Saturday, April 10, 2021

A Tribute to Anne Beatts and her creation, Square Pegs

Back in the days when I was editing the “Icons” (classic TV) section of CBS’ Watch! magazine, I was like a kid in a candy store.  So many of the shows I had grown up adoring had been on CBS – and now, I had license to get in touch with any of those shows’ creators and/or stars, to write tributes of all my favorites, one by one.

In February of 2008, I was thrilled to get to interview Anne Beatts, to pay tribute to her 1982-83 sitcom Square Pegs, short-lived but influential on my generation of actors and writers – and everyone else adolescent at the time.  [I must admit, my writing partner Bonnie Datt and I were so molded by Square Pegs that we even wrote its characters into a spec script we wrote for Sex and the City – melding the two worlds and winning a few screenwriting awards in the process.]  The piece ran in the magazine’s May/June 2008 issue; you can check it out here

But Anne, who died this past Wednesday, April 7 at age 74, was way too interesting to be confined to a mere page’s worth of memories.  And so below, here is the full scope of her memories not only of creating the beloved sitcom which brought Sarah Jessica Parker to national attention, but also as a pioneering “girl writer” on Saturday Night Live.

 

 

The Square Pegs Origin Story

Square Pegs was autobiographical.  What happened was that I had been on Saturday Night Live for the first five years of that as a writer.  And then the upheaval happened.  Lorne Michaels was no longer doing the show.  Everybody left at one time.  And I had an agent, an older gentleman named Frank Cooper. He had been Frank Sinatra’s first agent – he was of that generation.  He was trying to get me some other work.  And he said, “I guess you were probably very popular when you were in high school.”  And I said, “Oh, Frank, are you kidding?  I wasn’t very popular at all!  I was a square peg when I was in high school!”  And he said, “Why don’t you write about that?”

Frank had the idea he could sell a high school show to CBS.  There wasn’t a show like that at the time.  I guess there had been Welcome Back, Kotter and Happy Days, but at the time there wasn’t a show of that nature.  And he knew that CBS was wanting to skew younger -- which was a little bit of an uphill battle.  So we went in, and I had never pitched a sitcom.  I had never written a sitcom, or spec script, or had anything to do with the word “sitcom” -- and it kind of stuck in my throat a little bit.

I went in to CBS and had thought out what my life had been like in high school, me and my best friend.  So Square Pegs was based on us; I was the Sarah Jessica Parker character, the skinny one with glasses, and she was the short one with braces.  I harkened back to us, when we were in Somers High School in the ‘60s, in Somers, New York.

I wasn’t a big sitcom watcher.  So in my concept, I harkened back to [the 1959-63 CBS sitcom The Many Loves of] Dobie Gillis.  That was a model of a high school show that I really liked.  And then when I went in to pitch, guess who was in the room?  Dobie Gillis!  Because Dwayne Hickman was an executive at CBS at this point.  So here I go in to have a meeting with Kim LeMasters who was the CBS development exec at the time, and in the room – the way there’s always 3 or 4 people in the room – was Dobie himself!  I thought at the time that this was either good or bad omen.  I guess it proved good.  Because there I was, talking how much I loved Dobie Gillis and how my show could be like that.  That was the pitch.

My agent had set up for us to meet at NBC the next day.  I was at the Chateau Marmont [hotel], getting dressed for the meeting, and the phone rang.  It was my agent and the executives from CBS.  They had some concerns and questions about the show.  And basically it was, what about sex, drugs and rock and roll?  This was 1981, I guess, because I was on SNL from ’75 to ’80. So this was the fall of ‘81. Were these girls having sex?  This was pre-Dawson’s Creek; you did not want the answer to be yes.  You wanted the answer to be no, because they wanted to do something that was basically an 8 o’clock show.  And I said no, that they weren’t– which was perfectly true.  I wasn’t telling them just what they wanted to hear, but what my vision of the show was.

[My main characters] aspired to those things, but were nowhere near reaching them.  And I quoted another archetype, another movie that was important for me, which was The World of Henry Orient.  About a little girl chasing Peter Sellers around New York -- which I later learned was actually based on the real experience of the author, with Oscar Levant, of all people.  The original book was written by Nunnally Johnson’s daughter [Nora], and she had had for some bizarre reason an insane crush on Oscar Levant, so that was why there was this concert pianist character, played by Sellers, who they were crazy in love with.

I said that’s sort of the level of sexuality these [Square Pegs] girls are operating on.  So the CBS executives got it, and they bought the show on the phone.  Sad to say, I never had the meeting with NBC, because that actually would have been a better network, probably.  Hindsight being 20/20, maybe that would have kept the show on the air longer, because they were still struggling.  It turned out it was actually one of Brandon Tartikoff’s favorite shows.  He tried to buy it as a summer replacement show, but they had already unfortunately syndicated it to USA, so that deal didn’t happen.

Cheers was on NBC, and they had lower ratings than we did that year.  But [Tartikoff] believed in that show, and kept it on the air.  Unfortunately we were on the “Tiffany Network,” and were messing with CBS’ ratings.  This in the day when there were only three networks.  We had a 23 share.  Now if you had a 23 share, you would be the queen of Hollywood.  More people saw Square Pegs than ever watched an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond, and Square Pegs was a flop.  That’s the ironic part about it!

