Untangling the Web
Jane Espenson on the path to online comedy success with 'Husbands'
Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Torchwood. Once Upon a Time. Jane Espenson's career as a TV writer and producer reads like an encyclopedia of modern television's landmark science-fiction and fantasy shows. So why is she taking a risk on a Web comedy show like Husbands? She credits co-creator Brad Bell for helping her make the leap. She said, "I took a little convincing, because I come from the traditional broadcast old model, but he showed me that this was where television had been headed."
For Espenson, the story of Husbands was timely: Two friends (Bell and co-star Sean Hemeon) go to Las Vegas to celebrate the legalization of gay marriage – only to end up hungover and married. In classical sitcom style, they decide to make a go of it. The driving factor behind every comedy decision, she explained, is simple: "What would Ricky and Lucy have done?" The decision to make a Web series was just as simple. If she and Bell had gone down the traditional broadcast route of pitching the show and making a pilot, if the show had ever even aired, it would have felt hackneyed and old. Espenson said, "If you wanted to get something done fast, it was sure a lot better to go through this system."
Espenson dabbled with Web content before, co-executive producing the Flashbacks webisodes accompanying the Battlestar Galactica: Razor spin-off. Yet that was a very different experience from Husbands. Because Flashbacks was shot as "bonus content" for the TV movie, she said, "We had a sound stage with an entire spaceship on it, and availability of actors and an entire crew. All of the stuff we had to assemble for Husbands was handed to me for Battlestar." What remains the same, she said, "is that the pipeline is uncomplicated. You sit down and you write your script with the same sense that this is a thing you can executive produce yourself, and get it out in front of people."
For its first two seasons, Husbands was self-financed, and Espenson's and Bell's bank accounts have the holes to prove it. Now, they have a deal with CW Digital Studio, the online platform for the CW network. Formed last year, it started with original content like comedy short series Stupid Hype, starring Hart of Dixie actor and fellow ATX panelist Wilson Bethel. Now it is acquiring established Web properties like Husbands. Five years ago, no one was looking on the Internet for original content for TV. For Bell, that's just a new step in an old evolutionary process: "Movies were cute little novelties, but the legitimate stage was really where you went to act. Then again, television was the redheaded stepchild of entertainment, while movies were the king. Then anything on cable was regarded as ghetto, and now it really is the king of content – for the time being."
It seems like the leap to Web is well-timed for Espenson, but then again, she's always seemed a little prescient in her career choices. Back in the 1990s, when Buffy gave the now-defunct WB one of its first real hits, "cable" and "fantasy TV" were still dirty words. Now AMC's The Walking Dead gives the networks a run for their money, and their response has been to commission more and more sci-fi and fantasy shows. Espenson said she just has a knack for "falling onto the right horse," but Bell argues that more people will have to develop that skill, especially when it comes to migrating to the Web. Just as DVRs have boosted cable over broadcast, the raw convenience of on-demand streaming content is priming Internet shows to compete with cable. He said, "That's what the public wants, and I think people making content will have to adapt, because it is the new phase of television." (See "Pilot Light" for more on the evolving landscape of the television industry.)
Signing up with the CW has made the finances a lot easier for the pair, and that's really been the only impact on production. For Bell, that's a sign that the network knew what the show was, knew it had a built-in and proven audience, and knew not to mess with a proven commodity. From day one, its executives have been hands-off. Espenson recalled the first time they attended a table read: "They came over and we thought, 'Well, maybe this is when the CW will start saying something.' What they said was, 'It's perfect.' They've been very explicit about from the very beginning is they wanted us to do our show."
While the pair shares writing duties on Husbands, most of the heavy production lifting falls to Bell. Not surprising, since Espenson has been a little busy recently. In 2011, around when she and Bell started on the show, she became consulting producer for ABC's Once Upon a Time, and now she's busy working on its planned spin-off, the Lewis Carroll-centric Once Upon a Time in Wonderland. As a genre fan herself, she's found it easy to work on so many magical and technological shows. "Any fan who can write could write an episode of the show they're a fan of, I like to think." Does that extend to Husbands? She said, "I've had a number of people tweeting us, saying, 'How can I be on your writing staff?' Well, right now, Brad and I are the writing staff, but who knows, down the line."
They may not be hiring full-time writers, but there's already been Husbands fan fiction. Bell said, "The caliber of the writing can be great or not so great, but regardless, it's always a good sign to see people want to add on to that universe that you created." There's even been a spec script (as Espenson dubbed it, "fan fic for professionals"). "The most charming and flattering thing about that was that it was the first thing that guy had ever written, so it still had the Final Draft temporary software watermark on it," Bell said. "It was great, because not only did it inspire him to write Husbands, but it inspired him to write to begin with."