Welcome to Remote Controlled, Variety’s podcast series featuring the best and brightest in television, both in front of and behind the camera.
This week’s episode features TV critics Maureen Ryan and Sonia Saraiya in conversation with “Full Frontal’s” Samantha Bee and Jo Miller. Now in the show’s second season and with Donald Trump in the White House, Bee and Miller discussed how their show has — and hasn’t — changed, as their viewers are looking for answers.
“We don’t have answers for them. We don’t have answers for those people,” Bee jokes. “People need rational explanations so badly,” Miller observes.
Miller and Bee say that they get a lot of their inspiration from the missteps of cable news, although it also appears that the climate might be changing. “We watch people stand there and allow Jeffrey lord and Kayleigh McEnany to scream bullshit, and then cut to commercial break,” Miller said. “I think we might be seeing the beginning of the end of that now. I think cable news is adapting and learning how to cover this.”
“I see it when [CNN reporter] Jim D’Acosta is personally attacked and Shep Smith stands up for him. I see it when [CNN anchor] Anderson Cooper did a really good 17-minute piece with Kellyanne Conway where he held her feet to the fire, did a fairly good job. Always see it with [CNN anchor Jake] Tapper.”
The two also discussed how they sift through the barrage of daily news to find the stories they settle on week-to-week. Because the show airs just weekly, Bee said, it gives them an “opportunity to sit back a little bit and see what stories are emerging… to be a little more reflective.”
Miller adds, “When the whole staff is just really excited for a story — that’s the one we’re going to do.”
In addition to the “learning curves” of the first season, as they learned how to cover issues that were more complex than they first thought, and criticism from columnist Ross Douthat in the New York Times about the show’s chosen methods and demographic, Miller and Bee have dealt with more day-to-day concerns.
“They took my twitter away,” Bee said. Miller deadpans, “Yeah, I mean, I can tell you that you’re ugly and a c–t.
“Don’t forget fat,” Bee adds.
In the second half of the episode, Executive Editor Debra Birnbaum speaks to executive producer John Legend and star Jurnee Smollett about WGN’s “Underground,” which began its second season on March 8. “The stakes are just so much higher,” Smollett said of the characters’ arcs in Season 2.
“That sense of danger and foreboding that we saw in the first season is still there in the second season,” Legend said. “They’re not really completely free as long as this system of slavery is in place.”
The two also discussed Aisha Hines’ casting as Underground Railroad heroine Harriet Tubman, who is a series regular for Season 2. “Hines is so perfect for this role,” Smollett said. Hines can “embody this idea of we have of this superwoman Harriet Tubman — and she’s able to make it personal, shrink it down and make it intimate, while keeping the strength and the confidence.”
Legend said, “It’s pretty exciting to have a real-life character who everyone knows — and has been in the news a lot lately given the discussion about American currency.”
Legend will also be cameoing as Fredrick Douglass this season, bringing the real-life threads of slavery-era history to the fictionalized representation of the struggle for freedom.
Legend and Smollett also mull over the show’s resonance with fans, despite being set in 1858. “We can relate to the struggles that our ancestors were going through. 1858 we were living in a divided nation; unfortunately we still are,” Smollett observed. She points out, the second season explores the choices average citizens make in times of conflict — just like current events in the news. “One of the themes we see is soldier vs. citizen… What are you going to do with your responsibility?”
Legend wrote a song for Season 2 — a song that he wrote while writing his latest album, but didn’t quite fit into it. “The song is called ‘In America,’ and kind of points out — what America has stood for, but also what it has done in actuality… Our ideals are sometimes higher than the practical reality.”
“I learned more about how complex the Underground Railroad really was,” Smollet said, calling it an “intricate network” with “danger lurking around every corner.”
“You really couldn’t trust anyone, but you had to trust strangers,” she said. “We come from such mighty people. to see what we were capable of, it’s humbling and inspiring.”
“We’ve never wanted to just wallow in the misery and oppression of slavery,” Legend said. Instead they wanted to “show the courage of the resistance”
Smollett originally butted heads with showrunners Misha Green and Joe Pokaski over her character Rosalie. “We came to an agreement on how to pace her strength. Initially, I saw her as this dynamic woman in the house that had this quiet storm that was brewing. Misha kept trying to get me to pace that. Which is important! You can’t start at 90 percent, you need somewhere to go.”
Legend takes a few minutes to speculate a little on what could come in future seasons for the show. “We’ve got stories to tell,” he promises. “It’s a really important time for the series.”
You can listen to this week’s episode here:
New episodes of “Remote Controlled” are available every Friday.