Utkarsh Ambudkar and Rose McIver (foreground) play a married couple with eerie boarders in Ghosts.
Rose McIver was used to doing trust fall exercises — "the kind where you turn around, cross your arms and fall back into somebody's arms" — but they didn't prepare her for Ghosts. Not only was the cast shooting the pilot for the new CBS supernatural comedy during the pandemic, but the former star of The CW's iZombie had to surrender her body (and her self-described "controlling personality") to play a pivotal near-death experience.
As her character, Samantha, was lifted on a gurney to be put into an ambulance by trained paramedics, the actress struggled with how vulnerable she felt. "There was a certain amount of actual fear," she recalls, "because I was worried they were going to drop me."
McIver didn't have such fears when it came to those carrying her on a more figurative level, namely, Joe Port and Joe Wiseman, the writers and executive producers who adapted the BBC series Ghosts for an American audience. "I trust the Joes implicitly," she says.
Port and Wiseman loved the British show the first time they saw it. Not only was it both "hilarious and surprisingly deep," as Port says, but it had all kinds of franchise potential — a major plus nowadays. The premise is simple: after a near-death experience, a young woman finds that she is able to see dead people. And since she's just inherited a spooky old mansion in New York, she discovers that she's surrounded by a crew of dead roommates, all of them stircrazy from having been cooped up together for literal ages.
"It's like a screwball comedy haunting a very sweet sitcom," costar Brandon Scott Jones explains. The actor, most recently seen on The Good Place, adds, "It's almost like the movie Clue, with a large cast of colorful characters running around together. And Rose's character bridges the real world and the ghostly world."
"It's a great idea, and it's very transportable," Port says. "You could tailor it to audiences in other places, not just America."
While the British version recruited its dead characters from the Tudor, Regency and Edwardian periods, among others, Port and Wiseman drew characters from American history (Port's college major, conveniently enough). Although the characters differ from their U.K. antecedents, the message remains the same — these ghosts from different backgrounds and eras have no choice but to try and understand one another. After more than a year of lockdowns, this is a theme that could resonate.
Fittingly, Port and Wiseman met while working on UPN's 1999 animated series Dilbert, but they bonded over a moment when one scared the other. Late one night, Port had to photocopy about a hundred scripts. The copy machine generated a lot of heat, so he cooled off by removing his shirt. At around midnight, Wiseman wandered in and startled his topless coworker. "I screamed," Port says with a laugh. "I thought everyone was gone."
Soon, they bonded over their shared ambitions. They worked as staff writers on shows such as Just Shoot Me, The Office and New Girl — all the while trying to launch their own pilots. There was an American version of The IT Crowd that starred Joel McHale for NBC; a weight-loss comedy called Big Men, with Chris O'Dowd, also for NBC; a semiautobiographical comedy about overcoming grief called Rebounding, with Will Forte for Fox; and another semiautobiographical comedy, this one about writing partners and a spouse called Joe, Joe & Jane, for NBC.
Even closer to home, they had a CBS comedy called Eternally Yours, which was nominally about two vampires who'd been married for hundreds of years. "But really," Port says, "it was the story of me and Wiseman and our writing partnership for like twenty years. Maybe that's why we're drawn to stories about people who are stuck together, who have a lot of difficulties, but still love each other." Eternally Yours didn't take off. But the two writers weren't done with the undead just yet.
To Americanize Ghosts, Port and Wiseman had to do some cultural juggling. They made the cast and the writing staff more diverse, for one thing, hiring — among others — scribes identifying as LGBTQ+, Indigenous, Black, South Asian and female. "The writers' room is superdiverse," says cast member Utkarsh Ambudkar (Never Have I Ever), whose character, Jay, is married to McIver's Samantha. "We also talked about reflecting my character's South Asian background and what that might mean for stories. There are a lot of places we can go."
These varied points of view allow Ghosts to dig a little deeper into this country's fraught history. "What's different about our version is that it picks at the scabs," says Rebecca Wisocky (Devious Maids), who plays a spirit named Hetty. And while the U.S. show is primarily a comedy, it also has more moving elements on its mind. "Pathos and comedy go hand in hand," McIver says, "and we'll be able to jump between those things."
"It's a brand-new look for the network," Ambudkar adds. "It's not a family comedy. It's not a three-camera sitcom. It is equal parts spooky, romantic and witty. It's very tongue in cheek."
