There are about 270,000 Google results for “Greta Gerwig” + “Lucille Ball” as of this morning. The 30-year-old writer-star of 2013’s Frances Ha has been called “one of the most uninhibited comedians since Lucille Ball,” “equal parts Lucille Ball and Diane Keaton’s Annie Hall,” and so on. (Also: Gerwig’s favorite comedian? Lucille Ball.) But apparently no one expected Gerwig to actually follow in the footsteps of Lucille Ball, because when the news broke last night that she was going to star, like Ball, on a CBS sitcom—the How I Met Your Mother spinoff How I Met Your Dad—people were dumfounded. And many were disappointed.
“Why Greta? Why???” tweeted Vulture’s Denise Martin. “Greta Gerwig may’ve just secured her financial future but officially became of no interest to me anymore,” declared critic Jordan Hoffman. Many others expressed outrage and confusion. “Honest to God,” Mark Harris quipped, “people are talking about Gerwig as if Joan Didion decided to write NCIS: Los Angeles.”
For the record, Joan Didion has written things that were just as bad as NCIS: Los Angeles probably is. But she wrote most of those things for the movies, not for television—and one revelation of the reaction to last night’s news is that, for all the talk of TV’s Golden Age, people are still pretty snobby about TV.
Or at least they’re snobby about CBS. Presumably, if the world learned that Gerwig was getting a show on HBO or FX the reaction would have been glee (or maybe a shrug). After all, Frances Ha, black and white aside, had an awful lot in common with Girls. But even among the big networks, CBS is seen as stodgy: FOX already has a popular sitcom starring an indie It Girl—Zooey Deschanel of New Girl—and NBC is the longtime home of the undisputed queens of comedy, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler.
So yes, this is a surprising move for your grandparents’ favorite network (which is also America’s favorite network). But it shouldn’t seem that surprising for Gerwig, who has been inching into the mainstream since 2011, when she had big roles in both No Strings Attached and the Arthur remake. And How I Met Your Dad has clearly been imagined with someone like her in mind. Slate obtained a draft of the pilot script, which was written by Emily Spivey—the former staff writer for Saturday Night Live and Parks and Recreation who created Up All Night—along with Carter Bays and Craig Thomas, the creators of How I Met Your Mother. The script definitely reads like a network sitcom, but a fairly clever one—and the lead, Sally, is very Gerwig.
With shades of Frances from Frances Ha and Lola from Lola Versus, Sally is exuberant, sloppy, and not very sure of herself. In the script, her new marriage to a go-getter named Gavin comes to a swift end, and she moves in with her brother Danny and his husband, Todd. Her hard-partying friend Juliet pushes her to have some rebound sex and get on with her life. And while the script employs the flashback-with-voiceover style familiar from How I Met Your Mother, it’s clear that Bays, Thomas, and Spivey do not intend to repeat the narrative decisions that made many fans of that show increasingly frustrated as the series stretched on.
Most importantly, it is very easy to picture Gerwig in the starring role. The pilot, though set (judging from the draft of the script we saw) in New York City, will reportedly shoot in Los Angeles—but if CBS decides to go forward with the series, filming will move to New York, where Gerwig lives. And, of course, it’s possible that Gerwig, entering her 30s, simply wants some stability, financial and otherwise, as Hoffman was not alone in implying. But network sitcoms have proven to be perfectly good homes for people of Gerwig’s talents for decades—since at least the days of Lucille Ball.