veep", "Scandal", and "State of Affairs". And they're all doing well.
BH I know, I think it's cyclical. All that has to happen is for one or two shows to do well in a particular arena, and then it fits into the landscape. It's not that everybody jumps on the bandwagon, but it's that everybody has circled around these arenas all the time, and when one or two shows break and make it possible and OK, it gives everyone else permission to write a show now. So certainly I benefitted from that.
JL Conspiracy nuts might accuse you of using "Madam Secretary" to bolster Hillary's next Presidential campaign. How do you plead?
BH (laughs) Well my comeback to that is there are so many easier ways to get Hillary elected President than to create a TV show about her (laughs). Our show has nothing to do with Hillary at all, but if people are still seeing her in the character, they're going to have to answer for that. Tea's character has nothing in common with Hillary except she's a female Secretary of State and she's blonde. I saw that train leaving the station, but there was nothing I could do about it. If you really stop and weigh the conspiracy, though, it doesn't make any sense. If people understood what it takes to get a TV show on the air, and what a long shot it is for it to be a success, they'd see it's not a very practical approach to getting someone elected to office.
A long shot maybe, but not so difficult for a female super hero.
("Madam Secretary" airs Sunday nights at 8:00 on CBS. Barbara's music CD's are available from www.cdbaby.com , and her novels are available through Amazon.com.)
Jim Longworth is a columnist for YESWeekly.com, and author of the "TV Creators" series of books. He also serves as judge for the primetime EMMYs, and hosts a weekly TV show for Sinclair stations.
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