Creating a kick-ass series with ‘SWEET/VICIOUS’ creator Jennifer Kaytin Robinson

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Courtney Howard // Journalist

I do think change is possible and I do think change is imminent. It’s just we need that call to arms.

It’s not every day that you find a television show as unique, resonant and relevant as SWEET/VICIOUS. The subversive action-comedy brilliantly spotlights social justice issues and skewers societal mores, giving voice to a national uprising in an ingenious, entertaining and resolute way.

Created by Jennifer Kaytin Robinson, the show follows two college women – modern day odd couple Jules (Eliza Bennett) and Ophelia (Taylor Dearden) – who disguise themselves as bad-ass campus crusaders in order to help rape victims. But the pair get themselves into a very sticky situation, leaving their fates permanently intertwined.

I spoke with the whip-smart series creator to talk about everything from being the change, to defying gravity, to envisioning the show’s future seasons.

I’m a big believer in being the change you want to see. It seems like there’s nothing like this on television. Is this sort of what birthed this idea for you?

Oh yeah. Absolutely. When I sat down to write it, I thought, ‘What do I want to see on TV? What’s important to me?’ It was telling stories that felt interesting and new, but also felt true to the female experience. And creating female characters that were nuanced and had so many different sides to them. So often in entertainment, there’s all these boxes that they put women in and every one ticks a different cliche. Pulling the cliches together doesn’t make a well-rounded experience. You’re not able to see yourself in any one character.

I’m forty and never had a show like this in my youth. Anything involving rape was treated like an after-school special. How did the networks react when you were pitching this concept?

I actually didn’t pitch it. MTV heard about it before I had a producer attached and they were like, ‘We want this. We’re all in. We love it.’ It was a very ass-backwards situation, but they were so on board. One other network read it and passed. It wasn’t that it was the content. It was just that they didn’t feel the show fit with their slate or their brand. MTV has been so on board entirely. They’ve never asked us to censor it. They’ve never asked us to water anything down. They’ve been very supportive.

I feel like this is coming at such a perfect time for people in this country, because it’s time for us women to push back against unwanted sexual advances and unfair social mores. It’s reached a fever pitch.

For sure. It was funny, during Comic Con, I spent a whole day talking about it and doing interviews. I got back to my hotel room and all the Donald Trump/ ‘Grab ‘em by the pussy’ stuff had happened while we were at Comic Con. You know, just when you think you’re at your worst thing – at the epidemic that is sexual assault – something else happens. We have so far to go as a nation. It’s so incredible that so many survivors are raising their voice and so many people are rallying behind. I do think change is possible and I do think change is imminent. It’s just we need that call to arms.

Would you welcome being called ‘subversive’ or would you rather this just be commonplace thinking?

You know, it’s hard to say in regards to the show. It’s heightened. We’re not trying to mirror the exact experience on the show because the world is Gotham – the world is bigger. It’s hard to use the show as that kind of a mouthpiece because this is not every survivor’s story and there’s no way to tell every survivor’s story. We did a lot of research and tried to tell what’s true to what we read is happening – how this character would handle this trauma. It’s hard to answer.

With the research, what are sort of the checks and balances that the episodes go through to make sure that it’s sensitive without exploitation?

We talked to survivors. We talked to officers. We watched every documentary we could possibly watch. It wasn’t just myself and the EP’s. It was all of the writers and all of the actors – some of the crew even were getting involved and doing what they could and learning what they could. It was really important to us to make sure that when we were in this story and talking about this trauma – or other people’s trauma – it’s not a joke. There’s no humor in that. Yes, there’s humor in the show, but there’s no humor in that.

We tried to tell the story objectively. Over ten episodes you are unpacking and learning about this assault and how Jules deals with it – moving through the machinations of what happens when other people find out, and how is she treated, and what happens when she goes public with the school, and how does that affect her and those around her. We really wanted to unpack this in a way that felt true to what we had read. Jules’ storyline is really an amalgamation of all of the research that we’ve done.

Tell me a little about casting. Where did you find Eliza and Taylor? And when they signed on, did their characters’ voices change to suit them?

