“Follow Your Story Instincts” Advises ‘Bull’ and ‘Medium’ Showrunner Glenn Gordon Caron
Screenwriter, director, and producer Glenn Gordon Caron began his career in the advertising world before writing an episode of the TV show Taxi 1979. He continued writing for various TV shows including Fame, Good Time Harry, and Remington Steele. Then he created Moonlighting in 1985 starring Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd which ran for five seasons. He also created Medium in 2005 and is now the showrunner for Bull. He spoke to Creative Screenwriting about the longevity of his career and following your gut when it comes to writing.
Bull was the creative brainchild of Phil “Dr. Phil” McGraw and Paul Attanasio (Donnie Brasco, Homicide: Life On The Street). Although Caron wasn’t excited by the idea, he now runs the show. We asked Caron how it all began. “Two years before, Phil McGraw and his son approached me to write the pilot.” Glenn turned him down because he didn’t think the show would work. He was cynical and out of touch with legal broadcast television at the time and walked away.
Paul Attanasio wrote the original pilot for Bull. “At the time, Paul [Attanasio] made it clear he had no interest in staying on the show.” Ironically, Attanasio stayed with Bull as a writer.
After they shot the original pilot, Attanasio reached out to Glenn Gordon Caron a second time and asked him to reconsider his involvement on the TV show.
Caron considers himself a “cabinet maker.” Frustrated by writing so many TV pilots that never got off the ground, he decided he wanted to “make cabinets” again and reconsidered his involvement on Bull.
“I was itching to get back to work.” The TV series was also going through a crisis of confidence because nobody had given much thought to how the show was going to work in the long-term. “Amblin, the production studio had only committed to three episodes with an option to extend.” Bull is currently on season five.
Faced with the prospect of injecting vigor into an ailing show, Caron met with the star Michael Weatherly (Jason Bull) to discuss how it could be rejigged. They discussed who Bull was meant to be and how the other characters might relate to him. When Weatherly asked Caron what he initially thought of his character he replied, “Frankly, I want to punch you in the face.” Jason Bull had an air of arrogance and superiority to him. “You know the answer to every question and you’re always the smartest guy in the room.” Glenn had no interest in writing someone like that. “I want to root for people like me who walk into a room and wonder if they’re going to survive it.”
In addition, Glenn Gordon Caron looked at ways to make the show more personal by adding his stamp and make Bull more human. If he didn’t always know how things were going to turn out, the audience was more inclined to go on a journey with him.
Who Is Jason Bull?
Michael Weatherly and Glenn Gordon Caron dissected Bull’s character. “Who is this guy? He’s almost fifty years old. He owns his own law firm. He’s not married. He must be difficult to work for,” concluded Caron. The most fascinating aspect of Bull’s character is his powers of observation to influence the outcome of a trial. This is known as “Trial Science.” Although Phil McGraw did not invent trial science, he certainly pioneered its use.
In humanizing Bull they added elements of doubt and flaws in his life. “Bull didn’t know the answer to every question. What are his personal struggles? I tried to make him a three-dimensional person rather than all-knowing and all-thinking,” said the writer. Fortunately, Michael Weatherly agreed with this assessment.
Caron also wanted to better use the artistic talents of the rest of the cast. “Apparently, Benny Colón’s (Freddy Rodríguez) sister was previously married to Jason Bull. That’s an interesting story to explore.” Benny also has an entrenched spiritual life. Caron wanted to pit him against Bull who was fairly profane. Chunk Palmer (Chris Jackson) a gay, former college football player who now selects wardrobe for defendants. This was also a Pandora’s box for Glenn in terms of character development. “How did this person get here and where do we want to take him?”
Since Bull is screened on a broadcast network, Caron must create a staggering twenty-six episodes each season. “You work from a stream of consciousness. A lot of it is instinctive because there isn’t a lot of time for contemplation.” Michael Weatherly’s kinship with Glenn Gordon Caron combined with a relative lack of interference from CBS allows Bull to thrive.