We did special material for the Square Pegs DVD, which comes out on May 13 [2008], and I think it will do well, although that depends upon if they promote it or not.  But it might do quite well, because people who were fans might buy it now for their kids.  Because it’s been 25 years.  So I think maybe the people who were 13-year-old girls are moms now, and might say it’s great for their kids.  That’s what I’m hoping, anyway.  There could be potentially a new generation of fans.  There’s still a tremendous amount of web presence for the show, all these web sites and things like that, and places where you can download episode guides and songs.  There’s a tremendous amount of fan stuff that’s out there.

 

The Launch of SJP, and Her New Friend, Amy Linker

We tried to tie the DVD to coincide with the Sex and the City movie.  We were able to get Sarah Jessica Parker on all the extras – actually all the cast members, except Merritt Butrick, who died [in 1989] and Jon Caliri, who was unavailable.  [SJP] had done Annie, but as she herself has said, she was not the first Annie [on Broadway]; she was like Annie #3 in the production, and she wasn’t Andrea McArdle.  And so really, that had not launched her career; so yeah, we did kind of discover her.  The person who was really responsible for that was Eve Brandstein -- she was the casting director for Norman Lear -- who also could be credited for discovering George Clooney and so many others.  She put a lot of people on shows.

When I finally wrote the pilot script – it was kind of amazing because it was the first sitcom ever I had anything to do with – I wrote the script, rewrote the script, it went to pilot, and then series.  I was like “Oh, I think I’ll do this [for a living.]”  Little did I know, it was like getting struck by lightning to get that to happen.

When the show was going to go to pilot, every production company in Hollywood was sniffing around, because I had this deal and a show for which I’d just written the script completely on my own.  So I was the most popular person in Hollywood at that point.  People were sending me flowers and champagne – it was amazing.  On the strength of Mary Kay Place’s recommendation, I went with Norman’s company.  She said “If you want to have your creative vision serviced…”  That’s how Eve and I first met.  Eve and Kim Friedman, who directed the pilot, and I went on a cross-country mission to find kids for this show.  And one of the big things about Tandem, as Norman’s company was called then, was that they were willing to cast age appropriately.  Because everybody else wanted [actors] over 18.  Like in 90210; they didn’t want the trouble of working with actual, real kids.  And so that was another reason that really sold me on [Tandem] as a production company, because they did work with kids.  With The Facts of Life and so on, they were accustomed to it, and would cast age appropriately.

Sarah Jessica Parker was the first person that I ever saw for the role of Patty.  Eve brought her in.  We were in New York, and she read, and Eve was like, “Isn’t she great!”  And I was like “Yes… but she’s too pretty.” Eve had a pair of sunglasses, knocked out the lenses, and put them on her, and said, “Now have her read.”  I still wasn’t convinced.  We made her come back like 8 times to audition.  You know how it is – do you take the first apartment you see?

Obviously she was the best person -- and with the Lauren character, we had similar issues because we were meeting these chubby girls.  And we knew we could put on fake braces.  But we were still reading girls who were chunky, and couldn’t find anybody.  Then I had the idea that we could put her in a fat suit.  Because I remembered when we were doing the bees on SNL, and we had these little padded body suits for the bee characters.  In 1982, the whole thing of prosthetics wasn’t nearly as advanced as now.  But still I thought, “Why can’t we do that?”  So poor Amy Linker had to wear fake braces and body padding and still deliver a performance.  Sarah had, of course, fake glasses, and as she said, she had to dress as an Appalachian child.  She got her revenge for that later!

 

Casting the Cool Kids

Literally, we went everywhere.  San Francisco, Atlanta, Boston, Chicago.  Jami Gertz was in Chicago, and she had kind of done local commercials.  Nothing really.  And Tracy Nelson was a funny thing, because she said to me when she auditioned, “You worked with my father.”  I was like “What?” and it turned out her dad was Ricky Nelson, who had been a host on SNL.  Which made me feel a lot older suddenly.  I got a few gray hairs there, I think.

So we did really do the Gone With the Wind talent search to get these people, the embodiment of the characters as I saw them.  One reason the show worked so well, I have to credit the casting.  John Huston used to say casting was everything, and I really have to say that it is.

 

A Slice of Real Life

I think [all the characters] were high school archetypes.  That may have changed, but I suspect not all that much.  There’s the student leader like Muffy, the king and queen like Vinnie and Jennifer.  And then Jennifer had to have a friend and confidante, and I really wanted to have the show be multiracial, so it was logical to me to have an African American girl [played by Claudette Wells].  Which also was groundbreaking; not since I, Spy had there been black and white friends.  And this was 1982!  So that was important to me that there be a person of color in the show.  As there had been back where I was; Somers was a predominantly white bedroom suburb, but there were Black kids in the school.

My friend does know that Lauren was based on her – and I think she’s flattered.  I had saved all the notes we wrote to each other when I was in high school.  The one issue was whether the show needed to be period or not, like The Wonder Years, which came later.  I really wanted it to be contemporary, because I wanted to be able to do jokes about Reagan and things like that, and be “of today.”  So I borrowed the daughter of a friend of mine and her friend, who were 14-year-old girls who went to private school in Manhattan, and lived in Soho.  So I thought of them as reasonably sophisticated.  I wanted to check that I wasn’t totally off.  I remember, I took them to lunch and said, “Is there anyone in your school who is doing this?”  And they said “Oh no, only the sluts!”  And I thought, “God, things have not changed.”

