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Love on the Spectrum Showrunner: Netflix Show Gives Representation

Love on the Spectrum Showrunner: Netflix Show Gives Representation

Early in production on season one of Love on the Spectrum in the U.S., we were filming at Abbey’s house in L.A. Abbey (we use only first names on the show), an autistic woman living at home with her mom, Christine, was 23 at the time, and Christine was talking to me about some of her fears for Abbey’s future, when she as a mom may not be around anymore. She pictured Abbey being seen by others as a weird, “crazy” lady — walking along talking to herself, singing loudly in public, someone people would cross the street to avoid. Her concerns that people wouldn’t understand her uniqueness are valid; we live in a society where we tend to turn away from, avoid and judge without basis what we don’t understand.

Fast-forward to today, and people enthusiastically cross the street to meet Abbey, to take pictures, to tell her how much they love her and her relationship with David, whom we introduced her to in season one. This represents not just validation of Abbey’s experience and appreciation of her unique personality, but a celebration and acceptance of difference. This love for the cast has been across the board. In my 20 years working in this industry, I haven’t seen such overwhelming positivity and support for the participants in a docu-reality series.

As a society, we are gaining more understanding of what autism is and isn’t, but there are still myths and misconceptions. The best way to bust them is to introduce audiences to a diverse group of real people, and hear from them in their own voices. By telling intimate, character-driven stories, viewers get to know our participants and engage with who they are and what makes them tick. With engagement comes empathy and understanding, and with understanding comes normalization.

As a director, what I love about being able to make the series is twofold. Firstly, the opportunity to increase autism and disability representation and awareness. There is a lack of representation of people with disabilities in the media generally, let alone showing people in a lighthearted, celebratory way.

Secondly, I have always wanted to make a series in the dating space that felt a bit more inclusive than the narrow representation we often see on dating shows. When we see really, really good-looking Instagram models on islands or in mansions dating each other, does this not send a message to audiences that these are the people who are most deserving of love, and we should all aspire to be like them? It’s nice to be able to offer up something different in the space, and to see audiences embrace it. To be able to make a show that doesn’t have competition, conflict or celebrities and still engage an audience is a hard ask in today’s climate, and hopefully we’ve been able to crack it.

When we first started filming Love on the Spectrum back in Australia in 2019, we were making the series for our public broadcaster, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, or ABC, as we know it. I had come up with the idea for the series after making a different show, also for ABC, about people with disabilities looking for employment, and highlighting the skills people can bring to a workplace. Having spoken to many young autistic adults while making that series, I was struck by how many people were interested in dating and finding love but were having trouble. Many of them had never even been on a date. Of course everyone on the spectrum is different, and there are people who are in meaningful relationships, people who don’t have trouble dating, but based on the people we were talking to, there was a lack of support and awareness. This felt like an interesting space to explore, and an area where we could potentially help people out as well as make an engaging and insightful series.

I developed Love on the Spectrum with Karina Holden and Northern Pictures, and our hopes for it were that it might find an audience in Australia, and perhaps if things went well we would be lucky enough to be picked up for another season. When Netflix came on board and released the Australian series globally, things really started to build, and we now find ourselves in production on a third season in the U.S. (and a fifth season overall). The series has been more successful than we ever imagined, and picking up three primetime Emmys for the first U.S. season was a humbling surprise.

It has been quite the ride for us all seeing the series do so well. It’s so nice to see people who have been underrepresented on our screens be so universally loved and appreciated for just being themselves. Seeing our lovely cast treat each other with honesty, kindness and respect inspires me to try to be a better person, and hopefully audiences are taking some of this away with them.

All productions come with their own set of challenges, and as a team we want to make sure we take into account the individual needs of each castmember, ensuring that their participation is an enjoyable and positive experience. We film this series in a unique way, scheduling a longer shoot period and averaging only a few days of filming a week to allow us to film with our cast when it works for them. We are a fluid, flexible team always ready to turn on a dime and tell our cast’s stories as they happen, which means we start someone’s story and have no idea where it will take us. It’s a logistical puzzle making the show as we film across the country, flitting back and forth between cities, but we believe it makes for the best series. Our shooting crew is very small, and we keep our footprint to a bare minimum. I shoot second camera, we don’t use lights, we want people to feel as comfortable as possible, and the less a space feels like a set, the better.

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We let our cast know that we are filming the series on their terms, not ours. They can put up their hand anytime to have a break, or to stop filming if they feel overwhelmed, anxious or uncomfortable. Having said this, it doesn’t happen often.

Many people ask me: How do you go about working with vulnerable people when making the show? My response is, don’t assume someone is vulnerable just because they are autistic. The autism spectrum is incredibly diverse, just like the neurotypical population. And that’s probably the biggest thing I hope people take away from watching this series: Don’t judge someone based on a label.

This story first appeared in a June standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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