Written by 12:36 pm New York News

Writers Mutiny at ‘All Rise,’ the Rare CBS Show With a Black Female Lead

The courtroom drama “All Rise” was something rare for CBS when it made its debut in September: a prime-time drama with a Black woman as its protagonist. After bringing in an average of more than five million viewers per episode, it was renewed for a second season in May.

But almost from the start of production last summer, many of the staff writers clashed with the show runner, Greg Spottiswood, over how the program handled race and gender.

Now that work is underway for the second season of “All Rise,” which stars Simone Missick as an idealistic Los Angeles judge, five writers from the original staff of seven are gone. Among those who quit were the program’s three highest-ranking writers of color.

Produced by Warner Bros. Television, a division of AT&T’s WarnerMedia, “All Rise” is loosely based on a 2005 nonfiction book, “Courtroom 302,” about a white male judge in Cook County, Ill. In an effort to make it of the moment, Mr. Spottiswood, a white writer-producer, changed the main character to a Black woman. For CBS, a network that had been criticized for a prime-time lineup that lacked diversity, “All Rise” was a key part of a new wave of programming meant to better reflect the American population.

Shernold Edwards, a Black woman who has been a writer-producer on Fox’s “Sleepy Hollow” and other shows, said she had left “All Rise” in November after disagreements with Mr. Spottiswood. “We had to do so much behind the scenes to keep these scripts from being racist and offensive,” she said in an interview.

Sunil Nayar, an Indian-American television writer who has worked on ABC’s “Revenge” and CBS’s “CSI: Miami,” also said he had left after disputes with Mr. Spottiswood. Some of them had to do with his attempts to have “All Rise” accurately reflect the experiences of Black people and other people of color, he said; another point of contention was that, in his view, Mr. Spottiswood seemed more interested in having him appear at public events than in giving him duties that matched his job title, executive producer.

“It became clear to me, when I left the show, that I was only there because I’m the brown guy,” Mr. Nayar said in an interview. “Greg hired me to be his brown guy.”

Warner Bros. said in a statement that Mr. Spottiswood, from the beginning, had “insisted on having a co-show runner to serve as a trusted and valued partner to promote diverse storytelling with the series.” It added, “The truth is, the intended partnership we all hoped for did not materialize.”

The Warner Bros. human resources department reviewed the show’s workplace between last August and November after complaints from staff members about Mr. Spottiswood’s leadership, the studio confirmed. After the inquiries, Warner Bros. kept him in place and provided him with a corporate coach, a Black woman, to advise him.

Mr. Spottiswood, who started his career in Canadian television after growing up in Ontario, said he was aware of the problems with his leadership and pledged to do better.

“When it appeared the writers’ room was struggling to function as effectively as it should, I recognized that I needed to change how I was working,” he said in a statement. “I voluntarily sought management training and leadership coaching.”

CBS had no comment. A network spokesman referred interview requests to Warner Bros.

“As soon as we became aware of concerns in the ‘All Rise’ writers’ room, we took steps to conduct a review of the work environment,” Warner Bros. said in a statement. “While the studio identified areas for improvement, the findings did not reveal conduct that would warrant removing series creator Greg Spottiswood from the executive producer role.”

The backstage problems at “All Rise” have come to light during the widespread protests prompted by the police killing of George Floyd, a movement that has caused some entertainment companies to question longstanding industry practices.

Last month, CBS Television Studios and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People announced that 25 percent of the network’s programs would come from creators who are people of color. In addition, CBS Television Studios pledged that, by the 2022-23 season, 50 percent of the writers on its shows would be people of color.

CBS Television Studios also took steps last month to clean up part of the CBS prime-time lineup when it fired the prolific producer Peter Lenkov, the show runner of “Magnum P. I.,” “MacGyver” and “Hawaii 5-0.” A CBS investigation concluded that he had favored male employees and spoken inappropriately to women and people of color.

Mr. Spottiswood hired a diverse crew to write “All Rise.” Of the original seven writers, two were white men. The ones who left the show said Mr. Spottiswood had sometimes ignored, rejected or resisted their attempts to have the characters and story lines accurately reflect the experiences of Black people and other people of color.

