Search form

Mike McMahan and Josh Bycel Talk ‘Solar Opposites’ V-Day Special and Season 5

The show’s EPs talk about their ‘An Earth Shatteringly Romantic Solar Valentine’s Day Opposites Special’ on Hulu, sharing the humor that comes from jumping on the least stakes-heavy thing, like a restaurant menu changing, and wanting to blow-up their least favorite holiday in a crazy way that leads directly to the upcoming season they promised would be their best and funniest yet.

Talking to Solar Opposites creator/EP Mike McMahan and EP Josh Bycel is never dull; they’re sharp and brimming with enthusiasm, and you’re always forced to keep up like a cub reporter fumbling with pencil and pad while chasing a rock star on their way to rehab.  You gotta be quick. And our most recent conversation, about their ‘An Earth Shatteringly Romantic Solar Valentine’s Day Opposites Special,’ now streaming on Hulu, as well as some hopeful morsels from the upcoming Season 5, was no different.

For those unaware, 20th Television Animation’s Solar Opposites centers around a team of four aliens – the Shlorpian family – who crash land on Earth. Zany fun (for viewers, not their hapless human targets) ensues as they negotiate the variegated charms of Middle America, with often raucous and chaotic results. Evenly split on whether Earth is awful or awesome are Korvo (Dan Stevens) and Yumyulack (Sean Giambrone), who only see pollution, crass consumerism, and human frailty; and Terry (Thomas Middleditch) and Jesse (Mary Mack), who love TV, junk food, and fun stuff. Season 4 is now streaming on Hulu; Season 5 premieres later this year.

AWN recently sat down with McMahan and Bycel. Here’s their story…

Dan Sarto: What can you share about this Valentine’s Day special? You're destroying the world, saving the world, exploring forbidden love. It's just fantastic.

Mike McMahan: Thank you. Listen, Solar Opposites is a show made by people who love TV that are making TV for people who love TV. Getting to do holiday specials is something we love to do because we love a good holiday special and we also love making fun of them, breaking the format, and really using animation to do something nobody's ever seen before. Now, some people at the studio might say, “This is stupid, why are you doing this?” But we would say that's the best reason to do something. And on top of that, the reason this is a Valentine's Day episode is we knew going into it that we wanted Terry and Korvo to be married by the end of it. Because unlike our other holiday specials, this one directly impacts the show. It carries forward and if you tune in when we drop Season 5 coming up later this year, this holiday special actually takes place between Episodes 1 and 2. And a lot of the season is about what does it mean to be a newlywed if you are an alien, and you don't know fucking anything about anything.

Josh Bycel: One of the reasons we wanted to do it is that it’s a nice little treat for the fans who are used to one-offs specials. On ours, all of a sudden at the end, the two main characters get married in a massive, huge moment. And I think the other thing, as Mike has said, is that there are not a lot of Valentine's Day specials out there. We loved doing Christmas, we loved doing Halloween. We have another holiday special coming this fall. But Valentine's Day I feel has gotten forgotten a little bit. So, we loved the idea of doing a special for a made-up holiday, which means we could do whatever we wanted to. We love the idea of doing Planet of the Apes with parrots in a Valentine's Day special.

MM: Also, fuck Valentine's Day. It's like the one holiday you can lose. You can't lose Christmas or Thanksgiving, but if you don't have a Valentine, you don't get to do Valentine’s Day, like fuck that. Somebody needed to take Valentine's Day down and I was happy our aliens did it.

DS: When you're sitting with the writers and you're thinking about where to take the characters on a Valentine's Day special, how many ideas do you come up with before you say, “Okay, that's probably one we can get away with.” What's your arbitration process?

JB: Well, Dan, what we came up with was Planet of the Apes with parrots. So, you can imagine how many hours and hours and hours it took to get there.

MM: It's funny because on Solar we like things to not be predictable, which I think we've done pretty successfully. And every four minutes there's a ton of curvature in these stories. We really want to feel like you started in one place, and then they take you to really crazy sci-fi places. And the two things we knew going into this is they're getting married at the end and the beginning was inspired by my wife's birthday being on Valentine's Day and it just fucks up wherever we can go to eat because everywhere has like, oh, their prefix special heart shaped hamburgers and shit and it's crazy.

So, I knew that I was pushing really hard for. It starts with the Solar Opposites family wants to get rid of Valentine's Day because their favorite restaurant is fucked up and it ends in them getting married. And then of course we have an amazing writing team, and you go from there and just try to talk about what are the stakes, what are the narratives? For specials we like to pull from movies to make it feel cinematic. So, you've got Conquest of the Planet of the Apes with parrots. You've got Linda Hamilton…

JB: Yes, that’s actually Linda Hamilton. We got her…

MM: Yeah… doing those funny, long, ridiculous narration, sort of somewhere between Terminator 2 and the opening of Blade Runner with all this info dump. You've got in the middle of it, Jesse's running that team of Valentine's Day rebels, which is directly lifted from Demolition Man. You've got all this fun stuff and it's all slam packed into a Valentine's Day episode, which is the least romantic, least red and pink Peanuts version of this that you could do.

DS: You joked that if this is where we ended up, you can imagine where we started. So, how long did it take to get there and what was the process?

