B.J. Novak’s plan from the very start with his new anthology series, “The Premise,” has been to present stories that look at what he considers to be important issues in the world. The key was to never be afraid of any topic.
How he made that plan come to life can be seen when the initial two episodes of “The Premise” debuts Sept. 16 on FX on Hulu. It is the latest collaboration between the cable company and the streaming service.
“These stories are one of a kind stories in a framework that is the show. It’s really a collection of stories that are all totally different,” Novak says. “People often think, ‘Oh, it’s “Black Mirror,” but comic/technology or comic/spooky.’”
“It’s not that. It’s not even entirely comic. But these are what I think of as comedies.”
He describes the series as “The Twilight Zone” without all of the science fiction and fantasy elements. In comparison to the anthology series “Black Mirror,” his series won’t be a slave to dystopian technology.
An example of how different the stories that Novak will be presenting include the tale of a grieving father who gets a job doing public relations for the National Gun Lobby after losing his daughter to a gun. There’s also an episode where a music superstar returns to his high school and offers the class valedictorian a special prize.
Among the actors starring in the anthology episodes are Ben Platt, Tracee Ellis Ross, Daniel Dae Kim, Lola Kirke, Soko, Jermaine Fowler, Ayo Edebiri, Eric Lange, Lucas Hedges, Kaitlyn Dever, Jon Bernthal, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Ed Asner, George Wallace, Boyd Holbrook and Beau Bridges.
Novak understands how to find the line where comedy and drama meet because of the years he spent on “The Office.” His other credits include “The Mindy Project” and “The Newsroom.”
When Novak ended his run on “The Office” in 2013, he had collected a long list of ideas that he wanted to explore. Novak decides which premise would help him shine a spotlight on a major issue.
“Then I try to fill it with as much drama and realism. The feeling on set was no matter how funny or outrageous the situation is, how do you always play the truth? Never judge it. Never play into the joke,” Novak says. “They all start with the idea, and then I think, ‘How can I do really justice to an outrageous idea, challenge myself to bring depth to it and to bring people that will bring depth to it?’
“That, I hope, is the new tone. To me, these stories make total sense, but I think that that means that FX gave me a lot of freedom to do what makes sense to me.”
It was obvious that his ideas were so diverse that there would be no proper way to approach them in a permanent setting such as the one used in shows like “The Office.” The idea of doing an anthology series was the perfect solution from a writing point of view. Making these very different stories for each episode created some nightmarish elements.
The big difference between his past acting jobs and his new anthology series is that instead of the continuity of a regular TV series, his project means creating an entirely new story – including new cast and settings – in each episode.
“You have all of the stress of setting up a completely self-standing movie with completely new cast with these really rich characters that they have to learn right away and a different director often and cinematographer and completely different tone,” Novak says. “And you have about six days to do it, and then you move onto the next one. So it was a nightmare producing wise.
“I didn’t know that, or I didn’t believe that when I started writing it. I’m glad I didn’t because, on the writing level, it was a dream come true.”
Novak has pushed hard to make his anthology show different from other productions that have used that format. But, he does borrow one thing from one of the most heralded anthology shows in TV history, “The Twilight Zone.”
Series creator Rod Serling opened almost every episode with an on-camera introduction. Novak will also be appearing on screen at the start of his episodes.
“The introductions are going to be the way that I would introduce the show to a friend. They are going to be very simple because the episodes are so different and so intense,” Novak says. “When I press play on them, I usually don’t just press play cold. I kind of say, ‘So this one is about this. It stars that.’
“I try to say something simple and sincere that kind of lets people know, ‘Okay. Cool, that’s what this one is going to be.’”