Cross Talk

Elizabeth Thompson

For his latest television endeavor, Davis Cross was commissioned by British production company RDF to create a half-hour show that could be shown in both the UK and the U.S. The result is The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret, a sweaty-palmed comedy that's as funny as it is hair-raisingly uncomfortable. Centered on the life of a hapless pathological liar named Todd Margaret, our protagonist is sent to the UK by his bullying boss (Will Arnett) to sell a noxious energy drink called Thunder Muscle. As the show's title suggests, things do not go well. Throw in a script Cross co-wrote with comedian Shaun Pye (who played Greg Lindley-Jones, Ricky Gervais' sneering nemesis on Extras), as well as guest appearances by Arnett and Spike Jonze (who plays Todd Margaret's other boss), and you've got a new show to get hooked on. Here, Cross chats with PAPERMAG about energy drinks, cringe humor, and the troubling state of the Arrested Development movie.

Why did you decide to put Todd Margaret in the energy drink industry?

Honestly, I can't for the life of me tell you how I came up with idea -- which was three years ago -- and how that morphed into the show. This was the only time I have ever created something with certain parameters, which, in this case, was coming up with an idea that could work both for British and UK audiences. The RDF people didn't want it to merely be a fish-out-of-water story. I guess I was thinking, 'What's something that a salesperson could sort of get away with now knowing how to sell?' It's not like medical equipment or something.

So the energy drink phenomenon isn't something that's uniquely American? It's big in the UK too?

Oh no, they have a shit-ton of that stuff over there. It's the same kind of marketing you see in the U.S. too -- that sporty, fratty, 'Get your party on! Be able to keep going all night" stuff. All of that, vaguely sexual language about strength and staying up for a long time is the same. They have plenty of if.

This was your first time working with Shaun Pye. Was it challenging to write with someone you had never worked with creatively before?

Well, it wasn't like an American sitcom writing scenario where a bunch of writers who have never met are thrown into a room together and asked to come up with something cohesive. After I agreed to take this on, we arranged a week in London where I filled up my days meeting with various potential writers and producers. Shaun and I hit it off. He also had the advantage of being one of the last people I met with while I was there. It was like a Thursday afternoon and we went to a pub -- you just start drinking there around three or four, by the way. We extended our meeting into four or five more pints and it was pretty clear that we were a good match.

Each episode of the show picks up the next day. Did a time line like that seem like a better fit for British TV, which generally have shorter seasons than American shows do?

I was definitely very happy with the shorter series. We didn't have a budget. It was minuscule. Teeny tiny. There was no writing staff. We had to have every script finished before we even shot a frame of it. So, I found the idea that doing fewer episodes of the show was kind of freeing.  I also had to have a hand in every element of the show and how it was shot. There are some things that are extremely important to the story later on, whether it seems worth while or not, that we would have to have in a scene. Something somebody says offhandedly or a scene where somebody picks something up and puts it in their pocket. There's a bit of mystery to the show as it builds.

And having only six episodes sort of adds to the anxiety of the show, which the audience already knows won't have a happy ending.

Yes, we know from the title that there's not going to be some sort of resolution half way through. I can't give anything anything away, but the end of episode six has what feels like a resolution but isn't. When you're watching it, all of these elements we've been stringing along in other episodes sort of come together. But at the end of it, the last 30 seconds of it, you're like ' he going to get of this? There's no way he can get out of this . The show is going to run beyond six episodes, so it will just keep getting crazier and crazier. And each episode will continue to take place the next day, even into the second and third seasons. The entire three years the episodes are on on will really only be two and half weeks in the time line of the show.

Todd Margaret's a pathological liar, which makes for a lot of excruciating scenes where you just want to scream and shake him. It feels similar to the frustration you feel with Larry David's character on Curb Your Enthusiasm. Why do you think that cringe-y humor like that works so well?

Well, it's been going on for eons. That kind of awkward comedy. But the thing is, Larry David's character on Curb Your Enthusiasm would say something untoward or not politically correct and then defend himself. Where as Todd is not nearly as savvy or smart as Larry David is. Larry David's whole thing is that he says what people think but don't say out loud. Like not tipping a waiter or whatever. Where as Todd just lies. And it's frustrating because you want to yell, 'You don't have to lie!' There's a scene where a character confronts him and is like, 'You're a nice guy. You don't have to keep lying.' And then he comes up with another lie in response to them. It's like, 'Oh my god. You're the worst! What's wrong with you? You've been given a zillion outs. Just shut the fuck up.'

But it's not malicious lying.

No. He's not a bad guy. It does come from a well-intended place. Its just so unnecessary. Most people, even if we did three lies to cover another lie, would as some point go, 'OK, look. Here's the deal: I am so fucking sorry for this and I did not mean for this to happen.' And even if you had done something awful, you would get a little sympathy or a little credit for admitting you were lying. But he just never takes that opportunity.

Are there any similarities between Todd and yourself?

Are you kidding? I'm honest to a fault. And that's not the best trait to have, believe me. There are times that I won't shut up and I say too much, or when I should have shut my mouth three sentences prior and everything would have been fine. And I'm not a good liar. Not that Todd is, but lying is effortless for him. You can tell when I'm lying. Immediately.

When you wrote the character of the boss, did you have Will Arnett in mind?

From the get-go.

Why do you think Will Arnett is so good at playing jerks?

Um, well...I have to say that he really rose to a level with his character that I didn't expect. I knew he was going to be good, but I didn't know he was going to be that good. I can say the same thing for Spike Jonze, too. I don't want to give anything away, but their characters end up together again after they interact in the pilot. The acting in their scenes together is so goddamn good. 

How did Spike Jonze get involved?

I just asked him. And RDF was like, 'You know, the boss character is a great place for one of your celebrity friend cameos! Wink wink!' So I put together a potential list of people who could be Doug and then I walking down the street and was like 'Wait, Spike Jonze!' He fucking did a really great job. It's great. He is such a good actor. 

Before we end, I have to ask about the Arrested Development movie. Have there been any developments about when you'll start filming?

Uh, when there's a script? There's no script! There's no deal! There's no time frame! But, believe me, I wish there was. I'm not dismissing the idea. I know what the potential story would be and it's fucking awesome and I'd love do it. But I'd love for there to be an "it" first.

The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret airs Fridays at 10 p.m. on IFC.

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