TV Writer Cord Jefferson Is Challenging Audiences To Think More Deeply

 Amid a rise of “ambient TV” that doesn’t require much from its viewers, including their full attention, Cord Jefferson’s writing is thought-provoking and defiant. From the spiritually ambiguous quartet on “The Good Place” and the morally compromised heirs of “Succession” to the sociopolitical torment of masked vigilantes on “Watchmen” and the difficulties of an Indian American man on “Master of None,” he challenges audiences to think beyond the worlds they know. To read about the rest of the Culture Shifters, including TV executive Jasmyn Lawson and spiritual adviser Emilia Ortiz, return to the complete list.

For Jefferson, that’s intentional. “My goal is to try to make stuff that feels addictive,” he said on a call from his Los Angeles home. “I think that if there’s any connective tissue between [my stories], it’s that they are trying to do something new, help people consider their own lives or the world around them more deeply.”

Jefferson has felt this obligation to contemplate our realities throughout his life. Self-described as “pretty introverted,” he was raised by a white mother, an educator and politically a liberal, a Black father, a defense attorney, and a Republican. As he described it, their Arizona home was filled with “a lot of differing opinions and debate and discussion and healthy argument.” He was encouraged to engage in the same way: to ask questions rather than accept what someone tells him.

Jefferson recalled a specific moment in his childhood when, as he planned to head over to a friend’s house for a swim, he caught a glimpse of a news segment his parents were watching about the 1991 Vanity Fair cover featuring a pregnant and nude Demi Moore. Without missing a beat, he said, “Oh my God, that’s so disgusting.”

“I remember my dad and mother interrogating me and not letting me leave until I explained why I thought it was gross,” Jefferson said. “And I couldn’t because it was just something I had picked up off TV. I was pawning it off as my idea, but I didn’t understand why people thought it was gross.”

As Jefferson recollected it, it took 45 minutes of his parents imploring him to think independently to realize that this was an essential part of being human. “Things are complex,” he said. “Things are nuanced. The idea that you can see the world as a binary thing of good people and bad people and good and bad things is no way to approach life.”

From then on, that’s how Jefferson navigated his journey — to the degree that he became a “devil’s advocate guy” in college at William & Mary in Virginia. “I would guess that 23-year-old Cord Jefferson was probably a nightmare if I have to be honest,” he said with a laugh. “But as I’ve gotten older, I think that [I’ve] been less of the devil’s advocate-y guy and more just a person who thinks maybe too deeply about everything.”

That’s evident throughout our conversation as Jefferson pauses to rethink something he has said. Referring to a character in “The Good Place,” he said, “Chidi was very near and dear to my heart because I frequently find myself hemming and hawing over even the smallest decisions in my life, and spending days and days internally debating the minor details of my existence.”

These include the effects of his parent’s divorce when he was 15, navigating white spaces as a biracial Black man, and a fit of persistent anger he felt about the world around him. He has been able to confront each of these things by “doing a ton of therapy” and in his diverse work, including the prodigious “Watchmen” episode “This Extraordinary Being,” which earned him an Emmy. The one-hour storyline explored the suppressed trauma of racism and homophobia in a trippy, nostalgic episode with luscious black-and-white cinematography.

The screenplay, co-written by showrunner Damon Lindelof, was “cathartic” for Jefferson. “My childhood was spent in Tucson, which can be a homogenous place,” Jefferson reflected. “I was a Black kid with a funny name in this town where nobody else looked like my family or me, and I felt very lonely often.”

That frustration only mounted over time, compounded by today’s bleak political landscape. “I think that that’s an emotion that any number of Black people in this country can probably speak to,” Jefferson said. That’s especially so in Hollywood, still marked by white gatekeeping despite the current cultural shifts.

“I had a Black friend say to me years ago that to be a successful person in this industry and America, it felt like he was a sociopath,” he said. “Because he was constantly lying to everybody around hwhat was and the things that he thought. I still think about him saying that, particularly when it came to [‘This Extraordinary Being’]; how people, including myself, hide their emotions to get by because they don’t want to be considered an angry Black man or an angry Black woman.”

It’s why Jefferson has tried very hard to live without fear of judgment throughout his life and career, first as a journalist and now as a cinematic storyteller eager to create his shows with a new overall deal with Warner Brothers. He’s also helping empower others to do the same with the Susan M. Haas Fellowship launch for journalists interested in TV writing. Named after his mother, who died of breast cancer in 2016, the initiative will award two people the financial and creative support necessary to develop original pilots.

It’s another way Jefferson seeks to prod others to think — and, in the case of the fellowship, create — outside their boxes. “I think that many people have learned to live their lives in a way that will constantly let them avoid fear,” he said. “We should be seeking out things that make us afraid all the time because, to me, those are the things that make life worth living.”

Tyson Houlding
I’m a lifestyle blogger with a passion for writing, photography, and exploring new places. I started this blog when I was 18 years old to share what I was learning about the world with family and friends. I’ve since grown into a freelance writer, blogger, and photographer with a growing audience. I hope you find inspiration and motivation while reading through my work!