Why Our Walter Whites Make Television Great

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Interview with Oscar Winner and Community star Jim Rash on the future of TV

I spoke to Jim Rash (the Dean on Community) about the appeal of loneliness, why we like antiheroes, and how working in television differs from a career in the movies. He also won the 2011 Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for his work with Alexander Payne and Nat Faxon on The Descendants. His latest movie, The Way Way Back, was released nation-wide on July 26. In his new TV show, The Writers' Room, he chats with the great minds behind the greatest television of today — shows like Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, and American Horror Story. It premiered on the Sundance Channel on Monday.

In the course of hosting The Writers' Room and getting to see all these different TV shows in process, what has surprised you the most?
There were a lot of things that surprised me just from a fan's point of view. Like with Breaking Bad, it was the idea that Vince Gilligan was saying that Aaron Paul's character was meant to be killed off in the first season. That genuinely shocked me, that thought. As an actor your worst nightmare is that your life hangs by this thread

Even as a fan I get really upset when I find out that a character I love was almost cut.
Yes! And some people get so upset. Like, talking to the guys from Game of Thrones,they hadn't read the books so they weren't prepared for killing the king.

The Red Wedding must have been a huge shock for them.
Yeah, even beyond that, they weren't prepared because I think, as American audiences, we aren't prepared. Like when you watch The Sopranos and you see the lead character, you think, “Oh, this is my hero.” In Game of Thrones the king, Ned, was basically the most identifiable actor in the States. You think, “Oh, okay. He's my constant. He's my Dexter, he's my whatever.” And then all bets are off. As a writer you're always trying to mine some kind of nugget of gold to help you make all your stuff better and easier. And for me it was really great to be able to hear that a lot of the things that we all deal with, the day-to-day of a story falling apart on us, losing a main character and you don't know what happens–it was really refreshing to hear and sit there and chat and realize that even the people you feel are way beyond you are still dealing with the same problems. I don't think it ever gets easier.

Did you meet anybody who was actually just totally in control?
I don't know if it's a cool exterior but I felt like Ryan Murphy just seemed to have things together from the get-go. He's so prolific, creating all these shows. He's been doing so many things, from Nip/Tuck, Glee, obviously, and now American Horror Story and beyond. There was something about him where I was just, it feels like you're not stressed.

But I have a feeling, since he also has that partnership with Brad [Falchuk], it's like, something must be balancing out. But I felt like a lot of writers look to Ryan for guidance, so I think maybe he can at least operate from a sense of confidence, where he's like, “Here's my vision, here's what I want, make it happen.”

It's interesting how confidence works for a person's career. Maybe this is something you can relate to, since your characters are often such marginal figures– their lack of worldliness actually becomes a trait that is helpful.
I like to always imagine I have a lot of evolution ahead of me. People always go, “You know, [you've got] the Oscar, you can get something happening.” I always go, “I actually don't feel that way.” Making a movie is impossible no matter what, I don't care who you are or how many movies are behind you, it's just the way it is. And then, as a writer, I feel like I have so much I have to learn. In other words, I want to keep evolving as a writer and as a director and as an actor. So, in a way, I feel like I want to stay in this place. I prefer to remain humble.

Do you think there will ever be a time when going to watch television will become a date-night worthy production?
Maybe. Maybe binge watching will become a date event. I remember I went to Lost parties.

Oh man, Lost parties. I miss that.
That's a show I'd like to talk to. I want to get into the nitty gritty of it all.

Why do you think there are so many antiheroes on television these days?
Breaking Bad and even Dexter in a weird way, there's something about that code, this weird code that's been pressed into his brain. I think that also speaks to that we're learning whatever in childhood has created [Dexter], but I think we're gravitating towards – or at least television is – something darker; more complex characters who can question the darkness, but yet the writers are giving us just enough to try and understand the machine so it's not like you're totally forgiving [characters] for their choices. There's going to be repercussions, there's going to be consequences. TV is in a great place.

It does seems like television has more of a consistent zeitgeist right now than the movies do.
Yes. Movies are in a weird place right now because, with the movies, it's either a super small movie or a super big movie. The big tent poles are usually some summer fare until we get to the Oscars. Not that movies don't have wonderful, complex stories to tell– obviously they do, but with TV for some reason we're attracted to this sort of ongoing arc.

You mentioned that there's more big and small in cinema. Do you think that because television doesn't have that structure, there's more room for flexibility?
A little bit. I think that [in terms of] TV's advantages, there's a lot of people in the market right now with so many channels, from cable to network. And there are so many actors looking at television in a different way because there's opportunity there for complex, interesting characters that are on a 10-13 [episode] schedule. That's a little more appetizing than signing on to do 22 [episodes] and then having a few months off– you know, the network template.

Have you guys been lining shows up for a second season of The Writers' Room?
I think we'll wait and see, hopefully the show does well and we'll do more and start that process. I'd like to do some shows like Both in the writing and the playing, I like characters in flux. They're complicated and in a state of turmoil inwardly– certainly when I think of the Dean [on Community], he has passion for his job and love for that place. And in The Descendants both Nat [Faxon] and I were attracted to the idea of a dad in disconnect from his daughters and from his heritage.

So, is it more about disconnect for you?
I do like characters in some sort of transitional period, where they're almost in a grey area between two moments in their lives. They haven't totally made a choice about what the next chapter is, and yet they're still holding on to something that was the past.