HAND OF GOD: Ben Watkins on Binge-Watching, Season 1, and What's to Come - Give Me My Remote : Give Me My Remote

HAND OF GOD: Ben Watkins on Binge-Watching, Season 1, and What’s to Come

November 5, 2015 by  

Credit: Amazon

Credit: Amazon

The people behind shows produced for streaming services find their product being increasingly being released in a binge format, there has been one unexpected relief: the writers can assume that people will be watching these episodes in order — and often in a short amount of time.

“As a writer and a writing staff, [we’re] thinking about what’s going to happen now that people are going to watch these shows back-to-back,” HAND OF GOD creator Ben Watkins explained. “And if they do it like I do, they may do two or three [episodes] at a time. I don’t usually do more than three at a time, but even with that, you get a certain momentum watching, and you don’t need as much explaining [with the storytelling].”

I spoke with Watkins about creating a show in a binge-watching culture, why he didn’t want to “hold the audience’s hand in terms of who was the protagonist,” and those season finale shockers (though spoilers will be clearly marked if you haven’t finished season 1…

What did you learn from the Amazon pilot process that you were able to bring with you to the series production?
Ben Watkins: One of the things — and this could be good or bad, depending on how you filter stuff — we got customer reviews after the pilot. You’ll definitely get some recurring things in terms of what people like, what people were really drawn to. And then you’ll get some recurring themes in what some people found lacking. And so there were definitely discussions, prior to the start of production, to talk about whether we wanted to make any adjustment. Sometimes we were in a situation where someone may not have responded well to a scenario in the pilot, but over the course of the season[‘s arc], you had to do it that way to set it up. There are other times when you say, “Oh, that’s true…we gave that a short [end of the stick].” So that can impact how you write.

The problem you could run into if you put too much merit in what people’s responses are is you could overcorrect and end up destroying the show.

That makes sense. How did knowing all of the episodes would be available at once — and that people would likely watch them in order, versus coming in and out — impact the way you shaped the storytelling?
BW: This is something we gave some thought to. When they green-lit the pilot — but we didn’t know if we’d get more — at that time, Amazon was still saying they [might] release the episodes incrementally.  There was definitely some evidence the binge-watching was going to be the way people went, but at the time, there was a debate. In between doing the pilot and getting ready to do the season, we found out it was definitely going to be binge-watching.

That does change how you write a little bit. And there are some good parts to that, in my opinion. I’m actually old-school in the sense I like having incremental releases so I have to be patient. But that’s also pie in the sky, because people are so busy — even myself — that I can’t remember the last time I regularly sat down to watch a show, weekly. So even though I theoretically prefer it, I end up binging myself.

But as a writer and a writing staff, [we’re] thinking about what’s going to happen now that people are going to watch these shows back-to-back. And if they do it like I do, they may do two or three [episodes] at a time. I don’t usually do more than three at a time, but even with that, you get a certain momentum watching, and you don’t need as much explaining.

For example, if you go from episode 2 to episode 3, if someone is watching, literally, the minute after having seen episode 2, do you really need as many set up scenes that maybe in traditional series you would have? Our theory is you don’t. So we felt that gave us an advantage, to get into the story quicker, episode to episode. And we also gave ourselves a challenge of interesting ways to start episodes in a way that changes the pace or the tone or the feeling. That was one of the things we wanted to do overall with the show. If we knew people were going to be binging, we felt we could also do that.

As a creator, how is it for you to have your product binge-watched?
BW: It’s weird, because this is my first show as a creator. Even on BURN NOTICE, it was just a different feeling for me, how I was tracking response. People loved the show, but at that time, binging wasn’t something a lot of people were doing. And it wasn’t my show.

But now, being in a situation where people can binge it, it’s fascinating to me. It changes everything in terms of how people watch it, how they respond to it. It’s immediate gratification, and goes along with the way that social media has become such a big part of the way people talk about the show. And it’s all there at once. You don’t have a situation where episode 3 came out, and then you have a week of people sitting around the water cooler talking about episode 3 and then anticipating what might happen in episode 4. In this case, people have seen the whole thing. So you just get random little bits that people latch on to and love. It’s completely out of order [in terms of feedback].