And then I asked them, “Who are your heroes?” and they said Che Guevara – they didn’t really know who he was but had a poster – and James Dean.  And then I was like “Okay, I can still write this.”  But then I tried to keep my ears open to current slang, and that’s how the Jennifer Valley Girl character came about.  And that was before the song “Valley Girl;” even though the show was on the air after the Moon Zappa song came out, we had shot the pilot before that.  That was something Tracy came up with.  I remember Tracy said – she was not conventionally the pretty girl -- that she was auditioning with all these girls more conventionally gorgeous.  And they were like, “You’re not here for the Jennifer character!”  They were mean to her.  And so she figured “I’m going to get this” – this fierce resolve.  Here were the girls who had been mean to her in high school!  She ended up doing a devastating take on people she had observed.

 

 The Music of Square Pegs

The music was another thing that was groundbreaking – this was pre-Miami Vice.  There really hadn’t been rock and roll on TV since Ricky Nelson.  It was very important to me that the music be part of their world.  Johnny Slash, the anomalous character, was the way the music came into the show.  If you want to talk archetypes, there’s always the strange kid.  And he said he was “left back and laid back.”  It’s like that line in Animal House:  “Six years of college down the drain.”

I was listening to the radio, and I was going to clubs in New York, and was hearing these [New Wave] groups.  What was interesting about The Waitresses -- my friend Lynn Goldsmith is a rock and roll photographer who just put a book out.  She had taken shots of all these iconic people, like Springsteen.  She was someone I turned to for music world connections.  She told me about The Waitresses, “the perfect group for your show.”  I was like “Okay, the Waitresses.”  And then [coincidentally] I was listening to a song on the radio, “I Know What Boys Like” – [and thought] “this is the perfect group for my show!”  I said, “I don’t know about the Waitresses, but I want the group who did this song!”  So we got them, brought them out [to L.A.] to be in the pilot, and also to write the theme song. 

When they had Square Pegs on Nick at Nite at one point, they had a sequence which thrilled me, where they had people in the street, singing theme songs -- and they had people singing the Square Pegs theme song.  So I was pretty pleased.  I worked with them [in writing] it – glasses, and cliques, and so on.  I was telling them what it should deal with.

Once we did the pilot, and then it was picked up by CBS, which was also quite an amazing thing, the market research for it was not good.  It said things like “These kids should be in an insane asylum, not a high school.  They’re disrespectful of adults.”  Cleverly, Kim LeMasters kept it under his hat, because luckily for me, he had been promoted up the ranks as the show had moved along, and had more power, and was a big proponent of the show.  And ultimately [CBS senior programs executive] Harvey Shephard also became very fond of it.  His daughter, Greer Shephard, went on to produce such shows as Popular, and was a big fan of the show.

At one point, for Muffy’s bat mitzvah, it had originally been booked to be The Clash, and they fell through.  And funny, to think that The Clash was going to be on Square Pegs.  When they fell through, we had the Boomtown Rats begging to be on the show.  They sent us a side of smoked salmon.  Meanwhile, Devo was also another possibility, and they were local.  So I had to call up CBS and ask them which.  Harvey called his daughter Greer and asked her – she was in high school at the time – and she picked Devo.  So Devo was on the show.  And then they tried to cancel, and I couldn’t find out why they were cancelling; and it turned out the head Devo guy had scheduled root canal for the same week.  I remember being on the phone with him saying, “Change your appointment – you have a contract!”

 

Square Pegs on the Air

When the pilot got picked up, I had to hire a writing staff.  That was another struggle, because I remember they made me hire Andy Borowitz.  They didn’t want to have a staff composed entirely of women.  I wanted women because I was writing about girls in high school, so it seemed the writers should be women.  So the staff was women, and Andy.  He was our token male.  We used to call him Tootsie Borowitz. 

M*A*S*H was the only other single-camera show on the air at the time.  Our [Director of Photography] was a guy who had worked on M*A*S*H.  He was about 70 or something.  Emil Oster.  People were not shooting single-cam because it is more expensive; but now, everything is single camera.  Obviously there will always be multi cam shows, because comedians like to perform in front of a live audience.  I teach sitcom at USC – I work for the writing division of the School of Cinema and Television, now called the School of Cinematic Arts because George Lucas gave them a bunch of money.  I’m an adjunct professor.  And almost all the shows I’m teaching are single-camera.  Entourage, Weeds, even Scrubs or 30 Rock.  So that was another issue.  And that was another reason why – when I was in this bidding war where people were wining and dining me and wanting me to pick their production company – one of the stipulations I had had was that I wanted the show to be single cam.

I had worked on commercial parodies on SNL and actual commercials in England, which is where I had first worked in TV: 30 millimeter film, sixty-second black-and-white TV commercials in the ‘60s in London.  So it was very important to me to do [Square Pegs] in single camera, because for me it was a reality element.  I felt it should be [shot] in a real high school.  And it was shot in a real, abandoned high school, in Norwalk, California.  It had been condemned for heating problems.  It was the school where they had shot Grease 2

The show was supposed to be set in upstate New York, outside of New York City – a la Somers.  But it was odd, because there ended up being a Valley Girl on the east coast – because she was a transfer student.  The reason we shot it in Norwalk was to find a school that looked like one of those WGA school buildings they built during the Depression on the East Coast.  There wasn’t that kind of school in Beverly Hills.  And so the exterior shot was actually a middle school that’s over on McCadden place in Hollywood, and the interiors were all at the school in Norwalk, which was great; we would never have been able to build those sets.  We had the full cafeteria, and an auditorium and theater – it was an amazing physical plant.

