It's been a long wait for the return of Hallmark Channel's Chesapeake Shores, which had a creative revamp heading into season 5. With a new showrunner at the helm, a renewed focus on the O'Brien clan and major casting changes (see: Jesse Metcalfe's early exit, the last-minute addition of Robert Buckley), the multigenerational family drama is turning over a new leaf.
"Everyone is entering a new phase of their lives. Kevin and Sarah were married, Connor was growing up and entering this new law firm and Megan and Mick were beginning to reconcile with their relationship. Bree had the success of her play in London, and Abby and Trace were either going to get together or not going to get together," executive producer Phoef Sutton (Cheers), who boarded the series last year, tells ET. "[This season] was a maturing of the group, a feeling of growing up and moving on with their lives in an interesting way. I wanted to focus on the family and their relationships with each other."
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'Chesapeake Shores': Jesse Metcalfe on Trace's New Love Interest -- And If He'll Always Love Abby!
Metcalfe's surprising decision to depart the series "came fairly late in the day," Sutton revealed -- about several weeks before production was to begin on Vancouver Island -- which meant the writers scrambled to find a fitting way to write off his character, musician and Abby's on-and-off boyfriend Trace Riley, that felt true to his journey and also resolved the couple's kiss at the end of season 4. Appearing through a series of flashbacks in the first two episodes of the new season, Trace's goodbye may not be considered the prototypical Hallmark farewell. And that was by design.
"We all decided that it would be best if it happened in the past, so that Abby had moved on from it a little bit," Sutton shared, adding that the flashbacks are set two months before season 5 picks back up. "They're trying to hold on to an old love that is not viable anymore and I think they realized that."
Ahead of Chesapeake Shores' return on Sunday, Sutton detailed his approach to writing out Metcalfe's exit, tailoring the new character in Buckley's Evan Kincaid who's Trace's opposite and bringing the series back to the O'Brien family.
ET: When did you learn about Jesse Metcalfe's decision to leave the show? Did it shift a lot of your plans creatively?
Phoef Sutton: That came fairly late in the day. We had to go up to Vancouver Island to quarantine for two weeks before we were going into pre-production. So it was in the middle of that that Jesse decided he was going to bow out. No matter how smoothly you think it's sailing, there's something that's going to throw a monkey wrench into the thing and there's going to be some challenge you're going to face. And that was it. That was ours. So we just nodded, rolled up our sleeves and got to work on that. The advantage of it was that it gave a whole new area to work with, to make the show fresher and newer. The disadvantage was that you had to do it really quickly.
I had the experience of Cheers, a very similar situation when Shelley [Long] left Cheers. That was in the fifth year and we were able to turn the show from what had been a romantic comedy -- Chesapeake Shores, a lot of it was a romantic drama of these two people -- with Cheers, it became more of an ensemble comedy. And this, I think, became more of an ensemble drama where we focus on the family and their relationships with each other. But [Abby] was always really the heart of the show anyway.
How did you approach filling the void left by Jesse and his character, Trace?
I made a conscious choice to say, look, one of the reasons that the Diane/Rebecca change worked in Cheers was that they were completely different characters. We weren't trying to cast the same character to play the same kind of role. It was a completely different role, so I said, "I want this character to be completely different from Trace." If Trace is sort of the James Dean character, I want this character to be more of the Robert Downey in Iron Man. The upbeat, optimistic, looking around the world, almost ADD, almost bouncing off the walls type character and to bring him in as a business partner for Abby. They don't get along at first, of course, but they fascinate and annoy each other in an amusing way.
We got Robert Buckley to play it and he's terrific. It turned into a really delightful year, it really was. It felt really good when we went up there before the change. We had all the scripts written, which I don't think they often had before. And then of course, we didn't have all the scripts written because of the [cast] change. But at the same time, that freed us up a little bit because when you're writing for characters through the course of a season, things change. The actors or the relationships change, you see what the actors can do.
Writing out Trace on a limited timeline must have presented its own difficulties. What were the challenges in determining the best way to write off the character in a satisfying way?
We all decided that it would be best if it had happened in the past, so that Abby had moved on from it a little bit. We tell the story of Trace in those episodes as a flashback to two months before and they have moved on from each other. They're trying to hold on to an old love that is not viable anymore and I think they realized that. He realizes that and he goes off to try to find himself, I think. You could do a Route 66 sequel, spinoff to it with Trace driving around the country trying to find himself.
Is the door open for Jesse to come back if the stars aligned?
