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Jon Robin Baitz: Not Your Usual TV Writer
by Drew Mackie, September 25, 2006

Jon Robin BaitzSomehow, just having Jon Robin Baitz's name attached to the new ABC drama Brothers and Sisters lends the fledgling show a credibility that the rest of this fall's new series lack. Perhaps it's because few other people writing TV shows have been nominated for a Pulitzer or have resumes listing such accolades as a Rockefeller Foundation Award or a Guggenheim fellowship.

The daring, openly gay playwright — whose name theater fans may recognize as having been attached to such works as The Paris Letter, A Fair Country or the superb The Substance of Fire — creates his characters with a bright, often political spirit that is also reflected in his blog contributions to The Huffington Post.  

This fall, Baitz is testing his ability to bring life to a different form of drama. Save the single episodes of The West Wing and Alias that he has directed, Baitz approaches the hour-long family centered television show as a newcomer — a fact that may prove crucial in giving the genre the twist needed to make Brothers and Sisters stand out.

“It has the potential to be an ongoing dialogue about what the country feels like right now,” Baitz said of the show, which centers on the Walkers, a politically diverse California family trying to balance work, money and relationships in the politically turbulent times that today's Americans face.  

Like the United States itself, the characters in Brothers and Sisters are polarized between Democrat and Republican. In a recent interview with AfterElton, Baitz noted, that though politics may play more of a role than it might on other shows, the central element of Brothers and Sisters is the family. “[We] wanted to develop something that was on some level family drama that had shades of Thirtysomething and dealt with money on some level that wasn't like Dynasty or that kind of show, but was still entertaining.” 

Baitz noted that in addition to crafting characters he thought viewers could enjoy, he had to do so while learning the restrictions of the hour-long TV drama, which demands a different writing style than live theater.

“In the way that a play has a more finite life, the show doesn't have the have the scale of a play. It moves a little differently,” he said. “I think in the theater you find a way to let the life and breadth of an argument determine the length of an argument… Television requires an almost brutal brevity.” This fact, it seemed, demanded that Baitz write less and start scenes later than he would in a play. “A play has a kind of organic pace to it and this is much more about injecting a kind of adrenaline into the action.”

TV writing is also a significant time investment, according to Baitz. “I have sort of been working full-time. I had been warned that it never stops,” he said, referring to the process of creating the show, which began when he first started penning the pilot back in fall of 2005. “I haven't really had a day off for almost a year — always writing and re-writing… It's much bigger than a play.”

Again, Baitz's relative unfamiliarity to television may prove an asset. In a season when many new shows do not feature gay characters, Brothers and Sisters offers viewers Kevin, an out lawyer played by Welsh actor Matthew Rhys.

“Why would I not do that?” Baitz asks in response to the question of why he opted to include what those creating other shows did not. “Nobody raised an eyebrow. It wasn't even remotely controversial… As a gay person, I'm not going to ignore who I am, since all writing is autobiographical too,” he said. “I wish I could put a black person in this family. Frankly, the thing that keeps me up at night is how very white they all are. If I could make one of them black, I would.”

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