IN HOLLYWOOD, WHERE TRIVIALIZATION AND EXPLOITATION ARE OFTEN KEYS TO TELEVISION SUCCESS, Barbara Hall ('82) has reached the pinnacle of power by talking about the big things in life -- Mom, God and relationships -- and not necessarily in that order.
Her latest smash CBS hit, Joan of Arcadia-- about a teenager who encounters God in everyday and usually inconvenient circumstances -- was nominated for the Outstanding Drama Emmy in its rookie season. The nomination put Hall on the red carpet at the Emmy Awards show in September, rubbing sequins with the likes of Mike Nichols, David Chase, Al, Meryl, Brad and Jennifer.
While cable's dark-humored The Sopranos ultimately took the Emmy, it was Hall's Joan that was the subject of backroom, post-award interviews, when Sopranos stars said they had fully expected Joan and its, well, higher power to win. (Even the Sopranos cross themselves.)
It's well known by now, after two decades in Hollywood, that Hall has sought to elevate television out of the ordinary LCD muck. "With Joan, some have said I might have changed television a little," she says.
The Emmy-nominated executive producer has always aimed high. She describes her show as a public conversation about God.
"In essence, Joan of Arcadia is an effort to have a theological discussion with the whole country," Hall says. "I wanted to do a story to modernize the Joan of Arc story, to try and imagine what it would be like if a teenager heard a calling like that," Hall explains. "Would a modern teenager have the stamina or fortitude or inclination to follow that kind of calling?"
Joan was a daring notion, given how conversations about God can be so controversial or, even worse in the case of television, boring. But after Sept. 11, the former JMU English major says, the country showed an appetite for something philosophical. Given Hall's stature and reputation in Hollywood, CBS fell right in behind her.
Admittedly, Hall got stuck for awhile as she conceptualized Joan, realizing that bringing one physical manifestation of God into viewers' homes each week would limit the possibilities of conversation and most likely the show's success. "When I suddenly came up with the idea that God is a different character every time, I knew I had the show I wanted to do," she says.
Joan centers not only on the novelty of God's appearance, but also on how teen Joan Girardi deals with the implications. Once again, Hall has given audiences something to talk about.
"I do feel that a television show is a big conversation with the world," Hall says. "Any writing is. Great writers that I admire aren't lecturing me. They're engaging me in a conversation or debate or series of questions or they're pondering something. It's even more so in television, which is such an immediate medium. You write it, and a couple of weeks later you shoot it, and a couple of weeks later it's on the air and everybody's engaged it, and the next day everybody's talking about it. So I really do think it's a conversation."
With Joan, Hall is not preaching or arguing. The show does not espouse a particular religion or doctrine. As always in her writing career, Hall is exploring, pondering, reaching -- engaging the possible and perhaps the impossible. Joan's popular and critical success comes from the same place Hall's success has always come from -- the drama of relationships among characters of substance, most notably (and refreshingly) women.
Her last show,Judging Amy, which Hall helped create as executive producer and for which she remains the consulting producer, centers on the single motherhood of a juvenile court judge and the always-potent relationships among mothers and daughters.
"The single-mother world was something I was living, raising a daughter [Faith] who was the same age as I gave the daughter in the Amy show," Hall says. "So I did a lot of dramatizing their relationship as well as dramatizing my relationship with my mother, so there's three generations of women in the same house."
The caliber of Hall's recent hits are no surprise, given her overall career choices. While polishing her craft as a writer and producer over the last 20 years, she has avoided the small ideas of stereotypes. Instead of cops and robbers and T and A, Hall has managed to attach herself to high-quality projects like I'll Fly Away and quirkier ones like Northern Exposure. She was nominated for Emmys for both and, now, four total.
