The Bighearted Drama of Facebook’s Strangers

Photo: Facebook Watch

Mia Lidofsky’s Strangers may fly under the radar on Facebook’s video platform Watch, but if you’re a fan of generous, kind TV storytelling, it’s not to be missed. The series follows Isobel Song (an utterly swoony Zoë Chao), a woman who cheated on her longtime boyfriend with a woman, then turns to Airbnb to afford the rent for her idyllic Los Angeles home. As she explores her sexual identity with the support and friendship of her BFF Cam (Meredith Hagner), people come in and out of Isobel’s life whom she might not normally meet.

In season two, the BFFs move from Los Angeles to New York, but Isobel’s life has never has more adrift — and this time she’s the renter, hopping from home to home while trying to find her place in the city. The latest episode, “West Side Highway,” takes everything that Isobel has been dealing with and brings it to a head, as she’s torn between her married girlfriend Mari (Kathleen Munroe), and an aggressively appealing co-worker named Milo (Kyle Allen). It’s a major turning point for Isobel as a character, and it solidifies Strangers as a particularly loving show, not unlike High Maintenance. Vulture sat down with Lidofsky and her partner Celia Rowlson-Hall — who’s a co-executive producer, director, and choreographer on Strangers — to discuss queerness and bisexuality on television, the importance of empathetic storytelling, and why Rowlson-Hall teases Lidofsky about becoming “the Nancy Myers of gay content.”

What was the inspiration behind creating the show?
Mia Lidofsky: It was four years ago that I came up with the idea. There was this moment where I was renting out my home in New York while I was doing a job in Louisiana. I decided to rent a different apartment in New York. When I was returning the keys to the host, he was like, “I’ve got this funny story for you.” It turned out that he had spent the weekend while I was at his apartment with his girlfriend and she was my subletter. He had stayed in my apartment, and I had stayed in his apartment. Without ever having met him, we had swapped homes over the course of one weekend. It was the first seed of Strangers.

Why did you want Isobel to be bisexual?
Lidofsky: It was important for me to explore someone on the spectrum of fluidity. I am an out-and- loud, proud lesbian, but I felt like it was still a frontier that hadn’t been totally explored. I thought The L Word did an interesting job of Alice, so it’s not like I’m the first one, but I feel like there’s never been a protagonist in the TV space that’s bisexual. And I really wanted to tell a story of a strong female friendship. So, Isobel and Cam are actually loosely based and inspired by Zoë Chao and myself, because we have been best friends since the first day of nursery school.

Celia, you produce the show and directed a couple of episodes, too. Were you onboard before you guys met?
Lidofsky: I had started writing Strangers before Celia and I got together. It was Zoë and me, and I had been producing for Beachside Films with Michael Clark and Alex Turtletaub, and they came on to produce. She didn’t start out being official in any capacity apart of the pilot. She had just directed her first feature and Celia’s always been one of my favorite artists, before I got the opportunity and privilege to fall in love with her. She really held a lot of space in the early stages to let me make my mistakes and have my successes.

How many writers do you have working on the show?
Lidofsky: This is the first year we had a writers room.

So last year it was just you?
Lidofsky: I wrote the pilot with Chad Hartigan. Then I wrote episodes two through seven with Jim Strouse, who’s really wonderful. I brought on this really wonderful writer, Neena Beber, to be the head writer and she and I ran the room together. There were nine of us and a writer’s assistant. There have been so many people to help me along the way. It’s just pure generosity of so many people I’ve collaborated with.

Do you feel like the writers room changed anything?
Lidofsky: It was exciting because we had a really special group of people. All women and one man. It was really diverse in terms of sexuality and race and cultural identity and where people were from. I am only one white woman from the East Coast, so it was important to me to find authenticity of voice from the other writers.

What are you hoping Strangers brings to the LGBTQ landscape on TV?
Lidofsky: I always talked about changing the narrative of normal. I think that it’s so important to be seen authentically. That’s something that’s nice about Strangers. It’s a show about connection and humanity viewed from an empathic viewpoint. If one queer person feels less alone from viewing this show, then I feel like I’ve done my job.