What was very lucky was there was a football strike.  Football was on another network, ABC, but it was lucky for us in terms of our competition.  We were on opposite Little House on the Prairie on NBC, so that was the real ratings competition, because obviously it was a similar audience.  I never wrote the show to be a kids’ show.  I didn’t realize that, that they would say “Is it an 8 o’clock show or a 10 o’clock show?”  To me it was a show.  It was meant to be for everybody.  It was sort of ghettoized by CBS in a way I never intended to happen.

[Mondays at 8PM] wasn’t a great night or a great time slot.  But because of the football strike, we were protected for a while.  Then they moved us to Wednesdays at 8:30, and that was the death of the show.  They said “We have great new show to give you as a lead in:  Zorro and Son.”  There wasn’t a lot of competition, but in a counter-programming move, NBC moved The A-Team up to 8 o’clock, and that was the end.  Suddenly we got a 12 share – still not so shabby in today’s terms, but then it was death.  I was in New York and called up to get the overnights, and the girl told me 12, and I knew pretty much that it was over.  And then she asked me for a job, and I wanted to go, “With timing like that, stay out of comedy.”

We got cancelled after 20 episodes.  It would have been nice to get 22 or 24, but we had 20.  We had a lot of support from the network.  We had a lot of support from CBS, but not from the production company.  That show was expensive for them, and the guy who was running it, who later went back to England, just never got the show and didn’t support it.  He actually left the company after that year, because he also had allowed them to cancel Archie Bunker’s Place on his watch, and it wasn’t taken very well.  

We were on at 8, so we were trying to start the night.  We didn’t have a hammock, a lead-in.  The only lead-in we ever got was Zorro and Son, and of course that was famous [as a disaster, lasting just five episodes].  The thing about it is that if right now, you had a show that every 13- to 16-year-old girl was watching, you’d have Gossip Girl.  And you’d be a big hit. 

But here's the big difference between our show and other teen shows, like Our So-Called Life.  Our show was a comedy.  And I think that is a big difference.  If the show had been kept on the air, it had the potential to be more successful than drippy shows about teenage angst.  Our show was based on the premise that someday you'll look back on all this and laugh.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Join the Pet Set

If you are a fan of animals, of classic TV -- and here's a no-brainer:  a fan of Betty White -- then you'll want to check out today's DVD box set release of her early '70s talk show, Betty White's Pet Set.

The show's 39 full-color episodes, which debuted in 1970 -- in one early episode, Betty hosts her friend Mary Tyler Moore, years before she would join that show and become an iconic member of its cast -- boast a veritable who's who of  '70s television, each star stopping by to show off a beloved pet.  It's such a revealing and intimate look at the stars' personal lives, the kind you won't get during a packaged, PR-approved visit to The Tonight Show.

No one will ever have a career like Betty's, spanning eight decades in televi
sion, because Betty was quite literally there when they first turned on the TV cameras in Los Angeles, hosting hours each day of live talk.  By the time of Pet Set, Betty was an established pro, and it shows in her quick wit, and her ability to make her guests comfortable and move the segments along.  Combine that with her innate love for and comfort with all creatures great, small, and even deadly, and also her relationships with experts in zoology and conservation, and you have a breezy half hour that's both enlightening and entertaining.

I've heard that Betty has had these episodes sitting in her treasure chest for years, and decided now, at the show's 50th anniversary, was the perfect time to release them for a new generation to enjoy.  (They are also apparently available, for a fee, on Amazon Prime.)  The box set, which was released today, also boasts a good number of special features, including a behind-the-scenes mini-documentary; promo and public service spots; photo galleries of Betty and pets and also Betty and her husband /fellow producer Allen Ludden; and several featurettes about Betty subtitled Game Show Goddess and Queen of Television.

I spent the weekend bingeing episodes with such amazing guests as Mary Tyler Moore, Carol Burnett, Paul Lynde, Agnes Moorehead, Beverly Garland, Lorne Greene, Eve Arden and Barbara Feldon -- and I have so many more to look forward to, including Doris Day, James Stewart, Burt Reynolds, Shirley Jones, Michael Landon, Barbara Eden, James Brolin, Della Reese, Vincent Price, Eva Gabor, Eddie Albert, Peter Marshall, Rose Marie, Bob Crane, Bill Bixby, Jim Nabors, Bob Barker, Mike Connors, Barbara Bain, Dennis Weaver, Johnny Mathis, Donald O'Connor, Merv Griffin, Rod Serling, Pat Carroll, Peter Lawford, Vikki Carr, Amanda Blake, Arte Johnson, Sue Anne Langdon, Miyoshi Umeki, Richard Deacon, Nancy Kulpe and Billy DeWolfe.

Between Pet Set and my continued viewings of The Love Boat in preparation for writing my next book, I can look forward to spending many of these pandemic hours with some old friends from sunnier times past.  Thanks, Betty!



Wednesday, August 19, 2020

The Kids Are More Than All Right -- and you have a second chance to see them

F
or as much success as ABC has had in launching comedies that introduced us to American families of different ethnicities -- black-ish, The Goldbergs, and Fresh Off the Boat, as the most prominent examples -- the network has for some reason been unable, or more likely too impatient, to make a success out of a sitcom featuring an Irish-American clan.

