Josh Berman’s resume is stacked. Before getting into entertainment, the showrunner earned a bachelor’s degree in public policy from Princeton University, a master’s in history as a Fulbright scholar at the University of Sydney in Australia, and a JD/MBA from Stanford—all before his 26th birthday. A summer internship at NBC fortuitously led to an executive offer at the network, followed by a staff-writing job at CSI. Berman went on to receive two Emmy nominations during his six-year tenure at the crime show. Soon after, he developed the Fox drama Vanished, served as a consulting producer for Bones, and resurrected the cult-favorite Drop Dead Diva from cancellation at Lifetime.
These days, Berman is gearing up for the debut of his latest project: the ABC drama Notorious, a collaboration between himself and blogger Allie Hagan (Suri’s Burn Book), slated to take over Scandal’s coveted Thursday night timeslot.
Inspired by the relationship between infamous defense attorney Mark Geragos and Larry King Live producer Wendy Walker, Notorious chronicles the complex dynamic between the law and the media, playing upon their symbiotic partnership through the perspective of two very clever characters— characters whose well-matched ambitions seem to rival the potency of their sexual chemistry.
We sat down with Berman to learn more about his latest primetime endeavor.
Cinema Thread: You have quite the pedigree. How did your academic background in law prepare you for TV writing?
Josh Berman: What I loved about law school was the cases you study. I would turn them all into stories. When I read a brief of a court decision, I would always imagine what the plaintiffs were like, or what the victims were like, and entertained myself [that way] if the material was really dry.
All the stuff that I learned in law school has been invaluable to me as a writer. I believe that my CSI scripts were so airtight because of the training I received in law school; you couldn’t let there be a loophole in a brief, just like you can let there be a loophole in a script. I think the knowledge that I gained in school made me such an asset to CSI; I started as a writer and left as a producer. Carol Mendelsohn [EP of CSI] was also a lawyer. She became my mentor and taught me so much about writing. We bonded over the fact that we were both lawyers.
I believe that my CSI scripts were so airtight because of the training I received in law school; you couldn’t let there be a loophole in a brief, just like you can let there be a loophole in a script.
CT: That must have been a very fun time for you.
JB: Working on CSI was the most amazing experience. It was a great introduction to this world. At the time, everyone thought that it was gonna fail, so we had a very small writers budget. There were only six of us, and because of that, I was able to write six scripts for the first season. As a young writer, I had the responsibilities that normally are reserved for producers. It was a very steep learning curve that paid off.
CT: It was reported that when you pitched Vanished to Fox, you brought a wild amount of receipts: a binder with historical, forensic, religious, and political research that outlined very specific details, such as the types of guns that FBI agents use and the uniforms tactical teams wear. Are you that thorough with every project you develop?
JB: I think viewers today expect shows to feel grounded and real. And that’s what appeals to me so much about Notorious.
I never thought I would be writing anything in this genre again—I was looking for something different—and then I sat down with Wendy and Mark and started hearing their stories and was like ‘wow, this a whole new way of TV writing that I had never thought of before.’ I had seen the [The People v. O.J. Simpson: An American Crime Story] on FX and loved it, but I never realized that there was so much more to mine.
We as viewers think that we know the whole story when we’re watching CNN or Fox News, but the truth has become suggestive. You watch those two networks and get you a very different reality. [After speaking with Mark and Wendy] I thought ‘wow, these two people can speak to what I’ve been feeling but haven’t articulated before.’ Notorious is infused with their real life stories, their opinions, their thoughts on the media, and their conflict. There was such rich material there— I couldn’t say no to it.
CT: The show’s content is especially apropos given all the criticism of the media right now. In a lot of ways, The Media, and its nuanced, leveraged relationships, is a principle character in Notorious.
JB: Absolutely. Our lead characters are often in cahoots and they’re often in conflict— they love each other, they hate each other, they need each other, they want each other. It’s such a complicated, rich relationship. But for me, what’s also fun is the adult relationship between a man and a woman that, at this point, is not sexual. I feel like we all have friends of the opposite sex, but on TV, they usually hop into bed so quickly that you don’t get what we are going for with this show.
CT: What’s it been like collaborating with Mark and Wendy?
JB: I emailed with Mark three times already today. Wendy Walker has slept at my house cause we worked there late at night. This past Sunday night we all had Mexican dinner at her house. We’ve become a little family behind the show.
CT: It’s gotta be a crazy experience actually knowing Mark Geragos. He’s such an infamous figure.
JB: It’s absolutely nuts. He’s an amazing person. He also has a real soft side to him. People just see him on the news and think that he’s a hard-ass, and he’d probably kill me for saying this, but he’s got a mushy middle just like Daniel [Sunjata]’s character.
CT: You’re used to writing and being very close to the script. As an Executive Producer, how involved are you in the creative process?
JB: As the showrunner, you are involved in everything—there’s no job too small. If I’m on set, I will pick up garbage on the ground. If I’m in the writer’s room, it’s my job to give notes and then it’s my job to do a final polish on all the scripts. The buck stops with me and that’s scary. It’s something I wake up with every morning, it’s something that keeps me up at night. I’m responsible for keeping the show going. People often can’t do their jobs without my approval, so my job is to make sure everyone else’s job is easier.
I think that’s a constant theme in all my work—strong central characters—often, strong female characters, which I love to write and watch these women live very complicated, heroic lives.
CT: From CSI and Vanished, to Bones, Drop Dead Diva and now Notorious, each of these stories has a totally different tone. Is there a common thread between each of the narratives?
JB: Writers are frequently asked what their ‘brand’ is. Some writers are associated with superheroes some are associated with family drama. To me, I don’t like being pegged, and I think that networks and studios like to see you as just one thing. That being said, I like to write shows that are universally appealing. Even Drop Dead Diva was originally developed for network television.
I like taking strong characters and challenging them. I think that’s a constant theme in all my work—strong central characters—often, strong female characters, which I love to write and watch these women live very complicated, heroic lives.
CT: What is Mark and Wendy’s relationship like now?
JB: Mark and Wendy are still best friends. They see each other all the time; they joke with each other, they play with each other. They won’t tell us if they’ve slept with each other, so I stopped asking that question, but they are so much fun to be around. Their love for each other is infectious.
CT: Will we see more on the “will they or won’t they?” narrative throughout the season?
JB: It’s funny ‘cause we don’t write to it, but these actors have so much chemistry and they absolutely love each other. Their chemistry is undeniable and we definitely give voice to it.