HBO is about to have a huge start to the year and spring with the launch of new series “True Detective” (which starts this Sunday, January 12th), gay dramedy “Looking” (which premieres the following week on the 19th) and Mike Judge comedy “Silicon Valley” (April 6th), plus returning series “Girls” (also January 12th), “Vice” (March 14th), “Game of Thrones” (April 6th), “Veep” (also April 6th) and “Boardwalk Empire,” which will have its fifth and final season in the fall. Then there’s Tom Perrotta and Damon Lindelof’s very promising new drama “The Leftovers” and Lisa Cholodenko miniseries “Olive Kitteridge,” both of which will air later this year, and the Ryan Murphy-directed film adaptation of Larry Kramer’s play “The Normal Heart,” which will premiere in May.
HBO brought many of the creators and stars of the above programs to the TCA winter 2014 press tour today, where they discussed their shows and films and alternately charmed and chided the audience of journalists. Here are some highlights:
True Detective: Costars and pals Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey were ebullient in their fondness for one another on the “True Detective” panel in a way not reflective of the more somber and sometimes testy relationship between their characters on the series, a pair of Louisiana detectives tracking down a serial killer. “With this project, we didn’t use a lot of our normal shorthand where we finish each others sentences,” admitted Harrelson, saying that McConaughey, normally gregarious, “was an island” when playing the philosophical Rust Cohle.
McConaughey, who was first approached for the role of Martin Hart that Harrelson ultimately took, had no hesitations about doing television, noting the transition between big and small screen these days “is much more seamless, in reality and in perception. Some of the best drama going on has been on television in comparison to some films.” He added that the project, which was written entirely by novelist Nic Pizzolatto and directed in full by Cary Fukunaga, both present on the panel alongside fellow cast member Michelle Monaghan, felt like a 450-page movie, one that came to a finite end.
Of the plans to treat the series like an anthology, starting over with new characters and a new story should it be renewed for a second season, Pizzolatto explained some of the elements he thought would carry over — the setting “would be a major character” and one that wasn’t a major city that’s often written about or put on TV, the series “would always retain an aspect of a story being told,” it wouldn’t “shy away from one or two pulp elements” and, obviously, there has to be some kind of crime. “There’s a real kind of post-industrial, end of empire thing” that’s in the first season and that he’s like to continue as a thread.
Silicon Valley: HBO premiered cuts of the first two episodes of Mike Judge’s clever Bay Area tech scene comedy “Silicon Valley” the night before to a crowd that seemed appreciative, but while Judge has various cult followings due to “Office Space,” “Beavis and Butt-heard,” “King of the Hill” and “Idiocracy,” he’s a pleasant but not terribly forthcoming guy in person, leaving fellow executive producer Alec Berg to fill in some details. Judge, who worked in Silicon Valley for a while as an engineer and who interviewed a few startup figures ahead of making the series, noted of the two tech billionaire characters that appear in the show that they weren’t based specifically on any particular people — “you meet enough of them, there’s sort of a billionaire vibe. There’s the Aspergery type and the more aggro.”
The pair deflated the self-aggrandizement of the industry a bit in the show, with Berg noting “these guys are fundamentally changing the world, but it’s not entirely altruistic” and Judge saying “it’s not enough that they just make billions of dollars, they have to say they’re saving the world. The Bay Area is where the whole hippy movement started — they have to shroud their capitalism.” He enjoys the freedoms of having a show on HBO but notes that “it’s not like I’m a person who’s always looking to be edgy and outrageous.” He admits the season finale has “what may be one of the most complicated dick jokes every told” — though it’s one that Berg added was also “sophisticated.”
Looking: Four of the major cast members of this new show, which is also set in the Bay Area — Jonathan Groff, Frankie J. Alvarez, Murray Bartlett and Raúl Castillo — were present for the panel, alongside creator Michael Lannan and executive producer and director Andrew Haigh (“Weekend”). Lannan said that one of the questioned they asked themselves when making the series was “what is the most contemporary way to portray gay characters today?” That included questions of things like marriage — “There’s a lot of pressure from parents to get married that never exitsted 10 years ago,” Lannan added, pointing out that another theme of the series in showing gay life was “welcome to the mainstream — what do you do now?”
Haigh said that while “it’s probably still easier to film in Los Angeles,” it was important to them to shoot on location, which they ended up doig. Groff, who’s probably the biggest star of the group, coming off of “Glee” and a recent turn in David Sedaris adaptation “C.O.G.,” noted that the cast and crew actually spent some of their off hours going out to the same bars and locations the characters go to on the show. The shoot included some room for improv, which Alvarez pointed out lead to an ad-libbed scene at the end of the second episode in which Groff claims to be eating a kale salad when he’s definitely not.
The Normal Heart: The most celebrity-filled panel of the afternoon was for “American Horror Story” creator Ryan Murphy’s film adaptation of Larry Kramer’s play about the AIDS crisis in New York City and the fight to bring attention to finding a cure, with cast members Mark Ruffalo, Julia Roberts, Matt Bomer, Taylor Kitsch and Jim Parsons joining the director on stage. Murphy said that in working with Kramer to adapt and expand the play into a film, 40-45% of it ended up being new material. Murphy’s long been a fan of the play, and it was important to Bomer (who lost 40 pounds for his role) as well, who said “I read it in the closet of my drama room — the irony of that is not lost on me.”
