Faith, Media & Culture

Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

Family Ties. Sheryl J. Anderson has been writing episodic television since the early nineties (i.e. Parker Lewis Can’t Lose, Dave’s World, Charmed). Her more recent work has included work on the Hallmark Channel series When Calls the Heart and TV movie like UP TV’s The Town That Came A-Courtin’ (a film I personally liked). Ties That Bind, the hybrid cop-family drama that debut’s on UP on Wednesday, August 12 @ 9:00 PM (ET) marks both a milestone in her career and for the network. That’s because it’s both Anderson’s and UP’s first original series. 

As for the show’s specific premise, here’s who an UP press release describes it: “Allison McLean (Kelli Williams) (is) a tough and experienced police detective in suburban Seattle.  Like most working women, her hands are already full, balancing a demanding and dangerous job and a family — husband Matt (Jonathan Scarfe), and teenagers Jeff (Mitchell Kummen) and Rachel (Natasha Calis).  But when she and her partner, Devin (Dion Johnstone), must arrest her brother, Tim (Luke Perry), for aggravated assault, her world drastically changes as Tim is convicted and sent to prison leaving his two teenagers Cameron (Rhys Matthew Bond) and Mariah (Matreya Scarrwener) teetering on the brink of foster care.  Having done the right thing as an officer of the law, Allison now feels compelled to do the right thing as a sister and aunt; she brings Tim’s two very unhappy teens into her home.  Squeezing four teenagers under one roof proves to be an additional test of Allison’s strength and patience.  It won’t be easy for her husband, her children or Tim’s kids either.  In addition to investigating local crimes, the series will also focus on the joys and struggles of the teens as they adjust to their new home, their new high school, make new friends and experience love, romance, anger and jealousy.”

I recently had the opportunity to talk with Anderson about how her own family experiences helped shape the show she created and executive produces.

JWK: It’s been a while since been a really good family drama on television and, as I posted previously, I think your show has a lot of potential to fill that void.

SHERYL J. ANDERSON: Thank you. I hope that people will embrace the show in that way. That’s certainly our intent. Part of my goal was to create a show that families can watch together because, as a parent, I wish there were more shows that multi-generational families could enjoy together. One of my joys growing up (was) watching shows with my parents. As my kids were growing up, programming (had) gotten so segmented that it was difficult to find those shows. UP has been terrific because they wanted a show about real people making real mistakes and paying real consequences. So, we’ve had the freedom to do pretty dramatic stories but also to present family life with all its joys and challenges within the same program. 

JWK: How’d you come up with concept for the show?

SJA: I just (had) that agenda of (showing) real people making real mistakes in mind.  I started thinking about my brother — who I adore. He is a very, very good person and what a blessing that is in my life. I started to think about what if my brother wasn’t such a good person? Is there anything my brother could ever do that I could not forgive? So, I started down that path with Allison and her fractured relationship with her brother. The relationship with her brother is a catalyst for what happens. (The show’s about) the fundamental relationships in our lives and how they can send us off in either terrific or troubling directions. 

JWK: I don’t know if you’ve thought this far ahead but will the show bring us to a point healing for between Allison and her brother?

SJA: I certainly hope we’ll have the opportunity to be on the air long enough to get him there.

JWK: So, there’s hope for everyone. 

SJA: Absolutely! I’m a Lutheran. So, grace is a central part of my worldview. There are themes of redemption running all the way through this show. I believe in giving people a second chance. I would want somebody to give me a second chance. So, yes, there’s hope for everybody in our show.

JWK: I think the concept of your show hits that sweet spot for TV viewers. It’s familiar in the sense that I think people are yearning for a traditional family drama on television. But, at the same time, it has a spin that I haven’t seen before.

SJA: I appreciate that! There are certainly a lot of shows on right now that I admire. It was interesting to try and look at different shows and why they work as well as they do and see how we could take the components of a family show and a procedural show and blend them in a way that, as you’re saying, is accessible because it’s not strange and unusual but still different than what anybody else is doing.

