CBS' 'Ghosts' Producers and Stars on the Quirky 'Sitcom Version of a HGTV Show' (Exclusive)
By Philiana Ng
CBS' new comedy, Ghosts, is about as quirky and delightfully weird as the name suggests. Inspired by the British series of the same name, the shenanigans begin when young couple Sam (Rose McIver) and Jay (Utkarsh Ambudkar) inherit an large estate in the country, only to find it falling apart and inhabited by an eclectic group of undead personalities. They decide, on a whim, to renovate the crumbling home and turn it into a bed and breakfast. Like the U.K. mothership (which just wrapped its third season on BBC One), the new iteration of Ghosts leans into the supernatural absurdity while bringing a level of heart into the story.
"The British show does a good job of blending the supernatural element to comedy, but also they bring a lot of heart to it, which is something that we really responded to. It's something that we're endeavoring to incorporate into the adaptation. Because life and death are so much a part of the show, with all these characters who have lived entire lives and obviously passed away, it's a unique kind of comedy in that you can really access strong and powerful emotions that you may not get to talk about in a typical sitcom," executive producer and co-showrunner Joe Port told ET during a September phone interview.
Though Sam and Jay are very much the focal points, it's the ghosts' unique histories, all of them hailing from different eras and walks of life, quite literally; varying perspectives; and life experiences that add intriguing new layers for Ghosts to explore. "The fact that these people who never would have met in real life from all different kinds of people, from all different kinds of places, but also from different eras who literally weren't even alive at the same time. It's a very interesting world where, even though they're very different, because they're forced together, they become friends and learn a lot from each other," Port added.
Creating the ensemble of the "undead" residents, which includes a cod-obsessed Viking, a saucy Prohibition-era lounge singer and a '90s finance bro, was an interesting challenge. As executive producer and co-showrunner Joe Wiseman explained, "The first thing we did was look at the macro and we thought of American archetypes and what kind of characters were from what period. We sort of landed on the Northeast, where the Hudson Valley is and where it the show is located, because we felt like that had American history baked into it."
"One thing early on that we decided we wanted was a Viking," Wiseman said, referring to Devan Chandler Long's Viking character Thorfinn. (Yes, that's his name.) "And we just thought that would be a fun character to have. That sort of forced our hand a little bit in terms of location because we did a lot of research for all the characters. We wanted things to be historically accurate as much as possible because it's just as easy to be accurate and funny as it is to make things up. But we did a lot of research about Vikings. We found that some of them did sail down the coast from Canada and did exploratory missions inland. So it rang true that one would be in the Hudson Valley."
Because there is a home renovation element tied to Ghosts, the show makes sure to smatter in numerous HGTV references and jokes in each episode, from Chip and Joanna Gaines' popular home makeover show, Fixer Upper, to Love It or List It. "A lot of the writing staff is a fan of those shows," Wiseman said. "And there's a huge renovation taking place all season long, and possibly further if we're lucky. So those come up very organically, which is nice. But yeah, I personally don't really watch them so every time something's pitched, I'm just sort of like, 'I'll take your word for it that that's a thing!'"
Port, meanwhile, is a self-proclaimed HGTV obsessive. "My wife and I watch it religiously. And in particular, we watch Fixer Upper with Chip and Joanna. That's our favorite. We love House Hunters. We love Love It or List It, love House Hunters International. So in my mind, the show kind of is -- we didn't pitch it like this, but it kind of is like a sitcom version of an HGTV show," he said. "Because we're watching them and it's a long-term struggle to get this house up and running."
Securing the leads was both a breeze and a challenge. McIver was already locked in to play the Type-A Sam, while the part of her significant other, Jay, had yet to be filled. Then the pandemic shut everything down. That turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as the road led Port and Wiseman to Ambudkar, whom some may know from his freestyle work with Lin-Manuel Miranda in the improv comedy group, Freestyle Love Supreme. Ambaudkar, it turns out, was friends with McIver through his wife so the rapport was already there -- even during their chemistry read, which was held over Zoom. "You could tell that both of them have a sparkle. And then when they got together, the sparkle amplified each other, as we were all delighted to find," Port said.
Just who is Sam then? "She definitely has a very managerial quality about her. The show is about accommodation in many senses, literally a hotel accommodation, but it's also about how we all learn to accommodate each other," McIver, who previously played an undead in The CW's iZombie, told ET. "I feel like Samantha becomes almost a mediator for some of the characters and facilitates conversations that haven't been had. Even though these people have been stuck together for hundreds, sometimes thousands, of years, it's a really cool opportunity for them to get some fresh perspective for themselves. But also for her and Jay to kind of realize that what they know isn't the be all and end all as well, and that there's all sorts of people that they can glean wisdom from and advice from."
