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A version of this story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
“When you get to a seventh season, you kind of need a pandemic,” notes Black-ish showrunner Courtney Lilly, halfway joking about the fresh creative opportunities inherent in the global crisis that struck as the venerable series was mounting its most recent season. “Frasier went through one, Friends, I think they went through two pandemics,” he jests.
Kidding aside, Lilly and his writers room initially believed they were starting out ahead of schedule, with several story ideas already in motion before production ended on season six in early 2020. “Literally we were like, ‘We’ve got like four scripts — we’re going to go into this season way ahead, rarin’ to go.” He recalls. “And then everything changed.”
As the sheltered summer months wore on and plans on how to safely resume production were formulated (“We weren’t making a television show; we were in the midst of surviving a pandemic and keeping people in their homes and paying their mortgages and keeping people safe”), Lilly was unsure if, by the fall, the virus would still dominate everyday life and whether to include it in the show — and if so, would it be fodder for comedy?
But Black-ish had always kept one foot firmly in the real world. “When the show premiered in 2014, Barack Obama was president, and in 2016, Donald Trump was elected president,” Lilly says. “We didn’t think we could ignore it … We didn’t want to live in it for forever, but there were a couple of moments for us to reflect on the conversations that families were having around their dinner table, and that’s the genuine source and engine of our storytelling.”
Once you got underway, how did the pandemic impact the nature of some of Black-ish‘s storytelling?
It felt like it actually gave us an opportunity. We did not run into a seventh season like, “Well, what do we do now? We’ve done everything.” But we were living in a place we’d never dealt with before and for Tracee [Ellis Ross] to be able to show Bow as a doctor dealing with this in our premiere last year, and for all the families who were doing remote learning and to be able to deal with that and the stress and the pressure of all that kind of stuff, it felt like it at least gave us a little bit of wind on our back, storywise, when we started. Continue reading. — Scott Huver
'Cobra Kai' (Netflix)
When you bring a multi-decade story about the British monarchy to Netflix, perhaps you have visions of Emmys dancing in your head, but it’s doubtful that creators Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg had the same expectations when they brought their sequel to The Karate Kid to fledgling streamer YouTube Red.
Cobra Kai did earn strong reviews and helped put YouTube Red on the map, but it wasn’t enough to keep the platform in the streaming scripted game, so the Ralph Macchio and William Zabka reunion moved to Netflix. Suddenly, Cobra Kai went from cult favorite to mainstream smash — and suddenly the show went from unexpectedly admired to Emmy nominee for outstanding comedy series. Heald recently spoke with THR about the expanded recognition, future nomination hopes for his stars and what proudly uncouth sensei Johnny Lawrence (Zabka) would make of Ted Lasso.
To be clear, Cobra Kai had been nominated for stunt Emmys in consecutive years, so it already was an Emmy-nominated show, but did you go into Emmy-nomination morning this time around with a different set of expectations or a different set of hopes?
We went into Emmy-nomination morning without expectations that we would get nominated for best comedy series. First of all, our show is a mix of so many genres. We are up for consideration as a comedy by virtue of our half-hour-ish running time. And there’s plenty of comedy in the show, but it’s not a standard comedy, so it’s hard for us to look at the landscape of other comedies and come in with expectations of “We should be exalted because this is the funniest thing in the world.” We are three comedy writers who are doing something that is the least joke-driven writing experience yet for us.
We really were watching the nominations hoping that there were some breakthrough nominations in other categories. We’re thrilled our sound department got a couple of big ones because, man, do they do a lot of work. And our stunt team. We were thrilled every year that they got recognized because they go through quite a bit to put what they put on the screen, and working with the actors, and getting into a place where it looks pretty seamless and pretty impressive given time constraints, budget, production schedule and everything else.
