‘Sweet/Vicious’ Creator Jennifer Kaytin Robinson on How the Sexual Assault Series Landed at MTV

     December 6, 2016

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Created by Jennifer Kaytin Robinson, the MTV series Sweet/Vicious is an edgy, offbeat superhero story that’s viciously funny and deeply relevant. About two young women, Jules (Eliza Bennett) and Ophelia (Taylor Dearden), hell-bent on bringing justice to those who get away with abuse on their college campus, they’re living double lives as wannabe vigilantes who kick a lot of ass while hiding their secret life from best friends, parents and love interests.

During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, writer/executive producer Jennifer Kaytin Robinson talked about what inspired Sweet/Vicious, how the series ended up at MTV, the unfortunate relevance of the subject matter, making this world a heightened reality, balancing the serialized story with the procedural element, finding the right Jules and Ophelia, how far ahead she’s thought about the story, her hope that she’ll be co-showrunner for Season 2 (if the show gets a second season), and what she’s most proud of with the final product. Be aware that there are some spoilers discussed.

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Image via MTV

Collider: I absolutely love this show! How did this come about, for you? Was there a specific incident or event that inspired it, or was it a stacking up of them?

JENNIFER KAYTIN ROBINSON: The inspiration for this show wasn’t the sexual assault aspect. It was more writing a show for and about empowered women. I never really saw myself on TV, especially as a young woman. I never really watched something and was like, “Oh, wow, it’s okay to be weird and broken, but also very strong, and all of these things at once.” That was the inspiration for me. And then, it was about telling these stories that are important to women, in this genre package, and shedding light on issues that I think need to be in the mainstream, but maybe otherwise are looked at as taboo or too controversial to tackle. I just don’t agree with that. I think there need to be more stories out there that are able to shed light on and bring awareness to these causes, especially causes for women, for minorities, for people of color. I think those are the most important stories that should be told today.

When you create and write a TV show, you can only hope that it’s still relevant by the time it makes it to the air since you never know how long that’s going to take. Is this one of those times where you wish this show and this subject wasn’t as relevant as it is now?

ROBINSON: A hundred percent. What’s crazy is that I wrote the original pilot in 2014, and it’s only become more relevant, as we went on. It’s a double-edged sword. The more relevant it becomes, the more devastating it is because you see how deep this epidemic goes, but it also is shedding light on it. More people are rallying behind the cause and are raising their voices and saying, “This is not okay!” The more relevant it becomes, as heartbreaking as it is for people to learn about this cause, it’s not that the cause is getting worse, it’s always been bad. It’s just that now we have people talking about it and fighting for it, which is great.

Doesn’t it make you sad that experiences like this are just considered part of the female experience?

ROBINSON: Yes, that’s awful. I did my own personal inventory and I realized that so many of my experiences, that I wrote off as weird or uncomfortable or something where I was just like, “That was shitty,” were sexual assault or sexual harassment. I feel like, especially when you’re a young woman and you’re trying to come up in an industry like the entertainment industry where it’s dominated by men and you’re just trying to get ahead, you don’t want to make too much noise because then you’re looked at as a bitch or difficult. I really hope that this show, and also just the amount of people – men and women alike – who are coming out and saying that this is not okay, shows and can educate younger generations that none of it is okay, it should never be normalized, and you should always speak out against it.

At the same time, what would you say to people who watch this show and think, “Could what these girls are doing solve my problems?”

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Image via MTV

ROBINSON: I would say that this is a heightened environment. It is a genre show with superheroes, and it is larger than life. I’m very local that violence does not solve violence. Don’t go out and beat anyone up because it’s not going to go well. But the idea behind the show and the core of it, which is fighting injustice, please do that. Get out there. Even now, with what’s happening in the White House, get on the phone and call a Congressman, every time. That is being a real world Jules and Ophelia. That is speaking up. That is using our voice. Although I don’t think anyone should go out there and kill someone with a wrench, I do think there’s an opportunity where, if you’re feeling empowered, you can get out there and find a cause and fight for it.

You’ve said that MTV heard about this show and came to you and said they were interested in it. How did they hear about it and what ultimately made them the right home?