Celia Rowlson-Hall: We joke that we want Mia to become the Nancy Myers of gay content. When it comes to queer work, we just need more, and we need from all different perspectives, so I think that particularly a gay female perspective is exciting. I love its simplicity. It’s not trying to be more than it is. We as queer people don’t have to put on any more than we are.

Lidofsky: It is so important for me to see queer characters win onscreen. Season two is all about second chances — it’s a new city, it’s new love. It’s about the idea of you’re never too old.

That’s what episode seven seems to be about.
Rowlson-Hall: That’s the thesis of episode seven, which is really exciting. One of our favorite characters is a gentleman of a certain age.

Lidofsky: A gentleman of a certain age and spent his life as an accountant when he really wanted to be a composer. He’s a closeted gay man and there’s that nuance and subtlety of these two queer characters living together who, even in this stage of his life, he can’t find the words. It’s expressed through music and the intercutting of Mari and Isobel. To me, that scene was about two lovers who are in the wrong seats. I felt like it was a real opportunity to allow the show and myself to grow up. I wrote the pilot four years ago — I was 27, I was single, I’d never met Celia. This season and this episode in particular allowed the show to enter its own version of adulthood.

When I first saw the show, it reminded me a lot of High Maintenance, just in the characters being able to meet people outside of their bubbles. Do you feel like that’s changed after you’ve moved from Los Angeles to New York?
Lidofsky: It’s interesting because in season one, Isobel was the stability. She had a job, she then had a girlfriend, she had a home. But this season, we take away her sense of stability. People in season one enter into her world. This year, she enters into other people’s worlds.

We also learn more about parents and her biracial identity, which obviously shows so much more of Isobel and her many facets.
Lidofsky: Clearly, L.A. is very diverse, but you can find pockets of homogeneity in there. The idea of actually moving to [New York] and being surrounded constantly by other people of color, we’re really exploring this woman in the bi spirit of biracial, bisexual, bicoastal. We have such a binary understanding of the universe. What happens when you don’t check these strict boxes?

Isobel has very intense love interests. What was the casting process for Milo and Mari? Especially Mari, because you know she’s gonna ruin Isobel’s life.
Lidofsky: Mari and Milo are two mirrors on different stages of Isobel’s life. Milo is this playful kid — he represents these lost years in New York where you’re young enough to get your heart broken and try to go for your dreams and fail and pick yourself back up. He represents this idea that she can no longer exist in. Mari is this aspirational sense of womanhood, her beauty and elegance. She’s a successful designer and she has a relationship, so it’s this idea of the woman Isobel aspires to be, but also be with. They really are these two opposite landscapes of her understanding of herself.

Also Meredith Hagner is so fantastic. Such a transforming role for her. She has the range.
Rowlson-Hall: She could play the girliest girl for the rest of her life, and it’s really good that people see her in this kind of role because she’s so charismatic and wonderful. I don’t think anybody would really cast her this way and I’m so happy that Mia did.

What did Meredith and Zoë bring to make this such a collaborative experience?
Rowlson-Hall: The great thing is there’s such a shorthand. Because these two characters have been with us since day one, we don’t even recognize how easy it is to get on that same page. When you’re bringing on new actors, you have more warming up to do. We’ve been able to dive right in and that’s one of the joys and the ease of having it be a family affair.

Episode seven is a big turning point. What can we expect for the rest of season two?
Rowlson-Hall: Watching the last episode, Mia as a director has come into her power and understanding and it’s wild to watch this arc. It’s obviously through Isobel, but it’s definitely the creator’s story as well. The show is changing in really exciting ways. Everything becomes, by episode ten, so layered and so complex. I think the show only gets more accurate to the complexities of being an adult, specifically a queer woman.

Lidofsky: We’re exploring the complexity of queerness, complicated love, and what happens when you fall in love with someone. Isobel starts finding her power, claiming her power, and goes through a really complicated journey.

Why should people be watching? What does this show fill that people need?
Rowlson-Hall: I think what it brings is a sense of celebration. There’s a sweetness to it all that I think is very needed right now.

Lidofsky: I think of it as the deep and rich complexity of being a woman and being a queer woman. It’s about the colorful mess of life. It’s about reaching out rather than going in, because if it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a city to find yourself. It’s a show made with love and it’s a show that believes in love.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

The Bighearted Drama of Facebook’s Strangers