Thursday, March 23, 2017

Lauren Ash and Nico Santos Talk Tonight's Superstore... and what they hope for the show's future

With Lauren Ash and Nico Santos
for NBC's "Summer Press Day"
Beverly Hilton hotel, Beverly Hills,
March 20, 2017
 This past Monday, NBC held a soiree in Beverly Hills to preview the network’s upcoming summer series.  Throughout the day, we critics saw clips of new shows like Midnight, Texas, and previews of upcoming seasons of The Wall, Hollywood Game Night and The Night Shift.  Then that night, the casts and producers of many of the shows mingled on the rooftop of the Beverly Hilton hotel.  And although I did talk a little about the new stuff coming up, I was most excited to see two stars of NBC’s hilarious comedy Superstore.

Tonight, we get to see an important episode of this second season, as Mateo (Nico Santos) deals with the repercussions of the revelation of his relationship with Jeff (Michael Bunin) – which includes being forced to transfer to a different store.  The episode, titled “Mateo’s Last Day,” is also notable in that it was directed by that series’ multi-faceted star, America Ferrera.

I spoke with Santos and with Lauren Ash – aka Dina, although in her glam blue hostess-pant outfit, you’d never see the resemblance – about tonight’s episode, the future of Superstore in season three, and what they’d like to see happen for their characters.

Must-Hear TV:  How does life at Cloud 9 change now that Dina and Mateo’s secrets are out?

Nico Santos:  We’re out of the closet now!  As you saw from the end of the last episode, Mateo has to transfer stores for the romance to work.  So this next episode – which America directed, and is a lot of fun – is titled “Mateo’s Last Day.”  To what capacity, the audience will just have to wait and see.  But there’s a lot of drama that happens with his undocumented status, and with Jeff, there’s some drama. 

MHTV:  I’ve been fooled by the show before, like with the walkout at the end of season 1.

NS:  Well if you thought the season 1 finale with the walkout was crazy…

Lauren Ash:  …You’ll have to wait for the season 2 finale.  Which we can’t give details about, but…

NS:  …It makes the season 1 finale look weak!

The cast of NBC's Thursday night comedy
LA:  What I will say is I don’t know how they’re going to get us out of it, and I don’t know that they know how they’re going to get us out of it.  Which is amazing.

MHTV:  I wrote a book about Will  Grace, and those writers used to say that every season they deliberately painted themselves into a corner with the finale, because the fun was figuring your way out.

LA:  Absolutely.  That was also Dexter.  That constantly happened at the end of seasons of that show, where it was like, “Now what?!”  Not that we’re a murdering type show, but…  Who knows!

MHTV:  Would you think it was unusual if you found out Dina had a closet full of bodies?

LA:  I feel like she’s too much of a rule follower to actually commit a murder, but….

NS:  Mateo would totally have bodies. 

LA:  Yeah, he would bury a body for sure.  But there’s great stuff coming up.  Obviously the Dina/Garrett storyline is so much fun.  Yes, they know that they are sleeping together, and that they like sleeping together – but they also hate each other.  So it’s pretty fun.  I think it’s a great metaphor for modern romance and dating, in the app world that we live in, where people date a bunch of people at the same time.  It’s kind of a different world than it was even like 10 years ago.  So there’s some really fun stuff coming.  And the other thing we can tease is that this season’s second-to-last episode does not set foot in the store.  That’s a first.  Because we’ve seen us outside the store, but we’ve never had an episode that’s completely out of the store.  Fans are going to go crazy.

MHTV:  Is it set at some kind of retreat?

NS:  We’ve said too much!

MHTV:  How does Dina and Garrett’s relationship change now that everyone knows?  And how does it change life in the store?

LA:  It’s somewhat business as usual, but now that the other characters know, their awkwardness is a fun thing.  We explore that [tonight’s] episode for sure.  How does this define them in the workplace?  Because they’re not in a relationship, they’re not married, they’re not engaged, they’re into even dating – in fact they hate each other.  But they do have this existing connection which has to be acknowledged.  But how do you acknowledge it?  There’s really fun play with the human resources aspect of what that would look like.

MHTV:  Yes!  If Mateo has to leave because of Jeff, then…

LA:  Exactly.  So what does that mean?  And Mateo and Jeff is a real relationship, but we don’t know what this is [with Dina and Garrett.]

