‘Atlanta,’ ‘The Righteous Gemstones’ and ‘Russian Doll’ EPs on the Benefits of a Pandemic-Forced Hiatus

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Absent from last year’s Emmy slate were some shows that had captured the attention of the Television Academy, many of which were forced into a hiatus because of COVID-19. AMC’s Better Call Saul, nominated for best drama every year between 2015 and 2020, was MIA, as were HBO’s Euphoria and Succession, which both took home trophies in 2020. Also out of competition were FX’s Atlanta, HBO’s Barry, Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and Netflix’s Ozark and Russian Doll — all titles whose production schedules were affected by the pandemic.

This year, in a field crowded with hundreds of scripted contenders, plenty of shows are returning from a long break after COVID-19 safety protocols got them back up and running. Among the many series back after the hiatus are Atlanta (it was 45 months between seasons two and three), Russian Doll (38 months between seasons one and two) and HBO’s The Righteous Gemstones (26 months between seasons one and two) — three comedies that are hoping their extended absences won’t work against their Emmy chances.

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“When there’s a long time between seasons, that’s definitely not working in your favor,” says Righteous Gemstones creator, showrunner and star Danny McBride. The televangelist comedy was shut down on its second day of production in March 2020 — months ahead of when much of the show’s megachurch scenes were to be shot in a Charleston, South Carolina, coliseum, which the production takes over during the venue’s slow summer period.

Like most optimists, McBride thought COVID-19 lockdowns might last only a few weeks. But as the pandemic raged on, he realized the window for completing the second season was rapidly closing.

McBride’s restlessness during the period resulted in a script for a Gemstones Christmas special — a feature-length episode that would see his Jesse Gemstone on a missionary trip to Haiti with his son Gideon — but the idea was scrapped as COVID-19 continued to spike in South Carolina, where it would have filmed. With the hope to return to production in 2021, McBride said he sat down and “opened up” the season-two scripts. “It gave us an opportunity to give them a level of rewriting that you usually don’t have the time [for] because you’re writing to production,” McBride says, adding that “the essence” of the second season remained the same, but he trimmed the fat by cutting characters to make room to explore the season’s arc more efficiently. “We rewrite a lot, but we always could use more time. That’s the one thing COVID gave us: a little more time.”

Russian Doll executive producer and director Alex Buono says his show’s writing team also took advantage of the production break. “The show is trying to tackle these big, existential ideas,” says Buono of the series co-created by and starring Natasha Lyonne, whose character, Nadia, spends the first season reliving her birthday over and over again until she finds her way out of a time loop. Suddenly in their own existential limbo, the writers spent nine months retooling the second season, which sees Nadia time-traveling via New York’s subway system.

Buono says that extra time also helped them figure out the logistics of the subway scenes. “We spent months working with our production designer, our cinematographer and visual effects house, talking about how the hell to do this,” the EP says, knowing that shooting on location in subway stations would be too complicated. Those sequences were ultimately filmed on a stage, with “walls of visual effects” surrounding a subway car.

Atlanta‘s third-season premiere exudes the confidence that EP Stephen Glover (brother of the Emmy-winning creator and star Donald Glover) shares when talking about his show’s return. Featuring a plot that excludes the series’ four main players, the episode serves as a reminder of Atlanta‘s idiosyncratic ambition.

“I was probably overly confident,” Stephen Glover laughs, responding to how the new season has been received, noting that the main cast’s limited screen time has been polarizing among the show’s fans.

Unlike McBride and Buono, Glover maintains this season is almost exactly how it was conceived when the writers completed scripts in fall 2019. “A lot of people probably think that the idea not to use the cast as much was tied to COVID or scheduling [problems], but that’s how it always was,” he says. “I think it was challenging and unique enough to still feel fresh even after a one-year production delay.”

McBride, Buono and Glover all say they questioned whether the viewers would return when their shows did. “I think if we were showing up on a streamer, I would be concerned,” says McBride. “That’s what’s so daunting about TV right now: There’s so much of it. I know how much work goes into all of that and how hard it is for things to cut through.”

This story first appeared in the May 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

‘Atlanta,’ ‘The Righteous Gemstones’ and ‘Russian Doll’ EPs on the Benefits of a Pandemic-Forced Hiatus

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