Showrunners’ Guide to Effective Apologies (Hi, Jason Rothenberg!)

by Kathryn Graham

The majority of the time showrunners don’t need to apologize for their creative choices. If a fan favorite is killed or a ship doesn’t come in, that’s just a product of the story being told. People may or may not like what they see, but that’s a given in a creative industry. Creators don’t owe their viewers the story they want, and if viewers don’t like what they see, they don’t owe creators their time and investment.

But sometimes the messages creators send are received in a greater social context that means they can cause active harm. If, as in the case with THE 100, the narrative of the show touches on a long and troubling history of stigmatizing a minority on television and taps into a cultural story that has real life repercussions, then creators may decide that apologies are warranted. In that case, I’ve written this guide to effective apologies to help.

This is for The 100‘s Jason Rothenberg and his writing staff as well as any other television writers who can use it, but the basic principles can be applied to any apology.

Let’s take a moment to remember that the same fans who are now knocking down your door are the ones who were most invested in this aspect of your story before this incident. You created something they deeply loved. These were the kind of fans who would stay up drawing breathtaking works of art, analyzing every detail of your scenes, and telling all of their friends to watch and support the show.

It’s also worth noting that ours is a socially conscious fan base, who (along with generous outsiders) have given over 110,000 dollars and counting to the Trevor Project to benefit LGBT youth. We were attracted to your show because of its story, its diversity, and because you and everyone working with you gave us a dream we loved and believed in. We were on your side.

Assuming that you care about this part of your audience, how can you make it better?

1. Apologize

You tried this in a blog post. You tried this on the panel at WonderCon (video). It didn’t have a generally positive reception. Why are so few people accepting your apology? Partly, because some aspects of what occurred with social media were not sufficiently addressed. In a more general sense, it is because, when it comes to apologies, explanations come across as justifications.

Your reasons for what you did mean a lot more to you than they do to the people who got hurt. Anyone who was hurt by this is going to hear an attempt to defend the indefensible. A simple apology acknowledges that someone else’s pain is valid, and you regret your part in hurting them even if it was unintentional.

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Nobody wants an apology that explains. It’s reminiscent of when the adults in your life forced another kid to apologize to you on the playground. They did it, sure, but no one was satisfied with the solution.

2. Be Humble

Most of us are afraid of making mistakes. Depending on the severity of our blunder, we’re subject to a number of consequences. Those consequences are often unpleasant and sometimes devastating. We want everyone to think we’re perfect, and we try to convey that in everything we do.

We’re so afraid that if people look behind the mask they’re going to see how weak and foolish we really are. Yet, we also know that not a single one of us escapes making mistakes. Owning up to them is a sign of integrity and authenticity. People have great respect for these two qualities, especially because they tend to be so rare.

If instead of insecurity, you carry pride, then you have a tougher obstacle to overcome. Pride will pretend to elevate you while taking you down. Pride sits on your shoulder, pets your head, and tells you that you’re always right. It will cast you as a misunderstood hero and your detractors as cruel and unyielding villains. Pride wants you all to itself. It will actively rob you both of your ability to learn and your ability to connect with other people.

Humility is the antidote to both. Humility is a gift to yourself. You allow yourself to be as you are, to not know everything, to be human. It’s too much to ask of anyone to be infallible. You’re going to fall short. We all are. Everyone understands this. We admire others for their virtues, but we connect with them through their flaws.

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3. Listen & Learn

Clearly, a disconnect occurred between the message that was meant to be conveyed and that which a large part of the audience received. Most people understand the reasons why these choices were selected. It wasn’t personal, but that’s what makes it feel personal.

That which was vitally important to someone else didn’t factor into your decision. If you want to learn from this, that need has to be identified and understood. For your lesbian and bisexual community, a large part of that was safety. We felt that we were offered a safe space and a place of honor at the table (both things we are rarely afforded). That was clearly not the case. Our needs were not as important as another aspect of the story.

The wheel has now turned in such a way that that which was previously ignored is now a defining feature of your show. What’s done is done. Now we can only move forward. Knowing more about the people to whom you are speaking by meeting us face to face (physically being with another person and reading their body language aids powerful connection), hiring writers or consultants from the community, and/or reading as many stories as you can only helps.

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To understand, you have to become one with your beloved, and also one with your so-called enemy. You have to worry about what they worry about, suffer their suffering, appreciate what they appreciate. You and the object of your love cannot be two. They are as much you as you are yourself.” – Thich Nhat Hahn

No one is required to make someone else’s truth their own, but it’s worthwhile to sit with what’s being said without immediately reacting. Writers are good at putting themselves in other people’s shoes. You may never fully understand what it’s like to be degraded, demeaned, and abused because of who you love, but that’s part of what stories are for: to allow us a brief window into someone else’s life and bridge the gaps between us. You have not been asked to tread the path we have. Now you have the opportunity to walk with us for awhile. The choice to come along is yours.

4. Atone

Taking everything you’ve learned and applying it to your work going forward is the truest test of sincerity. You’ve indicated that you will take the lessons from this with you when you write season four.

It’s worth asking yourself, however, are you doing this out of love for those affected or to protect yourself? Intention is important because it will show up in your work. The difference between a story told out of love and one told of obligation is immense. It shows up in a hundred subtle ways.

That’s why a truly effective apology is atonement without expectation of forgiveness or reward. The truth is, you have no control over whether anyone else forgives you or is willing to continue the journey of The 100 with you. That is up to each individual. You can only control why and how you proceed.

You are free to ignore this guide entirely. You’re free to come at your story from a place where you are thinking of yourself, others, or both. It’s a creative challenge to honor your vision and practical restraints while also prioritizing your directive to make amends. It’s in meeting these challenges that remarkable new stories can be told.

With that, of course forgiveness is possible. Love is a profound healer. There is freedom in saying “Whatever you think of me, I give my love to you.” That love can never be taken from you, whether the ones you care about spit in your face or walk away.

If you’d like to see all of this in action, I suggest watching Lexa apologize to Clarke on Season 3 of The 100. It’s a great example.

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About Kathryn Graham

Los Angeles-based television writer, TVWriter Contributing Editor, and lover of women. e-mail: kathrynagraham@gmail.com