Workplace environments such as traditional corporate offices, branches of the government and even bars have provided colorful characters for decades, but as of late, half-hour formats have increasingly embraced the setting of television productions. It is a unique world, full of specific details about which a storyteller in the space must often educate its audience, in addition to entertaining them.
“Very few people have access to pulling back the curtain,” says Dan Levy, showrunner and star of “Schitt’s Creek,” which, in its fifth season, followed Moira (Catherine O’Hara) as she attempted to revive her acting career with a movie and then ended up directing a local stage production. “Our mandate with handling Moira’s entertainment background is that it should feel accessible, even if it is referential.”
“Schitt’s Creek” spent four seasons referencing Moira’s past credits first. “The people who understand those jokes and references will understand and smile, and the people who don’t will find the absurdity funny,” Levy says. But when it came time to do a deeper dive, focusing scenes on local theater auditions, rehearsal, and an ultimate opening night, it was imperative to make the environment feel “joyful and sophisticated,” not a joke itself.
It should come as no surprise that in a time of peak storytelling and great political unrest, the light is being shone on television writers’ own industry. In addition to the element of “write what you know,” the ideas of “performance and putting on larger-than-life personas is speaking to people,” says “GLOW” co-showrunner Carly Mensch.
Also, adds “GLOW” co-showrunner Liz Flahive, “It used to feel like I chose a path that was incredibly destabilizing, but right now there’s a lot more upheaval. I feel like telling a story about the creative process and about a creative person and it being a rocky road, there’s more there for people now.”
“GLOW” centers on the women (and few men) who bring to life a local cable access television series about female wrestlers. Although Flahive and Mensch make sure not to have their characters walk around spouting jargon, key facets of the industry from camera crews to editing bays to smarmy network executives still pop up. One pivotal Season 2 episode was devoted solely to the show-within-the-show, as well. But, Mensch points out, because the characters are “misfits that don’t really know the industry too well, it’s a point of entry” for the audience.
The same is true for series such as “Barry” and “The Kominsky Method.” The former follows a hit-man who decides he wants to retire from murder-for-hire and be an actor instead, joining a group of thespians at different levels of the craft led by an aging performer, while the latter centers on a formerly famous actor who now teaches a class of up-and-comers. And for “Kidding,” about a public access puppet show, much of the charm of the setting comes from the sense of smaller-town nostalgia than big Hollywood bucks, according to showrunner Dave Holstein.
Such environments also attract colorful characters and heightened interpersonal drama as they struggle to succeed both personally and professionally.
In the case of “Kidding,” Holstein created characters who aren’t just colleagues, but also family. This elevates the stakes, especially when watching Jeff Pickles (Jim Carrey) interact with his boss and father (Frank Langella). “It infuses things with a real draconian subtext that this is someone who is a boss first and a parent second,” he says.
Similarly, “The Other Two,” which centers on the older, professionally struggling siblings (Drew Tarver and Helene Yorke) of an overnight teen pop star sensation (Case Walker), balances scenes of making music videos, meetings with managers, and auditions with simpler family moments on the couch.
“We don’t mind going small and specific on things that might be ‘inside’ because they’re real. But we also try and check ourselves,” says “The Other Two” co-showrunner Chris Kelly.
Adds co-showrunner Sarah Schneider: “I still want my mom, who runs a bed-and-breakfast in Maryland, to watch the show and laugh and not be wondering every minute, ‘Who is that?’”