But we’ve never had a chip on our shoulders of like, “They’re never going to nominate us, and we’re the best show in the world.” We went into that morning with eyes wide open and always hoping that you get someone giving you a pat on the back and saying, “Hey, well done.” It’s all meaningful to us that the show is connecting and landing with people. Continue reading. — Daniel Fienberg
'Emily in Paris' (Netflix)
In mid-July, Darren Star’s 10-year-old son, Evan, called to make sure his father had remembered to tune in for the 2021 Emmy nominations. But Star — the Hollywood vet behind such culture-defining hits as Sex and the City, Beverly Hills, 90210 and Melrose Place — said he’d be skipping the annual reveal, and he urged his son to steer clear too. “I didn’t want him to be disappointed,” he tells THR.
Not five minutes later, Star’s phone rang again: His Netflix rom-com, Emily in Paris, was nominated for best comedy series. And though champagne wouldn’t start flowing until his cast wrapped later that day, Star says it was “the shot in the arm” his French production needed. “And we all went crazy,” he added, during part of a larger conversation about his — and his show’s — journey.
Emily in Paris centers on a character who’s a bit of an “ugly American” …
Well, she’s a beautiful “ugly American,” since she’s played by Lily Collins.
Yes, of course. You’ve said that you went in wondering if people would get the joke. Were you surprised by how many people seemed not to?
Honestly, I was surprised that people would ever be offended by anything in the show. It’s a lighthearted romantic comedy and I kept thinking nobody can really be that thin-skinned — we’re poking fun at a cliché, but they’re clichés that everyone has experienced at one time or another, both from the American point of view and the French point of view. That’s what it’s about. If it were about a character who came to France and spoke perfect French and knew her place in a French company and behaved according to all the cultural dictates, there wouldn’t be a show.
I’ve heard you talk about the significance of a show’s second season. As you thought about Emily in Paris‘ season 2, what did you want to do that you hadn’t done already?
You discover you have this very rich ensemble and while you don’t want to lose what the show’s about — it’s still Emily’s journey — you do try to find ways to dig into some of these other characters. And it’s such a talented group of actors, and many of them French actors who [U.S. audiences have] never really seen before. And for the second season, they have more opportunity to act in French because there are a lot more scenes in French. You know, when I did the first season, it was for an American network [it later moved to Netflix], and I was a little nervous about how much French an American audience can handle. So if Emily was in a scene — and she was in every scene — the dialogue was in English. Second season, there are going to be some scenes where she’s not present and we’re going to hear the French characters talking to each other in French — and they’re even better in their own language. I also think we’ve all been so accustomed to reading subtitles that I don’t have the [same worry]. Continue reading. — Lacey Rose
'The Flight Attendant' (HBO Max)
A flight attendant named Cassie Bowden (Kaley Cuoco) spends a booze-fueled Bangkok evening with handsome stranger Alex Sokolof — and awakens the next morning in his bed to find that he has been brutally murdered. Since Cassie has no memory of the night’s events, she must put together the pieces herself before the authorities beat her to it. So goes the premise of HBO Max’s The Flight Attendant, based on Chris Bohjalian’s novel. When writer-producer Steve Yockey heard the “eccentric” pitch for HBO’s adaptation (Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment meets Fleabag), he knew he was up for the task. The accomplished playwright and Supernatural scribe put his own spin on the story by adding elements of comedy, fantasy and a heightened focus on female friendships. Yockey recently spoke to THR about The Flight Attendant‘s “unwieldy” tone and going off-book for season two.
Both you and Kaley have spoken about wanting to bring some levity to the source material, which is quite heavy. What inspired you to take a genre-blending direction?
Genre-blending is something that I tend to do in most of my work. And, you know, it’s Kaley Cuoco. She has this amazing effervescence and charm but also incredible timing and really strong comedic chops. It’s sort of like replacing Jimmy Stewart with Kaley Cuoco in a Hitchcock movie and watching what happens. Kind of like Pop Rocks, it creates this new sort of unwieldy tone. And then anything can happen, if you build the world right. It’s a bit of a balancing act, but I think it pays off for an audience in that the show then has the freedom to go to really, really dark places because it also has the humor to pull it back up.
