exit interview

How American Auto Navigated Season Two

“If this was just a group of really good people who wanted to do the best for the world and were good at their jobs, then it would just be a show about a well-run car company, which isn’t much of a show.” Photo: Ron Batzdorff/NBC

The second season of NBC’s American Auto ends with the executives of Payne Motors getting a much-needed win. Seven months after a defective vehicle the company neglected to recall starts a catastrophic forest fire, a last-minute Hail Mary to restore the company’s share value and keep their jobs pays off. In the months leading up to this, they invest $200 million into an obviously bogus clean-tech company, threaten their supply chain by wading into a geopolitical conflict, and assemble an all-male panel to design a new internal abortion policy to disastrous results. They deserve to be fired. The company deserves to go out of business. It’s nevertheless a huge relief when neither happens.

This is the contradiction at the heart of American Auto’s appeal. It offers a window into corporate America’s deep well of dysfunction, but it also offers a window into the day-to-day lives of the people who oversee it and makes you root for them all the same. After a promising if uneven first season, the show’s second season takes a leap forward. The personality quirks of the show’s central ensemble — Katherine (Ana Gasteyer), Sadie (Harriet Dyer), Jack (Tye White), Cyrus (Michael Benjamin Washington), Elliot (Humphrey Ker), Wesley (Jon Barinholtz), and Dori (X Mayo) — are firmly established, so the writers have more room to play them against one another for laughs. Their desperation to restore Payne’s profits and public image allow for biting jokes that laser in on the moral compromises corporations make to survive.

Shows featuring this distinct blend of character-driven comedy and social commentary have become the calling card of American Auto’s creator, Justin Spitzer. After receiving a crash course in the workplace-sitcom genre while working under Greg Daniels on The Office, Spitzer tweaked the formula on Superstore, using the show’s big-box setting to explore relevant issues like workers’ rights and immigration. On American Auto, he set out to flip the perspective, exploring decisions made at the corporate level through the flawed executives and processes that shape them. But it only succeeds as a workplace comedy because it doesn’t demonize anyone, instead seeking out the comedic potential of moral compromise. “They’re not good or evil,” explains Spitzer. “They have a job to do, and sometimes that means doing things that aren’t always morally pure.”

The Office and Superstore both have reputations as comforting rewatches; the characters are these warm underdogs who people enjoy spending time with and rooting for. American Auto’s characters, in comparison, are not underdogs. Do you think the show has an uphill battle to climb to re-create this appeal?
It occurred to me a little bit in development, but I realized this season how much more difficult it was as we were trying to humanize the characters more. But if this was just a group of really good people who wanted to do the best for the world and were good at their jobs, then it would just be a show about a well-run car company, which isn’t much of a show. I like that these people have an edge and it can be a little more caustic. I think that that presents a challenge in terms of getting an audience to root for them and making it warm, but I don’t want it to be a warm, fuzzy show. On Superstore, that part of it was a lot easier. Whatever the characters felt about each other, they were united by tough circumstances. Corporate was the bad guy. Here, who was the bad guy? In season two, I think we settled on the board and the chairman of the board being more of the antagonist, and I think we had some success with that.

You’ve spoken about wanting to show that these characters generally want to do the right thing, but that they’re hamstrung by the realities of working for a corporation. Are you trying to make a point about the banality of evil?
They’re not good or evil. They have a job to do and they have to do that job, and sometimes that means doing things that aren’t always morally pure. I don’t think there’s very much we’ve shown where I would go so far as to use a term like “the banality of evil.” Last season, there was a problem with the car, but they weren’t sure it was a problem. It’s not that they decided, Some people are gonna die, and we don’t care, and we’re gonna do it anyway. It was more like, There may be a problem, but we’re not sure. Are we really gonna do this giant recall over a possibility? And they don’t ever even make the decision not to do it. They just kind of put it off until tomorrow. And hopefully, that’s more relatable.

In their minds, they’re not not the worst of the worst, they’re not hurting anyone. If they were dumping toxic chemicals in a preschool’s backyard, that would probably be a line all of them wouldn’t cross. But I think it’s more complicated than that. If anything, we try to show nuance and find the comedy in nuance wherever we can.

