Featuring a solid cast and a plum time slot, "The Unusuals," ABC's new crime dramedy, launches tonight after "Lost." Creator Noah Hawley talked to our Jim Halterman in the Big Apple about how he brought together his writing staff, casting the series and why he thinks airing after that show about an island is a positive.
Jim Halterman: Are you utilizing the city of New York as a character in "The Unusuals?"
Noah Hawley: Absolutely. I grew up in New York in the West Village so I have a slightly romantic view of New York. When I talked about "The Unusuals" with ABC and thinking about comparisons one of the shows that I mentioned to them was "Northern Exposure," which seems odd for a show about New York but, believe it or not, I wanted this to be a precinct that's in a neighborhood in the lower East Side and there's this small town version of New York. Most people come to New York and shoot the postcard [but] for me the city exists below 14th Street and it's not the grid, it's not the postcard, it's the real New York. We shoot a lot in the outer boroughs and one of the great things is really trying to make in many ways the first 21st Century show that takes in the melting pot of New York...
when I talked to the composer, I talked about wanting to hear all the music you hear on the subway. The Indonesian guys, the bucket drummer, all that sort of stuff are part of the musical identity of the show. You know, the soundtrack to "Slumdog Millionaire" was such a great soundtrack. It visually and orally captured the multi-cultural aspect of the city and we want to make a more magical version of New York. A lot of shows are [also] afraid of detail because it takes a little more work but for us the magic of the show is in the details - the hot dog in the holding cell or the fact that you go into a victim's apartment and he's a label nut and he's labeled everything and there's an onion on the table that has a label on it that says 'onion.' It's those moments with the character of the city... and we have that dispatcher voice that carries you around the city. I like the idea that you can stop anywhere in those transition shots and it would be an interesting case.
JH: In the pilot you shot on an actual New York City subway platform with Adam Goldberg standing on the tracks as an oncoming train is charging towards him. It was great to see that authenticity since I could tell it was show on location and not a set.
NH: We were down there all night. It was great. That kind of production value you can't get in LA. And, for me, it wasn't just about shooting in New York but also about getting the writing staff here, which was a good back and forth conversation with Sony and ABC. It was so critical to me because a lot of shows that take place in New York you can write them from wherever and this show is really about New York so I wanted the writers here.
JH: Speaking of the writers, when you go in and create a show, how do you go about assembling your writing staff? You obviously want them to maintain your vision but also want them to bring something to the show. How do you accomplish that task?
NH: It's a difficult thing to do, especially with a new show because you're asking people to come and write a show that's only been in your head. I had a conversation when I was staffing up with Damon Lindelof at "Lost" and he said 'You know, you'll bring in the best people you can find and they'll be great but the first season you're going to be doing most of the writing just because until you have nine, ten, twelve episodes of the show for people to watch nobody knows what the show is.' So, in putting together a writing staff, what I was looking for because the show tone-wise is such a hybrid... I have a very dry sense of humor and we never really want to go broad. There's a New York tone of voice to me from growing up in New York in the late 70s/early 80s. A little wise guy. There's an attitude to New York that's funny to me. So it's not like we're telling jokes for jokes sake. When you talk to cops in New York, what they say is that most people don't understand how crazy the job is so in putting together a writing staff, you want the voices in the room that are going to bring the fresh ideas. There's a kind of left field quality to our show and really, for me, it's about the reinventing the genre as a character piece.
JH: How do you balance the humor from becoming too comical and maintaining some of the drama from the cases?
NH: It's about rooting everything in character. The comedy will come out of the situations or character driven. It's not like we have to put a joke in here. It's more tone of voice. Ultimately what I've said is that if this show doesn't work as a drama, it won't work as a comedy. We're not investing the audience in these characters and these cases if we don't care about the victims of these crimes. That's the first critical thing for us. What is it about this case? What's the story that's really going to resonate with our characters and our audience? We're called "The Unusuals." There's an unusual nature to each case. Sometimes it's the case itself that's unusual. Sometimes it's how the investigation goes. For me, I'm always trying to find the fresh angle on these stories because after 20 years of "Law and Order" and 10 years of "CSI" and all those procedural shows, we've seen all those crimes solved. The question is how do you make it interesting again and it's to tell stories about these particular people. I like to say on this show, the characters don't solve the crimes but the crimes solve the characters so we're always looking for a case that will play into each of the characters and whatever they're going through.
