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The CW Mysteries Decoded exclusive interview: Producer Gary Tarpinian on Jennifer Marshall and changing status quo in nonfiction TV

Tarpinian came to Hollywood by way of his work with a Boston-area hospital. Pic credit: Gary Tarpinian
Tarpinian came to Hollywood by way of his work with a Boston-area hospital. Pic credit: Gary Tarpinian

The CW dives deeply this August into the non-fiction television world with a new series called Mysteries Decoded.

The eight-episode series was born from the success last year with the one-hour special that aired ahead of their Roswell scripted series and resonated with viewers who wanted more.

Roswell: Mysteries Decoded not only spurred interest in the new fictional drama but gave the production company MorningStar Entertainment, headed by Gary Tarpinian, a chance to create and design the perfect follow-up exploring the most famous mysteries and conspiracies in US history.

The twist? MorningStar bet on something rarer than a unicorn: A female lead to star in the investigative series.

Jennifer Marshall brings professionalism and grit to an investigative series format dominated by male stars. Pic credit: The CW
Jennifer Marshall brings professionalism and grit to an investigative series format dominated by male stars. Pic credit: The CW

They selected Jennifer Marshall, a savvy no-nonsense investigator who is also a licensed PI in California. On top of that, she is a Navy veteran who brings grit and gravitas combined with real gumshoe methodology in her examinations of some of our most vexing and perplexing cases, including the Lizzie Borden murders in Massachusetts, Mothman’s reign of terror in West Virginia, an unexplained Bermuda Triangle time travel incident and much more.

Tarpinian’s Roswell show garnered not only critical appeal for Marshall’s handling of the evidence in question, but also for the percolating format of the special which was the groundwork to fashion the format that sold the network on its premise.

But the reality is that most networks in the nonfiction docuseries world count on male leads: Hat wearing jaunty explorers, veterans, tried-and-true experts. You know, manly burly hosts like Mike Rowe, Adam Savage, Josh Gates and so forth.

Few women front a series that explores historical and geographical oddities and destinations.

Marshall immediately was the first choice for Tarpinian whose company has a large female staff and a vital partner, his wife Paninee Theeranuntawat, who he relies upon to make acquisition decisions and shape their slate of content to be smart, relevant and appealing.

This format is partly due to Tarpinian’s upbringing, as we learned in our exclusive interview. He credits having a strong mother and sisters who urged by him to pursue advanced degrees and buck the societal norms of the times.

Education melded with entertainment is a massive part of Tarpinian’s and Theeranuntawat’s production ethos at MorningStar, with shows devoted to going deeply below the surface of what is already established and finding new evidence and academics to analyze and unravel dead ends.

Even his fun shows of the past, like the 2009 cult-favorite Deadliest Warrior for Spike TV, moshed fact and history in an energetic, fun format that pitted great warriors of cultures yore, utilizing real-time analytics and experts to determine who would best the other in face-to-face combat.

It was a concept that worked, and to this day, Tarpinian runs into industry people and those outside of Hollywood in lofty positions who fell for the show and gush about watching it with their pre-teen and teenage kids the network targeted.

We spoke to Gary Tarpinian about this exciting new nonfiction docuseries coming to The CW on August 13:

Mysteries Decoded will thrill the Curse of Oak Island and Expeditions Unknown fans with the investigative approach to mysteries. Pic credit: The CW
Mysteries Decoded will thrill the Curse of Oak Island and Expeditions Unknown fans with the investigative approach to mysteries. Pic credit: The CW

Monsters & Critics: Let’s talk about Jennifer Marshall, this former Navy vet. How did you find her?

Gary Tarpinian: Well, we wanted to find the perfect person to lead the investigations. Just so you know a little bit of my thinking, there are a lot of shows that cover similar ground on TV, but so often to me, as a viewer, I feel like they’re superficial. I often feel that the producers get an idea or a theory, and then they tell a story, and they sort of bend the facts, cherry-pick the interview bites that prove their point.

What I wanted to do is to find a real investigator who was a no bullsh** person, who’s going to call it like they see it, will never say anything that they don’t believe, even if the producer begs them to say it, and someone who’s going to look at all the facts and say, “This is where they lead.” That’s what we’re looking for.

If we can solve a great mystery or conspiracy — fantastic. If we have to say at the end, “We just don’t know,” that’s okay. I want to make an honest show for thinking people. That was my goal.

M&C: Jennifer takes a very no-nonsense approach, especially from what I observed in Roswell, but are there any particular mysteries or lore that you pitched to her that she rejected after investigating?

Gary Tarpinian: Well, here’s how I would put it. First of all, let me back up a little bit, because I talked more about, pardon me, why we wanted to do this show. In terms of her, we were looking for the perfect person. Let me tell you why she checks off all the boxes.

First of all, she’s very good on camera. That always helps in television. The other thing is she was a veteran of the US Navy. I don’t think there’s anything finer that you can do than to serve our great country. We just thought it was wonderful if we could have a veteran work with us.

