Robert and Michelle King on Embracing Horror in Their TV Writing, from BrainDead and The Bite to EvilPhoto Courtesy of Paramount+ TV Features
Summer 2021 might be “Hot Vax Summer,” but it’s also the “Summer of King.” Yes, novelist Stephen King has a few adaptations landing, but we’re actually referring to Robert and Michelle King, the creators of Evil and The Good Fight, both of which have new seasons dropping on Paramount+ this month.
The married writers/show creators are arguably best known for their Peabody and WGA Award winning series, The Good Wife, the hit legal drama starring Julianna Margulies as Alicia Florrick, a politician’s wife who rises from the humiliating ruins of her husband’s sex scandal. After seven seasons, the pair birthed its spinoff, The Good Fight, which now has five seasons under its belt starring Christine Baranski as liberal lawyer Diana Lockhart, who gleefully works to kneecap the patriarchy, right wing conservatism, and the wicked 1%.
While those two series are categorized as broadcast legal procedurals, when you look at them through the same lens of the Kings’ other recent shows BrainDead, Evil, and the recent Spectrum Original limited series, The Bite, we posit that the creators have really been crafting horror series all along—just wrapping some in the more mainstream accoutrement of leather briefcases, gavels, and business suits.
Because upon closer inspection of their central themes, it’s clear all the Kings’ storytelling reveals their laser-focus on exposing the dark deeds humanity inflicts upon one another, be it personally, corporately, or within “trusted” institutions. The consistent horror subtext has only presented itself more overtly because their recent series have leaned on the far less subtle usage of demons, zombies, and alien infestations to get the same point across.
Curious about how they’ve consciously, and unconsciously, honed their horror storytelling chops from series to series, we recently spoke to the pair via Zoom about the lessons they’ve learned along the way, and what impact they had on their audacious approach to the pandemic thriller, The Bite, and Season 2 of Evil.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Paste: Going back to 2016 and BrainDead, that series was your first jump into political satire with a genre wrapping. What ignited the two of you wanting to be in that space?
Robert King: The problem is, when you’re in a law show for as long as we were, just having some things break is never a mistake. And to have new visual outlooks. I started on Roger Corman, so it wasn’t as much of a stretch. Gulliver’s Travels was an adventure story and it just happened to be one of the best satires of all time. I think you’re always looking for a genre that has enough forward momentum that when you’re doing satire, it doesn’t stop the action. It’s part of the action, so that you’re enjoying it. That sounds more calculated than it is. We enjoy genre and we enjoy genres that are not pretentious, I guess.
Michelle King: Right. Especially when you want to explore issues about religion and belief. That was more the entrance to Evil and deciding, “Okay, let’s do a genre show.” It was that we’ve got this interesting tension between someone who’s a believer and someone who isn’t. Better find an unpretentious way to do it, otherwise, it’s insufferable.
Paste: BrainDead only lasted one season, but was arguably ahead of its time by just a year or two. Were there any specific takeaways?
Robert: We probably too much wanted to create a non-network show on network. You have to be aware, not just of your audience that you’re going for in the world, but your audience in the executive suite. I do think we were just having so much fun that we thought, “Well, this is an audience of two. We love it and our families will probably love it, because they have the same sense of humor.” The other thing is something you can’t control, which is you could have made BrainDead where it was inoffensive. But part of what was cool for us was the offensiveness of attacking the politics of the day, which was basically about how partisan it was getting. I don’t know, did we learn anything else?
Michelle: If we did, we didn’t take the time to pull it out, and we probably should have.
Robert: The thing is, BrainDead is probably most expressive of freedom, because we knew we had the next show lined up, and that is a good place to be. But it’s also a dangerous place to be. The good thing is, obviously, your career won’t end. It may end after the next one. The bad thing is when you’re playing tennis, you need the tennis net. The tennis net for TV is probably some sense of reaching an audience that understands it, so you’re not just shooting balls over their heads.
Paste: Season 1 of Evil ended in January 2020. Looking at the whole season before going into Season 2, what were you most satisfied with in terms of using horror tropes and techniques to tell stories that defined what contemporary evil looks like?
Michelle: The writers room started for the second season in March 2020, so it felt as though there were so many evil things to plumb. And we didn’t have a lot of outlets, except the show and each other, to discuss them. When George Floyd was murdered, the room was together, watching it all in real-time. All those things made their way into the show in some way or the other.
Robert: And from the filmmaker’s aspect, what I love is each craft is supporting the other. It’s almost like the intellectual and scientific build of comedy. Comedy is very exact. You can see good improv. But when the buildup of a joke, and the spending of a joke is all very exact, I think the same thing is true with horror. If you have one craft that’s just a little off, what was a scare suddenly just becomes, “Alright, that’s very Lynchian.” I do think what we liked after The Good Fight and The Good Wife was going to something that was a visual experience.
Paste: What were the best examples of what you were trying to achieve in Season 1?
Robert: “Rose390,” where the girls have the virtual reality experience, because it was about that but it was also about the drowning of a child, which is so dark. But it’s wonderful when you can do a show in bright daylight that is about dark things. And then the other one for me was “Room 320,” which is basically Luke Cage in a hospital bed, stuck there with no control over his muscles. His ability to act is all confined. It’s very Misery. Those are the two, for different reasons, one having to do more with family, and the other having to do with a concept that embraced and played into the politics of how African Americans often get treated in the medical system.
