've always approached my career without a lot of grand plots and schemes," says writer-producer Tim Kring, creator of NBC's hourlong drama Crossing Jordan. "I took jobs and put one foot in front of the other and sort of let my career take me where it seemed to want to go."
High school guidance counselors might blanch at the endorsement of aimlessness as a career strategy. But they would find it hard to argue with Kring's success. In May, Crossing Jordan aired its 100th episode (which also happensed to be its fifth-season finale). Meanwhile, he has been preparing a two-hour pilot for a new NBC series, Heroes.
Kring, who grew up in Northern California, was initially attracted to filmmaking primarily as a photographer, not a storyteller. At the MFA film program at the University of Southern California, he concentrated in cinematography. After graduation he worked on crews in a variety of capacities, usually involving camera work. He gained experience in everything from low-budget documentaries to industrials and commercials. Then his goals shifted. "I looked at my future and saw this very long road, working my way up from camera loader to second assistant to first assistant to operator to DP," he recalls. "And I decided at that point that I should maybe take a hard look at trying to write."
Fortunately, a 1983 student film he'd made, The Gospel According to Yossi, had attracted notice among producers and agents. This helped Kring make a foray into writing. His first success came quickly, when he sold a spec script for the Knight Rider television series in 1985. "It seemed that as quickly as I wrote it, it was in production and I was paid," he notes. "It was an unbelievable thing to get paid to write. For somebody who was struggling as a gaffer and a camera loader, the kind of money you'd make in an episodic freelance [job] was just staggering."
He continued freelancing over the next few years. He wrote theatrical features, including the comedy sequel Teen Wolf Too. Mostly, though, he worked on series pilots and TV movies. He yearned to create his own series, and in 1995 he immersed himself in the TV writing business by taking a job as a staff writer for Chicago Hope. The creation-by-committee nature of his new job was jarring at first for someone accustomed to the solitary life of a freelancer. But Kring quickly grew to love it.
Next he and Howard Gordon created the series Strange World, which ran on ABC for 12 episodes in 1999. Kring followed that with stints writing for the network dramas L.A. Doctors and Providence. The latter was already up and running when he joined its writing staff. He found it an "interesting exercise" to attune his writing to a voice that had already been established for a series. "What you try to do is be as much of a mimic as you can, while finding also what you feel is new territory for the show to explore," he observes. "You try to bring a fresh voice to it. Most shows have certain parameters—tonal parameters—that they work within. I've always enjoyed trying to stretch that a little bit on every show."
During his Providence gig, Kring signed an exclusive writing/development contract with NBC. At this point, the network was looking to create a series about medical examiners in a coroner's office. Simultaneously, he was pitching the idea of a "very strong, very flawed female character who had a lot of characteristics that people had only sort of associated with men on television, in terms of her impetuousness, her rule-breaking, and her stretching the boundaries of politeness."
Thus was born Crossing Jordan, a series set in the Boston medical examiner's office, where each week the staff unravels mysteries surrounding the deaths of those unfortunate Bostonians who've wound up in the city morgue. The show premiered Sept. 24, 2001—obviously a very sensitive time for Americans to be introduced to a show dealing so intimately with human mortality. "We fortunately had not veered into territory that would get us into trouble," says Kring. "But because of the subject matter it was definitely a little touchy. I was really glad that the show was anchored in character development and had a little bit of humor. Because had it not, I think it would have been much scarier for the network."
The show's success has been largely due to its cast, says Kring. And that starts at the top, with Jill Hennessy, who plays protagonist Jordan Cavanaugh. Previously, Kring knew Hennessy only from projects in which she portrayed characters far afield of her own personality. When he met the actor in person, however, he was impressed by her bawdy sense of humor, her swagger, and her charm. "That fit very nicely with the character," he says. Something else that worked well from the outset was Hennessy's rapport with actor Miguel Ferrer, who plays Jordan's boss, Dr. Garret Macy. There's perhaps a Mary Richards–Lou Grant dynamic at play with these characters. "I've always said that that's the real anchor relationship of the show—the real love affair, between the two of them, though not in any way romantically," says the writer, who notes that the first scene of the series' pilot was a duet for Jordan and Garret. He is determined that when the series ends, these two characters will share the final scene as well.
Each of the series' supporting actors—Steve Valentine, Ravi Kapoor, Kathryn Hahn, and Jerry O'Connell (who became a regular in 2004)—get high marks from Kring for their creative contributions. Valentine, for instance, had only a tiny role in the pilot. In the second episode, the writers added character exposition for him. "He was so entertaining giving what would normally be fairly dry information," says Kring. "He made it sound like he was telling you the most fascinating story." Subsequently the writers built up Valentine's character, Nigel Townsend, who has become a viewer favorite.
Something similar happened with Hahn, who plays grief counselor Lily Lebowski. "Again, she was so fantastic right out of the gate that we started writing for her," says Kring. "I find this is often what happens on a staff. When writers and producers and editors start sparking to somebody's performances, you start gravitating toward them…. An actor who really begins to pop can start to get a tremendous amount of interest internally in the show."
Despite its assets, Crossing Jordan has faced obstacles. At the end of the second season, Hennessy became pregnant, necessitating a 10-month hiatus. Cast and crew said their farewells to one another, assuming they wouldn't be able to weather such a long absence from the airwaves. But NBC believed in the show, and it survived. Moved to Sunday night, it found a strong new lead-in with Law & Order: Criminal Intent. "[Crossing Jordan] has never been a giant 'Zeitgeist hit,'" Kring points out, quickly adding that it has nevertheless been a solid and stable performer. The show's loyal viewers seem to locate it, he says, wherever it's been slotted on the network schedule.
In the last year or so, because of his development activities, he has stepped back from the series a bit. He has continued to write certain episodes, but he has increasingly ceded writing duties to other staff members. Nowadays he's thoroughly engaged with Heroes. The show follows seemingly ordinary people who discover they have extraordinary abilities and find themselves mysteriously drawn to one another. While it deals with superhuman powers, Kring emphasizes that it's a fairly naturalistic premise and not set in a "comic-book- type world."
Kring advises writers who are interested in series television work to pinpoint which genre they want to write for. They should remember that writing for TV means adhering to a tight format: "Writing for the length of television, writing for the act structure of television, is a specific skill." He encourages writers to pen a spec episode for an established show, as well as something original. "It's one thing to mimic—that's something you need to be able to do. But it's also nice to know that someone has their own voice."