Spoiler warning: Do not read this article until you have watched This Life’s Season 2 premiere, “Stay Positive.”
CBC drama This Life kicked off its second season Sunday night with “Stay Postive,” an episode that delivered equal parts hope and angst. While Natalie (Torri Higginson) was relieved to experience side effects that could indicate she’s receiving the real drug over a placebo in her drug trial, she was also blindsided by a contentious meeting with her ex-husband David (Louis Ferreira) over their children’s future. Meanwhile, Matthew (Rick Roberts) grew closer to his son but struggled with his separation from Nicole (Marianne Farley), and Maggie (Lauren Lee Smith) made living arrangements with her new friend Raza (Hamza Haq)—a move that may or may not bring more stability to her life.
Throughout Season 2, we’ll be chatting with This Life writers about the major themes and plot points of each episode. This week, series showrunner Joseph Kay joins us to break down the premiere—which he penned—and provide some behind-the-scenes insights.
Last season, you were a first-time showrunner. Was your approach any different the second time around?
Joseph Kay: We were able to play to our strengths more in the second season than we were in the first. I was happy with the first season, too, but you learn what you like and you learn where you think the show really lives, and I was able to focus on that.
And just getting to know the actors is a really big one. We’re on set all the time and we develop relationships with the actors and their characters and that informs the way we wrote the second season in a really big way.
As a showrunner, what kind of environment do you try to create in your writers’ room?
It’s just really important to me that it’s an unbelievably safe place, that it’s not competitive and that nobody is vying to win anything, that everybody feels totally safe to come up with whatever possibly lame idea—myself included—that they have. It’s a no assholes rule. It should just be a safe place, and I really think it is. It’s a very, very hard show to write because there is plot in the show, but the plot is primarily emotional. So our job is to get into the heads of these people and to know what they’re feeling and to navigate sometimes very slight movements of emotion and make that dramatic, and it’s really hard. So it only works if everybody is having a good time and everybody feels safe to draw from their own lives and experiences. And I have a really great group of writers. I’m really, really lucky.
This Life is filmed in Montreal. What’s it like shooting there as opposed to someplace like Toronto?
Shooting in Montreal is fantastic, it’s a very film-friendly city. Our local crews are incredible. We have a much smaller crew than I’m accustomed to in television compared to shooting in Toronto, but then we get a lot of value. I’m really proud of the look of the show, and I’m really proud of the subtle ways I feel the city works itself into the show.
The show is shot entirely on location, no studios, no sets, and that is a real production challenge. Again, it’s a show about how people feel and we can’t tell it all in Natalie’s house. We have to move around. It just needs that dimension of different parts of the city. We sometimes make four location moves in one day, so we can shoot one scene in a restaurant or one scene in a cafe or wherever, and the crew is amazing and the city is very accommodating to that sort of thing. Although, one thing is that it is a very noisy city!
The Season 1 premiere began with Natalie learning she was dying of cancer, but the Season 2 premiere starts with Natalie ziplining, taking a literal and figurative leap into hopefulness. Was that a purposeful contrast?
Yes. The pilot begins in such a way that it tells you all hope is lost, essentially. I think that’s amazing and so brave and that was really exciting. But it was really important for us to find a way to pivot into hope, and as we were writing the back part of the first season we decided we were going to introduce this idea of a drug trial, and we wanted there to be hope. We never want to, and we never will betray the central conceit of the show. The information that’s introduced to her in that first scene, we’re not backing away from that. But we just loved the idea of framing the season with hope and how you might sometimes talk yourself into having hope, whether it’s realistic or unrealistic.
Natalie’s ex-husband, David, is challenging her custody plans for the kids. How is that going to play out?
