They have second season single-camera comedies that often lean more on heart than humor (including both tackling the emotional topic of abortion), coincidentally they happen to live in the same small pocket of Los Angeles, they share the same streaming home (Netflix) and they happen to be huge fans of each others’ work. When “GLOW” creators and executive producers Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch and “Dear White People’s” creator and executive producer Justin Simien sat down at Variety, they had a lot of praise for each other and one key request — “No spoilers.”
Although Simien’s sophomore offering launched in May, he had yet to see Flahive and Mensch’s, as “GLOW” isn’t due to return until the end of June. It is their first season, which dropped last June and scored some key SAG noms and a Golden Globe nom for leading lady Alison Brie, that is Emmy-eligible this year.
Here, the producers discuss how real life politics have influenced their seasons, why the look of their shows is just as important as the tone, and what they learned from their first successful seasons that they took to heart for their second.
How much do you find yourselves researching for your shows, versus just reflecting issues and topics you see in your own world?
Flahive: Wrestling in the ‘80s, all of these stereotypes were there and they were always so much worse if you were the villain, they were always so much worse if you were the minority. If you’re a minority, you’re a villain, done, but what kind of a villain? And then our heroes also had to be stereotypes, and that was a little harder. But then we also had that problem of not everyone could reject their character so we had to have different relationships between who they really are and who their character is.
Mensch: And how they grapple with it is different, which is also true, because not everyone is taking it on in the same way. It’s funny because we had never watched wrestling growing up, and just watching it as writers, that’s all we saw. It’s kind of how you’re introduced to wrestling — you pick a stereotype, and you get in the ring, and you lean in. And that was really uncomfortable for us.
Flahive: But we had people like Kia [Stevens, actress/pro wrestler] and Chavo Guerrero Jr. [stunt coordinator], who shared so many stories with us. And we are research nerds, so we talked to them for hours.
Simien: That is the thing, the research part gives you so much stuff. This season is so obsessed with the past, partially, because I think diagnostically that’s the problem — we’re not all caught up to what got us here. …I remember we were having a conversation on set and someone was like, “Well you know, I’m going to put this together and I want to make it realistic, but, of course, there wasn’t slavery at the Ivy Leagues, so I was just wondering” — and I was like, “Wait, wait, wait, there definitely was.” But no one teaches you that. You have to seek that information. That’s why I think the Ivy League is such a good representation of America — it just looks so perfect and you can go there and change your life, but it is an institution that was founded on the same thing that America was.
How do you balance the tones of your shows?
Mensch: For us, we’re always attracted to dramatic stories, but we have comic voices. So that pairing — and I feel like I see it in “Dear White People” — it feels like a very natural fit to not take the drama so seriously. Our ambition is to tell bigger stories. We’re in the comedy category, but I feel like we never sit down and think, “You know what would be a funny story?”
Simien: Same. It’s becoming a catchphrase, and I didn’t mean it to, but shade is my love language. I genuinely think that way. And even if I sit down to write something dramatic, I can’t help it — I can’t help but make jokes. But the thing is, too, when you really boil it down, “Dear White People” is a story about identity versus self, and the identity that these characters have to play is decided for them because they’re black, and that’s patently absurd — the concept is absurd. If you were an alien and someone tried to explain the concept of race to you, you’d be like “What the f—!?” There are scenes in there that are so pointed, but we find them funny because it’s absurd — the situation is absurd. Even something like Gabe and Sam going at it, it’s like, “You just want to make out. That’s all you want to do. But you have to have these rhetorical arguments.” It lends itself, in my opinion, to be a comedy, especially because I’ve grown up seeing the black experience as tragedy all of my life, and I just can’t live in that.
What is it about this time in television history that you think has allowed these kinds of more serious comedies to breakthrough in such a big way?
Simien: We’re in a place where there’s all these new networks [and] there’s all these new voices bubbling up to the culture, and it’s like, people don’t want to see the same s— anymore. There’s an interest in what’s novel and what’s new, and it just so happens that all of us weren’t sitting around twiddling our thumbs, waiting for an opportunity. We were working really hard so when one came, we were ready. And that’s why I think you’re seeing this explosion of not only black folks but women and gay folks and trans people. We’ve been chomping at the bit to tell these stories.
Flahive: I think we also were really helped by Jenji [Kohan] kicking down the door ahead of us.
Mensch: We both came up in female-driven shows — we’ve been writing for women for a while. But the difference is, we actually thought — wrongly — that this was this amazing time and Hillary Clinton was about to become president.
