Mark Goffman runs the top-rated freshman drama of the 2016/17 season in Bull. In this exclusive interview, he tells Jesse Whittock about keeping control of a major network series, his grounding as a writer on The West Wing and how his Hollywood career almost didn’t happen thanks to a spell in Brussels.
Considering Mark Goffman was an economics and international politics major living in the capital of the European Union and writing for Commerce In Belgium magazine, it’s no surprise he came close to a career in speechwriting. It was, however, the beckoning of Hollywood – specifically Aaron Sorkin’s now-legendary writers room for The West Wing – that came to define his working life.
As chance goes, Sorkin came calling on the very same day Goffman was offered a job in the US Department of State. “Being in the capital of NATO was a fascinating place to learn about politics and people,” he recalls. “I was planning to be speechwriter, as I’m fascinated by what can make people’s lives better. Ultimately, I decided I could be more truthful writing about a fictional White House.”
By 2006, Goffman was working on Sorkin’s NBC series Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, running the writers room, before going on to executive-produce Fox’s White Collar and then showrun another Fox drama, Sleepy Hollow, for two seasons.
Having produced hundreds of hours of primetime scripted drama, Goffman now lists NBC’s TV reboot of Limitless on his CV, and has taken on running CBS’s big-rating new season legal procedural, Bull.
“The West Wing was a great training ground for how to write fiction and elements of plotting,” says Goffman. “For me, training under Aaron and then John Wells, who really taught their writers to be showrunners, was phenomenal.”
Goffman says Sorkin and Wells both tasked their writers to find the nuances in plots and visuals. This is something he has brought with him to Bull, which follows NCIS alum Michael Weatherly as Dr. Jason Bull, a brilliant trial consultant inspired by the career of Dr. Phil McGraw (known to most as syndication’s Dr. Phil). “The trials are central, but it’s really about the moments that exist around them,” says Goffman of the format.
“We are looking at psychology: Bull’s whole M.O. is understanding human behaviour in order to get the verdict and justice for his clients, and that theme resonates with everyone in society. In a world of fake news and unfairness, it’s really great to know that someone like Jason Bull is looking to get justice for people.”
Added to the West Wing tropes and psychology are classic CBS procedural beats – the case-by-case nature of the law being perfect for show-of-the-week storylines. “CBS is the best at procedure, so we have to push ourselves to work to come up with innovative procedural beats that work with that,” says Goffman. “The main cause of death in the writers room is if someone says they’ve heard it before.”
Bull, a coproduction of CBS Television Studios and Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Television, is the highest-rating new season drama in the US, and came to a close last week with an average of 11.35 million viewers across its 23 epsiodes. It has sold into more than 200 territories, including key deals with Fox Networks Group in Europe, ProSiebensat.1 in Germany, Global in Canada, Rai 2 in Italy, M6 in France, and Network Ten in Australia, and a second season is coming in 2017/18.
Goffman came to Bull on the back of an executive producer stint on the short-lived Limitless, and via his production deal with CBS, a deal primarily designed to hand him shows to create, develop and run.
How does Goffman assess the international drama market for someone in his position? “On the positive side, I really think it’s a golden age of TV,” he says. “Almost anything you can dream of can find an avenue to become a reality. There’s a hunger for international formats, and there are channels active in almost every genre.
“While the money isn’t the same [at all channels] as at traditional broadcast networks, most writers aren’t motivated by money. That helps when you manage writers rooms.”
The issue is with those writers – and the rest of the hundreds-strong crews needed for a fast-moving, weekly broadcast drama – is actually finding them in the first place.
Bull’s writing team came together in three days, during the mad scrum that follows network upfront announcements of the new season pick-ups. “There are so many shows that the writing pool is depleted,” says Goffman.
Finding production staff creates the same problem. “For Bull – and all network TV – the biggest challenge is we go from essentially zero to 700 people working on the show, with two months to put everyone in place,” says Goffman.
“Often all of the people I know and have worked with in the past are already working. Then you’re hiring a whole new group of people and expecting it to come together very quickly with the same vision. It was very lucky with Bull that we got great producers, and incredible crew from Sleepy Hollow and Limitless. That’s not always the case.”
The challenges of a broadcast TV show don’t stop once you’ve actually found your team, however. What follows is the little challenge of producing and launching a programme that rates – or the scrapheap awaits.
“Any of the key plots you have backed only has a few episodes to make a mark. That’s the challenge,” he says. “While you may find an outlet, raising above the clutter is difficult.”
As for Bull, a quirky legal procedural at heart, Goffman says there were several exciting premises to work with from the beginning.
“First of all, Bull is a novel premise; the law is an area I’m deeply interested in that affects lots of people,” he says. “Plus, we had a built-in character at the core of the show, and Paul Attanasio [House] is a brilliant writer. He and Dr. Phil created such an amazing pilot, with well-thought-out characters and excellent dialogue, that I jumped on the chance when it came.
“Added with Steven Spielberg and Amblin, we have some of the most creative minds helping to make the show, so it was a no-brainer. The elements all came together: the [creators] sold that project to CBS in the room.”
Following the success of season one, US reports have suggested Goffman will run to development at CBS TV Studios, handing over control of Bull to another showrunner.
Away from broadcast TV, Goffman has over the years attempted to move outside his comfort zone. For example, in 2010 he produced and directed a documentary about five characters at an annual conference held in Ft. Mitchell, Kentucky, the ventriloquism capital of the world, and has plans for more features and novels.
As for international drama, it’s once again Goffman’s past in Europe that informs his outlook. “I love watching international formats, which goes back to my days in Brussels,” he says. “It allows you to find out what other cultures are responding to. South Korea is a fascinating place for scripted at the moment, as is Australia.”
While he found his calling in The West Wing, Goffman proves inspiration can come from anywhere and end up in Hollywood.