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SECRET IDENTITY - From Procedurals To Comedies, Josh Berman Is Ready To Dig Beneath The Surface

Posted By Jeff Bond, Tuesday, August 29, 2017

When Josh Berman started shopping his idea for Drop Dead Diva, a comedy about a shallow spokesmodel who dies and comes back to life as a plus-sized attorney, he got some confused reactions. After all, Berman had spent a combined 10 years conjuring up bizarre ways for people to die on CBSCSI: Crime Scene Investigation and Fox’s Bones—even creating dark procedurals like Killer Instinct and Vanished in the process. Wait, youre our dark procedural guy.Why do you want to write a one-hour comedy right now?Berman recalls associates saying. But unlike, say, CSIs Gil Grissom, those people just werent paying attention to the clues.

A native of Encino, California, Berman actually got his start riffing off of and working on comedies, from a YouTube takeoff of Ally McBeal (called Allan McBeal and made while Berman was a young executive at NBC) that got him his first writing job offers, to a brief stint on the Lauren Graham sitcom M.Y.O.B. (the show Graham headlined right before Gilmore Girls). Like Graham, Berman jumped to a new show right after M.Y.O.B. floundered— in Bermans case, a weird little procedural that no one expected much out of: CSI.

I loved writing but I also had a strong bent for science,Berman shares. What drew me to CSI was it was the first show I ever heard of that made science sexy. I thought, What an opportunity here, to bring science to the masses in a very commercial way.’” Berman met with producer Carol Mendelsohn and was quickly hired as an executive story editor. The show had a very small budget because everyone thought CSI was going to very quickly fail and they didnt have the money to hire upper level writers, so I was lucky to be hired at a low level. There was no one between me as an executive story editor and the executive producers of the show, so I quickly had a lot more responsibility thrust on me than I normally would have.

Of course CSI quickly became one of televisions biggest hits, running for 15 seasons and spawning so many spin-offs (including one appropriately named CSI: Immortality) that CBS was in danger of becoming the CSI network. Berman became one of the flagship seriesexecutive producers, sharing Emmy nominations for Outstanding Drama Series in 2003 and 2004 and a Producers Guild Award nomination for Outstanding Producer of Episodic Television Drama in 2005. He parlayed his six-year stint on CSI into a highly successful career as a show creator (Killer Instinct in 2005, Vanished in 2006, The Mob Doctor in 2012 and most recently ABCs Notorious) and producer (Bones, The Blacklist, Daytime Divas).

Josh Berman (front right) discusses a scene with director Michael Engler (left) and cast member
Piper Perabo (seated) on the set of the Notorious pilot.  -Photo by Eli Joshua Ade 

Berman credits Carol Mendelsohn not only with hiring him on CSI, but also giving the young writer access to the shows nuts and bolts, providing him with experience as a producer long before he might have otherwise had the oppritunity. He still cites Mendelsohn as his primary mentor in the field—one of a number of strong women who helped inspire him and set him along his career path. She taught me everything,says Berman. There was no part of production or writing that she didnt include me in. For the first season of CSI, I spent virtually every weekend at her house, and we would write and look at cuts together. At a low-level position, she taught me the job of being a producer, and then I stayed on CSI until becoming an executive producer on my last season. When the executive producers were away, it fell to me to run the writers room by default. Even as an executive story editor, I went to every mix, I went to playbacks, I went to casting sessions, I had a lot of set time, and I think I wrote six episodes the first season just because they didnt have the manpower, which was really lucky for me.

Berman’s mother, a former English teacher who later went into nursing, also inspired the producers appreciation of good writing, working with him to rewrite his grade school English essays word by word until they were as perfect as they could be. Its what inspired me to be a much better writer, when I saw how language and words could transform an average essay into something really great,he recalls.

Berman’s inspiration for his left turn into offbeat comedy on the cult hit Drop Dead Diva was another female family member, his maternal grandmother. The beautiful model who dies in the show is named Deb after my grandmother. My grandmother was a chubby, 5-foot-1-inch Holocaust survivor, who carried herself like a supermodel. I knew no one wanted to buy a show about my grandmother, so I took the spirit of what made her so unique and infused it into the lead character of Drop Dead Diva. So I really had a model to write from and a point of view.

The Lifetime comedy pivoted on something Berman says hes always drawn to: the theme of identity. What makes us who we are and the person we show the world versus the person we are inside? Even going back to CSI, I wrote an episode about a woman who suffered from the real-life werewolf disease, where inside she felt like a scared little girl, but outside she looked like a monster. And I think thats a great way to encapsulate what I look for when attacking material—how were perceived versus what we really are.

