Jane Espenson just wrapped up filming the second season of Husbands, the web series she co-created with writer/actor Brad Bell, aka Cheeks. This week, the two will get to check out the director’s cut of the comedy about two men who wake up hitched after celebrating the legalization of same-sex marriages. There’s still a lot of work to be done on the show– Espenson and Bell will need to do their producers’ cut, plus they’re finalizing details about a musical score– but they’ve reached the home stretch. If all goes according to plan, Husbands will be back on the web by the middle of August.
“This is my film school,” says Espenson when we chat inside Meltdown Comics.
While many in the entertainment world started out with student films made on shoestring budgets, Espenson ended up at UC Berkeley “doing completely unrelated things with metaphor and computers. ” Espenson was a grad student studying cognitive science when she learned that it was possible to submit a script to Star Trek: The Next Generation without an agent. She wrote the script instead of her dissertation. Eventually, she landed a writer’s fellowship with Disney. Sitcoms provided her start, but Espenson went on to become one of the best loved writers in the world of sci-fi and fantasy television. She spent five seasons on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, went on to Battlestar Galactica, was a showrunner for Caprica and currently writes for Once Upon a Time. She also penned episodes of Game of Thrones, Dollhouse, Firefly, Angel, Torchwood and many more shows. She has worked in television consistently since the 1990s and now, at 47, she’s proudly still learning the craft.
The first season of Husbands is similar in length to a single sitcom episode, it’s just divided into eleven bite-sized nuggets. They put it together with a cast and crew of about 25 people. For season two, roughly 40 people are involved with the show. That may seem like a large team, and it is for a web series, but in comparison to TV, that’s tiny. With a smaller team, Espenson had the chance to learn every aspect of the production process. “I have something valuable to contribute to any part of the show,” she says. “That’s not an authority I’ve had before.”
Espenson was working on the short-lived Battlestar Galactica prequel, Caprica, when she stumbled upon a few videos that Bell had made. “Who is this guy named Cheeks and why is he writing jokes that I wish I had written?” Espenson recalls thinking. They met through Twitter, quickly became friends and soon worked out the basis for Husbands.
“It was the most obvious idea for a hit show that I had heard,” says Espenson. “It’s the thing that television does really well, newlywed comedy.”
Husbands does follow a tried-and-true sitcom formula. A young couple gets married and and spends episodes learning more about each other as they face a number of conflicts. The difference is that the romantic pair consists of two men– Brady Kelly, a baseball player who came out a year prior to the show, and Cheeks, an actor– and they are the first couple to wed after same-sex marriages are legalized across the U.S. They stay married because a Vegas wedding and quickie divorce in their high-profile world wouldn’t be a simple personal scandal. As Brady argues in the first episode, it would impact the marriage equality movement. Husbands is funny and sweet, but there’s always the sense that the couple has the weight of a major cause hanging over them. However, there’s more to it than just marriage equality.
“We wanted to make sure that there was comedy and we wanted to make sure that there was romance. Absolutely we wanted to make sure that the guys had a risk,” says Espenson. “On the surface, it’s bad for the cause. If you settle into the show, you realize that what they’re really risking is their hearts.”
Despite the obvious difference in genre, Husbands shares similarities with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Even in that show’s funniest moments, there’s always the heaviness that comes with knowing that Buffy has to save the world.
Finding the careful balance between witty and heart-wrenching moments is one of the hallmarks of Espenson’s work, as is participating in series that challenge the conventions of the medium. The latter was not the easiest thing to accomplish.
“TV did things a certain way,” says Espenson, noting television’s frequent reliance on archetypal characters, like the “ditzy ” blonde girl.
“It was very hard to go in and change things and say, what if this character was gay or what if this character was black?” she continues. “It was hard to do that because people would say that will take away from the comedy because that’s an agenda.”
The shows that hired on Espenson– particularly Ellen, Buffy and BSG– were different. “It was great for me to go to a show where you really could say, forget saying we can’t have an agenda,” she says. “Why not have an agenda?”
It was largely “dumb luck,” Espenson says, that she landed those gigs. Writers, she explains, typically don’t have the luxury of picking and choosing the shows for which they write. She relished in the opportunity. But, not all the shows lasted long. Caprica barely lasted a season before Syfy pulled the plug on it. Espenson mentions that she felt a certain amount of regret over the show’s early cancellation. “It’s not regret that it didn’t keep going,” she says, “but maybe regret that it didn’t more quickly find its way.”
Espenson was heavily influenced by M.A.S.H. in her formative years. “It wasn’t just anti-war,” she says. “It was a feminist show, a very progressive show.” Part of M.A.S.H.‘s appeal to her, though, was that the messages didn’t feel forced. This is something that consistently runs through her work and has made its way to Husbands. “We could make a political point,” she says. “It’s very easy to have the characters give a little lecture. ” But, they don’t.
Husbands was always conceived as a web series, but, at one point, Espenson and Bell considered trying to get it picked up by a network. They soon learned, though, that working independently on the web offered them a level of creative freedom they wouldn’t otherwise have. “This show is the perfect show for new media,” says Espenson. “We want it to thrive there, right where it is.” And fans seem to agree.
This past spring, the team launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise $50,000 necessary for season two. They finished the fundraiser $10,000 over their goal and are rewarding fans with a host of guests stars. So far, Dichen Lachman (Dollhouse, Being Human) is the only one that’s been announced. They sent the script to a number of people they wanted on the web series and nearly everyone they contacted agreed to do it. “That makes us feel that not only we’re doing something we believe in but something other people believe in,” says Espenson.
That happens when you write something that makes the audience care. Espenson has done that time and again.
— Liz Ohanesian
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