MHTV:  But this is almost worse, because it could go wrong in so many different ways.

LA:  That’s right!  And the other great thing about tonight’s episode is that America directed it, which I don’t feel is getting enough press.  I think that should be out there more!  Because she did a fucking killer job!  She was great!  It was amazing.  No one knows the show better than us, and so what a gift, to have somebody who knows and has been there literally from day one be your director! 

MHTV:  Comparing the show to The Office, I think it’s pretty clear that Dina is very similar to Dwight, the weird rule followers.  Would you say that, Lauren?  And Nico, who would be Mateo’s Office counterpart?

LA:  I have to admit something, and I don’t normally do this because I feel bad about it, but I actually didn’t watch The Office.

MHTV:  You were in Canada!

LA:  But I did watch the British Office, that’s the thing.  So people often bring up “you’re the female Dwight.”  And I love the comparison, because I know he was a beloved character and he’s so funny.  But any similarities were not deliberate.  I don’t really have a frame of reference for him.

MHTV:  I would think some of it comes from the writing.

LA:  I think some of it is, certainly.  But I think ultimately, we all know somebody like that.  There’s always somebody in our lives who is that stick-in-the-mud, for lack of a more modern term.  So there’s something relatable about that archetype.  I think some people think I’m doing an impression of him, which is not the case.  I wouldn’t even know where to begin.  But any comparisons to that show are amazing.  That show was so successful and had so much heart, and people loved it.  So that’s a great statement.

NS:  I’m also not that familiar with a lot of characters from the Office.  But in season 1 of our show, people were asking, “Is Mateo like a Dwight-esque character as well?”  And I don’t think so.

MHTV:  I don’t know who he would be.

NS:  He’s Pam!

MHTV:  I was thinking maybe Angela.  They were both uptight, but had a romantic side.

NS:  Okay, I’ll take that!

MHTV:  Angela also dated a gay man!

LA:  But Parks & Rec I think is another comparison you can make.  A show which I loved.  And again, there’s Ron Swanson.  He isn’t necessarily like Dina or Dwight, but is.  It’s still that kind of character.  The really strong, confident, bold type.

MHTV:  But completely out of touch.

NS:  That’s the thing about our show.  You watch it, and you see somebody like Dina and somebody like Mateo or Garrett, and you realize, “Oh, I’ve worked with them before!”  We all play somebody who people have worked with before.

MHTV:  Why is everybody so mean to poor Sandra?

LA:  For the most part, it’s Dina being mean to Sandra.  People often ask me why, and my answer is always to say that I think Dina just smells weakness.  If Sandra were super-confident, Dina wouldn’t mess with her.  But because there’s a vulnerability there, she doesn’t respect her.

NS:  It’s so crazy, because Kaliko Kauahi, who plays Sandra, is so not her character.  She’s amazing.  She’s from the islands, very low-key.  She’s got a very laid-back, Hawaiian attitude.  So it’s so funny to see her portray Sandra, and people expect her to be that meek person, but she’s not.

LA:  She’s so sweet, too.  I feel bad screaming in her face.

MHTVSuperstore did something great, which was adding more secondary characters over time as they proved themselves popular.  Was that the case with Sandra, and Marcus the warehouse guy, and Myrtle?

NS:  Somebody like  Johnnny Pemberton who plays Bo, Kaliko as Sandra, Jon Barinholtz as Marcus – these three actors have really added so much to our show.  From the moment they were on the show for their first appearances, they meshed well.  I’m excited for them to get more into the show, and for other additions in the near future.

LA:  Because the reality of those stores is that people come and go like crazy.  You have some people who have been there for 30 years, and some who have been there for 3 weeks.  And there’s a lot of turnover.  So it’s great, because it opens up the writers to trying different people and characters.  Certainly, a character like Sandra, the audience responded to right away.  So it would have been silly for them not to pursue that.  And she’s become a huge storyline this season.

MHTV:  Lauren, has any of your real-life experiences at [Canadian retailer] Zellers been pitched as storylines?

LA:  So many have been pitched…

MHTV:  Has any landed?

LA:  No!  They love them but they haven’t done any of them yet.  So I’ve got to keep pushing.  There are some good ones that I feel like we’ll get into the show for sure eventually.

