SPOILER ALERT: This article contains details of tonight’s Blue Bloods Season 11 premiere “Triumph Over Trauma.”
“Listen, it was a conscious decision, and not an easy one,” says Blue Bloods executive producer Kevin Wade setting tonight’s Season 11 opener in a post-coronavirus New York City.
“On the other hand, on a purely practical level I don’t want to watch masked actors, particularly,” the showrunner of the NYPD family drama added. “Now, I’ve seen other shows that are doing it and it feels, on the one hand, true and on another hand, anachronistic. The decision we’ve made was not to play the show that way.”
How they did decide to play the return of the Tom Selleck-led CBS drama with tonight’s “Triumph Over Trauma” episode was on a multiple of levels. Addressing issues of police brutality, the scaring pandemic and that family Sunday dinner, Wade and Blue Bloods are very much aware they are being scrutinized in an America batter by surging COVID-19 cases and deaths and debates over the role of law enforcement.
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Looking for a balance, the well watched CBS series also knows it has a strong fan base that have been with the Bridget Moynihan, Donnie Wahlberg, Will Estes, Vanessa Ray, and Len Cariou starring show for its run.
As the interlocking tales of racial justice, coronavirus consequences, family friction and a serial killer on the loose in tonight’s Siobhan Byrne O’Connor penned Season 11 premiere make clear – it’s Blue Bloods still, but with an added intensity – and not just with Whoopi Goldberg on board as City Council Speaker looking for change in the way Selleck’s Commissioner Frank Reagan and his department does business.
On that, Wade chatted with me at length about the Season 11 debut, the road getting there through coronavirus and the aftermath of the killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. The showrunner also acknowledged there could be “blowback” for the decisions and directions Blue Blood chose. And Wade revealed a bit of the fate of newly Reagan family addition Joe Hill, will we see more Whoopi and what’s going on at the Manhattan District Attorney’s office.
DEADLINE: You know that the role of the police in our society has come under the spotlight in a renewed manner since your last season with the killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many acts of blue brutality that have led to protests and calls for real change. Clearly, as the Season 11 opener shows, you know Blue Bloods places a part in that much larger discussion. Are we going to see more this season of what we saw in Triumph Over Trauma and if so, how?
WADE: We’re going to address all these things as we normally would.
We’re in our 11th season. We have an enormous fan base that not only shows up on Friday nights but shows up for the syndicated shows, for streaming them, whatever it is. They come to it expecting a certain kind of show. I believe, maybe I’m kidding myself, but I do believe that when we’ve had issues, whether they were black and white or Catholic versus something or Puerto Rican or Hispanic versus something, we would build a platform of equal dimensions for the other side of the argument.
Certainly, in the scenes between Tom and Whoopi in the first episode I was very aware, as was Siobhan of making sure not only that Whoopi’s Regina Thomas got to say her piece but that she said it as eloquently and as truly as Tom Selleck’s character does.
That, to me, is where the bar is set that any time we…we do and we will delve into so-called hot-button issues but we’re not doing propaganda here, nor are we doing the news. We’re just doing Blue Bloods. So, what we do is going to be done through that decade-old filter at this point.
DEADLINE: In that context, will we see Whoopi’s New York City Council Speaker character more this year?
WADE: No plans right now but plans are more fluid than ever now because shortly after we started shooting I think episode 2, we were told that or order had been reduced from the usual 22 down to 16. So, I would hope to have Whoopi back in this season but there’s no date, episode slotted right now.
DEADLINE: Obviously her Regina Thomas role played a very important part of the frank discussion with Selleck’s Frank Reagan about race and police violence on what has been an admittedly pretty white show for the most part. We saw Det. Luke Raines, played by Jason Bowen, make a small but pivotal appearance in the season opener, how are more people of color going to be a part of this season, if they are?
WADE: Well, Jason will be back as Luke Raines, and we have a new DA, DA Crawford, played by Roslyn Ruff. It will be addressed that a black female from Atlanta was moved over Erin Reagan to become the acting district attorney for Manhattan by the white governor of New York, if we’re going to stay in our fictional world. That seemed, to me, to be true, it seemed, to me, if none of the summer had happened it might not have been.
Also, we have Eric B, who we had on once or twice and who is an old friend of Donnie’s and a mentor of his, and it was a great chemistry. I saw an opportunity. We can put them in that office as your CO, but what we’re really putting him in as is the black veteran cop. So that there are opportunities for a very specific conversation about racism or black / white relations. It’s very different conversation if it’s between two guys who’ve spent 30 years on the street. I thought that would be very useful real estate to harvest from.
