While the Pandemic’s Had Us Bingeing Like Never Before, It’s Easy to Find UMD Alums in Front of or Behind the Camera
Several Terps can be found in front of or behind the camera—as actors, directors, producers and writers—in an array of TV shows, from the classics to the next generation and beyond.
Even in the dullest, darkest, most depressing days of the pandemic, we could always slide into the usual booth at Monk’s Café with Jerry Seinfeld.
We formed never-spreader pods of sorts with old friends, whether we hit the streets of West Baltimore with Omar Little or knocked back Duffs with Homer.
As the pandemic surged in 2020, traditional TV viewing increased for the first time since 2012, according to eMarketer, and a Wall Street Journal analysis estimated that streaming services saw a 50% jump in subscribers. (So if your screen time has spiked, you’re right on trend!)
What TV-bingeing Terps might not realize, though, is just how many fellow University of Marylanders they’ve virtually invited into their living rooms—as actors, directors, producers and writers of some bona fide favorites, promising pilots and cult classics. Some are stage-trained actors from the School of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies, while others studied journalism, government and politics, and marketing.
So whether you’re diving into a new show or revisiting an old standby, we’ve created the ultimate Terp TV guide for future viewing.
THE UNDENIABLE CLASSICS
As Larry David ’70 and his comedian pal chatted about products on the shelves while grocery shopping in 1988, they realized they never heard such mundane conversations on TV. That idea for a “show about nothing” turned into 180 beloved episodes, giving us gems like “yada, yada,” “a Festivus for the rest of us” and “No soup for you!” (Fellow Terp Peter Mehlman ’77 wrote and/or produced more than 100 of those.) David, who also wrote and produced for the hit sitcom, last year revealed his favorite episode, a “master”ful half-hour entitled “The Contest.” If nine seasons aren’t enough, see “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” created by and starring David as himself. It’s pretty, pretty, pretty good, too.
Widely considered one of the best TV series of all time, the crime drama created in 2002 by former Diamondback editor and Baltimore Sun police reporter David Simon ’83 chronicles the drug scene in Baltimore, exploring the role of law enforcement, schools, the media and other institutions in a major American city. “We knew we had to make the story entertaining,” Simon told Vanity Fair in April 2020. “But our reasons for doing it were so that we could sustain a sociopolitical argument. That was why we got up in the morning.” The story had staying power: When COVID-19 lockdowns began last year, viewership of the series nearly tripled on HBO Now, according to parent company WarnerMedia. But if you’re looking for something new, try Simon’s latest HBO miniseries, “The Plot Against America,” or “Treme,” “Show Me a Hero” or “The Deuce.”
With around 700 episodes and counting, the animated comedy featuring a donut-downing oaf and his Springfield-based family and neighbors is the longest-running scripted series in TV history. Former Terp David Silverman produced, animated and/or directed hundreds of those, helping to create Lisa’s pointy hair, Mr. Burns’ sneers and Bart’s seminal Gen-X wisdom: “Don’t have a cow, man.” But the show was more than just a silly cartoon, with a revolutionary take on animated satire for adults that lampooned everything from politics to Live Aid-style benefits. “The Simpsons” even eerily seemed to predict the future on multiple occasions, including Donald Trump’s presidency, the Ebola outbreak and most recently, the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. “The secret is that we travel through time,” Silverman joked in a 2020 roundtable.
THE CRITICALLY ACCLAIMED NEXT GENERATION
THE GOOD PLACE
Ever wonder how exactly earthlings make it into heaven (or get sentenced to hell)? This forking fresh comedy offers its take, with Kristen Bell starring as Eleanor Shellstrop, who navigates the afterlife and what it means to be a truly good person. Beth McCarthy-Miller ’85 directed six episodes of the four-season hit, which racked up two Golden Globe and 13 Emmy nominations during its 2016-20 run. “A show like this, every script is a blessing,” she said on “The Good Place: The Podcast.” McCarthy-Miller has been behind the camera for a slew of other successful shows, including “30 Rock,” “Modern Family,” “The Kominsky Method” and over 200 episodes of “Saturday Night Live.”
Searching for a witty, stereotype-busting comedy? This look at the awkward experiences of 20-something Black women in Los Angeles delivers. Natasha Rothwell ’03 plays Kelli, a college friend of main character Issa (played by co-creator Issa Rae), who never shies away from speaking her mind. The show, which has earned 11 Emmy nominations and one win since its 2016 debut, mixes laughs and raunchiness even as it delves into social and racial issues, such as mental health and workplace racism. “It’s been really cool to see audiences be so provoked by the show and engage in conversation,” Rothwell told Essence last year. When she wasn’t busy side-eyeing as Kelli, the former “Saturday Night Live” writer stepped in as a story editor.
