The day after Matthew A. Cherry won the Oscar for animated short film, he stepped onto the set of ABC’s “Mixed-ish” to direct the pivotal first season episode “Bad Boys,” which featured themes of abuse of power and saw parents Alicia (Tika Sumpter) and Paul (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) discussing racial profiling with their young son (Ethan William Childress).
Although Cherry hadn’t slept the night before beginning production (as he was celebrating his win), he had prepped for a week with the series’ director of photography Troy Smith, a rarity in the ever-moving machine of TV, because the show just happened to be on hiatus. Having done an episode of “The Red Line,” a limited series centered on a racially charged police shooting, as well as an episode of “The Last O.G.” that also dealt with the cop talk, Cherry was no stranger to such important material.
Cherry says the tone of this serious story in a half-hour family comedy was “very much on the page.” But working hand-in-hand with Smith was essential to create the visuals of the episode. At the launch of the series, Smith worked with the executive producers to establish the look and feel and, to a degree, shot style. “I am kind of the gatekeeper for that,” Smith says.
The show’s overall look is something the cast and crew of “Mixed-ish” had consistently been working with for about half a calendar year, and the majority of the first season (19 previous episodes) before “Bad Boys.” One specific guideline for guest directors on the show is not to do a lot of Steadicam shots featuring a large number of performers, Smith says, because they can lock you into performances and time.
“That’s really the only thing that’s restrictive,” he says. “I’m always excited to have new ideas, and Matthew had really good ideas.”
From Smith’s perspective, typical episodes have him figuring out a director’s story “based on the first rehearsal and trying to adapt to that as much as possible,” but having more time to work through things with Cherry was beneficial because “discussions always make the show better.”
Cherry says he first used the Shot Designer app to plan out the episode, and then took those plans to Smith to talk them through because “he knows the show better than I do.” Some slight adjustments were made, but “this is the one show I’ve worked on that really didn’t have parameters — that gave me freedom,” he says. “As long as you protected yourself and got the proper coverage, they let you do what you needed to do, and I was really appreciative of that.”
Such freedom to choose when to be in a closeup or when to go slightly wider came in handy for the multiple “four- to five-page scenes that came with a lot of heavy emotions and turns,” he notes, citing examples including Alicia and Paul discussing their opposing approaches to their son’s interest in becoming a cop, as well as Alicia being pulled over by a white officer at night and then later recounting that experience to her husband.
“When Alicia is pulled over, they allowed us to do something you don’t get to do on network TV that much, which is interesting lighting and flares,” Smith says. “Working with a director who is into that and wants that mood — to go dark and ominous and emotional — is really exciting to me.”