When you think of acclaimed television series on par with dramas like "China Beach," "ER," "The West Wing" and, more currently, TNT's "Southland" and Showtime's "Shameless," there's no real surprise that the name John Wells is attached to all of them. Whether he's listed as executive producer, writer or director, Wells's stamp on a project consistently elevates it to an impressive level of prestige and, most importantly, reliable entertainment. And Wells shows no sign of stopping, with two new pilots - "Bad Girls" (by Nancy Pimental) at NBC and "Prodigy/Bully" (by Mike O'Malley) at Fox - in contention for next season.
Despite his jammed schedule, our Jim Halterman grabbed a few minutes with the former Writers Guild of America, West President (Wells served in the post from 1999-2001 and more recently from 2009-2011) to talk "Shameless," how the show handles serious issues like euthanasia and the lack of big ratings and Emmy love for the stellar "Southland."
Jim Halterman: 'Shameless' is one of those shows that when people ask me why I like it, I have a hard time telling them exactly why. I almost feel guilty because it's often not always nice things going on in the show. Do you know what I mean?
John Wells: [Laughs.] Yeah, I do. I can tell you why I was first attracted to it. Paul Abbott created the pilot for the UK version for Channel 4 and I found myself very attracted to the family and the way in which these kids were raising themselves and cared for each other and looked out for each other so then you add all the humor... I think there's a love for each other that I find very seductive. A lot of people don't feel that in their own home. They don't feel that close bond with all their siblings.
JH: You definitely get the sense of family in the show.
JW: They all look out for each other and one of the things that people stop me on the street and tell me what they like about 'Shameless,' which always makes me glad, is that it seems like a place that actually, for all the craziness, is fun.
JH: In terms of Louise Fletcher playing Grammy Gallagher, did you bring her in for a few episodes mostly to get a little more of a window into Frank (William H. Macy)?
JW: Actually, what happened was that [Louise] came in for just a single scene last year and once we went there and started to think about it we figured it was a great way to reveal partially why Frank is who he is. It's not an excuse for Frank...
JH: Fiona (Emmy Rossum) is kind of the parent in the show yet she's drawn to Steve and other men who are not good for her. I also find it interesting when you see the kinship that exists when you get Fiona and Frank together.
JW: One of my favorite lines from the show is from the episode where [Fiona and Frank are] sitting on the front porch together and she says that she has fucked up parents, too. I think those things are connected. It's why she does not always make the wisest choices about the men she should be with. She's had no real role model growing up so she doesn't know what a good relationship should look like and she doesn't know what to look for so she's attracted to the wrong things and find herself not interested oftentimes in men who could be a little bit healthier for her. I believe in my life experience, that's really what happens. We seem to be attracted back to situations that we're familiar with even if we know that they're not necessarily good for us.
JH: I want to ask about Joan Cusack's character on the show. Was the Sheila character always meant to be a big part of the show or was it that she was in a few episodes and she was so good you had to keep her.
JW: It was a little of both. It was more than a few episodes but we had no idea how long this story was going to last. She's just a fabulous actress, she's wonderful in that part so we're going to keep writing for her as long as she wants to be on the show. She's really, really wonderful. [Joan] lives in Chicago so we don't have a lot of access to her in the sense that she only tries to be in town for a day or two, which limits a little bit what we can do but she has a family and younger children and she wants to be a part of their lives. This has been a great job for her and we're fortunate to have her for whatever period of time.
JH: Where else could Joan Cusack sit on Louise Fletcher's face with a pillow to suffocate her and say 'Go into the light?'
JW: I was laughing hysterically and one of the things I really enjoy about the show is that we're able to deal with very, serious issues that other shows would say 'a very special episode or something' but you end up thinking about it. The truth is, I think someone would prefer some form of euthanasia than a painful, lengthy death and an act of compassion rather than an act of violence. We're laughing about it but at the same time I think it's an easier way to see death is in laughing at our own mortality.
JH: Looking at your whole career, do you feel like 'Shameless' is a departure for you in terms of the tone and the stories your telling or is it more similar than we realize?
JW: I think it's more similar than we realize. All these shows I've done are basically family shows in the sense that they're about people at a work place or the work family that you work with for 16-hour days and they become your family. I've been on these very serious dramas where we were always making a lot of jokes [in the writers' room]. The difference in this one is that all the jokes are going into the script.
JH: I want to ask about "Southland," which I'm a big fan of. Does it bother you that it hasn't gotten the Emmy attention or that it always seems to be a little bit under the radar?
JW: I completely agree with you and we think it's a good show and we wish more people were watching in a large part just so we can keep on making it. I think people have grown to like it and I think the writers and the directors have done an extraordinary job with the production. So from that point of view, Emmys or no Emmys... I've worked on things that have received a lot of attention and everyone receives a lot of attention and I've worked on things where nobody did. You just have to step back for a minute and think 'Am I doing work that I'm proud of?' If you spend too much time thinking about it you can get kind of crazy and that's not really why you do it in the first place.
I'm not angry about it but do I think it deserves more award attention and critical attention, though we've gotten a lot of critical acclaim, but you look at that and you say there are lots of shows that I've really admired that didn't get a lot of attention and the obvious example is 'The Wire' where you go 'well, how did that show go?' and 'Friday Night Lights,' though it did get a couple of things at the end that it richly deserved. I try not to overthink it... I've always advocated to the Television Academy that once a show hits one, it should be ineligible going forward so that people can't just repeat the same things. That recognition is so important and it's not as necessary going forward. I've never gotten very far with that argument.
"Shameless" airs Sundays at 9:00/8:00c on Showtime. "Southland" airs Tuesdays at 10:00/9:00c on TNT.