The Atlantic

'The Kennedys' Creator Defends His Controversial New Series

An interview with Joel Surnow about the show, which debuts this Sunday on Reelz

An interview with Joel Surnow about the show, which debuts this Sunday on Reelz


Greg Kinnear, Katie Holmes, and Barry Pepper as John F., Jackie, and Bobby Kennedy in The Kennedys. Photo credit: Reelz.

The terrorists, saboteurs, and corrupt government officials on the TV series 24 never caused its producer and co-creator Joel Surnow as much trouble as The Kennedys. Counter Terrorist Unit special agent Jack Bauer's races against time on 24 now seem like a cinch compared to the real-life fallout generated by Surnow's desire to helm a miniseries about one of America's most famous families.

Last week, The Hollywood Reporter chronicled the rather bizarre (and seemingly unprecedented) back-story of how this high profile, $30 million TV project was abruptly canceled by the History Channel, the network that first commissioned it in 2008. From the moment that the History Channel proudly announced the series, it has been regarded with some degree of special curiosity.

The Kennedys seemed an unusual project for a man whose scriptwriting usually focuses on action dramas and thrillers. But the fact that Surnow is a staunch conservative made his choice of material even more intriguing. Across town, people started asking, Why is Joel Surnow, of all people, now turning his focus on making a TV series about America's Democratic dynasty?

That unpredictable idea alone made a few liberals, at least one influential Kennedy loyalist, and perhaps even members of the Kennedy family themselves, very uncomfortable—even before one frame of film had been shot. But Surnow and key people who worked with him on 24 forged ahead with what Surnow describes as prodigious research and scrupulous writing. When early drafts of scripts leaked, suspicion turned to resistance in Camelot: the late Ted Sorensen, President Kennedy's former speechwriter, campaigned publicly against Surnow last year, calling his project "a one-sided, right-wing script." A freelance website was launched by liberal activist and filmmaker Robert Greenwald to help galvanize Kennedy supporters against the series.

Filming moved ahead anyway and finally wrapped last fall. Suddenly, while the series was still in post-production, the History Channel reneged: It refused to air the eight-part program because, as a press statement put it, the series was "not a fit for the History brand." Making circumstances even more curious, that decision extended only to the American transmission of the History Channel because its United Kingdom version will run the series, beginning April 7.

Was there a power lunch at the Polo Lounge that killed it? As with anything Kennedy, there are a myriad of conspiracy theories. One behind-the-scenes scenario has President Kennedy's daughter, Caroline, and his niece, Maria Shriver, using their clout to pressure members

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