DEADLINE: So, let me flip it for a second, do you feel expectations are unreasonable, too high, for Blue Bloods to address these issues in the America of 2020?
WADE: I think it’s a legitimate…listen, we were low-hanging fruit in terms of the police stuff. We are a long-running show about a family of white cops, so I understood that the moment that George Floyd and everything happened. Of course, I do.
On the other hand, listen, if it were the first season of Blue Bloods we’d probably be doing quite a few things differently or more dramatically. But it’s not and the people who are returning to watch it this Friday night and onwards hopefully are returning to something that they’ve grown to like over 10 years. To me, the respect and affection of the 12 million people that watch it frankly take precedence over the 12 pundits who may watch it for the first time because it’s a show about white cops.
DEADLINE: What about the pandemic? It’s had a huge effect on the making of the show, it looms in the near past in the Season 11 debut, how did it affect the writing going into what is on so many levels a unique season for you?
WADE: We spent a lot of the downtime in terms of the writers talking amongst ourselves how we were going to deal with this because we had two things on our plates.
One obviously was COVID-19 pandemic and if you asked me back in May or June when we started talking, would we actually be shooting in that come December? Nobody thought that obviously. Nobody from the CDC down to the people that work at Blue Bloods. But after a lot of talk, we made a decision not to play our actors in masks. We thought we can acknowledge the pandemic, which we do with a story in our first episode, and we acknowledge the rise of a very visible conflict really chasmed between black communities and police forces in a lot of cities.
So, we thought we need to acknowledge that, address is, but it was really considering do people tune into this show to see a reflection of the daily news? Or do they tune into it be entertained and possibly look for a reflection but not a documentary? So, long way of saying a lot of our time wasn’t really spent on stories until we decided down which routes those stories were going to travel because that took us really through the summer.
DEADLINE: You brought it up, so I wanted to talk a bit more about how you handle the pandemic in the season opener. Vanessa Ray’s Eddie spends a lot of the episode trying to help a woman who lost her father due to coronavirus and his body has gone missing in the system. Eventually, they find it in a mass grave, because his name was jumbled up and no one claimed the corpse. But while that all happens in the now, it is really a post-COVID NYC, which is far from the reality of right now …
WADE: Yes, and please let me say why.
WADE: On a practical level, our shows come on, on a Friday night, certainly not live but within five or six weeks of when they were shot and edited but they live on for years at this point in other countries, on all sorts of platforms. So, they became dated the moment they’re on, if you’re doing that kind of ripped straight from the headline stuff.
DEADLINE: Yes, but this is something far different, don’t you think?
WADE: Listen, it was a conscious decision, and not an easy one. On the other hand, on a purely practical level I don’t want to watch masked actors, particularly. Now, I’ve seen other shows that are doing it and it feels, on the one hand, true and on another hand, anachronistic. The decision we’ve made was not to play the show that way.
DEADLINE: Are there exceptions you could anticipate?
WADE: I mean certainly I think if there’s any scene in a hospital or an emergency room everybody is masked up, including the actors. If you go in, I don’t care if you’re the chief of police or the guy delivering the pizza you’re going to be masked up in a hospital right now, and I think for a while going forward. So, I don’t want to call it the minimum because it’s not but again, I want people to be able to come back and say, oh, thank God it’s Blue Bloods rather than it’s Blue Bloods in a pandemic. It’s a calculated risk, certainly. We’ll see if there’s blowback. I’m sure there will be but I just didn’t think that 10 o’clock on Friday night that’s what people were tuning in for.
— Blue Bloods (@BlueBloods_CBS) December 5, 2020
DEADLINE: To that end, you made sure to have a Reagan family Sunday dinner at the end of the season opener …
DEADLINE: …I wasn’t sure up until I saw it that you would go there, and I bet I’m not alone on that one.
DEADLINE: Totally. So, give me a sense of what that dinner represents both as you guys as a production and for this opener of the season.
WADE: Now you put it like that, the fact that they’re sitting where they used to sit before the pandemic and not wearing masks I guess is going to be taken as a statement in itself. And I want to stress that all the actors, the safety protocols that are in place before they sit down that way, that they’re in that close proximity without any PPE is stringent.
They’ve been tested, everyone around them has been tested. Every corridor they have to that set is monitored and cleared. There isn’t a question to me of it being more or less safe than when they leave set in Green Point, Brooklyn and go to wherever their home is. It’s actually much safer here.
