On the surface, “Granite Flats” looks like a lot of premium cable dramas. The cast includes icons like Christopher Lloyd and Parker Posey. It has an intriguing period setting — a small town, caught up in the paranoia of the 1960s, invoking thoughts of “Mad Men.”
But unlike “Mad Men,” no one drinks, no one smokes, and if anyone’s having sex, it happens very much off screen. That’s because “Granite Flats” is a production of BYUtv, a network operated and funded by Brigham Young University. It’s not just made for Mormons. It’s paid for by them. And during what was billed as “an intimate breakfast” with that cast and producers of “Granite Flats,” I got a chance to speak with several principals of the production to understand what exactly all that means, on the eve of what might be the show’s biggest move yet — launching its first three seasons on Netflix.
Like PBS, But Not Quite
For anyone interested in the business of television, the first really interesting thing about BYUtv is that, according to “Granite Flats” executive producer and director Scott Swofford, it’s a non-profit operation funded by its donors. (When I asked, “So if I gave you some money, I’d be able to get a tax refund?” he joked, “Yeah, I’ll get you a form.”) BYUtv thus has an entirely different business model from broadcast cable, premium cable or even Netflix: It’s directly supported by a core audience, and it wants to keep that audience happy.
“We’re not ad-driven, so we’re not looking at the Nielsens the next day and saying, ‘Oh gosh, did we do okay?’ We’re saying ‘Did it work? Is it happening? Is it reaching the audience we want?'” Swofford said. “It’s a whole different metric, and it is weird to have the opportunity to play in this arena without having to obey some of those rules. It makes it possible to do independent work.”
While you might expect that the donor base, and thus the target audience, would be entirely Mormon, that’s not Swofford’s approach. In regards to the expectations of BYUtv, Swofford said that the message he received from the organization was “Stop talking to Mormons. There are a lot of people who share our values. Go out and say things that are interesting to them.”
As a result, the show takes a broader approach to faith: “Sure, the people have faith, but not necessarily Christian faith,” he said. “I mean, the head writer on this show [John Christian Plummer] is a Buddhist, and we have lapsed Catholics and Orthodox Jews and Mormons in the writers room. It’s intended to be certainly about faith, but not any specific faith.”
You Know, For Kids
As mentioned, “Granite Flats” is distinct from other serious period dramas being made today: There’s no drinking, no smoking and no explicitly adult material, all in line with basic Mormon beliefs.
It’s something Swofford referred to as a bit of a challenge. “Some entertainment elements clearly attract more viewers,” he said. “You know that if you do something graphic, you know people are gonna watch it. But in our case, because that’s not part of who we can be, you have to go searching for what else there is to talk about. You’re going to have to add intrigue and suspense and romance back in, and frankly they’re a little harder. It’d be a lot easier to just write in a subplot of incredible debauchery.”
But what this also means is that it’s extremely well-suited for viewing by the whole family. And that’s interesting, because right now, there’s not a lot of true “family” television in America these days. There are shows targeted to individual age groups, of course, but when I casually asked on Twitter what shows people with grade-school-age kids felt they could watch together, there was very little consensus. (“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” “Once Upon a Time” and classic sitcoms were mentioned.)
“Granite Flats” might look like a premium cable drama, but the point-of-view is relatively centered with the kids who investigate strange goings-on in their town, from fake ghosts to real Communist spies.
And that kid-friendly approach was part of Swofford’s design. “When you hear ‘family-friendly,’ that means you’re either going to sit your kids in front of it and you’re going to go watch ‘Walking Dead'” in the other room, right? So we said, ‘What if we could make a show that was sophisticated enough that parents would watch, but the kids could tune into some of the subplots as well?'”
George Newbern fits into Swofford’s description of the show’s target audience. The very familiar face, thanks to his role as the brutal but funny assassin Charlie on the ABC series “Scandal,” makes his debut on “Granite Flats” in Season 3. And he’s watched the show with his 12-year-old son. “He loves the spy aspect of the kids trying to solve these capers,” he said to Indiewire just before breakfast began.