The other thing that really appealed, which is maybe the biggest thing, is that she is a certified PI in California. Let me explain the difference between being a private investigator in places like New York or California, and everywhere else.

You need about 6,000 hours of working with people, working with someone else that’s got a license. You can’t just show up one day and say you want to be a PI, and they give you a license. It’s one of the hardest things to earn if you haven’t been a detective for 20 years on the force.

We felt that she’s got credibility. She’s good on camera. And like I said, I don’t want to say she’s stubborn, but there have been times where I said, “Well, how about this, Jen?” And she says, “No. I don’t agree.”

Example. We are doing a show on Lizzy Borden. We brought in a medium, because there have been reports of paranormal activity at the Lizzie Borden house in Fall River, Massachusetts. The house in which Lizzie grew up, and the house in which her parents, her stepmother, Abby, and her father Andrew, were killed, is now a bed and breakfast. There are numerous reports of paranormal activity.

We went back with a medium. Initially, we thought, well, let’s have a seance and see if we could talk to them. Jennifer’s initial reaction is, “Hey, I’m a PI. That seems like hocus pocus. I don’t know if I can do it. I really need to think about it.” She thought about it, and you’ll have to watch the show to see what happened.

M&C: Josh Gates, Ramy Romany, Mike Rowe and Adam Savage — these are all names in nonfiction that everyone knows, and Discovery and Travel Channel, they all promote these men, but what I like is how MorningStar and The CW is betting on a woman.

Gary Tarpinian: Yes. That is a great point. It was part of our not so hidden agenda that we really believe it’s important to have more females and more diversity in all of our programs.

I’m very proud of the fact that we’re doing eight episodes of Mysteries Decoded, and in half of the episodes, the co-investigator with Jennifer is either a person of color, or Hispanic, and we also have a Native American. We believe in diversity. We believe in women.

I grew up with two sisters. It was very important for me to toughen them up. In a time in which my parents thought my sisters didn’t need to go to college and should find a nice guy to marry, I encouraged them to be the best that they could be. They could be lawyers. They could be doctors. They could be anything.

There weren’t a lot of shows back when we grew up that have strong female leads. The one show my sisters used to love to watch was Annie Oakley if you remember that show.

I’m looking back, and I’m thinking, is that the only show that was aimed at girls that had a strong female lead in that era? But anyways, I like a strong female character. I think Jen is terrific. She’s an excellent PI. We’re lucky to have her. She’s really been terrific to work with.

M&C: A lot of people reading this article, especially a lot of younger people who are thinking about being producers or getting into entertainment, you had a very unusual circuitous route to becoming a producer. Tell me how that happened.

Gary Tarpinian: Well, it’s a very interesting story in that I was an art therapist. I worked at the Children’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts. It’s one of the best children’s hospitals in the world and is attached to Harvard Medical School; it’s top-notch.

While there, one of my supervisors asked if I would make a short film on how we use our therapy as a diagnostic tool with nonverbal children, either young kids or kids just don’t want to talk.

Even if you’re in the hospital, you’re a stranger to this child who has been warned about stranger danger. So you have to find ways to communicate with them, and explain what’s what, and find out the answers. So you do play therapy, do art therapy.

When my boss asked me to do this film, I was unsure and said, “I don’t know if I can do it. I’ve never taken a film or TV course. You should probably get someone else.”

He said, “Oh, no. I think you can do this, Gary. You’re very talented.” I said, “Well, I don’t know about that,” and he said, “I’m not asking you. I’m telling you.”

I ended up having to make this film. Brought in a director and a writer and editor and the whole bit. About halfway through the project, I realized I don’t like the way the director was directing, so I took over directing. Then I wasn’t crazy about how the editor was editing it, so I learned how to edit.

The next thing you know, I finished this film and thought, this is the coolest thing ever. I felt like it used all of my talents and abilities. All of a sudden, I got this crazy idea to leave my job, which I did love, to move to LA to get into the TV business.

I came out here without knowing anyone really, didn’t have a job. I ended up going to film school, learned a trade, and that was how I got into it. The one thing I would like to say is, having now been working here in Hollywood all these years, that there’s no better way to prepare for it than to come out of child psychiatry.

M&C: Funny. Dovetailing back on what I asked you about how MorningStar has a very female positive outlook on life, and the types of stories that you’re drawn to, your partner is a very important part of your success.

Gary Tarpinian: 100%. Paninee is our secret weapon. We met in film school. She’s my partner. She’s from Bangkok, Thailand, but she’s now a US citizen. We’ve been together since we started the company many years ago.

But the thing that’s so great is that, at the end of the day, even though Paninee sort of runs the company, she’s still the best filmmaker at MorningStar.

I really think that when we look at all of our cuts, it’s good to have a male and female at the top of the food chain, because we’ve got the yin and yang. There are times where I, “Oh, this is fine,” and she goes, “No. It’s a little too male. We’ve got to reel it back in.” I think that the two of us working together give us that sort of angle.