2020 shook the world with a centennial pandemic. Naturally, TV writers had to consider their take on the coronavirus. Glenn Gordon Caron wrote the first episode of the season titled “My Corona.” The pandemic tightened its grip on New York where the show is filmed as Bull was filming season four. Caron was unnerved by the fatalities and requested that production be shut down. He figured the shutdown would last approximately six weeks and production would resume by the summer of 2020.
Initially, he had no plans to include a coronavirus storyline in the series. “Once this is all over in a few weeks, nobody wants to be reminded of it.” Once he realized that the weeks of shutdown would extend into months and New York was one of the hardest-hit areas in America, Glenn reconsidered his stance.
“We needed to figure this out because the courts were closed.” When the courts briefly reopened, their staff count was drastically reduced. Jurors and witnesses spoke remotely. There were no visitors. “Everything that was central to the show was being stripped away from us. We relied on having many people in one place who worked together intimately.”
The cloistered, monk-like existence of being homebound and unable to socialize was the impetus behind “My Corona.” “If nothing else we needed to speak to the fact of how quickly everything we took for granted was taken away from us,” said Caron. During this episode, Jason Bull breaks into a number of musical interludes and sings (by lip-synching rather than actual singing). This decision was inspired by British writer Dennis Potter who wrote The Singing Detective which is about a guy who sells songs for a living. The story is told via a lip-synching character. Caron also noticed that many TikTok stars lip-synched.
Bull is essentially a legal procedural which features heavily in CBS’s strengths. Creating an episode like “My Corona” posed challenges between a standalone and serialized one.
The TV writers’ room is comprised of seven to nine writers (currently via Zoom). Bull’s writing staff is predominantly women. A least a third have been lawyers which helps construct the cases each week. “Legal stories come from things they’ve read, experienced, and wondered about.”
During that process, they lay out a loose matrix with where the characters are. Glenn is not a fan of rigid character arcs. “We don’t always know where they’re going. I’m more comfortable with discovering where they want to go.” As an example, he cites a period when Michael Weatherly felt isolated in New York while his family was in California and he put on weight. “I started writing scenes in season two where Michael was drinking because I believed it.” Weatherly called Caron to inquire how the season was going to end. Caron responded that he only had an image of Jason Bull having a heart attack. This wasn’t planned from the beginning of the season. It stemmed from Weatherly’s real-life circumstances.
“I think it’s a mistake to always know where each season is going. You want to react to what you’re making and what the actors are contributing each week. It’s like improvising jazz. It’s a living thing.”
Despite not being a fan of procedural TV series, Glenn trained himself in the format on Medium. “Medium was a show about an American marriage. It’s a fascinating convention when two people make a pact to spend their lives together but don’t necessarily see the world the same way.” Medium was based on a true woman’s life who communicated with dead people while her husband was a doctor of physics. “He was a man where the physical facts of the world were his religion and a woman for which the physical world holds no sway at all.”
This was the most fascinating aspect of the show for Caron. He had to add a case each week to satisfy the “procedural” requirements of the studio. “I would use each case as a narrative engine to explore the DuBois family. People invariably continue to grow and change over time, but are still committed to each other. They disagree with the same ardor as the things a physicist and a psychic might agree on.” When Caron started working on Bull, he was comfortable with the format.
Caron believes the characters are what keeps the audience tuning in rather than the cases themselves. “The cases are fascinating, but it’s what’s going on in other people’s lives that make these shows work.”
Caron has written numerous TV shows over the years. Much of deciding what works is intuitive. “I go with what’s fascinating to me. I don’t approach it in a didactic way.”
The writer has seen major shifts in the industry, particularly over the past decade. “It used to be more intimate. When I worked on Moonlighting, I carried the cans of film to ABC to show them the episode. One of those people might be the owner of the network. Back in those days, networks were owned by people rather than multi-national corporations.”
Today television is controlled by media conglomerates, so TV shows aren’t their only considerations. “They have huge portfolios of many media properties.”
When Caron started in the business there four four broadcast networks and HBO. “Now there are over three hundred networks which have fractured audiences.” Streaming has also allowed viewers to tune in when they have an appetite for a show. On the downside, you don’t get those enormous audiences you once had.
Glenn Gordon Caron has one desire for his audiences, “I hope I didn’t waste their time. I tried to entertain them or get them to feel something.”
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