“Mission Impossible Smashes Into Cheers.” How TV Writer David Hemingson Pitched ‘Whiskey Cavalier’ To ABC
David Hemingson has had the good fortune to work on many hit television shows. These include TV comedies such as Just Shoot Me, Family Guy, American Dad, How I Met Your Mother, and Black-ish. He’s also written TV dramas like Lie To Me and The Deep End, which was based on his life as a young entertainment lawyer in Los Angeles.
Hemingson is also the creator, executive producer, and showrunner of the new ABC action dramedy series Whiskey Cavalier starring Scott Foley (as Will Chase) and Lauren Cohan (as Frankie Trowbridge). He chatted with Creative Screenwriting Magazine about his new TV show.
“The idea came from CIA buddy who called me at three in the morning about three years ago. He was in Saudi Arabia breaking up a terror cell at the time. He called me to say he was having a hard time with Gigi, his French girlfriend. He asked me for suggestions for his breakup playlist. I offered my recommendations before he left for the Horn of Africa the following day to break up a sex trafficking ring,” recalls Hemingson.
After explaining the late-night phone call to his wife, the TV writer rushed to his study and hashed out an outline for Whiskey Cavalier. Will Chase is a hard-boiled all American Hero, but also an incredibly sensitive guy. This formed the foundation for the character of Will Chase.
This was fascinating to Hemingson. Many ‘James Bond type’ action heroes can be flippant and callous, but never so overly sensitive. “The truth of it is that many guys who work in the CIA are highly intelligent, emotionally-attuned people, who want a wife and white picket fence, but the business denies them that.”
“When their business is suspicion and doubt, how do they preserve and advance a relationship?” muses Hemingson.
Whiskey Cavalier is no ordinary explosive action TV show. “It’s an espionage dramedy with procedural elements,” asserts Hemingson. The procedural element was necessary to preserve the story spine from a screenwriting perspective. “It’s in the same vein as Bones and Moonlighting,” adds David Hemingson.
When asked how he reconciles his dramatic and comedic writing sensibilities, he defines himself as “genre fluid.” This doesn’t pose a problem for the screenwriter. His life is composed of equal measures of comedy and drama, so this naturally translates into the screenplays he writes.
“Don’t be afraid of whatever ideas, thoughts, impulses, feelings, and insights you have as a writer has. Don’t try to categorize them. As a screenwriter, you discover what a character needs to say as the story evolves,” asserts Hemingson. “As the narrative evolves, so do the comedic and dramatic elements.”
When comparing dramedies to traditional comedies, he defines the difference as fewer laugh-out-loud moments in the former. Straight up comedies tend to set up punchlines rather than explore the characters. “They tend to avoid the characters getting sweaty. Don’t have the characters dance too fast, let them be in the moment as much as possible, and take your cue from the way the characters evolve,” adds Hemingson.
“Character needs story and story needs character. The comedy comes out of character.”
Following in David Mamet’s footsteps, Hemingson asks each character in Whiskey Cavalier three basic questions – who are they, what do they want and what is the worst thing that would happen if they don’t?
Know Your Genre
The espionage genre requires specific tropes. This means Hemingson won’t write long, meditative soliloquies. He aims “to be as true to the genre as he is to the characters.”
Whiskey Cavalier winks at the Mission Impossible tropes which gave a nod to James Bond. The standard genre conventions of espionage action films are in the public domain. They are demanded by audiences. “The characters, interactions, and their stories,” are what makes Whiskey Cavalier unique. Hemingson strives to find more innovative ways to amplify these tropes such as car chases, explosions, and gunfights.
The TV show sprints along at a frenetic pace. Hemingson states that the pace of the show was kept in check by studio notes. “Notes act as counterweights. If I’m pacing the character journey appropriately, I’m not worried about the pacing of the plot mechanics.”
“The plot should be surprising and relentless, but not so much that the audience loses track of it. People should feel they get what they came for without being too formulaic.”
The TV show is indeed a balance of plot, comedy, and character. Each consideration is equally important and difficult to juggle.
When asked about how the writers’ room breaks a story, Hemingson replied, “I look at it as a deck of cards. First I look at the procedural elements and then the character elements. You have to time shuffling the deck right, otherwise, the cards fall all over the place.”
He uses the familiar story milestones to inform the characters and the case. First, he works out what story he wants to tell. “What the four big moves are.” Then he looks at the inciting incident, complications and plot reversals. In terms of character, Hemingson looks at where Will and Frankie are both “with each other and as individuals to inform, impact, switch it up and create an unexpected dynamic.”
It is fascinating to delve into their backstories. Both are traumatized. Frankie lost her parents and Will is recovering from a bad breakup. Frankie is hard-hearted and Will is soft-hearted. These are both components of Hemingson’s personality, although he won’t clarify which is the dominant trait.
Hemingson is privileged to have access to advisors from both the CIA and FBI. Consequently, he can draw on their expertise to make his stories (albeit heightened reality) authentic. The main differences between the two law enforcement bodies come down to personality. The FBI is more methodical; they gather evidence and bring crimes to trial. Their modus operandi must adhere to protocols to avoid their cases being thrown out of court. CIA operatives “fly by the seat of their pants. They color outside of the lines on a consistent basis.”
This is evident in the characters of the TV show. Frankie works for the CIA and Will works for the FBI. Both are outcome-oriented, but Frankie tends to cut the Gordian Knot more. (This is a reference to Alexander The Great who used “unorthodox solutions” to problems.)
Since the TV writer knows what the rules of each are, he can infuse elements of personal creativity to create a “plausible and believable” elevated world. “I like to stretch the boundaries.”
His TV writers’ room is comprised of nine, diverse writers. “I try to keep it light and positive. We go out of our way to get the job done and enjoy each other with mutual respect. It’s really important to me. I listen to everybody. We don’t have to always agree. We have certain boundaries in the writers’ room.”
At its core, Whiskey Cavalier “is about a group of disparate people setting the world on each other,” quips Hemingson.
As the showrunner of Whiskey Cavalier, Hemingson is in a unique position to guide the writing machinations of the show. “Some scenes come down to production issues. If you’re scheduled to film in an aircraft hangar, the narrative beat may have to be recalibrated to take place in an abandoned warehouse if production schedules so dictate.” It all comes down to flexibility and being realistic.
In conclusion, David Hemingson offers some sage advice to writers wanting to break into the TV world.
“Don’t feel that you need to fill the silence in the writers’ room. Speak when you have something to say. Choose your moments.”
“Never diminish another writer. “
“Study the craft. Put your voice on the page. Your voice may be great, but without the structural framing device, your voice can’t adequately be heard or appreciated. Know your genre. Break your stories into A story, B story, and C story. Know how your characters are advancing the plot. You may break the mold, but only if you’re feeling it. Even if you disregard structure, audiences must still be able to understand your story.”
“If you’re writing an emotionally-charged dramatic moment, figure out what flips your emotional switch and write it that way.”
“Less is more. Be expository when you need to, but don’t be afraid to replace dialogue with a gesture. Reveal exposition through characters arguing.”
“Finally, don’t abandon your convictions, but try not to take yourself too seriously. Have a good time in the room.”
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