Self-made Hollywood wunderkind Michelle Paradise has a few things to teach you. Actually, ten. Paradise, (who wrote, produced and starred in the 2002 short film, The Ten Rules: A Lesbian Survival Guide) has translated her seminal small-screen short into a small screen series for Logo, and transformed herself into a star, in the process.
Exes & Ohs, premiering October 8 at 10pm, is based on the unspoken “rules” of lesbian dating—ones we’re sure you’re familiar with—that, whether they make sense or not, always make for good comedy. Paradise articulates everything you’ve ever joked about over coffee after a bad date, but it’s more about developing the characters’ voices, says Paradise, than it is about following the rules of the game. It’s a slice of life show about five tightly knit (and sometimes tightly wound) lesbian friends trying to live, and love, in quaint, scenic Seattle. It’s the first half-hour scripted lesbian “dramedy,” making history, again, for Logo.
The Ten Rules ran on Logo way back when, as part of the network’s initial programming lineup during their 2005 launch. It did so well, and won so many awards, that Paradise went right into producing the series, bringing on co-executive producers Billy Grundfest, (a three-time Emmy nominated writer and producer on the hit NBC comedy Mad About You) and Lee Friedlander (director and producer of The Ten Rules) to help develop the film into a hilarious series that breaks both expectations and the fourth wall.
Paradise, an actress since age 4, plays main protagonist Jennifer, a documentary filmmaker having trouble getting over her now-married ex-girlfriend and only just learning “the rules” as she approaches age 30. Jennifer’s also got a quirky lack of filter and a caution-to-the-wind attitude that gets her in and out and back in trouble. “If you could turn up the volume a lot on certain aspects of my personality, that would be Jennifer,” Paradise says. “Things just sort of come out of her mouth, and then she’s got to deal with the ramifications. Like in episode two when she blurts out to someone, ‘Are you hitting on me?’ She’s awkward and very earnest, and it’s a lot of fun to jump in to her skin.”
Jennifer’s asides to the audience explain “the rules” in more detail, and make her the most approachable, sympathetic (and adorable) character on the show. As Jennifer learns, ex-girlfriends never really go away, they just become best friends. Also, after four breakups, or six months, a lesbian relationship is officially over. Or there’s also the rule that what could be flirting could also be just friendly banter (it’s a 50/50 chance every lesbian must take). How about the one that says you’ll eventually dress exactly like your long-term girlfriend?
Like many of us, Paradise always found the lesbian dating scene and its rules to be both perilous and humorous, and figured the best way to deal with it all is to find a way to laugh about it. So before The L Word existed, and before she ever saw an episode of Sex and the City (Carrie is somewhat comparable to Jennifer, minus the designer clothes and New York attitude) the writer had her ear to the lesbian community’s collective unconscious and wrote The Ten Rules. What makes Paradise so unique is she managed to get it filmed, packaged and delivered entirely on her own, when she didn’t have an agent or even know “the right people.”
Now the star of her own series, Paradise makes weekly comedy gay again with co-stars Marnie Alton (Josie and the Pussycats, The Twilight Zone) as Sam, Jennifer’s best friend and love-em-and-leave-em ex-girlfriend; Megan Cavanagh (A League of Their Own) and Angela Featherstone (an Italian Vogue covergirl) as life-and-business-partners Chris and Kris; and Heather Matarazzo (Welcome to the Dollhouse, The L Word) as baby dyke Crutch, a mama’s girl, and musician, constantly struggling to find herself.
Alton’s character Sam swoops in to save Jennifer from disaster after dating disaster, in between make-out sessions with her latest flame. Alton, as the undisputed sexpot of the show, has no trouble infusing her character with her own lust for life. She describes Sam as the yang to Jennifer’s yin. On the outside, Sam is fun-loving and fearless, but when it comes to commitment, “Those things are a beautiful mask for being afraid to be vulnerable and of being hurt,” Alton says. “Sam has issues that she compensates for by being overly fearless.” Comparatively, Jennifer is outwardly fairly reserved, but she often exposes her inner wild side.
Case in point? Jennifer, who has trouble just making the first move with a girl, ends up pole dancing in episode five. Paradise isn’t quite sure why she wrote that into her part. Now, she faces the prospect of millions of viewers watching her do the act. “I installed a pole in my bedroom, but that’s completely different,” Paradise says with a laugh. Immediate-ly, she gets serious. “That,” she says, “was a joke.”
Alton, however, is exuberant. “I can’t wait to watch Michelle pole dance,” she says. “I was trying to get to practice with her. I wanted to show her how it was done. She thought it was the worst thing she was ever going to have to do.”
Pole dancing practice aside, it’s clear that the cast has fun working together. When asked if Alton, who’s straight, thought she’d ever develop a crush on one of her cameo girlfriends or maybe one of her co-stars, she says, “Who knows? It’s a possibility.” Making out with girls was an easy habit to get in to for the sake of her character. “Relationships are relationships,” she explains, “regardless of the sex of the person you’re having the relationship with.”
