LOS ANGELES — On a clear, balmy afternoon in a posh mini-mansion last May, Brad Bell, star of the gay marriage sitcom Husbands, was preparing himself to get sprayed with some suggestively translucent goo. It was for a climactic gag for the episode, part of Husbands' new season on the CW's new all-digital network CW Seed, and it involved a broken garbage disposal and a miscommunication between seemingly butch pro baseball player Brady (Sean Hemeon) and his seemingly less-than-butch husband Cheeks (Bell). When Cheeks looked into the disposal to investigate a worrisome gurgling sound, it was supposed to launch its contents smack onto his face.
"We were debating how chunky to make it," said Bell as the crew loads the concoction into the specially rigged disposal. "We decided to go chunk free."
When it came time to shoot the scene, exec. producer Jane Espenson (Once Upon a Time, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) — who co-created Husbands with Bell, and writes all the episodes with him — stood off to the side and yelled out the "gurgling" noise that would be officially added in later in post production. Bell bravely leaned forward over the drain, the sink made a couple real gurgling noises — but nothing squirted out.
As the director called cut, Bell could not help but grin. "It happens to a lot of guys!"
Fortunately, Husbands has not had to worry about suffering from performance issues. When Bell and Espenson launched it two years ago as a web series on YouTube, it won a rave from no less than The New Yorker, and generated enough of a passionate fan base that the duo was able to raise $60,000 on Kickstarter for a second season. That season, which debuted on YouTube last year, saw a roughly 35% boost in viewership. "Everybody has access to the ability to make their own product now," says Epsenson. "It really is 'the best will thrive.' Like, whole networks are set up to guess what people are going to like. You don't have to guess anymore. You can put it up and see what they like. That's what we did. And they liked us."
The show's audience liked it enough to catch the eye of the CW, which was hungry for good content to launch CW Seed and picked up the show for its third season. The first new episode of Husbands debuted on the digital network Thursday; you can watch it here.
When I visited the set in May, Espenson, Bell, and Hemeon were all thrilled at their show's good fortune — and were quick to correct me when I used the term "web series" within my first five minutes of arriving. "That word doesn't exist anymore," said Hemeon. "Yes, we're a series," added Espenson. Duly corrected.
Later, during their lunch break, I sat down with all three to discuss the show's trailblazing path not just in the world of digitally distributed TV series but the world of gay rights and gay visibility — Husbands' first season predicted both the legalization of gay marriage and the presence of an out pro athlete.
I was discussing with Jane earlier about how it's nice to be doing this with the CW instead of having to go back to the fans again for funding through Kickstarter. How does it feel to be in a fully funded enterprise where you don't have to worry about that anymore?
Jane Espenson: Well, you think you don't have to worry. (Laughs)
Brad Bell: I mean, it's the same. With Kickstarter, you get the money that you raise at the start of your production. The system set up by the studio is more in percentages as you move through production, and even then you have to stay on that budget. So I think there are pros and cons. The worry shifts into different areas.
Espenson: Because you don't want to waste anybody's money.
Are you still feeling independent with the story you want to tell?
Espenson: Oh, totally. No notes.
Bell: Well, we did actually get one note…
Espenson: They came to the table read, and they pulled us aside afterwards. We were like, This is it. This is when they suddenly start throwing their weight around and giving us notes. And they were like, "It's perfect!"
What was it like for you all when Jason Collins came out?
Bell: We had just gone on record — we were at WonderCon, was that it?
Sean Hemeon: Uh, Chicago.
Bell: And somebody asked us about that — like, do you think we'll start seeing gay athletes…
Espenson: …before the next season?
Bell: I think we both said, "I think we're going to see a few athletes this summer. I wouldn't be surprised if some gay athletes came out by the time the next Husbands is coming out." And then 24 hours later, Jason Collins came out.
Hemeon: That's how that stuff happens. That's how the Anderson Cooper thing happened.
Espenson: Yeah, Anderson Cooper was the one time we were on the wrong side of the news.
I remember that, when Cheeks made an Anderson-Cooper-in-the-closet joke a couple months after he came out.
Bell: We finalized the edit, like, four days [before he came out]. It's not an exaggeration.
