PTR Senior Staff Writer
I confess I debated whether to tell Mark Burnett I tend to be a bit hard on the reality television genre.
Especially considering: a) he practically invented the genre for American television audiences; b) is an awfully nice guy; c) has great enthusiasm for what he does; and, d) is married to everyone's beloved television angel (Roma Downey).
Still, I just.don't.do reality television.
So, I'm as surprised as anyone that two of Mark's new series - the previously mentioned Expedition Africa on History Channel - and Wedding Day, which enjoys its series premiere Tuesday, June 16th, at 8 p.m. on TNT, have ... uh, totally got me hooked.
It is because, as I like to say, both these series are meeting one or both of my reality television show viewing requirements: 1) that I must learn something in a field, area of expertise or genre that I am not currently aware of; and/or 2) that I must watch the best of people.
Wedding Day definitely falls into the latter category. Deserving couples are given the opportunity to have a dream wedding after circumstances beyond their control - some near tragic - have prevented them from actually being able to find the time - and resources - to get married themselves.
Seriously, I can get behind that concept.
So when I recently had a chance to catch up with Mark to discuss the series on the whole, I was interested to find out what made him want to get involved and what continues to inspire him about the unscripted genre.
How did the project first come to you and what made you to want to get involved?
Dreamworks and TNT both said to me, “Hey, what do you think about a wedding show?” And my first reaction was, “A wedding show?!? I don’t know if I understand how to make that.” But once I started looking at the stories that could be told, I got more inspired than ever. And, I realized there could be an Extreme Makeover vibe to the show - where you find people who are really deserving. You know, people have done stuff for others their entire life – beit on the job, like they’re a cop, a firefighter, a lifeguard, charity workers or they’re in the military. But when it comes down to falling in love and getting married, they’ve spent so much time doing for others they can’t even afford a beautiful wedding. It seems ironic that the people who give the most get the least. So, I wanted to make this show along those themes. The first act is always about what’s the story of this couple, and why are they so deserving. Once you’ve bought into Why Them, now we’re going to get their families involved. Those families roll up their sleeves and participate - and not just in the sense that they come, drink wine and eat food at the wedding. They’re actually going to do the work. So when [the couple is] there celebrating – [the family] built that. So, I love it. It’s an uplifting show. It’s in the raise you up category. I don’t want to be making shows that have anything to do with tearing people down.
Along those lines, the show seems to take a much more positive look at the whole aspect of couples getting married and does not - as some other unscripted shows seem to do - focus on the insanity of planning a wedding or the materialistic aspect being so focused on the "things" that make up the wedding, not the people. It seems this show really is about two people being in love, wanting to be together but are unable to do so given circumstances beyond their control. Is that an accurate assessment?
You’re right. And, you know, I don’t have the right to sit in judgment of anybody else’s work. But I, personally, am not going to do shows that fall into the tear down category. And I just think – certainly at this time – there’s a lot of people having a tough time right now. There’s enough tearing down in their real lives. The media could be used – and television – to raise people up, and that’s what I want to do. And, on a commercial level, clearly sponsors are going to be more apt to want to associate with a show that raises people up. It’s logical. So, this is a definite raise up show. I’m happy to make it. I’m really happy being with TNT and Michael Wright. This is what we set off to do - and we did it.
What went into the casting of the couples? It seems that the ones who made it to the show were really wonderful. Was it difficult to narrow down? You must have had a lot coming in that wanted to participate.
Yeah, well, it was very hard because the show’s not been on the air. You can use my name, which gives credibility, but it wasn’t easy. It took a lot of months to find the couples. There’s a number of factors. First, who are these people and why are they deserving? Are their families going to participate in building the environment? Because without that, you don’t have that whole middle act. And then, lastly, when do they want to get married and does that fit into the shooting schedule? There’s a lot to think about. Remember, all these people … they’re really interested in their love, their life and their marriage. We’re an extra. So, to make it all work together wasn’t easy, but it was really valuable. I think, if we’re fortunate enough that this show gets celebrated and we get a second season, it’ll be a lot easier because of being on television and the notoriety that comes with it. More people would know about it and be nominating people they knew … like, hey, I have a friend who has done so much for others – is so deserving – they deserve a great wedding. I think that’s what you’re going to start getting.
So, in your mind, for people who know nothing about the show, what would you say to them and/or what do you hope people will get from watching the series? What sets it apart?
I think the reason to watch this show is the warm, uplifting stories. And, I think that in the tough times that we’re having - people are either working their butts off at work all day long or maybe have lost their job - [they want to] have an uplifting show with positive stories [to watch]. This is a show where you better be ready to have lump in your throat and a tear on your cheek. That’s what this show really stands for.
You’ve done so much, what is it that still inspires you about this genre of television – where is it you pull your inspirations from?
It really comes down to storytelling. It doesn’t matter, necessarily, as long as it meets my family criteria of raising people up and being uplifting. Beyond that, it could be any kind of stories. I just have to feel that I actually care about the characters – that’s what’s really the through line for me – I’ve got to care about the characters. And for whatever reason, from the beginning of my career, I’ve been focused on unscripted [series]. I’ve just gotten used to the art form of unscripted dramas, and that’s been where my career has ended up.
Doesn’t Roma always say don’t do anything that you wouldn’t want your family to watch - is that still true?
That’s exactly true. My wife loves this Wedding Day series. Roma, as you know, is a very raise-you-up person. She gets out, and her first words of the day are thanking God for how fortunate we are. Her through line is “To those who much is given, much is expected.” And she always says what is NOT expected is that we will do anything as a family to tear people down and make people feel worse. We need to raise people up through our family work, our charity and who we are. That is a through line of this family, and this show fits it perfectly.
So what’s been the most rewarding process for you in bringing a show like Wedding Day to us, the television viewer?
It's a funny thing … when my wife watches rough cuts and says to me, "I would watch this. This is really good." - that’s a really good feeling because Roma’s been in business a long time and really knows good work. So that’s really rewarding for me because she is such a moral compass in the family, and it makes me feel good about it. For Wedding Day, it really is the fact that I thought it was so warm, and that deserving people were taken care of.
We at PTR sincerely thank Mark for taking time out of his insanely busy schedule to chat with us. I, for one, hope to see this series picked up for a second season - especially seeing as it gets Roma's stamp of approval (seriously, if the angel says yes, who are we to say no, eh?). We also want to thank our friends at Turner Publicity. The series premiere of Wedding Day starts Tuesday, June 16 at 8 p.m. on TNT. For the scoop on the series, head on over to the show's official Web site.