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Putting together a TV show is a weekly birth of sorts. The moms I’ve worked with agree unanimously that producing an episode is much harder than childbirth itself. At least I’m pretty sure that’s the one they said was harder. I’m not a great listener.
But it’s fun, and once in a while you get an episode that’s chock-full of the real joy of production: watching hundreds of talented people play off each other to make something greater than the sum of its parts. This week’s episode of Speechless was that kind of an effort, drawing on every member of the production, on studio execs, on one of our writers’ mom’s dentist and Elvis Presley.
Going in to this late-in-the-season episode, we found ourselves in a too-familiar spot: having almost enough time to do all we had to do. At the time, I likened the feeling to starting a cross-country drive a day or two late; we’d be OK and make it from L.A. to New York on time, just as long as we made every light. Three days before the table read, we had no script and three stories I was jamming down the staff’s throats that were all ready to go, except for the fact that they did not make any sense. Late on a Friday afternoon, the decision was made to scrap the stories and start over. (Oddly, having nothing feels better than having the wrong thing.)
Pieces then started to fall into place; the first was the resuscitation of a story we’d been kicking around for Minnie Driver’s character, Maya, about a special-needs-mom’s secret joy in getting called for jury duty. It was inspired by the mom of one of the writers, Carrie Rosen. A real-life selfless and dedicated mom of a child with a disability, Phyllis Rosen’s quiet place was in a dentist’s chair. A rare hour of nothing, even under a drill, was an hour of bliss. Fantastic, woman, Phyllis. Great teeth too.
So we made that first light. From there, Susie Farris in casting worked the weekend to ensure that Sarah Chalke, whom we love and on whose character the would-be story hinged, would be able to rearrange her schedule to travel and join us at the last minute. That came through, and we made light No. 2. In cross-country terms we were off the Fox lot on Pico at, say, Overland. Like, by the 76 station?
Then it was all hands on deck in the writers room, where our very talented and, at this point of the year, very tired writers turned around a draft in a day. (It’s a dangerous point when a staff learns they can pull this off. You prove you can do it; it’s certain you’re going to do it again.) The idea of a musical number teaser was borne out of the fact that we wanted the audience to know that Maya relished the chance to serve on a jury, but the other characters couldn’t know. We could have had Maya sharing this information with the family dog or talking to a wall. A song and dance number seemed a little more fun, if vastly more complicated.
We went in to the table read with the pages still warm. Minnie, God bless her, sold the hell out of the song, our studios [20th TV and ABC Studios] got excited about the big production, which in turn became a very big production. Had the song not worked, the dog or the wall would have gotten the call. (Actors: Sell your stuff at the table! Avoid scenes opposite dogs and walls!)
Then stuff sped up. A choreographer and some dancers were hired. The episode’s director, the fantastic Bill Purple, planned his vision for the sequence and shot a mock-up version on his phone starring our resident king-of-all-trades, A.D. Marty Jedlicka, standing in for Maya. Minnie would perform the number with gusto and joy on the day. Marty performed the role with every ounce of commitment Minnie would a week later. I need at this point to clarify that no one asked Marty to do this. I suspect that some asked him not to. The resulting, deeply weird video is one that, once seen, cannot be unseen.
Minnie came in and did her job beautifully. This is TV, not Broadway, so instead of months of training, she and the other dancers got a whopping 15 minutes of rehearsal before each scene. Easy enough. But Minnie nailed a movie-worthy performance, and damn can the woman sing.
Things continued to snowball in the best of ways. Because the director, cast, dancers and crew had knocked it out of the park, pressure was now on the underlying musical score to meet their level. So our studios (thankfully) approved the added cost of scoring the song with an actual orchestra. Cue Jeff Cardoni, the astoundingly talented and deeply overqualified composer were lucky enough to have on board who worked through the night (because of course it had to record the next day to make air) to write up charts for 25 musicians, painstakingly arranged to maximize effect and sound like 80. Weeks after we’d hatched a silly idea for a parody of a song from a ‘70s kids’ movie, I found myself on the Fox lot’s movie scoring stage, seated behind a piano that Elvis apparently brought in (and left; he got to do stuff like that), listening to 25 of the best musicians I’d ever heard throw their talent and expertise at a sitcom teaser.
Writers are born complainers and I can moan with the best of them, but even I couldn’t find anything to grumble about on this one. As I look over my words here, they feel like a victory lap of sorts. That would be silly. The episode hasn’t even aired yet for God’s sake; who knows who will watch and who will care? But there was a ton of joy in the journey on this one. We got lucky and made just about every light cross-country. And it reminded me how lucky I am to get to do this job.
Alas, if only I could forget Marty’s Minnie impersonation. If only.
Speechless airs back-to-back episodes Wednesday starting at 8 p.m. on ABC. “One Angry Maya” — featuring the “I’ve Got a Golden Ticket” parody musical number — is first up.
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