Ambudkar recalled initially reading the script and passing on it, but for months, not being able to shake it. "I remember looking at my wife and being like, 'This is really funny. I'm very much enjoying this.' And it was sort of the only thing that year that -- maybe I'm a hard sell when it comes to comedy, I don't know, but it was the only thing that year that really tickled me," he told ET. "And initially, we had said no, for whatever reason, to the script. I can't remember why. But months after, it was still kind of nagging at me. It was one of those shows that was pulling at my coattails. I went, 'Hey, man, remember me? I think you really want to do me. I think you made a mistake. I don't think this love is unrequited.' That, in conjunction with Rose, who is good friends with my wife and who was invited to our baby shower. Rose is like Sam. She is persistent and she's charming. When she wants something, she goes for it and she kept texting and messaging like, 'Hey, we'd really love you on the show. You're going to come to the show, right?'"
The character of Jay also afforded Ambudkar one of the few opportunities in his career where he was able to "chase normal." "As a South Asian actor, my career has only just begun to resemble something like a normal human existence," he acknowledged, adding that Jay is very much who he is in real life. "He's in a marriage, he's not asexual. He's with somebody. They love each other. He's not douche-y or sleazy. He's nerdy, but he's not playing cool. He just a regular dude. He's talented. He can talk to people. He's not awkward. Basically, I can do whatever I want with Jay and I'm not constrained by any sort of stereotype or ethnic box... you know what I'm saying, right? We don't need to have the diversity conversation. But for me, it's important to just have an opportunity to play a regular person. It is a privilege and it's a new experience for me, so I enjoy it."
Through a near-death mishap and chance circumstances, Sam gets the ability to see and communicate with the undead residents. Meanwhile, Jay is left in the dark. That alone sets the stage for the couple to find themselves in unconventional situations.
"When you meet Sam and Jay, they seem like a very unlikely pair in some ways. She's pretty high-octane and really likes to get things done in a certain way at a certain time. And Jay seems incredibly mellow and a little more grounded in his perspective on things. What I'm enjoying is throughout the course of this season, we're starting to see the ways in which they really need each other and why opposites still attract and how, even though she's the person who can speak directly with the ghosts and communicate with them often, Jay is the person who's understanding them better," McIver said. "It shouldn't take me saying this, but it's not a traditional way of characters communicating with each other in general. You're surprised where the lessons may come from or where the allegiances may come from."
For Ambudkar, playing the only character unable to see the ghosts or interact with them was a unique acting exercise in ignoring what's going on around him in any given scene. "I joked last week that you just kind of pick a point in the middle of space and then think about what your favorite movies are. You're like, 'OK, Shawshank Redemption. Van Damme when he plays the twins, the other Van Damme movie where he plays the twins...' And just do that until it's my turn to talk. But obviously, that's oversimplifying it. Nobody wants to hear this, the acting jargon, but technically, it's difficult. You got to pick a point basically and then just ignore some of the funniest people to do it, as they shine. You want to look at them, and you want to take them in."
"I make mistakes every day. The amount of unusable footage from my side of the camera has got to be twice as much as everyone else's," he confessed. "Like, 'Utkarsh, you're looking at Richie [Moriarty, who plays Pete]. Utkarsh, you're looking at Danielle [Pinnock, who plays Alberta]. Utkarsh, you are looking directly into camera.' But that's also part of the challenge. I think we found a lot of really fun ways for Jay to communicate with the ghosts without being able to see or hear them, even if it's just something strange. What I really love is like, I don't know where they are. I don't know if they fly or float or jump. It's really fun to guess at where they could be. I wanted to find ways to make it entertaining and interesting. Jay is really like the audience's door into this world. The audience knows more than he does because they can actually see the ghosts."
Ambudkar paused for a second before taking back what he just said. "Nevermind, Jay's really the odd man out!" There will be ways for Jay to indirectly interact with the ghosts, however, as Wiseman said they've "had to come up with clever ways to get him to interact with the ghost characters -- and we have a couple of fun storylines... that get him to be able to interact with the ghosts in fun ways." In a future episode, Jay finds himself getting invested in the ghosts by playing Dungeons and Dragons with one of the ghost residents, Pete, via Sam.
Ambudkar does have a few wishes for crossovers he's itching to make happen. "I just want the alien episode. I want them to come and I want them to take us into space. I want to see some space ghosts," he said, half-seriously. "I just think season 2 should be in space, and that's my soft pitch to you right now at Entertainment Tonight. Please spread it across the world, if you can. Put it in print, put it on television or to whatever satellites you got. Just take the ghosts to space for crying out loud. I just want to shoot a laser gun. Viacom owns CBS, Viacom owns Nickelodeon. We could do a SpongeBob crossover. We fall into an animated universe! You can tell that I know very little about how TV is actually made, but that's how you dream."
Ghostspremieres Thursday, Oct. 7 at 9 p.m. ET/PT on CBS.
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