Series Creator Tracy McMillan chats UNPRISONED – Nikki Fowler interviews
Unprisoned, the thought-provoking yet hysterically funny eight-episode series on Hulu, is the work of creator, writer, and relationship expert Tracy McMillan. She’s also a popular self-help blogger and social media influencer, with previous scripting credits on Mad Men, Runaways, Life on Mars, and Chase.
Loosely based on McMillan’s own struggles to reunite with her estranged father after he was released from prison after 19 years, Unprisoned stars Kerry Washington as Paige who is, like McMillan, a relationship therapist and single mom whose life is turned right-side-up when her dad, Edwin (charismatic Delroy Lindo) gets out of prison and moves into her house to live with her and her teenage son.
In Nikki Fowler’s interview, McMillan discusses Unprisoned‘s genesis, father-daughter relationships, therapy and working with star/producer Kerry Washington and other cast members.
Nikki Fowler: You’re an accomplished relationship expert and TV writer. How did the Unprisoned series come to be?
Tracy McMillan: Well, my dad’s been in prison my whole life, in and out, and his last prison sentence was 19 years. As it was starting to come to a close, even about ten years before he got out, I started thinking about what it was going to be like to be in a relationship with him for basically the first time, outside of like one year when I was very young, like eight, and then when I was very, very young, like 0 to 3. But outside of that time, I had never really been in a relationship with my dad where we would go to lunch, be in the world, or have anything to do with each other outside of a prison visiting room. So I started to imagine what it would be like to establish a relationship with my dad again in the world and have him meet my son. And you know what’s that going to be like? How am I going to do that? It gave me a lot of anxiety. So, of course, I’m a writer. So I started writing about it, and this is where I ended up.
NF: The series is fresh and thought-provoking. It’s a huge cup of introspective tea. So tell us about the dynamic of that and your expertise as far as the writing process goes. How did you get it onto paper?
TM: Well, I went to Paris, actually, to be perfectly honest, sometimes when I’m in whatever, I just will go somewhere and be in a hotel room and usually a place where I don’t know anybody and I don’t have any rhythms that I have to adhere to of like real life. I went to Paris. I woke up every day, went to this particular café, and wrote. I usually wrote for two or three hours in the morning, and at the end of six days, I had Unprisoned. And that’s the nitty gritty of where it came from. Now the idea I’ve been working on, I wrote a memoir in 2010 that was all about my relationship with my dad and how it affected my relationships with men, and in many respects, Unprisoned is the sequel to that memoir. So that’s another piece of it. I would say the third piece of it is that I really knew I wanted to do it as a half hour. I’m interested tonally in a mash-up of laughing, crying, and feeling, but I also enjoy watching half hours. As a television writer, I’ve written mostly hour long. I wrote on the United States of Terror, which was a half-hour. I’ve developed a couple of half hours, but by and large I’ve written hour long. And I just knew that the way a story unfolds in hour long doesn’t allow for a certain kind of energy to be there, that I wanted to be there. I knew I didn’t want commercial breaks. I don’t want to have to cut to a Hot Pockets commercial. You know what I mean? (laughing) So and I didn’t want it to be grittier drama because that’s not my experience and not how I experience life. So those are sort of some of the main pieces that went into that.
NF: Even though you’re dealing with such complex situations, there’s a light, airy, funny feel to it. It’s just amazing. Kerry Washington shines as Paige Alexander in this role. Can you share a bit about the real-life themes she’s dealing with and why she was the perfect actress for this role?
TM: First and foremost, Kerry’s the perfect actor for this role because she’s so psychologically astute. She really understands as much psychological and healing, like language and truth, as I have packed into the show while keeping it light. There are a lot of very scientific, for lack of a better word, concepts around relationships that are in the show. Because as a relationship expert, I come from journalism. I’m not interested in conventional wisdom. I’m interested in the science of being a human being, how we attach, and how we unfold certain aspects of our relationship life. There’s a lot of in the last ten years amazing relationship science that is out there. It’s part neuroscience; it’s part developmental psychology, it’s part attachment. There are many different pieces to it. I wanted to convey what it’s like to sit next to me like at a dinner party; I’m going to start talking about attachment. Everybody gets it because we’re all humans trying to work our way through all these relationships and life, honestly. So that’s a little bit. I became an influencer kind of by accident, but really it was because I was working so hard on healing myself that everything I was teaching myself, I just started sharing with others in a sort of low-key way. Then it sort of snowballed into all this. It was not something I set out to do.
NF: Nice. While watching this, there needed to be some board game or activity checklist with all the buzzwords. (laughing)
TM: That’s funny. (laughing)
NF: It’s definitely like a wine-time watch party series. Speaking of that, Jordan stars as Paige’s younger self, which is hilarious. Can you expound on the importance of her character?
TM: So I’ve been in therapy my whole adult life. Many, many, many, many years on and off, but mostly on. One of the very first things you learn is that you need to start to really get a relationship with, in my case, little Tracy. And I learned to see little Tracy; I would visualize her like she’s with me. I learned her voice. The thing about little Tracy is she tells the truth always. She hasn’t been conditioned; she doesn’t care what anybody thinks. She’s not affected by the things that have happened. There’s like a pure self that is untouched by anything that’s happened, foster care, like any abuse, says, like all the things, you know, the losses. She’s untouched by that. She’s like, here’s the truth. What, you really think I am your inner voice? I am your inner child. I am you. I wanted to tap into that voice because we all have that part of ourselves that is so true to us, and if you want to get free and know what’s right for you and make a good decision about where to live and who to date and what job to take, you’re going to need to get in a relationship with that part of you because that part is going to tell you the truth. So I just wanted to embody that and then the fact that I can remember where it became clear that we were going to have a little Paige where a mini version of every single thing Kerry was wearing each day. I remember invariably when Jordan would walk on the set; we would just fall over. I mean, are you serious? There were times she would do a take, and the entire crew would applaud because she was just breaking it down so hard. So, I mean, that’s maybe some of the finest moments on the show for sure.
NF: Words that come to mind with this show are radical self-love. Why should all backgrounds and demos be tuned into this series?
TM: Because this is really a show about a father and a daughter. It’s really a show about a family. It’s a show about a woman who’s trying to have good relationships. It’s a show about a man who’s trying to do right by his family. Everyone relates to these themes. Everybody has a dad. Everybody’s trying to be in a relationship even when they’re not. Everybody has an inner child. Yes, it’s about mass incarceration 100%, but it’s really about a family. So even if you’ve never been anywhere near federal prison, you’re going to relate to this story. Then if you learn something about what it’s like to be justice impacted along the way, and it opens your heart and takes down some of your ‘what you think you know about criminals, quote-unquote, or a career criminal,’ so much the better.
NF: Yes, absolutely.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Read Nikki Fowler’s review of Unprisoned here. Watch the full interview on AWFJ’s YouTube Channel here.