MHTV:  What do you hope happens in season 3 for each of your characters?

NS:  I really hope that we get to meet some members of Mateo’s family.  We almost never see a Filipino family on television.  Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is the first time.  And just like with any other family, Filipinos are just kind of crazy.  So I would love for our audiences to be introduced to them.

MHTV:  Who do you want your parents to be?

NS:  America is actually really trying to pitch me portraying my own mom!  Which I would do!

LA:  Nico Santos, Nico Santos and Nico Santos!

NS:  We’ll do a Nutty Professor thing.  I would love it!

MHTV:   How about for Dina?  What would you like us to see in season 3?

LA:  Dina’s birds!  This is the thing that the fans are crying out to see on social media.  And I have been pushing to Justin, so we’ll see.  We’ve talked about them so much, and what is it they say – “if you’re going to pull out a gun, you have to use it”?  So I think we have to see the birds.

MHTV:  What do you think Dina’s birds have been trained to say?

LA:  They pledge allegiance to the flag.  I think she runs them through military drills.  I just think it would be such a gift to see that.  There have been people on twitter who have also been pitching that Camryn Manheim should play my mother on the show, and that’s actually awesome!  Not that I’m suggesting that she looks old enough to be my mother at all, but I think she’s amazing.

MHTV:  She’d be a young mother, which would explain a lot about Dina’s upbringing.

LA:  Exactly!  And I think it would be great to see Dina’s mother, somebody in Dina’s family who makes Dina look like Sandra.  I would like to see the person in Dina’s life who makes her shut down, whoever that may be.  Someone from her past.  And, the other thing that I’ve forgotten to say earlier:  America and I are pushing so hard that Dina and Amy knew each other in high school, and we want to see a flashback.  This is our dream.  We have been pushing this with [executive producer] Justin [Spitzer], and he keeps giggling and saying “okay…”  But I love the idea that they went to high school together!  My opinion has always been that Dina would consider Amy to be her best friend, even though there’s no basis for that.  We never see each other after work.

MHTV:  I can’t imagine Dina has a lot of female friends.

LA:  She has no friends!  But in her mind, she thinks Amy is her best friend.  Which I always improv into different things, “Well, she’s my best friend, so…”  So I’d love to see what that dynamic was.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Meet Ms. Wilson

Betty White and Emily Osment
in Freeform's Young & Hungry
Tonight's episode of Freeform's sitcom Young & Hungry marks the introduction of a new character, Ms. Wilson -- played by a venerable lady who is anything but young.

The show's writers had laid out this Valentine's Day-themed episode, where after a misunderstanding Gabi has to return a ring she has just learned was not intended for her.  But as originally scripted, before Gabi can get to the ring, a mouse would nab it first.

But, as the show's creator David Holden notes, the network's executives found the mouse bit a bit forced, "and for lack of a better word, cheesy."  And so David and another of the show's writer/producers, Caryn Lucas, took a walk around the CBS Radford studio lot to brainstorm.

With Young & Hungry being directed by Andy Cadiff, who had worked with Betty White all through Hot in Cleveland, the Young writers already knew they wanted to find a way to lure Betty onto their set.  So when David and Caryn decided the plot would instead involve a neighbor in her apartment, "Caryn turned to me and said, 'What if the neighbor is Betty?'," David remembers.

The two rushed back to their offices and pitched the idea to the rest of the staff; ultimately, writer Rachel Sweet, who had spent years on Hot in Cleveland, was elected to write dialogue for Betty's new character:  the five-times-married widow, Bernice Wilson.

Betty filmed her scenes for tonight's episode in December -- not in front of the live audience, but pre-taped, mostly because her scenes would be shot on "swing sets" which are located off to the side of the soundstage, out of the audience's view.  Her scenes completed, Betty had had such a great time  that she indicated that day that she'd like to return.

And so, later this season, look for a romantic episode where Mrs. Wilson and Gabi take a danger-fraught road trip to Vegas.  As Gabi (Emily Osment) suffers through, at 25, her "quarter-life crisis," Bernice, turning 95 on the same day, has a preoccupation of her own:  to meet up with a man she kissed 20 years ago, and with whom she made a pact to meet as they turned 95.  Ultimately, Betty was thrilled not only to come back to Young & Hungry in a bigger plotline revolving around her character, but also to be playing opposite her real-life close friend Carl Reiner, aka Bernice's long-lost beau, Bernie.

