‘Partner Track’ Showrunner Georgia Lee on Making a Netflix Rom-Com That’s a Trojan Horse for Exploring “Structural Racism and Sexism”
In Netflix’s Partner Track, the rom-com is a bait and switch for a story less about finding your love and more about finding yourself.
The 10-episode first season, which dropped on the streamer on Aug. 26, follows Ingrid Yun (Arden Cho), a talented and determined first-generation Korean American and senior associate who is looking to secure a junior partnership at her high-profile law firm.
But as she finds — with the help of her friends, family and a few love interests — her persistence and ingenuity might not be enough to overcome the racism and sexism of her white male-dominated workplace.
Based on the book by Helen Wan, showrunner Georgia Lee drops viewers into a glossy world where on the surface, seemingly the biggest challenge for the beautiful, intelligent and fiercely good lawyer is only whether the men she dates are good enough to be her partner.
But as episodes unfold, viewers discover that the show is less about Ingrid’s romantic life and more about the ways her professional one challenges the kind of lawyer — and person — she wants to be; especially as a woman of color in a world that’s not always willing to treat her equally.
Following the series’ release, The Hollywood Reporter spoke to Lee about how she used the rom-com genre to tell a different story about race, gender, love and the workplace, how much the show relates to her own experiences as an Asian woman in Hollywood and how she built a series that reflected the kind of persity Ingrid’s workplace lacked.
You’re telling a story about a workplace that is lacking in the persity department and there can be some overlap there with working environments in Hollywood. So did you think about how you might want your own set and writers’ room to reflect what was absent in Ingrid’s law firm?
Actually, you know, nobody has asked me that question yet and I’m kind of surprised. Because one of the things we talked about is that it’s not just about actors because that’s what we see. And it’s not even just the writers either. We gotta get agents, network PR, so many others for the infrastructure. That’s not like the sexy stuff. It’s actually the boring infrastructure, but you got to do it. It’s not just about the pretty faces we see on the screen. So actually, I’m very happy to say in the writers room, we absolutely wanted to make sure that we had as many lived experiences that are represented on screen as possible. We have people of color or we have LGBTQ writers. That was also our mandate for hiring crew.
So one of the most visible and powerful positions is obviously the director. We shot five blocks — two episodes each — and the first block was held by Julie Anne Robinson, who directed Bridgerton — and she’s amazing and we love her. Our second block was helmed by Tanya Wexler, who is a Jewish woman and in the LGBTQ community. Our third block was helmed by Kevin Berlandi — he’s a Korean American man and an adoptee. The fourth one was Lily Mariye. She was awesome and I’m so delighted that we had so many women of color directors and that they are in demand. Then our last block was helmed by a white dude, Adam Brooks, which we all joke was our persity.
Ingrid’s story is one I think a lot of women, especially women of color, can relate to. I’m curious if that at all prompted you to consider putting any of your own experiences into the show — or those of the rest of your team and cast — as you were adapting the series from the book?
Completely. Obviously, the show is based on [Helen Wan’s] great book, and her own lived experiences trying to break the glass ceiling at her law firm. I just related it to so much, all the microaggressions. That first scene where she’s mistaken as a paralegal and asked to get the Pellegrino, that happens all the time. In the book, she writes it almost like water off a duck’s back because she’s so used to it. It’s like if you pick that fight every time you’d be fighting every day. So when I read that I was like, “Yeah” (nods head) because my response wouldn’t be indignation at that moment. I’d just be like “ugh.” That rang so true to me when I read that. Also, when I was a writer on a set — and normally when you’re the writer on set you have some degree of legitimacy and power — but I was mistaken for the PA often. Not on my own show, but on other shows. So yeah, it happens.
You had an interesting challenge with Ingrid because you had to — as someone who has likely already had discriminatory experiences outside the office — make her choices and reactions believable when she’s blindsided by her white male coworkers. How did you think about portraying her in a way that avoided any unbelievable naivete and instead garnered more empathic shock from viewers?
I would say the whole Mary Sue complex of trying to make a woman of color seem perfect is doing us all a disservice. And I would, without going too much into detail, say that it’s very much based on my own life, and I think I’m very self-aware of all the social dynamics and that the social conditioning goes really deep. It’s so subconscious. That’s the story of Ingrid and actually all our three main characters, Ingrid, Tyler [Bradley Gibson] and Rachel [Alexandra Turshen]. It was very consciously constructed that way. The arc really is the emotional journey I had to learn in my 20s and 30s, which is that the theme of season one is real power comes from being true to yourself. That is what Ingrid doesn’t fully understand. None of our characters fully understand at the beginning of the season. Even Tyler doesn’t, and Tyler’s our most evolved character at the start point. So we always say season one is a series of Faustian bargains. They’re all selling their soul a little bit. Tyler sells his soul a little bit. He’s like, “this feels really bad.” Tyler figures it out first and leaves. So that journey, they all think they kind of know, but they don’t fully really learn until the end. That’s what the pain of season one is.
There’s one particular moment that explores the experience of being a person of color among people of color in a white-dominated environment. It’s when Ingrid offers Tyler the hush money after Dan’s racist display at the work retreat. Was that in the book and did you expand it at all for the series?