If people are binging, it’s also possible some of the things that might have stood out in a weekly viewing kind of blur together. Is there anything you wish people were paying more attention to?
BW: This is another one of the things I’m wrapping my head around, because when people watch it, they can just jump right to the next episode, and they might not pick up on all of the subtleties and the nuances of the show; they just really get into the momentum.

But on the flip side of that, something I’ve anecdotally noticed in tracking social media, is that people watch these episodes over and over. I’ve seen people mention on social media they’re watching the entire season for a third time. And that’s something I never would have anticipated. But it’s only something you can do in a binge-watching culture.

If you were watching a show you like on broadcast TV, you would watch it week-to-week, and then you’d wait for reruns, which would take a while. And then down the line there might be a DVD [set]  or syndication. Even in the case of shows that went from broadcast to streaming, there’s [a good amount of time] from when you get to watch it originally and then you get to watch it again. Now, you can watch it over and over again, immediately. So some people are watching it numerous times, and they’re picking up on some of the things we were hoping to pull off: some of the subtext and some of the subtle things we put in the  episode and we were hoping people would appreciate…and they’re seeing it on the second or third viewing.

Looking at season 1, was there a particular character you viewed as the protagonist?
BW: It was a little bit of an experiment with this show — one of the things I wanted to do was not hold the audience’s hand in terms of who was the protagonist. Who are you rooting for?

But, obviously, the catalyst for the show is Pernell. And I felt that our job was — and we gave ourselves an enormous challenge, by making him such a bully and so off the rails — to make people relate to him. The only advantage I gave Pernell coming into this series was you can sympathize with someone who has lost a son, or has gone through the tragedy of a son in a coma; there’s grief that comes with the [coma] and the anticipation he’s going to die. So in that sense you can sympathize with him.

But everything else, it’s hard to relate to Pernell. And I wanted to see if we could make that character fight his way out of a corner; find a way for the audience to relate to him.

We did it with all of the characters: flipping the paradigm, so instead of very quickly establishing reasons you should like them, we put you in situations where you might be able to understand what they’re doing, but you can’t relate to it immediately. And then start peeling back the layers that make you like them, and make you relate to them. So the biggest challenge was Pernell. The question is, by the end of the season, are you rooting for Pernell?

The litmus test for me, in that situation was two things: would the audience want PJ to wake up at the end of the season? That was one question. And would the audience believe that he might? If you get on to Pernell’s journey, you even think there’s a  chance PJ could wake up; I don’t think you were thinking that when the show started.

And there were a lot of people who got into that. And there were a huge amount of people who wanted PJ to wake up. And for me, that’s a complete reversal of what we tried to set up early in the show, which was to show Pernell, bullying and desperate, though we understand why…by the end of the season, we have a large number of people who want the supernatural part of Pernell’s journey to be true. They really want to think PJ does wake up. I think that’s a sign they are rooting for Pernell.

[The following questions contain spoilers for the season 1 finale of HAND OF GOD.]

The season ended with PJ breathing on his own…and then flat-lining. Should we take that at face value?
BW: Honestly, for this show, one of the things we want to do is have the audience drawing their own conclusions in certain places. This is one of them. What are you attached to as an audience? What outcome are you attached to is going to influence what you think the end meant. And that’s important to me, because that’s part of what we’re doing with Pernell’s journey. And I think that’s something all of us have in common as a human species: whatever outcome we’re attached to, we can find a way to interpret certain circumstances around it to see into our version of what we want it to be. That’s what I did the ending that way. Obviously there’s an answer, but it won’t be until season 2.

How will Crystal be changing, now that we’ve seen her commit murder on her son’s behalf?
BW: Obviously, when you do something like that, you have to change. And some of that change has to be permanent, it can’t be temporary. She’ll actually have to deal with some of the things Pernell was dealing with in season 1.