ROBINSON: Another producer that had read the show was talking to one of the executives at MTV. They asked, “What have you read lately?,” and she said, “You have to read this show.” And I was literally in MTV’s offices two days later, which was crazy and very rarely happens. I grew up on MTV, and I know that it’s changed and, more recently, it’s become a place that has been, I feel, a little bit out of touch with the audience that I felt that I was a part of, and even before that in the ‘90s. It was so kick-ass and in-your-face. There were so many amazing people that started on and came out of MTV. So, when I think about a home for a show that is about young people who are fighting back, and it’s very larger than life and out there, to me, it’s that MTV that I want to be a part of. I hope this show can help bring back that MTV that I feel like is there, it just needs a renaissance right now.

How did you decide on the balance between how much you wanted to stay true to what it’s like for someone who experiences a trauma like this versus how heightened you wanted to make things because it is a TV series?

ROBINSON: It’s a gut check. You can only do what you and the other writers and producers think works. At the end of the day, you have to just hope that it resonates in the way that it resonated in the room, with the network, and with the people that were reading it and giving feedback, along the way. There’s no right or wrong way to do any television show. So, for us and for me, it’s really just, when we’re in the story of Jules and the sexual assault, there’s nothing funny and there’s nothing heightened. You don’t need to make that bigger than life. It’s already terrible. That story was really important to tell correctly. And then, we built out the world around it and made it feel bigger, looking for that Tarantino, Matthew Vaughn and Mark Millar version of the story.

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Image via MTV

This show can be hilarious while never making light of the very real trauma of rape and sexual assault. Is that one of the hardest things to get right?

ROBINSON: Yeah. As the season goes on, it settles into a place where the super heightened stuff that’s happened in the beginning with the procedural elements levels out. In Episode 5, we pivot the story, and then in Episodes 6 through 10, we really go into overdrive on the Jules story. It’s still heightened, it’s still the same environment and it’s still the same tone, but we’re able to really ramp it up and make the drama and story be rooted in Jules and her story, as a survivor, and the ripple effects of what happened. We really dig into her story and expose her story.

You have some villains who are female and some guys who are really good guys. Was it important to you to not just make it be all about the villainous frat guys?

ROBINSON: Oh, 100% because I think that’s life. Nate’s best friend, who’s buying weed in Episode 2, comes back and he’s a big part of it. He is a good guy who has to come to grips with what it means for his best friend to have done this. And we really explore the Nate character. Yes, there are some people out there that are maliciously raping women, and I do believe that. But I also think there are a lot of young men and young women out there who don’t understand consent and don’t understand what they’re doing because they are thrust into a college environment and they’ve not been educated, and they’re just trying to emulate what they’ve seen on TV, or what they think they’re supposed to be doing. I think there’s so much out there that’s grey, and it’s really important to us to tell that story. All men aren’t evil. That’s crazy! We have so many amazing male characters on this show, who are so full of life and so wonderful. It was so important to us that this is not the man-bashing show. That’s not the story we are telling, in any way. We very much hope to get more seasons, so that we can explore male victims and LBGT victims. It’s so much about injustice. It’s not about taking men down. That’s just not the story we wanted to tell.

Did you intentionally set up this story in a way that had an ongoing story that pushes Jules down this path, but that there would also be people Jules and Ophelia go after, on a weekly basis?

ROBINSON: Yeah, I always saw it as a half-serialized and half-procedural situation that’s a little more serialized than procedural. The Good Wife had a law case in every episode, and then there were also the stories of the characters. I wanted it to be more the stories of the characters. That’s why, after Episode 5, and in Episodes 6 through 10, we really pivot and step away from those case of the week stories, and we’re able to really live within just our characters and their lives and the story of Jules. As seasons go on, I think that it allows us to evolve the show and take the story slow, and also have something new, every week, that an audience member feels like they can sink their teeth into.

At least in the first few episodes, these girls only have each other when it comes to dealing with what they’re doing, including actually having murdered someone. Will they start to think about whether they should share what they’re doing with someone else?

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Image via MTV

ROBINSON: Yeah, it’s definitely something that they’ll think about. Ophelia ends up getting a boyfriend. The boy who’s in her bed in the first episode comes back and is a love interest in the second half of the season, and she and Jules have a funny conversation about how she’s going to be a girlfriend and a vigilante. Ophelia answers that she’s going to Mrs. Doubtfire it. I think that it’s definitely something that we bring up. We don’t shy away from what is heightened and a bit ridiculous about the show. We talk about it and we make it the topic of conversation because we want the world to feel grounded, even though it is heightened. In terms of them talking to someone else about it and actually bringing someone else in, I will say that Episode 8 is a big episode. I would definitely tune in for the whole season!

This show is Jules and Ophelia, and what they go through and their relationship. When you went into the casting process, did you have any ideas about what you wanted these characters to be or the type of actresses you might want, or were you just completely open?