I feel like our show is wrapped in a rom-com and it almost feels like you have to get that stuff in there, so I really appreciate it when people see the deeper thing we’re trying to do, which is more subtle. There’s the Model Minority Myth of Asian Americans and us being used to keep down African Americans and that whole nuanced dynamic. So yes, in the book, there is that scene where Ingrid and Tyler run out in episode five. But what is not in the book, I don’t think, and what we did include even more, was where she offered him the hush money. That is to me one of the most painful scenes. Bradley [Gibson] talks about this a lot and much more eloquently. He says it’s your best friend who you think has had your back the entire time and she’s the one who is offering the white man’s hush money to you. So that dynamic is absolutely one of the ones that we wanted to explore. We’re not hitting people over the head with it, but it’s something we want to speak to.
I think that there’s some really great discussion about the persity in experiences among people of color in white-male-dominated working environments, but I’m curious about how you spoke to the white male cast about their characters — and how they approached their character’s behavior?
One of the things we want to do is make sure that all the white men aren’t just like one monolithic entity. They’re all inpidual characters. Dan [Nolan Gerard Funk], Todd [Will Stout] and Hunter [Zane Phillips] should not all be the same white dude and, hopefully, you can see the three different white dudes with three different perspectives. Dan, of course, does his setup as the villain and Nolan was so great because he was so concerned about playing a racist. He was like so upset about it. (Laughs.) One of the things, though, is that I think you can even see we’re just nudging him a tiny little bit at the end of the season, where he starts have a bit more awareness. We chatted and I told him Jamie Lannister pushes a little kid out the window in the [Game of Thrones] pilot.
But seeing how those characters can learn and grow is really important, right? So we would love to perhaps see if Dan can learn and grow. Todd is just kind of following Dan but then becomes friends with Tyler and starts to open his eyes. He has a very, very small arc, but that’s the movement that we would like to see. And one of the things I always say to everybody, without getting too sappy, is that one of the notes that we’re given as writers often is to make a character more likable. It’s a note that I always take issue with. My job is not to make a character more likable. My job is to make a character more understandable. If you understand where the characters are coming from, then you can empathize.
The ability to talk about these more serious subjects within this rom-com is something that I think makes it really stand out in the genre. Why do you think rom-coms are a good genre to explore these concepts?
No one has really asked me that question about why a rom-com and I’m not sure I can answer it right now. I might have to think about it. But I feel like if we were just making a hard-hitting PSA about race and gender, nobody would watch it, unfortunately. What I always said in the writers’ room is we want to write a fun entertaining story but at the same time, we want to be commenting on the structural racism and sexism in America today. So I feel proud that we were able to do that, and if it’s marketed as if people think it’s a fun rom-com and that gets them to watch the show, and they suddenly are Trojan horsed into learning something else, I am cool with that.
Rom-coms sort of feel primed for discussion about race and gender because those things are baked into societal discussion around desirability and visibility — onscreen and off. This leads to the question of Ingrid’s love interests. She’s with Nick and Murphy, two white men, but there’s also Z, an Asian man, who really feels like an option for her, but isn’t framed as one in the same way. Did you want audiences to feel like he was a love interest for Ingrid or is that just a byproduct of viewers reading into something?
Oh, yeah, I mean, it’s so funny. When I read some of the stuff online, where they ask, “Were they thinking about…” And it’s like, of course, we were thinking about that! (Laughs.) And honestly, I was concerned with being way too obvious about it. We didn’t want to be too intentional because we want to explore more in future seasons, so you can’t use up all your story. But we were so hyper-conscious. We’re absolutely aware. I know what the poster looks like. It’s an Asian American woman with two white dudes. Of course, we’re so deeply aware of that and, in fact, that is part of the message which is why we couldn’t say anything pre-launch because we didn’t want to give anything away. You don’t want to give away Murphy’s twist. The message, the theme, the emotional journey of Ingrid is that she starts out in a place where she’s not aware. So she has to learn stuff while she is living in this white patriarchal power structure. Part of her is very unconscious to it and so part of her subconsciously believes — and it’s what we’ve been conditioned by all the media and everything in our entire lives to feel — is that if she somehow is part of that white power structure, she’ll be safe. She’ll feel safe. She doesn’t consciously realize that it also is a product of the environment she’s in because the white man is in charge at the law firm.
So Ingrid’s initial love interests are being guided by who is immediately available to her — and who she thinks might understand her most, which in season one feels like the available white men at the firm.
Exactly, and that was part of her journey and exactly part of her, I would say, enlightenment — her awakening. Again, she discovers real power because she’s being true to herself. I don’t want to give away too much. But of course, we were planting the seeds the entire time. But also we want to say that women don’t have to date. Part of it is I don’t want people to say, “Oh, she’s choosing the white man or she’s choosing the Asian man.” No, she chooses herself. That, at the end of the day, is what the story is about. That is actually, I realize, the answer to your rom-com question because honestly, I often have an issue philosophically with rom-coms. I’m probably not supposed to admit this, but I don’t like rom coms. (Laughs.) I’m a science fiction girl. I grew on The Expanse, The 100. But, in a way, I hope that Partner Track is subverting the rom-com trope of, at the end of the day, the girl has to end up with a guy and that somehow solves her problems. I have a problem with that underlying concept. So I think Partner Track, yes, it’s fun. There’s love and romance but we’re not done with a story. Hopefully, we have many seasons to go because she still has other things to learn. Hopefully, she will expand her dating horizons and learn more. But ultimately, what I’d love, because this is what I had to learn, is that a guy doesn’t define you and is not the end-all-be-all for your happiness.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
Partner Track is available to stream on Netflix.