Was that your vision for the show from the beginning?
Kaley did all the hard work — she went to the studio and the network, and they said, “We want to make this, we should find a writer.” By the time I came along, they put out a note that came with the book. [It] said something like, “We’re looking for Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment meets Fleabag,” which is one of the most eccentric combinations that I’ve ever heard. And I thought, “Well, I’m not going to do that. But they seem open to weird things, so I’m going to take a big swing.” And everybody responded to it. Continue reading. — Harper Lambert
'Hacks' (HBO Max)
Back in 2015, Jen Statsky took a road trip with her close friends Paul W. Downs and Lucia Aniello to a monster truck rally in Portland, Maine. Downs was shooting a sketch for a Netflix comedy special, and Statsky and Aniello tagged along to help pitch jokes. On the ride up, they got to talking about women in comedy, particularly the ones who came up in a different time and had to work twice as hard as many of their male counterparts but never really got their due. “We just started talking about the women who were so underappreciated despite being enormous talents and working really, really hard. The ones that got knocked down a thousand times and got back up 1,001,” says Statsky. “We became really interested in kind of a character study of that woman.” Six years later, that casual road-trip conversation turned into HBO Max’s critically adored comedy Hacks, about a seasoned Las Vegas stand-up and the entitled Gen Z comedy writer tasked with punching up her jokes. Co-creator and co-showrunner Statsky, whose credits also include The Good Place and Broad City, recently spoke to THR about the women who inspired the comedy, the long journey to the screen and the challenges of making a show amid a pandemic.
You’ve said that the show was inspired by female comedians of a certain age who were underappreciated. Who were some of those women you were thinking about when you were creating the character of Deborah Vance?
Yeah, there are a lot. It’s very much an amalgamation of a bunch of different kinds of iconic female creators, comedians and artists: Phyllis Diller, Elaine May, to name a few. Deborah’s origin story is part of a two-person comedy duo with her then-husband, and that’s very similar to Elaine May being in a duo. Also, Debbie Reynolds and Joan Rivers. These were the kinds of women we were talking about.
You guys had the idea for the show a while ago, but it took years to bring it to the screen. Why is that?
We were all just doing a bunch of different things that were pulling us in different directions. But we’re friends first and collaborators second, so we see each other all the time, and we kept coming back to this idea. Once it clicked about a younger writer being the second part of the two-hand, the ideas just started coming to us really quickly. Over the years, we just had this long email chain that was just jokes, ideas and stories that we would just send back and forth to each other. In this job, you have ideas and think, “Yeah, that could be something.” This idea just never went away for us. It stuck in our brains, and that’s how we knew there was something there.
How early did you know that Jean Smart would be your Deborah?
Jean was cast pretty early on. We originally had a pilot order from HBO Max, and then once Jean signed on, it gave us this opportunity. HBO Max trusted us and basically said, “You have Jean Smart. We love this idea. Let’s go to series.” We knew that with this part and the tone of the show, we really wanted it to be very funny, but we also wanted it to have a lot of real, grounded, dramatic moments. When you start making a list of actors who are so deeply in-their-bones funny but can also really play the dramatic side and bring you to tears in an instant with a line or even a look, that list is not huge. And in our minds, Jean was at the top of it because she’s just so incredibly gifted in both areas. Getting Jean to sign on really made the whole world of the show open up to us. It was like, “OK, we can make the show we want to make because she’s capable of anything.” Continue reading. — Bryn Sandberg
'The Kominsky Method' (Netflix)
Chuck Lorre insists he was consumed with gratitude when he found out his passion project, The Kominsky Method, had been Emmy-nominated for its third and final season. “That people thought well enough of the show to include it, how can you not feel grateful?” he says. After all, Lorre is exceedingly aware of the seemingly infinite choices TV viewers have today, and it was he who had convinced Netflix to let him continue after co-star Alan Arkin decided to step away. “To be singled out in any way, shape or form has to result in gratitude,” he continues, “and if you’re not grateful, you’re not paying attention.”
