No stranger to romance with his work in film and television, John Scott Shepherd found inspiration for his next romantic series in an unusual place—the subject of polyamory. The series is Audience Network’s You Me Her, which stars Greg Poehler and Rachel Blanchard as a married couple who resolve to bring a third party into their marriage, to decidedly mixed results. Says Shepherd, “I was wondering if there was a grounded romance featuring real people in the real world, with real stakes and real jobs.”
Though Shepherd set the series in Portland, as a great admirer of the city, it was only once the series was written that Shepherd realized the kismet of it all—Portland happens to be one of the premier destinations within the United States for those seeking ‘polyromantic’ relationships. Below, Shepherd discusses his various depictions of the American family over the years, his former life as an advertising executive, the decline of the prestige half-hour series, and more.
What was the genesis of this series, and what did you want to convey about relationships through this three-way love story?
Everything I’ve written my entire career, starting with my novel, Henry’s List of Wrongs, is definitely very relationship and romance based, and always from skewed, dramedy point of view. I was deciding between either two couples or a couple that brings in a third, and was there a way to do it that wasn’t “sex people”? I think I’m ripping off Seinfeld when I say that, but to do it where you felt like it could be you, it could be me, it could be our friends… Could you architect a series of things that would make it feel real, so that it could become about more than polyamorism, and really also be an observation on love and sex and the importance of sex in relationships, and the importance of relationships for your happiness?
I didn’t want to do a sex farce—it just didn’t feel like a natural thing for me to do, that I would wake up every morning and want to write that. I wanted something with real stakes, where you really cared, and I wanted people, right from the pitch stages, to be surprised. When they heard the title You Me Her, and they heard what it was about, I wanted to be able to come in and pitch it and have them go, “I had no idea that’s how this was going to go.” That idea has permeated all the way through the company and the studio and the network, and everyone has been extremely supportive of that—we really want to care.
You last delved into the issues of the contemporary American family in the 2004 series The Days. Where do you find the connection between these two series?
It’s connective to You Me Her because you have two people who genuinely like the hell out of each other—love the hell out of each other—but are both having the same problems separately, almost privately. It is the elephant in the bedroom. And it isn’t that sitcom-y, “Remember when we used to have sex?” It’s a slow boil, and I think anyone who’s been married over twelve, thirteen years, or in that area, starts to realize that you do kind of wake up in the middle of it. You don’t think about it on a day-to-day, moment to moment basis. You sort of realize, “Wow, we sort of let this slide.”
It’s been neglected and there’s something missing, and maybe it’s even something that I had decided wasn’t that important. We had decided we’d moved on to another phase, and we blamed it on baby sex or we blamed it on kids in the house, or we blamed it on busy careers, or some mathematical combination of all of the above. But in truth, we do miss it—we do miss that intimacy. It has affected our lives, and what do you do?
It’s two people who’ve run out of ideas. They couldn’t like each other any more, so that’s not the problem. It’s not going to a therapist and trying to figure out what day you woke up and started hating each other. It’s: “Why don’t we feel that way about each other as much? Why don’t we think about each other that way as much? And how do you jumpstart that?” Because every version I’ve seen or heard of feels so awkward and weird and almost comedic. It’s like, “Let’s dress up like this…I’ll tie you up, you tie me up, let’s do this.” It’s like, well maybe if it wasn’t you! If we didn’t know each other this well, which is the premise of the bad advice Jack gets from his brother—“That’s really hard to do with your wife, she’ll just start laughing.”
I think that’s true of my marriage—we talk about that all the time. For people coming up with all these exotic ideas of how to jumpstart their sex life, things usually end up poorly. So taking the advice of his brother to go to someone else without consummating—without literally cheating—you sort of see again what it’s like to feel sexy. If you read about the real reason men and women have affairs, it’s mostly about ego—it’s mostly about validation. It’s about someone looking at you and seeing what you want them to see.
You often write stories about identity and purpose, and people in transition, which seems to apply very directly to this series.
