I spoke with Paul Scheer just after attending the Women's March in Park City, Utah. The streets were packed with protesters making it difficult to walk the few blocks up Main Street. When I arrived at our meeting place, bedraggled and snow-coated, Scheer politely commiserated with me: "It's crazy out there. I love that the protest is happening, but I also worry that people are looking at us like, 'Fuck these people.'"
Scheer's expression of the discomfort that can accompany activism from the extremely privileged is reflected in the thematic core of Playdates, which premiered this week in Sundance's Independent Pilot Showcase, a platform for new shows currently without a home at a network. It stars Scheer (The League, Fresh Off the Boat) and Carla Gallo (Bones, Burning Love) as married couple Bennett and Julie, who relocate from the Midwest after the former is fired. They move their two children to the white, wealthy, and elitist culture of Southern California's Silicon Beach, where they're forced to attend playdates as part of a vetting process for the school they want their children to attend. Taking the kids to these playdates largely falls to Bennett as Julie assumes the new role of breadwinner for the family.
There are reasons to be skeptical of this premise. For starters, parenthood is typically poorly depicted in film and TV, with fear-mongering montages of exhausted, lust-free couples being peed on by their terrible offspring. I initially recoiled at the synopsis, which warned me that Bennett's new role as a stay-at-home dad would test his masculinity and self-worth as he navigates the zany world of rich, beautiful white people.
But my fears were quickly dispelled by the excellent pilot—and by Scheer's performance. Through heavy collaboration with the show's creators, he brings his own experience as a husband and parent to Playdates, shaping it into a show that's as funny as it is politically relevant.
VICE: Playdates takes aim at Silicon Beach. How would you describe that specific community?
Paul Scheer: It's similar to Silicon Valley in that they're rich nerds who are into technology. It's also a community that's open and liberal in many ways. As someone who is considered a "coastal elite," there's something to be mined from mocking that culture, because there's so much absurdity that comes with excessive wealth. That can be a fun world to explore, and the show can highlight the absurdity of what's presented as normal in this world.
In the recent election, we saw a lot of attention being paid to political activists who are also arguably disconnected from the lived experience of people they often advocate for. What does the show hope to gain from examining this type of community?
Lately, you see all these celebrities who are like, "I'm going to tell you who to vote for and how to feel," and I hate that. I like that people have passion, and I'm one of those people, but I hate being preached at by anyone. It feels weird. My wife [actress June Diane Raphael] and I are working together on a campaign called the Big Hundred, and the idea is just this: Let's take the politics out of the discussion for a minute, and let's just look at the country and try to do concrete actions that promote good by choosing one positive action a day. This is the kind of "activism" that I like because I feel like it's more effective.
"I've seen a lot of single-cam shows that come from a rich, white point of view but fail to comment on it. That's something Playdates wants to undercut."
Certainly, questions around the usefulness of celebrity activism have come up quite a bit since the Meryl Streep Golden Globes speech.
Yes! And I loved what Meryl Streep said, and I thought it was beautiful—until she said the thing about people who watch football and MMA, because that's a dividing a line that doesn't need to be drawn. There are too many voices saying, "You're on this side, and I'm on that side, and there are no gray areas," and I hate that. Playdates both humanizes and pokes fun at the "West Coast elite" life. I've seen a lot of single-cam shows that come from a rich white point of view but fail to comment on it, as if to say, "This is just the norm, right? We can all identify with this." That's something Playdates wants to undercut.
Do you think there's a danger in comically representing these kinds of communities—that they could be caricatured into a sort of unreality that allows us to laugh at them while also letting them off the hook?
Yes, but a sign of good comedy in general is when people aren't presented as parodies. There's a scene in the pilot where a character carelessly adopts a kid from Africa and acts like, "Hey, cool, I've got this Sonos, and I got this kid from Africa." Which is ridiculous, but we also want to ground these people and show many sides of them. It's a fine line to walk. I don't want to be laughing, like, "Oh these people on the left are idiots," but I also don't think people are poking fun at the left as much as they can be. We're not just taking shots in one direction.
"Playdates can have smaller and more subtle jokes because we know the viewing experience is more intimate and personal for the audience."
You've previously mentioned the increased intimacy of TV, now that so many of us are watching alone on our laptops or phones. Does this change the way that you think TV needs to be written? Does TV have different goals now?
I think people are becoming their own network. You're picking your programing, when you want to watch it, and how you want to watch it. You can binge-watch a show that's been off the air for seven years, or you can watch a new show week to week. You have the power. The problem for writers now is: How do we get above the surface? There are so many shows. Every year [FX president] John Landgraf comes out and says, "950 shows this year," and we're all like, "Oh, shit." How do you get people to watch?
I watched all of [Amazon's] Fleabag on my phone and iPad, and I fucking loved it. I was crying alone at times, and watching it that way made me feel like I had a blanket over my head—that I was in my own little world. I feel more connected to the show because I watched in such an intimate way. The big benefit for writers now is that you have the power to tell more quiet, personal stories. Playdates can have smaller and more subtle jokes because we know the viewing experience is more intimate and personal for the audience.
You're a father. What perspective on parenting did you want to bring to the show, and what kind of stereotypes were you wanting to avoid?
I have two kids, and I worked on this script with [co-creators and writers Dan Marshall and Giles Andrew], and I brought the desire to see a show on TV that feels current and is a single-camera show about a husband and wife who love each other and are best friends. I think of Julie and Bennett like Abby and Ilana on Broad City. They're best friends, and that's how I feel about my wife. I love my wife. I'd go anywhere with her. She's awesome. That's what I want to capture. The original script depicted the marriage as a bit more disgruntled, but I was, like, "I've seen that."
One thing I want to do for an episode: My wife and I were driving back from the funeral, alone in the car with no kids, and we looked at each other and said, "This is nice." It was terrible because we'd been at funeral, but it was great because we'd managed to get some alone time. The guys who wrote the show aren't married and don't have kids, so I bring that perspective to it. There's a scene in the pilot where Bennett and Julie are about to have sex, but something happens and they don't. Bennett isn't like, "Ah, man, my wife won't fuck me," because that happens sometimes. Sex gets interrupted. It's life, and I'm really interested in showing the realer moments.
Follow Chloé Cooper Jones on Twitter.