‘Grand Crew’ Showrunner Gets Real About the Art, Craft, and Challenges of the Group Hang Sitcom

Phil Augusta Jackson tells IndieWire about making network sitcoms in a streaming world and his friends that inspired the hit NBC series.
Five adults holding glasses of wine at a bar and looking at something O.S.; still from "Grand Crew"
"Grand Crew"
Jordin Althaus/NBC

TV can give viewers false expectations of adult friendship. How many people who watched “Friends” or “Living Single” or “New Girl” got into shenanigans nearly as often as the characters? But Phil Augusta Jackson, creator of NBC’s “Grand Crew,” he swears it’s based on his own friend group and the wine bar where they hung out… with a few liberties taken.

“When you have a hangout show like this, what we’re showing are the moments that they get to spend time together,” Jackson told IndieWire via Zoom. “They’re always at the bar, multiple times an episode, and that doesn’t necessarily feel like real life as far as the actual frequency. It can start to feel like they just, like, live at this place… but that’s what you have to do for storytelling.”

The show follows Noah (Echo Kellum), Nikki (Nicole Byer), Anthony (Aaron Jennings), Fay (Grasie Mercedes), Wyatt (Justin Cunningham), and Sherm (Carl Tart) as they talk about therapy, maybe-becoming parents, unemployment, love, breakups, and drink a lot of wine. (“Wine and” is in every episode name.)

“I don’t think it’s unrealistic,” Jackson said. “[My friends] talk about everything. It was the first time in my life that I really felt like I had a solid core while getting to a place where I’m getting to be an adult who is who he is, and really figuring out myself.”

Ahead of the Season 2 finale on April 28, Jackson spoke with IndieWire about the challenges of the modern sitcom, a what makes a good will-they/won’t-they, and his long-term vision for the show.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

IndieWire: How do you build a classic TV friend group from the ground up?

Jackson: I wanted to relay the feeling and the energy and the dynamics that I actually have in my real life with my friend group — we hang out at this wine bar. So from a base level, the cliche of “write what you know” feels accurate in this circumstance. Beyond that, it’s working as hard as I can to get to this level and paying attention when I was in rooms like “Key & Peele” and “Survivor’s Remorse” and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” and “Insecure” and taking the best bits of each job from a story-breaking perspective, from a joke-writing perspective, and putting it into the show of my own flavor.

With two seasons under your belt, is there anything that you maybe wish you had done better in the beginning, and something that you are really proud of and think you executed well?

[In a first season], you have just a lot of work to do to get everybody caught up on who these characters are and what makes them tick. I think we did a really good job with that. If I had to kind of Monday-morning-quarterback Season 1, with only 10 episodes too — because those classic sitcoms, you get 20 episodes to kind of have throwaways that give you texture into these characters — I would try and figure out a way to set the table quicker if I could, and how to get everybody on board with exactly how these characters act and what makes them tick. I don’t know how I would do that necessarily, but once you understand who these characters are and you feel like you’re part of the crew when you watch it, I think that’s when things start to take off.

Three men in tuxedos, one wearing a hat, and standing at a cocktail table; still from "Grand Crew"
Justin Cunningham, Echo Kellum, and Carl Tart in “Grand Crew”Elizabeth Morris/NBC

Sitcoms often have to establish and juggle many characters, it’s just part of the form — but nowadays we have [streaming] sitcoms with longer episodes. Do you feel restricted by the timing? Do you find yourself kind of racing against the clock with short episodes and only 10?

Absolutely. If I had 50 minutes, that’s just so much time. In a half hour… what you’re really watching is 21 minutes of a show. Sometimes when you have a bigger order, I think you get more quote-unquote throwaway episodes where episodes don’t have to service any type of arc necessarily — those are the episodes that can stand out because you just get to do some silly shit. But 10 is also a great number. It just requires a different set of set of things you got to pay attention to since you got a little bit more limited a real estate.

I also think it’s an opportunity. I got to cut my teeth working on “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” for four seasons, about 80 episodes of that show, and I was on set all the time. We were really in the trenches making that show go, so I think I was well equipped for it. The stories have to be dynamic, have to make sense, have to contribute to a larger narrative for each character for the season, but I think it’s a fun challenge. It’s what network is, and it’s what makes it exciting when it works well.

Tell me about the choice to make most of the friend group single. There’s even a line in Season 2 like, “Hey, we’re all in our 30s, and is it weird that none of us have kids?”

I did that because that is my real life. When you’re in bigger cities, like New York or LA, it’s okay for a little bit of arrested development, to delay certain aspects of your life. In my friend group I have a couple close homies that are married, some with kids, some without. But a lot of the folks in that core group aren’t unmarried and still figuring it out and dating in LA is a really strange place to date. It feels like the stories there are really interesting in our real-life conversations, and so it felt like a fun way to put that energy into the show.

Speaking of dating, we must talk about Anthony and Fay. It’s such an interesting romance because they weren’t hinted at in the beginning and this season they had the opportunity and went for it.

I love rom-coms. I think it’s a genre that people take for granted, and from the beginning of the show I just wanted to subvert expectations. In the pilot, you might think that Noah and Fay are going to be the will-they or won’t-they of the show — we actually led people to believe that for most of Episode 102, only to realize that it’s about Fay becoming friends with Nikki. From the beginning of the series, I wanted Anthony and Fay to be the will-they/won’t-they.

As far as how we broke it, 107 was the seed. There’s a scene that we cut at the end of 107 where Anthony and Fay are texting and you could see her smile, and he’s smiling while they’re texting — but that felt a little bit too on-the-nose and we wanted to hide it a little bit more, so that by the time we got to the finale of Season 1 it was like, “Oh, that makes sense.”

When it came to Season 2, dating isn’t always clean. It’s not always like “Oh, I just immediately know that I like you and we’re just going to try and if it doesn’t work, we’re just going to stop.” It gets complicated, and timing is such a huge part of it, especially when you get into your 30s and you’re trying to figure out and really cement other aspects of your life. So that’s why we ended up taking them in the direction that we took them.

What’s your long-term vision for the characters as they depart from your real life?

Season 1 was about new beginnings. They had this spot that they would usually convene at [but] things happened with Noah and then they found this wine bar — unexpected thing and new unexpected place. There were new beginnings for everybody either romantically, professionally, etc.

Season 2, we looked at it like the thirst for more, when you get to a place where you figure out who you want in your life and what you want in your life and you go for it. It doesn’t always work out in your favor. Long-term, the goal for the show would be to have everyone reach a level of self actualization where they’re really happy and proud. I [used to] make a lot of decisions because it felt like what I would need to do to be successful, but I never asked myself if I was actually happy. When I hit my 30s, I actually started asking myself what makes me happy in addition to the things that I feel like I should be doing.

So I think ultimate happiness in a world where you never get it 100% of the time is the goal for everybody in the crew. It’s a coming-of-age in that way, so that’s a long-term vision. What does everybody got to do? Who do they need to be to achieve a level of happiness where you say, “I’m really excited for where my life is at?”

“Grand Crew” is now streaming on Peacock.

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