No other new TV show this fall has a title that feels quite as timely as NBC’s “I Feel Bad.”
Created by Aseem Batra, (“Scrubs,” “The Cleveland Show”) the series sounds as if it could be built around a struggle with depression or self-pity in a form that has become a more common topic in modern comedy.
Instead, the half-hour sitcom is based on the illustrated book by Orli Auslander, which examines the many engines at work to make people — particularly women — feel like no matter what they do, they’re not doing it well enough.
Batra was drawn to the book immediately, especially upon seeing its full title “I Feel Bad: All Day. Every Day. About Everything.”
“Just the humor used to explore guilt and explore the pressures put on us — all of us — to be our best selves,” Batra explains during a brief break from production on the lot in Universal City, where the show was filming its fifth episode. “Especially in the midst of social media where people are presenting this version of themselves that may not be true.”
“I Feel Bad” is told from the perspective of Emet (Sarayu Blue), a concept artist in the video-game industry who’s balancing the demands of her children, her parents and her husband (Paul Adelstein) on the way toward that dreaded societal goal for working women: “having it all.”
It’s a flawed ideal that runs close to the heart of Amy Poehler, the “Saturday Night Live” and “Parks and Recreation” alum whose company, Paper Kite Productions, produces the series.
“Women of my generation grew up with mothers who perhaps didn’t get a chance to always fulfill what they wanted to do, right?” Poehler says in a recent phone call. “So a lot of women raised these very independent girls who they whispered into their ears ‘You can have it all, you can do it all.’ Go for what you want and get everything that you can because you deserve it.”
But in the process, Poehler explains, women are now held up to be perfect in how they function at work, at home and how they spend their leisure time, which is where the feeling bad begins.
Says Poehler, “Women are incredibly hard on themselves. Instead of it being ‘Wow, I dropped my kids off at school, I had a really productive day at work, I checked in with an old friend.’ … Instead we’re thinking about the stuff we didn’t do. It is a societal pressure that never goes away. And every night, if you want to, you can feel bad about the things you didn’t do.”
But for a show about such self-inflicted wounds, “I Feel Bad” unquestionably remains a comedy. In one scene filmed that day, Blue and Adelstein take a moment to share a glass of wine after correcting their daughter’s harsh behavior toward her little brother, which comes after a visit from her vaguely monstrous school friend who keys her step-mom’s car and says “deuces” when she means goodbye.
“You don’t get to be mean because someone’s annoying,” Emet tells her daughter before issuing a punishment, which generates a high-five with her husband to celebrate their co-parenting skills.
That’s just before a somewhat less proud moment of diving behind the kitchen counter in a futile effort to avoid Emet’s family, who drop by unannounced. Just like real life, not everyone on “I Feel Bad” always behaves at their best — by some standards, anyway — but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
“We all feel like bad moms, or we all feel like bad wives, or we all feel like bad husbands, or bad fathers,” Blue says, curled up in the show’s cozy bedroom set between takes. “That’s really the connective tissue of this show.”
“Sometimes the ‘I feel bad’ is ‘I feel bad but,’ “ Batra says, explaining that such feelings don’t always have to cut deep if they’re allowed to exist. “‘I feel bad, but, oh well – I don’t like other people’s kids sometimes.’”
Poehler agrees, and sees a strength in admitting such minor so-called failures: “Any time people admit that they’re not doing everything perfectly, they’re actually not only doing a service to everybody else but they’re also becoming more powerful.”
It’s that power in Emet’s character as a parent and professional that raised an unintended consequence in an early storyline. In a scene that’s part of the show’s trailer, she asks her young male co-workers if she’s still “doable,” a moment that taken out of context has caught criticism by some in the #MeToo era.
“It made me laugh in a way because women never get to be in control of that question,” Batra says of the response to the line, which she says was inspired by the sort of conversations she heard among men while she was the lone woman in TV writers rooms — an industry that, not coincidentally, has been as gender imbalanced in the workplace as the video-game field seen on the show. “For [Emet] to walk in and call them on it in a way is funny, but it’s so nuanced that it could feel like a disempowered moment to some people, and I get it.”
She adds with a laugh, “I guess in that moment I chose comedy. That’s the only regret I have is that I couldn’t fully explain the context of the fact that I’ve worked in those environments and know what they’re like.”
For Batra and Blue, one aspect of the show that stands out is one that is underplayed on the show, and that’s their shared heritage. Both are of South Asian descent, something that wasn’t in the source material of the series, but apart from a few references and Emet’s mother (Madhur Jaffrey) occasionally speaking in Hindi, that background is far from a focal point for “I Feel Bad.” That was a conscious decision on Batra’s part.
“I’m a little bit tired of that burden of having to ‘Well, let me explain my otherness,’” she says. “Most days of my life I just wake up and feel like an American girl. And I’d love for other people to look at me as an American girl, but it doesn’t always happen.”
“I know a lot of actors of color, and I know I felt this way, where it was like, ‘When do I just get to be a person?’” Blue says later. “The reality is this is the world right now. There’s no reason for this not to be out there.”
“Really, my husband and I are an interracial couple and we just kind of like know it now,” Batra says, smiling. “He goes to my kid’s school and gives a presentation on [Hindu festival of light] Diwali when I’m working. The white guy doing the Diwali presentation, it’s just our life.”
When asked if a detail like that could make it into the show, which features a similar couple, she laughs and tilts her head for a moment. “That’s interesting,” she says.
Follow me over here @chrisbarton.