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Showrunner and executive producer Annabel Oakes didn’t want to revive Grease.
When streaming service Paramount+ approached Oakes with the idea of creating a TV series based on IP from the 1978 film, her response was immediate.
“I thought, ‘No! It’s absolutely perfect. It’s an important part of my and so many other people’s childhoods. I am not interested in tearing this down,’” Oakes said during a Television Critic’s Association Press Tour panel on Monday, held in person in Pasadena, Calif.
But during a long cab ride in Southern California, Oakes researched the topic and discovered the Pink Ladies were once a real group. After that, the now-showrunner, who also serves as executive producer, writer and director of the series, began to reconsider.
Oakes called her mother and her mom’s friends, asking what it was like to be in school in the ’50s and ’60s, discovering a much different tale than previously thought.
“I started to get these amazing, beautiful, interesting and unexpected stories from people of all different walks of life,” Oakes said, explaining she spoke to people ranging from “popular girls” to “radical lesbian feminists” and people of all races.
And once Oakes built out her writers’ room, that research only expanded, and “everybody got excited about returning to the world of Grease and telling their stories,” the showrunner explained.
Grease has had revivals before, but Oakes is making this one different, appealing to the franchise faithful and expanding to reach new audiences.
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Starring Marisa Davila, Cheyenne Isabel Wells, Ari Notartomaso and Tricia Fukuhara, Paramount+’s Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies expands the original tales of the 1950s and dives into diverse storytelling around race and sexuality. The show’s primary characters are mainly women of color and queer women, and the series explores what it meant to be marginalized in the 1950s.
“Annabel [Oakes] said the other day, this show is a love letter to the women of the ‘50s … it’s also a letter to all the people who were not given the screen time in the original Grease, and really in media in general,” said Notartomaso, who is gay and uses they/them pronouns. “I had a chance to speak to a woman who was alive in the 1950s, who was gay in the ‘50s and it was a wonderful experience for me to be able to ask questions about what it meant.”
The 10-episode long season will premiere on April 6 and drop new episodes on Thursdays, with the series taking place four years before the original film. And Oakes hasn’t ruled out the potential for future seasons, possibly leading up to the original film itself.
“Our characters will get to experience from a different lens and how those experiences overlap with others with a marginalized identity,” Oakes said. “I think we have the opportunity to represent another struggle that overlaps with things we’re dealing with today, like racism.”
The show will feature 30 original songs, which work to pay homage to the canon while also honoring the diverse voices and storytelling of the new series.
When asked whether the new series works to correct the movie’s nostalgia, Oakes pushed back that the film actually “was trying to undermine the nostalgia of the ‘50s,” pointing to high school dropouts and the “real life” that was going on in Grease.
“I don’t think we’re pushing forward or trying to do ‘important work,’” said Oakes. “We’re just doing the work of looking at what Southern California might actually look like and telling some of those stories that didn’t have a chance to be told.”