In 2016, ABC launched the very funny The Real O'Neals, about a modern day Irish-Catholic family with a gay son -- but cancelled the whole enterprise after just two abbreviated seasons and 29 episodes.

Then in 2018 came The Kids Are Alright, an, I daresay, even better, funnier comedy, about the exploits of the gaggle of eight Cleary brothers and their comically world-weary parents (Mary McCormack and Michael Cudlitzin the turbulent 1970s. One needn't be Irish-American like me to appreciate the warmth and authenticity of this truly laugh-out-loud show -- plus, isn't everyone Irish at least that one day a year in March? -- but ABC clearly didn't see it that way.  In one of the network's more shocking, short-sighted cancellations of late (although remember, they also prematurely cancelled The Real O'Neals, Better Off Ted and Happy Endings, so should we be surprised, really?), the Cleary Kids lasted just one season.

I'm sure no one was as disappointed as the show's creator, Tim Doyle, and not just for the usual workaday reasons, but because The Kids Are Alright was based on his own upbringing, as the artistic child with acting aspirations amid a writhing horde of brothers.  Doyle, whose credits include beloved shows like Better Off Ted and Ellen, on which he served as executive producer, used his acting background to provide the voiceover narration for the show, which faithfully retold many of his own hilariously humiliating life stories.

But now, in a streaming world, is any sitcom family truly dead?  Just recently, all twenty-three episodes of The Kids Are Alright popped up on Hulu, which is both a joy and relief to me, because now I can safely delete them from the valuable real estate on my DVR.  In celebration of the Clearys' return, I asked Tim six questions -- I should have made it eight, one for each Cleary kid -- about why we should watch.


Must-Hear TV:  How did the show end up getting on Hulu?

Tim Doyle:  During the initial run, Disney made each episode available after airing on the abc.com website and Hulu. But after we didn’t get our season two order, it was quickly pulled down from both — which seemed weird. I didn’t understand their hurry to make us unavailable. Other canceled ABC shows were still being offered. Hell, there are canceled shows which I wrote back in the ‘90s still running on those sites. My first TV job, Jim Henson’s Dinosaurs, is coming back to Disney+ in a couple of weeks!

Fans of The Kids Are Alright kept contacting me on social media, complaining they couldn’t watch those original 23 episodes — nothing on any streaming service, no DVD release. What gives? Then when the quarantine descended, it just struck me as wasteful, like the company was missing a bet to give folks something they might enjoy bingeing during these crazy times, and maybe even build a new audience who didn’t find the show during its network run.

When fans reached out, I basically started encouraging them to write to Disney Channel, Disney+, ABC, Hulu — the various platforms Disney now owns. These fans are passionate. I think they even sent a few pleading letters to Nat Geo! And suddenly I got a nice email from Peter Rice, the CEO of Walt Disney Television, telling me that Kids would go back up on Hulu starting August 5. No idea what their internal process was, but I have to assume that viewer enthusiasm must have played a role.


MHTV:  How do you feel about the show being back and available for viewers to discover?

TD:  I obviously think it’s great. You make these shows to be seen, and I’m afraid Kids never really got the launch it deserved. Any interest in our premiere got massively overshadowed by the huge scandal in fall of 2018 surrounding Roseanne getting herself fired from our lead-in show, The Conners.

The press pretty much ignored our premiere, when they weren’t being preemptively dismissive as they often are with new network offerings. The glib wisdom regarding us was that we were just a ‘70s version of The Goldbergs — which nobody who watched a single episode would ever actually say. I must have read ten versions of the same smarty-pants “Goldberg Variations” joke among the quippy quick hot takes folks who write for the short attention span media.

It was gratifying, however, when more serious TV columnists weighed in and we got almost universal praise, I assume because they actually took the time to watch the episodes. We received an extremely high rating on Rotten Tomatoes as well, and the pilot script earned a WGA nomination for best writing of a comedy episode. I felt confident that if we made past summer we could easily pick up a few Emmy nods — at least Mary McCormack, Michael Cudlitz and our art department. With that encouragement the cast and crew worked insanely hard and delivered a consistently strong first series of 23 episodes. The show did well but was never quite a ratings hit, struggling to break through all the media clutter. So now I feel like there’s git to be a massive captive audience out there who can discover and love this show if we can only help them find it on Hulu.




MHTV:  What to you is so personal about the Clearys that you want to share with the audience?


The Kids Are Alright creator
Tim Doyle with his TV alter ego,
Jack Gore, at PaleyFest,
September 8, 2018.
TD:  Well, it really is based upon my childhood, my family, my parents -- so writing it was the most gratifying and fascinating creative act I have ever experienced, a true act of confession — of saying things I’ve always wanted to say about being a brother, being a parent, being a son, being a Catholic, being lower middle class, and living through that very confusing decade of the 1970s. For thirty years I’ve been writing other people’s TV shows, telling my own stories only through that distorted, veiled lens. By contrast Kids was so pure and gratifying. No, it’s not a documentary. A lot of things had to be changed from my real life for technical reasons, for legal reasons, or for comedy, but... I can now say to my daughter, or some grandchild down the road... to anybody interested, really: If you want to know who I am, watch the show. It’s all in there. I got that rare opportunity in an artist’s life to cut straight down to the bone and give you my DNA. And a major corporation paid for it all!  


MHTV:  What parallels are there between the time period the Clearys live in versus where we are now?

