With three network shows on the air or in the works, nobody will ever accuse writer-producer Josh Schwartz of being a slacker—even if he still kinda looks like one.
But this week, the man who burst onto the TV scene by creating “The OC” is adding another project to his ever-expanding roster. It’s “Rockville CA,” an Internet-based drama for TheWB.com that combines scripted drama and live music in a sudsy blend worthy of the co-creator of “Gossip Girl.”
Debuting March 17, “Rockville” may be the most high-profile project yet for TheWB.com, which has already attracted much buzz with shows such as “Children’s Hospital.”
Between shooting the pilot for the upcoming “Gossip” spinoff and preparing the final episodes of “Chuck,” Mr. Schwartz took time to discuss everything on his plate with TelevisionWeek Deputy Editor and Columnist Josef Adalian. A transcript of their e-mail conversation follows.
TelevisionWeek: What spurred you to produce “Rockville CA” for the Internet rather than for a broadcast or cable network?
Josh Schwartz: This was a show designed specifically for the Internet. Its scale and storytelling was conceived specifically for this medium. I had no idea what doing a show like this would entail—but whatever I envisioned was completely misconceived … both in terms of how much work it was and how much I fell in love with it. I started spending too much time working on this, but I just loved the cast and the characters as it progressed. What will continue to spur me on to doing Internet series was the total creative freedom—cast who you believe in, write scripts without notes—it’s pretty liberating and very fulfilling.
TVWeek: Other creators—Ed Zwick, Joss Whedon—have done Internet plays in part to stay outside the studio system. Yet you’re doing this for your usual employer. Was Internet production for Warners part of your last deal? Or did [Warner Bros. TV chief] Peter Roth simply hug you until you agreed to do this for him?
Mr. Schwartz: Didn’t do it for anything but love of the game. Wasn’t in the deal. And I’m sure Peter Roth would rather I was spending time on the broadcast biz (not that it cost me any hugs from him—and he’s been really supportive and extremely complimentary of the show). I guess since it’s for TheWB.com and Warners put up the money, it’s not outside the system. But it sure felt like it. I had all the benefits of not having to go out and raise the money to make it, but all the freedom in the world. It was a chance to learn, experiment and play in a world which we will all be living in at some point. And it gave me a chance to leave the office, hang out at the “Rockville” set (actual Echoplex club) and see bands that I loved.
TVWeek: How difficult is it adjusting from a 44-minute story structure to a three- or four-minute structure? Do you just write a single hourlong episode and split it into small bits … or do you have to craft each scene as a stand-alone episode? It must be hard to get character development into every webisode….
Mr. Schwartz: One of the real pleasures of doing this was recalibrating how to tell stories in four- to six-minute bites. We broke it out (and by we I mean myself, “Chuck” staff writer Zev Borow, who used to write for Rolling Stone and Spin, and my former assistant Sarah Frank-Meltzer) as a seasonlong arc. We knew we had certain storytelling spines that held the season together, most notably the Hunter/Deb love story, but we also had freedom to do some episodes that focused on supporting characters.
It’s a way of storytelling that I think achieves its full power in a cumulative way. We will release the first four episodes at once, and then two a week after that. And by the end it will add up to a really satisfying emotional journey (that’s the plan anyway).
But each episode doesn’t have a crazy plot twist. It’s more observational. It’s all character development. It’s story through behavior largely, more than plot, which was a nice break from serialized teen dramas or action spy comedies (both of which I love).
TVWeek: Of the first three episodes, only one had language you couldn’t use on network TV. What’s the policy on content? How far can/will you go?
Mr. Schwartz: There’s some swearing. A joint gets smoked. Certainly nothing Chuck Bass doesn’t do an hour after waking up on a Sunday morning. And it pales in comparison to a Marissa Cooper bender. But it feels right for these characters and this world. I actually never knew what we could get away with. I’m not sure if the swearing gets bleeped out. I assumed it would be more lax than normal broadcast [Standards and Practices], but a remake of “Sid & Nancy” probably wouldn’t fly either. That said, it goes as far as it needs to.
TVWeek: In success, would you like to see “Rockville” morph into a traditional one-hour TV show?