Let's meet the undead, some of whom resemble the original British characters, while some are entirely new. "We're excited to bring a new crop of ghosts into the world," Jones says. "Or into the netherworld, or the ether. Our creators have such unique visions for each character — we're not trying to be the British show."
A typical difference: one of the ghosts in the U.K. show is a mostly monosyllabic caveman who's been around for thousands of years. In the new show, the oldest ghost in residence, providing the same sort of grunty caveman energy, is a Viking named Thorfinn (played by Devan Chandler Long, Bosch). Could this be Thorfinn the Valiant, an eleventh-century Icelandic explorer known for his search for the fabled "Vinland"? Maybe, maybe not. But an early episode will depict the discovery of Thorfinn's bones — and the ghost's subsequent request for a proper Viking funeral.
The next-oldest ghost is Indigenous. Sasappis (played by Román Zaragoza) is from a sixteenth-century Lenape tribe, the original inhabitants of the New York harbor region. His presence allows the show to explore the tribe's gradual banishment from their ancestral land by European settlers. In addition to hiring a Native writer, the production brought on Native consultants to help avoid any possible stereotypes.
"Sasappis is the smartest guy in the room," Port says. "It's his burden to be stuck with these idiot ghosts, but he's very witty and has a lot of funny observations about everyone. We thought that was a fun way to go."
In the British show, a closeted gay military man from World War II considers himself the ghosts' leader. The American version makes Isaac, played by Jones, a militiaman from the Revolutionary War. It also presents his sexuality with more clarity (at least to us, if not to himself).
"He's just dipping his toe into being comfortable around these other people," Jones says. "This is a very repressed man because of the toxic masculinity 300 years ago." Isaac also has some petty rivalries with the Founding Fathers. "It's going to be a rude awakening when Isaac discovers that Hamilton has a celebratory musical written about him," Jones says. "Wouldn't it be so fun if Lin-Manuel Miranda played Hamilton on our show?"
In the British Ghosts, there's an uptight Edwardian spirit whose family lived on the estate for generations. In the new show, this is Samantha's ancestor Hetty, a robber baron's wife who died in 1890. "Hetty had all this privilege and power, yet she was relatively powerless in the social mores of her time," Wisocky notes of her character.
Most of the other restless spirits date from the twentieth century. For example, Alberta (Danielle Pinnock) was a Prohibition-era lounge singer who moved north during the Great Migration. Since Alberta suspects her death was due to foul play, she'll help Samantha investigate her own cold case.
Then there's Crash (Hudson Thames), a '50s greaser who was decapitated in a motorcycle accident (and keeps losing his head). Flower (Sheila Carrasco) is a '60s hippie who was on hallucinogens when she decided to hug a bear. And Richie Moriarty's Pete is perhaps the ghost most like his British counterpart, an '80s scout-troop leader who died from an accidental arrow to the neck (it's still there).
"There are a couple episodes in the British series that we take inspiration from," Wiseman says, "and one of them is the episode in which Pete's family comes to visit the spot where he died."
More recently deceased is Trevor (Asher Grodman), a turn-of-the-century finance bro who died around 2003 and is doomed to live out all eternity with no pants. Trevor is also unique among the spirits in that he can overcome his non-corporeality — if he concentrates hard enough, he can interact with the real world and knock things over.
This raises questions, of course. What are the ghosts made of? How can they pass through walls and also walk on solid ground? Why do some dead people ascend to a higher plane while this gang is stuck on Earth, seemingly forever?
To address these questions, Port and Wiseman turned to one of their favorite movies: Groundhog Day. As Port points out, its screenwriter, Danny Rubin, never explained the mechanism of the time loop — because "the most satisfying explanation was no explanation. That's kind of how we feel with Ghosts."
To play with the rules of their universe, the two are planning a special Halloween episode. "The idea is that the line between the living and the spirit world is blurred," Wiseman says. "We don't explain all of the ghosts' powers right away. We'll eke out that information, just to keep some mysteries alive. I think people will have fun speculating."
"It's a bit like The Good Place and What We Do in the Shadows," McIver says. "Can you imagine if we could do a What We Do in the Shadows crossover episode? That would be brilliant. If I have to film that on my iPhone at a party someday, I'll make it happen."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine issue #8, 2021, under the title, "Frightfully Funny."