LOS ANGELES -- John Wells is the kind of TV viewer most showrunners dread. The veteran writer and producer, now showrunner of Showtime's "Shameless," is as overwhelmed as the rest of us by the impossible ratio of TV shows-I-should-watch to available hours.
"I'll give up on things very quickly now," he says inside his office in Los Angeles. "If it doesn't get me fast, then I'm out, because there's too much other stuff that I know I should be watching."
Wells wastes little time listing some of the shows from the last year that did hold his attention: "There was no moment in 'Fleabag' that wasn't beautifully done. I hate to say I loved 'Chernobyl,' because it was very difficult watching, but I thought it was brilliantly done, and I just got completely immersed in that world. It took me a while to put it on because I was worried about it, just emotionally. I felt the same way about 'Unbelievable,' which I think is nigh-on perfect."
Wells is all too familiar with the pressure to engage viewers. Throughout his storied career, the former WGA president has been part of some of television's most acclaimed and popular series, including "China Beach," "ER" and "The West Wing." His production company, John Wells Productions, recently renewed its overall deal with Warner Bros. Television through 2024, extending the producer's relationship with the studio to nearly 40 years.
"Shameless," which currently occupies his time, returned Sunday for its 10th season. The series, about a family living in Chicago's South Side and struggling with poverty and an alcoholic father, is the longest-running original scripted series in Showtime's history and remains one of the network's strongest ratings performers.
Ahead of the dark dramedy's season premiere, Wells talked about the advice he got from veteran TV producer Steven Bochco, his concerns about peak TV and keeping "Shameless" relevant.
'PEOPLE DIDN'T THINK THIS KIND OF FAMILY EXISTED IN THE UNITED STATES'
It took seven years before we got this show made. And it was sort of remarkable to me, given some of my history and various family experiences, (but) people didn't think this kind of family existed in the United States. When I first started pitching, people didn't understand what the income inequality was and how unbelievably difficult it is to work your way out of more impoverished circumstances. This American dream, this idea that we have this meritocracy, is an extraordinary, wonderful ideal, but we can't believe that it's true and that it actually functions that way.
There are millions and millions of people living in these circumstances where you're barely scraping by the smallest thing. I've forgotten what the exact statistic was, but it was like 40% of the country doesn't have $400 to deal with if anything happens -- and that was a recent statistic.
Once we started telling the stories, what I started hearing with people who were watching the show was, "Frank reminds me of my dad." They don't mean that he literally reminds them of their dad. They mean things in these characters: the way that family pulls together to make it through; the way they love each other with all of their faults; and all the ways that they just barely are scraping by. We want to spend time with them, because they're figuring out how to get through the hard times that far more than half the population of this country has to go through. Now, in this polarized environment in which we exist, it's even more important that we look at the way that a lot of people have to live.