Aspiring TV writers, brace yourselves when you hear this: “Doc McStuffins” was the first show creator Chris Nee ever pitched. Thirteen years into a successful writing career in kids television, Nee sold her idea about a little girl doctor who “fixed” her toys to Disney. While the top brass “got it” right away, Nee says the first season of “Doc” was far from being considered “the high profile show in development.” Five seasons, two spinoffs, and a couple collaborations with Michelle Obama later, and “Doc McStuffins” is considered a Disney legacy project. Nee recently parted ways with Disney in 2018 to set up shop at Netflix, under a sweeping deal that positions her well on her way to becoming the Shonda Rhimes or Ryan Murphy of kids TV.
Animation is one of the few areas of entertainment that has not been slowed down by the challenges of social distancing, as long as talent is able to record high quality voiceover at home. That means Nee has hardly enjoyed any down time; she already has five shows greenlit just a year and a half into her Netflix tenure, and many more in various stages of development.
“Part of my deal at Netflix was always that I could build an empire if I wanted to,” Nee said during a recent phone interview. “One of the reasons I went with Netflix was I felt like they were doing the kind of buying into me as a person that seems to happen all the time for men and not often much for women. Which is like, ‘We believe in you, so come here and you can do whatever you want across any genre, just tell us what you want.'”
While she will always continue writing and creating her own shows, Nee is excited to step into a development role in order to open doors for new voices, something she’s been doing at her company for years. Part of her new deal insured Nee her own production company and development fund within Netflix, which will produce shows under the name Laughing Wild.
“Nobody else had given me the opportunity to have that kind of deal. Netflix was the place that very clearly listened to what I wanted, and it was a bigger dream than most people I have I think in the kids end of the business,” Nee said. “I say this with all humility, but the idea that the Shonda Rhimesian, Ryan Murphy sort of model could happen in the kids world.”
Nee has been working with women and people of color as soon as she had any hiring power, which she called “the real work.” While she praises the recent push towards inclusion, she can’t help but wonder what took so long for everyone else to catch up. “The real work for all of us is actually hiring people. It’s not the mentorship, it’s not the programs, it’s hiring people to do the jobs and give people the shows,” she said. “I can make the decision during the development process that a young woman of color has all the chops she needs to be a showrunner. She has all the vision, she has all the presence. She may not know all the institutional beats of putting a show on a screen in her bones the way that I do, but that’s what I’m there for.”
Newcomers are often given a co-showrunner or co-executive producer with more experience to oversee. Nee is cutting out that step by taking on the mentorship role herself. “We’re not gonna do that. We’re gonna let her be the showrunner, this is her show. I’ll be there to make sure the production aspect of it works, and to continue to guide her, but she doesn’t need someone coming in, that’s the way we undercut people all the time,” she said.
Nee began her career with acting aspirations, but quickly realized she was really a writer. She first got into kids TV in the late ’90s producing international versions of “Sesame Street,” but made the bold choice to leave “the best job in the world” to pursue writerly ambitions. She was a workaday writer for years, with a side career in non-fiction TV. While producing the first season of “Deadliest Catch,” she wrote kids TV in her Alaska hotel room.
By the time she pitched “Doc” she was thirteen years into her career, with an Emmy and a Humanitas Prize to her name. “When I did sell the show, I was completely prepared to run it. That’s the problem — some people sell things and they just don’t have the experience to necessarily bring a good idea well to the screen,” she said.
Though no one could have predicted “Doc” would become the phenomenon it is, the show gained popularity fairly quickly into its first season. Nee’s message of finding chosen family resonated widely, as well as the rarity of seeing a young black girl as a lead character, not to mention that her mother is an actual doctor. Still, it took longer for the visibility to include Nee’s own identity. Though she’s been out as gay her entire career, it wasn’t until a few seasons of success that she felt comfortable pitching Disney a same sex storyline.
In August 2017, Disney aired “The Emergency Plan,” which featured an interracial couple of lesbian moms voiced by none other than Wanda Sykes and Portia De Rossi. While Disney was always supportive of Nee and her family, proudly featuring her former partner and son in promotional campaigns, the company needed serious convincing to put a same sex couple on the air. “If you were gay when I was coming up, you were the last person to try gay content. You knew it was the third rail in kids tv, like you couldn’t go near it — at all. The first time I wrote a gay character was 20 some odd years into my career. And it was a hard battle to get Disney to do that. I had been told I couldn’t do it before that multiple times,” she said. “I said, ‘I’m constantly doing press, talking about how important it is to see yourself onscreen and what that means to kids, and yet I can’t talk about my own family. I just said ‘I’m done, we’re putting a same sex family on the air.’ And I was really strategic with it. I very specifically cast high profile people in those roles so they couldn’t chicken out.”
It was the first time Disney had featured a same sex storyline in a program for preschool ages. Nee says once the decision was made, though it took a long time, the company was all in. She also admits they were right to be concerned. There was blowback from the Million Moms (Nee: “Which is like three moms”), and it was ugly, but it eventually blew over.
“It’s a slow moving ship, Disney. And the game is always, you can do things on a more independent level and have total creative control and be doing much bolder stuff, but are you affecting as many lives?” she said.
It’s safe to say that in her new role at Netflix, Nee will be affecting many more lives. She primarily hires women and people of color across the board. “Gender equity in my company would mean we’d have to hire more men,” she said. “I have 17 full-time employees, the majority by far are women, the majority by far are people of color. We have three straight white guys.”
She urges others in power to do more to create opportunities. In some cases, she says “you have to inconvenience yourself.” That means promoting promising assistants and coordinators after a year, even if it means training someone new all over again. “You have to create a culture where you are always asking the question, ‘Who else could I be bringing in to do this job? How can I be opening things up? It has to become a question every single time you hire,” she said. “And it does mean you have to go shake some trees sometimes. The people who you want are not always standing right there with the same experience.”