Sarah’s second chance
The Republic of Sarah arrives on The CW after a whirlwind journey that involved switching networks and filming two pilots before the show finally got the green light. Showrunner Jeffrey Paul King tells DQ about getting the series on air.
The unforgiving nature of US television means that for every new pilot episode ordered to series each year by one of the big five networks, a handful more fall by the wayside, forever to remain unaired and unwatched.
That was the case for The Republic of Sarah, which was given a pilot order by CBS in 2019, only for it to fall at the final hurdle and not make the cut when the broadcaster unveiled its new slate for the 2019/20 season.
But it’s not unknown for rejected pilots to be recast and reshot, or even to move networks – and that’s exactly what happened with The Republic of Sarah, which crossed over to The CW last year. The script was rewritten, a new pilot was cast and shot, a full series was commissioned and the show will now make its debut in the US on Monday.
The story begins when the bucolic tranquility of Greylock, New Hampshire, is upended when huge stores of a valuable mineral are discovered under the town and a state-backed mining company swoops in with plans to extract the mineral and potentially wipe Greylock off the map.
With her friends and family in danger of losing their homes, rebellious high-school teacher Sarah Cooper (Stella Baker) vows to stop the bulldozers by proposing Greylock declare independence from the US. With the help of a group of supporters that includes three of her teenage students – LA transplant Maya Jimenez (Izabella Alvarez), introspective outsider Tyler Easterbrook (Forrest Goodluck) and preppy ‘popular girl’ Bella Whitmore (Landry Bender) – Sarah and her friends win the fight to create a new nation. Now they must build a new country from scratch.
The series comes from executive producer and showrunner Jeffrey Paul King, who was “born and bred in the fires of network TV” after working on CBS’s Sherlock Holmes procedural Elementary for its entire seven-year, 156-episode run. But before that show wrapped in 2019, CBS had already approached him about new ideas he might like to pursue.
The previous year, he had linked up with director Marc Webb’s production company Black Lamb and James Corden’s Fulwell 73 and King pitched and sold the first iteration of The Republic of Sarah to the network.
“It was somewhat different from what’s there now. It was much more geared toward the procedure because we knew which hand was feeding us, and we had to make sure we matched that network,” King tells DQ of CBS’s penchant for procedural-based episodic dramas. “But when I looked at their landscape, there’s a lot of reboots, sequels and series based on IP, and here was this original idea where every step of the way I was like, ‘If this is as far as we get, I’m thrilled.’”
CBS ordered a pilot based on King’s script, which was shot by Webb (The Amazing Spider-Man) and filmed in Vancouver with a cast led by Grey’s Anatomy star Sarah Drew.
“We had a really good experience. But again, the whole time I knew it was going to be a square peg, round hole situation because it was an original idea and it’s a little tough these days on network TV,” he says. “And so ultimately we didn’t get picked up.”
King had spent a year working on that first version of The Republic of Sarah before, in the summer of 2019, executives at The CW invited him in for a meeting. King agreed, but was left wondering how his show would fit into a youth-skewing schedule that boasted a raft of superhero dramas and comic book adaptations.
“To the credit of the network, they embraced us with open arms,” King says. “Their development team was really excited about the lead character and the idea, and it got me really excited again. We got back on that horse. Per The CW’s requests, which made sense to us, we aged everything down a bit. Sarah has always been a teacher, but in the first iteration, none of her students were really a big part of the show. But now they are in the new version.
“We changed and tweaked a bunch of stuff and then the process began all over again. Then Covid happened [last spring] and the whole thing got delayed and we got sent home. At this point, it’s like two years of my life and I started writing episode two on spec. Then, shock of shocks, we got greenlit in May.”
Moving the series from CBS to The CW meant King’s original script needed some fine-tuning to ensure it could settle comfortably in its new home, but it retains its central premise of an eclectic cast of characters struggling to build their own country as they attempt to overcome issues such as designing a flag, writing a national anthem and starting a currency.
“Both elements were there in the CBS version but, going to The CW, the character stuff took more of the centre stage of the show we have now,” the showrunnner explains. “We absolutely have episodes about our currency, how to write a constitution and electing their first congress. It just is a little bit more geared toward the POV of the people who are experiencing it and the people who are there, their lives and how these crazy policy inventions affect them more personally. Both versions have their merits and it was about making sure we were serving the network we were at.”
At The CW, the show isn’t as procedural as it might have been at CBS, though some episodes are dedicated to the ‘case of the week’-style dilemmas that come with starting a new country. More prominent, however, are the interpersonal relationships that are often affected by the steps being taken by Greylock as an independent nation.
“In my head, it’s like a fairytale with a bigger brain,” King says. “People talk about sci-fi; this is poli-sci-fi. In the first season, there are a lot of episodes that are tied to stuff that you would have to deal with if you were building a country. In episode two, all the power goes out and everybody’s like, ‘Oh, right, New Hampshire was providing us utilities and now we’re not in New Hampshire anymore, so how do we get power?’ It provides a good backbone on which to hang the personal stories.”
