Starring Roiland, Thomas Middleditch and Andrew Daly, the series centers on a family of extraterrestrials who are forced to take refuge in Middle America, where they weigh the virtues of life on planet Earth.
Perhaps best known as two of the creatives behind Rick and Morty, Roiland and McMahan met years ago, and connected as friends. The idea for Solar Opposites would then emerge organically, as an extension of what they’d done with their aforementioned Emmy-winning series. “Justin and I have known each other since back during his development days, when I was an assistant for Jennifer Howell, when she was the head of animation at 20th TV. We had hit it off, and just from working together and knowing each other, we knew that the same things made us laugh,” McMahan says. “So, as Justin was blowing up and looking to work with people that he felt comfortable with, it was kind of a natural way for us to take the things we liked from Rick and Morty, and do a new sort of show that felt different to us.”
As McMahan explains, Solar Opposites began “in the best way possible for animation.” Early on, Roiland had been inspired to write the words “Solar Opposites” over a hand-drawn portrait of two aliens, but he didn’t yet know anything else about what the show would be. “That was it, so I kind of helped build out the family, and gave them personalities. We just really liked the thought of so many comedic situations that you could get from aliens that are in a human world, but we also loved the idea that the humans don’t really care that they’re aliens,” the EP says. “They just think they’re pieces of s**t.”
Prior to its acquisition by Hulu, Solar Opposites had been developed for the Fox Broadcasting Company, which naturally factored into the thinking, as far as the kind of series it would be, and the kind of context it would sit within. “[Justin and I] both love classic TV sitcoms, and we both love the Fox Animation family animated sitcoms, and we knew that we were going to do an alien-skewing, sort of subversive version of regular sitcom plots,” McMahan says. “We wanted to start the way any show would start, with a grounded kind of emotional interaction, and then, because they’re comedically broad aliens, they take it to a crazy degree with sci-fi stuff.”
In early conversations with Grant Gish and Marci Proietto at 20th Century Fox, Roiland and McMahan shared that they wanted to start out with a “classic, understandable, easily digestible family unit, and then keep adding layers of complexity to it, where it’s like, ‘Oh, they’re a family. The two leads sleep in the same bed. But are they gay? Do they even have gender? Do they even understand that? Do they sleep in the same bed because they saw it on TV?’ Stuff that isn’t in any [other sitcom].”
Ultimately, Fox passed on the project, “because it was insanely weird and fun and awesome, and it didn’t fit in with what they were doing,” McMahan notes, “[so] we kept making Rick and Morty. Then, Hulu was looking for something, and when we went in to pitch Hulu, the whole thing kind of changed.”
From the get-go, one of the biggest swings Roiland and McMahan wanted to take with Solar Opposites had to do with a space called “The Wall.” A terrifying terrarium housing humans shrunk down by alien replicant children, The Wall is introduced early on in the series, and could have easily been a one-off gag. “It really made us laugh to think, in a show full of throwaway sci-fi jokes, that we arbitrarily pick one that we start treatment like the B-stories in The Wire, where it’s like, ‘Oh, this season will be all about the stevedore dockworkers,’” McMahan says. “I think, for me, I really wanted it to be an opportunity for us to take all these different tropes, and character turns, and details from apocalyptic movies that I love, like Escape from New York and Max Max, and put them in a ludicrous ant farm/candy-filled sci-fi situation—sort of like Lost, or the movie Cube.”
From Roiland’s perspective, as funny as the environment of The Wall was, it was also inextricably connected to the themes the show hoped to explore. “Justin really loved the idea of getting to have a microcosm of society, and getting to see these big swings of what humanity is all about,” McMahan shares, “but in the wall of an alien kid, who’s literally studying and trying to figure out what humanity is all about.” For McMahan, The Wall set up an interesting tonal juxtaposition, which was only to the benefit of the series as a whole. “The alien side of the story should be the most chasing-your-bliss, funny, all tone, all comedy, all the character stuff, without any kind of high drama. Then, almost like dumping espresso on ice cream, the Wall story comes in, and it’s a completely other flavor of show. But when you mix them together, we were just having a riot,” he says. “It made us write the funny alien stuff even sillier, so that we could then have the hot/cold of switching to the Wall stuff, and making it ultra-dramatic.”
While The Wall was part of the original pitch to Fox, the Solar Opposites creators felt at the time like they’d have to sneak Wall storylines into the show, if it were to air on the network. “It would be like 20 or 30 episodes would go past, and we would have little mentions and signs of The Wall stuff, and eventually, we would be able to beg and cajole and get to do a big Wall episode,” McMahan says. “And then, when we took it to Hulu, we were like, ‘You know what? The Wall stuff is our favorite stuff; no reason to hide it anymore.’”
Thankfully, Hulu took to the idea of The Wall, to the extent that it will have its own full-series arc. The degree of creative freedom the pair was given with regard to this space was the same that they enjoyed across the board. “We went into the pitch being like, ‘We’re only interested in making an animated show [where] we know the whole thing is going to drop at once.’ Because we want to know that we can control what episodes people see when, instead of hoping that they’ve caught the right one,” McMahan recalls, “and Hulu was completely supportive. They totally got it.”
While Solar Opposites is certainly a broad comedy, the story being told also carried a certain kind of social resonance, which its creators took seriously. On the one hand, there was The Wall—a violent dystopia, marked by systemic oppression. On the other, there was the experience of the aliens on Earth, who are routinely met with bigotry and treated as “the other” by their human counterparts.
Certainly, Roiland and McMahan share no illusions of curing the world’s ails with an alien-centric sitcom. “I think Justin and I, the way we always put it is, neither of us define ourselves as being the most capable emissaries of understanding all these kinds of complex issues,” McMahan says.
Nonetheless, the pair took ownership of the power that comes with their platform, and had some fun getting their personal attitudes across. “When the [school] principal is like, ‘I hate you, you stupid f**king aliens,’ the fun about writing those characters is, because he’s basically a bigot who’s in charge—the worst kind of bigot—it gave me free rein to write him as the biggest piece of s**t that I could,” the EP explains. “So, that’s probably our biggest swing of what we’re saying about people who are bigots, or who define other people as outsiders. The way we like to write them is, we’re not on their side.”
In bringing Solar Opposite to the screen with Hulu, there were a couple of key challenges. “I think a lot of it is just regular first-season show stuff, like making sure you find that balance of the ridiculous, but also the grounded, so that the audience has a chance to understand what’s going on,” McMahan says. “We’re [also] using the same production company as Rick and Morty, and it was a priority for us to never affect the production of Rick and Morty, making sure to be deferential to their time, and to the artists working on that.”
In retrospect, though, the animated sitcom wasn’t plagued by many of the issues facing first-season shows, from the EP’s point of view. “Solar was really a chance for us to follow our bliss and have a great time,” he says. “We kept chasing that the whole time, and it really was just a joy.”
Ordered for two seasons at its inception, Solar Opposites was renewed for a third just last week. Looking ahead, there are a couple of things that McMahan can tease. “We have serialized aspects of the alien stories that will be slowly playing out, regarding The Pupa, and what The Pupa’s role in the alien narrative is,” he says. “That, we have planned out, and it’s a thing that you can track if you watch all the episodes, as the second season and more come out.”
With the writing on Season 2 completed, McMahan also touched on “complex and surprising” developments to come, regarding The Wall. “We are continuing to follow the characters in the Wall, and it will continue to be cinematic, but it will continue to further the narrative of what we are following. I think we’re trying to do it in a way where you never know, each season, exactly what you’re going to get,” he says. “So, I think prepare to not know what you’re going to get from it, but to get more of what you like, in a way.”