Berman has been able to successfully blend his insight as a writer and artist with a hard-nosed, MBA-oriented approach to production that emphasizes attention to detail. I scrutinize my budgets and Im very collaborative with my line producer. I think that gives me a competitive edge in this business. I meet with my line producer multiple times a day during production and figure out how we can get the biggest bang for the buck, and I push and I push and work with locations. If Ive set a scene at a bowling alley but they have access to a fantastic basketball court, Ill happily rewrite that scene, as long as I dont sacrifice content. I think you have to be fluid in TV and willing to rewrite a scene a day or two in advance if you can get a better location, or if it means moving things around so you can get an actor or another talent youve been chasing.

Josh Berman (left) consults with director Michael Grossman (center)
on the set of Drop Dead Diva. - photo by Bob Mahoney 

Despite the pressures of TV production and his oversight of every aspect of the shows he works on, Berman describes his approach as calm, measured and collaborative. “I’ll take ideas from anyone. I remember on CSI, I was writing an episode and trying to figure out visually how to explain how electricity worked, and it was a hard idea for me to grasp. I was talking to one of the grips on the set who told me about this experiment where you can electrocute a pickle and it demonstrates how electricity works in a very simplistic way, and that is the experiment that Grissom, played by Billy Petersen, did on the episode. I literally took that grips idea and put those words into Billy Petersens mouth. Now my kids know that scene, and thats how they talk about how electricity works, by lighting up a pickle.

After 17 years in television production, Berman has seen the standards for writing and the medium, skyrocket. I think people talk about peak televisionor the golden age of television because we have producers who are holding their TV shows to the same high standards that feature producers have held their features to for years. I fight for budgets,he declares. “I’ve written letters to musical artists hoping that they would drop their prices on songs to let me use them on my shows; that has been successful more often than not. I write when I want a specific actor to play a guest star, or I get on the phone with them—I do what I can, and you just cant leave any aspect of television production to chance anymore.

Balancing his duties as a writer and producer remains one of the most challenging aspects of the job, and Berman confirms that writing has to take a back seat to production once a seriesfilming is underway. When Im in production, production comes first,he states. Everything Im doing during the day is in advancement of the current episode were producing and the episode we have in prep.That means writing has to be done in the producers spare time. I will do it at night or I will bring my laptop to the set and write between takes. You try to fit in writing where you can, but when the show is up and running, its full speed ahead. I want to make sure the current episode is in perfect shape so thats where my attention lies.Berman says writing remains the number one priority when the show is in prep, eight to 10 weeks before filming. I feel like a good show will have six to eight scripts in the can before you start shooting, and that alone gives you the leg up that you dont have to be writing every second. Im still writing probably five to six hours a day, but if theres an issue on the set, I can never slow down production just because I need to write.

Berman has seen the relatively static characterizations in procedural shows evolve into complex, multilayered individuals who reveal deeper aspects of their personalities, their flaws and obsessions over the course of a season or series. Differences in the way people take in TV series episodes on DVRs and streaming platforms also have changed the expectations of audiences. I feel like shows do need hooks, whether its character or story hooks at the end of an episode, so if the show is being streamed, you know that the audience is going to want to watch the next episode right then—you want to make that next episode undeniable.But with those added pressures come additional opportunities, particularly on cult shows like Drop Dead Diva. Drop Dead Diva aired on Lifetime,Berman recounts, but its since been bought by Netflix, and when I go on Twitter and read viewer comments, most of the people watching Drop Dead Diva believe its a Netflix original show. I find that fascinating. I think the fan base of Drop Dead Diva has probably grown tenfold since Lifetime because Netflix has such an expansive audience. I think thats a fundamental change in our business—the afterlife of a show is more powerful than the life of the show.

That might be particularly important for Bermans ABC series Notorious, which was based on the real-life careers of CNN reporter Wendy Walker and defense attorney Mark Geragos. Notorious had its run of first-season episodes cut short out of the gate by the network, after its debut last October and was cancelled in May. The show may have suffered from the same predicament as Netflixs House of Cards, which has been overshadowed by real-life events this season. I feel like Notorious may have come out six months before its time,” Berman admits. “Notorious dealt with themes of news as entertainment. We even had storylines about fake news before the notion of fake news became so pervasive in our society, and we talked about how peoplestweets became news on the show, but I didnt realize that we were ahead of our time.

Berman is still rolling with another diva-related show, serving as a producer on VH1s Daytime Divas, inspired by Star Jonesexperiences working on the morning talk show The View. He just signed a four-year deal with Sony with partner Chris King (producer on Penny Dreadful) to develop a series of new projects. “I’m tackling themes that I always wanted to, and thanks to Sonys support I have a couple of IPs that I think are going to be really terrific. I feel like what I really want to dig into this season is shows with genuine emotion, and I think if theres an aspect that unites my development this season, its really digging deep and unpacking complex, multilayered characters.Thats something that Berman has been doing successfully for the past 17 years—getting his narrative hooks in us. So whether theyre airing on networks or being binge-watched on Netflix, Bermans next moves are likely to be undeniable”—theyre already on our Watch List. 

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