When Calls The Heart Executive Producer Brian Bird Reflects on Season 4

Hallmark/Crown Media
Hallmark/Crown Media

Well Hearties another season of When Calls The Heart has come to an end and what a season it was! We saw a few new people show up in Hope Valley and new romances started to form. We learned more about many of our characters and even got to see several of them grow and transform right in front of out eyes. The women really stood out this season, showing their strengths and abilities in positions of power, and even just in standing up for one another. We watched one of our favorite characters cling to life and another character emerge as a new hero to save it. Finally, we saw our beloved Jack (Daniel Lissing) and Elizabeth (Erin Krakow) get engaged in one of the most powerful and emotional hours of TV that the show has ever produced. The season ended with Mountie Jack off fighting the good fight up north and Elizabeth (and viewers) wondering if we will ever see him back in Hope Valley again.

The TV Junkies had the opportunity to talk exclusively with executive producer Brian Bird about everything that went on this season. He also spoke about how the decision to send Jack away came about and why fans shouldn’t be giving up on Jack and Elizabeth quite yet.

 

The TV Junkies: To start off I have to congratulate you on a great season. I have to say that this has probably been my favorite season to date. It just had so much to offer.

Brian Bird: Mine too. I think it was more emotional; we got into deeper character depiction throughout the season so it was really gratifying. And the audience, the numbers have been strong. The show had double-digit gains from Season 3. I think that [the show being on] Netflix has resulted in a lot of new fans and they are all of the sudden big fans that are clamoring to see the new episodes so that’s exciting as well. And Netflix has already shown interest in Season 4, we met with them about that last week.

TTVJ: What were your favorite storylines this season? 

BB: I loved the Gowan (Martin Cummins) storyline actually. It’s one of the ones that was kind of a B story in the overall arc of the season, but I just loved the sense of bringing him to justice and also his personal sense of guilt and wanting redemption. These last few episodes were incredibly strong. He’s clearly facing the music now and it’s changing him. It’s causing him to look past his greed and ambition and made him realize that he has to own up to everything and actually be a responsible human being.

I loved the adoption storyline that culminated in the season finale. I’m an adoptive dad myself, twice over, so for me that has been something that we have been working on since Season 3. It originated with a conversation that Lori (Loughlin) and I had after Season 2. And being an adoptive dad that was sort of music to my ears so I had a longer conversation with her and the writers. It ended up being a really powerful story, especially in the finale where she presented Cody (Carter Ryan Evancic) and Becky (Ali Skovbye) with their adoption papers and had him call her mom for the first time.

Hallmark/Crown Media
Hallmark/Crown Media

TTVJ: I loved all of the new characters and it was nice to see some diversity, even if it was just the background actors. You brought two very eligible bachelors to town and some of the cutest kids I’ve ever seen. How did you think that those new characters storylines ended up playing out?

BB: Like I said before, we have a lot of eligible widows in this town and this is the Hallmark Channel, and the show is first and foremost a prairie romance. So it just made all the sense in the world to us to see some fresh blood in town in the way of eligible bachelors to go along with those eligible widows.

In terms of the kids, one of the challenges with a show like this being a kid-centric show with Elizabeth teaching school. We finish production in December and we will probably not begin production till maybe early July. But even then, it will have been eight months since our kids were last on camera. It’s a real challenge, especially the girls, they really grow quickly. It sometimes creates a necessary turnover of our school children because there’s such a big gap in filming. If for example, we jump ahead five or six months to the first episode in Season 5 then it naturally explains that growth. But if it’s supposed to be the next week in the timeline of the storytelling then you’re kind of hosed because the kids grow up and develop so quickly. So that’s why there’s so much turnover on the show.

TTVJ: Are there plans to keep both of those guys around next season?

BB: We would love too. We had a really good response to Paul Greene and Niall Matter’s characters so there’s really no reason not to. We’re going to have a new doctor in town, which is kind of cool to add that. It gives our writers an outlet for storytelling; it gives them more flexibility so yeah, we are definitely hoping to. Nothing is official yet but we are definitely hoping to.

TTVJ: I love what you did with Abigail’s character this season. It was great to see her take on a leadership role in town and really succeed at it. Was it your intention to really focus on how special these women of Hope Valley are? Are you hoping to continue to focus on that in future seasons?

