Below, Nix talks about Miami ex-spy Michael Westen's relationship with his new CIA boss, the dilemmas Michael and Fiona face this season, the show's stable of supporting characters and, as they say, much, much more.
The interview transcript has been edited and slightly condensed.
Maureen Ryan: So as the season begins, is Michael officially cleared or not cleared? Did that memo go out? Or what it his status, exactly?
Matt Nix: Basically the idea is [Dylan Baker's CIA character] Raines is sort of "working on it." At a certain point it becomes like, "Hey, how long are you [expletive] going to work on this?" So the question that you're asking ultimately becomes a question that Michael will ask.
One thing that's interesting about this show is that so often Michael is so caught up in his next quest or goal that he doesn't see what is right in front of him, which is that he does have the life he wants and he has chosen it. On some level, I feel like he just doesn't want to admit it. He just feels like he needs to have something to work toward. I mean, in reality, he likes being with Fi and Sam. Even now, as he has these possibilities opening up to him with the CIA, it feels like this season is part of the process of him figuring out again what he will give up and what he won't and kind of owning the fact that there is choice to that.
That's exactly what we're interested in right now. You're dead on with that. It's a question for Fiona, 'Is this guy ever going to be happy?' If we give him everything he wants, does he wake up the next day and be a cool boyfriend or not? That's a question that gets shoved right in everybody's faces this year and it's something that's kind of been ongoing.
I think that question can really be turned around on Fiona. I think if Michael became the content boyfriend who is okay with how things are, she would get bored.
Absolutely, yeah. So does she really want what she thinks she wants? The only person on the show who actually wants what he thinks he wants is Sam.
And he just wants to have a few beers. Is that right?
Well, it's funny. Now that I say that out loud, I realize it's actually not true because Sam ostensibly only wants beer and relaxation and time with his lady friends, and yet presented with any opportunity to run around and do the stuff that he does every week, he immediately seizes it. So I suppose you could ask if he does really want what he thinks he wants.
One of the fun things about the show is that there are these interesting, meaty ideas at the heart of it, but then within that, you're able to give the actors the opportunity to do lighter, funnier things that we as the audience are in on. Even if the stakes are high, it can be enjoyable to see Michael imitate some gangster or something. There is just different layers of it that kind of intersect and make it fun.
Yeah, I always go back to ... I don't know that I've ever hear him say it in my presence, but [there's a Shawn Ryan quote.] He said [something along the lines of] "A TV show should be about cool guys doing cool things." I think about that so frequently. Because there can be a tendency [among showrunners to pander] to the members of your profession. [It] can get really dire.
Well yeah, for so long cable equaled tragedy. It was almost like you had to be dark.
It's also a little safer because if you swing for tragedy and miss, or you don't connect fully, then the critical response tends to be, "They were trying for something that didn't make it." You know what I mean. But if you swing for comedy and it doesn't connect, [critics] tend to act like you've killed their children. Which is fine.
But yeah, one of the things that I sort of own up to is, "Well, what is fun? What is the theme I actually want to do?" And I work backwards from that, because to me, ultimately that is just a more authentic way to write. There is an episode in season 2 that [came from that]. I wanted Michael and everybody in 'Reservoir Dogs' suits. I just keep seeing it in my head -- "How is that going to happen?" I kind of worked my way backwards from that, and then of course, if you're walking around in a 'Reservoir Dogs' suit, you can't take yourself that seriously.
So that's the fun of it for me -- finding some sort of intersection between what is dramatic and high stakes and exciting, emotional, and acknowledging that there is something also sort of funny about the situation.
I've talked to Graham Yost about 'Justified,' and he was like "I just wanted the show to be fun." You know, "What could we do that would be fun for people to watch?" And given that they're working with Elmore Leonard as the source material, there is going to be really good stuff there in terms of morality, but it's not front and center. It's not like 'Justified' was trying to be some kind of epic tragedy for our times, but it still can be moving. I think some people in the drama world, especially in cable, think that that grim darkness the tone they have to go for or no one will take them seriously. I don't think that's true at all. I think that the thing to go for is emotional groundedness and characters that people are interested in and then ideally good stories follow from that.
I think you're absolutely right. I always find it fascinating when you're talking to a showrunner and they [as a person] just feel like their show somehow. It's clearly not something calculated. They're just doing what they like and ultimately what is emotionally true for them. That's the goal. You want people to sort of be working out their own issues onscreen.
