Ever since the success of third-year sitcoms "The Middle" and "Modern Family," ABC has been on the hunt for that right sitcom to fit in between the two family-centric series and they may have finally found it in "Suburgatory." The freshman series starring Jeremy Sisto and Jane Levy as a father-daughter who move from Manhattan to the suburbs started out with strong ratings in September and recently was given a full-season order of episodes. But, as our Jim Halterman found out when he talked to series creator Emily Kapnek late last week, getting a seemingly cushy timeslot comes with some added stresses. Also, Kapnek spoke of casting the series with actors like Sisto who are not necessarily known for comedy, whether fans of the show can ever expect to meet Tessa's never-seen mother and what the show has in store for a 'Suburgatory' holiday season.
Jim Halterman: From watching the show, it's easy to assume you must've grown up in the suburbs since there's a lot of truth in what we see on the show.
Emily Kapnek: I did. I lived in Manhattan until fourth or fifth grade when my Mom decided to move up to Westchester County so I lived in Larchmont and it was definitely very surreal. We went through a true culture shock there and my sister and I didn't have any idea that people live like that. We lived in an apartment on the 14th floor and sometimes there were black outs and we lived on the Upper West Side but it certainly wasn't close to what these kids were doing. We were just slack-jawed at the amount of privilege that existed there. It was really something to witness.
JH: How did you take elements from that experience and develop into the show?
EK: When we started talking about the show and doing the sort of satirical look at suburbia, we talked about the kind of 'Real Housewives' culture and how it would look and how it would feel. It does feel like the Hollywood culture has permeated the suburbs and a lot of people have changed the ideals and lifestyle, for that matter, so a lot of that became the model for creating Moms like Dallas (played by Cheryl Hines). I feel like Ana Gasteyer (who plays Sheila Shay) is the quintessential Westchester Mom. There were a couple of Moms that were really done up like Cheryl Hines' character is. I do think that there are different kinds of Moms but I love that climate of these full-time suburban Moms where being a Mom is a full-time job and they take it very seriously.
JH: Was the show developed as a companion to 'The Middle' and 'Modern Family?' It fits really well between both series.
EK: Yes and no. If you're lucky enough to get your show picked up you certainly don't know where they're going to put it. That's the dream spot but early on the ABC executives, who were amazing throughout the process of development of the show, kind of eyeballed that as we were working on it and that's where we hoped it would go and it felt like a great bridge. We did pay attention to that but, again, that spot is a little bit of a tricky spot. As wonderful as it is to be sandwiched between two shows that are performing so well and have such great followings, that hammock position, as they call it, often doesn't get the same sort of attention and promotion that others shows do in different time slots so it was hinging on hoping those two shows are going to help and I was really worried. ABC was great in that they did give us a bit of our own promotion as well. There was a lot of anxiety of performing in that spot like holding onto our lead-in but we were just delighted at the outcome.
And, look, here you have two great shows, 'The Middle' and 'Modern Family' both about families and it does feel like a natural fit but at the same time you need to distinguish yourself so how do you do that? How do you go about creating a fresh take on a suburban family show that goes with but doesn't follow from... it's a challenge, I think, and we had a couple different ideas of how to do that and a lot of that was just tone and style.
JH: As wacky as the show is, it's always grounded in reality. Is that a challenge in not going too far in the humor and the wackiness?
EK: Yeah, it's hard. We don't want it to just feel like a satire. We want the show to have a heart and that we're grappling with real, relatable issues and the more out there you let your characters be sometimes the harder it is to identify. One of the things that hopefully people will like in the upcoming episodes is that we have some really great story arcs that are playing out. Stuff that involves George and Dallas, stuff that involves Tessa and George and just getting a little bit more three dimensional look into characters that could be just one dimensional. I think one of the good things we have going for us is that George and Tessa are so grounded. They really are the rudder. We just had a table read for our next episode and Wilmer Valderrama is guest starring and you have these big personalities and you throw them in a scene with Jeremy Sisto and it really balances it out. It's like we're having our cake and eating it, too. You have all the fun and then you have him be the eyes of the audience and have that grounded response. It's been a good formula so far.
JH: Talk to me about casting Jeremy because I'm guessing his name isn't always the first one to come up as a sitcom lead. How did he come into the picture?