JWK: I visited your IMDB page and found that you have an impressive list of TV credits to your name. But it appears this is first TV series you’ve sold.

SJA: This is the first show that I’ve created that’s made it to the air.

JWK: How’s it feel to see something you created go to series?

SJA: It’s thrilling, it’s humbling but what’s most exciting about it is we’ve been fortunate to have an amazing cast and the best crew that I’ve ever worked with. It’s fabulous that everybody is working hard but working happily because we all have the same goal of this show to be successful. (We’re all) very invested in it. It’s a joy to go to set every day. I keep referring to it as “our adventure” because everybody is bringing their specific gifts to the table and together we’re creating a show that I hope people will see as something special.

JWK: What do you hope people take from the show? Is there an overarching message that you’re trying to convey?

SJA: First of all, I hope people will be entertained. I hope people will be moved. The mystery fan in me hopes that people will enjoy figuring out whodunnit week to week. If there’s an overarching theme, it’s a show about loyalty. (UP Programming SVP) Barbara Fisher at the network said at the beginning of the development of this show (that) it’s a show about loyalty and the limits of love — and whether there are any.

JWK: And what’s your conclusion?

SJA: I think part of the fabric of this show is that, as Allison’s moving forward in her life, she’s fortunate to have not only a family that loves and supports her but a partner on the police force who is her best friend and completely supports her and she him. I think that there’s a contrast as we go forward between…the characters that are fortunate enough to be loved and to be supported (and) people they encounter who aren’t that fortunate.  This isn’t a warm and fuzzy show all the time. There are some hard moments along the way both on the family side and on the procedural side.

JWK: Is it a challenge to find the right balance between the family side of the drama and the cop side — and to do it an hour each week?

SJA: It gets tricky sometimes just because there’s so much to do and say on both sides. Quite often, in the writers’ room we would say we could spend the whole hour on one side or the other but part of our goal all along has been to use the two sides to illuminate each other. There are things going on at home that put a new perspective on what’s going on in an investigation and vice versa. I mean for Allison to go out and deal with the broken people she encounters as a detective certainly makes her far more appreciative of what she experiences at home even though there are bumps in that road.

JWK: Obviously, the show has some ongoing storylines but will it be episodic in the sense that people can watch a single episode and feel satisfied that they’ve seen an entire story?

SJA: The crime stories are contained within an episode. There is a serial aspect to the family side of things. Certainly, I hope that people will start watching from the pilot and just keep watching but, if people find us three episodes in, they won’t have a problem picking up the story.

JWK: I’m impressed by your eclectic writing career. Besides your work in various genres of television, you’ve also written a series of mystery novels about a crime-solving advice columnist named Molly Forrester.

SJA: Yeah. Even though they were published just under my name, my husband and I wrote the novels together. That was just an opportunity that came along in the course of working on other projects. Both my husband and I are mystery fans — novels, movies and TV. When I was growing up, mystery shows and cop shows were the favorite shows in my house. Now, my husband and I have raised our kids the same way. So, we love a good mystery. The interesting thing is the novels are comic — much more lighthearted.

There’s (also) a lot of humor in Ties That Bind. The emotional pendulum swings pretty fully. There are dark moments. There are tender moments. And there’s a lot of humor because I think one of the way that a family demonstrates its warmth and its love is by laughing together. Particularly Allison’s husband Matt is very funny because he sees it as part of his role in the family to keep everybody’s spirits up.

JWK: How much inspiration do you take from your own family and how much of that do you incorporate into the show?

SJA: Other than the fact that I absolutely adore my brother and he’s a very good man, a lot of inspiration! I’ve already warned my kids that they’ll recognize a lot of moments on the screen and a lot of the characters. I’ve taken bits and pieces from my husband, my brother, my sister-in-law, my parents. I think any writer sort of mines their own life. I’ll admit I’ve done a fair amount of that, certainly early on. Now, as we’re deeper in, and the writing staff (has) participated — and now watching incredible actors like Kelli, Jonathan, Dion and even the four teenagers bringing these characters to life — (the characters) continue to evolve and bring out new dimensions so that they are characters unto themselves.