She’s a great filmmaker. That’s what it comes down to. I think, and let me say what I mean by that. Everyone has ideas. You sell them, you go out, you shoot them, you come back, you look at the first cut, and you go, “Oh, that doesn’t look very good.”

This is part of the process. What we learned is, and what we’re good at is, Paninee will keep looking at that film, no matter how funky it starts off as a rough cut, and by the time we’re done, we’ll figure out what to do to make it great.

I’m glad you asked this question about her, because everyone knows me in the business. I’m the one that goes to events. I’m the one that goes to the cocktail parties. I’m the one that goes to industry panels.

Everyone knows Gary Tarpinian is the face of MorningStar. I am sort of like the head salesman, but in terms of who is the most important person in making these shows right, it’s my partner, Paninee.

M&C: The CW was a great pitch meeting. They let you do this special on Roswell. You pitched it to them, and they bought it. Then they fell in love with the numbers, and they saw that there’s big money in this nonfiction TV reality lane. Curse of Oak Island is huge, and Ancient Aliens, and all that stuff. This is a little more serious. How did that go?

Gary Tarpinian: When we originally had a pitch meeting with The CW, we pitched another project. At the very end of the meeting, there was just a few minutes left, I said to Cyle Zezo, who we were pitching, I said, Cyle, at the end of this meeting, I had about five minutes left, and I said, “Cyle, I know you’re rebooting the Roswell show. I think that’s a great name, but I know who your demo is. Do you think your audience really knows that much about what happened in 1947 in the New Mexico desert when the incident took place?” He went, “No. That’s a good point.”

I said, “We have some new information” … Because first of all, – sidebar – we don’t even pitch a show unless we found some new information or evidence that changes the story. There is no point for us to tell another story on pick a topic, King Tut, the Titanic, D Day, unless we’ve got something new that changes the story. What’s the point?

In terms of Roswell, I said: “We have new information that could totally change everything, and we’d love to pitch it to you.”

We showed them a sizzle. They liked it immediately, and within a week or so they said, “Okay, let’s make this, and we’re going to put it on. We’re going to use it to help promote the scripted series.”

We did it. I think it far exceeded their expectations. One of the things that we did, in terms of casting and showing how we’re going to do it, is because of the younger demo of the CW, and the fact that they do appeal to a female audience, very much so, we said that we need to cast this in a way that appeals to that audience.

That was why we decided we needed to have this credible woman, Jennifer, and Ryan Sprague, who was our co-investigator, and who wrote a wonderful book called Somewhere in the Skies. He’s an expert on UFOs and unexplained incidents. But what we did here is we shaped the show and who was going to lead the investigation for the network.

The other thing we wanted to do is we didn’t want this to be an old-fashioned, past tense sort of history show. We thought if we can make it an active investigation, it’s set in the present, it doesn’t matter if Roswell happened 70 years ago, because the investigation is happening now. I think that was one of the things that helped this show appeal to the CW female audience.

You talked about strong female leads. In a way, it’s probably not a coincidence, but if you look at the types of shows that the CW is known for, they have lots of shows, more than any other network, not only with diversity, but with very strong female leads, like Supergirl. They’re doing Batwoman…I think we fit right in with them by having a female lead investigator.

M&C: Tell me the premise of Decoded…

Gary Tarpinian: The premise of the show is that Jennifer investigates all of these classic mysteries, conspiracies, things that have happened. In each show, a person who is an expert on that particular topic has found some new evidence or information, and has brought it to Jennifer, and has, for instance, said, “We’ve got recent pictures of Mothman.” I’m sure your readers know about the Mothman chronicles. “We think he might be back.” This person’s a cryptozoologist.

Or in the case of the Montauk project, which a lot of people believe was the inspiration of Stranger Things, in which the government was doing strange experiments there with children. We had an expert that had some information and brought that to Jen.

Same thing with Area 51. Bob Lazar, for years, has been saying that UFOs are here, and in some cases, we’re even using their technology, reverse engineering it to make new craft that are actually American craft. What really sparked that show, it was the recent release by the US Navy of all of this; it’s called the Tic Tac, the Gimbal. These were unidentified flying objects recorded by US Navy F-18 jets. The Navy is saying, “Here’s some stuff we’ve recorded. We don’t know what it is.”

Ryan Sprague is the expert on that one as well.

We also do Lizzie Borden, as I mentioned. We’re doing a Bigfoot, a Bermuda Triangle. In each of these, I think we have found new evidence that’s going to change the story, so it’s not the same old, same old.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gw5wwvEME5w

Mysteries Decoded airs Tuesdays beginning August 13 at 9:00-10:00 p.m. ET on The CW.

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April is an accredited entertainment writer, interviewer and television critic. She is a current member of the Television Critics Association (TCA), Gay and Lesbian Entertainment... read more
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