This year’s limited series race is a competitive one: three Hulu shows are up against titles from Netflix and HBO, and four of the nominees tell captivating and hard-to-believe true stories of greed, fraud and public humiliation. Creatives behind each nominated series — Dopesick‘s Danny Strong, The Dropout‘s Elizabeth Meriwether, Inventing Anna‘s Shonda Rhimes, Pam & Tommy‘s Robert Seigel and D.V. DeVincentis, and The White Lotus‘ David Bernad — reflect on the challenges of writing television when the real-life stories haven’t yet ended, when they realized their projects were going to be powerful and watching their stars come together and discover their characters.
Danny Strong, showrunner of Dopesick (Hulu)
“We had someone in the props department who had a lot of firsthand experience and knowledge that he was so honest about. He was able to make the [drug] paraphernalia look extremely real. And it was so important to me that it all looked real, that it wasn’t glamorized or [what] some people call ‘opioid porn,” where you see photographs of people [who look] like they’re wallowing in the darkness. I wasn’t interested in any of that. He was an incredible asset. We shot the show in Virginia, and there were so many people [on set] who have lost family members, friends, years of their own lives to drugs. There was the sense of a collective mission that everyone was on in telling the story.
“I knew that we were doing something really powerful when, in the first week of shooting, we had a scene where the U.S. attorneys were just discussing OxyContin — there was nothing emotional in the scene whatsoever. After we did a few takes, I saw some- one in the crew in the corner crying. It was just hearing the drugs discussed that made this person cry. I thought, ‘Wow, I’m so glad we’re not only telling this story, but we’re telling it here in Virginia, where it all happened’ — so there could maybe be something cathartic for the people on the crew who experienced this, too, to be part of telling that story.”
Elizabeth Meriweather, showrunner of The Dropout (Hulu)
“I was really afraid of writing the finale. I kept putting it off. I’d been putting it off for way too long and Hulu was like, ‘You need to write this finale!’ It was definitely hard for me, like, ‘How do I wrap this story up in a way, when it’s ongoing?’ For the ending, we initially had envisioned it at Burning Man, because she made this trip to Burning Man with her new fiancé, Billy, and they had posted all over Instagram about it, and it just felt like a really interesting place for a quote-unquote rebirth. But then it was weirdly a blessing in disguise because with COVID, we were definitely not going to Burning Man. We had to rethink that whole ending, and it just became her getting into an Uber, which totally worked. With her relationship with Sunny, it’d been in a slow boil for episode after episode, and then I felt like, ‘We owe the audience a big fight between them.’ But I was definitely avoiding writing a big dramatic fight because I’m a comedy writer. I was like, ‘How do I write this very dramatic scene without it feeling melodramatic?’ That was a challenge for me.”
Shonda Rhimes, showrunner of Inventing Anna (Netflix):
“There’s so much of the show that feels like it’s straight out of Anna’s mouth, that we had to take some liberties with, but we tried really hard to strike a balance between sticking to the facts that really mattered, and the accounts that really mattered, and then just trying to build the moments, to express a moment that maybe happened in life, but didn’t happen the way we unfolded it. You know, we wanted to make sure that we were creating these moments and telling them in a way that was vivid and visual and worked for story. That’s why we said ‘inspired by,’ so we didn’t feel married to sticking to the facts. One of the ways that was the most clear was our creation of the reporter who was inspired by [New York magazine’s] Jessica Pressler to create a way into this world, because we needed somebody that you were going to sympathize with and really care about.”
Rob Siegel and D.V. DeVincentis, showrunners of Pam & Tommy (Hulu)
DeVincentis: “We did exhaustive research, and Lily [James] would still find things that we didn’t know about that turned out to be crucial to the storytelling. Lily and Sebastian [Stan] were the best custodians of characters I’ve ever seen. Their dedication and their love of the characters is so overwhelming, and it’s all there. And by the way, Sebastian, because his transformation isn’t as extreme, the specificity that he’s using isn’t quite as noticeable, but it’s every bit as potent. Particularly recently, I’ve seen some footage of Tommy Lee talking, and after seeing hours of it after watching Sebastian do it, you’re like, ‘Oh my God, Sebastian was really inhabiting it.’ It was incredible.”
Siegel: “For me, the archival interviews, hearing them talk. You can just learn so much from video footage.”
DeVincentis: “If you watch enough interviews with Pam, particularly the late night interviews, you start to see how brilliantly and with the sort of innate intelligence she handles the situation. You watch what she’s putting up with, and you see her putting up with it. I like to think there’s sort of a larger goal, like she knows people are going to be sexist and gross and shitty to her, but if she gets through it, she gets to talk about things that are really important to her, like animal rights and PETA. And to me, the behavior in watching how she handles really insensitive, crappy people was the most instructive thing about that character to me in terms of research.”
David Bernad, executive producer of The White Lotus (HBO)
“I think Mike [White, creator and director] is a genius. The humanist approach is consistent in all of his work. But the thing that’s incredible is that no one writes quicker than Mike. People will think this is not true: We landed in Hawaii, I would say, like, Sept. 13 or 14 of 2020. We had one script. We started production on Oct. 28. It’s a six-episode series, and he wrote five perfect scripts in five, six weeks — while we were casting, while we were prepping, while we were crewing up. In that six-week time period, we did everything. We had about four weeks to cast the show. Mike is also, as a filmmaker, incredibly decisive. We were focused on finding people that really embodied the characters. Steve Zahn’s casting was Mike’s idea. Murray Bartlett was someone who Mike just saw his initial audition, and was like, ‘That’s him. Murray is Armond.’ Sydney [Sweeney] was someone that I had met in a general meeting. I’d only seen her in Euphoria, and from that meeting, [I saw] she’s so different from her character in [that]. Mike and Connie [Britton] had worked together on Beatriz at Dinner. Obviously Connie is an icon and incredible. I think Alexandra Daddario made a self-tape, and when we both saw the tape, we were like, ‘That’s it.’ We just knew.”