In this final season of The Kominsky Method, Michael Douglas’ character wrestles with what happens when your dreams come true — when doors you never anticipated opening are opening, in his case as an actor — and the fears that come with that. In what ways could you relate?
I didn’t set out to be a TV writer. My journey into TV came after 15 years of banging my head against the wall trying to make it in the music business. There’s a moment in the last episode where he’s talking to Roz, played by Kathleen Turner, and he’s staring up at that billboard talking about dreams deferred and that this wasn’t supposed to happen. He says, “I’ve lived my life with a broken heart,” and without going too deep into this personally, my music career didn’t happen — I had a bit of luck along the way, but there was a broken heart associated with that and there still is because it was my first love. Growing up as a kid, music was everything. TV was I Dream of Jeannie and Gilligan’s Island, music was The Beatles — a fairly different world of inspiration and aspiration. The idea of a broken heart connected with me personally. The career I’ve had in television is far beyond anything I could’ve ever imagined, but it wasn’t the dream I had.
Do you remember your “billboard moment”?
Well, the billboards for The Kominsky Method — they put my name on the goddamn things, and that’s astonishing to me. I don’t take that lightly.
Your name had never been used to sell a show on a billboard?
No, nor should it. I’m not the show. The actors, the people in front of the camera, are. Your name is supposed to be irrelevant. It’s about Jim Parsons and Kaley Cuoco [of The Big Bang Theory], it’s about Melissa McCarthy and Billy Gardell [of Mike & Molly] and Allison Janney and Anna Faris [of Mom] — that’s the show, and your job is to make that work. And when your name becomes something that adds value in the advertising and promotion, that’s a moving experience. If I were to say, “Oh, it means nothing to me,” I’d be lying.
I’ve heard you say you didn’t know what closure would be like on Kominsky until you sat down to write it. What happened as you began to put pen to paper?
It was in the beginning of quarantine, and it was a lot of false starts. Writing a script and then throwing it out and starting over again. But I did want closure. We knew this was the end of the series, and it was a difficult sell to Netflix to give us this opportunity to bring the show to some kind of closure because we weren’t going to be doing this with Alan Arkin, who had an enormous impact on the first two years. Continue reading. — Lacey Rose
Middle school — that “gray world of dealing with adult feelings before you have the capacity to deal with them” says PEN15 co-creator Anna Konkle— is a chapter of life that most people prefer to forget about and move on from. But one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, and it’s in the traumatic experiences of adolescence that real-life best friends Konkle and Maya Erskine saw storytelling potential. Performing middle school versions of themselves — bad haircuts, braces and all — easily could have turned gimmicky if not for the dynamic duo’s commitment to keeping it raw and real. After scoring three Emmy noms, Konkle discusses playing 13 at 34, writing from personal experience and the importance of broaching taboo subjects.
The pandemic struck when you were partway through shooting season two. Why release the first seven episodes instead of waiting to wrap the second half?
[The two batches of episodes] were always intended to [come] out separately, and they operate storywise like two different seasons. The animated special that’s coming out [Aug. 27] was intended to come out three months after the first arc of episodes, and then the last arc of episodes was going to come out pretty much after that. The difference is that we didn’t finish shooting all 15 episodes, so everyone’s waiting six months for this last batch of episodes.
How did the animated special come together?
The animated special was supposed to be live-action. We were deep in production, figuring out how we were going to do that [special], because it wasn’t typical PEN15. When that got shut down, [it] was a real change deciding to do this special in an animated world. I thought it would be a killer experience because I’m green to animation — so is Maya — and the idea of not being on set all day every day, we just assumed it would be a little bit more straightforward. We were wrong, obviously. It’s a whole beautiful medium unto itself, and there’s been a lot of learning about that. The challenge, too, is wanting to stay true to the show that we already created.