BB: Yeah absolutely. I think that as a show evolves and matures, you find your voice and what the show is supposed to be. But now that we have and we realize that the audience prefers the stories that revolve around the town, now we’re sort of hitting our stride. That theme of strong women, and never bet against a strong woman, is powerful and I think for our audience it’s a really encouraging and positive thing for us to be hitting on as a theme. We want to encourage our Heartie audience to be fearless. You have to be in this world, it’s a scary world. We’re saying something that we need to learn today, but we’re projecting it on another time. That’s why I think a lot of themes in the show still resonate with people now. We’re not just fascinated with history, we’re fascinated in those themes that resonate throughout history but are still very appropriate for people today.

TTVJ: Abigail’s romantic life kind of fell to the back burner this season. Will there be more focus on that next season?

BB: I think so. Part of the balancing act for a show, because there are so many characters, it has definitely evolved into a real ensemble show. Yes it’s a romance, but you can only service that so much without getting to some real hard heart issues. And romance is an aspect of a lot of our lives, but it’s not the predominate one, so I think that we are definitely going to want to take Abigail and Frank to another level next year. But I also love that there is a bit of ambiguity in the show with regard to the men that have had a thing for Abigail. Whether it’s Henry Gowan or Bill Avery (Jack Wagner) and now Pastor Frank (Mark Humphrey).

Hallmark/Crown Media
Hallmark/Crown Media

TTVJ: What about Abigail and Gowan? They have possibly the most interesting relationship on the show. You can never really tell if it’s going to evolve into a really good friendship or something romantic. A relationship between the two of them would be the ultimate story of forgiveness and redemption, but that would be a lot for her to forgive.

BB: It would but Pastor Frank was a bad guy at one time too. So in this world sometimes extremes can come together. I mean, I’m not suggesting for a second that Abigail and Gowan will hook up in the future. I don’t know, we haven’t gone there yet. It’s a possibility but I would never spill that for anybody. But I love what they have together. Their dynamic really show another side to both their characters and it was fantastic.

TTVJ: I have to say what you did with Lee (Kavan Smith) and Rosemary (Pascale Hutton) really was exceptional and they stole the show on so many occasions, especially in that finale. Lee had me crying several times. 

BB: It was fun. They’re Ricky and Lucy on our show. They have been there for mostly comic relief and yet, there’s a lot of pathos there too when we learn more about them. In the episode where Jack left, I loved to see how deeply that affected everyone, including Lee and Rosemary. And in this finale episode it was another speed from Kavan Smith that was fantastic. These are all really fine actors and sometimes you can kind of paint people as only comedy relief and you don’t realize what other chops they bring to the table. I though it was a beautiful scene for Lee. He wasn’t blubbering but you could see how deeply emotional that regret was for his little brother Patrick. I love how they’ve evolved. So many people have gone from seeing Rosemary as the dragon lady to almost becoming one of their favorite characters on the show and that’s really gratifying.

TTVJ: It was really nice too to see Rosemary change this season. She’s always been so self-absorbed but it was nice to see her finally thinking of others for once.

BB: Right, and we’ll never completely lose that self-absorption because that’s the premise of the character and that’s where we get that humor. But when she does have those moments of humanity where she is thinking of others and is sort of forced outside herself it’s deeply beautiful, so we will continue to do that.

TTVJ: I know the Hearties are hoping to see them talk about having a family. Is this in the cards for the Coulters near future?

BB: Of course, but there a billion things to do with a show so it’s a bit of a balancing act to figure out what to do when and how to balance it out with what we need to do with the other characters. I won’t confirm or deny that will happen, but it would certainly be a lot of fun to watch Rosemary stumble her way through pregnancy and child rearing.

TTVJ: Finally Jack and Elizabeth went through quite a journey this season. Let’s talk about that proposal first. What did you think of how that all played out? Is that how you hoped it would always be?

BB: Yeah, it’s everything we’ve ever hoped it would be. We knew that we had to do it. We knew that this was the next point in the evolution for this couple, but we also wanted to make it bittersweet if we could. The drama of them getting engaged on the eve of him having to leave on this dangerous assignment to me is incredible. If you go back and look at the Janette Oke books that we have loosely based the show on, there are whole periods of time where Elizabeth is alone and he’s off fighting in WWI. That’s in the books. So there’s a precedent for what we did here. But we loved the idea of absence making the heart grow fonder, so that’s why we chose to do this.

