Good TV gets you in the gut. It feels urgent and personal. We fret about beloved characters, mourn their losses and watch keenly to see how their triumphs and failures intertwine with ours.
For longtime TV writer Liz Sarnoff, nominated for a 2018 comedy writing Emmy for her work on “Barry” — the HBO series starring Bill Hader as a hitman with an appetite for acting — her career began with a good show.
And profound sadness.
“I’m a late bloomer,” Sarnoff said. She didn’t start writing until her early 30s, after her mother’s death. “It was during a period of grief where I was trying to figure out what I was going to do without her for the rest of my life that I started obsessively watching the show ‘NYPD Blue,’ which was written by David Milch.”
Sarnoff become enthralled with the writing.
“It was around the time in the show when he was killing off Jimmy Smits, which was a highly emotional, devastatingly sad story arc,” she says.
She wrote a play. Someone got the play to David Milch. He tapped her to write for his next series, “Big Apple.” Though the crime drama was short-lived, Sarnoff’s career was born.
That was in 2001. In the following years, Sarnoff worked on a number of shows—among them, “Lost” and “Deadwood” — and watched the industry shift to make more, but not nearly enough, seats for women.
Ahead of the primetime Emmy awards on Monday, we talked with Sarnoff about the evolution of writers’ rooms, her favorite female characters and women’s overlooked advantage in Hollywood. Here are her insights.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Lily: You’ve been in the industry awhile. Assuming IMDB isn’t lying to me, I see your first writing credit going back to 2001. Can you chart the changes you’ve seen pertaining to women since then? Is the main one that you aren’t the only woman in the room?
Liz Sarnoff: Exactly. For the first decade, I was the only one. So, I worked with men. I did what I could within the system, because I wanted to work. When I had my own room, I hired a 50-50 staff. And I always hire a 50-50 staff if I’m doing the hiring, or I try to have more women than that. Because it’s just been so unfair for so long.
And that goes for people of color, it goes for everyone. I mean, I just did a pilot with Margaret Cho called “Highland” and it was an entirely Asian cast for the most part — everybody that wasn’t Asian wasn’t white. And I can’t get anybody to put this thing on the air.
I’m amazed now at the younger generation of women because they are in your face. If I had been in men’s faces like that 20 years ago in writers’ rooms I never would’ve worked again. So, I had to find a way to insidiously crawl, get my agenda through the system. And it’s slow-moving.
TL: While we’ve made progress, people still bristle at unlikable women on TV. How do you write female characters who are fully human?
LS: Well, you write them like anybody else. I just do the best I can to live the reality of characters and then write them and try to be emotionally honest about it.
Women are complicated, they are different from men and they have different attitudes about things. But I think part of the problem is that for so long 90 percent of the female characters everybody was watching were written by men. Now that you have real women writing them and we’re seeing more real female characters, suddenly they’re unlikable.
Men are allowed to do whatever they want. Look what just happened [at the U.S. Open] with Serena [Williams] — it’s outrageous.
TL: Who are some of your favorite female characters?
LS: It’s hard because the ones you work on feel like your friends. The one that always comes to mind is Calamity Jane in “Deadwood” because she was so iconic and so unbelievably human.
Emily Heller [a “Barry” writer] and I tell the story about Sally [one of the characters] all the time. After the screening of the first couple “Barry” episodes, an agent got up and was like, “Sally’s not likable. I hate her.” And Emily Heller said, “Oh, Barry’s a murderer, but you don’t like Sally?” Come on, give us a break.
TL: Is there anything you wish people knew about writers, particularly women writers, that they don’t already?
LS: One thing that I wish people understood more was the collaborative nature of writing and television writing. To succeed in any way, you must have a truly collaborative spirit and heart.
You get the idea that somebody does all the work — the showrunner — and really every single person matters so much.
That kind of collaboration and sort of settling down of your ego comes much more naturally to women than it does to men, so they’re generally better TV writers than men are, which is the irony of them being excluded from the business for so long.
TL: What are you watching now, and which shows do you return to for comfort?
LS: I just finished watching “Ozark,” which I thought was quite twisty and turny and not what I expected at all. Very dark.
I also just watched the other assassin show, “Killing Eve,” which I thought was masterful beyond belief.
I love “Insecure.” I love “Baskets.”
I’ll go back and watch “Veep,” “Curb,” “Seinfeld” for pure laughs — the shows that make you feel safe, like the world’s going to be okay.