Hemeon: It's like, You son of a… You couldn't have waited?
The show has become quite prescient. In the two years since it's been on the air, gay rights have changed radically, both politically and within Hollywood.
Bell: We made it because we wanted to make the show we wanted to see. And because we didn't think it would sell. It stars gay people, and it's about the gay people. It's about them being in love. They're young and sexy.
Espenson: Not overweight, over 40.
Bell: We don't fight against stereotypes, but we also don't use that for the humor or shy away from the sex appeal, which I think is more prominent as far as gay representation. It's been interesting to see the world change. In today's environment, had we had this idea for the show, we might have thought, Maybe we could get someone to see that idea! And realize it! And put a lot of money in it from the start! But I'm glad we did it the way we did. As arrogant as it might sound, I think we helped influence that trend, at least in entertainment. We put our show out there. It got a lot of coverage. And people weren't freaking out. In fact, they were liking it and responding to it, and it got big numbers. And it got talked about and circulated very quickly and gained a very serious and emphatic following. I think that that served as a proof of concept for a lot of people.
Espenson: And I think there's something very authentic about this show. If we had pitched it and sold it and let somebody carry it forward and execute it, I don't think they would have captured a lot of the subtlety that this show has. I think a lot of shows that are made in a more traditional way through the system tend to come at things with very blunt points of view. "We don't want to play into stereotypes, so let's have the gay character be a dude!" And you sort of go, I get why you want to do that, but by doing that, you are saying that being feminine is inherently negative.
Bell: That isn't so much being progressive in gay portrayal, but reinforcing misogyny!
Espenson: (At the same time) —misogyny!
Bell: Yeah, we're much more likely to have a conversation like, Well, OK, gay men are traditionally depicted as feminine. Is that a negative stereotype?
Espenson: Is there anything wrong with being feminine? Exactly. We have those conversations. We have them behind the scenes, when we're working on the stories, and then we have them on screen. I'm so glad we went ahead and did these ourselves. I wouldn't have wanted to see the system try to deal with something like that.
Bell: It wouldn't be the same show.
Hemeon: Yeah, you had the freedom to find your own voice. There's no boundaries put upon you.
How has this been for your careers outside of the show?
Bell: Great. I mean, I've been flown to Rome for free. I've gotten writing gigs and acting gigs. I get offered auditions and parts. I don't necessarily take all of them. I've met a lot of people. Made connections. Just generally moved up in the world.
Hemeon: Yeah, same thing. Better management. More auditions. More opportunities. It's quality content that people can people can go to as a reference if they start looking at that.
The stereotype is when you're an out actor, you get pigeonholed. Are you experiencing any of that?
Espenson: Well, "out" means different things to these two guys.
Bell: Out has nothing to do with it. It has to do with demeanor. Sean is going to be able to play a much broader range than me in terms of, "We need a guy who could be a linebacker, or believably making love to this woman." Those are roles I'm not going to be able to play. That's OK, because I'm not the kind of actor who feels like I need to transform and be versatile! It's not my only trade. However, it's interesting on the other end of that, where I do get called in for stuff where they want me to be catty and bitchy and (snaps) fashion-y. If it's interesting what they're doing with that character, it's great. But sometimes I read stuff and I think I'm not going to waste the time looking for parking for this thing, because it's just horrible.
I think I have a range of being able to play a friend, or a bad guy, or a nice wide-eyed art student. But it will always be in that Elijah Wood, tiny, frail, Winona Ryder realm. And that's OK, because it's distinctive and unique.
Sean, when you go up for a role, when they see Husbands on your resume, do they even know what that is?
Hemeon: If they're judging me through that lens, they're keeping it entirely to themselves. I don't experience that at all. There's also a lot more roles for masculine gays. But generally, if they don't know me outside of the casting room, they have no idea. So I go in for the romantic love interest, or a lot of F.B.I. agents.
Espenson: They may be already fans of Husbands. It's hard to tell!
Hemeon: Yeah, that's true, it's really hard to tell what's in their head. Those casting agents are just trying to keep their jobs, so it gives them confidence to know that, OK, he can play a "convincing gay." So they play it safe then too.
What have you most enjoyed working on this show, that were maybe the biggest surprises for you?
