Thursday, March 23, 2023

‘WandaVision,’ ‘Girls5eva,’ ‘Hacks’ Scribes Weigh In on the Freedom and Flexibility of Writing for Streamers

As the number of streaming platforms has grown over the past two years, it has taken no time for their programming to make a splash, including 11 Emmy writing nominations this year coming from services less than 2 years old.

“I love being part of things that are new, because I think it’s all potential,” says “Girls5eva” creator Meredith Scardino. “Being on a new streamer is cool because [a show is] not going to get lost; they’re going to put all of their weight behind it because they believe in it.”

As newer streamers including Peacock, Disney Plus and HBO Max have sought to make a name for themselves, they’ve allowed their creators to take risks to stand out — and draw in potential viewers. Marvel Studios’ first outing with Disney Plus immediately played with the unexpected, for example.

“It was an early discovery [in the writing process] that the climax of the pilot would be this man choking, which was one of the riskier things in my mind — I didn’t think that Marvel would go for it,” “WandaVision” head writer Jac Schaeffer says of her show, which explored Wanda’s (Elizabeth Olsen) grief over losing her husband, Vision (Paul Bettany). “I didn’t think that would be high-stakes enough, and I was so delighted when Kevin [Feige, the Marvel boss] signed off on it. It was so exciting to me to make something that didn’t involve guns, blasters, apocalypses or world domination. To have it make your heart catch in your throat as a viewer, that was the design of it.”

Meanwhile, HBO Max focused much of its scripted programming on female-led shows, and its talent found different approaches to find their groove.

On “The Flight Attendant,” showrunner Steve Yockey’s priority in the pilot was getting into Cassie’s (Kaley Cuoco) mindset “and then to just keep the energy up. I’m a big fan of genre-blending and I feel like you can mash things together and it can work really, really well, as long as you do it confidently and keep it moving.”

Yockey also stresses the importance of injecting humor into the series, because “the comedy is what allows it to go to the incredibly dark emotional places. It was really about making sure that the first 10 minutes [of the pilot] felt light and frothy and gave you a sense of this woman’s life before, so that when she wakes up next to a dead body, we made it just intense as we could — the music’s loud, the blood is graphic — but then we have the ringtone go off while she’s staring at his body, and you see it’s still going to be fun.”

With “Hacks,” creators Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs and Jen Statsky wanted to give their pilot a bit of breathing room.

To that end, main characters Deborah Vance (Jean Smart), a stand-up comedian trying to figure out the next phase of her career, and Ava Daniels (Hannah Einbinder), a struggling writer who reluctantly teams up with Deborah, don’t meet for the first time until near the end of the episode.

“A lot of other places that didn’t understand our show or tone, they would have set these characters together faster,” Downs says. “But HBO and HBO Max were so collaborative and understanding of our wanting to build the backstory and the world.”

“Having characters that were comedians allowed us to be hard funny and tell actual jokes, which were believable, because that’s how these women would speak,” Downs adds. “But we wanted to have emotional moments between the characters. For us, that was our north star: Does this feel true to life? Is this realistic? Because we never wanted to ever feel too broad or too melodramatic.”

This also meant the writers had to balance writing the more grounded elements of the series with plausible stand-up material. “The stand-up material is probably some of the hardest writing we had to do for the show,” Statsky admits. “We wanted it to feel real, wanted it to be funny enough that it’s believable that this is a woman who’s been working for over 40 years and is a pro at what she does, but also maybe needs to update her material a little bit. So, we had this very small target we were trying to hit.”

An equally small target was crafting the music for “Girls5eva,” which had to play with what was cheesy, catchy and appropriate for a ’90s-era girl group.

“Tonally, I really like that sort of supercharged heightened reality middle zone, where it’s not too crazy, but it’s still tethered to reality in some way,” Scardino says. “So, [their big hit] song felt like it had a big function to set the tone [for the show], but it’s also absurd.”

Thanks to launching during the pandemic, Peacock’s “The Amber Ruffin Show” was in a similarly surreal position, with the new late-night series frequently relying on musical numbers and sketches to tackle serious issues — sans an audience.

“I think a lot of people were like, ‘We don’t have an audience, we’re missing out on those sweet, sweet laughs,’” Ruffin notes. “But my very first thought was, ‘We can say whatever we want, no matter how bad it is, and there will be no repercussions!’”

That freedom, as well as Peacock’s flexibility with run time, allowed Ruffin and the writers to lean into what felt right. “What I like about it is we can have many different vibes in the show, or even within a piece,” says head writer Jenny Hagel. “And because you don’t have [to account for], OK this part of it has a lot of laughter, but now this part has silence, it doesn’t feel as jarring to go back and forth between those two vibes.”

Sometimes writers do have to push through some doubt, even from services that are trying to innovate. But in the end, that just ensures a more unique project.

“There was a bit of a concern — essentially, ‘Where are the jokes?’” recalls “Ted Lasso” co-creator Brendan Hunt of early interactions with Apple TV Plus executives. “This lasted all the way until the first cuts of the first couple episodes. When, essentially, Jason [Sudeikis, the star and co-creator] could get in there and really demonstrate through the editing what this is really supposed to be. It’s just very atypical what’s happening right now, the pace we’re taking, the occasional injection of just complete non-comedy emotional moments.”


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