Her fight with her husband is real and very important for her. If you look at the first episode of the show, other than the information her doctor gives her, the first thing that we dramatize with Natalie is her sister telling her she hasn’t lived her life well. We bring back the husband to let her examine her own choices in her life, to let her examine that question and make sense of it. We want her to dig deep into who she is and the choices that she’s made and to go on the journey with her. We’re really going on two journeys. We’re going on the health journey and all the inherent stakes that come with that, and we’re also going on this very involved personal journey with Natalie in her life and the choices that she’s made and the person she is and what she wants to change before it’s too late.
So many characters are in flux in this episode. Matthew’s marriage to Nicole is crumbling, Maggie is trying to figure out where to live and Oliver is trying to rebuild. Everyone is looking for a place to land.
I think we always sort of looked at it as, ‘How can we tell the story of an extended family that reflects the reality of the way that our lives are always changing and realigning?’ As soon as we knew what we were doing with Matthew and Nicole, for example, we really loved the notion of taking this marriage and ripping it apart and watching it come back together or continue to fall apart on a really micro level. We don’t race through any of the steps, not with Natalie’s cancer, and we don’t race through the steps with them. It doesn’t go from rage to forgiveness or rage to it’s over and get a new partner for him or for her. I think that’s the way the world works. The thing that you think gives your life permanency isn’t that in five years, and you look back and think ‘How did everything change so much?’
In terms of everybody being in flux, I think this idea of hope hopefully trickles down to all the characters, maybe not literally in every sense but thematically.
Teens can be tricky to write well, but This Life does a great job placing Natalie’s kids in real and relatable situations. In this episode, I loved that Romy stole one of her mom’s cancer pills for the most Romy of reasons: to examine it in the science lab. What’s the key to writing believable teen characters?
The writers have their own approach to all of those characters and we have our ways to make it feel like it’s really believable. I mean, I think everyone has a special dial-in with Romy for some reason. She’s a really unique girl and we have lots of ideas for her that we don’t do but that we get really excited about and try to really gently land in the places she’d be. We just work really hard to keep her scenarios believable. I think one thing is that we don’t think, ‘What do we want to do with Romy?’ We don’t do that with any of the characters, particularly the kids. We look at it more as ‘What would Romy do in this situation?’ We just really try to follow her, and that’s an easy thing to say, but it’s a hard thing to execute.
What can you tease about upcoming episodes?
Natalie continues to go through the trial, and we try to unpack the relationship she’s had with her husband. Matthew tries to put his marriage back together the best he can, and there’s lots of complications for those two. Oliver plays a much bigger role in the second season than he did in the first. He tries to start his life over again. He came to Montreal to see his sister, but he stays to start his life over. We pay a lot of attention to him and the choices he’s making. And Maggie has an interesting journey.
Yes, she’s got a big episode next week.
Yeah. Without spoiling that, Maggie is introduced as a character with her own very specific set of values, which we think are entirely valid. We never wanted to say that Maggie’s singular values aren’t valid, we think that they are. But we wanted to find ways to mess with her. I’m really excited about her story. She’s managed to get to this point in her life by taking everything lightly, and we wanted to put her in a situation that she ultimately couldn’t take lightly, and I think that works in interesting ways for her.
And Natalie’s kids go on very specific journeys into the world. One of the benefits of framing the season with hope is that we’re allowing them a sort of breath. They’re not walking around all the time thinking that their mother is dying. By opening up hope a little bit we’ve allowed the kids to not have to spend all their time focusing on that and instead react to where their lives are right now and see where that takes them in the world.
I have one last character to ask about. Please tell me the cat Natalie found will be a series regular. He’s cute.
The cat is going to stick around.
I was afraid he may have made outrageous contract demands and we wouldn’t see more of him.
He’s not expensive, but he is time-consuming. When I wrote it I didn’t even think about that. You see dogs a lot on TV, and I know dogs can sit on demand, but I didn’t even think cats could do that, but they can. This one was really good. He jumped into Torri’s arms at the end of the episode totally spontaneously.
This Life airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on CBC.
Images courtesy of CBC.