Has there ever been a story line pitched where you thought, If we make these characters complicit in this, they’ll be irredeemable
The original version of the “Dealer Event” story — where we had all those rabbits Katherine used during the Pika demonstration — was going to be that, there were 100 or 200 bunnies, and under the heat of the lights, they all just die. It was an accident, they didn’t do it, but then it was going to be like, How do we cover it up? That made me laugh a lot, but I think that was one where it was like, That might put too much of a bad taste in people’s mouths. All I wanted was a shot of them shoveling dead bunnies into a garbage bag behind the curtain.

When you were breaking the new season, how much were you pulling from the headlines? I’m thinking specifically about the abortion story line in episode six. How did you know you wanted to tackle that and how did you approach doing so delicately?
Those episodes are ultimately the most rewarding, but are the hardest to do — those ones that feel a little edgy. On Superstore, we had success with those. It’s not like we’re always looking for a big, scandalous episode, but if we can find one or two subjects that feel a little more delicate, that’s great.

The genesis for that episode was that there was this big letter showrunners and various writers wrote after the Dobbs decision, and I remember reading it, thinking, I agree with the values here. I’m pro-choice. But the language of this is very harsh. It was like, “We demand this!” And I was like, That’s more direct than I would normally speak. So I think I had that in mind.

We were talking about what a company’s reaction to something like that would be. If you’re a company, it’s one thing if a bunch of employees ask you for something that you don’t agree with. That’s an interesting story. But what happens when it’s something you do agree with? Katherine says she’s pro-choice herself, but that’s not necessarily what she wants to lead with. It came from discussions talking about how Gen Z leads with their values and how that has changed from a generation ago, where you kept your values to yourself. In the end, the story is about what a CEO’s responsibility is when she has activist employees who are passionate about something. It could have been any other issue, but we figured abortion is the most topical, so why not just go at it to the extent that they would let us?

Ana Gasteyer has talked about how season two recalibrates the dynamic between Katherine and the rest of her employees. In season one, all of them are pitted against her, now, it’s all of them against the board. In addition to having Katherine save everyone’s jobs, what did you do to sell that shift?
That was the biggest thing. She does something that’s actually selfless. Although after we did it, it felt too selfless, which is why we brought in this idea that she’s constantly reminding people of what she did.

That was what was going on in our heads with the fact that she gets divorced, too. In the episode where they’re all at her house, you get to see them out of their comfort zone, and also see some vulnerability from her. I think it humanizes her to see that she has problems at home. There was a very subtle thing we tried to put in in that episode, where everything in her house is basically unused, or she doesn’t know how to use it. There’s a hot tub that she doesn’t know how to turn on, she doesn’t know how to work the speakers, and even the board games she pulls out to play have their plastic wrap on them. She’s making so much money and working so hard that she doesn’t have time to spend it and her personal life is going to shit. Knowing that there’s a cost to that makes her more likable. And likewise, the fact that the other other characters rally around her — they’re having a terrible time, but they decide to stay — helps. That’s the sort of thing every show does: An ensemble becomes a family over time, especially on a workplace show.

This is the third show you’ve worked on featuring a “will they, won’t they” relationship at its core. It’s a sitcom trope that can err on the side of annoying, but you’ve had a lot of success avoiding that. What’s the key to making one work?
I think I’m still figuring it out! One thing in this show that I think was maybe a mistake is I never built enough of an obstacle for why Jack and Sadie are not together. They are two people who obviously like each other a lot and are attracted to each other. Whereas in both The Office and in Superstore, the woman is with someone — whether she’s engaged or married — and that made it a lot easier. You want to have a reason why this isn’t happening. With Ross and Rachel in Friends, Ross was just kind of shy and beta for a long time. With Sam and Diane in Cheers, they’re kind of antagonistic, and we did a little bit of that in Superstore with Amy and Jonah, too. In this show, I remember thinking early on, Can I make it work if they like each other and they’ve already slept together, but it’s just the awkwardness of being at work? I remember thinking about how it worked on Grey’s Anatomy, with Patrick Dempsey and Ellen Pompeo. It’s a tribute to the actors, Ty and Harriet, that they still managed to make it work, even though I didn’t give them enough of an obstacle.

I think it’s hard to be all in on it. If you make the show all about the “will they, won’t they,” how many moves are there? I think there was a rash of these romantic comedies on network eight or nine years ago, and a lot of them didn’t work. People just couldn’t invest. I think it’s important for the audience to sort of feel like they’re discovering it on their own. Sometimes, it’s just a look in an episode. And then you make a move every fifth episode or something. Also, try to restrain yourself — don’t get them together too quick just because the audience thinks that’s what they want. Because at that point, you’re really low on moves. And then just hope you find actors with chemistry, if you believe that exists.

