'The Kennedys' Creator Defends His Controversial New Series

An interview with Joel Surnow about the show, which debuts this Sunday on Reelz


Greg Kinnear, Katie Holmes, and Barry Pepper as John F., Jackie, and Bobby Kennedy in The Kennedys. Photo credit: Reelz.

The terrorists, saboteurs, and corrupt government officials on the TV series 24 never caused its producer and co-creator Joel Surnow as much trouble as The Kennedys. Counter Terrorist Unit special agent Jack Bauer's races against time on 24 now seem like a cinch compared to the real-life fallout generated by Surnow's desire to helm a miniseries about one of America's most famous families.

Last week, The Hollywood Reporter chronicled the rather bizarre (and seemingly unprecedented) back-story of how this high profile, $30 million TV project was abruptly canceled by the History Channel, the network that first commissioned it in 2008. From the moment that the History Channel proudly announced the series, it has been regarded with some degree of special curiosity.

The Kennedys seemed an unusual project for a man whose scriptwriting usually focuses on action dramas and thrillers. But the fact that Surnow is a staunch conservative made his choice of material even more intriguing. Across town, people started asking, Why is Joel Surnow, of all people, now turning his focus on making a TV series about America's Democratic dynasty?

That unpredictable idea alone made a few liberals, at least one influential Kennedy loyalist, and perhaps even members of the Kennedy family themselves, very uncomfortable—even before one frame of film had been shot. But Surnow and key people who worked with him on 24 forged ahead with what Surnow describes as prodigious research and scrupulous writing. When early drafts of scripts leaked, suspicion turned to resistance in Camelot: the late Ted Sorensen, President Kennedy's former speechwriter, campaigned publicly against Surnow last year, calling his project "a one-sided, right-wing script." A freelance website was launched by liberal activist and filmmaker Robert Greenwald to help galvanize Kennedy supporters against the series.

Filming moved ahead anyway and finally wrapped last fall. Suddenly, while the series was still in post-production, the History Channel reneged: It refused to air the eight-part program because, as a press statement put it, the series was "not a fit for the History brand." Making circumstances even more curious, that decision extended only to the American transmission of the History Channel because its United Kingdom version will run the series, beginning April 7.

Was there a power lunch at the Polo Lounge that killed it? As with anything Kennedy, there are a myriad of conspiracy theories. One behind-the-scenes scenario has President Kennedy's daughter, Caroline, and his niece, Maria Shriver, using their clout to pressure members of the Board of Directors of A&E Television Networks (the umbrella company that controls the History Channel) to cancel the show.

Eventually, The Kennedys found an enthusiastic outlet in ReelzChannel. Some reviews have been especially nasty—yesterday The Hollywood Reporter headlined its critic's take on the program as a "dull, unwatchable, hamfisted mess"—but Surnow, who has produced some of the most riveting moments in TV history, believes he's got a resplendent saga on his hands.

I met Surnow at a café in the western end of the San Fernando Valley, close to where Jack Bauer's exploits where filmed, to sort through the coverage and questions about the series that will finally begin unrolling in the U.S. this coming Sunday night at nine o'clock.

At what point did you realize that this series was going to be controversial?

From the day the people at the History Channel said they were going to green-light it. I always felt that my own politics were going to be a problem, and that the Kennedy family wouldn't want a known conservative telling their story. I assume that they would want Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg telling their story, not a guy who's a friend of Rush Limbaugh.

Tell us what happens when you spend $30 million on a series and the network cancels it before it even airs.

First of all, that doesn't happen in this town. There are lots of controversial shows and people out here. And we put together a brilliant, beautiful, classy show. It could be a Merchant Ivory film. But because the auspices weren't acceptable—the auspices being me, a known conservative—this thing got derailed.

As you say, the history of Hollywood is full of controversial projects. But this is quite unusual in the way it's been handled.

I'm still asking myself how it all happened. We've got an all-star cast, award-winning people at every key position in the show. And you don't get Tom Wilkinson, Greg Kinnear, Katie Holmes, and Barry Pepper to do a show that's some weird, agendized drama. That doesn't happen.

Actually, in 2003, CBS canceled its two-part movie, The Reagans, because of a firestorm of complaints that it was rather scurrilous in its depiction of Reagan.

There's a big difference. On The Reagans, the advertisers pulled out. With this series, the advertisers pledged to follow it. That's the metric by which all things are judged out here. Our advertisers never backed off. Plus, Nancy Dubuc, the History Channel executive who developed the series, kept her credit on it. That speaks volumes about how the History Channel people regarded this series—they were our allies all the way through to the bitter end of our run there.

It's a little challenging to believe that at this point in time, with all the principals from the Kennedy family deceased, that survivors were able to get the series canceled by the History Channel. How does this happen?

I don't know. To me, that's the real story.

Presented by

John Meroney is completing a book, Rehearsals for a Lead Role: Ronald Reagan in The Hollywood Wars.

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