What’s writing got to do with it? When you’re the showrunner of a major network television series, surprisingly little.
“I always say the show is a coming of age story and I feel like the experience of running the show has been one for me,” revealed Liz Tigelaar, the talented creator/executive producer of the CW’s sophomore series LIFE UNEXPECTED, who was kind enough to take some time out of her very busy schedule to pull back the veil on what it’s like to be a first time showrunner. “It’s funny, I was actually going to go up to Vancouver [where LIFE UNEXPECTED shoots], tomorrow because a big episode that I co-wrote is shooting and I want to be there. But literally right before I got on the phone with you, I cancelled my trip because I just felt like I haven’t had time to just write the show and there is so much that needs to be done.”
In other words, despite the impression you might get from the twitter feeds of Kevin Williamson (THE VAMPIRE DIARIES) or Steven Levitan’s (MODERN FAMILY), running a multi-million dollar television series isn’t all about the accolades, awards, and impromptu weekends in Vegas. It’s more like a daily pressure-filled cooker that forces you to reconcile the original vision of your show with that of a bunch of powerful network executives who may not be on quite the same page as you.
“One of the criticisms of the show last season — one that I don’t agree with, but get — was that it was too Baze/Cate/Ryan-centric and every episode revolved around their triangle. Repetitiveness and redundancy does not bother me because life is just that, but I understand why that may not make a good TV show. ” she explained. “Heading into the second season, I definitely was given a pretty strict mandate to pick up the [pace of the] show, and now it’s a negotiation. Can I meet the mandate while still making the show that I want to make and having [the network] support me in that. The whole experience has just been so eye-opening.”
Tigelaar calls it a “balancing act” that resulted in the introduction of a slew of new characters in last week’s season premier, including a conservative radio host to amp up the tension between Cate and Ryan, a blonde bombshell of a bartender to light up Baze’s life in more ways than one and the introduction of a mysterious new teacher to complicate Lux’s life even more-so. How does the exec respond to the criticism that her show has amped up the drama unnecessarily in response to pressures from higher up? With an understanding of exactly where said criticism comes from. “FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS is an example of a show that when I saw the first episode of the second season and Landry, Tyra and something with a dead body, I mean, that felt like a gigantic network note to me. But that’s what they did to keep the show on the air for as many seasons as they got to keep that beautiful show on the air for,” she says with a sigh. “So I feel like what we’ve been doing is finding our way in a new paradigm. How are we going to make a show that the CW likes and make a show that I like. I was happy with the premiere. I was really skeptical, really nervous, and lost a lot of sleep over it. But when I saw it I was like, ‘I get it.’ I get this is how to broaden out the show. I understand that they’re having new conflicts with new characters and it’s exciting. It’s not the same old thing, so I kind of can see both sides of it.”
Of course, the idea of broadening the canvas and adding new characters while still coming in under budget was a major challenge. “We weren’t able to hire any more series regulars,” she explains. “We can lose any [recurring, non-contract] star to a movie or another show at any time. You write these arcs for these characters that you rely on for the story, and they could [suddenly be unavailable.”
Ironically, one gets the distinct impression that Liz Tigelaar wishes that her life came with a few less unexpected twists. “I was such an avid TV watcher growing up, and now I definitely have more sympathy [for those behind the scenes], because there’s a lot of factors at work. It’s really stressful!”
You can catch brand new episodes of LIFE UNEXPECTED every Tuesday at 9PM on the CW