Hemeon: I personally have grown an incredible level of compassion and empathy for my own homosexual feelings and [internalized] homophobia. Because there was a point where I was actually going to change my name, because there were gay articles out there about me. And I decided against that, and shortly after, Husbands came into my life. So personally there's been a greater level of acceptance within myself.
And then these two are remarkable people and so much fun. When we do the conventions, we have such a good fucking time. It really surprised me. These are little adventures we go on.
Bell: They really are a blast.
Hemeon: It's so funny, the way that he and I interact [on the panels], Jane is just sitting there laughing her ass off, because she's like, "It's Cheeks and Brady! I gotta write this down!"
Jane, you just cold contacted Brad, right?
Espenson: Yeah, to originally meet him. But then we were friends for a couple years before we did this.
Bell: She was like, "You're funny! Let's go to lunch! I like your writing style!" It was over the course of two years of lunches that—
Espenson: "We should do a thing!"
Bell: We noticed that we like to talk about things, critically and constructively. We're the TV viewers who pause and go, "OK. Here's what's going on here…"
You're recapping the show as it's happening?
Bell: Oh, every two minutes. And I do it with commercials, too. I did it with my friend Nicole the other day. "I know you're not interested in this, but I just have to get this out because it going to drive me insane." Jane is the only other person in the world who thinks it's interesting.
Espenson: "Remember that joke that was on Mary Tyler Moore…"
You created your own website, Jane, to get that stuff out.
Espenson: Yeah, it's a lot of what I used to do on my site. My writing advice site was like, "Here's a joke I saw tonight on Family Guy; here's why it worked."
Hemeon: (To Jane) You were made for this show.
Espenson: I was! I was made for TV. And this is TV. We're the opposite of "It's not TV, it's HBO." It's like, "It is TV! It's Husbands!"
Hemeon: Your earlier question about the changing times of the gay movement and this show being ahead of that — it's also ahead of the internet movement. It covers that as well.
Bell: Yeah, the perception that it's two different mediums.
Hemeon: Both those perceptions have been changing at such an exponential rate.
Earlier today, I used the term "web series," and Jane and Sean very politely explained to me that you're not using that term anymore.
Bell: It's just like, you can say "album" still, because an album is a collection of songs. But if you say "record," that sounds dated. "Web series" is like "record." "Show" is like "album." And most people don't talk about where they watch things. People don't say, "Have you see it? It's an ABC series." They say, "It's a TV show." People call [the Netflix series] House of Cards a television show, even though it's never been "aired." So what's the difference? How do you define a television show? Is it the money? Is it the budget? Is it the stars involved? Is it the amount of advertising and publicity? Where do you draw the line?
But the fact is, all of the technology is the same. You go to the smart TV, you watch YouTube or you watch broadcast or you watch on demand, and maybe what you're watching on demand is a show that's on Showtime that originally started as a series online, like Web Therapy. So it's all really interchangeable. I don't think the technology and the perception has caught up yet.
Espenson: There's nothing on YouTube that you can't see on your smart TV. There's nothing on TV, essentially, that you can't find online in some form. So it's like saying, "I heard a radio song" vs. "a CD song!" Well, what's the difference? You can get it either place.
It's not really any different anymore. Burning Love — you watched it online, and then you watched it on the air. It's the same product. I don't think people are making that distinction anymore. And the fan response comes in the same way. I go to Twitter, and I see if people liked the new episode of Husbands, and did they like the new episode of Once Upon a Time. It doesn't feel like a different process.
There have to be some differences between a series that's online and one that is broadcast.
Espenson: The fact that [a digital show] can go international instantly is a difference.
Bell: And the fact that the destination for consuming it is the same place where you interact and connect.
Hemeon: I need a smart TV.
Espenson: I do too. My TV is stupid.
Hemeon: Yeah, mine is separate from my computer. I need to just do it all in one place.
Bell: Which do you watch more?
Hemeon: The computer, absolutely.
Bell: There you go. That's your new television. You might have grown up sitting in front of the boob tube, but—
Espenson: You gave up boobs.
Hemeon: (Laughs) I accepted that boobs are not my thing!
This Q&A has been edited and condensed.