The band’s back together. Or, at least, a significant part of the band. Former Grey’s Anatomy showrunners Joan Rater and Tony Phelan have teamed up with Emmy-winning Grey’s alum Katherine Heigl for CBS’s Doubt (Feb. 15, 10 p.m.), a legal drama in which Heigl’s Sadie develops very un-lawyerly feelings for Billy (Steven Pasquale), the pediatric surgeon/accused girlfriend murderer she’s defending.
The series, which also stars Dule Hill, Elliott Gould, and Orange Is the New Black’s Laverne Cox, was originally scheduled to premiere last season. But Rater and Phelan tell Yahoo TV the delay turned out to be a huge boon to their story about the dedicated, uber-professional defense attorney who crosses a major line with her (very charming and attractive) client.
The creative duo — a married couple in real life — also tells us about what inspired them to create the series that tackles legal cases from a criminal defense point of view, the very personal reason they’re proud Cox’s Cameron is TV’s first series regular transgender character played by an openly transgender star, and why they have nothing but love, personally and professionally, for Heigl.
Will we see the Billy Brennan case play out across the whole first season?
Phelan: Yeah, that’ll play out across the 13, and we promise the audience some resolution by episode 13. But Joan and I are fond of saying we have this twist in episode 13, which is just a knockout. I think the audience, if they invest in the show, they’re going to be very satisfied at the end.
Rater: We were inspired by a lot of things, and one thing that inspired us was the Serial podcast, the first season. What was fascinating to Tony and I was that the more you found out about the case, the less certain you became. One week, you know, it would seem very clear that [Adnan Syed] did it, and the next week, it would seem very clear that he didn’t. I think that’s really true, that these cases are complex and complicated, and to take the audience on a ride is really exciting.
Phelan: You want to, in doing a show like this, present most of the cases as existing in a gray area so that the audience and our attorneys go back and forth about how they feel about the people and the amount of guilt or innocence of any one person. If you can do that, that’s what I, as an audience member, find really engaging.
I’ve watched three episodes so far, and I like that the secondary cases that unfold in each episode are also really compelling, and emotional, which viewers may not be expecting necessarily from stories told from a criminal defense point of view.
Rater: Yeah, you look around in the news and if you do your reading and research, there’s just a plethora of interesting cases with unexpected angles that we can explore.
Phelan: I think the other thing is that, because we’re approaching it from the other side of the equation from where a lot of law shows have [approached it] over the past 10 or 15 years, you know, there’s been a lot of prosecutors and putting people in jail and catching bad guys. One of the reasons why we settled on criminal defense attorneys was because, not really since The Practice have people told those stories on network TV. We’re very excited to see, to examine the criminal justice system from the other side, but to always, whether guilty or innocent, make the people relatable, because that’s so much of what our attorneys’ jobs are: to make these people human for a jury.
Rater: It’s really fun for us to invite defense attorneys and prosecutors into our writer’s room, have them tell the stories that they want to see and the cases that were some of their most emotional, and then we get to run with those ideas. Really fun, and we will continue to have one or two law cases per show, along with whatever long-arc story we have.
You mentioned working with real-life defense attorneys, are they always in the writer’s room?
Phelan: Two of our writers are attorneys. One of them was a homicide prosecutor in Boston. The other worked [as a] Bronx public defender. Those two people, if you put any legal issue in the middle of the table, they go at it like animals.
Rater: Also, we have brought in a number of defense attorneys, because it’s not always the big story that you’re looking for from them, but the little maneuvers and other real-life stuff that can be really inspiring. I cannot tell you the number of stories that we’ve gotten from talking to these guys. It’s invaluable.
Phelan: And… you constantly come up against this question of, “How can you defend those people? How can you do that work?” We were very interested in threading that idea through the show, so each of our attorneys have to deal with that at one point or another.
The show, which is obviously covering some heavy topics, has a lot of lighter moments, too, and that plays out particularly well with the friendship between Katherine Heigl’s Sadie and Dule Hill’s Albert. And refreshingly, theirs is only a genuine friendship, with no hint of the will-they-or-won’t-they vibe that accompanies most male-female friendships.
Phelan: Yes, and I think that ideally, if we succeed in getting the audience to invest in them that much, as Sadie’s relationship with Billy moves forward, it’s going to make Albert and how she deals with him, and how she holds the secret of that relationship from him, all the more painful.
Rater: We loved that Sadie/Albert friendship. Early on in the writer’s room, we were talking about how sort of revolutionary, in a way, it is to have this really close, close friendship between a man and a woman that doesn’t cross into romantic territory. They’re just each other’s best friend, and we love that. In terms of the humor, certainly a writer’s room… there’s stress and intense deadlines, and the humor is the thing that gets you through really rough times. I’m not at all comparing a writer’s room to a criminal defense firm, but in any workplace, I think that’s the key to getting you through the day: the friendships and the humor. We wanted to reflect that.
The history of the show — that it was originally developed for last season, that there was some recasting, that it was moved to this year at midseason — was that frustrating, or do you now see it as having given you an opportunity to put this cast together and have it gel so well?
Phelan: It was a great call for us, because one of the things other than recasting we did, was some rewriting based on audience testing. Just in terms of how quickly we were going to move the Sadie/Billy relationship forward, to give the audience a chance to invest in them before they took any kind of really fateful steps that they couldn’t take back. It gave us the chance to put some new scenes in the pilot that really help the audience understand that attraction.
Rater: The relationship is taboo, and it’s tricky. It’s a line that Sadie is crossing, and we were able to sort of slow it down in a way that helps the audience not hate Sadie. It was great to be able to say, “OK, you know what, I agree this isn’t working”… we have this great opportunity for a do over.
