Type keyword(s) to search


Home Sweet Rome! Showrunners Want To Bring Back Tween TV Without Being 'Cringe'

On the decline of the genre: "You age out of kids' shows, and then all of a sudden, you find yourself watching Euphoria."
  • Kensington Tallman and Christian Monald in Home Sweet Rome (Photo: Romolo Eucalitto/Max)
    Kensington Tallman and Christian Monald in Home Sweet Rome (Photo: Romolo Eucalitto/Max)

    Although there are fewer teen dramas airing these days, there’s still quite a few solid shows to choose from in the YA realm. Unfortunately, the same can’t really be said for the preteen genre — there’s a couple of notable gems like Raven’s Home, but such shows are few and far between. With Netflix canceling The Baby-Sitters Club after just two seasons and former Disney Channel staples like Girl Meets World and Andi Mack being long over, the future of tween TV remains murky at best.

    However, there’s still hope for the genre. Max’s charming new preteen comedy Home Sweet Rome!, which makes its U.S. debut on May 16, aims to fill the glaring gap between kids’ shows and teen dramas. The series follows 13-year-old Lucy (Kensington Tallman), who moves from California to Rome after her dad (Darrin Rose) gets remarried to an Italian pop star, Francesa (Eleonora Facchini). Suddenly, she’s navigating a new school, making new friends, and dealing with new family dynamics, all while maintaining a long-distance friendship with her best friend Kyla (Ava Ro).

    If Home Sweet Rome! sounds reminiscent of something that might have aired on Disney Channel or TeenNick back in the day, that’s because it hails from one of the biggest tween TV veterans, Hannah Montana and That’s So Raven creator Michael Poryes. The series is also written and developed by Degrassi: Next Class and Holly Hobbie alums Courtney Jane Walker and Matt Huether, who serve as showrunners.

    In an interview with Primetimer, Walker and Huether discuss the current landscape of preteen shows, the biggest lessons they learned from working on Degrassi: Next Class, and how they avoided making Home Sweet Rome! feel “cringe.”

    What first drew you to Home Sweet Rome! ?

    Courtney Jane Walker: It was a concept that was developed by Michael Poryes, who did Hannah Montana, That's So Raven, and all those genre-defining tween sitcoms. [Huether and I] were brought in early on in the process to develop it. Something that we fell in love with on Degrassi[: Next Class] is telling stories for young people that really feel like the true ages they are in that moment. I grew up on [shows] like Dawson's Creek, and those are not 16-year-olds behaving like 16-year-olds. Like I love them, but you know what I'm saying? 

    I think the thing we’re really drawn to when we're making TV for this age group is telling stories truly for that age group. We were also really drawn to the very relatable, very grounded [Home Sweet Rome! characters] and centering a female friendship in a positive way. In so many tween shows, best girl friendship is problematized, whether it's through a boy or just general meanness. So we were really excited to dig into a show that explored the depth of friendship in a way that doesn't pit them against each other. [Lucy and Kyla] go through trials and tribulations, but that's really the core romance of their lives at that age. I remember feeling like that when I was 14. 

    You both worked on Degrassi: Next Class, which is aimed at slightly older audiences, but has a similar vibe. How did that prepare you for this?

    Matt Huether: I think one of the core tenets of Degrassi is to not talk down to your audience. The audience for Home Sweet Rome! is probably a younger demographic, but we still don't talk down to them. The characters are smart and, as Courtney said, they act their actual age. We know how to work with young performers — we trusted them and knew how to get the best performances and comedy out of them. We let our writers tell fun and interesting stories, and then brought it to the floor and used everything we had learned working with the young people on Degrassi to try to bring [Home Sweet Rome!] to life as best we could.

    You also both worked on Holly Hobbie, another show about a 13-year-old girl. There seems to be less preteen shows these days, like Girl Meets World, Andi Mack, and The Baby-Sitters Club. What are your thoughts on the state of the genre? Why is it still important for these kinds of stories to exist?

    Walker: The showrunner of The Baby-Sitters Club [Rachel Shukert] did a great [interview] with Vulture that came out right as we were developing this show. She talks about how it's such an important age, especially for girls. It's this in-between time between childhood and adolescence, where you're not quite a kid, you're not quite a full teen. You’re right, [the genre] is kind of getting hollowed out, and it's alarming. Because I think what happens is you age out of kids’ shows, and then all of a sudden, you find yourself watching Euphoria.

    Yeah, and that's not good for anyone.

    Walker: I wouldn't even say watching Euphoria is good for a 16-year-old. I think it's really important to give kids that age content that speaks to their experience, but also gives them little samples of “watching up” and the feelings of firsts. Matt and I really like telling stories about firsts, like first crushes, first big embarrassments. Those are all such strong feelings and experiences, and to not have that represented on screen does a real disservice to that age. 

    Matt and I both have 8-year-old daughters, so we talked a lot about our kids when we were developing the show about what they’re looking for when they watch TV. I think to neglect that phase of life is really to neglect a huge part of growing up. So we're very excited to tell stories for that age, and hope that there will be more.

    Looking back, Degrassi kind of filled a similar void for me. Like you, I grew up watching stuff like Dawson’s Creek reruns and CW shows, but Degrassi felt unique in that it was actually young people portraying these characters who were going through a lot of “firsts.”