Roberts noted that she’d twice before been asked to play the role of Dr. Emma Brookner and turned it down, in part because she didn’t feel like she had a grasp of the character, and it wasn’t until she watched a documentary on polio, a bout with which left the character wheelchair-bound, that something “unlocked the door to who this woman is to me and where her ferocious, relentless pursuit of correctness comes.” Ruffalo said that he’d met Kramer years before — “I spent hours and hours with him begging him to tell me stories about what they went through.” When asked if he’s ever expected being able to cast two gay actors (Bomer and Parsons) in his movie, both with successful TV careers, Murphy stated that he doesn’t give a lot of thought to whether his actors are gay or straight, as “never went after anybody based on their sexuality,” but that he does “think that the world is changing.” “I’m just thankful to get to work on roles or project like this, period,” said Bomer.
The Leftovers: It was mainly the Damon Lindelof show at the panel for “The Leftovers,” the terrific pilot for which was screened the night before for the press, though the former “Lost” showrunner pointed out that series creator Tom Perrotta, who wrote the novel on which the series is based, and he were “not just here for show — we are working together as partners on this show.” Lindelof, aware that he’s making another series shaped by a central mystery — 2% of the world’s population disappears, rapture-style, without any apparent explanation or pattern — said that for this one he hoped that people would care more about the characters and “less about where everybody went and why.” He’s also relieved to be working for a show airing on HBO: “Now that we’re all here together we can definitely agree that cable is far superior,” he half-joked, noting the benefits of shorter seasons and not having to do filler episodes.
Perrotta, who’s had work brought to the big screen before (“Election” and “Little Children”), acknowledged that he’d so far had a great experience with adaptations. At first, like a lot of writers, he noted, he thought “what I want is a faithful adaptation.” After working with Alexander Payne and Todd Field, he said he realized “what a writer really wants is someone really talented to adapt his work, not for somebody to bow down before the work and step back and be afraid.” As the series will outpace what he put on the page for the novel, he said “I’m excited to find out what happens next,” pointing out that there are characters in the pilot that aren’t in the book: “It is this new thing we’re creating.” Star Justin Theroux, who was also on the panel, kept relatively quiet, but did say that he liked “relaxing into letting someone else steer the ship,” and that the kind of writing he did himself “is so fart-based and joke-based — it’s so out of the wheelhouse of what these guys do.”
Girls: HBO just announced that “Girls” would be coming back for a fourth season, but the testiest panel of the afternoon came from Lena Dunham and Judd Apatow’s comedy, which is starting up its third season on Sunday, after The Wrap writer Tim Molloy starting things off on a sour note by saying he didn’t get the purpose of the nudity on the show, particularly by Dunham. It was a sensitive question to begin with that Molloy worded in a way that set Apatow, in particular, off — he returned to the Molloy several times throughout the panel to ask, for instance, if he had a girlfriend and if she liked Molloy. For her part, a largely unrufflable Dunham said nudity is “a realistic part of being alive” and that she loved the show’s flawed characters: “We’re not held to any type of sweet female decency.” When asked about whether she felt the need to make the characters more likable, she pointed out “You seem to like Walter White.” “I think it’s real so it’s uncomfortable, because you could be any of these character, but I don’t think any of us think we’d sell meth in the desert,” added Apatow.
Apatow was also fairly blasé about any show’s obligations to add primarily for the same of diversity if the show doesn’t have “storyline that serve it naturally,” though Dunham pointed out that they’re adding characters this season after not doing so last season, and that “I’ve learned so much about intersectionality and the way feminism has served women of color” and said “We need to talk about diversifying the world of television.” Co-stars Jemima Kirke, Zosia Mamet and Allison Williams didn’t get much of a chance to speak up, though Kirke did point out her character, who returns in a big way this season, is “sexually damaged,” and Williams said of her character’s quickly reworked storyline in the wake of Christopher Abbott’s departure that it “proves their prowess as a creative team.”
John Oliver: The British comedian and “Daily Show” alum is only three days into production on his new weekly satirical news show for the network, the format for which, he noted, doesn’t exist yet. The show doesn’t even have a name yet, though when one reporter in the room suggested an “Oliver Twist”-inspired “Can I Have Some More, Please?” Oliver called him “racist” — “It’s okay for me to do Dickens humor. You really can’t do Dickens humor.” Mainly, Oliver was just hilarious, which may have been the best sell point for the new series for anyone who didn’t watch his very strong stint hosting “The Daily Show” this summer while Jon Stewart was in the Middle East shooting his directorial debut. He made jokes about staying for Sarah Paiin’s breakfast presentation the following morning and about how his “Carlos Danger” dance has a “bizarre modern day ‘Macarena’ that I’ve unleashed.” He did say, in terms of how much the new series will resemble “The Daily Show” that “I don’t there’s a worry that they’ll be too similar and that “HBO is almost almost objectively the best sandbox you could play in.”