But his son doesn’t necessarily understand everything that was happening, in terms of the historical context. “His questions are more like who are the Soviets? Kids don’t know what that is. So that was really his first question,” Newbern said.
“We’ve had a lot of parents who tell us, ‘Look, I watch this with my kids and yes, they ask questions about some of the plot points, but I’m never embarrassed by them and I get to have dialogue.’ So 75 percent of people who watch the series are watching it together in some kind of a co-viewing opportunity,” Swofford said.
And Netflix Likes That It’s Different
It’s worth noting here that BYUtv has a robust digital strategy. Not only was it the first network to stream live content online, but name a device or platform, and its programming is available there. Ratings may not matter, but getting seen does.
And as Ben Travers here at Indiewire has pointed out, lately Netflix’s model has noticeably shifted from courting the sort of viewers who crave shows like “House of Cards” to bringing in a much wider range of subscribers. It’s that attitude which helped “Granite Flats” negotiate directly with the streaming giant.
“They have kind of a niche right now, in terms of the things they acquire and they want to expand it,” Swofford said. “When these discussions started, they were as enthusiastic as we were. It’s a great opportunity for us to get to 60 million people we wouldn’t get to otherwise, and a great opportunity for them to expand to unusual markets.”
“It was a mutual thing. We just kind of ended up at the same place at the same time for the right conversations and it made all the sense in the world for us,” “Granite Falls” executive producer and BYUtv managing director Derek Marquis said.
The Key to the Cast
Of course, to land a whale like Netflix, name talent is extremely helpful; something that “Granite Flats” has built up since Season 2, when Cary Elwes and Finola Hughes joined the cast.
In fact, the producers cited Elwes and Hughes as the two cast members who were the tipping points for getting the show more attention — not just from viewers, but press, as well as agents and managers representing desirable acting talent. Hughes has a fanbase from her work in daytime television, but Elwes especially was important, as the “Princess Bride” star is still an iconic screen presence.
How did he end up on the set in Utah? “He was searching for ways to define himself and had done a lot of independent stuff and had, of course, done ‘Saw,'” Swofford said. “And he just had a lovely time with the role — so sleezy and so smarmy — that it caught a lot of people’s attention, and it got other actors interested.”
While everyone likes to be paid, Swofford was fairly confident that wasn’t a factor in why they signed up — in part, because he knows not just how much they get paid by the show, but how much they could be getting paid elsewhere. “They’re not doing it for the money. They’re doing it because they like the roles,” he said. “It’s gratifying to hear that. Chris [Lloyd] can go to a comic-con and show up in a DeLorean and make 50 grand in a weekend. I can’t even pay him a tenth of that.”
When asked about his character on the show, English teacher Stanfield Hargraves, Lloyd was in fact enthusiastic about the part: “He has a lot of enthusiasm, he loves what he does, he loves to teach, and he really loves writers like Shakespeare. He loves being able to impart his excitement to the kids so that they can see why this is so exciting.”
And he was also enthusiastic about the possibility of coming back for a fourth (as yet uncommissioned) season. “There’s stuff to do… A lot of things to resolve.”
Parker Posey, who joined the cast of Season 3 to rock some incredible blue eyeshadow (the show’s makeup artist, who was at the breakfast, said that Posey would tell her to add more and more), also had a personal connection to the material. “I just liked how unique it was. [I] had never seen a form like it,” she said
And Newbern felt the same way. “You work on a project and you’re never quite sure what the tone is, or what it feels like when you sit down to watch it. With this one, I couldn’t quite tell what it was going to be like, but when I saw it finally assembled, I was kind of like, this is a really sweet, interesting and different kind of show to watch. It felt like ‘Twin Peaks’ meets ‘Brady Bunch’ or something weird, you know what I mean? Nothing super terrible happens, but it’s engaging because there’s enough different in it that it keeps you guessing,” he said.
Different, these days, isn’t a bad thing. One of the things that makes television great in the so-called golden age is that no show has to be all things to all people. “Granite Flats” has a very specific audience. And it’s working hard to be the best show it can for them.