The lead character was sometimes given dialogue or story lines that seemed false or offensively stereotypical, one of the writers, Ms. Edwards, said. When she told colleagues that certain scenes inaccurately depicted how a Black woman would speak or act, she was asked why the character’s race mattered, she added.

“The fact that I’m still being asked that question tells me that there are people on the show who are incapable of writing for people of color and should not be writing for people of color,” Ms. Edwards wrote in an email to the show’s top producers shortly before her departure. She shared the email with The New York Times.

Ms. Edwards and Mr. Nayar said the problems had been apparent as early as the second episode, which included a story line centered on the character Emily Lopez, a public defender who had recently left her physically abusive husband.

As the character, played by the actress Jessica Camacho, enters the courthouse, she is having a conversation with Sara Castillo, a court reporter played by Lindsay Mendez, about how hard it is to live alone. In the original script, Ms. Mendez’s character tells Ms. Camacho’s character that “a one-night stand” would solve her problem. Some writers said the dialogue, while meant to be funny, was an insensitive response to a character grappling with the consequences of domestic abuse.

As the sequence progresses, the two women get on an elevator. A naked white man joins them, and they continue their conversation as if nothing odd is going on. Mr. Nayar and Ms. Edwards said they had sent emails to Mr. Spottiswood objecting to the scene after the majority of the show’s writers found it objectionable.

“Two women would not calmly continue a conversation with a naked white guy running into the elevator,” Ms. Edwards said. “That is violence. That is a dangerous situation that they would have to respond to.”

Mr. Spottiswood called Mr. Nayar and Ms. Edwards into a meeting, the two writers said, and admonished them for complaining about the scene so late in the production process. He ultimately cut the naked man and changed the dialogue.

Writers also questioned the handling of a sensitive issue in the third episode centered on a Black character, a bailiff who is stopped by police while jogging.

Mr. Nayar wrote a scene in which the bailiff, played by J. Alex Brinson, and the lead character, played by Ms. Missick, discuss racist policing. Mr. Spottiswood killed the scene, arguing that such harassment was so common that it would not merit a discussion between two Black co-workers, Mr. Nayar said. After Ms. Missick complained about the omission, saying her character would look callous if she did not acknowledge what had happened to her colleague, Mr. Nayar rewrote the scene, he said. (Ms. Missick declined to comment.)

A later episode, with a script credited to Greg Nelson, a white colleague of Mr. Spottiswood’s from his days in Canadian television, included a subplot about a gang of Latin American teenagers who terrorize citizens with machetes in the hills of Los Angeles. That story line seemed false and offensive to a Latin American writer on the staff, as well as to the cast member Ms. Mendez, Ms. Edwards said.

“She felt that she could not in good conscience appear in the episode as written,” Ms. Edwards wrote in the email to the producers. (Ms. Mendez didn’t respond to requests for comment.) Mr. Spottiswood agreed to cut the machete subplot after he learned of Ms. Mendez’s complaints.

After Mr. Nayar and Ms. Edwards left “All Rise” last year, Mr. Spottiswood held a meeting to discuss the tensions in the writers’ room, said two people with knowledge of the meeting, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Two representatives from the Warner Bros. human resources department were present, as was Maria Rodriguez, a labor lawyer hired by the studio. Mr. Spottiswood grew emotional as he told the staff that he had failed them, the two people said.

“I acknowledge that I can have a rhetorical, professorial tone in the room, and that can be perceived by some as condescending, and that I can be defensive in creative conversations and debates,” Mr. Spottiswood said in his statement. “I remain strongly committed to improving my communication style and skills, and to being a more inclusive leader — ensuring that writers and artists are not just heard, but feel listened to, respected, safe and valued.”

Dee Harris-Lawrence, a Black woman who was the show runner of the OWN drama “David Makes Man,” was hired as a co-show runner in December, taking over Mr. Nayar’s role on “All Rise.”

Ms. Edwards said that, in her view, Mr. Spottiswood had been allowed to remain in charge because his approach to race was a fit for CBS.

“He makes race palatable for a CBS audience and the CBS brass, because he doesn’t know anything about it,” she said. “So there is this strange tone of nothing being said, but the visual representation is there. It’s safe, and it’s empty. All the reality is absent.”

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