I do think I write “people in transition” stories, and the reward is love. You can’t be loved until you find your truest, best self, and I think that this is a journey that just happens to involve three people instead of two, who all, in their individual ways, have some issues—you know, Rod Serling’s fragile shell of normalcy. The fun of the show is to start with people who really do present as more or less normal, but then peel the onion or crack the egg and see that they’re all carrying their damage.
They all have stuff they want to work through. Jack says in a later episode, “I’ve just always done what I thought I was supposed to do. I did what people told me to do.” Emma has some sexual identity issues; she hasn’t dealt with something from her past that she has put in a box, locked away and forgotten about, as if it’s that convenient. And Izzy has serious issues from her upbringing, from her parents’ divorce and her fear of commitment, and she likes to keep casting her line for a great guy like Andy, but ultimately, when it comes to put the fish in the boat, she throws it back! And these three people… Who says? Who says it has to be two people? If your individual truth is that these three people find their truth together better than any other combination of the two of them, then that fits into the pattern that my storytelling seems to take.
Prior to your career in film and television, you worked in Kansas as an advertising executive. Did skills gained in that job come in handy in pitching sometimes risqué material to actors?
If they hadn’t read the material, maybe if they’d only read a logline, or if they didn’t have time to sit down and really talk to me about the approach, I think any of the three would have felt differently, quite frankly. I don’t think they’re drawn to doing overtly sexual material. In the case of Rachel [Blanchard] and Greg [Poehler], they got to read multiple scripts. It was a little bit of a different experience for Priscilla [Faia] because she auditioned and read the first script, and then I got to meet with her and she wanted it. They all said the same thing—It was the word ‘surprise.’ They were surprised. They had an idea, they had read some of my writing and knew that I wasn’t likely to write porn. [Laughs] They didn’t have that expectation, but to read it and for it to be romantic, I think that was the surprise.
As far as advertising, I did everything. I was an ad creative and an ad executive and then I moved into production. I think the value of all of that, to me, and I think it still has great value, is the ability to wrap your arms and your mind around a story in a concise way—to really get to the nuggets of it. Like, what are you really talking about? As opposed to just wading your way through it.
What space do you hope You Me Her will fill within the landscape of shows on modern romance?
It’s something I think about a lot. I think the prestige half-hour is in a little bit of danger, and I think there’s going to have to be some expansion of ideas. I think we’re going to have to start looking at higher arcs and not fear them, not be terrified of them—that everything has to feel like Happy Christmas or something, and it all has to be mumblecore indie, two damaged people finding love together, or a slow brewing look at how difficult marriage is. There’s a lot of that, and a lot of broken people stories. So when we talk about the tone of this show, we really talked more about Catastrophe than anything else. We talked about romantic comedy, and sophisticated romantic comedy—we referenced Silver Linings Playbook and Catastrophe.
We wanted that tone—we didn’t want to be afraid of genuine emotion. We didn’t want to be owned by irony. We didn’t want to have to undercut every genuine moment. We made a conscious choice to listen to soundtracks like Danny Elfman’s Silver Linings Playbook and think like that, and score it like that, rather than something wilfully quirky or weird. Certainly, we wanted it to look like an indie version of that, and we worked hard to make sure that we stretched our dollar and got more exteriors than these shows usually get, and to light it that way, and to make sure that it was a pretty show to look at, too. And also all three leads are really, really good improv comedians, but we wanted it to have the rhythm of a romantic comedy. We wanted it to have that sort of aspirational dialogue vibe. The show is staking its own ground, because it definitely is that indie prestige half-hour, but we wanted to give it a little more of that Working Title kind of vibe.
What are your hopes and plans for Jack and Emma going forward?
The easiest way to write this whole book—we called the first season a book, because we didn’t want to write it like ten separate episodes, we wanted to write it like a book with ten chapters—is that the whole series takes place over a year. They discover something, and like Hesher or some movie like that, they learn something from this crazy experience that makes their marriage better than it ever was.
I’d like to think that we get to the point where we at least ask ourselves, could this be? Could it be that two isn’t always the right number? Could this equation work?