'Life in Pieces' Creator on Experimenting With Format and Courting Justin Bieber

Justin Adler talks experimenting with the story format, season-long learning curves and Betsy Brandt's goldfish.
Neil Jacobs/CBS

Given the influx of family-oriented comedies to debut in the past few years it’s been a challenge for most to stand out from the pack. CBS’ Life in Pieces put its own spin on the format in its freshman season last year by breaking each episode into four vignettes, telling mini-stories about an extended family and their everyday trials and tribulations. It was an experiment creator Justin Adler was inspired to do based on Looney Tunes, and one that resonated enough with audiences for the show to score a second season.

When viewers last saw the family, Matt (Thomas Sadoski) and Colleen (Angelique Cabral) had just gotten engaged, Jen (Zoe Lister-Jones) and Greg (Colin Hanks) learned they were pregnant again, and Heather (Betsy Brandt) and Tim (Dan Bakkedahl) were reeling from the fact that their son Tyler (Niall Cunningham) had just announced his marriage to Clementine (new series regular Hunter King).

In Thursday’s season two premiere, “Annulled Roommate Pill Shower,” the series picks up pretty much where it left off, as Heather attempts to talk some sense into her son with the help of Clementine’s sibling-parents (guest-stars Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally) and everyone else adjusts to their big life changes.

To find out about the intricacies and roadblocks of crafting vignettes in this format, THR caught up with Adler. Here he talks second season challenges, playing with the established format and the storyline pulled from Betsy Brandt’s real life.

What was it like sitting down to break stories for a second year?

We were really excited to dig into season two because we felt like we had laid the foundation for our world and then were in a position to really start building upon it and expand it. We generated so many ideas in preproduction; it was actually a challenge to decide which stories to do first, which I thought was a really good sign. The season one finale left so many threads hanging in the air that we were able to launch off of for season two and just those specific arcs alone generated a bunch of ideas. Then there were the simple, relatable family moments we love telling — those actually became a challenge to fit in with all the arcing stories.

Does that make sticking to your vignette format a challenge as well?

Absolutely, it’s a real challenge. There are so many benefits to the format, but one challenge is that sometimes the stories can feel bigger than the format can hold. Often times in terms of our learning curve of the first season we found ourselves trying to tell traditional, half-hour A-stories in our five-minute story format. Those stories wound up not working as well; they felt thin and empty. Our best stories are these singular ideas or these comedic moments or a singular set piece. Or an idea that has enough moves in it but doesn’t feel like it’s so big that it overwhelms the format. We still find ourselves with stories that are too big for what we’re trying to do and we end up trimming the fat off it and get to the heart of the story in order to tell it our way.

Would you ever do a special episode where you get rid of the format?

We’ve talked about it. This year we’re going to start playing with our format a little more than we did last year. It was important to establish what our format was because it was slightly different than what audiences had seen before. Now that it’s established and it’s entrenched with the viewer we can start playing with that. We have an episode coming up that’s our Throwback Thursday episode. Since we air on Thursdays and that seems to be a popular thing on social media right now, all four stories are flashbacks from the past. It’s a great opportunity for us to let the audience in on some backstory that they would not have been able to see before. We have a singular dinner this year where all four stories pivot off a singular meal. We have a story that we’re doing where the whole family goes to the Rams game now that football is back in L.A. and all four stories take place at the football game. So they’re independent stories but all under the umbrella of a singular idea. At some point I would love to do a story where all four parts are one singular idea.

Would that particular episode have to revolve around a big life event like a wedding or something similar?

I think it would have to in order to warrant the uniqueness of the idea, but then again what I’m trying to establish is that within every episode we can do things differently and it still works for the tone of our show. It’s all fair game.

Do you ever revolve any of the stories around the actor’s real life experiences with their families?

Absolutely. We have a story coming up this year that’s based on something that happened in Betsy Brandt’s life, where Heather is desperately trying to keep her child’s goldfish alive by taking it to different vets only to have them laugh at her. Then winds up using a turkey baster to hand-feed a 29-cent goldfish that she’s desperate to keep alive.

Where do you pick up in the timeline when the show returns?

We’re picking up right away, and we meet Clementine’s parents. Heather is determined these kids should get their marriage annulled and she enlists Clementine’s parents for help and support. We’re also going to get Matt out of the house in the premiere now that he’s engaged to Colleen. Their relationship is always fraught with obstacles and now they’re moving in together only to be faced with the obstacle of Colleen’s roommate Dougie (Fortune Feimster). We’re also going to continue telling the Jen and Greg baby stuff. We’re picking up fairly continuously.

How did Nick and Megan’s casting come about?

We really wrote the characters in their voices as a model and totally expected them to be too busy to do it. But they read the script and really responded to it and thought it sounded fun. I can’t speak for them, but I think they responded to the uniqueness of the relationship and that’s what set it apart from them just being a husband and wife.

Zoe Lister-Jones has mentioned she’d love to get Justin Bieber on as Jen’s assistant. Are there any dream castings you’re angling for at this point?

No one that I can say definitively. We’re doing a Grammy episode so we’re hoping to get a Grammy musician and we have some thoughts on who that could be. That’s always really challenging, to get some huge singer to do a sitcom. We don’t have any specific plans to meet Jen’s assistant early on in the season, but that’s definitely something that would be fun to develop. Zoe keeps saying Bieber to me too … if we could do that, that would be great. Let’s put that out there, that would be awesome.

How will Jen and Greg’s pregnancy storyline compare to their first one?

We’re definitely looking to always top what we do, so we’re excited about the premiere episode and the story we’re telling with Jen and Greg. We spent a lot of the first season dealing in relatable ways of how new parents’ lives and relationships change with the arrival of the baby. That’s only going to continue … to have a toddler and to be pregnant is a unique thing in and of itself a challenge. What would life be like with two toddlers under the age of 3 and how does that affect your sanity?

How do Matt and Colleen feel about the fact that their nephew is married before they are?

There’s so much comedy to mine from that and we do have a story idea where Tyler and Clementine are trying to be super adult and have their first couples dinner party and they invite Matt and Colleen over to give them marital advice.

Is it important to have one couple on the show that isn’t married in order to represent that demo?

I tried to design the show so that any story from our lives we could relate it to one member of the cast or family … but the one thing that is somewhat absent is the single dating life stories. So that challenge of having so many characters married and in relationships has kept us from telling certain stories that we’d love to tell. Holding off on them getting married gives us an opportunity to tell stories about that time in a person’s life. Once they’re married that window closes and we wouldn’t have opportunities for those kinds of stories anymore.

Life in Pieces returns Thursday at 9:30 p.m. on CBS. 

Twitter: @amber_dowling

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