'Life in Pieces' Creator on Appealing to the 'Modern Family' and 'Parenthood' Set

Justin Adler on early comparisons to 'Modern Family' and fitting in his extensive cast.
Darren Michaels/CBS

CBS hasn't had much luck with non-Chuck Lorre, single-camera comedies of late and hopes to change that with freshman entry Life in Pieces. With series like Bad Teacher and We Are Men failing to attract an audience, the network has mostly stuck with its tried and true multicam formats the past few seasons.

That's about to change with Monday's debut of the Justin Adler-created comedy Life in Pieces, which draws comparisons to ABC hit Modern Family.

The series centers on a multi-generational family, with each grouping of family members going through their own unique phase in life. James Brolin and Dianne Wiest portray the head of the family, with Betsy Brandt, Colin Hanks and Thomas Sadoski playing the three adult children. Zoe Lister Jones and Dan Bakkedahl round out the cast.

Each week the plan is to unfold four unique stories that tie the family unit together in some way, while appealing to a broad audience. The Hollywood Reporter turned to Adler to get the inside scoop on the challenges of building such a format, comparisons to Modern Family and Parenthood and more.

What’s your target audience — families or adults?

It was constructed in a way that whatever real story we could draw on as writers from our own lives — whether we’re single, dealing with older parents, have little kids or are in relationships — that there’s going to be a character for viewers to relate to. There are maybe a couple of little holes of ages. Hopefully if the show is successful the baby in the show can get to a preschool age where we can do those stories, too.

Knowing kids might be watching, what was the conversation around the pilot’s no-such-thing-as-Santa Claus reveal?

I hope it was executed in a way where if you’re young enough you’re not going to know what they’re talking about. That was my intent, anyhow. There was something with a promo package at one point where somebody added something and I was adamant about taking it out for that reason.

How will the children factor into the stories?

We’ve just written a story where the 8-year-old, Sophia (Giselle Eisenberg), gets put in a time out and the whole story is told from her point of view in a voiceover in her head. We also just shot a story with her and Brolin. She sees the rest of her family on their phones all day long but she’s not old enough to have one. Her grandfather becomes the sucker who winds up buying her a phone. We’ve written a story about the 17-year-old, Tyler (Niall Cunningham), who is trying to get his first job with his two buddies. So there are absolutely stories that all the kids will have from their point of view.

Does sharing the heavy lifting make it appealing for this caliber of cast to participate?

I honestly think it does. It’s hugely attractive for not only our cast but it’s attractive for guest cast as well. We have some amazing people to be in our first few episodes that we’ve shot, starting with Jordan Peele in the pilot. They know they only have to work one day so it’s not a huge commitment. But it is appealing for the main cast too, when they only have to work a few days a week. They can have the feature time on camera and then also live their lives; it’s fantastic for them.

What’s your first-season pitch for the guest stars?

I don’t know! Peele was excited about the pilot script so he just wanted to be a part of it creatively. And he happened to know some of our cast members. Since then we’ve gotten people like Ken Marino, Rhys Darby (Flight of the Concords), Stephanie Weir (The Comedians) and Martin Starr (Silicon Valley). We also just cast Alex Borstein (Family Guy), so we’re getting people who are just excited to be a part of the show.

Will the show continue to stage big life events like in the pilot or do you pull back?

You can’t tell stories every week like we were telling in the pilot, or else it would be like an insane soap opera. We used those pilot stories as launching points for where the characters are in their lives.

Where do you fit in with the comparison that this is Modern Family meets Parenthood?

We have a lot of people who are involved in Modern Family working on our show, and early on in the production of the pilot they kept referencing things about Modern Family. I would nod and agree and go along with what they were saying, and finally as we were in the editing room cutting the pilot together, I had to confess to everybody that I had never seen Modern Family before. So I really don’t know how it compares, and at this point I actually like that I haven’t seen it because now I feel like I’m making this in a vacuum in a sense. I also never really watched the show Parenthood, but I loved the movie and I do feel like this show draws from that. But to me this show was inspired by Looney Tunes, this melting pot of the same cast of characters but you never knew which grouping of characters you would get. So that’s what it’s closest to for me, not Modern Family. In my mind it’s not connected at all.

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Will every character be in every episode?

That’s our challenge. It makes it much easier in the writers’ room in some ways, because everything is so modular and compartmentalized. But the challenge we didn’t really anticipate is breaking stories and putting them in groupings of characters where everyone is at least represented in one of four stories every week. We want everyone involved every week in at least one thing. Moving the pieces of the puzzle around to make sure everyone is represented has been the most challenging thing.

Colin Hanks was the first actor cast; how actively did you pursue him?

When we were talking about casting the main roles, he was a name that came up often off of his turn in Fargo and how amazing he was. We didn’t expect him to say yes, but we got him the script and he just really related to it. We had a meeting and talked about it, and we also talked about our kids being at the same school together and we realized that our 2-year-olds were going to start in the fall together. He just felt this was something that fit his life. As soon as he said yes it took off from there. I think everyone else started realizing the caliber of talent that we were attracting and it only sort of cascaded from there.

Life in Pieces premieres Monday, Sept. 21 at 8:30 p.m. on CBS.

Twitter: @amber_dowling

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