It’s a beautiful evening on the shores of the Caribbean Sea, a long way from the nearest Trader Joe’s.
That’s where brothers Justin and Jordan Shipley—27 and 25, respectively—were working as grocery baggers when they got the call from their mentor and creative collaborator, Jesse Hara, telling them that their Wrecked pilot had been picked up by TBS. Now, more than two years later, they’re sitting under the stars with eight members of their cast, a few dozen social media influencers, some network employees and a handful of journalists at an all-expenses-paid promotional junket, watching the first two episodes of their series on a big projector screen at a five-star resort in Cancún.
Needless to say, it’s been a meteoric rise. The brothers are still wrapping their heads around how they got a network’s approval to create ten episodes of television from what they considered to be an “unproduceable” pilot.
“We wrote the pilot just to try to get work on another show, and Jesse was the one who urged us to write something that will stand out as a writing sample,” says Justin, who met Hara on the set of the Josh Radnor-led film Liberal Arts while he was still at Kenyon College. “I don’t think we really thought of it as a show, we were just trying to make it the best pilot script it could be. So when we got picked up to series, it was daunting.”
Daunting, in that the show would necessarily be operating in the shadow of Lost—like J.J. Abrams’ cult classic, Wrecked focuses on a group of plane crash survivors stranded on a forlorn tropical island in the Pacific. Daunting, in that this was the Shipley brothers’ very first pilot. Daunting, in that they were given a boatload of money, bountiful creative control and a few months in Puerto Rico to shoot first the pilot and then the whole 10-episode season.
But they pulled it off. Wrecked is smart and funny, hitting all the tropes you’d expect in a disaster story while simultaneously poking fun at those same tropes. And while it’s first and foremost an absurd comedy, it adds in some interesting social commentary and adeptly explores the humanistic depths modern viewing audiences expect good sitcoms to plumb. On the whole, it promises to be breezy summer TV.
Though it ultimately develops its own identity, initial previews of Wrecked have seen it described as a sort of Lost parody. The Shipley brothers, who were big fans of the show, are quite forthright about their inspiration and the twist they applied. “What’s funny about Lost is that I feel like the 12 people that that show followed were all perfectly…” Justin begins. Jordan finishes his thought: “It was the most capable people to be on that island.”
So the brothers tacked the other way. “We were like, if this were to happen, most planes are full of idiots, full of us,” says Justin. “And we kind of unpacked it from there. If that had happened to us, we’d die immediately.”
Wrecked features a cast of characters that, by the end of the pilot, collectively lacks most of the survival skills necessary for life on the island. The fact that they manage to eke it out for 10 episodes is probably a miracle (or, at least, the product of their plane having been stocked ridiculously full of snacks). But survive they do, and over the course of the show, they have to come to terms with their own changing self-definitions.
“Each one of us has that moment when we have to face the fact that we could die here on this island, and we have to sort of reevaluate what matters to us and what our entire lives were even for,” says Asif Ali, who stars as sports agent Pack Hara. Hara probably undergoes the greatest negative shift in self-concept of any of the main cast; without his phone and access to his material wealth, he essentially serves no purpose. While his hysteria proves to be one of the comedic highlights of Wrecked’s first five episodes, there’s also some powerful commentary subtly present in his predicament. Most of the show’s audience, after all, will probably consist of tech-dependent millennials—a fact of which TBS is clearly well aware, given their decision to invite so many social media influencers to act as proxy promoters and #GetWrecked in Cancún. How many of them (us, really…I won’t exempt myself) would completely lose our identities if we became separated from our wifi?
Other characters become something greater than they ever were on the mainland. Danny (Brian Sacca), a life-long loser overshadowed by his father (a firmly tongue-in-cheek play on Jack Shephard), gets to live out his dream of being a cop—complete with the dead air marshal’s gun. “I was an action star, a fat, bearded action star, for two months, and that was fun,” Sacca says. Meanwhile, former Bing employee Karen (Brooke Dillman) quickly becomes the island’s version of a doomsday prepper, going full-on Kurtz almost immediately. The Shipleys struggled to cast the character and feel lucky that Dillman stepped up to crush the role. “She was a character that had been in the pilot from the very beginning, this larger than life character, but we needed somebody who made it feel not entirely like a caricature,” says Justin.
The show’s standout star during the first half of its season, though, is Will Greenberg as Todd Hinkle, the archetypal, thirty-something frat douche who still thinks he owns the world the way he did in college. “I relish this character so much, because I’m getting paid to be a complete asshole to people,” says Greenberg. “I kind of had a mantra, [Todd’s] whole mantra was, ‘I didn’t ask to be born.’ So that’s why he can be a complete and utter dick to everybody.”
“Todd’s pretty easy [to write],” adds Jordan Shipley. “We all know Todd. Todd is just the unfiltered us.”
The characters work well as an ensemble—all of the cast members cite an immediate and special chemistry that developed from the first day of shooting in Puerto Rico—but Wrecked succeeds because of its focus on the more mundane aspects of island life. Nowhere to be found is the mysticism that pervaded Lost from the outset. Taking its place are such absurd problems as attempting to make a call on a dying satellite phone, deciding what movie to watch on a portable DVD player with two hours of charge, and going to the bathroom in the woods, all situations beautifully conceived by the Shipley brothers.
On the surface, these are totally meaningless events in the grand scheme of the show, which develops a serialized plot as the first season progresses and the survivors attempt to create an orderly society. But the trivial, silly issues that make up at least part of each episode allow the characters to display their hilarious quirks. More importantly, they detail the human tendency to seek life-altering meaning in the smallest of microcosms, particularly when our former purpose is suddenly and brutally stripped away. There’s no John Locke character in Wrecked with a crazy-but-oddly-believable God complex; none of these people are anything special, which is why they’re all so special.
Obviously, one of the big plot-based questions of the show is whether the characters will be able to build a new island order from scratch. Things don’t look too promising, at least from the vantage point of the cast members, most of whom completely lack faith in any group’s ability to accomplish this feat.
“I don’t think that’s possible because especially a group of strangers that don’t know each other, that’s coming from all different kinds of backgrounds, I think it’s very hard to agree on a new kind of society and how to live in a way that everyone’s gonna be happy,” says Alli Maki, who plays Todd’s girlfriend, Jess.
Brooke Dillman is far blunter: “No, I do not [think it’s possible],” she says. “We’re barely doing it in regular society. Shit gets Lord of the Flies real fast.”
Now, by no means is Wrecked primed to break new ground in the world of television; it takes well-established principles of farce and applies them to the survival genre. But in picking a setting that hasn’t been explored by a high-profile sitcom since Gilligan’s Island, the Shipley brothers are able to strip down their comedy to its bare, human frame; they’re not beholden to the rules of a pre-existing society, because their characters literally do the world-building. As a result, they can introduce more macabre, grotesque humor that comes with the territory of a plane crash (there’s a lot of puke and plenty of dead bodies) while simultaneously addressing modern Western civilization—with its preconceived notions of success and value—from outside its own bounds.
That said, the show is funny enough on a base level to entertain viewers who aren’t interested in thinking about its high-minded, philosophical concepts. And the Shipleys have proven themselves talented enough writers that there are likely more trips to Cancún resorts, and fewer stints at Trader Joe’s, in their future.
Wrecked premieres on TBS tonight at 10:00 p.m. Meanwhile, you should follow Zach Blumenfeld on Twitter, because his self-worth is unabashedly determined by his follower numbers.