The Calling producers on crafting a unique crime drama with David E. Kelley

The Calling, a new crime drama from Peacock, boasts a team of prominent creators that is arguably television’s equivalent of the 1996 Chicago Bulls’ starting lineup. At the helm of the series is showrunner, writer, and executive producer David E. Kelley. Chicago Hope, The Practice, Ally McBeal, Big Little Lies, and The Undoing are just a few of Kelley’s long list of successful programs. Teaming up with Kelley to executive producer and direct is Oscar-winner Barry Levinson. If that’s not enough star power, Hans Zimmer, who just won an Oscar for his work on Dune, collaborated on the score. Add in executive producers Jason Horwitch and Matthew Tinker (Kelley’s producing partner), and The Calling is positioned for success before it even airs.

The Calling stars Unorthodox‘s Jeff Wilbusch as Avraham “Avi” Avraham, an NYPD detective who relies on faith and spirituality to discover the truth. Avi is the rare person who sees the good in everyone he encounters. However, a missing person investigation rocks Avi’s world, challenging his unwavering belief in humanity.

In an interview, Horwitch and Tinker spoke with Digital Trends about their collaboration with Kelley, how to determine if a show will become a hit, and why Avi is the kind of detective that we need to see on television.

Jeff and Juliana stand at the front of Karen's desk in a scene from The Calling.
THE CALLING — “The Pursuers” Episode 106 — Pictured: (l-r) Juliana Canfield as Janine Harris, Jeff Wilbusch as Avraham Avraham, Karen Robinson as Captain Kathleen Davies (Photo by: Heidi Gutman/Peacock)

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Digital Trends: Matthew, how did you discover this book series, and when you finally read it, what was attractive about the story?

Matthew Tinker: It started with Avraham. We get a lot of crime books sent through, and I think David immediately was the first to read The Missing File and say, “Hey. There’s a unique and interesting protagonist here that we should look into.” And I had the same feeling when I started reading it. I’ve seen cop shows in New York. I’ve seen cop show murder mysteries and written plenty of them.

But I’ve never seen a character like Avraham, whose compassion and empathy was unlike anything I had seen, and whose world felt familiar enough to me in many ways, but it was a world in which around every corner, it felt like there was a surprise. That, as a storyteller, gets you excited because as you’re doing an ongoing series, it feels like you do five, six, seven, eight seasons of the show and never get bored because you’ve got such a great and complicated protagonist as Avraham.

Jeff’s performance as Avi is front and center of the series. I read that David described him as having a hypnotic presence on camera. Jason, what stood out about Jeff during this process?

Jason Horwitch: David Kelley and Barry Levinson cast Jeff. When I first met him and saw his performance, I knew it was singular. It was incredibly distinct. He has this sort of modulated way that he goes about it where it’s like a boa constrictor. He just keeps getting more and more wrapped around you. And having Hans Zimmer do the music for the show, too. I feel like when Jeff is trying to get his head around the case, having Hans Zimmer follow him with the music — it’s a very gripping experience. But I think Jeff himself is a very soulful person off-camera. One of the reasons why I think Avraham is so effective as played by him is that he [Jeff] has a lot of Avraham in him.

Jeff and Juliana surround a monitor next to cops in a scene from The Calling.
THE CALLING — “He’s Gone” Episode 101 — Pictured: (l-r) Juliana Canfield as Janine Harris, Jeff Wilbusch as Avraham Avraham (Photo by: Heidi Gutman/Peacock)

Matthew, what is your collaboration process like with David? Because you’re working on so many projects at once, how do you start a project?

Tinker: They’re all sort of like their own companies in a way. I think it’s it’s a team sport, first and foremost. As Jason mentioned, you get someone like Barry Levinson leading the charge on the ground in New York. You’re in really good shape. But for us, they’re worlds in which we fully immerse ourselves for months at a time. Once the scripts are done or to a place where we feel like we’re ready to shoot them, we hand them over to someone like Barry, or the other fabulous directors we have for the latter episodes, to really bring it to life.

I think by letting people do their jobs and trusting people like Jason to come in and carry the baton, that’s how you get a successful team effort in place. I don’t think we’ve ever run a show where our word is final or we think we know it all. This was a collaboration where Jeff, in particular, brought so much to the character. Jason and Jonathan [Shapiro] brought so much to the writing. You only get a show that’s unique like this if you’re listening and incorporating multiple voices and not just two people sitting in Los Angeles. You’d never come up with a show.

There is an immense amount of talent behind the scenes. With all this talent, did it give the series a greater sense of specialness and importance?

Horwitch: I think so. You know, stepping back now that we’re done shooting the first season, I’m super proud of it. I think it’s unique in a few ways. Most critically, I think that Avraham is the detective that we need right now — somebody whose business is listening to people, seeing them, showing passion, and offering the ability to redeem themselves, if possible. This is what the moment calls for. I feel like there’ve been enough cop shows where detectives are violent or corrupt. This is a different look, and I think this is what the moment calls for.

The Calling | Official Trailer | Peacock Original

A lot of your shows have been based on books. Matthew, are there specific things to look for in a book or a novel when determining if it could translate to television?

Tinker: I think this one is a perfect example of exactly what we’re looking for, which is a unique character because, at the end of the day, a great book doesn’t make a great TV series. They often can, but if you don’t have a character who you love, who can make an audience fall in love with them, who can move an audience, make them laugh, you don’t have much of a runway to work with.

When we’re looking at these books, whether it’s Big Little Lies, or You Should Have Known, which became The Undoing, or The Missing File, which became The Calling, it’s all about character. If the characters themselves don’t feel like we want to live with them, like we want to experience and walk hand in hand with them, then it’s not worth doing at the end of the day. So again, Avraham [is] this unique character, and we’ve built out the world with Jason and Jonathan to include people that aren’t in the book, [and] to include people that were inspired by the series. Again, a hallmark of a great book is that fertile ground that you can build upon, and I think we’ve done a great job of doing that here.

Jeff Wilbusch holds his hands up in a scene from The Calling.
THE CALLING — “He’s Gone” Episode 101 — Pictured: Jeff Wilbusch as Avraham Avraham (Photo by: Heidi Gutman/Peacock)

As producers, can you tell if something will be a hit with an audience?

Horwitch: Yeah, it’s pretty exciting. I have no idea. [Smiles] I can tell you one thing. I can tell you how I honestly feel about a project that I’m working on. That’s sort of it. I’ll show my wife, and if my wife says something like, “That’s not terrible,” then I’m like, “OK, we might have a hit show on our hands.” I can really only answer it for myself. The goal is to try to make something that’s moving and tells the truth and feels fresh. If you do those things, and you’re working with David E. Kelley and Matt, then I think you’re in decent shape.

Tinker: To piggyback on that, I’ve seen director’s cuts come in, and you just never know. What I can tell you that’s remained consistent on this show is the feeling that I just need to know more about what Jeff is doing with Avi. That’s going to be the secret sauce. What’s going to keep me excited to be a part of this show and what’s going to keep audiences excited beyond the first season is the layers to Jeff and to Avi.

The Calling from David E. Kelley premieres on Thursday, November 10 on Peacock. All eight episodes will drop at once.

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