But for me, one of the really important things I want to explore with her is here is a woman who came from a humble beginning, and had a vision of what she wanted her life to be, and really attached to this perfect appearance. And you saw her put this together, and her life is a reflection of someone who does put a lot of stock in how she’s received: the house, the clothes, the cars, the prominence stature. One of the things that’s going to happen now is having that value system turned upside down; realizing it doesn’t matter how you’re perceived, it matters who you really are. And now that she’s had that happen, she has to figure out who she really is and what really matters to her. We’ll see her dealing with those questions in season 2.

And how does that change shape her relationship with Pernell?
BW: We’ll be looking at it. We put a lot of pressure on this relationship they have, but in a twisted way, it’s brought them closer. Even before the end of the season, this crisis brought them closer together in terms of honesty and reminders of why they are with each other. And then by the end of the season, even more so.

So, in season 2, we want to [explore], is that enough to maintain a marriage, considering all of the things that are bearing down on that relationship: the loss of the son, the shared interests they have, and also the revelations that come with the infidelity. They’re in a precarious situation, relationship-wise, but they’re also more ready to be honest with each other than they ever have been. and that could be the key to salvaging that relationship.

Complicating matters if the fact that Tessie is pregnant. How might that shake up their world?
BW: That one, definitely, there are two major components to it. I don’t want to give too much away, but both Pernell and Crystal find out about the pregnancy. And it will have major ramifications for them in different and surprising ways.

Will there be questions about the paternity?
BW: That will be a question. Pernell has a vested interest; he will want the baby to be his. And Crystal will have her doubts.

Pernell’s visions were a key part of season 1. Will season 2 have a similar format?
BW: Pernell will still be struggling with this question of if he’s having a breakdown or a religious experience when we come into season 2. He’ll still be having visions, he’ll still be hearing voices, but he will have real doubts about what’s causing them. He’ll look into what are some other explanations.

As far as the overall journey of the series, the next phase for him is when he gets to a crossroad, this is one of those situations where when people get to a moment of unknown, they have to fill in the blank one way or another. I just think that’s something part of the human condition; we’re really uncomfortable with uncertainty, even though that’s a part of life. When we encounter that, we make decisions about how to fill in those blanks. And Pernell is going to make a conscious decision to fill in those blanks; he is on a spiritual journey, a supernatural journey versus going crazy.

As you look at the show’s future, if you had your way, how long would you like it to last?
BW: I always pictured it going five seasons.

HAND OF GOD season 1 is now streaming on Amazon.

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One Response to “HAND OF GOD: Ben Watkins on Binge-Watching, Season 1, and What’s to Come”

  1. Hand Of God Sucks on November 8th, 2015 4:47 am

    Please don’t make me laugh. This pathetic writer actually thinks his worthless show Hand of God would go for FIVE SEASONS! It won’t even get a second season. It is a piece of garbage. This show was FORGOTTEN two months ago after a few days of WASTING everybody’s time. I am disgusted in myself that I watched all 10 episodes. This show, is possibly the worst non-network serial drama I have ever had the displeasure of wasting 10 hours of my life on. It is absolutely sickening that millions of dollars were given to this talent hack to make his poorly drawn characters take a dump all over my flat screen. If Amazon gives this a second season (which it won’t), I’ll cancel my subscription to Amazon Prime.

    I have the name Ben Watkins burned into my mind, as a shorthand for horrifically bad showrunner/creator. If any studio is DUMB enough to give this guy a second chance at ANY SHOW, I won’t be watching. He is a talentless hack.

    I HATE THAT I WATCHED THIS SHOW. And can I tell you how degrading it was to have recently watched all seasons of Sons of Anarchy, and to see Ron Perlman in such a piece of garbage show. Hoepfully he can get on a decent show again, because Hand of God may as well be a hand on my toilet paper smeared with diarrhea.

    I hope Amazon is taking note of the bad reviews, the zero comments on most articles about this show, and SEES that AMAZON STUDIOS’ prestige will dip even further to ever new lows, if it DARES give any more money to Ben Watkins for a 2nd season of this piece of absolute garbage.