The Austin Chronicle

It Takes Two to Make Magic

By Amy Gentry, June 8, 2014, 9:00am, Picture in Picture

Television is essentially a collaborative medium, and the “Pairing Off: A Look at Co-Creating and Writing Partners” panel at the ATX TV Festival focused specifically on the magic of two.

Only one writing duo was represented in full – Ray Romano and Mike Royce of Men of a Certain Age – but near the end we got a whiff of the implicit dynamics of such pairings when Carlton Cuse (of Lost, The Strain, and Bates Motel) made a surprise appearance. Fresh from his solo talk, the Emmy-winning Cuse fake-stormed in, tossed a script at his Bates Motel writing partner Kerry Ehrin, commanding her to “Rewrite it – and put my name on it!”, and then stormed out again.

The whole thing took less than 30 seconds and generated roars of laughter, but it was a little unsettling, coming moments after Ehrin's confession that she relies heavily on the six-foot-tall, dad-voiced man's approval. On the other hand, is anyone shocked to see Oedipal drama coming from the co-creators of Bates Motel, the modern-day, small-screen exploration of Psycho's mommy issues? Ehrin, who was a consulting producer on Friday Night Lights, spoke eloquently about portraying the weird beauty of completely dysfunctional families in the series: “Living in a dysfunctional situation, every day is so high stakes. 'Is Dad going to pass out on the couch today?' It's like living in a foxhole with your family.”

When Ehrin credited Cuse with providing a much-needed counterpoint to her emotional creative style, Royce jumped in to suggest that emotional vs. calm was a common dynamic within writing duos, roles that often shift from partnership to partnership. He claimed that when writing for the canceled military comedy Enlisted, the show's creator Kevin Biegel calmed his insecurities with a bluff, “Hey, it's great! Everything's great!” Then he identified Romano, sitting next to him on the sofa, as the needy one on the Men of a Certain Age team.

That was easy to believe. In person, Romano has a charm that somehow comes across as both easy and a bit desperate. Romano broke in while Trophy Wife co-creator Emily Halpern was answering a question about how she and co-creator Sarah Haskins resolved disagreements to ask, “Do you ever kiss?” Turning to the laughing audience with a shit-eating grin, he said, “I'm sorry, I just had to make that joke. I'm sorry.” I was sorry too; as a Haskins fan in mourning for Trophy Wife, I was looking forward to hearing Halpern's perspective. Luckily, she had lots more to say about the melding of her writing voice with Haskins’, which turned out to have less to do with making out than with a shared interest in “strong, realistic female characters.” Go fig.

The first mention of Trophy Wife earned substantial cheers from the audience, as did Andy Daly's first mention of the Comedy Central show Review. Daly, quick with a self-deprecating joke, immediately pointed out that the enthusiasm in the room was “statistically disproportionate” to the show's actual viewership, leading to a running gag about ratings for the many canceled shows represented in the room. It was a feel-good gag, in keeping with the underlying ethos of the festival, which is that connoisseurs of television know quality when they see it, even if they only get to see it for one season. If creatives in the industry welcome boosterism in any form, whether from fan audiences or creative partners, it's because they often work under less-than-ideal conditions. And that's something even Carlton Cuse knows something about.

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