TD:  The anger in the public discourse was very similar to now, the social and political divide. I think now is worse, but only by a bit. In 1972 some of our beloved national leaders had recently been ASSASSINATED, and we watched it happen on live TV — as disorienting, scary and surreal as witnessing 9-11.

The Vietnam War had us divided. Nixon had us divided. Like today everyone was on a hair trigger of rage, exhilaration and frustration as we watched violent street protest and a presidency falling apart. Would our republic even survive? These are real questions we worried over then and are definitely revisiting today.

My father had terrible politics. But I loved and respected him. I loved my mom as well but she was suppressed and oppressed by the times, never becoming the fully realized person she certainly should have been. And watching the two of them struggle and puzzle through those turbulent years where everything they valued was suddenly up for grabs gave me the perspective to become — for good and for bad — the person and the artist I am today. 


MHTV:  Were you surprised the show didn't get picked up for season 2?  What were your plans for the family and their further experiences?

TD:  There were a number of warning signs along the way, but I was still absolutely flabbergasted with disbelief when ABC chose not to order a second season. In my mind — and I think there’s an objective case to be made for it — we were the BEST comedy on their schedule, CERTAINLY better than several of the shows with LOWER or absolutely comparable ratings which they chose to renew instead. I could not believe the choices they made.

I remember telling Karey Burke that she must possess a high threshold for embarrassment to keep several of the shitty shows she did and toss mine in a dumpster. (BTW this lack of diplomacy with my bosses might also have been a factor in getting my show canned.) In retrospect, our status on the network became much less secure as soon as Channing Dungey and Jamilla Hunter left ABC in December 2018, and were replaced by Dana Walden and Karey. A new creative team coming in always wants to prove itself with a sharp change of direction, and Kids was a leftover project of Channing’s. She had been our champion. Suddenly ABC was giving us fewer on-air promotions, our strong lead-in The Conners went away, and we found ourselves pre-empted to try out new shows in our time-slot. I should have seen the writing but I still naively thought that our superior quality would win the day.

In terms of season 2 and beyond, I have notebooks full of scribbled notions, things we just never got to in the first 23. And more stuff pops up every day — a glance at an old family album or seeing a retro commercial on the internet will send me instantly right back to 1972. The great thing about a series which comes out of your life is the deep story resources immediately at your disposal. Someone in the writers’ room asks, “Did Frank ever have a girlfriend?” or “Did your mom ever work outside the home?” or “Did Joey ever get in serious trouble with the law?” and you’re off to the races with memories of the funny, painful, real stories a family like mine experienced. I would LOVE to get to the REALLY GOOD stuff:  Timmy’s adolescence under Joey’s Bob Guccione-style tutelage and the tug-of-war I went through for years (am still going through?) between sex and my more childish passions, like magic, musical theater and puppetry!


MHTV:  Is there any chance, particularly if the show does well on Hulu, that it could come back?  And if it does, will you please change the spelling to "All Right?!" 

TD:  There’s always a chance. Just a year or two ago I would have scoffed. Dead is dead. Once a show has the stink of rejection on it no platform is going to risk the shame of associating itself with a proven failure.

But I can’t argue with the passion of our fans. They keep asking me for more — an animated cartoon, a comic book, a novel, a Halloween or a Christmas special. You have to think “never say never” these days. There is just sooooooo much TV and so so so many players with such a voracious appetite for content. Yes, I’ve moved on to other projects but I’m still scribbling in my notebooks ideas which I’d love to do on some future iteration of The Kids Are Alright. So wherever I end up next with my new series ideas — cable, streaming, network, Google Maps, the little TV built onto the gas pumps — if I find any further measure of TV success I’ll be looking to leverage that success into a revival of Kids taking place perhaps in 1974, 1975, 1976, 1977, reuniting that amazing cast and telling more stories from deep vault of my remarkable but also highly-typical American family. 

And yes, I’d be happy to change the “alright.” 

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

You Will Love Love, Victor


Love, Victor, starring Michael Cimino as Creekwood High School's latest queer/questioning student,
 premieres Wednesday, June 17 on Hulu
In 2018, Love, Simon made big-screen history as Hollywood’s first gay teen romcom.  Based on Becky Albertalli’s 2015 YA novel Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, the film, adapted by This Is Us head-writing duo Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger and directed by gay powerhouse producer Greg Berlanti, ended up grossing $66.3 million in worldwide box office, against a production budget of $10-17 million, making it a bona fide hit – and deservedly so.

Having seen Love, Simon at least a half-dozen times since its release – it has become one of those films that, if I happen to come across it on TV or even on screen in a bar, I just drop everything, settle in and watch it to the end – I was both excited and maybe even a little nervous to hear that the film was being further adapted into a television series, Love, Victor.

Now, after viewing all ten episodes of Love, Victor’s first season (which drops on Hulu this Wednesday, June 17), I am not just pleasantly surprised, but thrilled by this expansion of the Simonverse.  The show has all the film’s best DNA, including literal links to the Simon characters we fell in love with, and yet expands the world of Creekwood with new, endearing, and more diverse characters.

Actually, I didn’t just “view” all ten episodes of Love, Victor; that word is way too casual for what my husband, Frank DeCaro, and I did that night last week.  We binged Love, Victor.  We devoured it.  And days and days later, we can’t stop thinking about it.  The show may be more literally aimed at a teen audience, to match its mostly teen characters; but for older viewers as well, gay or straight, it brilliantly brings you back to those moments in high school when decisions were tough, when the stakes were high, and when abject humiliation seemed imminent.

