Former TV critic Andy Greenwald had seen the demands of being a showrunner firsthand. When he finally got the chance to call the shots on the USA Network series “Briarpatch,” that opportunity brought everything that comes with overseeing the production of 10 hourlong episodes of TV.
“There was a day in the airport when I was flying back to Albuquerque because we had to crash [Episode] 2 through post to get it to Toronto,” Greenwald told IndieWire. “I think we’re filming 5 and 6, and we were prepping 7 and I was writing or rewriting 8, 9, and 10 and I was at LAX at 6 in the morning and I was like, ‘This…This is awful.’ And then I thought, ‘The only thing worse than this would be not doing it.'”
Despite that occasional solitary heavy workload at an airport boarding gate, Greenwald was far from alone in this process. After he wrote the pilot — the making of which he called “a graduate school in a couple months” — putting together a writers room became a blending of interests and perspectives that helped flesh out the world of the Ross Thomas novel the show is adapted from.
“This is a woman’s story. I am not a woman, nor am I a woman of color. So it was vitally important to me that we had a really strong and robust diversity of voices in the room. I’m pretty proud I was the only white dude in there,” Greenwald said. “It was great to have people from not just different backgrounds, but also different interests. Haley Harris loves cop procedurals, which is really important because I want people who like procedurals to like the show. We have someone like Eva Anderson, who’s an immersive playwright and works on comedy shows, because the comedy is vitally important to me. So the writing room was really the dream for me across the board, the opportunity to work with brilliant, creative people and just talk about story all day.”
In between an established career as a music writer and rejoining a writers room path that would eventually lead him to this latest gig, Greenwald served as a full-time TV critic, most notably at Grantland. Over his time as a writer and podcast host, he’s looked at the ongoing question of who has authorship within the TV space. While he says that the “Briarpatch” process crystallized some of his previous ideas and challenged others, he was quick to point to TV making as a shared pursuit.
“The goal in anything collaborative is to have people bring their own enthusiasm and their own passions to it. So to work with someone like Risa Garcia, who did our costumes, who’s worked in the industry for a very long time and had never been the head of her own department, she delivered on everything from the smallest background person to our stars,” Greenwald said. “Zack Galler is our incredible DP. I don’t think people understand how hard that job is on a television show. Richard Bloom, our production designer, similarly, was the art director on the pilot and was ready to step up and just brought a level of care and detail because it mattered to him, too.”
A show like “Briarpatch,” aside from being anchored by Rosario Dawson’s central performance as Allegra Dill, relies on cultivating a strong, distinct visual palette. As showrunner, Greenwald was charged with taking that spirit of collaboration and providing the final say on a number of the “Briarpatch” component parts.
“The one thing that I did learn is that someone has to ultimately decide. That was a challenge honestly, because I do love collaboration so much. At the end of the day, someone has to be the one who has the vision of what it’s supposed to be, whatever that means, and try to keep the ship pointed in the right direction,” Greenwald said. “So that level of detail and decision-making was surprising every day, whether it was choosing extras to be in the background or costume choices or line readings or hiring the directors, whatever it may be. But at the end of this experience, I am still where I was the beginning, which is this is a profoundly collaborative medium.”
Some decisions that came earlier in the process may have reflected a mixture of first-time showrunner eagerness and naivete, but even when those swings could have put “Briarpatch” at a disadvantage, Greenwald said that teamwork helped to solidify the show’s approach.
“I mean, first-time showrunner rookie mistakes: Our scripts were huge. They were hugely ambitious. I learned a ton of lessons, too, that maybe people don’t really like 1/8th of a page scripts for montages. It’s a good way to murder your schedule, and also murder your line producer,” Greenwald said. “Again, it’s a testament to all the people who worked on the show that we were able to deliver on it and make it what it is. I don’t think it looks like an eight-day-an-episode show.”
What did end up on screen is part of that exciting blend of a world that’s tangible in many ways, but dreamlike in others. As Allegra moves through the fictional Texas town of San Bonifacio, trying to find the answers behind her sister’s death, the town feels notably untethered from any one particular time period. As a result, the noir DNA of “Briarpatch” is strengthened by what many present-day-set shows would regard as outdated institutions.
“It’s a very old media show that’s primarily about newspapers, manila folders, and pudding. I didn’t know that going in, but apparently that’s what it is,” Greenwald said. “We wanted to set it in a fictional town, because a fictional town is elastic, and I wanted it to be a place that’s not real, but feels true. It’s the kind of place that would exist in your imagination, a failing town that also has a robust newspaper with a morning and an afternoon edition. Sure! Why not? Because the rules that we know of in the outside world don’t necessarily apply when you’re in the ‘Briarpatch’ universe. That’s something that we love building and hopefully we’ll get to continue.”
The fact that “Briarpatch” is a cable TV show also resulted in one of Greenwald’s favorite pleasant byproducts of the whole process: Rather than the season getting dropped all at once, each week that the show airs brings a fresh chance for the show to generate an ongoing discussion of the work and creativity that birthed it.
“I am a huge fan of the traditional, one-a-week TV model that I grew up on. It really celebrates the weekly episode, which I think is central to the artform of television. I think it’s getting kind of ignored and mistreated a little bit,” Greenwald said. “So I was thrilled to be on TV TV. I’m excited at the possibility of being able to have a 10-week conversation with people.”
“Briarpatch” airs Thursday nights at 10 p.m. on USA.