“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. Creep and Jayda are a reformed Crip and Blood working together to improve their community, and Brooke Barnett and Mag Voelkel are a trial attorney and the life and business partner with whom she’s raising two kids.
They’re subjects who were part of producers Mark Benjamin and Marc Levin’s previous docu-series “Brick City,” a Peabody Award-winning look at Newark under its young mayor Cory Booker. In “Jersey Strong,” Benjamin and Levin have essentially repackaged the social themes and some of the people from their earlier show in a poppier, less heavy package — what Pivot is referring to as a “docu-soap.” Indiewire caught up with the pair on the phone to talk about what it was like to work in the language of reality TV.
There’s a lot of unscripted programing on television right now, but most of it is a very different thing from what one would describe as a “documentary series.” I’m curious how you feel perceptions of reality TV influence doing a series that actually takes a documentary approach.
Marc Levin: There’s a plus and a minus to what’s happening. The plus is that the audience now accepts the style of documentary as part of our vocabulary, which I think is great. It’s opened people up in ways I find exciting. The minus is what we see on the air is contrived — so-called reality programming — and ironically it’s more scripted.
Mark and I have for years repeated to each other that we were gonna put the “real” back in reality. It’s a tricky tightrope. You want an audience, you want the conventions now that audiences have come to accept, but why get into it if the whole thing is scripted, contrived, you’re setting up conflicts, you’re setting up catfights and its just tabloid?
That was what inspired Mark and I to try to do “Brick City” which we were almost purists about, there are very few of what they call “OTFs,” on-the-fly [interviews], there’s very little archival. It was very in the moment, verite, but structured narratively, so it would play as if you were watching “West Wing” meets “The Wire,” or something like that. Pivot is interesting because first of all we know some of the players.
We were a bit hesitant about what has been called the “docu-soap” genre where relationships are in the lead, but because Pivot is committed to original programming for younger generation and social action follow-up, we said ‘take the plunge.’ And because we knew Jayda and Creep and we knew Brook and Maggie, we’d worked with all of them for years, we knew we wouldn’t have to contrive and script the soap-opera in their lives. [laughs]
Mark Benjamin: We longed for that old style, the old documentary/observational filmmaking. That’s no secret. We never wanted to make reality TV. We’re old school doc guys trying to work in this modern vernacular of everybody watching so-called nonfiction when most of its fake. We’re like fish out of water. We’re trying to make it work. [Pivot President] Evan Shapiro knew who we were and he gave us this opportunity to do something different. And this is really a female-demographic show. It’s about two unconventional women.
ML: Mark and I had meetings with a lot of networks after “Brick City.” The common response was “We love ‘Brick City’! You guys did something amazing — but our audience would never watch it.” With [Pivot], we found executives we could work with who got, ‘hey, we know what you did,’ and Evan, we’d worked with [on ‘Brick City’] and we think there is a meeting ground where we can take your talents and your connections and the way you like to do things, and this new vocabulary.
How would you describe a “docu-soap,” as it’s being billed? As you mentioned, you’re using subjects you followed in “Brick City,” what do you see as the difference in approach?
ML: The difference is in “Brick City” we were trying to connect policy and politics and change and community with a personal story. Here, it’s almost the other way. We’re flipping the script. We’re starting with personal lives, these two very unconventional families.
You’re starting more focused on the relationships — can they last? Can these unconventional relationships work? How are they going to raise their families? — and then through that, since both Brooke and Jayda are committed to doing good in the hood, trying to make a difference, you find the social issues, the politics and policy. But that’s more the background. The foreground is the personal relationships, whereas before we started with City Hall and branched out to how these policies affect real people.
MB: The hardest thing for us was to not fall into very political content, to stay with the personal and stay with relationships and just believe these women’s stories, their struggles, these parallel universe between these two contrasting women. We want with that program and we had to hold ourselves back from the demonstrations on the street, the whole “what goes on in government,” “what goes on in day to day politics.”
ML: The two reasons why I think it was easier than we might have imagined. One, the build-in, organic connection between Jayda and Brooke, who had worked together, and Brooke had helped keep Jayda out of jail. And that they had similar visions from totally different perspectives, on trying to make a difference in the inner city. That parallel and the contrast between the urban and the suburban, which is core to so much of our popular culture — music, movies, TV — here it was built in even though we were looking at the personal lives.
The second thing is Participant, the parent company, and now Pivot are really committed to having a social action component, and that was a huge relief for Mark and I. Let’s lead with the relationships, but we know that they’re going to have an outreach program, social networking, all of which can make a big difference.
Between “Brick City” and now “Jersey Strong,” you’ve been documenting Newark over the years from a larger viewpoint and a more personal one. What is it about the city that you want to keep bringing to screen?
ML: Well, I grew up right outside of Newark in Elizabeth and I went to the high school where Creep went. So for me it really brought me home when we returned there four or five years ago. So there’s that attachment, but I think the question of the whole urban agenda, urban policy, I think we’re trying to rediscover it now. The question of where are our cities going, our urban communities, so many of them having gotten lost, de-industrialized.
Obviously Detroit is now the big example, and Mark and I are working on an eight-hour series in Chicago. The demographics of the country, and the world, have changed. The majority of the American population now lives in metropolitan areas. We’re not a rural nation. We are, now, an urban nation. So how are we going to save our cities, make them what they once were, these engines or growth and innovation. That’s just something that, Mark and I, it’s somehow part of our DNA.
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.”
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.
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.