You’ve said before that when you pitched PEN15, not everyone could see the vision. How did you and Maya know that you could pull it off anyway?
To be honest, we were nervous ourselves and we were honest with Hulu about that. I remember in the pitch [about eight years ago] being like, “We’re really passionate about feeling that this was a part of our lives that [hasn’t] been told in mainstream media in a truthful way.” Being a girl, being 13, and the R-rated things you go through — there hadn’t been the right frame to tell those stories, frankly and without apologizing. I think that I looked at Maya and thought, “OK, I might fail at this, but she’s going to be amazing, we’ll just edit me out, it’s fine.” But she weirdly found reverence in trusting me, and we could doubt ourselves, as so many artists do, and still move forward and be passionate about it. The trick, and what we still struggle with, was trying to do it as grounded as possible. Continue reading. — Harper Lambert
'Ted Lasso' (Apple TV+)
The main character of Apple TV+’s Ted Lasso might be someone you’d root for, but he’s not exactly a shoo-in to win, well, anything. That’s not the case for the series itself, which made history this year with its 20 Emmy nominations — the most ever for a freshman comedy. With star and co-creator Jason Sudeikis leading a cast that now boasts seven Emmy nominees, the show about an American football coach leading an English football (as in soccer) team is the favorite to win outstanding comedy series.
For co-creator Brendan Hunt, who also appears on the series as Lasso’s American colleague Coach Beard, the crop of Emmy noms is icing on the cake — the cake being a comic collaboration with longtime friends Sudeikis and co-creator Joe Kelly that has spanned decades (and continents). Hunt tells THR about Ted Lasso‘s humble beginnings as a digital commercial campaign and what improv comedy, which initially brought him and his collaborators together, has in common with soccer.
How did you get involved with the project when it was originally a commercial for NBC Sports?
In 2013, I got a phone call out of the blue from Jason Sudeikis. He said there was an NBC commercial that they wanted him to do, and if we did it, we’d get to go to London for three days. I thought, “Wow, three days in London. Unbelievable!” We went and [made the commercial], and it was a one-off. Then it came out; it was online mostly, and it did fine. Everyone was totally happy. A year later, NBC, having quite enjoyed that campaign, asked if we’d do it again. But this time, they weren’t paying for us to go to London. But that was fine — we just like hanging out with each other, you know? Jason, Joe Kelly and I enjoyed doing it, and Jason clearly enjoyed playing that character. So we wanted to find a way to keep doing it.
We spent a week trying to figure out what else was there — was it another commercial or a TV movie? We settled on trying to make it a series, and at the time we were going off the U.K. Office model — six episodes and then a special. We wrote out a pilot, we mapped out the rest, and then it basically sat on digital shelves collecting digital dust for several years until we hooked up with [co-creator and showrunner] Bill Lawrence. And once Bill Lawrence became the fourth Musketeer, it’s then that things moved very, very quickly.
You’ve known Jason for a long time, as you both came up in the Chicago comedy scene, right?
I’m from Chicago originally, and Jason’s from Kansas City, but his mom is from Chicago — we didn’t know this until two years ago, but his mom and my mom grew up on the same street, maybe two or three miles apart. We’re both the children of Southside Irish, so maybe that’s why we’ve always felt comfortable with each other — we’re nearly related. But we didn’t meet until 1997 or 1998. I was performing at ComedySportz in Chicago, and he and a friend drove up from ComedySportz Kansas City one night and did an improv show with us. We were like, “What the fuck is happening? No one told us these guys were coming.” As it turned out, they were hilarious. And afterward I was like, “I know this guy Jason now.” It wasn’t until I was performing with [improv troupe] Boom Chicago in Amsterdam that we got some formative friendship time. I was becoming friends with Joe Kelly, who was at Boom Chicago for years. Jason would come for a week at a time to be with his then-fiancée, Kay Cannon, and once he came for three months. He basically declared himself a castmember. Continue reading. — Tyler Coates
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