Writer Anupam Nigam has an impressive range of television shows on his resume that ranges from the hit comedy “Psych” to the science-fiction drama “Defiance.” He is currently in the writer’s room for “Station 19,” one of ABC’s most buzzed-about new shows of the 2018.
The firefighter drama is a spin-off of the mammoth medical show “Grey’s Anatomy” and boasts Shonda Rhimes as one of its executive producers. Clearly, it’s an impressive gig for Nigam, who not only writes for it but serves as co-executive producer for some of the episodes.
We spoke to him about what it’s like to work for such a fiery television drama, how diversity both, on-screen and off-screen, fuels his inspiration, and why the “Star Trek” franchise motivated him to pursue writing.
The Teal Mango: Congratulations on the success of season 1 of “Station 19.” It’s not easy for spin-offs to find their footing but this one is clearly breaking the norm. How big of a challenge was it knowing you’re working on something that belongs to the “Grey’s Anatomy” family?
Anupam Nigam: It was pretty intimidating for me at first. “Grey’s Anatomy” has a very loyal fans base and is still one of ABC’s biggest shows. The fans know it really well so I didn’t want to write something that didn’t match up with that universe. I felt like I had to go back and re-watch a lot of “Grey’s Anatomy” to get myself ready to write a spin-off. The first episode of “Station 19” that I wrote actually guest starred Chandra Wilson, who has played Miranda Bailey on “Grey’s” since day one and she is beloved. That was the easiest day of shooting I’ve ever had. She knows her character backwards and forwards so all I had to do was sit back and enjoy the show. On an interesting note, Chandra and I briefly chatted about how her first name is a word in Hindi, which means moon or brighter than the stars.
TTM: “Station 19” is obviously an intense drama with complex characters and relationships but there are also lighter, fun moments. How do you find that balance in the writer’s room?
Nigam: Usually, we decide in the writer’s room which scenes will be funny and which will be dramatic or intense. We want to show that our firefighters are more than co-workers. They’re a family. So typically, I’d say if we’re talking about scenes just between our firefighters at the station, there’s going to be some fun and lightness. When they’re on a call however, they’re the best firefighters in the business. We never want to present anything to the audience that makes them look unprofessional so clearly they’re not going to be making jokes while treating an injured person. We usually try to make those scenes intense and scary and we want the patients’ stories to resonate with our characters and audiences.
TTM: The show is also very diverse and the cast is extremely talented. As a writer, what’s your responsibility to ensuring you’re doing justice to the actors but also the community they represent?
Nigam: We’re very proud of the diversity on our cast. We make sure not to depict anything stereotypical or offensive about anyone’s culture or background. Shondaland has always been great about that. It’s a pretty big responsibility because you know millions of people are watching. I hope that’s becoming the new normal. Before “Station 19,” I was running a show for the Disney Channel and I got to create two Indian female characters in roles you don’t typically see Indians in on television. One was a soldier in the army and the other was a high schooler who was really into skateboarding.
TTM: You’ve written for famous TV shows like “Psych,” “Mech X4,” and “Defiance,” all of which are varied in genre from “Station 19.” What’s your own process like as you tackle such different shows and topics?
Nigam: It’s funny. I know I’ve worked on shows with different premises and tones. But my approach to all of them is the same. A character needs a “want” in every episode whether it is they want to save lives or just want some ice cream. One important question I ask for every show is : How do we bring our characters into conflict with each other? Another helpful question I ask myself and other writers when we’re breaking a story is: Why will this be someone’s favorite episode? If you’ve crafted a good episode, the answer should be clear.
TTM: As a South Asian-American writer in the entertainment world today, why do you think it’s important to emphasize accurate representation off-screen?
Nigam: Television is still one of the most powerful forms of communication we have. When writers come from different backgrounds, we get more unique and innovative ideas for stories. For example, my parents had an arranged marriage which isn’t strange in Indian culture but pretty outside the norm for most of the writers I’ve worked with. With Indian writers, directors, and producers we can make sure representations of Indians are accurate and people will slowly realize some of the stereotypes they are clinging to are false.
