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.

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