When Husbands, the online sitcom about a professional baseball player and a TV star who get married in a drunken weekend in Vegas and decide to stay together in support of marriage equality and because they think they might actually be in love, premiered last year, I wrote that “setting yourself up as a model minority may be an important way to argue for legal rights, real equality means the right to make mistakes and bad decisions—and to work your way out of them.” While that’s true of the show’s main characters Brady (Sean Hemeon) and Cheeks (Brad Bell, also the Husbands co-creator, writer, and executive producer with TV veteran Jane Espenson), when it comes to experimenting to discover the future, it’s also true of Husbands itself, one of the pioneering high-quality ongoing shows to live online rather than on a broadcast network.
What’s exciting about about Husbands, though, is how quickly the show has grown in scope and emotional ambition from its first season to its second, which premieres on August 15. A year’s acquaintance has richened the on-screen chemistry and affection between Hemeon and Bell, and Husbands has grown in confidence both in terms of the ideas it’s exploring and the team behind the show’s sense of the skills they’re developing by working on it. And the show is becoming an important example of how television distributed online fits into a larger pop-culture ecosystem, not simply as an alternative means of distribution for content networks are too timid to make, but as a rich idea lab that could breed a new generation of pop culture tropes and show-runners.
For a sense of that, I have an exclusive first look at the behind-the-scenes material the Husbands crew shot to accompany the second season, which goes inside the table reads and Bell and Espenson’s writing sessions, and also provides some perspective on how large the team involved in the show is:
And it is large: the $60,001 the Husbands team raised through their Kickstarter campaign helped pay the more than 40 people who worked on the second season of the show, let the production move from its cramped initial setting to a rented house that gives the scenes and actors room to breathe, and helped upgrade the cameras from commercial hand-held DSLRs to Steadicam rigs with Scarlet cameras that improved the quality of the images. “It looks like big TV,” Espenson joked when I visited the set in May. “It’s the new big TV,” Bell said, and it’s true. Husbands is an illustration of the narrowing gap between online sitcoms and their broadcast siblings.
The set and the crew aren’t the only way Husbands is bigger in its second season. The show has a large roster of major guest stars, most notably Joss Whedon as Brady’s clueless agent Wes. He’s the kind of man who declares “You know I’d gay-march on hepatatis-infected glass to change things,” even as he tries to get Brady to tone down Cheeks, explaining that “acceptable gays are overweight, over forty, overly professional with their lovers in public,” the show’s painfully accurate swipe at chemistry-free couples like Cam and Mitch on Modern Family. And in a sequence that will make fanboy hearts everywhere go pitter-patter even as it makes a point, Dichen Lachman and Tricia Helfer appear in a brutal parody of straight-guy fantasy about pillow-fighting college girls experimenting with lesbianism.
Husbands‘ emotional palatte is deeper, too, this time around. Cheeks sets off the action in the second season when he snaps a picture of himself and Brady smooching in bed on their three-week anniversary and imprudently Tweets it, prompting frantic calls from Wes about the morality clause in Brady’s contract with the Dodgers, splutteringly angry condemnation from the Billion Moms, and fights between the newlyweds. The show walks a careful line and walks it well: the public reaction to the picture is absolutely wrong, hysterical, and stupid. But it’s deeply insensitive of Cheeks to have Tweeted it without consideration for Brady’s feelings or sense of control over his public image. It’s the kind of argument couples who have just moved in together or just gotten married have about dishes in the sink and joint finances, but played out and amplified by the national media.
The show deftly weaves together those threads with an exploration of a thornier issue that broadcast sitcoms that involve gay couples refuse to explore deeply, in part because it’s a dichotomy that they depend on for humor: the gendered performances of men, be they gay or straight, and the kind of condemnation or approbation they attract. “I’m audi, girlfriend! Pride!” Wes declares when he hangs up with Brady, conflating gayness and femeness, an air of condescension in his aping of the latter. “Be a little less gay,” Brady tells Cheeks, a reminder that discomfort with femenized gender performance is not only a way straight men express homophobia. “Less gay like you? Because you’re less gay. You do get what gay means, right, Brady?” Cheeks asks him bitterly. “The only thing that makes you gay is having an exclusive membership to the same-sex sex club.” It’s an important reminder that there’s something self-deluding and self-denying about the belief that gay people can convert the most stringent, ugly homophobes if only they perform masculinity or femininity well enough.
I liked the first season of Husbands, which effectively functioned as a single episode of a sitcom, and it’s been exciting to watch the show grow, particularly given the traditionally steep learning curve sitcoms need to settle in to character rhythms and identify their particular strengths. But in addition to functioning as a confident sitcom, Husbands is also a valuable illustration of where online television functions in the Hollywood ecosystem: as a way for established writers, directors, and producers to make good content while also developing skills that they have less time to acquire in the traditional broadcast television season.
“I’ve only been directing for two years,” Husbands director and Will & Grace and Desperate Housewives alum Jeff Greenstein told me in May. “I had the experience of doing Husbands, and I did two more Desparate Housewives episodes…I have learned a lot. I was actually just saying to Jane the other day, I feel like I know the questions I ask in a way I didn’t a year ago.” For Espenson and Bell, Husbands has been a chance to build complementary skill sets. ” I’ve grown as a producer, show runner, but I was pretty confident my writing was there. Twenty year writing career. But I’ve never really been comfortable calling myself a producer or a show runner. And now I’m getting closer to that,” Espenson says. “Cheeks sort of had the opposite. Cheeks came in with massive producer and show runner skills…Cheeks knows what he wants but his writing skills have grown. We learned from the opposite sides. Now we’re both solid writers and solid producers, or at least, I’m on my way.”
That ought to be a formula legacy media operations and streaming upstarts like Hulu and Netflix get excited about: a lab for content that moves beyond television conventions that’s also a graduate school turning out the kind of multi-tool players with unique creative visions and the potential to be the next Louis C.K., writing, directing, editing and scoring their own productions, and doing it intelligently on a reasonable budget. Giving a show like Husbands creative freedom doesn’t seem like it would be a particularly onerous part of the bargain, particularly given how much executives like Hulu’s senior vice president for content Andy Forssell emphasize the critical need to give showrunners an opportunity to develop their vision at length. But until then, I’m happy to at least be getting my annual season of Husbands, a sweet and snarky apéritif to cleanse my palate before I tuck into the fall broadcast television season.