Flash of Genius
BY Jeremy Kinser
September 13 2010 4:00 AM ET
Growing up the only son of an Irish-Italian family in the Waspy community of Rye, N.Y., Berlanti says he sought out gay culture in the bits and pieces he could find. Though only 40 minutes from Manhattan, his hometown felt like it was much, much farther. He recalls being 13 years old and sneaking home copies of The Village Voice from a local deli when he realized the free paper contained gay-themed articles. Later, when he worked at a local video store, he watched films starring Montgomery Clift and Rock Hudson just to see other gay people.
Now considered one of the industry’s most reliable hit makers and script doctors, Berlanti was struggling to make ends meet, working various temp jobs in Los Angeles in the mid 1990s. In 1996 he traveled to meet his parents, who were on a trip to San Francisco. While Muhammad Ali was lighting the Olympic torch in Atlanta, he turned off the TV set and came out to his parents. “The next year was bumpy for us,” he says. “But when Broken Hearts premiered in New York, my parents threw a premiere party at a gay bar for all their friends and my friends.”
By Christmas ’98, he’d saved enough money to take a break and write the screenplay that became Broken Hearts. A friend he’d made while attending Northwestern University knew Kevin Williamson, white-hot from creating the Scream franchise and whose Dawson’s Creek series was about to premiere, and showed him Berlanti’s screenplay. Williamson hired Berlanti as a staff writer for Dawson’s second season.
When Berlanti returned to Dawson’s after a break to shoot Broken Hearts in 2000, all of his supervisors had been fired. “A network executive said,” he recalls, “ ‘You’re the next guy in line. We can give the job to some other person and inevitably fire them, or we can give the show to you to run.’ ” Berlanti was 28 at the time. Looking back, he compares the experience to being in graduate school: “I really was learning something every day that I didn’t know.” Acclaimed series like Jack & Bobby, Everwood, Brothers & Sisters, and Dirty Sexy Money followed. And Berlanti, remembering the dearth of gay representation from his youth, incorporates LGBT characters and story lines as organically as possible.
This fall will bring the premiere of Berlanti’s latest, No Ordinary Family, a weekly series about a family who emerge with superpowers after their plane crashes into the Amazon. The series is in some ways a departure for Berlanti, yet the fantastic element is a natural fit for the comic book fanatic.
“They’re soap operas for boys,” he says of the appeal of superheroes and comic books. And as a gay man, he identifies with the stories. “So many superheroes are of this world—but not. There’s a real hint of melancholy that no matter what you do, you can save this world and you’ll still never totally be a part of it,” he says. “You’ll always be one step removed.”
And he’s looking forward to working in a different genre. “I learned a lot in writing Green Lantern. After years of doing straight-character dramas, to get the energy to come into work every day you want to do something new.”
Downtime also might be something new for Berlanti. Two years ago he told Out magazine he didn’t know how much longer he’d continue at the pace he’d established, but he hasn’t slowed down yet. “One day off is sometimes all I get,” he now says. And that’s usually spent with his boyfriend of five years, Brian Young, who coincidentally has launched his own career as a staff writer on another Kevin Williamson program, The Vampire Diaries. “It’s been one of the easier, nicer parts of my life,” Berlanti says of his relationship. “I’m grateful for the opportunity to just be together, whether it’s going for dinner or hiking or whatever.”
But for now he keeps up the superhuman schedule. “I’ll be directing something else in the next year,” he says. “That’s my real hope.”