Lawrence F. Specker – al.com
MOBILE, Alabama — Andrew Glassman was born in Philadelphia, grew up in Los Angeles and has spent the last six months chasing love in southwest Alabama.
You could also say it’s been a really intense business trip. Glassman is credited as executive producer of “Sweet Home Alabama,” as is Grant Julian, his partner in Los Angeles-based production company Glassman Media. Like the young men and women on his show, Glassman has been pursuing romance — but in their case, he seems to have been charmed by a region.
“These shows are corny, when people start talking about love at first sight, but this was a classic example of love at first sight,” Glassman said. “We all fell for that area right away.”
Back in mid-July, the show looked like just another entry in the throw-it-against-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks sweepstakes of cable reality programs. But this one stuck, rapidly becoming a hit for CMT. The network described that first eight-episode run as the most-streamed show ever on its CMT.com website, and reported that the finale had been one of its highest-rated telecasts ever, particularly among the young adult viewers coveted by advertisers.
By that point, production work on a second eight-episode season was already well under way. It began airing in October and concluded in December. The third season premieres at 8 p.m. Friday, Jan. 13; a CMT representative said the potential for a fourth season will be decided in coming weeks.
The show appears to be a rare win-win: Just as it has done good things for CMT, it also has been a showcase for the charms of coastal Alabama. Set mostly in the Fairhope-Point Clear area, its cameras have followed its cast on dates to a variety of locales in Mobile and Baldwin counties, with a few outings to the Mississippi coast and Florida Panhandle.
The resulting exposure has been long on scenic vistas, from coastal sunsets to Spanish moss-draped oak trees, and short on redneck stereotypes.
Glassman said he’s been thrilled with the experience and has every intention of continuing it.
“If it’s up to all of us, we’ll be back there for many years to come,” he said, as he shared his thoughts on a variety of behind-the-scenes topics. The bottom line, he said, is that Lower Alabama has given him plenty of reasons — professional and personal — to keep coming back.
“I have definitely been fortunate,” he said. “We’ve shot series similar to this one in Hawaii, Tahiti, Paris, we’ve been through the Caribbean quite a bit. I would put a sunset over the Mobile Bay up there with all of them. I truly would.”
Finding a home
Glassman, who began his career as an investigative TV reporter, has produced a number of programs, including NBC’s “Average Joe.”
He said the road to Alabama started a few years back, when he was introduced to country music. He liked it, and he began to think more about the culture from which it came. Eventually, he connected those thoughts with his work.
“It seemed like a really natural fit,” he said. “One day I was like, ‘You know what? No one has ever done a love story like this that is truly done in the authentic South. And what would that be like?’ And I just became interested in it right away.”
He and Julian began developing the notion. “I have the job of dreaming it up and going, ‘Gosh, I think it would be amazing to set a date show in the South,’ and he has the job of actually making it happen,” Glassman said. Though it’s clear both are hands-on in practice. Glassman sometimes describes himself as “a glorified cameraman.”
The decision to come to Mobile Bay was driven partly by weather, but not the weather you might think of first. Instead of sultry coastal conditions, the decision was driven more by a historic, and tragic, day of tornadoes.
“We knew we wanted to shoot the story in Alabama; that was our first choice,” Glassman said. “The initial decision to shoot in the southern part of the state was driven partly by the horrible storms last April. At the time we felt like we would be more of a burden than anything if we started in northern Alabama. And clearly the officials there had many more important priorities on their minds than answering the requests of some TV producers.”
“I don’t think we scouted more than a day or two,” he said. “We just happened upon Fairhope and Mobile, I think pretty much straight out of the gate.”
As the producers zeroed in on their locations, they also began the work of assembling a crew. According to a CMT publicist, the show uses a crew of 64 people, about half of whom are hired locally.
“I was thinking about it a lot over the holidays,” Glassman said. “I could not be more grateful and appreciative for all the people we’ve met in your area, all the places we’ve been, it’s just been positive in every single way. Personally, creatively, all the friendships we’ve made, all the business relationships we’ve made, it’s just been an incredibly positive experience.”
One aspect of the show that has sometimes seemed a little dubious is its city-versus-country dynamic. For one thing, some of the “country” Southerners have hailed from major metropolitan areas — the prime example being Season Two’s star, Tribble Reese, a Birmingham native living a thoroughly urban life in Atlanta.