Diverse voices make television better. Having a collection of different and varied voices in a writer’s room makes television better. And the better television is the more successful it will be. It’s one of those rare situations where art and business go hand in hand. I think that’s been proven with shows like “Black-ish” or “Fresh off the Boat.”
TTM: Over the years, there’s definitely been a rise in South Asian representation and while there is a long way to go, why do you think we’re finally seeing this increase? Similarly, how important is it to have a South Asian writer actually write for a South Asian character?
Nigam: I’m first generation here in the U.S. Speaking from my own family and experience, I think my parents’ generation was not as encouraged to seek out a career in the arts. My father was urged to go into the field of medicine by his parents. I think Indians like my dad, who migrated here to the U.S., were most concerned with providing for their families and sending their kids to college. A stable job is what appealed to them. But my generation embraced the arts a lot more because we had lesser challenges growing up here in the United States.
Also, I think the films being produced from India have improved a lot in recent years. I didn’t really like a lot of the Bollywood movies my parents watched when I was a kid. I enjoy them a lot more now. When I show them to my non-Indian friends, they usually love them. Better films from India helps in making people curious about India and Indian films. And it helps get people used to seeing Indians on their screens. When I was a kid, I loved the “Godzilla” and “Kung Fu” movies so I was already way more used to seeing Asians on screen over Indians. I hope Bollywood movies are doing that now.
And yes, I think it helps a lot to have an Indian writer on staff to write an Indian character. There are subtleties and nuances we can give those characters that perhaps wouldn’t occur to a non-Indian writer. For example, I got to write a character played by the great Madhur Jaffrey and she was totally based on a combination of my mom and grandmother.
TTM: Talking about your personal journey for a bit, what inspired you to become a TV writer? Growing up, there probably weren’t many brown faces on television but who or what motivated you to continue on this path?
Nigam: TV was hugely important to me growing up. As a kid, it felt like India was inside my house. Indian food, art, music. When I stepped outside and hung out with my predominantly white friends, it was America. So, growing up I consumed a probably unhealthy amount of television because I felt it was a gateway into learning how Americans behaved. Luckily, my parents grew up in India without television so they probably didn’t know how much TV was too much. I think watching that amount of TV enamored me towards the medium. I was actually doing lab research when I read about something called the Warner Bros Drama Writer’s workshop where anyone could submit a TV spec (a speculative script, a sample of a show already on the air). I submitted a “Law & Order” spec and miraculously got in.
It’s true there weren’t a lot of brown faces on TV when I grew up. I can only think of one show that I watched as a kid that had an Indian character in a series regular role, in ABC’s “Head of the Class.” My inspirations were more people like Gene Roddenberry, who I feel was one of the first TV producers to cast Indians and create Indian characters. Persis Khambatta was in the first “Star Trek” movie. Vijay Amitraj was in the fourth one. And the coolest adversary in all of “Star Trek,” Khan Singh was an Indian character, though not played by an Indian. Believe it or not, “Star Trek” is why I started writing in the first place. Those shows used to have a deal with the WGA that allowed fans to submit scripts. So literally the first spec script I ever wrote was an episode of “Star Trek Voyager.”
TTM: I know “Station 19” has been renewed for a second season, which is exciting. What are some of your other upcoming projects you’re excited about?
Nigam: “Station 19” keeps me pretty busy and I hope we have a long healthy run. I feel like my gears are always turning for ideas for my own show. The funny thing is I also wouldn’t mind breaking into the field of comic books. I love writing about firefighters but I’m also a big sci-fi and comic fan. I’ve written a few motion comics and some promotional ones. But I think it would be fun to take a crack at some of the big superheroes.
“Station 19” will return to ABC this fall on Thursday nights.