TV News & Reviews

Inspired by ‘Lost,’ these KC brothers landed a TBS hit on their first try

Jordan (left) and Justin Shipley are the co-creators of the new TBS show “Wrecked,” a comedic parody of ABC megahit “Lost.” The brothers are Blue Valley Northwest alums currently living in Los Angeles.
Jordan (left) and Justin Shipley are the co-creators of the new TBS show “Wrecked,” a comedic parody of ABC megahit “Lost.” The brothers are Blue Valley Northwest alums currently living in Los Angeles. jtoyoshiba@kcstar.com

“Unproduceable.”

That’s the term Blue Valley Northwest grads Justin and Jordan Shipley use when describing the pilot they pitched to TBS three years ago.

Normally, pilot scripts run about 30 pages long. Even after widening the margins on their word processor, the Shipleys still went about five pages over. A pilot is more likely to get picked up if it can be shot on a backlot somewhere in Burbank or Culver City. The Shipleys’ vision would require filming on a remote, preferably tropical, location. A handful of characters? Theirs had nine main characters supplemented by nine smaller, recurring roles. Simple over-the-shoulder camera shots are par for the course with sitcoms, so of course the Shipleys imagined something exponentially more cinematic.

“We wanted a show that if you were watching it on mute, it looks like the dramatic equivalent of what the show would be. We wanted ‘Wrecked’ to look like ‘Lost,’ ” Justin says.

That’s right. Jordan, 26, and Justin, 27, were huge fans of ABC’s “Lost” growing up (in high school they hosted weekly watch parties at their house in Overland Park). They used the drama as inspiration for “Wrecked,” a hit sitcom on TBS that just got picked up for a second season. The brothers were recently back in Kansas City visiting family.

“Wrecked” centers on a group of diverse, wonky plane crash survivors on a remote island as they try to figure out how to endure the elements and one another. With “Wrecked,” the Shipleys pivoted from “Lost” and its premise of focusing on the handsome alpha male doctor and uncannily intuitive survivalists (“the 12 most beautiful, interesting people on the plane,” Justin says) to focus instead on the goofballs and schlubs who might survive.

“Our central idea was to ground these ludicrous situations with characters that would react how Jordan and I would,” Justin says. “That always seemed more interesting to us than characters who were perfectly equipped for the situation.”

It’s “Lost” with a focus on the neglected flyover characters — fitting for a show produced by a couple of kids from Kansas.

According to year-end Nielsen ratings, “Wrecked” ended with a 5.2 share across all platforms (linear, streaming, mobile), making it TBS’ most popular new comedy and one of the top five new comedies on all of cable. And getting a renewal for a second season is a commendable feat in the TV world. The TV By the Numbers blog reports that 64 percent of scripted shows brought on by major networks since 2009 were canceled in their first seasons.

Still, the Shipley brothers’ story is even more of an exception.

“Wrecked” was their first stab at television work, ever.

Beating the odds

At the urging of their agent, Jesse Hara, the brothers purposely broke the rules on their pitch. The goal wasn’t to actually get “Wrecked” made. This was meant to showcase the Shipleys’ creativity, penchant for comedy and writing ability to someone, anyone at TBS.

The goal was to land the brothers a job. Not the job.

“I think Jesse sent the script in on a Friday, and that Friday TBS was like, ‘Is this available to buy?’ ” Justin pauses, eyes widening still three years later in disbelief. “And Jesse was like, ‘Um, I guess!’ 

According to the Hollywood career blog FightingBroke.com, industry network executives typically run across 500 pitches per summer. Of those pitches, around 20 or so are ordered to pilot. Typically a network chooses to broadcast five to 12 new series per season, in addition to already running shows. When the Shipleys sent in the “Wrecked” pilot, they had a 1 in 100 chance of it making it to the small screen.

The brothers still marvel at how incredible their story is. They caught lightning on their first try.

The Shipleys hadn’t been in L.A. for a full year when their pilot was picked up. Justin had graduated from Kenyon College, a small liberal arts school in Ohio, in 2011. Jordan graduated from KU the following year, and six months later, at the end of 2012, the two packed into their mother’s Mazda and headed for Los Angeles.

“I knew I wanted to work in comedy,” Jordan says, “but I had absolutely no idea what that actually meant.”

Justin found work shooting B-roll footage for a travel company that specialized in producing travel shows geared toward kids.

“I think I actually got the call (that TBS wanted to buy ‘Wrecked’) while I was on break at Trader Joe’s,” Jordan says. “It was insane. That moment flipped my entire life.”

Suddenly, the Shipleys found themselves in writers rooms with seasoned Hollywood vets, being asked big budget questions and thrust into the hectic world of showrunning a cable series.