    Walker: And I think there's still a way you can talk about these things that are hard and challenging, but you have to do it in a way that's not nihilistic, right? It’s like, your life is going to present these challenges to you, but there is a way through. There's a lightness. On [Home Sweet Rome!], these girls are going through being separated from their best friends, and Lucy has a whole new family. Those are very challenging things for a young person to go through. It's a really tough age. You couldn't pay me to be 13 again. But you just want your experience reflected back to you in a way that feels hopeful, I think.

    Home Sweet Rome! also stars actual kid actors. Why was it important?

    Huether: That's another lesson that we learned from Degrassi. If the stories are age-appropriate and not talking down [to viewers], you want the cast members to look the right age. Because when they're a 13-year-old who is embarrassed about this, and on screen, they look like a 13-year-old, I think you feel that more acutely. Whereas if they're a 13-year-old who's embarrassed by “blank,” and it's an 18-year-old playing them, you're like, I don't know if I feel the embarrassment. It's just not quite as acute. 

    Also, I know our cast members were going through some of the same stuff [as the characters] — our lead was separated from her best friend back home; they were in a long-distance friendship. And I think that because they were going through those things at the same time as their characters, even at that age, they can bring personal experience to inform the scenes and emotions.

    What’s the most challenging part of writing for this age group, especially in the age of social media?

    Huether: Obviously there was a big tech component to the show with the FaceTime calls, but we really did, weirdly, try to keep technology out of it as much as we could. We didn't get too into social media, because we wanted to live in the fantasy that you could talk to your friends in person or see them in real life. I think that's a nice idea. We'd love to promote that. 

    The other challenge… we got to see some kind of focus testing research before we got into the actual development of the show. I remember the kids in the research were talking about what they would or wouldn't want to see if this show got made. And a couple of them were like, “We don't want it to be cringe.”

    Walker: I got very worried about it. I got obsessed. Because I was like, I don't know what [“cringe”] means.

    Huether: I think really what we took that to mean was, we wanted to build a show that felt good and felt funny and real to any audience. I think that you can watch it with your family and everyone will find it funny, but it's actually for these young people. And I think that's what makes it special as opposed to a show that's for that audience, but not for parents. I think if parents watch an episode, they'll stick with it, and they'll watch the rest. It's a great thing to watch with your family.

    I think we’re seeing a lot of shows like that right now, like how all these parents are watching Bluey.

    Huether: Absolutely. We wanted the tone to be like, "Bluey meets Hacks."

    Walker: I think sometimes shows for this age group put in things that don't feel emotionally inauthentic just for the goal of having there be a conflict in a show. You have people being mean to each other for no reason, or doing a big gesture, and it doesn't feel earned. I think young people find that very embarrassing and don't want it. So with [Home Sweet Rome!], it was like, [we have to] earn everything and make sure that we’re with [the audience] emotionally. Because even if the audience can't relate specifically to the experience, if they can relate generally in an emotional way, they won't get mad at us and call us “cringe.”

    Huether: I also think we had a bit of a protection too, because our main character Lucy is cringe sometimes. That's her thing, and Kensington is so good at playing that. But you understand why she's doing all those things and why she's making those mistakes. And because that is earned, I think it protects the show itself from being “cringe,” if that makes any sense. 

    One thing that really stood out to me was Lucy having ADHD, which isn’t often represented in young girls on TV. How did that idea come to be?

    Walker: One of our writers has ADHD. She came into the room as we were developing the character and was like, “I think Lucy has ADHD.” We were really interested in weaving the existence of neurodiversity into the show in a way where it’s just, like, a reality of Lucy’s experience. It's something that informs the way she sees the world and how she interacts with the world, as opposed to an obstacle to be overcome. 

    Huether: We liked having it be generational as well, with [Lucy’s] dad also having ADHD. We had enough writers in the room who had experience with it to really dig into those stories. I hope we get to do more of that, because I thought it really played well on screen.

    Were there any specific lessons you learned from Degrassi that you applied here?

    Huether: One of the main things that we've taken from Degrassi into everything we've done is just to stay close to the character and understand their emotional journey. There can still obviously be surprises along the way, but if you stay close to the character and understand their emotional stuff, it actually makes the comedy funnier. 

    What are you most excited for viewers to see?

    Huether: Kensington is an incredible leader. She's a star. She can do anything — she can do physical comedy; she can sing. She learned Italian better than we did. She's like Lucille Ball; she's amazing. And then secondarily, it's very fun to get to take the audience to Rome. We were also there for the first time, and once we got there, we started rewriting things. I think that’s a cool experience for the audience.

    Walker: As we got to the later episodes, we were able to put in some things that were surprising to us. We worked hard to make all that stuff really detailed, so I think kids will like that too. We really tried to think, “What's going to be interesting about this place to a young person?” And I think we succeeded.

    Huether: We put some jokes in Episode 6 about the parrots outside of the windows. The parrots ruined our takes nonstop. I guess they’re parakeets or something. Not what I expected to be a problem.

    Walker: I'm also really excited for audiences to see and experience the music in the context of the episodes. [The songs] will get stuck in your head, but they weave in through the narrative and through the characters throughout the episodes. I'm really proud of the work we did there. I'm excited to have people see that and experience it.

    This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

    Home Sweet Rome! premieres May 16 on Max.

    Kelly Martinez is a TV Reporter based in Los Angeles. Her previous work can be found at BuzzFeed and People Magazine, among other outlets. She enjoys reading, spending time with her cat, and explaining the plot of Riverdale to people.