Flahive: That was how we started our pitch. We went in and we were like, “It’s going to be great, guys, and this is the show for you.”
Mensch: And I think we were even thinking Hillary Clinton was about pantsuits, and women in the ’80s with shoulderpads, it was like putting on armor to walk into business and do battle. And then when Trump was elected, our show took on a completely opposite resonance: It wasn’t a celebration of how far we’d come, it was kind of this eerie …
Simien: It was vital.
Flahive: We were seeing the world in terms of black or white, and all we were talking about was how we wanted to create this nuanced world but use the ring as this kind of metaphorical space of turning things into good guys and bad guys and flattening things, and we were watching all of these videos and [Trump] is a huge player in the WWE. He shaved Vince McMahon’s head in the Battle of the Billionaires.
Mensch: I think it happened with many, many shows — things that were intentional became mega-resonant.
So then how much did the new political landscape alter the stories you wanted to tell or the way you wanted to tell them?
Simien: Trump won the night we wrapped season one. It was happening while we were shooting the last episode.
Mensch: It was happening while we were shooting, too. It was before the KKK match [in season 1]. Everyone was afraid to do the KKK match — there was some trepidation — and then he got elected.
Flahive: All of a sudden the entire crew, everyone was like, “We have to be there on that day. We all have to be there together.” It was this weirdly cathartic thing when we shot it.
Mensch: I think it made a lot of the thing we were saying theoretically make sense. Like this idea of the world dividing things into good versus bad.
Simien: I read your show almost as a survival guide because you have these women who are stuck in a world where there are just these really stupid f—ing one-note stereotypes for whoever it is. Everyone is dealing with being put into some box that doesn’t fit them [but] they’re using it for survival, to their advantage, kind of like a Trojan horse.
Flahive: It’s been a really strange comfort to also kind of retreat into a period story.
Mensch: But it’s been strange because, again, we thought we were kind of sending up all of these types of old Phyllis Schlafly speeches, and then you’re like, “I can’t believe this kind of language is being revived.”
Simien: We wrote a character called Rikki Carter, and I had no idea who Candace Owens was and realized, “Oh I might have invented her.” It’s eerie — because we’re in the room and we come up with things that are plausible, but just a little bit crazier than they really are, and then they happen.
What are the limitations you’ve self-imposed simply by the shows’ periods or settings?
Flahive: We’re definitely cherry-picking aspects of the ‘80s that we find interesting or exciting or disturbing. Many other things happen that we don’t talk about on the show just because we want it to have resonance. Sometimes it’s intentional, and sometimes it’s just a story you want to tell for a particular character.
Simien: We live in a world that doesn’t exist — Winchester is Harvard, Princeton, Yale, all of them mixed together. And the reason why is because I always wanted to treat it like America — the elite class of America — and show these really smart, amazing, gorgeous, talented kids try to break in and try to be a part of the change in the world and finding themselves in a culture that they didn’t build. So we sort of really lean into the fictional element of the show. All of the buildings are named after jazz singers [and] all of the TV shows they watch are fake because I want you to never forget that this is a representation of something else. It actually frees us up because even though what the characters are going to is really slice of life and certainly the events of the show become sobering documentaries after we make this satire, it’s a way for us to think hypothetically and not have to be ripped from headlines. It’s like a dream world.
Flahive: It’s a way that you can escape into story and then gut-punch at the same time.
Simien: Kubrick used to say all of the time that you want to get people to fall asleep in order to wake them up, so in the context of a really powerful story, they have to fall for it — they have to fall in love with the world — and then it’s like, “Oh right.”
Carly and Liz, how did you have to adjust the way you wanted to do the abortion storyline in season one, given that certain things were said and done differently in the 1980s?
Flahive: We had some intense conversations with people — some about just, physically, what that place looked like. We talked to Planned Parenthood about the signage [and] about the language. Somebody [in the writers’ room] said, “Well, wouldn’t somebody be there to hold her hand?” And somebody who had worked with us for a long time said, “Nobody held my hand.” “Noted.” What it brought out in people and in conversation was just very honest.
Were there things in your second seasons that you had purposely held back from the first season?
Flahive: Wrestling was really the thing we held back the most on because it just felt like if we blew our wad in season one, where do we go from here? There’s so much wrestling in season two that as producers we realized, “Oh my god, that’s so intense.”
Simien: We needed people to know what the show was before we really started to go in weird directions. … We never would have done a mushroom trip the first season — the episode where you go into the future, we never would have done that!