Between working on the irreverent “Reno 911!” and the upcoming thriller “The Devil in the White City,” Stacey Sher ’83 was producing the mini-series “Mrs. America,” released on FX on Hulu last year. The 10-time Emmy-nominated drama stars Cate Blanchett as conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly, a fierce opponent of modern feminism and the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s. “I thought it would be really interesting to tell the story about the ERA and the fight about the ERA from the point of view (of) the spoiler,” Sher said in an interview with Deadline.
THE MARATHON-WORTHY MYSTERIES
LAW AND ORDER
When you hear that iconic “Dun DUN,” you know you’re about to witness one of the more than 450 crime investigations featured on “Law & Order.” Dianne Wiest ’69, who you might know from movies like “Bullets Over Broadway” and “Hannah and Her Sisters,” stepped onto the small screen in 2000 to portray interim district attorney Nora Lewin in 48 episodes. She replaced Steve Hill, who had played the show’s D.A. for 10 years. “The first woman at the top of the list was Dianne,” producer Dick Wolf told Variety at the time. “Quite luckily she was intrigued. Not in your wildest imagination could you pick up not only a single but a double-Oscar winner.”
This hit crime drama centered around a family of New York cops allows Abigail Hawk ’04 to transform into Detective Abigail Baker. The School of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies alum was a struggling actor working retail in New York City before landing a guest starring-role in 2010. Around 200 episodes later, she’s still assisting Commissioner Frank Reagan (Tom Selleck). “Baker and I have led quite parallel lives,” she told the website Showbiz Cheat Sheet last year. “She has matured and flourished under Frank’s mentorship.” The series returned for season 11 in December with an interesting approach: skipping over the pandemic to depict a post-COVID world even as it confronted the timely topic of police brutality.
For a bit of lighter material, comedy-drama “Monk,” which ran on the USA Network from 2002-09, features a former detective turned private eye who’s battling obsessive-compulsive disorder. By Monk’s side for three seasons is nurse and assistant Sharona Fleming, played by Bitty Schram ’90, who’s not afraid to show her boss some tough love. While you might remember Schram as the teary baseball player at whom Tom Hanks yells, “There’s no crying in baseball!” in “A League of Their Own,” this role earned her a 2004 Golden Globe nomination.
THE TEEN HITS (THAT ADULTS CAN ENJOY, TOO)
NEVER HAVE I EVER
In what critics call a “fresh take” on a coming-of-age story, this 2020 Netflix comedy follows the angst and antics of an Indian American teen, who’s navigating high school while still coming to terms with her father’s death. Poorna Jagannathan ’96 plays Nalini, the well-meaning mother of main character Devi; the show earned praise for developing complex, diverse characters. “It’s certainly the most empowered I’ve ever been on a set,” Jagannathan, an immigrant herself whose father was an Indian diplomat, told UMD in June 2020. “The show was set within my cultural context, so anything from props, to costume, to food—my opinion helped shape how things came together.” Bonus for Terp fans: Alums Adam Shapiro ’02 and Adriyah Marie Young ’13 also appear.
BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER
While a high schooler hunting down vampires and other mystical evils might not seem like the formula for a classic teen show, critics have suggested that “Buffy’s” combination of horror, comedy and drama—with a strong female lead—helped transform TV for good. Producer Gail Berman ’78, who owned the rights to the movie by the same name, helped turn the supernatural story into the popular television show, which ran from 1997-2003. “There weren’t a lot of empowered young women on TV at the time,” she told The Hollywood Reporter in 2017. “This show was important for female storytelling, for genres like ‘Twilight’ and anything that came after ‘Buffy.’ It changed storytelling.” Berman went on to produce 110 episodes of the spin-off show, “Angel.”
COMING SOON TO A TV NEAR YOU
CLAP WHEN YOU LAND
Production company Made Up Stories in December acquired the rights to the bestselling novel by Elizabeth Acevedo MFA ’15. In the young adult book, Acevedo, the daughter of Dominican immigrants, writes about two fictional sisters who don’t know about each other until their father dies on American Airlines Flight 587, which crashed and killed 265 people on its way to the Dominican Republic in 2001.
HOW TO BE SUCCESSFUL WITHOUT HURTING MEN’S FEELINGS
Inspired by the book by Sarah Cooper ’98, this single-camera comedy, being developed by CBS, will follow three women as they tackle gender politics at a male-dominated company. Cooper rose to TikTok fame last year with her viral lip-sync impressions of former President Donald Trump.
Aaron McGruder ’98 created and produced a version of the satirical comedy, which ran for four seasons and was based on his former nationally syndicated comic strip—early versions of which appeared in The Diamondback. The show provided more biting, incisive perspective on Black culture as it followed a family from the city to the suburbs, touching on topics like Barack Obama’s election, white people using racial slurs and America’s progress (or lack thereof) toward civil rights. A reimagined series is set to premiere next year on HBO Max.
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