'The West Wing' Executive Producer Talks Politics, Reality TV And His Latest Venture

08/11/2015 7:43 PM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:50 PM AEST
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When it comes to American television, Thomas Schlamme is kind of a big deal. An Emmy award-winning director and executive producer of 'The West Wing' (not to mention 'Sports Night' and 'Studio 60'), Schlamme knows a thing or two about, well, a thing or two.

In Sydney as a guest of the Australian Directors Guild, Schlamme took some time to sit down with The Huffington Post Australia and talk about the current state of television, why he thinks the world is ready for another West Wing and his latest project, 'Manhattan'.

If 'The West Wing' was made today, how would the current political environment influence storylines?

"Well we certainly wouldn’t do the politics of today in America because then it would be a comedy.

"I think in some ways, America is ripe for another West Wing, and by that I mean another celebration of public service. Where we were in ’99 which is when we [made the show] -- yes it is unfortunately that long ago -- it was a moment where people were tired of politics. Tired of politicians. This was at the height of Monica Lewinsky and the [Bill] Clinton scandals.

"So the idea of a show that was celebrating public service and was a kind of Valentine’s to that -- it was to remind people that there are a lot of people who go to work every day and work really hard to make your life better.

"In terms of today, I watched the republican debates and I just thought, 'why do these people want to be President of the United States? All they do is bash the government.

"It’s like saying 'I want to be President of the Directors Guild in America, but I hate directors and I don’t even like TV and I don’t watch movies and I think they are all done wrong. Vote for me.'

"It just makes me think, 'wait -- you don’t even celebrate the very thing that the government does, which is public service.' That is what it’s there to do.

"I think [another 'West Wing style show] could be done today. I think the problem with it being done today is that it would have to find its way. The good news is the amount of incredible television being done right now. The bad news is the amount of incredible television being done right now.

"There are truly shows in America -- not to mention Australia -- that I haven't yet been able to watch because there are only so many hours in the day."

Do you think the television market is overcrowded?

"No. To me I can’t imagine there being too much good television. I say make more people as opposed to less television.

"When I came into television just before 'The West Wing', there weren’t that many great TV shows. I think a lot of television shows were just there to fill an hour of time.

"Of course there were really good shows, but it wasn’t that hard to place 'The West Wing' as a quality show.

"I remember someone wrote at the time, ‘well, we can't expect all shows to be that good,’ and I was like, 'yes we should. We should expect everything to be that good.' And that's what we’re living now.

"The idea that 'Mad Men' and the like -- I'm talking quality television -- that shows like that can make a network -- that's powerful. And that's becoming the mindset of producers, to want to make better and better television to break through.

"Of course, there is still some really terrible television to break through too. Reality TV, too. I think parts of reality TV is what leads us to celebrate Donald Trump and Ben Carson and people like that who are running for President. Because it looks like reality TV."

donald trump

Maybe someone should give Trump his own reality... oh, wait.

What do you think of reality television?

"When it first happened -- 'Survivor' I think was one of the very first ones, if not the first -- I loved it.

"I didn’t watch it that much but I loved the idea -- I thought what reality TV was doing at that moment was saying ‘we’re tired of network one-hour dramas that tell us exactly how it’s going to end. We know the ending before you do -- television is too predictable.'

"That's what I took it to mean. For instance, the first season of 'Survivor', the winner was an unlikeable gay guy [Richard Hatch] and it was like, 'oh my God, he won! You would have never have been able to script that.'

"But then, the bastardisation of that came along. I think it became mean spirited, I thought culturally it was not uplifting in any way.

"The biggest crime to me regarding reality television is the name. It shouldn’t be called reality. It has nothing to do with reality. It’s as scripted and manipulative as any drama.

keeping up with the kardashian

Kim and Kourtney Kardashian filming scenes for 'Keeping Up with the Kardashians' in 2012.

"There's this perception, 'oh that’s the way the Osbournes live, that's the way the Kardashians live -- but that’s just the way they have edited their lives.

"My wife and I, we have been married for 33 years. I can edit a horrible marriage and I can edit a glorious marriage, out of our whole marriage, if I decide to selectively shoot and show you only what I want to show you.

"We are kind of lost in sound bytes and extreme exaggerated moments in life, so when we see Donald Trump and he says these outrageous things that then spread -- we consume them like bees to the honey.

"The American public gravitates towards it and it’s because it sounds familiar. Of course, the reason it sounds familiar is because of these sound bytes on these television shows and news reports that have gotten truncated, and just a lack of depth in the way we are asked to think."

What are you working on at the moment?

"I’m doing a show called 'Manhattan' which is a show about a group of people who are put in the desert in New Mexico to work on The Manhattan Project.

"Basically, these scientists were put in the desert to build the atomic bomb. No one knew about it, it was a complete secret.

"Even the Vice President of the United States had no idea. It cost the government $2 billion and Congress had no idea where they were sending this money.

"So these scientists were up in the desert in New Mexico, and the people who went in couldn’t get out. I'm talking husbands and wives living there with their children. The wives didn’t know what their husbands were doing behind the other barbed wire fence -- this scientific community where they were building the first weapon of mass destruction.

"It's really a show about what secrets do to us.

"It's a contemporary show -- it may be set in 1944 but the themes of secrecy, the government knowing more than we know, weapons of mass destruction, moral indecision -- and I mean how much evil needs to be done in the name of goodness -- all of this is so relevant to today.

"It was a town of 6000, this entire community that nearly no one knew about. They only had a post office and all their letters were redacted and censored.

"When you think about Edward Snowdon and the NSA [National Security Agency] -- it is unbelievably relevant to our time.

"The show isn’t about psychics, it’s about secrets we keep and the secrets we keep from ourselves."

Thomas Schlamme is in Australia to participate in a 'Meet the Director' session for the Australian Directors Guild biennial conference.

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