JWK: You mentioned the importance TV — particularly detective shows –played in your family life growing up. Ties That Bind sort of marries the family drama and the crime drama. Do you have a favorite show in either category? And is there any show that really inspired you in creating Ties That Bind?

SJA: Whoa! That is so hard! There isn’t one show in particular. A lot of shows, a lot of movies, come to mind. I was trying to make this show sort of carve out its own space. There are certainly wonderful shows on right now that are mixing family drama with parents — a mom, in particularly — in very demanding jobs. There’s The Good Wife. There’s Madame Secretary. Both shows that I admire.

Going back to when I was growing up, there weren’t a lot of women on TV doing this sort of thing. Where I really think all this began for me — let me go way, way back — is my parents introducing me to The Thin Man movies when I was a kid. Of course, that’s the lighthearted end of things.

JWK: You’ve also been on the faculty of Act One which is an organization that develops Christian writers and producers.

SJA: I taught for them for a long time. I don’t teach for them anymore.

JWK: Most writers — Christian or otherwise — have something they want to say with their stories. How do you balance that desire to say something meaningful with telling a compelling story that simply goes where the drama takes it?

SJA: It is the beauty of the parables. It is the strength of the parables. You tell a great story and you trust (that) the message inherent and the story stays with people. It’s not that I sit down and say “Here’s the message for this week.” But it’s a show about justice and mercy and redemption and whether people are ready to accept redemption because to do that you have to come to grips with what you’ve done. So, I just try to look at the path that every character was on that brought them to this place and then hope that all that subtext shines through. We are responsible for our actions and how we treat each other. Every day is filled with choices where you have an opportunity to be a wonderful person or a not so wonderful person. My world view is you should make the choice that not only makes you a better person but that makes the world a better place.

JWK: I think the best stories are those that flow from a place of faith through to their natural conclusions without being steered in preachy and artificial directions.

SJA: Oh, absolutely! I think if you sit down with a “message” you’re not telling a story. You’re writing a sermon or an op-ed piece. I like to go back to William Faulkner’s statement that it is “(a writer’s) privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart.” I think, for those of us who are fortunate enough to be professional storytellers, it’s a fabulous opportunity to tell people wonderful stories. If we all do our jobs well — from the writers’ room through all aspects of production — then we have that opportunity to lift people’s hearts (and) to make people stop and think even after the program’s over. But they’re not going to stay with you long enough to do that unless you’ve given them a really entertaining story. So, that’s the primary goal.

JWK: I always think the best writers write more to learn than to preach — that they learn something from their characters.

SJA: That’s right! I think that’s a wonderful way of putting it! I mean I certainly learn something every time I go through a script and see the variety of voices and experiences that we are fortunate enough to have in our writers’ room. (It’s) very educational for me. Particularly in a show like this, you’re talking about what puts somebody in a position where they committed a crime and you wind up talking about right and wrong, privilege and discrimination, education and poverty and then the whole gamut of emotional wounds that lead people to make poor choices. It’s fascinating and very fruitful at the same time.

JWK: You also wrote the UP TV movie The Town That Came A-Courtin’. I reviewed that film and enjoyed. I even wrote that it would make a cute TV series.

SJA: You know, I wondered about that. I remember that review and thank you very, very much. It was actually coming out of the experience of that movie that led to the development of this show. First of all, I was very flattered that Ronda Rich selected me as her candidate to do the adaptation (of her book). I was delighted to work with Ronda and with UP on that film. I had such a great experience with Barbara Fisher and the other people at the network doing the movie that when I heard that they wanted to start developing series I scrambled to be in line to pitch to them. That’s where this journey began.

JWK: We all hope the show’s a big hit. So, what do you after that? Another series? Movies?

SJA: Right now I’m just focused on Allison McLean and her family and her partner and her world. I honestly am not thinking about anything else but this show and hoping that people love it as much as I do and that we get a chance to keep telling these stories.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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