As David explains, the writers came up with the idea of the age-based pact when they realized that the episode would be taping on the day of Betty's actual 95th birthday:  January 17, 2017.  After the scenes were shot, the Young & Hungry stages turned into a birthday party for Betty, with a select number of humans, including Carl and also her former Mary Tyler Moore Show and Hot in Cleveland co-star Georgia Engel, and a preponderance of animals.  Throughout the evening, Betty talked with her guests while nonchalantly cradling a porcupine, or armadillo, or a lynx which, David admits, "I was afraid was going to claw her face off."

Betty's second episode, opposite Carl, will air in May -- and it will probably not be her last; Young & Hungry's writers intend to bring back Bernice, whose relationship at ninetysomething is a nice counterpoint to Gabi and Josh's. Now that the show has gotten the "back order" of episodes to comprise the remainder of its fifth season, David explains that while the first ten episodes will be about Gabi and Josh (Jonathan Sadowski) realizing they were meant to be together, "the back ten will be about exploring what that entails."  And as Bernie and Bernice explore their own burgeoning love, the two women will be able to compare notes about what it means to move in with a guy.  "The younger with the older," David says, "is such a great dynamic."

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

RIP Bill Paxton, 1955-2017

Justin Cornwell and Bill Paxton
in CBS' small-screen adaptation
of the 2001 film Training Day.
It's hard to believe that the vibrant, talented and from all accounts good-hearted actor Bill Paxton passed away this past weekend at the age of 61, after complications from surgery.  Paxton rose to fame in film: he had a notable run with director James Cameron, in Aliens, True Lies and Titanic; he chased tornadoes with Helen Hunt in Twister;the native Texan was a gunslinger in Tombstone and Frank & Jesse; he was the piece-of-shit older brother (literally) in Weird Science.  And of course, Paxton found big success on the small screen, with his lead roles in HBO's Big Love, The History Channel's Hatfields & McCoys, and his current role as dirtyish cop Frank Rourke on CBS' recent debut, Training Day.

Training Day wrapped production of its first -- and especially now, probably its only -- season back in December, meaning that there are still episodes about to unspool, keeping Paxton's talent that much more alive through the end of this TV season.  The show debuted to only so-so ratings, and slipped thereafter, meaning it was probably a long-shot for renewal anyway.  There's been no word from CBS as to the show's fate -- contrast that, of course, to the cancellation of the network's other big midseason drama entry, Doubt, which was cancelled after just two episodes aired -- but here's hoping that, at the very least in tribute to Bill, we get to see all thirteen.  (Later this year, audiences will get to see Paxton's final film role, with the release of the sci-fi thriller The Circle, in which he co-stars with Tom Hanks.)

Last May 18 -- just a day after Paxton's 61st birthday -- I had the pleasure of interviewing him and his Training Day co-star Justin Cornwell about the upcoming show, and about how the Rourke character fit into the collection of characters in Paxton's career.  You've played a lot of bad guys, I remarked to him -- well, make that bad-ish guys.  Do you think these guys are what you'd call "justifiably bad?"

"Justifiably bad?  You bet.  To me, the characters I’ve played -- and I’ve played a few antagonistic characters – usually have more justification than the protagonist.  They have a real reason to be the way they are.  And certainly my character Frank Rourke in this, he’s been in this business a long time.  He’s a 30-year veteran.  He’s seen everything.  He’s seen stuff that would appall most normal people, who wouldn’t be able to go back to the job.  But it’s in his blood.  He’s a hunter.  I start off [Training Day] with a narration, talking about how LA has always been a hunting ground, going back to the Pleistocene days, ten thousand years ago.  The La Brea tarpits for God’s sakes!  And is hasn’t really changed.  [In playing a morally grey character in that setting], you have to have a reason for doing what you’re doing.  You’re not just the 'bad cop.'”

Having grown up in the '60s, Paxton later added, he was happy for today's emergence of "antihero" shows, and was happy to take on such a character in Training Day.  It's just one of the latest examples of a career's worth of characters, made memorable by a talented actor.