How did you decide the end of season two was the right time to progress the Sadie and Jack story line?
That goes back to what I was saying with the obstacle. For the longest time, after they all found out that they were keeping their jobs, I was going to leave it indeterminate. But then it just kind of felt like, All right, let’s shit or get off the pot. I’m out of story lines for why the two of them can’t try getting together.

Jon Barinholtz plays Wesley on the show, and this season, you had Ben Feldman, Kaliko Kauahi, and Jon Miyahara come in for guest spots as well. Is this just a coincidence, or is it a deliberate attempt to bring back as many Superstore people as possible? 
It’s really just that I like working with the people I like. I remember, early on, when we were even thinking of casting Jon in the part, it was like, Oh, if I cast him, then then we’re saying these are not in the same universe. And that’d be nice — I like the idea of having a bunch of different shows in the same universe. But in the end, Jon is a ridiculously good actor, and I want to work with him as much as possible. And that made the decision simple. I love Ben, and I love Kaliko, and I love that whole cast, so when I can find opportunities to bring them in, I do. And maybe another small piece of it, cynically, is that there’s probably a fairly shared audience between Superstore and people watching American Auto, so I think that’s rewarding for them.

I’m interested in the character of Wesley, because now that he’s the company’s biggest shareholder, it seems like he’ll have more of a role to play. But he’s also the character who seems most in danger of becoming a parody of himself. How do you set up parameters around what’s too obnoxious for Wesley?  
It really is case by case, trying to make sure we don’t go too far. If you’re running a show, you always have to fight the urge to do the easy joke. And that seems fine in the abstract, but when you’re three episodes before the end, and you have something due and you’re tired, it’s really easy to just do the easy joke. And oftentimes, the easy joke is just having a character be dumb. I’m not saying I’m totally immune from it. I’ve had times in my career where I’ve had a joke and looked back at it later and thought, I should have worked a little more on that one.

I think it’s just taking care and trying to remember who he is and trying to keep him three-dimensional. And I think having smart actors who you trust are helpful in that. I’ve known Jon for a while and I have so much respect for him. He’ll do anything I ask him to do, but I think if we wrote something where his character was too stupid, he’d call me or text me and be like, “Are you sure? Is this pushing it too far?”

You do a similar thing with the conference-room scenes on American Auto as you did with the break-room scenes on Superstore, where you wedge in a rapid-fire series of jokes. Can you take me through the writing of one of these scenes?
They’re my favorite to write. It’s exactly as you say: You bring all the characters together and you get a bunch of interesting points of view. It doesn’t necessarily have to move the story forward, but it can. I think that’s where the writing can take a long time, because you sort of overwrite them and follow weird tangents. But especially in any show that’s going to have some social satire, or you just want to get in the characters’ heads, having a scene where they can all just say what they’re thinking is really useful.

It seems like a writers’ strike is looking more and more probable. I was wondering if you had any thoughts about that that you wanted to share?
Because I’ve been so stuck in the weeds of finishing American Auto, I’ve not been paying attention nearly as much as I should. I have friends who have had a lot of these “mini-rooms” that go forever, and so I think that’s a real issue that has to be addressed. But at the same time, I feel awful for all the crew members that are potentially out of work for a while because a bunch of writers are unhappy, so I hope we don’t go on strike, more for them than anything else. I just don’t know enough to speak about the various issues. It feels inevitable, but that’s the point of brinkmanship: to make it feel inevitable until it’s not, so maybe it won’t happen.

I also ask because labor negotiations were a big plot point in Superstore. I thought that was an interesting parallel.
There’s a parallel. And yes, we’re a guild, but we’re not the machinists guild. We’re well compensated compared to a lot of people. So for me to get up on a soapbox and start talking about workers’ rights doesn’t really feel appropriate.

As we speak, American Auto has yet to be renewed for season three. How much did it affect the writing of the season to have an uncertain future?
It’s nice if you know it’s coming back. But that’s a luxury that few shows have. The only real difficulty it presents is in thinking about your finale. You might do something different if you knew it’s the series finale versus the season finale. It’s a question of, Do you want to do an open-ended cliffhanger finale? Or do you want to wrap it up in a way that would be satisfying? I’d say, for season one, I would have been really bummed if that was our final episode. For this season finale, I certainly hope it’s not our final episode, but if it somehow is, I could be happy going out on that. I think that’s a victory.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

How American Auto Navigated Season Two