Stephen Chbosky, a 1988 graduate of Upper Saint Clair High School, worked as a screenwriter in film before his agent convinced him to go into TV.
"Two years ago she finally said, 'Listen, I think you have the wrong impression of what television is about,'" recalled Chbosky, who wrote the screenplay for the movie musical "Rent" and an earlier unproduced script for "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh." Chbosky hadn't watched much TV since childhood.
"It turned out she was right. I enjoyed the people [I met who were working] in television, the executives and the producers."
After making a failed pilot for UPN last year, Chbosky was tapped by film director Jon Turteltaub ("National Treasure") to take the idea of two other writers (Jonathan A. Steinberg and Josh Schaer) and write a script. The result was "Jericho," a new serialized drama premiering Sept. 20 on CBS. The show follows the residents of a small Kansas town after they see a mushroom cloud, presumably from a nuclear explosion, on the horizon over Denver.
Chbosky, a 1992 graduate of the University of Southern California screenwriting program, said he likes the immediacy of working in television as opposed to movies, where projects take years to make it to the screen. He was intrigued by the way TV allows a storyteller to unspool a tale over multiple episodes. But even as a relative newcomer to TV, he realizes how challenging it will be this season to get viewers hooked on an ongoing story.
"We are trying to have the best of both worlds," he said, "where there are certain [stories that run through the series] that are serialized, but each episode in and of itself feels clean and satisfying. We're telling a story within the episode but also leading to other things."
Skeet Ulrich ("Miracles") stars in "Jericho" as Jake Green, prodigal son of the town's mayor (Gerald McRaney) and his wife (Pamela Reed, "Grand").
"The relationship between Jake and his mother, that's me and my mother in a lot of ways," Chbosky said. The pilot also contained a subplot about union and management relations at the town factory, but it got cut when the premiere ran long. "I always love union-management stories. My uncle and grandfather were union, and my dad was management, and my grandma loved to stoke those fires at Christmas and watch them fight. That's a more personal thing than a Pittsburgh thing."
The "Jericho" pilot mentions two cities that appear to have been hit by nuclear bombs, and there may be more cities destroyed as the series progresses. Could Pittsburgh be among them?
"There's a lot of debate among the writers about what cities go and what cities don't," Chbosky said. "Half the staff liked to see their hometowns nuked, and half were like, 'No, you can't!' I was in the 'Don't touch Pittsburgh' camp."