Flahive: In season two, we only follow two characters for one episode and then hurtle them both towards a match. And structurally, that was something we really wanted to do in season one, but we weren’t there yet. It was one of those things that, now that they can wrestle, what can we do with the form that feels different?
What are your major considerations for stylizing the looks of your shows, especially when differentiating between your characters’ worlds and the world they are creating in their artistic space, be it the radio booth or the wrestling ring?
Simien: I come more from the world of film than TV — I didn’t work my way up in writers’ rooms, so part of the appeal of doing it for Netflix was that I got to shoot it like a movie. Even though I’m not directing each episode, we got to conceive it as one sort of cinematic piece. I grew up on these cinema masters and obsessing over the French New Wave and De Palma and Hitchcock and all of these great directors, and you never see black faces in those kinds of aesthetics. You normally see black faces in gritty, cinema verite — or you see them really polished, in sitcom. It’s very rare to see black faces be treated cinematically like European faces have been treated, so for the movie it was just so important … I quoted a lot of films visually in that movie because — even if you don’t recognize it — imagine these beautiful pictures but with brown faces in them. And it was just carrying that over into the series.
Flahive: I think wanting to have a strong visual identity as a show — especially now because A) there’s so much out there and B) it’s part of the way you want to tell your story — it’s actually as important to the narrative as anything else. We were trying to do down on our luck actresses in ‘85 L.A. that felt real and not glossy and not ugly but ugly in a particular way — ugly in a real way.
Mensch: The ring is different. We used to think the ring would be Technicolor and outside the ring is dusty, but we went in a different direction, which is, you’re always with the person — you never get into a wrestling match and be watching it performatively. We try to get you in the ring to get you more to the side of the people wrestling rather than the spectacle of the show. Last year you got a tiny glimpse of what our women could do, but they’re all doing it themselves and they’re phenomenal and it’s cool to shoot it in a way to show them.
Was there any feedback from season one that surprised you?
Simien: I think there is something unique to making a show about people of color, where you do get a kind of criticism within the community that can be surprising. I’ll say this — there was a lot of conversation about Rashid’s accent. And we have an actor who is of an African origin, is using a person that he knows that is from the correct country, and yet it still felt too sing-songy to Africans living in America. And they kind of assumed it to be the same old trope. And we took pains to try to make it specific this season. But it’s just the kind of thing you can’t know as an American — my ear just doesn’t work the same way. The biggest stuff of “Oh I didn’t expect that” really comes from black people because we are so starved for our stories that we are very quick to be like, “Well, this actually wasn’t included …” You can choose to be defensive about it, or you can work harder to be more inclusive.
What did you learn the most from the first season of your shows that you applied when working on the second season?
Simien: To make a show like “Dear White People,” we’re constantly getting feedback from people who love you, people who hate you, people who haven’t watched but have an opinion about what you are — and because the show is about a show called “Dear White People” in some ways, it’s like it writes itself. There were so many things where I was like, “Let’s just put that directly into the season.” But I think my big thing was, this was my first time doing TV and we had a lot to establish in that first season. It was a tight rope because there was some [audience] that was coming from the film and wanted to go right into a new story [and] there were some people who, this would be their first iteration, so we had to kind of play a juggling act of introducing these characters and setting up the world. Our show is an ensemble, but it’s also about, frankly, a group of people that never get to see themselves on TV. There’s only so far you can go in a first season, so for us the second season was the opportunity to say, “OK now you know them, so let’s really go in, let’s go deeper.” … And just learning that I can be the boss and ask for what I want and that kind of stuff. I think it was really nice. It wasn’t like I was learning how to swim this time.
Flahive: Just the tornado of work the first season is also just something to survive.
Mensch: Because you’re not just telling a story, you’re hiring a crew — 200 people. You’re building the family, you’re establishing the look of the world, the sound of the world, each character. And I think also, we deliberately went very slowly [in] season one, not just to introduce the characters but because our show is about people learning something new and once they learned it, they could never go back. So with women learning to wrestle, once they learned it, we could never have the fun again of the struggle. So there was a freedom once we were done with season one because we went so slowly. So in season two we were so excited to hit the ground running.
Flahive: Those building blocks are in place [now] and it sort of gave us the freedom to move about the cabin, in a way, which is real nice. And it was great to have season one be so well-received and then that pressure is there when that pressure is there when you walk back into the room, but then you forget about it almost immediately because you’re like, “Oh I just have to serve all of these characters in the way that I haven’t gotten to yet.” So that feeling of pressure goes away pretty quickly because …
Simien: You have work to do.
Flahive: You have work to do, exactly.