Greg Berlanti’s career has followed a similar trajectory to Brandon Tartikoff’s. Both men shot to prominence at a young age and then remade the television landscape. Like Tartikoff, Berlanti also has a penchant for nonstop work and a knck for finding hit shows in different genres. So, it makes sense that Berlanti would be honored with NATPE’s 15th Annual Brandon Tartikoff Legacy Award.
Berlanti first found success as a showrunner on Dawson’s Creek at age 28 and then became the force behind other The WB shows, such as Everwood and Jack & Bobby; ABC series, including Dirty Sexy Money and Brothers & Sisters; and NBC’s Blindspot.
These days he is best known as the master of the DC Comics universe on The CW, with a slew of shows already dominating the airwaves — The Arrow, The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow and Super-girl — with another, Black Lightning, on the way. (Oh, and Berlanti is also kicking off DC Entertainment’s digital streaming service with another series, Titans, as well as overseeing Riverdale for The CW.)
15th Annual NATPE Brandon Tartikoff Legacy Awards
Berlanti is also an ideal Legacy Award recipient because he subsisted on Tartikoff’ s handiwork in the 1980s. “I remember seeing the ad in TV Guide for The A-Team,” Berlanti said. “And my family used to watch Family Ties together.”
Baptism by Fire
He was enough of a fan that, before his family got a VCR, he’d record shows on audio cassettes and listen to them. (“Otherwise, if you missed an episode you had a long wait for re-runs.) “But I never thought I’d be involved in TV,” said the WGA, DGA and Golden Globe-nominated writer, producer and director. “I didn’t know how to get into entertainment. People knew less back then.”
With his father’s encouragement, Berlanti chose theater over more practical majors at Northwestern University. A play led him to Los Angeles. Which led him to TV and, soon enough, to his swift rise from writer to executive producer on Dawson’s Creek.
After that “baptism by fire,” Berlanti feels like he has remained on a “slow, steady learning curve.”
His last few ABC series had more special effects and action, which helped prepare him for genre work. And though his early projects were all about intimate realism, he said it was good training for his current superhero phase — and that they are more alike than people realize.
Berlanti said his genre shows succeed because he emphasizes character “that’s how the audience connects with them;” even action sequences are driven by character and narrative and are not “action for action’s sake.”
But Berlanti’s colleagues say there’s more behind his success than his focus on character. “Greg has an incredible superpower for story, and is able to see both the big picture and every detail at the same time,” said Sarah Schecter, president of Berlanti Productions. “He is able to help writers and actors to accomplish their best work.
“He is indefatigable and his commitment to quality and emotional truth is unparalleled. He brings comedic truth to drama and emotional truth to comedy,” she added, ready to link Berlanti’s name to TV’s pantheon. “I can trace a line back from Greg to Jim Brooks to Norman Lear.”
He also consciously stretches his muscles to avoid being pigeonholed. “I always want to break out of the mold or perception of me,” he said, explaining that he has had three or four meetings where the executives would say, “I never would have guessed” that Berlanti would be moving in that direction.
Berlanti knew after Dawson’s Creek he was in danger of being pegged as a teen-show creator so he followed up with Everwood. After family dramas, he moved into darker material on ABC and then to superheroes. (This year brings a new step, a film he directed called Love, Simon, about a gay teen struggling with his identity.)
His first foray into the superhero world was a disaster: he co-wrote The Green Lantern and was set to direct when control of the movie was taken away; the final version moved drastically away from his script even though his name was still on it, bringing him plenty of blame. Still, he doesn’t regret the experience. “It brought me closer to DC and if I had to go through that to have all this, it’s hard to wish it didn’t happen,” he said.
A Socially Conscious Creator
Now he is in control and while his The CW shows don’t consciously tackle issues such as abortion the way shows like Everwood did — “Those earlier shows were about people’s everyday lives so they were relevant to the real world, with the genre characters it’s not as head on but a little goes a long way”— Berlanti, who is gay, remains a socially conscious creator, striving for diversity on and behind the camera.
“The characters used to be all white and all male and I remember growing up I had to do mental leaps to imagine a gay superhero,” Berlanti said. “So to be part of the change, to tell these other stories about a superhero who is gay or black or a woman, that makes it a better experience personally and professionally. But we are not just adding gay superheroes for the sake of doing it. We can make the stories better this way.”
Berlanti said juggling so many shows is not as challenging as it might seem, in part because if he only had one show he’d fixate on it and spend the same amount of time on it and in part because he views himself as part of a great team.
Still, he may need to take “a minute” off in the next six or twelve months to re-charge, spend time with his family — he recently married former soccer star Robbie Rogers and they have a young son named Caleb — and to find his writing voice again. “I’ve lived a little more now so I might find I have something new to say.”