HitFix Interview: Creator Emily Kapnek talks 'Suburgatory'
Alicia Silverstone, ensemble building and other ABC comedy issues
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Viewers still have eight more episodes of "Suburgatory" to look forward to this season, but the ABC comedy actually wrapped production on its first season early last week.
Series creator Emily Kapnek and her creative team still have many weeks of post-production ahead of them, but it seemed like a good time to discuss the evolution of what has been one of the pleasant surprises of the 2011-2012 season.
"Suburgatory" started as the story of George (Jeremy Sisto) and Tessa (Jane Levy), a father and daughter who flee New York City for what was initially a very, very, very heightened version of the suburbs.
Months later, "Suburgatory" continues to be anchored by Sisto and particularly Levy, but the supporting cast of Chatswin scene stealers has become one of the deepest on TV, drawing terrific performances from co-stars and recurring players like Cheryl Hines, Ana Gasteyer, Chris Parnell, Carly Chaikin, Alan Tudyk, Allie Grant, Maestro Harrell, Rex Lee and Parker Young. Stick around later this season and Alicia Silverstone will reunite with "Clueless" chum Sisto.
In our conversation, Kapnek discusses the challenges of making time for the full ensemble, keeping George and Tessa believable, figuring out the right number of "Clueless" in-jokes for Silverstone, why we may not see many more flashbacks and why characters keep dancing by themselves.
Click through for the full interview. And no... Not a word about the "Suburgatory" alt-narrative...
HitFix: Congratulations, I understand, are in order for completing shooting the first season?
Emily Kapnek: Yes. We wrapped last night. It was very exciting and emotional. And cool.
HitFix: Does it feel momentous yet? Or will that not sink in until you've finished post-production?
EK: You know, I think it probably sunk in for the cast last night. Jane was very emotional and it was really sweet. I teased her that she could still feel things. All of us just watched as she got sorta worked up, but it was very sweet. For me, yeah, I'll be in post for a while a longer. You sorta eat, sleep and breathe it for so long, I'm sure that for me it'll be prolonged a little bit. When I'm really, really done? I'm sure I'll sink into some sort of weird depression. But for now I feel good!
HitFix: In your current frame of mind, then... When you look back over the first season you've had, with some success both overall and critically, is there any achievement that you're particularly proud of?
EK: I like the way that we've been able to delve into deep character arcs. We had Joe Adalian [from Vulture] on set yesterday and I was telling him that after we had the initial 13 and we got the order for the back-nine, we went in to sorta talk about how to grow the show and make the characters feel more three-dimensional and play out some of the stuff that we hoped that we would have the time to do. I think just watching certain characters evolve and deepen and getting the opportunity to play those season-long arcs has been just a great time. We were even just talking on set the other day about Dallas and just how her character has evolved from the pilot to where she winds up at the end of our first season and how much growth there is for her character. Tessa and George, too, certainly acclimated and become... You know, I think everyone has grown and become much more three-dimensional. We have some upcoming episodes... [This] week's episode deals with Alan Tudyk's character, Noah, and his marriage. You a better glimpse and a deeper understanding of what he's dealing with and post-divorce Dallas deals with some depression stuff and it's just fun. In the beginning there was a lot of like, "Boy, I hope it's not just going to be satire of these suburbanites and I hope they're not going to feel overly cartoony," and I think we've really, because we had the full order, we've had the opportunity to grow them and have them become richer and it's just been a lot of fun.
HitFix: How has your conception of Chatswin and particularly of Chatswin's non-George-and-Tessa residents changed as you've progressed and gotten to spend more time with them?
EK: I don't think it's changed at all. I think it was always the intention to sorta slowly reveal each of them and we have this very deep well to go to. We have, obviously, a huge cast, a really fantastic comedic ensemble and 22 minutes to tell a story every week. So we knew that if we had the time, that we would love to delve into the Shay family and deal with their family dynamic a little bit and then Dallas and Dalia and Noah. So the idea was always to get a better look and a better understanding, through George and Tessa's lens, and say, "You know, there's more to these people than initially met the eye." We've always held onto all of our characters. We have this habit of, if you see someone in the background, chances are that if you see them more than once, they're gonna wind up figuring into a storyline at some point. It's nice. It's just been great just to have that opportunity. Having Chatswin become a little more well-rounded and not as sorta one-note as it seemed, even just to George and Tessa at first, was always kinda part of the plan, so it's been fun just to grow that and have the chance to do that.
HitFix: Obviously having that comedic ensemble or well is a blessing. But is it also at least somewhat a curse that you have all of these actors who could basically carry an episode one week and then they vanish for three or four weeks. How do you feel like you've handled that?