ROBINSON: We were so open. I just wanted two women that felt right. We did not look just for white women. We looked for everyone. It was open to all ethnicities. We just wanted to find the right people. It took us awhile. We saw Taylor [Dearden] and Eliza [Bennett] separately, and they were brilliant. We brought Eliza back a couple of times to read with Ophelias. Taylor was actually in our last bunch of Ophelias that we screen tested, and the minute they read together, it was like, “Oh, there’s the show!” There was no question about it. You can have good writing and good directing, and all of that stuff, but none of it matters, if you don’t have the actresses and you don’t have the chemistry. Eliza and Taylor amazed me, every single day. Our schedule was not easy and they did not get a lot of takes, but you would never know it because they’re so incredible. We couldn’t have made the show without them.

Why did you end up deciding to include language that you knew couldn’t air on MTV and that would have to be bleeped, instead of just changing it to language that could make it to air?

ROBINSON: Half way through filming, we found out that we could say “shit” and “asshole,” which was the best. That’s how people talk. I tried to put “balls” and “dicks” in there when I could. Jules doesn’t curse. That was something from the beginning. It wasn’t something I did because I knew she wouldn’t be able to curse. It was a character trait. But for Ophelia, it would feel inauthentic to me, to watch her say something other than “fuck.” I think bleeps are funny. I like them. I’ve always thought, when used correctly and used sparingly, they’re funny. I hope that people enjoy them and they’re not like, “That sucks!” Hopefully, we’ll get to a place where people are less concerned with saying “fuck” on TV and are more concerned with a lot of other things that do get on TV that I think are crazy. The fact that we’re still in a time where “fuck” is a huge problem, especially now, is a little bit backwards.

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Image via MTV

When you created this pilot, how far ahead did you think about what you wanted to do with this show?

ROBINSON: I now have thought about it through Season 3, but that also depends on, if we get a Season 2, how many episodes will be in Season 2. You never know. So ideally, I have a blueprint in my head that I’ve worked on with Amanda Lasher, who’s our showrunner, through three seasons. But I also have always known – and I pitched this to get the series picked up – where I want to end it. Wherever it ends, whenever it ends, I do know how I want to end this story. Hopefully, I will still be working on the show then, and hopefully, we get all those seasons, but I do know and have an idea of the full arc for where these characters go.

Did you ever think about also being the showrunner for this show, or did you want to team up with someone else for that?

ROBINSON: I’d never even been on staff before I sold this show, so there was never a chance of me being the showrunner. When a network says, “Here is X million dollars,” they’re not going to give it to someone who’s never done a show before. I’m 28, and I was 26 when I sold the show, so they were like, “We’re going to pair you with someone.” But I have to say that it was very much a partnership, and next year, I will hopefully be co-showrunner. Amanda has taught me so much. Stacey Sher, our executive producer, taught me so much. I was really able to make sure that it was the creative vision that I sold, and MTV was really behind it. At no point did I ever feel like I was being pushed aside, or that they were showing me how it’s done. Amanda was an incredible partner and I couldn’t have done this without her. Looking back and knowing how the process went, even if they said, “You don’t need anyone,” I would still have chosen Amanda. I would still want to work with her.

By the end of this season, will we have a good idea of where things would go for a second season?

ROBINSON: For sure, yeah! We really worked hard and we have cliffhangers that we set up, but we also have the promise of a whole new world that we open up. We take this first season and, at the end of it, it almost feels like the prequel to the true superhero story. This first season really is the origin story, and then in Season 2, we would open the world up and give you the promise of them now being superheroes, just not in the sense that they get powers.

Getting to see what this show looks like and how it’s all come together, what are you most proud of with this experience?

ROBINSON: I’m proud we got to tell this story, and I’m proud that MTV partnered with us and let us show and tell the story that we wanted to tell. They at no point said, “No, you can’t put this on TV. No, we won’t air this.” And there are times when I wasn’t sure. Even after the script process and shooting process, in editing, I thought they would make us re-cut it, but they didn’t. I’m really proud of telling this story, not only for young women, but for young men and for people, in general, that can watch something and feel less alone, and feel like they’re heard and like their cause is seen by more than just the people directly around them. I’ve gotten messages from survivors, and it’s incredible. Even just one of those messages makes everything worth it. I’m so proud that it’s reached people and that we were able to do this.

Sweet/Vicious airs on Tuesday nights on MTV.

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