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Learning the Language of Reality Shows: The Producers of 'Brick City' Talk Revisiting Newark in 'Docu-Soap' Form for New Series 'Jersey Strong'

Photo of Alison Willmore By Alison Willmore | Indiewire September 13, 2013 at 2:16PM

"Jersey Strong," the new unscripted series premiering on Participant Media's recently launched network Pivot tomorrow, September 14, at 10:30pm, is about two Newark-based couples.
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Maggie and Brooke in 'Jersey Strong'
Pivot Maggie and Brooke in 'Jersey Strong'

MB: Bill Moyers was our guiding light when we were younger. Moyers sent me in 1980s to Watts, and I've been back in the hood for decades, over and over. We have a long history of caring about cities, these incubators of change, and trying to make cities work.

ML: And we did "Gang War: Bangin' in Little Rock" for HBO back in '93. The so-called war on the streets, the whole thing of gangs, guns, the war on drugs, violence, these are things that we have been on the front line of chronicling and trying to make a difference. I think it was natural when Cory Booker emerged, we would be attracted to taking a look. In fact, it was Mark who first was out there, and in many ways he said "It's time for you to come home."

MB: But we didn't go to Newark for Cory Booker. Marc and I have tremendous respect for Marshall Curry's "Street Fight," and we didn't want to do a retread. We originally were following a Blood gang who was lead by a character named "Jiwe" Dashaun Morris, who's the main character of season two of "Brick City." You'll find him in this series, "Jersey Strong."

Jersey Strong 6

We went there because there was an activity called "de-ganging," which was about older gang members trying to keep young ones from going down the gang road. That's why we were there originally. Nobody wanted that film, so we talked to Booker and said, this great thing is happening in your city. We realized if he would be in our show, we might be able to do something about it.

We don't see stories about the southside of Chicago or Newark or Detroit on television shows very often. Does couching this one in a more relatable, domestic story make it more welcoming for more people?

ML: [laughs] I think you've just read the subtext. Absolutely. That's the idea. And I think it's a good idea, that Mark and Evan hatched. That way, you look at Aljahmeir, the young son of Jayda and Creep, and that's so representative of the young African-American male growing up in the inner city. This kid is so talented, sensitive, smart, but you read the statistics, and what's the future like? What are the odds of him realizing that potential?

Then on the side of Brooke, she's involved with Kwadir Felton, the young man who the police suspected of having a gun, he claims he didn't, ended up getting shot in the head. You look at everything that's been happening in the country, certainly down in Florida with Trayvon. So yes, that is one of the animating ideas and certainly one of the things that allows Mark and I to learn the docu-soap reality language, because it was a way to put people into this world which most television doesn't do.

Jersey Strong 7

MB: Also, to give credit where credit is due, Evan Shapiro ordered this series to be custom-made for Pivot as a very relationship-oriented to women. It's Romeo and Juliet and the lawyer and her girlfriend, a foursome, and we wanted to know more about what he was talking about. He's the one who's the godfather of "Jersey Strong."

ML: Even when we went out an pitched "Brick City," the drama of changing your life, your family's life, your community, your city, that is inherent incredibly dramatic. The stakes are life and death many times. So this idea that you have to contrive and whisper to A that B slept with your boyfriend or girlfriend and get in a fight... The contrived side of it is really more of a production, budget and executive reason -- when you want a factory to be mass producing this stuff, it's much easier when you just script it. When you don't have to shoot 30 days, you shoot three days, because you tell everybody what to do.

So that's one of the big differences here. It's a balancing act, because our motto has always been "keep shooting." It's also for control -- production executives at networks feel that oh my god, if we don't see it scripted, we don't know where it's going. We don't know if it'll be any good. Our faith has always been that if you pick the right situation and the right people, it's going to be good. It may not turn out the way you thought in the beginning, but there's going to be drama, there's going to be humor, there's going to be humanity, all the things you want are there.

This article is related to: Television, TV Interviews, Interviews, pivot, Jersey Strong, Brick City, Marc Levin, Mark Benjamin