Absolutely, he could come back. There's no reason he couldn't.
What was the process of casting Robert Buckley? Why is he the perfect fit to play Evan?
We obviously had to cast him very quickly because it was a matter of days. I'd seen him in iZombie and other shows, and I knew he could play this role, Treat [Williams] had worked with him on a movie [2020's The Christmas House on Lifetime] and really loved him. We felt he was really perfect for it and he was cast before any of the writing was actually done on him. We were able to tailor it for him. It was a nice collaboration in that way because he came in and hit the ground running.
His character, Evan, is the opposite of Trace in every aspect...
As you get to know him, you realize there's more sadness to him than he lets on. But yes, his initial run is somebody who's interested in everything and interested in everybody. And that's a little overpowering to Abby and she likes that she can put him in his place. He likes that she can put him into place. That is fun between the two of them. I think Meghan [Ory] really liked acting with him. They get along really well, so that was a fun discovery.
What was tricky for you navigating Abby and Evan's relationship? It is Hallmark, so it's assumed that eventually they'll get closer as the season progresses and their relationship will start to blossom.
I don't know about tricky. One of the things I also really wanted to do was, Trace never really was very closely involved with the family. He was in a separate storyline on his own and I wanted to get Evan to have a relationship with the whole family. He really comes close to Mick and they become surrogate father and son. And he loves David and Jess, too. In a way, he is entranced not only by Abby, but by her whole family because he never had a family. It's something that he has longed for his whole life and this is his second chance at that sort of thing. The slowly moving attraction with him toward the whole family was an interesting thing to play, but the two of them together, Abby and Evan, they were great. Every scene was quite delightful and you just had to let them go.
What does Evan's presence bring out in Abby that we haven't seen before?
A sense of playfulness, a sense of fun. There's not the suffering and brooding that Trace had. You have to keep up with Evan; he thinks really quickly, talks in what seems to be non-sequiturs but are that he's thinking three steps ahead. He changes the subject constantly because he's made connections that you haven't made, and that is a challenge for her. She finds it annoying, but also finds it fascinating. It's a slow process, but it's fun. Of course, as Mick and Abby go through the whole Dilpher lawsuit, the job that he represents is very important to them. There's the fact that he holds their fate in his hands and he's very mercurial. That's one of the things that keeps them apart, is that sense of he might change his mind at any moment.
How is single life treating Abby?
Abby takes up taekwondo and does great scenes with her taekwondo master. In general, she's feeling more like an individual person who is trying to be something separate from the man that she's involved with. This is the year that she's single, as it were.
We will also see Jess and David's journey as they plan their wedding. What can you share?
The wedding is great. It's funny because of the pandemic, originally, the plan was to have the wedding at the end of the season because it's a big moment. But as the pandemic was going along -- originally, we were going to shoot it last year -- and so they thought, "Well, why don't we knock [the season] down to seven episodes and we'll do it this year?" And then, "Why don't we knock [the season] down to six episodes and we'll do it this year?" When they decided to push [production] for a year [due to the pandemic], they wanted to go back to 10 [episodes]. They liked the wedding in the middle of the season, so that's a tentpole. Abby and Jess, as far as the wedding and the fact that she's getting back together again with her dad, that brings up a lot of old pain for Jess because she was the youngest -- the one who missed her mother the most and they have to come to terms with that. There are some really good scenes with that.
You've indicated as much in your answers, but it seems like the turning of a new chapter for the O'Brien family. What do you want people to know about the new season?
Abby is working for Mick now and that brings her in closer with the family. She's sort of his heir, the one who's going to take over the business, I imagine, and that makes her life and her work much more a part of the family and much more a part of the show. That's really important to her. Before, work was always something that she did because she wanted to excel at something, but now it's really important to her because this is really her legacy. At the beginning of the series, the family had really flown apart in various ways. The mother had left, the sisters were somewhat estranged when Abby lived in New York and Bree was off doing things. Slowly, they've come closer together and now they're really closer together. They're really a family unit working together, helping each other and there are scenes with Sarah, who is becoming more a part of the family. There are scenes with Sarah and Abby that are quite beautiful, and scenes with Sarah and Jess that are quite beautiful, and scenes with Kevin and Abby that are... They really have come to rely upon each other and that is maybe the most [gratifying]. The family has become more and more of a unit, more and more close together, more and more loving each other.
Chesapeake Shores premieres Sunday, Aug. 15 at 8 p.m. ET/PT on Hallmark Channel. For more, watch below.