So if you’re like me, and immediately binge all ten roughly half-hour episodes in one sitting and are left in its particularly satisfying, cliffhanging end moments, you’ll be googling to find out what’s next for Victor and the entire Salazar family in Atlanta.  That’s why, in my interview with Love, Victor’s executive producer and showrunner Brian Tanen below, I start with mention of season two, and work my way back.




Love, Victor showrunner Brian Tanen
Must-Hear TV:  Here we are, just a few days before Love, Victor premieres on Hulu – and in what seems to be a big show of confidence on the part of the network, the show is already renewed for a second season.  At this moment, how far are you into writing season two?

Brian Tanen:  We have been at it for a few weeks. We're in the early to middle part of the season, coming up with ideas for what we might be headed, and it's really exciting. [With season one] it was incredibly exciting and meaningful experience to get to work on a show and a season about a kid really figuring out who he is and, and as we do within the LGBT community, having to come to terms with it and stop being afraid of it, start embracing it and eventually even feel pride for who you are.

That's really the journey of season one.  So season two is exciting, because it's all those things that happen next. Once you have figured out who you are, you have a whole range of experiences that you've been denying yourself. And so it's really wonderful to get to have a character who has figured things out and gets to experience first, love first heartbreaks, first sexual experiences  -- all the rich experiences that everyone has.



Must-Hear TV:  Yes, and I won’t give away the season one cliffhanger, but boy, did you leave us on a cliff!  

Brian Tanen:  It's a cliffhanger but it is also a really important, conclusive ending to the story of season one.

Ana Ortiz and James Martinez as Victor's parents, Isabel and Armando Salazar.
Previously, Ana has played the mother of a  gay son (Mark Indelicato) on Ugly Betty,
while James currently recurs as the father of a queer daughter
(Isabella Gomez) on Pop's One Day at a Time.

Must-Hear TV:  When you wrote that last scene of the first season, did you write beyond it, or even shoot further into the scene to use it in season 2?

Brian Tanen:  I think our feeling was that it was Victor's [Michael Cimino] journey.  And we knew that we didn't want to go past that. In the opening moments of the show, Victor tells the audience that his story is nothing like Simon's. And while we know [Victor’s parents] Isabel and Armando [Ana Ortiz and James Martinez] at this point of the season, and we know that they're crazy about their kid, we also know that they're more conservative, they're deeply religious, and we just know that it's going to be a more complicated journey ahead for Victor.

One of Armando's first questions is where in the new Atlanta
apartment to hang the crucifix.

Must-Hear TV:  What was your first experience with the “Simonverse” or the Creekwood universe?  Did you read the book?  Had you seen the movie?  How did you get involved with Love, Victor?

Nick Robinson in Love, Simon,
 released in 2018.  Nick is one
of the producers of Love, Victor.
Brian Tanen:  I came to the project originally as a fan. I had seen the movie and loved it.  Then Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger, who wrote the film and created this series, met with me early on in the process to talk about how they wanted to adapt it from film to television, and they pitched out for me, what their take was on expanding the universe of Creekwood and how the new story would be connected to Simon from the film, and I thought it was such a brilliant take. I absolutely adored the movie. But I understood some of the conversation about the fact that Simon had this idealized experience.  The fact that so much of LGBT representation is always focused on white characters. The fact that Simon's family was so accepting, and wealthy, it just seemed like that character came from a certain amount of privilege. And there was certainly an opportunity to tell a different story here, which really excited me.



Must-Hear TV:  In the structure of the show, Victor writes to Simon in each episode for advice.  In season two, will we see Victor pay it forward to someone else?

Brian Tanen:  I won't give any spoilers for season two, but I know on the writers’ room wish list we would love for Victor to not be alone as an LGBT student at Creekwood. I know we'd love to be more queer characters to populate our world.



Must-Hear TV:  When you start with a movie, how do you expand its world to add in more story for secondary characters?  Love, Simon had some great moments for supporting characters, but obviously with a series you have more time for that.  What were some of the conscious ways that you made Victor's world a little bigger than Simon’s had been?

Rachel Hilson as Victor's girlfriend, Mia
Brian Tanen:  One of my favorite parts about the show is that Victor isn't the only person dealing with secrets or problems. You learn over the course of the season about the personal problems of Mia [Rachel Hilson], Felix [Anthony Turpel] and Lake [Bebe Wood].  Everybody, especially teenage characters, is dealing with their own problems and their own secrets. And so it was a joy to be able to explore their lives and tell their stories, as well. And we have such a incredible cast of young actors. Each one of them to me feels like a little find.  So you just kind of wanted to live in their world and find out more and more about them.


Isabella Ferreira as Victor's sister, Pilar
Must-Hear TV:  As is Isabella Ferreira, who plays Victor’s sister, Pilar.  It feels like every one of those characters had his or her own moment of coming-out, not necessariliy as queer, but there was the same process of opening up and showing vulnerability.

Brian Tanen:  Yeah, I think that's exactly right. Even the parents are somewhat “closeted” about the things that are happening in their lives. The parents have this big secret, too, and that sort of explodes in the early to middle part of the season.



Must-Hear TV:  What was the thought process behind Victor's ethnicity? How did his family come to be Latinx?

Brian Tanen:  I think there was a concerted effort to tell a different story than Simon's from the film.  In queer representation, there’s often a focus on young, white men.  And we felt that a coming-out journey would be different through the lens of a non-white character.  And we were lucky to have a wonderful writing staff that was highly LGBT-forward and Latinx-forward, and as a result, we were able to pull from people's individual experiences so that the stories would be as authentic as they could be.


