“When you’re writing, it’s sort of like being a journalist in that it takes over your life,” said Greg Berlanti, the executive producer and writer behind ABC’s Brothers & Sisters. “You’re writing all the time. Any bit of life you do have, you have to use, especially on a character-driven show …. Some of the best stuff comes from a real, true emotional place.”
Mr. Berlanti, 34, was calling from Los Angeles, having just returned from the upfronts here in New York, during which networks present their new fall schedules to advertisers and the media. He was in town to introduce two of his own new shows for ABC—Dirty Sexy Money and Eli Stone. He called the ABC upfront presentation “a great punctuation mark on the most fruitful year of my career.”
Mr. Berlanti may not be a dreamy “McSteamy” doctor on Grey’s Anatomy or a sunny, zaftig Ugly Betty, but he’s certainly one of ABC’s crown jewels. His relationship with the network began last August, after Everwood, the coming-of-age drama he ran for four years, was cancelled during the merger of the UPN and WB networks into the CW. Mr. Berlanti joined ABC’s Touchstone Television to rescue Brothers & Sisters, then a fledgling ABC drama starring Calista Flockhart, Sally Field and Rachel Griffiths, about grown siblings struggling to live up to their parents’ reputations. The show had a myriad of potentially fatal problems—from the rumored internal fighting to a molasses-like plot pace. It still struggles in the ratings, but the show was recently picked up for another season.
Of the many changes that Mr. Berlanti, who is openly gay, was able to implement on Brothers & Sisters, the most significant one was his fleshing-out of the character Kevin Walker, an openly gay lawyer played by Welsh actor Matthew Rhys. Kevin might be the most substantial recurring gay character in the history of network television; besides his sexual orientation, he’s also dealt with the universal struggles of bad relationship choices, commitment-phobia and privacy. (Creator Jon Robin Baitz is also openly gay, but he had originally conceived of the character as a man coming out in midlife, not a settled, accomplished gay attorney.) Last April, GLAAD awarded the show an Outstanding Drama Series award.
Mr. Berlanti is one of a new generation of young executives who are pushing out the close-minded television generation that cowered from daring storylines for fear of ratings slumps and advertiser pull-outs (remember when Ellen came out?). In fact, he feels that network executives must make risky decisions to compete with HBO, YouTube and Netflix.
In a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Mr. Berlanti said: “There have been wonderful, realistic portrayals [of gay characters] on cable, and they sit right next to network channels …. They’re one click away, and you have to compete with how real your stories are [on broadcast].”
In other words, gay characters need to be developed beyond their orientation (take clownish Jack on Will & Grace) and made into rich personalities whose storylines go beyond whom they take to bed (like David on Six Feet Under).
“I think it’s our responsibility to take it even further and find ways to tell stories that really push the envelope, and not just to shock people but to challenge them socially,” Mr. Berlanti told The Observer. “TV: It could be the most unifying device in the country.”