What was the number one thing you felt you needed to do to make the Sadie/Billy attraction acceptable for the audience?
Phelan: Really it was about slowing the relationship down. The new scene that we put in the pilot is a scene of the two of them eating hamburgers and French fries together. That really, I think, goes a long way to helping you see this guy. When we talked to defense attorneys, and we told them about what we were thinking about doing, they were like, “You have to understand that when you’re defending somebody, and if they’re waiting in jail, you’re their only lifeline to the outside world.” They immediately invest in you all of their entire future. It creates this very intense intimacy between the two of you, that people can begin to mistake for love, or intimate feelings. As the defense attorney, you always have to keep people realistic and keep those feelings in check. And one of the things that struck us was, if you could tell a story, where that’s obviously the way that Sadie always conducts herself, but because of who this guy is and the strange parallel way that these two people have grown up — both in very dysfunctional households, with absent parents — they find that there is this connection that’s real. So yes, I’m very happy that we got the chance to redo that pilot and just make it much stronger.
There are plenty of other romances on the show. Isaiah (Elliott Gould) is not only Sadie’s boss, but has a long history with her mom (Judith Light). How central is that relationship going to be?
Rater: That relationship between Isaiah and Carolyn, and the triangle with Isaiah, Carolyn, and Sadie is really important. We were fascinated by the idea of Sadie being this kid who literally grew up in the criminal justice system, her going to visit her mother in prison… it was like it was fate that she was going to become a criminal defense attorney. She has a real empathy grown out of first-hand knowledge.
We also were really turned on by the idea of, Sadie’s mom is in prison… Isaiah was raising Sadie on the outside, and that’s so complicated in a great way. Like, who’s the parent here? The feelings Carolyn has about not getting all those moments that Isaiah got with Sadie will play out, as well as the idea of, will Carolyn get parole or not? That will be an ongoing story in the first season.
Laverne Cox is amazing, as always, as Cameron, and Cameron is the first series regular transgender character played by an openly transgender actress on TV. You have a personal connection that makes that a particularly proud casting?
Rater: We do. We have a son, Tom Phelan, who is transgender and is an actor. When he was coming out as transgender it was sort of around the time we were writing the show, and it became really important to us to have this character of Cameron, who is transgender, but this isn’t a coming out story. It isn’t a transition story. She’s already transitioned. It’s a little bit like, it’s a part of her, it’s an important part of her, but it’s not the central focus of who she is. Because we find that with our son, we don’t sit around talking about gender a lot. We sit around talking about how college is. He’s a person. We wanted to really show that, as well as feeling that an attorney who is transgender… it would make sense that they would go into defense work, because they might have a real empathy for people who are struggling, or the down trodden, so that just made sense. Then, the icing on the cake was getting Laverne, who happened to be available. We didn’t know she was. She has that strength and that passion and she just knocks it out of the park. And she’s funny.
Phelan: The other thing that we were committed to doing, too, with Cameron, was to give her a love story… and that relationship continues through the 13 episodes as well.
Will your son appear on the show?
Rater: I’d love it, but he doesn’t in the first season. He’s too busy with college right now.
Phelan: No, he did a long stint on The Fosters [where he played Cole]. He’s now a freshman at Columbia.
You’ve got to get him on the show in Season 2 then, right?
Rater: We have to, right?
Phelan: I don’t know, I don’t know. His agent’s probably going to cut a really hard deal.
He knows he has all the hand in that negotiation.
There was some controversy during Katherine Heigl’s time on Grey’s Anatomy. But you worked with her there, for a long time, and now you’re choosing to work with her again, as the lead on your show. I would assume from that you enjoy working with her, and have no issues with her as a professional.
Rater: I have to say, unequivocally, she’s delightful. She’s a pro, she’s wonderful, we love her personally and professionally. She’s amazing, and we have known her for a long time. We jumped at the chance to work with her, not only because she is able to be so freaking charming and funny, but she’s also smart as hell. And Sadie had to be so relatable, and that’s something that Katie is in spades. She’s very relatable.
Phelan: The other thing I will say is, when you’re casting the lead for your show, you’re casting the person who’s going to be the leader of not only the actors, but of your shooting experience. Katie has been a remarkable leader, just always happy to be there, always prepared, always excited, always inquisitive about the people around her, very open, never retreated to her trailer, was always right there on the set… was the first person to inquire about a birthday or if somebody’s mom had been sick… was just amazing in that respect.
Rater: The actors love her. It’s a little bit of a love fest over there, I’ve got to say. It’s not always the case, but it’s a cast that really likes one another and you can tell, I think, when you watch it. It doesn’t feel like a pilot. It feels like these relationships have been around for a while.
Phelan: Not to mention the fact that she was pregnant throughout our entire [production] of the 13 episodes. Everyone would have been fine if she had said, “I can’t work today, I’m not feeling it today. I need to sit down today.” [There was] none of that. She was always there, ready to go, and I think everybody was so encouraged and excited about her enthusiasm.
What were her thoughts about how to make the relationship between Sadie and Billy progress in a way that the audience would accept?
Rater: Well, she agreed with us that we needed as many scenes with Sadie and Billy alone with each other, [being] personal as we could have, in order to get to know them.
Phelan: She was adamant about that, and Joan and I felt the same way. And she was like, if we’re going to do this, there has to be real consequences for Sadie’s decision. We can’t just let her step over a line and everybody will be OK about it. It’s really got to be pretty destructive. And it is.
Doubt premieres Wednesday, Feb. 15 at 10 p.m. on CBS.