The new pilot episode, directed by Kat Candler, doesn’t just focus on the journey to Greylock’s independence vote. It also lays the groundwork for many of the personal conflicts that are set to play out across the first season, which is produced by CBS Studios and distributed by ViacomCBS Global Distribution Group.
Sarah discovers her estranged brother, Danny Cooper (Luke Mitchell), is behind the mining company’s plans to tear up the town, while both of them reflect on their troubled childhood at the hands of their mother, former state senator Ellen Cooper (Megan Follows). Sarah’s friends – fellow teacher Corinne Dearborn (Hope Lauren), police officer Amy ‘AJ’ Johnson (Nia Holloway) and diner manager Grover Simms (Ian Duff) – are also embroiled in the fight to save their town.
“Famously, episode two is always harder than episode one, and the network executives at The CW said as much to me as we were embarking on that journey together,” King says. “The pilot is about trying to get the audience to know the cast enough to like them to have some idea of who they are, what they’re struggling with and what they’re struggling against while, at the same time, trying to let viewers know this is what you’re going to get from this show if you watch it every week. It is a tricky science writing a pilot. It’s just about knowing the structure and knowing the science of how these things flow, and then it’s trying to have character and plot go hand in hand as you introduce people to the world of the show.”
King jokes that the premise of The Republic of Sarah is built on him being “a massive dork” and his undergraduate degree in cultural geography and cartography, which led him to understand how there are real-world examples of land that officially hasn’t been claimed – an idea that is central to the series.
“For me, it felt like a good engine [for the series],” he continues. “First you can do episodes based on these plots, but also it is equal parts dramatic and funny. There’s a bit of me in Sarah. I grew up a bit of a punk-rock kid and there’s just something about the ‘anti-establishment but with a brain’ that draws me to Sarah.
“On our show, smart is sexy. Sarah is well read, she quotes [political activist and writer] Emma Goldman. There’s a whole scene in French in episode two. I’m excited about creating this protagonist for the Billie Eilish generation, the Lizzo generation. There’s a fighting underdog spirit in Sarah that I am drawn to, and I think viewers will be drawn to her as well. She has this intellect behind her that helps you feel like she knows what she’s talking about and there’s strength in her and you’re inspired by her.”
The show’s writers were afforded the freedom to imagine the sorts of problems Sarah and her friends might come up against after Greylock wins its independence, while King was also open to hearing ideas from the cast. For example, Duff spoke to him about positively portraying the way in which black men wrestle with mental health issues, and that theme then became woven into the storyline.
“It’s all built from the people who are making the show, and that storyline later in the show is beautiful,” the showrunner says. “A lot of it was organic and just believing in the characters and really mining what they would feel and what they would think.”
He also salutes the writers for their efforts during the early stages of the pandemic, noting that they had to either be ‘on’ or ‘off,’ with little opportunity for small talk when the team would congregate together online.
“It was very difficult. It took us a while to get used to,” King says of running an online writers room. “In those moments as the showrunner, it was incumbent upon me as the captain of this boat to make sure everybody knew where we were going. It all has to be communicated, because otherwise you’re just in this room floundering with who’s talking over who and who wants to talk now. We had a pretty good experience once we got the hang of it.”
Similarly, all the demands of being a showrunner once a series is in production were also amplified, with The Republic of Sarah being filmed in Montreal between October last year and April this year.
“We would have locations pull out because, all of a sudden, Quebec would go from orange to red [in terms of the coronavirus alert level] and we were rewriting slug lines and working out how do we shoot this because you can’t have this many people [together] or have these five people in the same room at the same time,” he says. “All those rules definitely bumped into the script, and that was hard.
“It just added a whole bunch of stuff to my to-do list as the showrunner that I don’t think is normally there – for example, bubbles. You’re only allowed to have up to nine people in a bubble at the same time, so I’d finish my rewrites and then I’d be up at 1am with an Excel spreadsheet going, ‘OK, I can change the bubble every Wednesday and I’m going to move this actor in and this actor out but then this scene has to happen….’ It just added a bunch of stuff to be done, but I got to know my production team way better than I maybe would have and my cast really bonded because they were all they had. That chemistry on screen pops like crazy because they were spending all their time together.”
As the show’s 13-part debut season sees Greylock finding its feet as an independent country, King is already looking at how The Republic of Sarah could continue beyond its initial run while ensuring it remains rooted in realism.
“Obviously, it’s a fictional show and we’re bending the rules a little bit, but we’re trying our best to tip our caps to the reality of it,” he says. “When you’re talking about building a country, there’s so much to be done and so we have all kinds of stuff we didn’t get to do in the first season. Season two and beyond is building and sustaining that country, and then there’s also this POV that is very inward-looking.
“As we grow as a show, there is an opportunity [for Greylock] to look for official recognition and then admission into the UN. All that stuff is there ready to be mined.”