Anthony Turpel as Felix and Michael Cimino
 as Victor -- or is this "Velix?"
Must-Hear TV:  I’ve been contacted by people on twitter who are already ‘shipping different combinations of characters – I have one person asking me about “Velix” – and I don’t want to confirm or deny that that’s what happens.  But how did you decide the beats for Victor’s love story?  After Love, Simon, how do you tell another teen gay male love story differently?  It seems like there are only so many romcom tropes at your disposal.

Mason Gooding as jock and part-time
 antagonist, Andrew
Brian Tanen:  I have also seen the tweets where people are ‘shipping Victor and Felix, and they're ‘shipping Felix and Andrew [Mason Gooding], and there's an assumption that every character on the show will be queer.  And I find that so endearing!  Fans are guessing who's going to get together. And while a lot of it is not quite right, I do think there are individual little love stories within the season, some of which are platonic. But that those pairings are still ‘shippable, if you know what I mean, right?  I find Victor and Felix's relationship one of the most endearing of the entire show.  

George Sear as Creekwood's resident
out  student/barista/guitarist, Benji
In terms of telling a different teen gay love story, I think the story of Love, Simon was an untraditional romantic comedy in that it was two people who are missing each other the entire time, and didn’t know each other's identity. Love, Victor has some of the romcom DNA, but there's this doomed love triangle situation happening. We, the audience, are probably aware that this is not really going to work. But we also understand that there's real love there. And then there's Benji [George Sear], who is more like a fantasy all season, this ideal who makes Victor's heart go pitter patter.  I think in future seasons, all of that fantasy stuff kind of becomes real. There's actually a lot of story opportunity.



Must-Hear TV: What would this show have meant to you when you were a teenager? And turn that into a pitch for why teenagers should watch, and why adults should watch.

Brian Tanen:  I can't think of another show on television that has a young gay protagonist. So, for any teenager seeing this story, which has so much heart and affirmation and joy – well it’s funny that I get emotional thinking about it again, but you use it.  We would tell these stories in the writers’ room about things that happened to us in high school or, or what we wish had happened, and then we would get to put them in the show. So I think for any teenager who is struggling with these issues, to be able to see themselves represented on screen and represented in a way with heart and joy will just be an absolute breath of fresh air.  And for parents and really anyone else, the show is just incredibly charming and inclusive, and it will cure your summertime blues.  We're going through really turbulent times right now. The show has a message of love.  I feel like it’s kind of right what the doctor ordered right now.



Must-Hear TV:  I know it was obviously deliberate that the show would debut in June for Pride month, but who knew that we’d also be going through such turmoil as a country, and that the show could be a balm.

Brian Tanen:  We talk a lot in the writers’ room about how LGBTQ rights as we know them were largely born out of the Stonewall riots, and how that movement was championed and led by black trans activists.  So we feel a great deal of solidarity with what's happening in the country right now.  And I think the show hopefully feels like a show about inclusivity and equality and wanting to make the world a better place.



Must-Hear TV:  What I like about Victor is that he takes action to make his world better.  So many of the protagonists from the teen movies I knew were more passive, like Molly Ringwald waiting in the window for Jake to show up.  But there are a few moments in this season where Victor really takes a chance.

Brian Tanen:  Who amongst us hasn't been in a situation where you are close to the person you have a crush on?  And it feels like something might happen, but neither person is brave enough to make that move. But in our wish-fulfillment version, Victor goes for it.  For the writers, there was a lot of feeling like, “if only we could rewrite our own histories, and be braver.”  And even though it takes him a while, Victor does become a brave character.



Must-Hear TV:  Speaking of wish-fulfillment in looking back, do you think you will hear from older LGBT people who say, “If only I’d been more like Victor?”

Bebe Wood as Creekwood classmate Lake
Brian Tanen:  When Love, Simon came out, I noticed my Facebook feed was filled with comments from gay friends of mine, adults who had gone to see this film and absolutely loved it. And even though it’s about teenagers and is geared largely to a younger audience, a lot of LGBT adults didn't have that sort of romcom experience, so they still have an appetite for it, and still have a desire to see a younger generation have this moment.  So I'm hopeful that this will resonate with with adults as well.



Must-Hear TV:  What can you tell us about Season Two?  Because I'm sure there are going to be a lot of people like me who devour season one within one day and want to know more.

Brian Tanen:  Well, one thing I think I can say is that I think people are aware that the show had originally been written for Disney+, and then was eventually moved over to Hulu.  And now the reality of having our season two on Hulu provides so many opportunities to see these characters grow up. The writers on our staff, especially the gay writers, knew that one of the major problems with the representation of LGBTQ characters in media is that we're allowed to exist as long as we are not very sexual, if we're the funny friend, or the sidekick, but you rarely see narratives centered around characters who are have their own desires and crushes and sex lives. And so, now that we're on Hulu, that's something that I know we are all excited to write about, teenagers going through their first sexual experiences.  And what that looks like in 2020 when you're an LGBTQ teen.



Must-Hear TV:  So basically, thanks to Hulu, now you can be a little more risqué?

Brian Tanen:  I think we could be.  I think season two will be even sexier.



Love, Victor season 1 (10 episodes) premieres on Hulu on Wednesday, June 17.