Culture

The Couple Behind TV’s Boldest Shows


Improbable as it seems, “Evil” was meant to be a more mainstream show, maybe even a CBS blockbuster. But in its way “Evil,” too, was a response to a frightening era of cruelty and mendacity, to the rise of a legion of trolls, fixers, and frauds. “I don’t like when the truth isn’t clear,” Robert told me. If the Kings’ “Good” shows were about navigating a corrupt world, “Evil” was about a starker, broader subject: the struggle to find meaning in a culture that often seems to be tipping, quite literally, into Hell.

By November, the first episode of “Evil”—a mere brainstorm only a month earlier—was in full swing. The Kings had hammered out a script during a long weekend. Robert was directing, something he does once or twice a season, including an elaborate silent episode in Season 2, set at a monastery; making it had nearly killed him, he said. Visual bravado was tough on a budget, but the Kings, and their director of photography, Fred Murphy, tried to give each show a distinct, non-network look: on “The Good Fight,” sleek horizontal compositions, to frame power dynamics; on “Evil,” vertical shots that drew the viewer’s eye upward, to mimic the show’s theme of gazing at something “beyond the human.”

For “Evil,” Robert also had a specific aesthetic model: the 1955 movie “Night of the Hunter,” the only film directed by the British star Charles Laughton. A bracing black-and-white homage to the silent-film era, the psychosexual thriller, in which Robert Mitchum played a sociopathic preacher, used uncanny images isolated on an inky background, a look that “Evil” had never replicated to Robert’s satisfaction. At a production meeting, he suggested trying again: scenes in Father David’s rectory bedroom could be shot to suggest darkness framing the set, “as God would see it, almost, like there’s nothing beyond our walls.” He chuckled and added, “Let’s play, and if it doesn’t work the only one who is embarrassed is me, for pushing for it in the little time we have.”

On the soundstage, in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, Robert gave gentle notes to the actors. “Let’s just embrace the staginess,” he told Katja Herbers, as they worked some slapstick with an envelope. “We’ll get more filmic later.” During the sequence in which the daughters pranked Leland, one of the girls froze up on a line in which she urged her sister to pretend to have cancer. “I swear, if you laugh no one on the Internet will blame you—they’ll blame the writer,” Robert reassured her. “That’s you—they’ll blame you!” the girl said, laughing. A designer showed him three zombie-head jars, and he picked one; later, he experimented with plunging the zombie head down a toilet. He looked exhausted, but he radiated joy.

Between takes, we talked about Robert’s tastes. An insomniac, he watches TV—seemingly all of TV—in the middle of the night, from critics’ darlings like “Station Eleven” to reality shows like “Below Deck.” His opinions were as lively as any critic’s: he loathed “True Detective,” summarizing it as “the kind of show where a baby ends up in a microwave”; and he loved “The White Lotus,” although he wondered if it didn’t show its ideological underpinnings a bit. Among his heroes was Ben Hecht, the screenwriter behind a startling range of classic films, on whose philosophy he had modelled his own: an omnivorous, energetic embrace of multiple genres, with little concern about status.

Michelle was more guarded about her opinions and, at times, inscrutable—a Magic 8 Ball wrapped in a puffy Patagonia coat. Did she enjoy classical music? “Not really.” Did she like Ben Hecht? “Probably not.” When I asked her what she was best at, she said that she was best at figuring out what everyone else was best at.

But she was witty and direct about Hollywood. “There’s no question in television that can’t be answered by either ‘time’ or ‘money,’ ” she said, as Robert struggled to get the envelope scene done quickly. She had no regrets about her life, except for not having switched to TV sooner. “ ‘We have to get something on the air’ is great,” she said. “It focusses everybody.” In the movie business, people leaned into “bad behavior, with a small ‘b’ ”—flakiness, rudeness—out of the need to “make themselves into characters.” In contrast, her TV colleagues, especially the women—had impressed her as “grownups,” her highest form of praise. The TV industry was full of “people who go to bed early because they need to get up early, and who vote and are civic-minded.”