JH: Where are you getting the cases? Is the NYPD working with the writers?
NH: We have a police consultant but most of the cases are generated by the writers in thinking about interesting cases that we can play around with. I can't give too much away at this point story wise but for us to land a case it has to resonate to one of our characters. We have Harold Perrineau's character (who plays Detective Banks) who plays a guy who comes from a family where all the men died at the age of 42 and he just turned 42. He's the guy who won't take off his bullet proof vest and he's paired up with Adam Goldberg (Det. Delahoy), who, in the pilot, learns he has a brain tumor and is trying to get himself killed in the line of duty. The two of them are great together. We have one case and I won't give away too much of it where the number 42 starts popping up all over the place for Banks and ultimately he has to face his fears in order to solve the case and save somebody. So we're looking for those elements that will play directly into what our characters are going through.
JH: I have to say you have a great cast assembled and, from what I've seen so far, they seem to really gel together. Was that luck or did you have an idea who would work best with who?
NH: ABC is a network that has great ensemble casts and what you navigate is try to build the actors that really embody these characters and not just be TV stars. I didn't want to be a show that was full of actors who you're like, "Oh, he was on that other show last year and now he's on this show." What's great in casting our guest players out of New York is that it's not the same guest actor you saw last week on "Grey's Anatomy" and now he's on our show. Amber Tamblyn (Det. Casey Shraeger) is clearly a very recognized person. Harold, Jeremy [Renner]... they all have great credits behind them but it doesn't feel like TV in some way. For example, on "Lost," many of these actors were familiar but you really believed that these were people on this island because they weren't just coming off another show.
JH: When I first saw Harold Perrineau, I didn't think, "That's the guy from Lost." I thought, "He's such a great actor!"
NH: The thing about Harold is that he hasn't played a lot of comedy [but] the great thing with these actors is that they're pitch-perfect for the material. In making the pilot you're always shooting these things and it probably won't get picked up as a series and you chalk it up to a good experience but I think I was maybe three days into the pilot shoot and I realized I would be really depressed if this show didn't go because this cast was so great to write for. And they all have such a chemistry together. In the pilot, they kind of stick to their teams but over the episodes, we're pairing them up in different ways, not necessarily to solve cases. The other day we had a scene with Jeremy (Det. Walsh), Harold and Adam that was the first time they'd really worked together and there's such a great chemistry between them. It's the kind of thing that makes you feel like the show has a real chance because the cast is dead perfect.
JH: How will romance between the characters be added to the mix on "The Unusuals?"
NH: We're playing romance between some characters. Love interests for most of our cast will evolve over the first season. I think it's an important part of these characters lives and it was something that ABC likes but, again, I think we're trying to do it in a fresh way so it doesn't feel like the obligatory romance. It's got to be earned but we're having a lot of fun with it and I think the actors are, too.
JH: And let's talk about your time slot being right after "Lost." Do you see it as a blessing or a curse due to the expectations?
NH: I think it's great. I think that it's the best time slot that ABC has literally. I think following "Lost" can kind of be a show killer because "Lost" is such a distinctive show. I never really felt worried about it. I joked at the TCA that Manhattan is an island stranger than "Lost" and it's kind of true. I think we're in no way trying to be "Lost." I know there was an attempt with "Invasion" to try to fill the same niche, which doesn't really work because their brains start to hurt after awhile figuring out all the mysteries. For us, we're just a really distinctive show. I think the humor will really help and be attractive to people coming out of "Lost." And I think it's just, again, what we hope to do is make a great show and wherever they put you you'll do well. Certainly we want the opportunity to get the number of eyeballs that will be coming off of "Lost" every week.
"The Unusuals" premieres tonight after "Lost" at 10:00/9:00c on ABC.