EK: Well, it is difficult. Luckily, I came from "Parks & Rec" to the exact same situation, in that they have an enormous cast and everyone is so talented and so good and you want to write for all all of them and I think the way to do it is to try to string people through and to keep their stories alive even when you're not telling that story on that particular week. So on [last week's] episode, after Dallas had had such a great episode, I think she was only in two or three scenes, but they're very much in keeping with where she came came from and her sort of newly found freedom and optimism. So I think the trick is to keep everyone, even when they're peripheral to the story, to keep them fully immersed in how you left them, so that you can kinda pull them back at any moment and never leave them completely out, so they never vanish entirely. But yeah, it is an enormous juggling act and I know that there are certain episodes when it's a little light on Dalia and Carly [Chaikin] will be like, "Man!" And we'll have a table-read and she'll be so bummed out and I'm like, "No, no! Next week! Next week!" So it is a little bit of a juggling acting, but I think everyone really enjoys just being a part of the ensemble and they've been very gracious about it.
HitFix: But one of the things about "Parks & Rec," though, is that even if you have a hard time giving members of the ensemble stories, the characters are still in a common place every week, so they're all there. Is there some way that you're hoping to bring these characters on this show together more frequently and in different combinations, allowing them to interplay more?
EK: That initially was supposed to be sorta the country club element of it for the adults, that that was essentially their school, because we obviously have the high school in Chatswin High where all of our kid characters meet and mingle and that is, in a sense, their office place. For a while we thought, when we started out, that the country club would be the adult equivalent of that, but we wound up feeling kinda stifled by that, just as a set. We really felt like getting out in the suburbs and doing storylines that took George out and more sorta personal stuff, it was just a better playground. So yeah, it's not like they all work together and they all have this one location where they can mingle, but we just try to have their lives overlap and involve each other to a degree where they're able to feel like it makes sense and it's natural and organic for them to catch up on a regular basis.
HitFix: Do you like the idea of having the potential to do more episodes like the Thanksgiving episode in which George and Tessa were almost supporting characters?
EK: Yeah, I love it. I love it. Again, I think that it helps them even if they're not fully centered. They obviously, George in particular, didn't have much screentime in that episode, but he was certainly kept alive in the content of that story and I think that we have a bunch of episodes like that coming up where we're giving more screentime and more thought to who these people are and how it pertains to George and Tessa in general, because I do think that obviously those are our eyes and ears and our way into the world, so we don't really ever lose them, but I do think it helps grow the whole ensemble to tell those stories.
HitFix: As one of those sets of eyes and ears, what have the challenges been in balancing the sorta Smarter-Than-The-Room Tessa and the Believable and Fallible Teen Tessa over the season?
EK: You know, I think she walks the line pretty well, both as a character and also Jane Levy as an actress. I think that going into it, we were very concerned about her not coming off as this sort of holier-than-thou New York urbanite coming in and looking down her nose. She doesn't really present as that much of a hipster, necessarily. I think that she's pretty accessible and we try not to have her be overly snarky, but that she does have a lot empathy, and it grows, for Dallas and Dalia. We have some great episodes coming up for Tessa where you really get to see her really sort of take in the situation that Dallas is going through and the situation that Dalia is going through, the divorce of her parents, and have a lot of empathy for her and you see it register on Jane in a way that, I think, makes her feel very human and real. We don't really have tons of episodes where Tessa's sorta walking around just kinda snarling at everything. You definitely get the sense that she's homesick for New York and that Chatswin is sorta a hard place for her to acclimate to, but especially in fostering her friendships with Lisa and Malik and Dallas, we try to give her enough to hold onto that you understand that it's not just her looking down her nose, but that she's also the kind of person that's able to adapt and sort of maybe see the good in the situation as well.
HitFix: And we talked about the ensemble and the size of it. What challenges does that present when you hope to introduce a longer-term boyfriend for Tessa or a longer-term girlfriend for George?
EK: Yeah. [Laughs.] It's definitely hard. We're always like, "How many more can we handle?" It's funny. Early on, we told that story about Tessa becoming interested in Ryan, her neighbor across the street, purely from a physical standpoint, that she was attracted to him and angry at herself and viewed it as being almost a disease from having living in this neighborhood. Obviously if it were somebody who was in our regular cast, it would be seamless and easy to do, but it'd also have to be believable. We had an arc that played out with Tessa and this character, Scott Strauss, so I think because of the size of our cast, we're sort of in the position of having to do arcs rather than long, long-term. We obviously had Alicia Silverstone in for a handful and we had the Scott Strauss character for Tessa and their romance that kinda burns out, but ultimately, long-term I think it would be great for George to have a woman and a long-term relationship in the picture. Even just the wrinkle that it's caused because of the stuff we've teased with George and Dallas, having Alicia's character there has been really interesting to watch what it does to their relationship and how that affects Dallas.
HitFix: And how did the Silverstone arc play out, from your point of view?
EK: Great. Really great. She's super-cool and they definitely have a lot of chemistry and it was a very unusual role that we asked her to step into and I think she did a really good job and I really like what we did. I think she's really great and it was really fun to see the two of them together and I really enjoyed having her.
HitFix: How much "Clueless" winking actually made it into the episodes?
