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With ‘Welcome to Flatch,’ Paul Feig Comes Home

In conversation, Paul Feig is unusually candid about his experiences: upbeat, openhearted, but not falsely modest. So he paused only briefly when …

With ‘Welcome to Flatch,’ Paul Feig Comes Home
16.03.2022 19:09
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In conversation, Paul Feig is unusually candid about his experiences: upbeat, openhearted, but not falsely modest. So he paused only briefly when asked whether he had learned anything about making television since creating — and quickly losing — the critically beloved high school comedy “Freaks and Geeks” (1999-2000), which was summarily canceled after one season.

“I wish I could say yes, but not really,” he said, laughing, on a recent video call to talk about his new mockumentary series, “Welcome to Flatch,” debuting Thursday on Fox. Neither his experience with “Freaks” nor the many other ups and downs of his career since had changed his fundamental approach.

“I just kind of wait for the time to come around where people will like the kind of thing I like,” he said.

Chelsea Holmes and Sam Straley play two small-town misfits who serve as the viewer’s guide through Flatch. The series is made in the mockumentary style.  Credit…Brownie Harris/FOX

The people do, indeed, come around eventually — it just hasn’t made for the straightest career path. “Freaks and Geeks” was Feig’s breakout critical achievement, an Emmy-winner that helped start the careers of Linda Cardellini, James Franco, Busy Philipps, Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, Martin Starr and others. Almost 22 years after it was canceled, its single-camera style of honest, stakes-driven comedy is widespread, and “Freaks” is frequently listed among the best TV comedies ever. But in its time, ratings sagged, and NBC executives lost interest.

So, sure, the vindication has been nice and all. After some false starts in the movie business — and a long period of what he has called “movie jail” — the people came around to his brand of comedy in cinemas, too. (See: “Bridesmaids.”)

But despite his apparent equanimity about the vicissitudes of success and taste, what he really wants for “Welcome to Flatch” is a Season 2. If he’s being really candid.

“I’ve never had a monster hit,” he said of his TV experience, and “when you have a monster hit, it means you get to make more and more”of the thing you love.

“I want nothing more,” he added, “than to make 200 episodes of ‘Welcome to Flatch.’”

“Freaks and Geeks” helped catapult the careers of many of its young stars; from left: James Franco, Jason Segel, Linda Cardellini, Seth Rogen, John Francis Daley, Martin Starr and Samm Levine.Credit…Chris Haston/NBC

The right ingredients, including Feig, are there: Based on the successful BBC series “This Country” (2017-20), “Flatch” is styled as a documentary about small-town life in America, as filtered through the fictional town of Flatch, Ohio (population: 1,529). In style and theme, it resembles “Parks & Recreation,” if Pawnee, Ind., had been even smaller and its economy more depressed.

Our guides through Flatch are two wayward young cousins, Kelly and Lloyd (Chelsea Holmes and Sam Straley), whose misadventures are as charming as their futures are uncertain. Helping them along is a local pastor, Joseph (Seann William Scott), whose complicated relationship with the local newspaper’s editor, Cheryl (Aya Cash), forms the “will they or won’t they” romantic center; Justin Linville, Taylor Ortega and Krystal Smith round out the ensemble cast.

For Feig, 59, who grew up in a small suburban town outside Detroit, the series feels especially personal — this is the most deeply he has been involved in a major network TV show since “Freaks.” As an executive producer, he brought in Jenny Bicks to develop and oversee the series. But he remained very hands-on, writing two episodes and directing the first three. He continued to help oversee the rest remotely from London, where he was directing the Netflix film “The School for Good and Evil,” scheduled for release later this year.

Feig spoke last month from Los Angeles about that personal connection, about his love for the underdog and about his impulse to protect the Midwest. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

“I think we Americans just love lead characters we can root for,” said Feig, who worked on the American adaptation of “The Office.” “We’re too young as a country to be overly cynical yet.”Credit…Todd Midler for The New York Times

You’ve produced a lot of TV shows that you didn’t help write and direct (“The Office,” “Nurse Jackie,” “Love Life” and others). What was it about “Welcome to Flatch” that made you want to be so involved?