Traditional casting. Taylor came in and auditioned in LA. She was so interesting. Eliza had self-taped and we flew her out for the test reel. Them, separately, they were both incredible and both felt right, but it was like you’re never sure. It’s always hard. The minute they read together and did their chemistry test, it was like, ‘Oh. There’s the show. 100%. That’s it! It’s these two girls.’ After knowing them, hearing them, and getting to know their likes and dislikes, getting a feel for who they are as people, and who they felt the characters were as people, there’s definitely some re-writing that’s done. You want this to feel like they are slipping into a second skin. I think there has to be a collaboration with actors when doing that.

Eliza Bennett and Taylor Deardon in SWEET/VISCIOUS. Courtesy of MTV Networks.

Eliza Bennett and Taylor Deardon in SWEET/VISCIOUS. Courtesy of MTV Networks.

Their chemistry is insane. I loved the moment when they are singing “Defying Gravity.” Was that the song that was always in the script?

It actually wasn’t. It was a game time, last minute thing that I threw in there – and it’s one of my favorite moments in the entire series. I was driving around on Sunset and I was listening to my iPhone on shuffle and ‘Defying Gravity’ came on and I started thinking about how funny it would be if this song came on when there was a body in the back of your trunk. That could happen. Why wouldn’t this happen?! I called the network and everyone was like, ‘Yes.’ There was no push back [to getting the rights].

What was the college sorority participation like? Did you have to go to them and tell them about it?

As long as you cleared names and not using any actual fraternities or sororities, I think you have creative licence. One of our producers, Emily Levitan, was very much a sorority girl in her day and she was our liaison. We consider her our go-to because I am not well versed in sororities. Dylan McTee, who plays our frat boy villain, was in a fraternity. So he was on board with guiding and helping us make the correct choices.

Stacey Sher is executive producing this. What was the greatest piece of advice she’s given you?

Stacey is so smart and has so many years under her belt. She came up in a time when it really was a man’s world – she had to push her way through it. She gets every aspect of this industry. She’s been such an amazing partner to me and mentor. The best advice she’s ever given me is not even specific to entertainment – it’s ‘remember to breathe.’ You forget. You really forget. You forget to take time for yourself and forget that things can wait if you need to do a gut check. I lost something that meant a lot to me on set and I was very upset and she had to calm me down. She said, ‘Listen. You have to remember to breathe. You have to remember to take time for yourself.’ It seems like such a no-brainer, but you forget.

I feel like there’s something to be said of these ladies resorting to vigilantism because of justified anger towards a broken system. Comic books have been doing this for years. We just haven’t seen this before.

You hit the nail on the head. Comic books have been doing this for years. This should feel comic book-esque in what it is. That’s the style – the genre. Unfortunately, there are people who are, because we are tackling an issue that is very real, that comic book element is getting a little lost and people are taking it as the show saying, ‘This is how we think you should solve this problem.’ That is so far from what we are saying. I do not condone violence. I hope the story that lies underneath the kick-ass and the comic-book element, which is very real, I hope people see that story for what it is because I do think it’s beautiful. It’s exciting to be at the helm of something is super kick-ass and different. Hopefully we can empower young women beyond the kick-ass nature of it.

We really wanted to make the show super inclusive. That scene where Kennedy is talking to Ophelia in episode 2 and she tells her to keep the weed, that’s not a mean scene. By that end of that interaction, that’s all ‘You’re hanging out with my friend. Let’s all be friends.’ I feel like you rarely see that – especially with the popular sorority girl. It’s always like a mean, shitty scene. It’s important to showcase diversity without hammering you in the head with it – and have it be what the world looks like. If more tolerant entertainment felt that way, maybe we could start to mirror that in middle schools and high schools where people look to entertainment to figure out what is cool. If you’re telling them for years and years that mean is cool, then mean is cool. I think it’s time to dispel that.

Do you have to think about where you take this after Season One and broaden the world?

For sure. With Season One, when I sold the pilot, I had to have a map or guidebook, so the network knew I know what I’m doing. The original pilot that I wrote, they were 25 and 26 and it flashed to their college origin story. When MTV bought it, they said, ‘We just want college.’ Having that in the back of my brain, it’s almost like I have that Season Three, Season Four version of Jules and Ophelia because you drive towards what they were originally in my brain. In terms of broadening the world, it’s something where we end in a place where we pivot. It’s driving towards this one big thing and we pivot and open up the world even bigger. We leave the audience with something bigger for seasons to come.

SWEET/VICIOUS airs on MTV starting on Tuesday, November 15 at 10/9c.

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