DEADLINE: Everyone, including the lead actors, wearing masks all the time?
WADE: Everybody’s wearing masks on set all the time except when the actors are filming. Obviously, they’re not masked then. Everybody else is.
That being said, I just thought people seem to have hung their hats on that family dinner scene for a long time. It wasn’t something I wanted to mess with.
I frankly think if I were going to run a subtitle under it I would say all of the participants received four times a week COVID tests and blah, blah, blah. Even in the fictional world, I assume without scripting it that those Reagans are tested regularly and they wouldn’t be showing up at that dinner without a negative test. That’s just the world we live in now.
DEADLINE: In the world of this season opener, we see more of the Will Hochman portrayed Joe Hill. Introduced as a “family friend,” at one point, the newly discovered offspring of deceased old Reagan brother Joe is a trigger point for his Uncle Danny and unsure of his place in the clan. What does the future hold for the character? Has the time between seasons altered your original plan for him?
WADE: Well, that relationship was…we mapped it out over the first three episodes. I don’t want to spoil the other two but it’s a contained arc that we play where Joe Hill is faced with a decision of does he go public with the fact that he is part of this family or is he forced to go public with the and what would that affect be on him.
It’s very different in our fictional world to be a cop named Joe Hill than it is to be a cop named Joe Reagan. Because the first question to that guy is, oh, wait is your old man the police commissioner? In which case this guy would answer, no, but my grandfather is and my uncle is this guy and my other uncle is that guy and my aunt is the ADA.
So, we play that out and then we will hopefully revisit with Joe Hill further on in the season but, I don’t have to tell you this Dominic, we have a lot of actors to serve who’ve been doing this for 11 years now.
DEADLINE: To put it mildly
WADE: Exactly. Those stories are kind of prescribed that there’s a Will Estes / Vanessa Ray story, certainly a Tom Selleck story, a Donnie Walberg story and a Bridgette Moynahan story. So, we really don’t have much real estate in terms of being able to bring in another series regular, and it was never planned to be that way.
DEADLINE: Speaking of which, with all that has changed this year, where are you in Season 11 right now?
WADE: I could give you kind of the top of the waves, which is we started shooting on Monday October 5, I believe, so we’re just about two months exactly into shooting.
We’ve been very lucky because we’ve been very vigilant in terms of our COVID protocols, which is depending what your job is you’re tested between two and four times a week. Everybody on the crew has been cooperative. It’s not always convenient. It takes some getting used to. It’s an enormous shift from being able to gather and talk extemporaneously about what we’re doing to being six feet apart at least with an N95 mask and in many cases a plastic shield over your face, and it’s really hard to be heard. I mean there’s simple stuff like that.
DEADLINE: For you, as showrunner, how is that interaction and how is it mitigated now?
WADE: I still go down to rehearsals, by and large, and I’m PPEed up like everybody else in the yellow zone, but I listen, I talk, and then I am gone.
We have a setup, which I’m sure most of the shows are doing, where we have a feed to a screen in our offices and we’ve got video and audio right through the camera as if we were at the video village. So, I can watch it from there, monitor from there, and send notes as I need to down to an assistant on the floor, whether it’s by phone or usually by text.
DEADLINE: Sounds like it manageable, difficult, but manageable.
WADE: I think it’s very good, but as you say, very different. Plus, we got marching orders from Viacom CBS early enough that they wanted to run three in a row start this Friday night, so there’s a lot of people in postproduction who I don’t think have had a weekend off since we came back to work. But again, we came back to work in October where we usually come back to work right after July 4 weekend.
DEADLINE: Beside the crammed schedule, what’s been the biggest challenge productionwise?
WADE: The biggest challenge really is making sure it doesn’t look like a soap opera with cops in it. I mean no disparagement of soap operas. I mean the scale in which they do them. They do them very quickly and they do them almost completely interior.
The COVID protocols call for obviously as minimal a crew presence as you can have and still do the show and as minimal background players.
In fact, we were aware of it going in that the scale of the show was going to suffer.
We cannot get permits to move around New York the way we used to. We can’t go do a shootout in Times Square or a jumper on a bridge in Brooklyn. We just can’t do it anymore, so we are writing to conflict and stories that can, because they have to, take place in very limited real estate with very limited background, that sort of thing that you’re describing. That’s absolutely a byproduct of the COVID protocol.
The biggest challenge is taking something that people are used to a certain scale and movement and seeing New York City and all five boroughs ever Friday night. We’re not able to do that right now.