Under the Vale

Under the Vale

By Nico Franks
October 24, 2023

The Writers Room

Co-creator Sharon Horgan illuminates DQ on the inspiration behind horror-comedy series Shining Vale, the challenge of blending multiple genres and the importance of telling the story through a female lens.

Entering middle age can be a real nightmare.

That’s the central premise of US horror comedy Shining Vale, which returned for a second season on US premium cable channel Starz this month.

The show stars Courteney Cox as an erotic novelist trying to figure out whether she’s possessed or just depressed, all while being dismissed by her husband, played by Greg Kinnear, and children.

Created by sitcom veteran Jeff Astrof and Sharon Horgan – the Irish multi-hyphenate behind some of the best shows in recent years, from Catastrophe to Bad Sisters – Shining Vale came to Horgan after she thought about the implications of living in a house where an atrocity had taken place.

“My pitch to Jeff was, ‘What if The Shining was a sitcom? And starred Courtney Cox,'” Horgan tells an audience at a Starz event in London to mark the rebrand of its international streaming service from StarzPlay to Lionsgate+.

Former Friends star Courteney Cox leads the Shining Vale cast

Shining Vale’s first season saw a dysfunctional family move from the city to a small town after Cox’s character, Patricia ‘Pat’ Phelps, a former “wild child” who became famous through writing raunchy female empowerment novels, is caught cheating on her husband Terry.

Pat has been sober for 16 years, but begins to feel very unfulfilled in life – she still hasn’t written her second novel, she can’t remember the last time she had sex with her husband and her teenage kids have grown up to the point they don’t want their mother in their lives. Soon, the demons haunting the family’s new home begin to appear much more real.

“I’m a huge horror fan and I have been since I was a creepy teenager. I was most interested in what happened if a woman who was already having issues with her mental health moved into a house and didn’t know if what was going on was in her head or really going on in the house,” Horgan says.

Having made four critically acclaimed seasons of comedy drama Catastrophe with comedian Rob Delaney, Horgan is no stranger to melding two scripted genres together to great effect. But horror and comedy are not necessarily easy to balance out.

Cox plays Pat, while Greg Kinnear is her husband Terry

“Horror is such a popular genre and so is comedy. Doing the two of them together is really hard, and a big part of the creative process was realising that,” she says. “There’s a lot of comedy horror out there but it isn’t always as scary as you’d want it to be or as funny as you’d want it to be.

“Jeff and I are both sort of comedy snobs, I suppose, and we really wanted to make sure the comedy was hitting the mark and all our horror references were on point as well. It’s also really a love story and about a family – so there’s a lot going on.”

Horgan serves as an executive producer on the show after helping get it off the ground with her prodco Merman and Other Shoe Productions, Kapital Entertainment, Lionsgate and Warner Bros Television Studios.

“Jeff does all the work really,” she says. “I co-created the show and then other things came along. So it was about finding the right person to make it with. Jeff is the hands-on, on-the-ground showrunner and there are lots of great writers on the show too. Mainly my job is just to really annoy Jeff with questions and sort of script edit and push him as far as I can.

Films including Rosemary’s Baby and Hereditary influence the second season

“I’m a fan of the show, so I’m coming at it as a fan. I’ve written a lot of comedy about relationships and families, so my job is to sort of keep that grounded and then you can have crazy, wild fun with it,” says Horgan, who hints that horror classics such as Rosemary’s Baby as well as more recent macabre hits such as Hereditary have influenced season two of the show.

Shining Vale is one of numerous recent scripted and unscripted shows to have come to air in recent years that mine a subject that affects more than 75% of women, yet remains outrageously ignored by society: the menopause.

“It’s about being a woman of a certain age who is dealing with mental health issues,” Horgan says. “Her mother had mental trauma, and it can get passed down from mother to daughter. We look into that in the second season with Gus Birney, who plays her teenage daughter Gaynor.

“It’s about what it means to be a woman who is going through all of that. And how seriously you’re taken. We do it in a wild, heightened way, but all the issues are really grounded.”

Series co-creator Sharon Horgan recently starred in miniseries Best Interests

Horgan, who recently starred in BBC One four-part drama Best Interests, says the crew on Shining Vale is mostly female, including the directors, writers and production heads.

“It has ended up influencing the story. Pat and Terry’s relationship is a huge part of it, but it is told through Pat’s perspective and what she’s experiencing, so having a female lens on all of that was really important,” she notes.

Fans have had to wait patiently for the show’s second season, which went into production in October 2022. Horgan says the show was pitched up until season three, so the storylines are there should Starz decide to flash the green light.

“Second seasons are a big responsibility because you have a fan base,” she adds. “There’s so much to put into season two. Jeff’s been like a kid in a cake shop. It’s a real ride.”

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