EK: I wish I could take the credit for this one but Erin Wehrenberg at Warner Brothers, she was the first person to mention his name. We did a little bit of poking around to see if there was evidence of Jeremy Sisto's comedy out there. We found some internet stuff on Funny Or Die that he was in that was genuinely funny and also showed that he had a little bit of a sick, slightly perverted side that made all of us laugh. The more we talked about not having a traditionally comedic actor in that role the better it started to feel. We knew from the beginning that we wanted the suburbanites be heightened and that's when Alan Tudyk and Cheryl Hines and Ana Gasteyer and Rex (Lee) came in... so it made great sense to try to find someone who really genuinely was an outside to the comedy world. I can't get over how good Jeremy is. Every day I sit in editing and I'm so thrilled with the choice we made.
JH: Did Jane Levy come through the audition process?
EK: She was a name that came from ABC and they had had a meeting with her and I think she had one other credit, which was 'Shameless,' so not a ton of experience. She came in and she felt so different. I think a lot of times with actors that are from the comedy world, particularly the half-hour comedy world, they have this rhythm that belongs to television comedy that these two didn't have. It felt much more off-center and organic to me. You didn't feel them reaching for that joke or elbowing you. I think for Jane, being so fresh to the game actually helped. She really felt unaffected and everyone just fell in love with her.
JH: It seems that George and Tessa cannot get away from Dallas and Dalia (Carly Chaikin) but are these families destined to come together?
EK: I think that would be so far down the road. It's hard to imagine them being a fully blended family but I think George and Dallas are definitely drawn to each other. I think that they have surprised each other as characters in that they find that they have more in common. I think for Dallas, George represents a kind of man that she doesn't have a lot of exposure to. We've seen Jay Mohr come in for an episode - and there's more of him to come - and you get a really good look at what their marriage is like and what their family life is like. In seeing that, I think it's very understandable to see why she's drawn to George. You can imagine for Dallas that maybe at some point marrying someone who can take care of her financially maybe seems to be the most important thing but in seeing a man like George, who is so incredibly hands-on and warm and caring about his daughter, that maybe her criteria is starting to change about what's important in a partner. For George, it's sort of similar. Dallas doesn't represent any kind of woman that he would have normally been attracted to. You can say what you will about her style but she cares a lot about her kid and for a guy whose wife ducked out and couldn't handle the responsibility of a Mom there has to be something appealing about someone who treats it as seriously as Dallas does. So I think they come by their affection and interest in each other naturally although they are very much an odd couple.
JH: When are you planning on us meeting Tessa's mother or will you be holding onto that for awhile?
EK: I don't know that we're going to throw her in the mix right away but we are planning a lot of storylines that explain George's feelings about her absence and we've talked about the idea of him potentially visiting Tessa's Grandmother or his former mother-in-law. One thing we've set up in the series is that this is a family without a Mom who has moved to, essentially, the land of the Moms so we really do want to pay that off and start investigating on a more day-to-day basis what it means to Tessa to be without this figure. There are definitely some storylines that feature the issue but not the Mom herself.
JH: What can you tease about [tonight's] episode? I see there's something with Tessa's Sweet Sixteen party.
EK: Tessa winds up with Dalia as her party planner because Dallas has offered to help deliver Tessa's favorite band for her Sweet Sixteen. The trade-off is she has to work with Dalia and Dalia ends up planning the party in a much more Dalia-like than Tessa-like fashion. And, of course, all the trappings of the party are so Dalia - she has fire eaters and ponies and glitter everywhere. It's really funny. Then, George winds up having an accident and hurting himself and being under Sheila Shay's care so there's a very kind of 'Misery' storyline that goes with that.
JH: Will we see holiday episodes in the coming weeks?
EK: Oh yeah, we have a great Thanksgiving episode coming up where Tessa stumbles on a secret that George has been keeping. One of the things that we haven't dealt with very much is his dating life and how that impacts her so we have a great episode where that comes to a head and they wind up having to celebrate Thanksgiving at the Royce's and we get a really good look at their bizarre way of celebrating Thanksgiving and that's a fully catered event. They have Pilgrims and Native Americans working the valet and they're all shirtless. It's very farcical and funny and we also get a really healthy dose of the Shay family and Lisa (Allie Grant) rebelling against her Mom for the first time and refusing to wear this hideous pilgrim dress that she wants her to wear.
"Suburgatory" airs at 8:30/7:30c every Wednesday on ABC.