Somebody needs to do an analysis of how many lead characters on TV series are better-looking, idealized versions of their creators.
All of them?
Yeah, exactly. [Before it premiered] I said to Jeff Easton, [showrunner for] 'White Collar' -- I was like, "This is going to be so successful, you're golden." He was like, "You really think so?" and I was like, "Yeah, because clearly the two main characters are you and you."
Jeff is a friend of mine, and he has two modes and [they are reflected in] his two main guys. Everything he does is going to be true. Everything that he does is going to feel authentic because it's just him, him talking to him.
And that has a certain authenticity to it.
And as for Shawn Ryan -- "Say, that certainly is a fine-looking bald fellow you have there [on 'The Shield']." [laughs]
So 'Burn Notice' has been renewed for seasons 4 and 5. Are you going to stick around as showrunner the whole time and be hands on? What is your plan?
The short answer is I plan to. Last year, when I was working on two shows realized it's 'Burn Notice,' kind of for better or worse. That mode of storytelling is kind of baked into my DNA. I get on the treadmill at the gym and start thinking of 'Burn Notice' stories. Last year I figured out, okay, there are certain things that I can step away from and I've got a staff that can do that, and then there are other things that if you stop working on them, you go, "Whoa." So last year was a good learning experience for me. I got to learn which are the things that I can delegate and which are the things I can't.
Well, that's good to hear. I know there is an impetus for show runners to develop new shows. For anyone who is a hardcore fan of a show, whenever you hear that showrunner's other pilot got picked up, you're like, "Oh, no, what's going to happen now?" I'm not speaking specifically of you. I'm just saying this is a general fear.
Right, but I know I can think of showrunners myself very specifically where I sort of [think], "Stop working on your network show."
I am developing other things, but the things that I'm developing I'm very focused on partners [who can steer and guide those projects day to day]. The question that I'm asking when we get together is, "What show is baked into your DNA?" Part of it is just a matter of finding really powerful, creative partnerships and finding people to do stuff with you. There really is no class in Hollywood that teaches showrunners how to do two shows or how to develop. You know [legendary writer/producer] Steven J. Cannell didn't run a school before he died and although there are many of us who wish he had. You want to do different things, but at the same time there is always a balance.
So you can see running two shows at once.
If I were able to find strong, creative partners that didn't require a direct download from my veins. [He referenced the partnership of Chris Fedak and Josh Scwartz of 'Chuck.'] What I understand is [Josh] is doing real stuff, [but] he's not necessarily in on the third producer's cut of episode 17.
Right. Would you do more 'Burn Notice' movies? Have you got more spinoffs of 'Burn Notice' planned?
That was fun. It's not really [in the cards any time soon]. If the opportunity arose, absolutely, but it's an unusual thing just from a business perspective. It's sort of like proposing to your family that you might want a pet rhinoceros. Maybe they'll say it's cool. [They'll also say] you have to build a big cage for it and you can't exactly take it to a rhinoceros park.
It's kind of above my pay grade. If they said, "Hey, do you want to do another one?" my answer is "Yeah, absolutely," but it's not like the old days also where a Monday night movie is getting a really big budget and that kind of thing. Really, you're making it like you make the TV show. You're just making it in a different place and with a slightly different story, so that's also a challenge. One of the things one has to deal with is, like, "Hey, actors, instead of taking a vacation, how about you work the whole time?" Not that anybody complained. Everybody was really happy to do it. I don't know that they'd be happy to do it five years in a row.
A couple more notes from Nix:
* We talked about why Brennen, a great recurring character played by Jay Karnes, eventually had to go, even though he was an excellent antagonist for Michael. Same deal with Victor, Michael Shanks' character from season 2. "I need to be conscious of how many times can we have this particular bad guy escape from whatever cell we put him in," Nix said. "For us, with those characters, it's less about saying to ourselves, 'We want this to be a really big episode' and more about saying, 'We feel like we've done what we can do with this character.' ... My wife and I watched 'The Sopranos' and 'The Shield' together and one of the things that she always says to me is 'No cheating [regarding characters and their exits.]' Certainly I loved working with Michael Shanks and I thought his character turned out so great and he was so wonderful in it. Occasionally people will say, 'Maybe he is not dead,' and my reaction is, 'I would love to do that but my wife would divorce me.'"
* Nix said his approach with recurring minor characters is not to give them more prominence just before killing them off. "We certainly never think in terms of, 'Let's build Barry up so he can die."
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