Dee Johnson: The lesbian producer behind “E.R.,” “Rizzoli & Isles” and “The Good Wife”

Dee Johnson has worked on some of your favorite shows and she happens to be an out lesbian. She began her career as a writer on Melrose Place in 1993 and eventually joined the team at E.R., where she fought for the Kerry Weaver storyline that was one of the turning points for major lesbian characters on network television. Dee said she’s proud of the storyline, in general, but there are two things she said she “robbed from” her real life as a gay wife and mother.

“We had a fear, early on, when we both were having kids because I had no biology,” Johnson said. “My partner had the kids. I just had a fear her mom, who’s since passed away — that if anything ever happened …. that I’d be in for a battle. “So when when her partner, Weaver’s partner [Sandy] who was a firefighter, died — it was big deal — I had to fight for it. She’s in the emergency room, her partner’s dying and they’re saying ‘Don’t let us do this’ and she’s saying ‘She’s my wife.’ And that was a huge thing for me. I had to fight for it. They were like ‘Eh, come on’ and it was so important to me. I don’t even know what year this was. I was like ‘Partner? No. She’s my wife. So that was a huge deal for me.”

The other fear she turned into part of the storyline happened behind that pivotal moment. “There was a scene where her partner has died and she goes to pick up the baby and they won’t let her in and she starts pounding on the door. And that was like ‘Ugh!’ for me.”

The Kerry Weaver character was incredibly important in the zeitgeist of television because not only was she a high profile character, but the show was a hit, meaning everyone was watching.

E.R. is such a great show because people accepted it in their living rooms on a mass scale,” Johnson said. “So this is reaching a shitload of people.”

As a writer, Johnson said she just wanted to bring reality to the character Laura Innes was playing. “To call it an agenda is wrong,” she said. “I just wanted to humanize my life and my relationship. So that was meaningful to me.”

After E.R., Johnson went on to work as an executive producer for Commander in Chief, Army Wives and Southland before landing at The Good Wife in its first season. And yes, she loves Kalinda as much as we do.

“The character was already there and there was a thought of her — it was already sort of planned she had that aspect,” Johnson said of Kalinda’s bisexuality. “How we were going to explore it, we certainly discussed quite a lot in developing the first 13 [episodes]. We had to ease into it. It’s kind of rare to have a series regular at that level have that label attached to them. I think we sort of snuck it in the back door. But then it became a more present part of her character which is great.”

Then she hopped over to TNT to be a consulting producer on Rizzoli & Isles for Season 2 last year. Johnson joked she doesn’t know if the subtext on the show is so “sub” anymore.

“It’s so funny. They just have amazing chemistry — Angie and Sasha have this on-screen chemistry,” she said. “The alchemy is it just sort of happened. Could it have been planned, would it have had its own different vibe? Probably, but those two just have a kind of bounce back between each other.”

But Johnson said she doesn’t think Maura and Jane will ever cross the BFF line into romantic territory, at least not on-screen.

“I think that Janet [Tamaro] always intended for them to explore sort of a best friend kind of a situation in a way that was kind of real-buddy-best-friend,” she said. “To that degree, I think it was intentional. When it crossed over to the whole sort of AfterEllen thing, I don’t know that was intentional but she certainly hasn’t shied away from it. So read what you want into this. It’s certainly a fun relationship. I seriously doubt [a romantic relationship] that will happen. Fantasy is always better than reality so just hang onto that!”

Now Johnson is serving as an executive producer on Boss, the Starz series about corrupt Chicago mayor Tom Kane, played by Kelsey Grammar.

“It’s such a great show,” Johnson said. “The women characters are really interesting. Anything could happen so I think that has to be appealing. So many of them are fascinating aspects of femaleness. I’m fascinated! There are a lot of really great shows but this show dealt with such powerful themes and intense issues and power and character and you can go as ugly as you wanted. It was appealing and I thought it was brilliantly written, as a writer, and I’m sort of a writer first.”

Besides her producing duties, Johnson also makes time to keep writing, including last year’s TNT movie Hornet’s Nest, which she adapated from the Patricia Cornwell novel.

“I actually got to meet her, which was interesting,” Johnson said of the out author. “I wasn’t involved with the producing of it. I just wrote it because I’d read the book and the book felt like a series to me because it was very episodic with its characters and stuff so I did meet her and I did see a cut of it and she was in it.”

Johnson said she doesn’t watch much scripted TV because it feels like “homework.”

“You are either bitter you’re not doing it, or bitter it’s being done and it’s terrible,” she said. “I did enjoy [the queer aspect] of The Good Wife. I did watch The L Word periodically, but I just couldn’t stand the way they dressed. I just thought it was really unreal. But you know what? Kudos to its existence.” She prefers Top Chef and the Discovery Channel.

Coming up, Johnson will be featured in a documentary called Showrunners and plans to develop some new projects after Boss goes on hiatus in September. One dream project: “Pre-war Germany in the era of Cabaret. It’s a really wild fascinating time when there was faciscm budding up against sort of outrageous sexual all kinds of craziness. It’s such a fascinating time in history and it speaks volumes of even what’s going on now, in terms of the push-pull of it all and the real underbelly. So I have a real fascination for the era.”

As for if she thinks her work on such queer-positive shows have had an impact on TV’s more gay-friendly landscape today, she remains quite modest.

“It’s sort of collective consciousness after a while,” Johnson said. “I think it was groundbreaking at the time but certainly it was ground that had been broken in other instances but because that character was so entrenched in the show for so long and we got the numbers that we did, I’d like to think it had some impact there.”

Season 2 of Boss premieres on Friday, August 17 on Starz.

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