If you watched Season 1 of the web comedy series These People -- and you should have, and if you haven't, you should remedy that -- you got a taste of the Bennet family, particularly the four high-strung, self-destructive, loving nightmares trying to patchwork their way through whatever family disaster is around the next corner. The heightened comedy really served to bring the quiet bonds between the Bennets into even sharper focus. There's a lot of TV out there, but there's not a lot of TV that does what These People does. And now it's back for a second season!
In Season 2, the focus shifts from Todd (Zac Hug), gay brother with relationship ish but probably the clearest eyes through which to view the family, to Jenny (Claire Downs), actress and narcissist. So you can imagine how that goes. Specifically, it goes to Jenny trying to get pregnant so she can nab a role as a pregnant mother, and I'm not about to ruin what movie it is, so you can watch for yourselves. New to the show this season are Community's Jim Rash as a gossip columnist, and Hunting Season's Ben Baur (fresh off his Out 100 canonization) as Jenny's beard.
Season 2 is out there now, ready for you to binge on its short, morsel-sized episodes. I had a conversation with series co-creator and co-writer (and, full disclosure, longtime friend) Zac Hug about what's in store in Season 2, and how making TV for the internet works.
Hello, I'm Previously.TV Contributor Joe Reid.
Hello, I'm These People writer/creator Zac Hug.
Why don't you tell me where the idea came from. What's the elevator pitch?
It's mainly about how, when it comes to family, we will absolutely support any lunatic plan our siblings or parents or children have, even if it's ruining their lives in some way. And that's because it's easier than fighting with them. And the only reason we know this is because the second anyone in our family tries to challenge the lunatic plan we've thought up for ourselves, we say, "Why can't you just support me!?!"
It started as a way for [series co-creator] Jamie [Heinrich] and I to work on something together. We'd both watched and read each other's stuff and had collaborated on some shorts and scripts before, but the idea was "just make something like we did in middle school." Fast. Simple. Let's use actors we like and then more of those actors. As close to free as we can do it. And that still looks like something we'd be proud of. And he let me show up with characters I'd already been thinking about for a long time. The Bennets are family of people who are their own worst enemies, and I really dig that about them. This is less an elevator pitch and more of a "walk you all the way around the pond" pitch.
That works! Can you talk about how much of the show is about how families deal with impending (or perceived) disaster?
Quite a lot. But mostly it's about how dealing with a disaster is an active choice we make. It's sort of at the bottom of everything I write. When my mother was twenty-three, she had three kids, and my father was run over by a semi truck, followed by strokes and all kinds of insane things that have happened to him. And she's this really strong example of how someone can get themselves and a family of people through disaster and somehow thrive within it. These People aren't that. We've all seen people decide to deal with a disaster by making it into a much bigger disaster than it needs to be. And not because they're dramatic (usually); it just feels, to them, like the right thing to do. I spent a lot of my life thinking, "Man, just two different choices and we'd all be completely screwed, huh? Atta girl." BUT the idea of how those two different choices could have changed all of us -- that remains fascinating and frightening to me. There aren't any characters based on my family, they're just a really shitty version of a family I imagine would exist if they just said yes to every idea that occurred to them.
Was the decision to switch to Jenny's perspective in Season 2 the idea from the beginning?
Sort of. We liked the idea that each season would have a different main character from the family. And Claire Downs is one of those actresses who shows up and you want to give her more things to do. Or at least, she REALLY thrives in that kind of environment. "Claire, go climb that fence." And she'd sort of sigh and go, "Jesus, okay," and turn something in that was funnier than we imagined it would be. She understands story, she understands who everyone is to each other, and she understands how to be horrible and likable at the same time. When we were talking about what Season 2 would be, all the most interesting ideas were about Jenny. And we knew that Claire would add to them, which she has. Everyone's favorite quoted lines are Claire's. It's tough to be jealous of your little sister.
With regard to Jenny being an actress, and the storylines surrounding that in Season 2, what was the balance you had to strike, while writing, between what's too much industry in-jokiness versus stuff that's more universally applicable?
It's a weird balance. On the one hand, we got to work with people we like who also happen to be fancy actor types who are on the TV. Jim Rash wrote an episode and plays this horrible gossip columnist. And he's-- I mean, he's the Dean! He's Jim Rash, he's a comedic national treasure. At the same time, Ben Baur plays this adorable out-and-proud actor who's having a moment. And Ben also happens to BE an adorable out-and-proud actor having a moment. Carolyn's head exploded on True Blood, and people know her from General Hospital. Keith Powell is Toofer! Jeremy [Glazer] is a guest actor on every show you've ever seen. So having all that around, and just living in L.A., it's hard to make entertainment relatable. Except it kind of is. I've put sunscreen on most of these people. They have really hilarious stories about what happens in their bathrooms. Even Meryl Streep has to unload the dishwasher. So, finding what THEY want to do on camera is this weird, anti-Hollywood (or maybe super-Hollywood?) kind of way to work. To get to say to Jim and Claire, "Please be horrible, but in a Los Angeles sort of way" -- it lends itself to things that don't exist but absolutely feel like they would exist. An Elian Gonzales biopic with a live birth, directed by Lars Von Trier? Check. The adorable blond fake-boyfriend coming out of the closet and immediately landing a role in the Franny & Zooey movie? Yep. That's gonna be on Deadline any minute. We wanted Jenny to be famous because we wanted something elevated that had bearing on the rest of the family: that they don't treat her like a celebrity -- they are actively annoyed that she's famous. A lot of the stuff we show is what happens behind the scenes of fancier, more interesting things. And so we didn't set anything ON a red carpet, or with paparazzi, or actually show Jenny's Lifetime show because that part is less interesting to us than getting your hair done with your mom before any of that happens.
