Good Behavior‘s Gay Creator: Hollywood Must End Red-State Erasure
Fans of Downton Abbey will know actress Michelle Dockery best for her portrayal of Lady Mary Crawley, a refined noblewoman in early-20th-century England. Her latest character, Letty Dobesh in TNT’s Good Behavior, is the furthest thing.
In the show’s pilot, Letty, who is fresh out of prison on parole, pours coffee and scrubs toilets in modern-day North Carolina. After being fired from that job – she robs a man who tried to sexually assault her in the restroom – the high-school dropout falls back on her old profession of a con artist. She steals from the one percent. She handles a shotgun with ease. She smokes meth out of a light bulb. She sleeps with unsavory characters, and then drops her child support off as wads of cash in the mailbox.
Letty and the other characters who inhabit her world “aren’t people we see on most television shows,” said Chad Hodge, Good Behavior ‘s showrunner and co-creator. Some might even call these folks deplorable. Their reality is not “soapy fancy gorgeous elite,” he said, but rather one of “truck stops and diners and prisons and cars on the road in the Southeast.”
It’s about as far from Downton Abbey as one can get. Which might be a wonderful thing. In the wake of Donald Trump’s election as president, the media has been scrambling to evaluate how it failed to predict this outcome; and also, how it has failed to represent about half of the U.S. voting population. This burden of representation extends to the entertainment industry. Did those who voted for Trump find themselves reflected on television? Are their perspectives and view points being heard? Or is Hollywood – by producing a surfeit of stories about cityfolk and the coastal elite – complicit in creating the echo chamber that helped paved the way for a Trump presidency?
Hodge, who is gay, said Good Behavior is more “real and reflective of most of America” than many shows currently on the air. However, he did not set out to create a show with a potential to bridge the red-and-blue divide. Good Behavior is inspired by a series of short stories by writer and series co-creator Blake Crouch. The pair had collaborated previously on Fox’s Wayward Pines. Hodge, after reading about Letty, “fell in love with this character and wanted to find a way to make it into something that could go on forever.” A show about the unlikely relationship between a con artist and a hit man seemed like the perfect vehicle. Perhaps surprisingly, her story of hardship and her desire for self-betterment resonated with others as well.
“There’s something about these people that’s very relatable – the struggle that they deal with every day – because most of their struggles are about money and eating and survival and raising a kid and love and relationships and your parents,” Hodge said. “Just because you’re a thief and a hit man doesn’t mean you [don’t] have all those things. That’s where the show strikes a chord with people.”
“As a gay man, to me, there would be nothing more exciting than starting a dialogue with every single type of American and person around the world,” he added. “That would be the dream – that somehow a television show, this piece of art, this story, these people, could somehow land in a way that means something to everybody.”
LGBT viewers will certainly find much to appreciate in Good Behavior – first and foremost being the work of Michelle Dockery. Her jump from the high-born Lady Mary to a motel-dwelling, meth-addicted con artist is a fascinating fall to watch. Dockery, be she throwing back shots or throwing up on a suburban lawn, hurls herself into the role with serious enthusiasm. But for all their differences, there are common threads between the two characters.
“Lady Mary is strong and has a sense of humor and is wry and honest and also a good liar. … Those traits are also traits in Letty,” noted Hodge, who promised the “fearless” Dockery will go to “greater heights and greater depths” than ever before on Good Behavior.
As a strong, complicated, and messy lead, Letty is also a refreshing antidote to a landscape of flat female roles, which only require the actresses portraying them to “memorize lines and get Botox,” as Difficult People‘s Julie Klausner jokingly criticized in this year’s Daring Women Summit. Rather than coloring within these conformative lines, Hodge wanted Letty to run amok.
“For a long time, still on TV and media and anywhere, if a woman does something bad, she has to be punished for it somehow,” he said. “I didn’t want to do that at all. It’s like, let her be this person.”
Good Behavior also promises to have an LGBT storyline that is inspired by a real-life, “eye-opening” experience that Hodge encountered while filming in Wilmington, N.C. While Hodge is tight-lipped on specific details, he did note that it is important for him, as a gay man, to include LGBT representation in his work.
“That’s a major part of how I see the world, obviously,” he said, adding, “That’s who I am, so I’m reflected in what I write, hopefully.” In productions like Good Behavior, which could have an audience with a diversity of political views, this representation could go a long way toward changing hearts and minds.
As noted, Good Behavior is not only set in North Carolina – it is also filmed there. The location became an issue when, halfway through production of the first season, Gov. Pat McCrory signed House Bill 2 into law. The legislation – which among other grievances prohibits transgender people from using public restrooms that correspond with their gender identity – sparked protests and boycotts from the worlds of business, sports, and entertainment. Entertainers including Bruce Springsteen canceled concerts, the National Basketball Association moved its All-Star game, and studios like Lionsgate scrapped shooting plans.
For Hodge and Good Behavior ‘s crew, the news of HB 2 was “terrifying.” In response, they debated moving the production. However, the production team ultimately decided against it.
“It would have effectively killed the show had we picked up and tried to move somewhere else in the middle of the first season,” said Hodge, who added the prospect of leaving “75-plus people without jobs suddenly was something I wasn’t interested in doing in that moment. If we should be picked up for season 2, I think we’ll just evaluate what is the best for our show.”
He added that his team in North Carolina is “the best crew I’ve ever worked with. And just because North Carolina’s a red state that elected Trump doesn’t mean that these people are people that I never want to see again.” In fact, he was in North Carolina for Election Day wrapping up production for the season, and it was this “tight-knit family” that helped him cope with the results.
“It was really hard waking up on Wednesday morning and thinking, what are we doing? What just happened? What is our country? Who are we making television for? It was really a crazy, dark place. And then I got in the shower, and got into work, and everyone was there … and we had a lot of doughnuts and hugs and then made our show.”
“We continue to make our art, and that is important especially now,” he added.
Hodge has an extensive résumé in the entertainment industry. In addition to Good Behavior and Wayward Pines, he is the creator of NBC’s The Playboy Club and the CW’s Runaway. He also cowrote the book for Holiday Inn, The New Irving Berlin Musical, which is currently on Broadway.
And he isn’t afraid to be political. One of his yet-to-be made film projects i Anita – a production about Anita Bryant, the pop singer and orange juice spokeswoman who in 1977 infamously campaigned to roll back protections for gay people in Florida. For research, Hodge spent three days with Bryant, who even in her golden years has yet to give up her antigay views. The experience was transformative for both parties. What started as a “very tense and very weird and very complicated” encounter ended in an “open dialogue, where I left there understanding why she thinks the way she does,” he said. “And I think that she left with an understanding why I think the way I do.”
“There was no screaming. There was no yelling. There was no animosity. And for a really long time after that, she called me, almost every few days, and every voice mail she left me ended in ‘I love you,’” he said. “She still wanted me to go to heaven with her, and the only way that that would happen is if I became straight, but she said it in the most loving way.”
It was a lesson he believes could also be applied today in the wake of the election.
“We may not agree on things – liberals and conservatives, and the people who voted for Hillary versus the people who voted for Trump – but if we can talk to each other rather than yelling at each other … [then we can learn to] have respect for somebody else’s point of view. You can only get that by listening,” he said.
Moreover, Hollywood should also open its ears and invest in productions that are more than comic-book adaptations.
“If we can start diversifying and expanding points of view and making lots of different things and showing lots of different voices, that is something we should try to do,” Hodge concluded. “After all, the whole point of storytelling is to reflect the world we’re living in.”
Good Behavior‘s two-episode premiere airs Tuesday at 9 p.m. Eastern on TNT. Watch the full first episode below.