It threw a lot of Hearties. I can’t deny that, but I think shows like this have to create longing and hunger for the audience because they are vicariously living through these characters. At least if you’re doing it right, if you’re not doing it right they won’t. So I thought the proposal was fantastic and I think that that episode was probably a high point for the series. I think it was probably the best episode we have ever done and I hope we can continue to top it. It really was a grand episode and it really came together in such a wonderful way.

Hallmark/Crown Media
Hallmark/Crown Media

TTVJ: Did you expect the fans to react as passionately as they have to Jack leaving?

BB: Oh yeah, there’s no way for us not to have expected that. We know how much people have invested in their relationship. But what I think is important for a show like this is that we test the audience. That we do things to cause the audience to have to go deeper themselves and not just be there for the eye candy. I’m not crazy for our audience only being gaga for these two characters, but there’s a balancing act too. That is a good thing for a show but if that’s all it is then we are not doing a very good show. If we can’t get people emotional responses to our other storylines then we are just a one trick pony in my book. So we don’t want that. We don’t want everyone to be so infatuated with Jack and Elizabeth that they miss out on everything else or that they’re not caring about everyone else. So we are trying to take the show a little broader to try and get a deeper story to this town. So everything was calculated. We knew Jack’s absence for four episodes would be a challenge for people and we never promised that he would be back this season. Some people thought that we did, but we never promised a timeline. All I’m going to say about the future now that Season 5 is a go is that everything is gonna be OK. People have to trust us.

TTVJ: Will you say if Daniel Lissing is going to be back next season?

BB: I’m not going to say that because what other show would ever give that away?

TTVJ: The only trouble you guys are going to have is that it films so far ahead of time and the cast is so active on social media. That it is going to be pretty hard to keep it all a secret.

BB: Well of course likely people are going to be in the loop once we start to have images coming from the set, even if we had a closed set those images seem to slip out. But the best I can say is if anyone wants to jump ship now, it’s a really bad thing to do. There’s so much to look forward to. What I want to say to those people that are being so passionate now is ‘Awesome! Be passionate about the show, but don’t be one dimensional about it. Be passionate about the show for all the cylinders it fires on, not just because of one coupling that you are infatuated by.’ I love that they are so invested, that’s awesome, but I want them to be invested in the whole picture, not just a portion of the picture.

TTVJ: Did you consider having that red serge appear on the horizon in the last few seconds on the show, even to just appease the fans? I known that would have made a lot of people feel a lot better about him not being there for so long. 

BB: I’ll tell you, yes and we shot it that way. But as we got down to brass tax on this we realized that we have dropped bombs on people at season’s end every season and we just decided let’s just have a happy ending for this season. I mean, we were feeling fairly good about the possibility of a Season 5 when we made that decision and that wasn’t a decision we made on our own. Hallmark is deeply involved in all of those decisions, especially with something as big as a cliffhanger moment in an episode, so that changed and we decided to give people a happy and emotional and satisfying ending. And there’s still a cliffhanger there, she still longs for him, but I also felt like the way we ended it with the adoption, that was a big moment and to try and top that with a cliffhanger just wasn’t the thing to do this season.

I liked the fact that a lot of people were waiting to see a glimpse of that red serge jacket because that was very predictable. So I think that by not doing that we become unpredictable, and I would rather be unpredictable. You don’t want the audience to know what’s coming next. That’s horrible TV. I think people have realized how much they love the show in other ways too after they have sort of blown off some steam. That’s what I have been seeing with the reactions. I get that we can’t please everyone at the same time, but really if we were, it would probably mean that we were being too predictable about things.

TTVJ: I know these are very early days in planning for Season 5, but can you hint as to what you might have planned?

BB: No, because literally the announcement was yesterday, but I will say generally speaking that if people loved what we did this season they are going to love what we will continue to be doing. The big advice that I can give is something that I remember from 30 years ago and it’s EGBOK. Everything is going to be OK. That’s about the best advice I can give for Season 5.

TTVJ: Do you know yet what the plan is for next season? Christmas movie? Number of episodes?

BB: It’s still to be determined whether or not we start with a Christmas movie or a holiday movie of some type. That has been a little bit in the conversation, but no decision has been made. I can imagine that the odds are good and we will have as many hours as we have for the season just from a practical standpoint. It was a really successful season in the ratings, so why mess with what’s working?

 

What did you think of this season? Was it your favourite one yet? Were you disappointed to see Jack gone for so many episodes and not return in the finale? What are you hoping to see next season? Drop a few words in the comments section below and let us know what you’re thinking.

When Calls The Heart airs on Hallmark Channel and will return for Season 5 in 2018.

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