Can you talk about how much of Season 2 deals with making entertainment in the age of self-promotion?
It's certainly a part of it. Web series are at this really fascinating tipping point. They're easy to make but hard to make well. They're not something that people believe can make money, and yet there are TONS of companies trying to find ways to make money on them. When they're good, they're clearly good; when they're amazing, they move to HBO and Comedy Central. And luckily things like Broad City and maybe High Maintenance are getting attention and allowed to be what they are. Just with bigger budgets. So, it's interesting to spend time in that space while writing a character who's so desperately into self-promotion. And to learn to be better at self-promotion in a real "don't be Jenny" kind of way. All of which is buffered by the part where then we just arrive at the work where we didn't get a permit to shoot and realize that the joy of it is that we get to make something in a real "Mickey and Judy fixing up the barn and putting on a show!" kind of way. Pause for effect. And legit, if you're reading this article and haven't watched, do so and then tell all of your friends.
Can you talk a little bit about the challenge of writing for episodes that are this brief? They're generally between four and eight minutes long.
Three acts or you're hosed. We make a lot of decisions based on three-act structure. The series has always had something of a three-act arc about how family is created that we're excited about telling more of in the future. The seasons are all told in three acts, and then the episodes are all told in three acts. What's REALLY great about that is noticing how much better it's made both of us. In a traditional TV writers' room, you turn things in and someone else cuts things for time, or because [it's] their show, their vision. And then there are changes and edits made in editing and then when they go out to the world, you think, "Yes, it's my episode, but I miss the joke about the vampire catering company." And when you're making something this quickly and on a smaller scale, you actually become the person doing the cutting and go, "Oh! yeah, we can get there quicker if we cut the joke and go right for the scene in the kitchen." You learn to move faster and to jump through your own hoops. And we have something of a writers' room now. Patrick Sarni and Claire and Jim all wrote episodes with me. It's way better to have other people to call and say, "I want to do this, how do I do it fast?"
There 's a frame story in Season 2. Was that a conscious upping of the stakes, formally?
Jamie is a genius. He has this really rich and storied background in DIY filmmaking, and when he edits, he makes it look so polished and like there are dozens of people working on it. He also watches the story from an entirely different perspective than I do because I wrote it down, and then when it's made, I'm inside of it. After he'd edited this season, he called me and said that it had turned out really well, it was funny, every episode had a good arc to it. And then paused and said, "The season, though, overall, feels a little bit like a web series." And so we sat with all the episodes and then constructed the frame from what was already there, but pulled out what made it more grounded. And then there's that shock bottom-drops-out moment at the end. I didn't expect to write it, it wasn't part of what we thought the series would do, but as soon as I said it, Jamie said, "That's the right thing, let's do that." Which gave Cameron (the actor who plays both twins) a chance to do something a little bigger. He's a great actor who now we get to let out of the box. We shot all those scenes in the car and at Mom's house in one night, about two days before we had a premiere party.
What were the lessons learned from releasing the episodes one at a time in Season 1?
Don't do it. What made us so happy from watching the traffic pattern in Season 1 was that when people came in to watch an episode, they'd watch all of them that were available. But everyone who watched Episode 1 would only come back A LONG time later, if they did at all. A lot of our friends at parties would say, "I saw the first one! I keep meaning to go back!" I don't think people do. I certainly don't. I am a binge watcher and I don't care who knows it. So, releasing them all has been much cleaner. And now in Season 2, the audience has told us they've binged the whole thing. Which is gratifying.
Why do you think it's easier to write about gay characters who don't have to apologize for themselves on web series?
I look at great series like The Outs and Eastsiders and Jack In A Box and I think there are really smart gay writers making web series and they're old enough to remember when every gay storyline ended tragically or was about coming out to your parents. And we're still young enough to tell a story about how our sex lives are basically just sub-plots to the rest of our lives. Like the straight people on TV. That still takes a little getting used to. The relationship between Todd and Josh came out of wanting to work with Jeremy Glazer more. He's an incredibly grounded actor who, when you're working with him, just gives you so much to do. And we've made Josh the eyes of the audience because NOBODY watches our families more carefully than the people who marry into them. That Todd and Josh are the only love story was a decision that naturally came out of work that we were doing. I was worried about whether I was forcing Jamie to be interested in telling that story: he has this gorgeous wife and four kids. Jim and I wrote the beat in the tennis episode where Kip (Ben) jumps over the net and it's this catalyst for Josh (Jeremy) to finally lose his marbles. And it was Jamie who said, "Okay, but let's do it in slow motion and I'm going to dump water all over him first so he looks like he's all sweaty." And we all stood there and went, "Great!" Jamie's take is that it makes the complication stronger if Kip is the person Josh hates, is effortlessly happy with himself, and Josh also wants to have sex with him. It turns out it's not a gay trope, it's just good complication.
What's your favorite TV show, either current or all-time?
My favorite shows are all, unsurprisingly, family-based: Six Feet Under, Parenthood, The Simpsons, Battlestar Galactica. I'm so very into Transparent and Casual right now that I want to punch myself in the face for not knowing enough people to get meetings there yet. Also, though, I really loved Deadwood.
What's your most formative show?
My most formative show is probably Laverne & Shirley. I'll watch the episode where they sign up for science experiments or the one where they're in the grocery store game show ANY time they come on.