Small stories, big ideas.
In his new FX on Hulu anthology series “The Premise” (first two episodes streaming Thursday on Hulu, then weekly), “The Office” alum B.J. Novak examines weighty topics including race, gun control, celebrity worship and social media addiction over the course of five darkly comic half-hour episodes.
The satirical, self-contained stories feature rising stars including Ben Platt (“Dear Evan Hansen”), playing a young man who finds evidence of police misconduct in the background of his sex tape; Lucas Hedges (“Manchester by the Sea”) as a pop star who pledges to sleep with his alma mater high school’s valedictorian, incentivizing students to study up; and Lola Kirke (“Mistress America”), as a woman seeking approval from an online troll.
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“Long story short, I like to make a long story short,” Novak says. Like some of his favorite anthology series, “The Twilight Zone” and “Black Mirror,” he wanted to “take a really provocative idea, tease it out to its fullest and then move on. My genre isn’t science fiction or dystopian technology. Mine is really some line between realistic drama and comedy.”
Making the show was “incredibly freeing” after NBC’s “The Office,” the mockumentary sitcom for which Novak wrote and played the cocky Ryan Howard for nine seasons ending in 2013.
“I wasn’t constrained to a single office of, to be fair, very different personalities,” he says. “On the other hand, it was definitely a challenge to create a whole new world of characters each episode.”
Novak, 42, tells us more about “The Premise” and the possibility of rebooting “The Office.”
Question: How did the show’s themes change or evolve in the past year, given the pandemic and everything in the news? Was Ben Platt’s episode, for instance, a response to the performative activism we saw last summer?
B.J. Novak: Definitely. All of these were a response to what was going on. In the case of “Social Justice Sex Tape,” (Platt plays) one of these woke allies who does everything to help the cause when it’s easy. But what if the only way to help was with something that made him look bad and dumb? That’s the episode I think might be most like “The Office,” in terms of the cringe, comic realism of its execution.
Q: One episode, “The Commenter,” is about obsessing over random comments on social media. Do you do the same thing?
Novak: That episode is probably the one that’s most personal to me. I see that as less about social media than about our relationship to criticism. I’m someone (who) is desperate to know what the audience likes. I think it comes from my earlier days as a stand-up, where I really listened to the crowd. So I do go back and forth between reading every review and every comment about this show, losing my mind because I agree with everybody, in a way. Someone loves it and I say, “Exactly! (Heck) yeah!” And somebody hates it and I go, “Oh god, that was my fear the whole time!” So “The Commenter” is really what I’m living through right now.
Q: She’s obviously busy with her own shows, but did you ever bounce any ideas off your friend Mindy Kaling?
Novak: Oh, I discuss everything with Mindy, and she gives me blunt feedback. She’s a real boss and a real winner, so she’s definitely the person I both fear and love the criticism from most in my life.
Q: Along with Justin Bieber and Ed Sheeran, how was Billie Eilish one of the inspirations for Lucas Hedges’ pop-star character, Jesse Wheeler?
Novak: Billie was one of the influences in the stratosphere at the time (we were writing) that was very true to herself and yet a massive star, which is what Jessie Wheeler’s journey was trying to be. I’m friends with her brother, Finneas, so we invited her to watch the episode and weigh in on an early cut.
Q: What was her feedback?
Novak: She laughed. I think she appreciated that it wasn’t about the music, but really about what it feels like behind the scenes. But the funny thing is, she had no opinion on the high school stuff because she was home-schooled. So she was like, “I don’t know what a locker looks like. I’ve only seen them on TV.”
Q: NBCUniversal content chief Susan Rovner recently told Deadline that she’s “standing by” whenever “The Office” creator Greg Daniels wants to revive it. Is that something you’d be interested in, given all you have going right now? (Novak also wrote, directed and starred in the upcoming film “Vengeance.”)
Novak: I really have no idea or opinion on it. Look, people doubted “The Office” remake in the first place from the British (original version with Ricky Gervais), so anything can happen. It does feel very recent to me. I’d want to give it a few more years so a true new generation could do it. If I were part of the team, I would say, “Let’s wait until the kids who grew up on ‘The Office’ could really make their version of ‘The Office,'” as opposed to rustling the old crew back together for one last (go-round).
None of us had lives for eight years straight (making it), so I think you need people who will live and die to make it great. You can’t make a show like that casually.