Compared to the last show he created, Fox’s short-lived “Making History,” Julius Sharpe’s new series “United We Fall” is surprisingly low concept.
A traditional, multicamera family sitcom, the series centers on a couple (played by Will Sasso and Christina Vidal Mitchell) and their struggle keep up with the day-to-day demands of raising two young daughters. And that’s about it as far as the premise goes. No time-traveling duffel bags or period costuming or recreations of major historical events. There are opinionated in-laws, sure, but the Founding Fathers do not make an appearance.
“You could say I was out of fanciful ideas, so I just tried to take a look at what might be interesting,” Sharpe said in an interview with TheWrap. “And the more I started talking to people about it, people seemed keyed into it in a way that they never seemed keyed into my other ideas.”
Sharpe drew from his own life for the project as a father of two intimately familiar with the “constant barrage of criticism” from extended family and the never-ending chaos of parenthood. And when it came time to sell the pitch, it was those recognizable stressors of everyday life that seemed to resonate, resulting in a “three or four network” bidding war before the show finally landed at ABC.
“Part of the pitch was I drop a folder full of my ER bills from the last six months on the table,” Sharpe said. “I wouldn’t even complete the pitch and they would start telling me about their kids and their horror stories. It just felt like maybe I was onto something at that point. This was a world that was maybe more universal than time travel.”
Those stranger-than-fiction stories are what make up the plot of each episode — the pilot episode culminates in a haunting medical emergency that leads Jane Curtin’s character to exclaim “Why is that outside her body?!,” for example — but it’s the familiar chemistry shared by Sasso and Vidal Mitchell that grounds the show in reality and, ultimately, is what brings it to life.
“Having come from ‘Family Guy’ and these Seth MacFarlane projects, [I was] trying to bring certain things that would work on a cartoon into a multicamera sitcom and trying to ground them more in the realism,” Sharpe said. “There’s a zaniness that comes through, but it’s still true to life.”
“It’s just a fun half-hour. I wasn’t trying to be any more ambitious than, ‘Hey, you can sit with your family and have a good time and not be wildly offended,'” he said. “I just wanted to make a good hamburger … It may not be the most abstruse food, but people like hamburgers, they eat a lot of them, and they certainly have a place.”
The fact that the show is airing at a time when a story about a family just living their regular lives — going to work and to school, interacting with other people — all seems a bit like science fiction, is something of an ironic twist. Ordered to series more than a year ago, all eight episodes of the first season were produced well before the pandemic drove everyone into their homes with no end in sight.
Sharpe jokingly suggested running a “Star Wars”-style scroll at the top of each episode explaining to weary parents what life was like six months ago.
“Even before all this, I was already so far past where I thought the edge was,” he said. “It’s almost like Columbus where you’re like, ‘Oh, this thing is round.’ I just keep going over the edge over and over and over. And now with quarantine, I’m in orbit. There’s no gravity, there’s no axis, whatever happens, I’m just going to float through and somebody’s hopefully going to be able to bring me back eventually.”
But Sharpe hopes the relative normal-ness of “United We Fall” and its stories of a pre-COVID world can serve as a temporary balm for the stress of dealing with restless children or a global health crisis or any of our other myriad social and economic anxieties.
Sharpe likened the show to “sitcom CBD”: “I’m just going to shut down and let them do the heavy lifting for me.”
“I’ve never intentionally set out to make something pleasant before, but I guess it speaks to my own craving,” he said. “To me, the promise of network TV is that I can turn this on and not think about my problems for that time. And if that’s all we accomplish — if it’s just that for people, a half-hour of pleasantness and light joy, I’m fine with that.”
“United We Fall” airs Wednesdays at 8/7c on ABC.