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‘The Passage’: Why Fox’s Biting Vampire Drama Thrives Thanks to Working Moms

Showrunner Liz Heldens explains to IndieWire why she bucked a hiring trend for the solid ratings hit.

THE PASSAGE: L-R: Saniyya Sidney and Mark-Paul Gosselaar in the “That Never Should Have Happened To You" episode of THE PASSAGE airing Monday, Jan. 28 (9:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. © 2019 FOX Broadcasting.  Cr: Erika Doss / FOX.

“The Passage.”

Erika Doss / FOX

The showrunner of Fox’s intense vampire drama has a philosophy when it comes to staffing her shows: “I love hiring moms.”

Liz Heldens, who took on the reins of adapting the popular bloodsucker novel “The Passage” as a series, is a mother herself, and what she believes is that “nobody gets it done like who needs to get home for bedtime. I’m serious. I really feel like women with kids are the most efficient workers.”

It’s a philosophy that other showrunners might not share, but Heldens goes out of her way to subvert that concept. “We have a writer on [‘The Passage’] who has four kids who didn’t want to tell me, and I didn’t know in the meeting. And then she told me on the first day, and I was like, ‘I woulda hired you so much faster,'” she told IndieWire. “You can do anything if you have four kids. I really believe that. I think women with kids totally get it done.”

Heldens’ resume is packed with broadcast TV favorites, including the critically beloved “Friday Night Lights.” She initially got her start as a writer after writing a play in her late ’20s, which led to her selling the option for a feature film adaptation to Fox 2000, and then after writing some unproduced TV pilots for Fox, eventually got hired as a staff writer on the short-lived David E. Kelley show “Girls Club.”

“Girls Club” led to a job on Fox’s “Boston Public,” which is where Heldens met Jason Katims, the showrunner behind series including “Parenthood,” “Roswell,” and “The Path.” As Heldens described it, “When Jason Katims came in [to run ‘Boston Public’] he said, ‘I think I need another writer,’ and David Kelley was like, ‘There’s this girl that keeps bothering me with pitches. So why don’t you take her?'”

According to Heldens, “that was the luckiest thing. That was one of the best things that could’ve happened to me, because I met Jason.”

Heldens called Katims “the best show business father I could have asked … He’s not old enough to be my father, but he was a totally wonderful mentor, and still is. When I think about good things that have happened to me, that really is number one on the list.”

Liz Heldens'The Passage' TV show panel, New York Comic Con, USA - 06 Oct 2018

Liz Heldens

Anthony Behar/Fox/PictureGroup/REX/Shutterstock

Katims, when asked by IndieWire about Heldens, said that “she has an incredibly unique quality as a writer, which is not dissimilar from her quality as a person, which is there’s this humor and edge in her writing, but there’s also at the same time so much heart, and it’s so deeply felt. And I think that’s the thing that I was so drawn to in her writing, is that all of those things were firing at the same time.”

When Heldens started working with Katims on “Friday Night Lights,” what she noted was that he made a point of running a writers’ room with regular hours and minimal stress — as she paraphrased, “We’re just gonna come in every day. 10 to six, 10 to six, 10 to six. We’re gonna get it done. No freaking out.”

For Heldens, that was important, because she had just become a mother when the show began, and “it was just a great experience on a great show for a new mom.”

It was a different experience for her when she created her very first show for NBC, the medical dramedy “Mercy,” which starred Taylor Schilling, Michelle Trachtenberg, and Jaime Lee Kirchner as a team of hard-working but funny nurses. “Mercy” was a big deal for Heldens not just because it meant she had to leave “Friday Night Lights,” not just because it was her first “created by” credit — but because the show got picked up to series literally two days after she gave birth to her son.

“There was a regime change at NBC while I was pregnant, and the new people didn’t know I was pregnant. And I was like– [she mimed a very pregnant belly] — out to here. I was going to be induced while they were deciding. And I was talking to my agent and I’m like, ‘I don’t think any of the new people know I’m pregnant.’ And he goes, ‘Let’s just wait until the pickup, and then I’ll tell them you’re pregnant.’ And I’m like, “I think you should tell them, because I’m going to be in the hospital when they call to pick it up. I’m having contractions, dude. Just tell them I’m having a baby.'”

When she got the news, she was home with the baby: “I remember getting the phone call that it was being picked up, and I was like, ‘Awesome you guys. Let’s totally rock it. We’re gonna crush this.’ And I hung up the phone, and I started crying. I was so freaked out. It was my second, so I should’ve been used to it. But I was like, ‘Oh shit. He’s so little. I have to go to New Jersey. What’s gonna happen?’ But it was okay. I brought in help and it was okay.”

That help — co-executive producers Gretchen Berg and Aaron Harberts — made it possible for Heldens to keep working, because as she noted “a part of that job is hiring well. Part of that job is making sure you are surrounded with really capable people. And that’s, I think, maybe something that could be talked about a little more.”

“Mercy” didn’t last, as many broadcast dramas don’t, because while “it had a good sense of humor, so it was always pretty fun to write,” Heldens said, “there was a lot of logistics stuff, because we got pulled up on the schedule. So a lot of things were happening way faster than they used to.”

“The Passage,” meanwhile, represents a very different beast from a broadcast procedural — the drama, based on the books by Justin Cronin, is a very dense story meant to accelerate towards the post-apocalypse.

Heldens is also a consulting producer on the Fox series “The Orville,” but “The Passage” represents her first TV effort in the supernatural/sci-fi realm. However, she loves sci-fi and fantasy, citing “Battlestar Galactica,” “Lost,” and “Doctor Who” as particular favorites – at the time of our interview, she hadn’t yet gotten to see Jodie Whittaker’s work as the 13th Doctor, but does love 10th Doctor David Tennant: “I want to marry him.”

That said, what drew her to “The Passage” wasn’t just the high-concept narrative, focusing on the rise of a vampiric virus that eventually brings the human race to its knees. As made explicit in the pilot, the emotional core of the show is the connection between orphan girl Amy (Saniyya Sidney) and FBI agent Brad Wolgast (Mark-Paul Gosselaar), who becomes her protector and father figure.

“I feel like it makes it really relatable. I look at episodes and I’m so with Wolgast as a parent, you know? I really like him. I totally understand him,” Heldens said. “We talk about parenting a lot on the show, because I think that is a big theme. That is sort of what this season is about. It’s about Wolgast trying to be a father to Amy and get her ready, and as a parent you think, ‘Oh, my job is to protect my kid from anything bad ever happening to him or her.’ But that’s not really your job. Your job is to prepare them to be able to deal with it when stuff happens. And that’s this, only super-high stakes. She’s supposed to save the world.”

Heldens noted that in her writers’ room, “the people with kids really connect to Wolgast and Amy and speak to that, and, I think, kinda make it more authentic. I mean, I do really think the show is about parenting in a way.”

It’s not that being a parent is a prerequisite for being a television writer — especially given the fact that the hours are often punishing. However, Katims noted that, on his shows, “I want to create an environment of working that people would be able to have a life outside of their work lives. As people who are writing and in television, that’s obviously a huge honor, to be able to have that kind of a job, but also you need stuff to write about. So I think it’s really important to have an environment where you’re not spending all your days and nights in the room.”

It’s a belief that Heldens has brought to her own work — and while she waits for news about a second season of “The Passage,” she currently has an overall deal at 20th Century Fox TV to develop new series. It keeps her in the realm of broadcast TV, but she doesn’t find that limiting at all. “Now it feels you can branch out and do different things,” she said.

The Season 1 finale of “The Passage” airs Monday, March 11, on Fox.

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