Adventures in Wonderland: Catching Up with 'Supernatural' Producer/Exec Peter Johnson
Independence Day is over, but for producer/executive Peter Johnson, the biggest holiday of July is still a few weeks away.
Johnson is president of Wonderland Media, a unit of director McG's Wonderland Sound and Vision, the multimedia production company that produces NBC's "Chuck," the CW's "Supernatural" and Fox's midseason contender "Human Target." With so much high-concept fare on his slate, it's no wonder the big July event Johnson is looking forward to is Comic-Con, the massive geekfest that's set to consume San Diego at month's end.
With three TV shows on the air this fall, and a second season of the WB.com's "Sorority Forever," Johnson-- a former Fox Broadcasting development executive-- heads one of the most prolific production banners in the scripted TV business. He took a few minutes to talk about what's up at Wonderland, what's behind the cult popularity of "Supernatural" and whether he thinks the Con has grown too big:
TVWeek: "Human Target" seems to be Fox's big hope for the fall, along with "Glee." Much pressure?
JOHNSON: We certainly feel the pressure, as any new show in today's television environment should, but this is a huge opportunity. We're more excited than stressed out. For one, Fox is giving us an extraordinary platform for our launch. We also have a level of support from Warner Bros which is off the charts. Everyone is on the same page about what the show is and the elements that go into it, such as casting and marketing. The other part of the opportunity we see is on the creative end. We feel like we're bringing something new and fun to television with this show, even if the "new" includes some deliberately retro elements.
TVWeek: Indeed, his show is often described as a throwback to 1980s kinds of shows.
JOHNSON: The simplicity of the premise (our action hero is hired each week to eliminate the threat to someone who has found themselves in danger) and the fun embodied in our action hero are reminiscent of certain shows from the 1980s. The obvious challenge in doing this show is to make it feel contemporary and that it lives in the same world as "24" and other cutting-edge suspense and action shows of today. The show definitely has in its DNA the fun of movies and series from the '80s that Jon Steinberg and I loved -- especially in terms of the main character – such as Indiana Jones, and Riggs in "Lethal Weapon" and John McClane in "Die Hard." Rather than being pinned just to the '80s, they're timeless characters that are a blast to watch, and who add real and occasionally funny human moments into the action situations in which they find themselves. We want this series to be a blast, and a real escape, so yes, that's kind of an '80s notion, but no less relevant today.
TVWeek: Are networks sometimes afraid to just do straight-ahead action? There always has to be a twist, or an element you wouldn't have found 20 years ago. I mean, if "Magnum, PI" were being pitched today, there's a good chance his mustache would literally be a weapon.
JOHNSON: Well, the straight-ahead action on television faces an inevitable comparison to the infinitely bigger budget action movies that they have to compete with. Which, obviously, they can't, at least in terms of scope, visual effects, etc. So the focus naturally becomes on the elements that shows on network television can provide - and often do better than film. They become more about a character hook, since TV has the luxury and ability to explore character over an extended terrain, or a conceptual hook that takes it to another level, like "24."
TVWeek: OK, "Supernatural." Wow-- look at that. My web traffic just tripled! Fans of "Supernatural" are hardcore. They love them some Winchester boys. Has this show proven beyond a doubt that sci-fi ain't a boys' club anymore-- assuming it ever really was?
JOHNSON: We certainly put a dent in that assumption, but lots of shows in the last few years have contributed to that. I'm with you, though: was sci-fi ever really just a boys' club? "The X-Files" broke that wide open years ago, as one example. And again, especially in terms of "Supernatural," the great shows have great characters at the center. It's all about character. People have fallen in love with the Winchesters and care about what happens to them. People have invested in the fates of the group on "Lost," because they're great, dimensionalized characters. To a certain extent, genre and sci-fi are window dressing and less focally important than the characters people care about. It's not just the male audience who care about characters.
TVWeek: Do you think "SN" can survive beyond this upcoming season? Will you leads come back if it does?
JOHNSON: Eric Kripke definitely has a vision for this giant, apocalyptic season of "SN." I truly think the fans who have invested so much time in the seasons so far won't simply want it to end at season 5. I think the future beyond this season is a wide open question.
TVWeek: Any "SN" spoilers?
JOHNSON: No way, dude!
TVWeek: It will be five years in September since you joined Wonderland as president. How long are you locked in with McG? How long do you want to be there? And what's up with your second job as a comics writer?
JOHNSON: I absolutely love working with McG and am here until he locks me in the bathroom, forcing me to crawl out the window and trip on the ledge, catapulting me onto the street below to an almost certain death. The moonlighting gig writing comics helps me come up with visuals like the above, so I guess it's good to keep doing it. I was raised on comics, so I'll always stay close to them. I love writing in that inherently visual medium.
TVWeek: What's in the development pipeline?
JOHNSON: Still early on the development front. However, we have some ideas that are very much in line with a brand that we've created at Wonderland.
Despite producing very different shows ranging from "Supernatural" to "Chuck" to "Human Target," we've developed a brand for shows that achieve unique tones, have fun with their respective subject matter and don't take themselves too seriously. We're not going to stray far off from that combination in the new shows we develop.
We're also looking to aggressively cross-platform our content. We’ll have a synergy across media for ideas that can live in a more three-dimensional world of entertainment. We had success last year with "Sorority Forever," which was Wonderland’s first web-based series that took advantage of several venues in new media as well as acting as a kind of development for a potential TV series based on the title.
In addition to season 2 of "SF," we'll be looking to do projects that may be launched in the form of a web show or graphic novel, for example, in conjunction with a more traditional form in television or film. We engineer these elements together from the outset.
TVWeek: Comic-Con gets bigger every year. Has it gotten too big?
JOHNSON: Tough question for me since I've been going to the Con for more than 20 years. I was a kid when it was held in much smaller and grungier spaces, and it had a certain charm then. It's obviously exploded into something different. Now, it's a lot of business for me, in addition to an annual pilgrimage. But, yes: It's too big.