JB: Well, once we had the parrots taking over, we were pretty good at moving quickly. The ideas just came flying. But I mean, it takes a little while. It's like when we break our stories. Our stories on this show are so dense and have so many turns, to say nothing of trying to do stuff in The Wall or SilverCops, that it takes a while. I mean, it probably took a week of talking with the writers to get here.

Like Mike said, we had the beginning, and we had the end. And then once you get going, it goes pretty quickly. But it takes a while because we never want to settle, right? Or if we're settling, we want the audience to think we're settling at the beginning. “Oh, this is just going to be this kind of thing… I've seen this on TV shows a million times. I've seen this on Modern Family…” and then we turn it. So, we just never want to settle for that.

MM: And Dan, the hardest part I find is what is the initial concept that makes everybody laugh, that's worth figuring out? And that can take months. That can be like, “What's worth doing? What have we not done? What's going to feel special? What's going to be funny? What holiday do we want to focus on?” And then when you get the kernel of the Solar Opposites are going to get married in a special that directly goes into the show, and we know that one of the things that's fun to make fun of on Valentine's Day, the least stakes-heavy thing, is that the restaurant menu might've changed… once you have those two little lights in the darkness, suddenly all the creativity starts to build out and you have a writers’ room full of people and artists and everybody who are building off those ideas.

But I remember we had a much harder time figuring out the first Halloween episode because we were like, “What's our take on Halloween?” There are so many Halloween episodes out there from different shows that you don't want to redo something. And I remember it took us forever to finally realize, “Oh, Korvo is scared of everything including fun size Snickers, let's start from there. And those ideas are really hard to find, but once you get them, then you have all these professional writers who are great at structure and being funny and they can take that and start to build. So, it's a lot of thinking and then a lot of working.

DS: Have to ask… inquiring minds want to know… what can you share with us about Season 5?

MM: Let me give you three things and then Josh, maybe you give him a slight spoiler, give him a I guess scoop.

JB: All right.

MM: The Solar Opposites storylines this season are really, really funny, maybe our best. Seeing these two aliens navigate their first year of marriage and all the stuff that they can fuck up with that and that get really weird and alien and animated is, just from a writing point of view… we had a blast doing. So, look forward to some really great, funny alien episodes. The story of The Wall, our ongoing serialized heavy drama that exists within the show in the show, it isn’t in the Valentine's Day episode, but it picks up with a whole new genre in a whole new storytelling structure this year with some really amazing guest stars that haven't been in the show before. And it completely changes the world of The Wall and takes it to a place by the end of the season that just gives me goosebumps. I'm so excited with what we get to do next. We love writing that stuff. And then finally, we do some really funny SilverCops stuff this season. I don't want to give away too much of that, but it's very ridiculous space violence sort of SilverCops stuff this season, which is ludicrous. And we're bringing back our award-winning lead, Kieran Culkin.

JB: Yeah, Solar Opposites now has an Academy Award nominee in Sterling K. Brown and a Golden Globe, Critics Choice and Primetime Emmy winner in Kieran Culkin.

MM: An amazing cast.

JB: By the way, Golden Globe nominated Greta Lee is in this season.

MM: Oh, is there any little spoiler? What do you want to give him?

JB: I mean, I wouldn't give a spoiler, but one of my favorite episodes from last season was the invisibility one when they're invisible for half the episode and we don't see anything. And so, we have an episode this year that is similar along the lines of, but we have a lot of fun with a classic Saturday morning cartoon staple, like one of the most famous Saturday morning cartoons relationships. And basically, it breaks out in the middle of an episode with Korvo…

MM: Dan, you'll love this episode. I mean, I know you're thinking about animation all the time. This season, we really decided to celebrate being an animated show a couple times in a way that a live-action comedy just literally couldn't. And when you see it, I'm glad that Josh didn't tell you more because the delight of realizing what we're doing when you see it, that we break our show to become a different animated show for an episode is really funny.

DS: The animation on the show just gets better and better. What’s in store for the new season?

MM: The team on Solar is unbelievable. What we throw at them and what we ask them to do… We're supposed to have a lot of reuse. We're supposed to stay in the existing environments that we’ve already done. We're supposed to treat it like the Seinfeld set. We're not supposed to go to space and do a whole new Wall world and every three minutes have hundreds of backgrounds and stuff. But man, we've pushed it. There's an episode that happens later in the season this year that feels as big as a James Bond movie. It goes places that you can't believe they're going just for the story's sake.

And yeah, I think the art and everything, from the character design to the backgrounds, we have one of the most amazing compositing teams that really add unbelievable amounts of texture and just make everything work and sing so beautifully. And look, we're one of the 20th Television shows. The Solar Opposites are on posters with The Simpsons and Family Guy. Those shows, I love them, they've been on for a lot longer and they have a lot higher budget. And our artists, they're working with less, and it really causes them to have to be super creative and super smart with what they do, and God, they do an amazing job.

JB: They really do. I mean, we're asking them to make three shows in one. We have three shows in our shows. We have The Wall, we have SilverCops, and we have Solar Opposites. And it's amazing that they always step up to the task and go above and beyond.

DS: Can’t wait.

Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.