The Austin Chronicle

ATX Television: TV Fantasy Goes Mainstream

By Kimberley Jones, June 2, 2012, 1:48pm, Picture in Picture

Moderator Ben Blacker of the Nerdist Writers Panel podcast laid the ground rules early with the swiftest, wittiest dissuasion of rambling questioners and overexcited fans I’ve heard at a fest: “Please remember: Questions begin with a ‘w’ or an ‘h,’ not an ‘I,’ and they generally don’t involve the word ‘hug.’”

He’d correctly taken the temperature of the room: It was packed with a lot of fans with a lot of love to shower on panelists Jeff David (creator of Teen Wolf and Criminal Minds), Ben Edlund (writer for Firefly and Supernatural, as well as creator of the The Tick), Jane Espenson (writer/producer, credits including Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Battlestar Galactica, Once Upon a Time, and web series Husbands), Richard Hatem (currently working on Grimm), and Jose Molina (writer on Firefly, Dark Angel, Haven, and more).

That’s a pretty impressive string of shows listed above, and as each panelist introduced himself and his credits, the crowd whooped and applauded. Nobody got bigger cheers, though, than Jane Espenson, who’s had her hand in almost every television genre project of note since the mid-Nineties, from the Star Trek franchise and Mutant Enemy’s many productions to Battlestar Galactica, spinoff Caprica, and Game of Thrones. (Espenson also has built a devoted fanbase on her website, which has a backlog of great material for newbie writers trying to break into the business.) So, yes, the crowd went wild, and the panelists smiled, too: Davis, introduced after Espenson, started, “I’m Jeff Davis, and I’m really here to meet Jane.”

From there, it was a speedy 45 minutes that touched on the touchstones of genre TV that inspired this crop of writers – The Incredibly Hulk, The Twilight Zone, and Star Trek all got heavy play. (Espenson put it down to geography: “I was from Iowa. Ray Bradbury was from Iowa. Captain Kirk was from Iowa.”). Molina, who grew up in Puerto Rico and didn’t speak English as a child, recalled what shows best translated visually: “The Incredible Hulk and Dukes of Hazzard were really easy for me to follow because there was a lot of [Hulk-like grunt here] and ‘yeehaws!’”

The group collectively spoke about the continued bias against genre on television, especially on the networks, where writers are schooled not to pitch anything with the word “monster” in it, even as horror and sci-fi films clog the cineplex. Espenson recounted a meeting with the creator of a sci-fi series. When she expressed her excitement for the genre, he swatted it away. “[He said], ‘I’m not writing sci-fi, I’m writing characters.’” Espenson recalled, “I wanted to punch him.”

The panelists repped a mix of network and cable shows, and they swapped notes on their various budgets. Molina, who worked on the short-lived, mega-budgeted Terra Nova, noted, “The more money you have, especially for effects, the more people you have up your ass.” Edlund referenced an expensive effect with long-term repercussions on Supernatural: “We blew up our own standing set last season. I don’t know what we were thinking.” And Espenson mentioned struggles with keeping on budget on Caprica, which she executive produced: “There’s one episode less [in the series] than they ordered. That’s because I spent all the money.”

Blacker then asked everyone to name a moment in their career that felt like a culmination, or at least a contentment. Molina had two to share. He spoke about being on set for “Trash,” an episode he and Edlund wrote for Joss Whedon’s still-adored space Western Firefly, in which Capt. Mal Reynolds (played by Nathan Fillion) tussles again with his femme fatale nemesis Saffron (Christina Hendricks). Molina recalled, “I’m standing in a starship while a cowboy shoots a girl ... because we wrote it.” The episode famously begins and ends with Nathan Fillion buck-naked in the desert. Molina, citing his other finest moment on set, blew up a headshot of a grinning Whedon and had Fillion place the photo over his “adult bits.” Cue a very surprised director.

As for Davis, a moment – of triumph? of evil geniusness? – was when a 13 year old fan tweeted her reaction to a recent Teen Wolf episode, something to the effect of, "I literally can't even breathe right now." Davis grinned. "I thought to myself, 'I control the hearts of teenage girls.'"

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