There are stories that I can’t tell in movies because they’re just too small. But with TV, going, “Oh gosh, I can really go granular in this” — that’s why I fell in love with “This Country,” which then became “Flatch.” I was like, I want to be personally involved in this. I want to direct these. I want to write a bunch of these. I really want to be in the mix.

“Flatch” spoke to me because of my Midwestern upbringing and because of loving those types of characters so much. I also love the docu-style of comedy, which is the greatest way to do comedy on television because it’s so immediate, so in the moment.

Why was the setting so important to you, beyond your having grown up in the Midwest?

I feel like I’m a protector of the Midwest, and of small towns. It’s a very coastal thing to make fun of the flyover states, as they call them — and I’m from a flyover state, you know? So when Jenny Bicks and I took this out to try to sell it, that was the first question from everybody: They’re like, “We just have to make sure you don’t make fun of small towns.” And it was like, that is not what we want to do. Jenny’s from a small town. I’m from a small town. We want to protect them. But by doing that, we want to have fun with them. And I want you laughing with them.

How did you go about figuring out how to adapt “This Country”?

With adapting “The Office,” what we all learned is that American audiences have a real hard time rooting for a quote-unquote unlikable character or an unredeemable character. After “The 40 Year Old Virgin” came out, you go “people love Steve Carell,” so it was like, OK, he’s got to have victories. He’s got to be well-meaning. Even though he can be totally terrible, he means well. That was the big epiphany, and “Flatch” is in the same mold.

Why do you think American audiences have a hard time with an unlikable character?

I think we Americans just love lead characters we can root for. We’re generally optimistic and empathetic. We’re too young as a country to be overly cynical yet. We like happy endings and characters learning lessons. We love Scrooge because he turns into a nice guy after being a jerk the whole story. But if he didn’t, and we were just asked to enjoy Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim humiliating him, and the story ended with Scrooge saying, “Bah humbug,” and slamming his door on them as the whole town laughs and pelts his house with rotten fruit — we would be mad that we had been put through that. We like redemption in our stories.

I feel like British audiences can enjoy a boor being taken down a notch because it’s sort of what their press is famous for doing, poking holes in powerful people. I love British humor because it’s usually about the fun of seeing inflated people taken down a notch. Americans enjoy that, too, but usually when it’s happening to the villain, not the protagonist.

Even though the characters of “Welcome to Flatch” can give each other a hard time, “they all kind of love each other,” Feig said. “And that’s the message you want out there.”Credit…Todd Midler for The New York Times

Condescending notions about “flyover states” have been part of the political discourse for some time. I imagine portraying the Midwest as accurately as possible was a priority.

Very much so. And there’s no politics on our show whatsoever. You don’t have any grand ambitions to change the world with a show like this. But at the same time, this is a show you watch and you go: “Oh, you know what? I just love these people. You know, if they believe something that I don’t believe … whatever.” They’re all human.

Even though [the characters] can get on each other’s nerves and on each other’s cases, they all kind of love each other, and that’s the message you want out there. We can all disagree. But at the end of the day, let’s just love each other and try to forgive and then try to have a good time along the way.

You and the casting director Allison Jones have been responsible for helping a lot of previously lesser-known performers reach bigger audiences. How do you uncover all that talent?

I’m always just looking for distinct voices or distinct personalities that surprise me and make me laugh. And that comes from myriad different places. A lot of times it’s just from the casting. That’s why you like to have a casting director you trust, because you know they’re in sync with your sense of humor. That’s why Allison Jones and I get along so well; she’ll come to me going: “Oh my God, I saw somebody. You’re going to love them. They’re so odd.” And it’s like, “Good, bring them in.” Nine times out of 10 you go: “Oh, they’re great. I’ve got to figure out something for them to do.”

You executive produced the HBO Max series “Minx,” about a women’s erotica magazine, which premieres the same day as “Flatch.” It feels like a departure in many ways from your past work: What about that story appealed to you?

It’s an underdog story, pure and simple. That’s all I’m drawn to. Everything I do, that is the main theme you’ll see is: This is an underdog, somebody who wants something, feels they can’t do it, either because they don’t have the confidence, or they just can’t find their place in the world.

It’s just a great workplace comedy, but also it’s outrageous, you know? And I always want those outrageous moments where people are just like, “Oh my God” — when they’re watching a comedy and they’re so horrified that they’ll laugh.

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