Mr. Schwartz: I will never say never, and like I said I love the cast and the world. But if this is the perfect format and medium for the show, I am totally good with that and incredibly proud of what everyone accomplished in a little time, with not a lot of dough.
TVWeek: Will there be a “Rockville, CA” soundtrack? If so, when can we expect it?
Mr. Schwartz: Interesting. Good idea! I’ll get back to you. The show will have built around it on the site the opportunity to watch full live performances from all the bands (they perform live on the series), and you’ll be able to get the songs, ringtones, etc. There’s going to be a big tie-in with MySpace and MySpace Music as well as iTunes. So the music portion of the show will be well represented.
TVWeek: OK, on to “Lily.” Did you and Stephanie Savage have to be persuaded to do the spinoff?
Mr. Schwartz: First off, the show isn’t called “Lily.” It doesn’t have a title yet (doesn’t need one, as at this point it’s an episode of “Gossip Girl”). There has been a lot of discussion since the beginning to do a spinoff, since the books have a spinoff built into them. Stephanie and I aren’t fans of spinoffs usually, and I resisted doing an “OC” spinoff at the time. But we both got excited about this idea. It felt like something that could be independent of “Gossip Girl”—you could watch it having never seen “Gossip Girl” and yet it would also enrich and inform the “Gossip Girl” characters in present-day. It wouldn’t cannibalize from our amazing ensemble, nor would it encroach on New York either. And it’s an era we both love and were excited to explore as a series.
TVWeek: Period shows are rare in network TV. It’s such a cool idea … yet it feels like a big risk. Is the trick to make it “That ’80s Gossip Girl”—where the timeframe is a supporting character, as in “That ’70s Show,” but the themes are universal?
Mr. Schwartz: If it’s a big risk, I guess we haven’t picked up on that. It was probably not the spinoff pitch everyone was expecting. But, that said … I think there’s a whole generation of “Gossip Girl” viewers born after the ’80s (scary, I know) who are fascinated with the era, like me and my friends were in high school about the ’70s. Fashion, music, etc., are all very influenced by that era right now. We aren’t trying to do it in a jokey way, with wacky brick phones and Betamax players in every frame. It still has to be about the characters—if it was moved to present-day, it would still have to work. “Mad Men” is a show set in the ’60s but it never feels jokey, and it’s never at the sacrifice of the characters. But enough of me trying to compare myself to the best show on TV. The ’80s are also a really fun time to bring back to life. My hope is the show will be broader potentially than “Gossip Girl,” that kids who never lived through the era and their parents who did will be interested.
TVWeek: “Chuck” has a healthy core audience and is a critical favorite, landing in the top 10 of TelevisionWeek’s most recent Critics’ Poll. But it’s in one of the toughest timeslots on television, up against three huge, established hits. You gotta be a little frustrated.
Mr. Schwartz: Thanks. We have the best fans in the world, and critics—this season especially—have been incredibly kind to the show. I’m crazy proud of it. It’s this very unique combo of a lot of genres—an action spy romance office comedy coming-of-age story with sci-fi elements—which makes it a little outside the box, I guess. That said, it’s incredibly accessible, with something for everyone—and is designed to be fun and put a smile on your face. Zach Levi, for my money, is the best leading man on TV. He can do comedy and romance and all of that effortlessly. And everyone in the cast is incredible—really funny but also able to pull off the emotional stuff as well.
Yup, I’m frustrated the audience for the show isn’t bigger, because I think people would like it if they watched it. We do have a core audience, big DVR numbers, iTunes, etc.—you know the drill. But I also get we’re leading off the night, and up against huge shows. So I’m realistic about what we can accomplish in the time period and have seen what happens when other shows occupy our time period even for a few weeks. So I’m proud we’ve hung in there. We have great ideas for season three that the studio and network are excited about. And I’m fingers and toes crossed we get to tell those stories.
TVWeek: What can you tell me about the “Chuck” season finale that nobody knows? And what’s on tap for season three?
Mr. Schwartz: It’s epic. Truly. The last two episodes are insane. Chevy Chase and Scott Bakula are so, so good. The finale moves the show in a whole new direction and sets up the arc for next year. As for next year—it’s all about the characters. The Chuck/Sarah storyline is a framework for what’s to come. I can’t wait….