Hall's TV career has included three pilots and has taken her from comedy writer and story editor for Newhart through producing roles with A Year in the Life, Moonlighting, Anything But Love and Chicago Hope. Along the way, Hall has received significant awards as well. She received a Golden Laurel from the Producers Guild of America, a Humanitas Award, an NAACP Image Award and a TV Critics Association Award. Amy won Favorite New Series at the 2000 TV Guide Awards, while Joan won a People's Choice Award for best new television drama.
As successful as Hall has been in television, however, a single medium has never been big enough to satisfy her. Even before she sold her first story to Family Ties, she had written a novel, Skeeball and the Secret of the Universe. Since then she has written three more young adult novels and three novels for more mature readers. She has also written an original feature film, Hearts, for Warner Bros. and did a rewrite of Sylvie for Beacon Hill Pictures.
"Why not write all these genres?' Hall asks. "I've always regarded this world as one big sandbox, and there are a lot of toys in it, and why not play with all of them? I've never felt the need to limit myself. If I'm even remotely interested in something, I'll try it. … I just basically conceive of an idea and have to decide what the medium is for it, because it isn't automatically what you first imagined it to be. You might have an idea for a movie and realize, no, it's a play or a novel. I just pursue ideas and find out where they're taking me. Then there's the music."
She's speaking of her gig as a composer, vocalist and founding member of the folk rock band, the Enablers. And don't forget the poetry, which consumed her senior year at JMU, the place she first let loose her voracious appetite. "I got very involved with trying to be a published poet," Hall says. "It was an organized effort to get published in academic journals. I had a lot of success with that."
Hall had come to Madison hungry and found her element. "I came from a really small town. When I got to college, I was so excited by the number of opportunities to write, so I wrote every possible genre," she says. "I fell in love with writing for The Breeze and Chrysalis, too. … My honors thesis was a book of poetry.
"I'm constantly bumping up against people who didn't get what I got here. People ask me, 'how do you know this?' Or 'how do you know that?' I tell them, 'I went to JMU.'
"I was able to be very engaged with my professors and publications. I really enjoyed that," she says. "It gave me a glimpse into the world -- that I was going to be able to participate in the world instead of being batted around by it. That's one of the great legacies of the school for me."
She says the public conversation she's having today through Joan of Arcadia is an extension of the life of the mind she enjoyed at JMU.
"I really have a low threshold of boredom, and I've always been interested in scholarship," she says. "As soon as I got to college I just felt like I was here to read big books and talk and have big messy conversations about them with others. I really missed that when I left college, and I got busy trying to re-create that around me. I was always reading books about theology and physics, and I wanted to talk to somebody about them, because I missed the atmosphere in which I could do that."
Some would call these big messy things -- like theology, physics, metaphysics, mysticism, spirituality -- profound, the stuff of philosophy.
"I certainly think that anyone who tries to write is a philosopher of sorts, otherwise I'm not quite sure what we're in it for," Hall says. "There is an element of philosophy to writing just in general."
There's another biggie that has particular relevance for her these days in Hollywood.
"I think about power all the time -- just in the idea of physics and the idea of politics, and they're not very different," Hall says. "Maybe it began [for me] with the energy you get when there are a bunch of writers in the room and somebody negative walks in and how that changes. … Then I got lost in the conversion of energy and power and how it changes things."
"I remember the first time that I had to assume my power," Hall says. "That was when I was working on Judging Amy, when I was running the show and I was looking around for the person who was in charge, and I suddenly realized it was me. I realized that the abdication of power is an abuse of power," she says. "It was a real lesson for stepping up and owning power."
The transition wasn't easy, as many women find, Hall says. "We can't leave a room until people feel OK, and that's not what power's about," she says.
Coming at it from a philosophical and scientific viewpoint has helped Hall integrate what she interchangeably calls energy, from career success, reputation and personal growth, into her life. Today she wields power comfortably and confidently.
"I finally figured out that what I need is to be loved at home and respected at work and nothing else matters."
Story by Pam Brock
Photos by Michael Powers and courtesy of CBS