The show’s main focus is the quest for love, but it’s really about loving relationships in all incarnations, and with all their issues. The pilot episode jumps right in with a lesbian wedding; episode two touches on the subject of gay adoption. Later episodes will deal with coming out, homophobia and religion. But don’t get it twisted—this show is funny. “This is not an ‘issues’ show,” Paradise says. “It’s not meant to be heavy, but these are issues we all have to deal with. We want it to be very realistic but also fun.” Paradise manages to pull it off. The problems her characters face come up naturally, and aren’t avoided, but they’re also not overanalyzed (not terribly lesbionic of Paradise, is it?)
“Michelle did a really great job treating issues with levity and lightness, but not minimizing them,” says Heather Matarazzo. “Especially in the media front that we’re in now, it’s always good to remember to have a sense of humor.” Matarazzo’s Crutch spends her fair share of time mired in situations of comical discord. The youngest of the bunch, (like Matarazzo in real life) Crutch struggles with how to express her creative energy and assert her individuality. But those are issues 24-year-old Matarazzo doesn’t have as much trouble with.
Since coming out publicly four years ago (making her the youngest out actor in Hollywood), Matarazzo has fallen naturally into a role of community support and role model. The Long Island-native works hands on with at-risk LGBT youth at Manhattan’s Hetrick-Martin Institute, and in her spare time, practices photography. “It’s quite a shame that we don’t have more programming for the gay and lesbian community,” Matarazzo says. At the same time, she acknowledges you can’t please everyone all the time, so you just have to do the best you can. She adds, “There were problems with The L Word because they thought everybody looked too straight, and they’re probably going to think (Exes & Ohs) is way too lighthearted.”
Matarazzo, like her co-stars, says she saw this show as an opportunity to have fun, as well as work with an all-female cast. “I read the pilot for the show and absolutely loved it,” she says. “It was the first show of its kind and a character that I could come in and play with. They wrote great comedy bits for me, and I had a really incredible time, especially with Angie Featherstone and Megan Cavanagh.”
Cavanagh, probably best known for her role as Marla Hooch in A League of Their Own, was known on-set as the comedian of the bunch. Paradise and Matarazzo agree Cavanagh has a way of making everyone around her laugh with the subtlest change of expression or body language. Cavanagh, who plays the Chris half of the Chris and Kris couple, has long been a character actor in film, TV and theatre, and just finished a four-year run of 500 shows of Menopause the Musical. Featherstone, the former model, transitioned to acting with roles in Northern Exposure and The Wedding Singer, and plays opposite Cavanagh as Kris.
“[Featherstone] and I have great chemistry,” says Cavanagh. “It happened at the audition. We just sparked. She’s a funny, quirky, very eclectic chick, and we had that bickering kind of old couple thing from day one.”
Chris and Kris have been together a while, so they act, dress and look alike. Animal lovers, they’ve taken on one too many pets, and put on a few extra pounds. For the past year and a half, Cavanagh’s life has imitated her art. “My partner Anne [Chamberlain] and I have been really in love, and we’re both getting chubby,” she says.
Also like Chris and Kris, Cavanagh and Chamberlain are working together on a book and documentary about Cavanagh’s successful career as an “ugly girl” in Hollywood. Cavanagh’s very happy to be playing a character on Exes & Ohs that represents what she calls “a traditional lesbian.”
“I’m very excited about it,” Cavanagh says about her character. “All the friends I have in Wisconsin and in the Midwest are bigger, and I am their poster child. Society’s so obsessed with being skinny now, it’s like I’m the anti-skinny. I mean I’m healthfully happy with my body.”
Paradise’s motto may be “If you can laugh your way through life you’re good,” but Exes & Ohs is not just about entertainment and laughter. (Well, okay, mostly it is.) One of her goals in writing the series was to create characters that accurately reflect their audience. Paradise and the rest of the cast want us to have fun, but they also want the show to provide a place for all of us to exist exactly as we are, quirks, triumphs and all.
The show is one more piece of evidence that Logo is going to be there for us (and not, say, leave us for our ex-girlfriend’s new girlfriend’s demographic) to bring us shows written by, for, and about real lesbians who love real lesbians. The history-making network already gave us our first presidential forum, the first time would-be presidential candidates ever spoke directly to a gay panel and audience, and brought us the first-of-its-kind The Big Gay Sketch Show, the first lesbian reality series Curl Girls, and the first gay animated series Rick and Steve: The Happiest Gay Couple in All the World. Exes & Ohs makes history as the first ever half-hour scripted lesbian “dramedy.” Don’t let the word throw you. This show is designed to make you laugh with the kind of drama only a group of five lesbians can deliver.