For another, the show’s louder Southerners have often spoken out on “Southern” values, only to wind up endorsing values that are more or less universal, like respecting one’s family.
Glassman defended the cultural aspect of the show, however, saying there was a deeper underlying divide.
“It all boils down to that core engine of two very different lifestyles, two groups that are paranoid about each other and how they might treat a woman that they all care about,” he said. “This current group of guys [in the third season] found all-new ways to express their anger and frustration and sense of competition with each other.”
Asked if his time in Lower Alabama had given him a sense of a distinctively Southern value, Glassman had a ready answer.
“There’s this word that gets thrown around a lot — hospitality,” he said. “I don’t think I truly understood that until I spent a good amount of quality time there. When you wake up in the morning, people in the coffee shop say hello to you and learn your name. When you take your crew to a location, the vendors there are interested in hearing where you’re from and what your life is like. Those are things that you don’t encounter day-in, day-out here in Los Angeles.
“I think the value of treating others as you’d hope to be treated in return in hopefully a universal American value,” he said. “But the day-in, day-out friendship, warmth, caring, taking the few extra minutes to really talk and get to know someone, that I’ve just been very impressed with. It is different, it is special, it is unique.”
If he hasn’t exactly gone native, Glassman has spent enough time to pick up some local sensitivities. Like many Southerners, he’s now slightly irked by the exaggerated drawls heard on some shows.
“When I see these shows now where it almost looks like the producers have gone out of their way to find people who are speaking that way, I actually feel like a local. It bothers me to see that,” he said. “Because it’s not really what you find when you get off the plane at the Mobile airport.”
“In this current season we decided we wanted to shoot something in the swamps of Lousiana because, frankly, ‘Swamp People’ is an incredibly popular television show,” Glassman said. “And so I said, ‘All right, let’s go into the swamp.’ And sure enough, our guide there spoke as eloquently as I do, if not more so.”
Keeping it real
Reality TV can be cartoonish, but Glassman said a show has to have an underlying authenticity to appeal to him.
“The truth is, the thing I loved most about being a reporter is the same thing I love most about my current job, which is meeting new people, going new places, interviewing people, hearing what’s really on their minds and at their core,” he said. “I think all reality shows are at their best when you really feel like you’re getting to know someone, or people are really telling you their story.”
He said he was pretty sure he had a hit on his hands long before CMT saw ratings surge.
“I can tell when it’s happening right in front of my eyes. I just consider myself the first viewer of the show,” he said. “If I can tell, looking through the viewfinder, that I’m interested in knowing what’s about to happen next, or I have no idea what this person’s about to say and I can’t wait to hear, that’s when I know that the story is good and the characters are good.
“I knew this was going to be good before we ever came down there,” he said. “I knew there were characters that you just don’t see every day, that we were about to meet, and to me that’s the strength of the idea, is people you do not see on the other shows are on this one, and they’re incredibly interesting, in the way they behave, the way they express themselves.”
“By the way, I get sad and homesick when I get on the plane to come back to California,” he said. “Just to be totally truthful, there are some people who are my friends here who don’t totally understand it. But the more I explain to them about the level of cooperation we’ve had, the quality of the people we’re working with, the quality of the work that they do, when they see the beautiful sunsets over Mobile Bay, they all turn to me and go, ‘Okay, now I get it.’”
Asked how long he thinks the show can run before it’s run out of sunsets and other fresh scenery, Glassman said that good drama doesn’t necessarily require a dramatic backdrop.
“Everywhere we’ve been in that area, you can look around and find something beautiful,” he said. “The essence of our show is that the big moments can take place in the shade under a tree. And that’s the simplicity of it.
“I like to think the relationships you’re watching are more real, they are developing in real time, the people are acting in a more authentic way, and it’s not about the elaborate things that a producer can do, necessarily,” he said. “Yes, we like the sailboats, we like the trips we go on, and all those things. But the biggest moments in our show have all taken place sitting at the end of a pier, sitting in the shade of a tree, sitting in the back of a pickup truck.
“To that end, I think we can be down there for a great deal of time to come and the show can be fresh.”