The Kings are passionately pro-labor, their marriage having overlapped with the 1988 W.G.A. writers’ strike, a formative experience: Michelle got fired and Robert turned down a scab gig, although they badly needed the money. Now, however, she was one of the managers—a diplomat and a strategist, with much of her work done privately, via e-mail. At one point, the production team discussed a tricky schedule change, which meant pushing the show’s designer to rush plans for a “business” demon (on a treadmill, with a towel around his neck). Robert noticed Michelle’s face.

“What’s that look?” he said.

“It never hurts to apologize,” she said, simply.

When I asked which King was more cynical, they both laughed and pointed to Michelle. Her parents—who had hidden in Holland during the Second World War, then met in L.A. in the fifties—had built a rich, rewarding life. Her mother was a nurse, her father, a high-school teacher (and, for a short time before her birth, an actor—he once played a pipsqueak thug in a gangster film). But, like many children of survivors, Michelle was hyperaware of how fast the world could pivot into darkness. As Robert filmed a scene, Michelle told me she feared that the #MeToo movement was over. She said it with a dry-eyed Realpolitik: a door had opened and then shut—and she could see people’s empathy dwindling, turning into lip service. Her own experiences hadn’t been awful, mainly old-fashioned bosses calling her “dah-ling.” But she’d seen her share of cruel behavior glamorized as the cost of genius. Monstrosity was always a risk when you climbed the ladder, she said—for her and Robert, too: “Being a showrunner is a very infantilizing job, if you let it be. If you run naked and crying and hungry onto the set, wardrobe will run out with a robe! Catering will run out with food and an assistant director will dry your eyes.”

Several people spoke to me about Michelle’s generosity as a mentor. Her friend Julia Schachter had a running joke with her husband: when you wrote Michelle a thank-you note, she wrote one back. But she had a canny awareness, too, of how one might be taken for granted. Nichelle Tramble Spellman, who wrote for “The Good Wife,” told me that Michelle gave her excellent career advice: “Bring a guy with you when you have a meeting. Then see if the person that you’re meeting with always looks to him.”

The Kings had another shared value: truthtelling. One day in Greenpoint, during a break while filming a showdown between a secular shrink and a fierce fundamentalist nun, Robert joined me near a video monitor, where we talked about the liberation Kristen had felt after she picked up that ice axe, the sense that all bets were off.

People fantasized about committing such a justifiable murder, I said. “I think they do,” Robert replied, smiling. It was part of a lifelong debate between the Kings. “Michelle thinks she can be an ethical person—and she is an ethical person—without a Ten Commandments kind of law that guides you. And some authority that applies it. While I think that, without that, people will always fall apart. They’ll pretend they’re not falling apart, but inside of them that’s only because at some level they do believe in the Ten Commandments, and in some—in a force that keeps them away from the bad thing.” Without God, it was too easy to deceive ourselves about our own decency.

This bothered me: couldn’t people behave well without the threat of Hell? Yes, Robert said, but they’d inevitably backslide “unless there’s”—he stopped, then shrugged helplessly. “This is a crazy time to be talking that way,” he acknowledged. “Because eighty per cent—I mean, almost every Protestant Christian—believes Trump should be President! Which I find insane and, obviously, evil. And they believe that Biden is burning in Hell.”

When we first met, Robert had described himself to me as a “David Brooks conservative.” (Or possibly a Bill Kristol conservative, at least the recent Bill Kristol, he joked: “Who knew? Bill Kristol!”) He’s anti-abortion; he’s pro-Israel. Although his electoral politics are mainstream Democratic, as are Michelle’s, he admires a broad set of iconoclastic thinkers, including Hecht, whose identity was transformed by a post-Holocaust Zionist conversion, and the libertarian satirist P. J. O’Rourke, whom he had wanted to write for “BrainDead.” But he knew that it was his faith that made him an outlier in Hollywood, even among friends. At one point, in the wake of a conversation about abortion, Robert began to argue that some progressive politicians had been “acting like assholes”; Michelle chimed in, “Off the record!” Robert said that it was O.K. to put the exchange on the record, adding, “It feels like everybody should be in the minority about one thing or another—to know what it’s like to have your opinion be the exception.”



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