Littlefield’s New Take on Must See TV

WHY THIS MATTERS: Warren Littlefield has attained considerable success as a producer after a long run in broadcast TV leadership.

The biggest surprise to come out of the Emmys last fall was the winner for outstanding drama.

Up against such heavyweight series as House of Cards, Stranger Things and This Is Us, it was The Handmaid’s Tale, airing on a mostly unheralded Hulu, that won for outstanding drama series, one of eight Emmys and a Golden Globe Award won by the show.

At the helm of the wildly popular if decidedly sullen series, based on Margaret Atwood’s novel about a society where women are harshly oppressed, is producer Warren Littlefield. The 65-year-old TV veteran promises a “more ambitious” season two for Handmaid’s Tale, where women characters are taking out to the dismal “Colonies” of Gilead, as the totalitarian republic is known. “I’m pretty damn excited about what we attempted to do in season two,” he said.

In another lifetime, Littlefield was president of NBC Entertainment, overseeing a batch of shows from another era that included ER, Seinfeld and Friends. These days, he’s the rare producer who steers two critically acclaimed series — Handmaid’s Tale and FX’s Fargo.

A number of producers have had multiple hits simultaneously, Old Dominion University assistant professor of communication Myles McNutt said, but they are typically in easily replicated genres such as procedurals or comic book shows. “Littlefield has helped shepherd two complex and risky adaptations to intense critical acclaim in a genre of prestige drama that is increasingly competitive in this era of peak TV.

“Each project faced specific challenges, as well as intense expectation from fans of the original work and, especially with Handmaid’s Tale, the pressures of effectively establishing Hulu as a provider of original dramatic television,” McNutt said. “That each show managed to rise to these challenges is a testament to the hard work of all involved, but that both managed it is a specific testament to Littlefield as a producer.”

While today’s elite show producers bring a wide range of attributes to a series, none can boast the background that Littlefield has. His success running NBC, say those who have worked with him, provides Littlefield with the unique ability to inspire and lead creative people — cast members, writers or producers. It makes for a winning formula on the set.

Hands-On on ‘Handmaid’s’

Besides a venture out to the frightful colonies, the new season of Handmaid’s also shows how America turns into despotic Gilead. Littlefield promises “moments of mass panic” as the nation shifts to its tyrannical state.

Of course, America too has shifted during the show’s short run, with women speaking out against harassment and assault through the #MeToo movement. “I wish we were not as relevant as we are,” Littlefield said. “But we are.”

He is quick to attribute much of the show’s success to star Elisabeth Moss, who plays Offred, and is an executive producer as well. He noted how simply training a camera on Moss’ face, with no other actors in the frame and no dialogue, moves the story. “Just having the camera on her face has tremendous impact,” Littlefield said.

His fellow producers describe Littlefield as very hands-on in all aspects of the show. “Warren leaves his mark on every aspect of The Handmaid’s Tale — he was central to finding our creative team, including [director] Reed Morano and [cinematographer] Colin Watkinson,” showrunner Bruce Miller said. “He is involved in the show from the very first story meetings to the final episode sound mix. The mark Warren leaves on the show is originality, quality and courageous vision.”

[Hulu Gets Sponsors for Season 2 of 'Handmaid's Tale']

Figuring Out ‘Fargo’

The producers on Handmaid’s Tale can only hope to match the awards output Fargo has cranked out over the years. Littlefield is similarly hands-on with Fargo, a project he actually sought to bring to air at NBC in the ’90s, resulting in a good but not great script and nothing more.

Eric Schrier, president of original programming for FX Networks and FX Productions, noted how some non-writing producers don’t get their hands dirty on the set. Recalling him ironing out even the most minute details in frigid Calgary last winter for season three of Fargo, Schrier said Littlefield — whom he dubs a “wise sage” — is clearly not in that group. With his knowledge of ratings, marketing and TV critics, among other tricky aspects of the business, Littlefield’s input makes life easier for the other producers.

“He’s done a spectacular job,” Schrier said. “Warren makes sure the show is produced at a caliber that is above the rest.”

[TCA 2018: FX's Landgraf Talks Louis C.K., Disney and Peak TV]

The fourth season of Fargo will air next year. That, and Handmaid’s Tale, will keep Littlefield plenty busy for the foreseeable future. “Bruce [Miller] feels he has many, many more stories to tell,” said Littlefield. “My cup runneth over right now.”

Besides being critics’ favorites, there are other similarities between Handmaid’s Tale and Fargo. Both are produced by MGM. (FX Productions also produces Fargo.) Littlefield said both series “push the audience” with complex narratives and characters. He also mentions a “high level of storytelling” that seems to keep viewers hooked.

“I don’t see any reason to pull back or dumb it down in any way,” he said. “The audience is quite smart. We try to keep them on their toes, and that keeps us on our toes.”

Top of the Rock

Back at NBC, Littlefield headed up the comedy department, developing The Cosby Show, The Golden Girls and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, among other sitcom hits. Moving up to president of entertainment, he brought the network to first place, as the likes of Law & Order, Frasier and The West Wing rounded out the “Must See TV” era. He was also instrumental in giving Jay Leno the Tonight Show host’s job when Johnny Carson retired. Littlefield summed up his time at NBC in the book Top of the Rock: Inside the Rise and Fall of Must See TV.

He said he loved his time in broadcast TV, but is pleased with how things have turned out. “Instead of juggling 100 things, I can dive much deeper into a project,” Littlefield said. “I don’t have the power to green-light something, but I have the ability to make it.”

With its ample offerings of live events, including sports, Littlefield said there’s still a place for broadcast TV in the packed television landscape.

But those days are behind him, and Littlefield is happy producing his hit shows for subscription VOD and basic cable. Hulu, for one, is elated to have him in that role. “Warren is a true leader and role model,” said Craig Erwich, Hulu senior VP of content, “and a steady hand.”

Michael Malone

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.