Paste: In May, Spectrum Originals released your series The Bite, which is a horror/satire about COVID-19 mutating into an actual zombie apocalypse mostly using Zoom screen constraints. And it’s a genuinely fresh take on zombie storytelling. Was it just a “What the hell, let’s try it” idea?
Michelle: Creatively, yes. But in terms of producing it, I would say it was the hardest show we’ve ever produced. Kudos to both [executive producer] Brooke Kennedy and [producer] Nancy Hermann. The goal was, “Let’s do this safely.” And to make any show safely in the middle of a pandemic was really challenging.
Robert: And we watched a lot of the shows that were done all Zoom style. The problem was they were all kind of boring. And we felt like, “No, I’m terrified! What’s going to happen to our future? This could go on for three years, who knows, and I’m trapped in this friggin apartment!” I think one of the reasons we went again with genre is it’s probably our comfort zone. But also, it seemed to be the best way to tell a story about the pandemic, with our shared knowledge and tropes of zombies.
Paste: You play with tone in all of your series, but this was especially tonally ambitious: terrifying in one scene, absurd in another. Are you and your writers just really comfortable with those kinds of extreme shifts?
Michelle: I don’t know. We don’t talk about it. But honestly, to me, it feels like reality. The tragedy and comedy are in exactly the same moment.
Robert: What was good was both Audra (McDonald) and Taylor (Schilling) and their use of great, deep emotion within a zombie show. And, I think we were all just riding the waves of what pandemic was doing to us.
Paste: Did it ever occur to you that audiences might just reject scary COVID storytelling, or did you not care?
Michelle: We were so determined to tell that story in a comic way that, it wasn’t that we didn’t care, but it didn’t even occur to me to not get near it.
Robert: I should say another reason we write is to get it off our mind and shove it at you guys. It did that. We got it out of ourselves. We thought the entertainment value of zombies and scares and the acting would carry you over whatever pandemic worries everybody has. But I understand. I mean, we hope that has a long life instead of a BrainDead short life.
Paste: Did The Bite have any impact on Season 2 of Evil?
Robert: There is an episode about zombies in the Evil second season, and that got directly influenced by the writer’s room of The Bite. And I think a lot of the respect for the medicine not only came out of the true pandemic in The Bite, but also came out of it with this need for exactitude in both Evil and The Good Fight.
Paste: What about in terms of creative compromise, because COVID impacted your ability to shoot on location in New York City?
Michelle: Well, TV is all about constraints. I think that’s a good thing, especially for broadcast television, which Evil was until it wasn’t. But the fact that you have to do certain number of acts, that it has to be delivered by a certain date, it can only be so long, I think forces more creativity. And the fact that we couldn’t get permits at the beginning of the season, and had to limit the number of extras, again, I think forced creativity.
Robert: The fourth episode, “E is for Elevator,” is actually a legend about a girl who haunts the Japanese subway system. We originally were doing it as a subway system in New York, but obviously that made no sense in a pandemic. Elevators are terrifying to me, so we made it part of the elevator episode.
Paste: Would you say there’s a theme that threads through Season 2?
Robert: For me, this season is difference between a standard horror movie and When a Stranger Calls, which is the call is coming from within the house. It’s about the evil inside all three of our characters. It’s no longer all about Leland (Michael Emerson) attacking from outside, it’s about something that comes up from within. You’re gonna see a lot of that with Kristen (Katja Herbers) and Ben (Aasif Mandvi) and David (Mike Colter).
Michelle: And if there is evil inside you, what do you do about it? And if you don’t believe in evil in the typical ways one treats evil, are you at a disadvantage? Or can you embrace some of those processes, even if you’re not a traditional believer?
Paste: The season feels a lot more interior already. How will that unfold?
Robert: I would say regarding the three of them, it’s seeing more chemistry between Ben and Kristin. And then going a little deeper with the marriage when Andy Bouchard (Patrick Brammall) returns. What we wanted was to see a little deeper into how these relationships get challenged.
Paste: And what’s David’s path?
Michelle: Well, it’s about his willingness to actually fight evil with everything he’s got. And the difficulty of truly committing to that, so he needs Sister Andrea’s (Andrea Martin) help.
Robert: And then I would say freedom. Is the only way to serve God to become a priest, which means giving up sex? Is there a better way to serve God, especially as a black man, instead of going through bureaucracy that’s traditionally so racist? And of course, his constant struggle, not just with Leland, but with Kristin and how much there’s an attraction there.
The Bite Season 1 is on Spectrum Originals, Evil Season 2 began June 20, and The Good Fight Season 5 premieres June 24 on Paramount+.
Tara Bennett is a Los Angeles-based writer covering film, television and pop culture for publications such as SFX Magazine, Total Film, SYFY Wire and more. She’s also written books on Sons of Anarchy, Outlander, Fringe and the official history of Marvel Studios coming in 2021. You can follow her on Twitter @TaraDBennett.
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