How Rob and John Owen Lowe turned their playful insults into a work comedy

Rob Lowe and his son John Owen Lowe
Rob Lowe stars with his son, writer-actor John Owen Lowe, in Netflix’s “Unstable.” The two share a banter of gentle insults as “a love language of sorts.”
(Joelle Grace Taylor / For The Times)

Rob and John Owen Lowe trade barbs with an ease that suggests years of practice.

“John Owen is wearing something that I don’t understand at all,” Rob says by way of opening a joint video interview in April with his son and co-star on the Netflix workplace comedy “Unstable.”

“That’s how I know it’s a good piece of clothing” counters John Owen, defending his perfectly smart jacket.


The younger Lowe usually triumphs in the ongoing battle of wits he calls a “love language of sorts in our family.” His perpetually fit father simply provides too target-rich an environment, with a jaw line that still could cut glass four decades after his first film role in “The Outsiders.”

It is “inhuman to receive the type of attention and warmth that a childhood — I hate this word — ‘heartthrob’ has gotten over his life,” John Owen observes. “I help him stay grounded by giving him a realistic assessment of his abilities as a human being, father, friend.”

“I am going to find that very hard to argue with,” Rob agrees.

Rob Lowe puts his index fingers on his sons cheeks in a scene from "Unstable."
John Owen Lowe, right, plays the son of biotech lab founder Ellis Dragon (Rob Lowe) in “Unstable.”
(John P. Fleenor / Netflix)

So his son did him a favor, really, when he began trolling him on Instagram a few years ago. John Owen went particularly hard on his dad’s shirtless and otherwise “thirst trap” posts, to the delight of Rob’s followers.

“I couldn’t go on a talk show or walk down the street without someone going, ‘What’s going on with you and your son?’” Rob says. “‘He destroyed you.’”


When John Owen (his dad calls him Johnny) floated the idea of a show recreating that dynamic, “I knew there was an interest,” Rob says. With showrunner Victor Fresco (“Santa Clarita Diet”), the Lowes created “Unstable,” which premiered in March to mostly positive reviews.

Rob plays larger-than-life biotech inventor Ellis Dragon, and John Owen plays his introverted son Jackson, a scientist-musician seeking to escape his father’s shadow when he is drawn home by a crisis.

This premise also reflects John Owen’s longtime status as a nepo “maybe.” He studied science at Stanford and, at Rob’s urging, avoided the business that also employs his uncle, actor-director Chad Lowe.

But his “artistic drive stayed consistent throughout my youth,” John Owen says of himself, even as “I really did attempt to exhaust every other resource of the things I enjoyed doing.”

When his adult son confirmed he wanted to act, “I said, ‘Great, but you’ve got to be a content creator,’” Rob says, rather than leave his destiny in others’ hands. John Owen wrote a 2021 episode of “9-1-1: Lone Star,” the Fox procedural that stars his dad. Before that, he appeared with his father and brother, Matthew, in the A&E reality show “The Lowe Files.”


“I was working with him, and I felt this gravitational pull to tell a story about that, but the story happened to be, ‘Why do I keep working with my dad?’ as I keep working with my dad,” John Owen said. “I think a lot of people can relate. … There’s a lot of familial, complicated interpersonal dynamics in the mix.”

Rob and John Lowe
Rob playfully picks the ears of John Lowe.
(Joelle Grace Taylor / For The Times)

Setting “Unstable” in the tech world let the Lowes “do our dynamic and make fun of each other and also make fun of the Elon Musks and [Jeff] Bezoses of the world, who have never been more relevant in the culture and also never been more insane,” John Owen says.

“I am a bigger fan of both than John Owen is,” Lowe interjects. “John Owen went to Stanford, so he is a young socialist. … I grew up in the ‘80s. I thought Gordon Gekko [Michael Douglas’ capitalist shark in the film ‘Wall Street’) was cool.”

“Yeah, that’s why you are on the way out,” John Owen quips.

Ellis is more likable than most real-life tech titans because Lowe invests him with the same ebullience he gave city manager Chris Traeger on NBC’s “Parks and Recreation.” Ellis also elicits sympathy because his beloved wife has recently died, sending him into the professional tailspin that brings Jackson home.


So how did Sheryl, Rob’s jewelry designer wife of 30-plus years and John Owen’s mother, react to being figuratively killed off?

“She wondered if there was a message,” Rob deadpans.

The biotech setting pulls from John Owen’s experience working in a Northern California stem cell biology research lab. “It was a lot of studying neuro-links to cancer and regenerative health … it was really, really fascinating,” he says. “It gave me at least some background to feel comfortable in the [show’s] science world.”

“As a father, I thought my dreams had come true — I was going to have a son who might solve cancer,” Rob says. “Instead, I got another member of the Screen Actors Guild.”

“And the Writers Guild,” John Owen retorts, just loud enough to keep his dad from dunking on him.