EK: [Laughter.] I don't know! There was some there. It was so funny. They were both like, "Really?" I'm like, "You have to do a little of it!" We did some of it and I haven't gotten into editing on those episodes yet, so it remains to be seen. I definitely feel like there's a way to do it. It should be there. I think there should be a hint of it. But it also needs to disappear at some point, because it just becomes distracting. But I think in the early episodes, when she first emerges, I do feel like you owe it to the fans. Everybody wants to see a little nod to it, so we have a couple moments in there and we'll see how well we can smooth out the edges.
HitFix: The entire series was set in motion by George's panic over Tessa's sexuality and then we had a callback to that a couple episodes ago. Is that going to evolve and presumably lessen over time?
EK: Yeah, I mean I think that George, in that episode where it came up again, is sorta coming to the realization that it's really not about where you move your kid to and that this is part of the process of having a daughter who grows into a woman and a teenager who's going to delve into these areas. I think, and hopefully what the viewers will feel as well, is that Chatswin still was a good choice, even with the idea that these kids are equally if not more sexed up than their counterparts in the city, that the move in general has brought George and Tessa closer together in their ability to talk about things.
In the writers' room, we talk about: What was their life before, that we didn't see? How did it function before? What really motivated this movie? Obviously the condoms were symptomatic of a bigger issue, which is George must have been in a situation where he felt like he didn't really know what was going on with Tessa and the idea that he's moved to a place where the parents are that much more involved and he has an opportunity and even knows her friends well enough to get them to come over for game night when she's not home, that somehow he's done well. He's more hands-on. They're talking more. They're more involved. And I think that hopefully as he comes to realize that, that they're probably more in touch than they were when he lived in the city, that he can sorta back off a little bit and allow her to be more of an adult. I think he wants to be that person to her and it's just about him wrapping his head around how to treat her that way.
HitFix: Is it good material that you guys have been brainstorming from that past life? Is a flashback episode a possibility?
EK: We haven't really... It creates its own problems, the New York flashback stuff. It looked OK on Thanksgiving. It's really hard to do if it's not gonna be like really well done and I guess if it were strictly interiors and stuff, there's a way to do it. We talked about it more at the start of the show. We did it on Halloween. There was a little trick-or-treating flashback. There was the episode, "Charity Case," which was, I think, very unsuccessful for the New York flashback. That was very early on when we were still sorta figuring out how to film it in a way that it felt real, but I think if it's not gonna be done really well, it's actually disruptive. I think, in theory... Yeah! But unless we can really nail how it's going to be portrayed, it's a very dangerous street to walk down, that New York street on the lot, I mean.
HitFix: So two weeks ago, you had Dallas doing her sorta liberated dancing-by-herself moment. Earlier this season, you had Tessa proving her individuality dancing by herself at her Sweet 16. That's one away from a trend. Are you guys viewing it that way?
EK: [Laughs.] The "Dancing With Myself" Trend? I love it. I will an effort to get one more character dancing alone. Funny. I hadn't realized that. But it's a good one. It's funny, because we got up so early in the morning to do that dance for Cheryl [Hines] and it was one of those things where we were like, "Either this is going to be really great or we're gonna wind up not using it," but there was so much insane choreography that went with that and what we ended up using was, I think, just the right level. It didn't go on too long and there was only one stunt instead of the original three that we shot and there was some really funny funny stuff that went with it, but it evolved into a full-blown music video, which we ended up having to scale down just for not being able to simply justify the length it was going on, but it was really fun to do.
HitFix: And how did that compare to the process shooting the Tessa-dancing-by-herself scene?
EK: That was great, too. Both of them, in those moments, were so incredibly endearing. Jane's dancing with herself was, I think, one of my favorites. I mean, she brought it all. I felt like she really gave in and it was fun to see her geek out over her band and, in terms of your other question about Tessa being this too-cool-for-school kinda kid, it was fun to play that kind of disconnect between that Chatswin thing, who Dalia would have had play at her Sweet 16 versus who Tessa would have had. So we had this band, one of the writers in our room knew of this band and he brought it in and we were like, "Yeah, that sounds like what Tessa would listen to." So we went in that direction and the idea that she was just out there and nobody was willing to dance to this music but her, just kinda made us laugh.
HitFix; And how much downtime are you going to have after finishing the final cuts before you start breaking stories for Season 2? Hypothetically, of course, I guess...
EK: Yeah, hypothetically. I mean, who knows? We're told we're not going to be hearing anything until May, which is a real bummer.
HitFix: But come one. You can assume, I think, at least somewhat...
EK: I don't know. I never really operate on that level. Yeah. I don't know. I hope. You try to weight it in your head like, "What are the things that could lead to us not coming back?" or "What could possibly go wrong?" I think you could fill a book with those ideas that sorta keep me up at night. But I'm definitely thinking and mulling and hoping that we get our chance to come back and tell more stories and I'm squirreling away some ideas. I think it could be as much as two months before we're back in the room.
"Suburgatory" airs on Wednesdays at 8:30 p.m. on ABC.