Right from the start, Solar Opposites felt different. Series creators Justin Roiland and Mike McMahan may have risen to prominence thanks to their work on the critically acclaimed Adult Swim series Rick And Morty, but this show, which begins its second season on Hulu this Friday, didn’t have the same degree of harrowing pathos, or anxiety, or laser focus. It felt loose, and free, and playful in way the previous show doesn’t, by design. The tale of four aliens stuck on earth and trying to make the best of it was much more in line with classic sitcoms of old, even as it always kept tongue firmly in cheek, laughing at the very sitcom conventions it embraces. The A.V. Club sat down with Roiland and McMahan to talk about the darker feel of season two, how it differs from their work on Rick And Morty, and getting to smuggle straight-faced dramatic thrillers into their freewheeling animated comedy. [Note: This interview was conducted prior to the publication by the Los Angeles Times of allegations of sexual misconduct against Solar Opposites voice actor Thomas Middleditch; The A.V. Club has reached out to Hulu for comment and will update this piece if and when a statement is released.]
The A.V. Club: Was there a natural inclination to push the meta boundaries of the show a little further this season? Even just working the line, “The Solar Opposites are going to [blank]!,” into every episode feels like a symbolic move in that regard.
Mike McMahan: I think part of it was, we both love other other sitcoms, other animated sitcoms, especially growing up watching The Simpsons. And I think that stuff is coming from, like, “How do we do our version of it that isn’t the same?” It’s almost like, you know, the “looks like The Simpsons are going to New York City,” that kind of vibe. But then, you know, Terry is a guy who watches The Simpsons. What do you do for an audience for whom all of that stuff is already out there and letting the characters be aware of it and be fans of it, too, and having them be self-referential? I mean, Justin and I don’t think we tried to push it, but I think we had fun doing that stuff in the second season.
Justin Roiland: Yeah. It’s something that that was done more in Rick And Morty in the early seasons. It was sort of the do-the-characters-know-they’re-in-a-show kind of thing. I mean, we push it so hard on Solar that it’s like, literally the arc of an episode is being debated [by the characters]. Where it’s to the point where they’re so seemingly aware that they’re arc-ing out in a show. That stuff, done the wrong way, can bump me. But we’re doing it in this really perfect way, that’s maybe not so subtle, but it’s being done in a way where it works for some reason. Maybe because they’re aliens and everything they say, you’re not really quite sure they’re being literal, or because their whole life is kind of built around this point, pop culture and all the stuff that they’ve absorbed. So even in those situations when they’re talking about that stuff, you could watch it and assume that’s just sort of how they live their day. It’s like, how is this day going to arc out? It works really well in the show.
MM: A lot of the time if we want to do something that’s making us laugh, but there’s a bunch of stuff getting in our way, it’s like Candyland. We’re like, well, what is the little secret passage? What’s the shortcut we can take to get in to do a bunch of fun stuff? Because Solar’s guiding light is, we’re having a blast making it. And I think sometimes it’s a little Brechtian: You can kind of see what we’re doing. You can kind of see the gears and levers every once in a while. Like, we don’t think we’re blowing anybody’s mind by having these characters bring it up. It’s really just for us to be able to get them doing crazy shit faster.
AVC: There also definitely seems to be a progression this season where you go to some darker, more misanthropic places with the characters. Did it feel that way as you were breaking the season? Or did that just sort of happen naturally?
MM: I think mostly we just don’t want to cover ground we’ve already covered. The first season was this chaotic, fun, silly thing. And then second season, we’re like, okay, what else can we do with these characters and what other kind of marital family regular plots can get turned into weird alien plots? And I think it maybe came out dark; I mean, the Wall specifically, we knew we wanted to do a murder detective story instead of a rising of a rebellion. So that was always going to be a little bit darker. But there was no going into the season being like, “let’s make it darker,” at least not from my side.
AVC: It’s almost like there’s these little strains of nihilistic fun that start to bubble up, especially the later episodes in the season—early on, you’ve got Korvo and Terry reconciling by sharing a gentle kiss, but then by the end you’ve got people being tortured at length and brutally turning on each other in these really vicious ways.
MM: Justin, you and I have talked about this, where it’s like the reason that stuff is happening is, the violence and the the bad things happening to our alien characters are part of a response to Hulu’s questions all the time of, “Will the audience still be on their side if they’re not punished?” Like, they’re pretty violent guys!
JR: Yeah, they do such awful shit all the time. And there’s always this sort of balance of, are we going to lose the audience? We know with human characters you run the risk of the audience starting to feel like, “Oh, I don’t know if I like these guys because, you know, all the murder that they’re doing…” I don’t know. It’s all in how you handle it in the details.
MM: Yeah, we were kind of punishing our own characters a little bit and the writers by being saying there should be some consequences—even if it’s comedic, even if it’s Sylvester the cat getting smushed by an animal, you know, because they still pop back the next episode—and Justin, it’s so funny, every time we’re talking about season two, I can’t stop thinking about season three.
JR: Yeah, same.
MM: Like, “I wish they had seen season three.”
JR: It’s already happened to me twice.
MM: For being a ludicrous show—you know, we’ve written and are animating season three right now. So like first season was like, it’s a new car. Let’s see how fast it can go. Let’s see where it can go, can it off road? What are these characters? What do they do? What are they like? You know, we’re learning about the voice actors and making sure the characters live up to what they’re doing. And then second season was kind of like, oh, what’re the storytelling boundaries like? Can we get super meta and weird? What does a camp story become? What does a crime story become? And then third season is like, oh, now we know what stories come from there. So it’s hard having just made the animation, like Justin and I constantly are talking about how it’s so weird to us that you guys are seeing the second season and we know what’s coming, because the second season is kind of a setup for the third.
