There are a plethora of shows examining the bumbling quest for self-fulfillment among millennial age women - think Girls, Broad City and Insecure - but what about the thirty-somethings who are still trying to get that webseries into Sundance and figure out their love lives, all against the ever-louder tick tick tick tick of their biological clock? Enter award-winning filmmaker and playwright Lisa Ebersole and her webseries 37 Problems.
37 Problems follows Amanda, a 37-year-old woman whose baby is her webseries, as she learns that she only has one egg left. This comedy, which is about fertility and the struggle of adulting, centers on the soul searching of being a woman in the modern age. Her self-exploration is comedically deft and emotionally poignant in equal measure. The show is a breath of fresh air, and we aren’t the only ones who think so! 37 Problems was an official selection of the Austin Film Festival and, most recently, Lisa Ebersole was selected for the Tribeca Film Festival’s Digital Creator’s Market.
We talked to Lisa about the show and the what inspired it.
To what extent are you drawing on your own experience in shaping the characters and the story world of the show? I ask this, in part, because that is the obvious question when the creator and the actress are the same person, but also because of the discussion of Lena Dunham as Amanda’s role model. Lena Dunham is a person who draws heavily on her life for her art so people often confuse her art with her life.
My goal with 37 Problems was to write something as authentic as possible. For me, that meant putting my own personal experience of being 37 and all the questions I was facing front and center. The show draws heavily on my life, in fact, my best friend in life plays my best friend in the web series. But we’re both playing characters. I’m not quite as neurotic and narcissistic as Amanda, she’s not nearly as self-obsessed and myopic as September [her best friend and an actress in Amanda's webseries]. Even though it’s based on real people and things, the world of 37 Problems emerged as its own unique reality, independent from my experience.
To continue on the Lena Dunham topic—she is such a controversial person for many reasons, one being that people are put off by the narcissism of her work. People often attribute that to a millennial sensibility. I really appreciated the way that that the series paints narcissism as a common sensibility, affecting Amanda, her mother and the majority of the characters she interacts with. Her mother, who is highly critical of what she views as her daughter refusing to grow up and clinging to self-indulgent fantasies, represents a strong form of self-involvement—needing her daughter to have children to validate her own experience etc. To what extent were you playing around with and expanding the tropes of the genre of TV that is usually focused on the millennials’ bumbling quest for self-fulfillment?
I think there’s this new life stage for single women in their late 30s early 40s where we’re still growing up, still building our careers, still trying to figure it out. And then, biology is catching up and forcing bigger life decisions. I don’t see the women I know reflected in films or on TV and I wanted to change that. I wanted to represent those of us who don’t have it all together yet. Who are still trying to figure out what makes us happy. With respect to Amanda and her Mom, it was important to me to present an argument where they’re both right. Amanda is right to think that her life can be complete without having a baby and her Mom is right to worry that she may regret this decision later. And as you point out, they’re both pretty self-involved, which I think is where the comedy comes from.
I like that 37 Problems doesn’t provide a problem and a solution; Amanda just exists and things are happening that she responds to. Despite being a show that examines potential partners as well as the possibility of having or not being able to have a baby, there isn’t a situation where a man or a baby becomes the answer. I like that the the show doesn't make a judgment one way or another on motherhood and instead just opens that conversation up. Can you speak to the impulse behind 37 Problems, to the ideas you were looking to explore through this sprawling character study?
I was trying to explore my own ambivalence around motherhood. And the struggle between focus on career versus family. I’ve always felt like I wanted kids “some day” but someday is now. And I’m not doing anything about it. Except making a web series about it. I wonder if that means I don’t really want kids? I wonder if I could have one on my own even if I did? And I wonder if I’m going to run out of time while I’m wondering all of these things? Those were all the thoughts running through my head as I wrote 37 Problems.
I think one of the most poignant scenes is when Amanda is tasked with watching a young teen for the day. Seeing her navigate the boundaries of adult-child relationships was really interesting. I’m interested in that scene and the dynamic you were exploring.
I remember being asked if I was a virgin when I was 7 or 8 and I didn’t know what the word meant, so I said, “no.” I think adults have selective memory when it comes to the age at which kids mature. I feel shocked when I see preteens walking down the street in too short jean shorts, but if I’m honest, I know that I was thinking and talking about sex at that age too. The episode with Amanda and Cranberry [the preteen daughter of one of Amanda's creative partners] is meant to explore the questions that kids have and how uncomfortable it is for an adult to just answer honestly sometimes. You can’t shut down a kid’s thoughts, and if you try, it usually backfires.
I’m curious about the web series as a format. Because each episode is so short—more like a vignette— it really becomes about the essential moments, but within that there needs to be enough space to play around and get a sense of character. In a way, web series seem to function best as character studies—think Broad City before it was on TV. While there is an arch the show seems more concerned with unwrapping the layers of a person by showing these extended scenes of her alone or interacting with a cameo or unessential character. In what ways do you think the format of the show influenced what you were trying to achieve?
I thought of 37 Problems as a mini TV show rather than a series of sketches. It was important to me to have a Season Arc for Amanda but also have episodes that were satisfying if you only watched one. I spent almost nine months writing the series and making sure every episode was as tight as it could be with a beginning, middle and end. Pretty early on I realized that I could only focus on one character’s emotional journey in the time I had. Originally, the show was more of a two-hander between Amanda and September but the format forced me to hone in on Amanda’s narrative. To really explore Amanda’s character fully and go on a ride with her. I feel like we get a lot of information about Amanda’s life and her struggles, hopes and dreams even in these 5-8 minute episodes.
Absolutely, watching the show is such a delightful, thought provoking journey. Thanks for talking with us.
All Images form 37 Problems
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Miriam Mosher graduated from Smith College before moving to New York where she is a writer by day and beer maven by night. She is a proud feminist, a champion of the semicolon and an avid thrifter. See more from Miriam at Bushwick Daily and Two Cities Literary Review.