“My first time on an actual set was our day one shooting in Puerto Rico,” Jordan says.

He raises his hands up exasperatedly and begins frantically shaking: “It was insane,” he says. “People were asking all these important questions and I’m just like, ‘I don't know!’ 

“It was like film school for us,” Justin says. “We were fortunate enough to be working with people who understood our situation. The guy that directed the pilot, James Griffith, he was hugely supportive. The network has been great, they’ve trusted us with a lot of control.”

“Too much control,” Jordan adds with a laugh.

But the gamble on the Shipley brothers was more calculated than it seems.

In May 2015, having greenlit the “Wrecked” pilot, Kevin Reilly, the president of TBS and TNT and chief creative officer of Turner Entertainment, announced a move by the network to push TBS in a “more daring and ‘in your face’ direction.”

The network that had become known for “American Dad” and “Friends” reruns aimed to dive headfirst into the world of scripted and late-night television and “sharpen the point of view and be even more adventurous” with its programming. It was this jolt that spawned TBS’ current acclaimed slate, including popular shows “Angie Tribeca,” “Late Night With Samantha Bee,” “The Detour” and “Wrecked.”

Hara, who is also an executive producer on “Wrecked,” says while it’s not unusual to sell a first script, it is rare for it to go to pilot.

“It is like winning the lottery with your last dollar,” he says. “Now that we are into our second season, I find myself looking to the sky for falling pianos more often.”

He has also become a fan of the Shipleys.

“It has truly been astonishing. Most of the executives, directors, actors and crew have been working for a decade or more in the business, and we are being lead by first-timers who are confident, smart and supremely talented,” Hara says. “They have a deep respect for what they do and will not be outworked. They have the trust of everyone we work with, and they have more than earned it.”

Fiji-bound

Next month, Justin and Jordan will head to Fiji to begin pre-production on “Wrecked’s” second season.

If you don’t know the show, here’s a rundown of some of the characters.

There’s Owen, the flight attendant wandering aimlessly through life. Pack, a neurotic sports agent who loves his job more than it loves him. Florence, a pretentious millennial feminist. Todd the self-absorbed bro dude and Steve the ubiquitously cheery Kiwi.

There’s also Liam, a British special forces agent and “the most handsome guy on Earth.” After the crash at the beginning of the show’s pilot episode, it’s Liam who runs about the beach rescuing dozens of survivors. In the aftermath, everyone naturally looks toward him as the de facto leader of the island. At least until he isn’t. Liam is smushed — in a very funny, tongue-in-cheek way — by falling plane parts halfway through the first episode.

“We didn’t want to spend time with brilliant, doctor-lawyer types,” Justin explains. “We wanted beautiful idiots.”

“Us, basically,” Jordan says, laughing.

The Shipley brothers also aren’t the only Kansas City connection on “Wrecked.” Brooke Dillman, a Shawnee Mission East grad, plays one of the show’s funniest characters, Karen, a vice president of Bing and survivalist type with less than ideal social skills.

Beginning in March the cast will spend about 2  1/2 months shooting “12, sometimes 14 hour days” as they try to build on the show’s successful first season, which drew praise from the New York Times, L.A. Times, and A.V. Club to name a few. (Though Jordan might be the only one to know this; he reads reviews and comment sections religiously. Justin, not so much.)

Sitting in their grandparents’ basement in far south Kansas City, it’s easy to see the parameters of their relationship. They’re both easygoing jokesters, but Justin is slightly more austere. Jordan is more relaxed and wears a smile like a birthmark.

“I think we balance each other out in a lot of good ways both as brothers and as partners,” Justin says. “I’m the hothead, I have a tendency to react … emotionally to things.”

“Justin always knows what he wants,” Jordan says. “If there’s something he knows he wants he’s going to stick to that and not bend. Whereas me, I’m very accommodating. The show would be all over the place if it were just up to me.”

“What’s great too is that we can disagree,” Justin says. “We can have a whole argument about something and be over it immediately. I’ll be like that’s a terrible idea and Jordan will be like …”

“Got it!” says Jordan, laughing as he interrupts Justin. “We’re always editing each other.”

The duo signed a first look deal when “Wrecked” was picked up, giving TBS dibs on at least the next show the Shipleys create.

“We sold a romantic comedy that we now have to write, so that’s that,” Jordan says. They also hint at plans to pitch a feature-length project in the future.

“But that’s way down the line, man,” Justin says.

Jordan finishes the thought, smiling as always: “Yeah, we’re just trying to make something funny for right now.”

Aaron Randle: 816-234-4060, @aaronronel

Where to watch

The second season of “Wrecked” will premiere this summer on TBS. Stream the first season of “Wrecked” on tbs.com or through the TBS mobile app.

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