There Are Difficult Women, Too
Are only Male Showrunners Impossible to Deal With?
In the past few years, we’ve heard so many stories about just how misogynist and horrible some of the biggest names in show business have been. To date, we have heard few horror stories from TV show-runner, with Joss Whedon being the most notable and painful exception to the rule.
Of course, it is worth noting that you don’t have to be sexist to be a toxic personality in television. David Chase has never been, as far as I know, accused of being a sexual abuser. But if you’ve read Difficult Men, the story behind the showrunners who helped make the Golden Age of television what it is, you will know that he was a horrible person to work for, given the prodigious number of hiring and firing that took place over his tenure at The Sopranos. (One fired writer, Todd Kessler, based his experience on the series to turn out another great show, Damages…but that’s a story I’ve already told.) Given how unpleasant he could be, it’s rather remarkable that The Sopranos is one of the greatest series of all times.
We’ve heard other stories about how hard certain other showrunners can be to work for. It could be a struggle to work for David Milch, given his methods for creating legendary series such as Deadwood, and all things considered, I’m still stunned there were no onset revolts. And recently we’ve learned that Peter Lenkov, who created the successful reboots of Magnum P.I. and Hawaii Five-O was one of the most wretched and horrid people to work for in the modern era. He was abusive to his fellow writers and actors, and it is very possible that Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park resigned rather than continue to work for him.
But while all of the concentration has justifiably, been, on the horrible men in power, it is worth noting that these levels are not strictly limited to men. In recent years, there have been stories about how two difficult female showrunners, who managed successful series on Showtime, turned out to be toxic in their own ways. We learned about how difficult one was only after the series ended; the other lost her show because of her behavior.
The Affair was one of those series that I never quite got around to appreciating, even though it had many of the things I liked in. Several of the cast members are among my favorite actors in this era — Dominic West, who continues his successful streak that began with The Wire; Joshua Jackson, who I’ve long considered one of the most undervalued actors of the golden age, and Maura Tierney, who in a career that stretches as far back as Newsradio has been one of the most talented actresses in either comedy or drama, and who arguably had her best role here. Ruth Wilson has always been graceful to watch — she was remarkable on Luther.
The series dealt with the relationship between two happily married couples: Noah and Helen (West and Tierney) who’ve been married for fifteen years with several children and have a seemingly happy marriage; and Alison and Cole (Wilson and Jackson), a younger couple who are dealing with the loss of the child. On a trip to Montauk, Noah and Alison meet and very gradually are drawn into an affair. The series would be divided into two parts, showing the story from Noah’s point of view, then Alison’s (it would grow over the years) and slowly, we would learn of a more serious crime underpinning it. There was a fair amount of back and forth over the years, as all the relationships would change.
The series was always well regarded. Though it never did well at the Emmys, it won three Golden Globes: (Best Drama and Actress for Wilson in 2015; Best Supporting Actress for Tierney). And creators Hagai Levi and Sarah Treem received much praise not only for their storytelling, but for how well done the nude scenes were (which tested the boundaries even of Showtime) It seemed like a series that had no real flaws.
Then in the fourth season, something odd happened. In one of the most shocking twists in TV history, Alison’s character was killed off, and Wilson refused to comment about why it had happened or if she had any other reason to leave the series where she’d had such success. At the time, critics were fond of it: the episode where Alison and her current love have a long discussion and we are given two alternate versions of how it happened was one of the high points of the season. But creatively, the series never recovered from it: Jackson left the show not long after, and the final season involved a bizarre story set in a Montauk drastically affected by climate change, following Alison’s now grownup daughter Joanie (played by Anna Paquin). There were many other odd elements to the fifth season which never sat right, and I’m still not sure if the writers lost their way afterward.
After The Affair ended in the fall of 2019, Wilson finally made public comments about why she left the series. She claimed that she never agreed to many of the way so many of the love scenes (many of which she had been at the center of) had been shot and that she’d had disagreements with Treem, who wrote and directed many of the episodes, about them. Treem denied the rumors, as did Showtime as a whole, so what we are left with is a ‘she said, she said’ story and its hard to know which side is more credible. But in an age where so many actresses have come forth complaining about so many male directors/executives have demanded that they be forced to film a scene a certain way or be fired, are we supposed to dismiss Wilson’s claims because the showrunner is also a woman?
There is room for ambiguity in the story of The Affair. There is far less room for doubt in the story of Frankie Shaw and SMILF, which happened roughly the same time on the same network. I’ll discuss that tomorrow.