AVC: Since we’re discussing the ways you guys are thinking about it, did the two of you find yourselves naturally gravitating toward similar interest in these stories, or do you sort of push and pull each other creatively? Are you drawn to different areas of it?
JR: I wouldn’t say there’s a push and pull, so much as ideas from different buckets. We tend to have pretty similar ideas as to where we want things to go, if anything. I feel like the thing that’s sort of been a surprise is just the Trojan horsed serialized elements in this otherwise very episodic sitcom-y animated comedy—by way of the Wall, obviously. That’s stuff that we were both really, really excited about; we very clearly understood what that was in relation to the rest of the show. And then that kind of flung the door wide open for us to be able to be… what did you call it?
MM: Cosplaying as drama writers in the drama sides of it.
JR: Yeah. [Laughs.]
MM: Justin and I from the very get go, the first thing that really clicked into place for us—and this was pre-first season, when we were writing the pilot—we had originally thought Korvo should hate everything and not want to do anything. And Terry should love everything and want to do everything. And that was a mistake. And what we realized was: Terry likes everything about Earth, he wants to do everything. And Korvo says he hates everything. Because he doesn’t want to be perceived as a person plugged into that stuff. He doesn’t want to dispose of their alien culture and the things that bring him comfort. But he also doesn’t like to be left out, and he does like to have a little junk food. Sometimes he’s more about moderation. And we realized that Terry and Korvo were aligned in their goals; they just express it in different ways.
Justin and I—and Josh Bycel, by the way, who’s co-showrunner on the show and is instrumental in everything we do—it all comes from character. And this is something we learned writing Rick And Morty, but you only get all of the silliness and all the story breaking and all the weirdness if you really like these characters and you’re trying to write up to them. So for this season, we were like, let’s write more stuff for Mary Mack and Sean Giambrone, like more Yumyulack and more Jesse. First season, they were a little bit there in support roles and this season they got more to do and we got to learn more about them. And since we’re writing toward these characters that we like, Justin and I were always like, what’s the thing that makes us love writing this show? Sometimes that means we’re writing The Wire-style murder mystery that takes place with little peanut-sized people. Other times that means it’s big, funny, weird alien stuff. But we’ve never really come to an impasse; I’ve never said to Justin, “Hey, we’re going to a camp episode, but it’s going to turn into a big-city Manhattan episode.” And there’s never been a moment where Justin’s like, “I don’t know if that sounds Solar Opposites,” because anything sounds Solar Opposites.
AVC: What is the aspect of Solar Opposites that you most love about it? Because you both work on multiple projects at this point—other shows, video games, etc. What is the thing that distinguishes it most for you from anything else you write or work on?
JR: Well, for me, it’s just the sort of ease… It’s very almost seemingly effortless. And I think a lot of that goes to the writing team, and Bycel, and obviously McMahan. From day one, even just writing the pilot script, it was easy and fun and we weren’t bashing our heads against the wall, wrestling with these stories, trying to solve these Rubik’s Cubes. It was more like, okay, we know what box we’re playing in. It’s just a very different show than Rick And Morty. Rick And Morty, we’ll write episodes that are like a fucking Sudoku puzzle; that’s extremely difficult. And you’re just like, “Oh, fuck, hold on. We have to erase all of this because these these numbers don’t fit in.” It’s crazy. On this show, we’re just not going there. I mean, sometimes it’ll happen accidentally and we’ll be like, “Oh, my god, this is sort of really complex.” But it wasn’t something that people were having to bash their heads against the wall and sweat out.
MM: I would agree with Justin. That is a big thing for me, is this show is made to make me and Justin laugh, and then to make our writers laugh and then to make the Hulu executives laugh and to make the artists all love it. There is an aspect of this show that feels like this is the one where we get to let our hair down and have a good time, in a way. And maybe the audience is subjected to that. Maybe they’re let in on that. I don’t know if we or if they have figured that out yet. But I think at the same time, what Justin is saying about rules: When you’re sitting down to write, rules are helpful. Like, rules on Rick And Morty make the show better. And on this other show I created, Star Trek: Lower Decks, there’s a ton of rules because you want it to feel like Star Trek. You want it to also be a comedy, and it’s finding the stories within those rules. The cool thing about Solar is, there are no rules, but my favorite thing is that we get to play with the expectations. So you watch an episode of Solar and you’re like, now I know what this show is. The next episode you don’t know anymore. It’s still great. It still feels like the show. It’s hard to pin down the second you think you know what’s going on; there’s the people in the Wall. The second you think you know what’s going on in the Wall, that story shifts. And it’s the freedom of, because of the lack of overarching rules, we get to play with the audience’s expectation.
And this is a big theme for me: We’re in the streaming era. When you’re going to go watch a show, you’re going to go sit down and click a button to watch the show. Right? Like, it’s not just coming on. You don’t have to catch up. You can see every episode of the show and we release it as a binge model. So the expectations of somebody who’s watching it, I know every episode they’re seeing and I know how they’re watching it. There have even been conversations like, “Hulu, we need to let the end credits run here. Please don’t automatically feed into the next episode. This episode, you need to see all the end credits. It changes the feeling of the next one.” It is the ability to play with expectations and do stuff you can’t do on any other show. Like there’s no executive saying the Wall can’t become a murder mystery this season, and you guys will see what it becomes next season. That freedom to play with the audience and have fun with each other like that? The writers love working on this show. The artists love working on this show. It’s a party for us, and you guys are kind of invited.