You wake up in the middle of the night to pounding rain and realize you're alone in bed. Your husband never came home — and now he's not answering his phone. Panicked, you jump in your car and plow into the storm, scouring the slippery streets for his car. What if you don't find him? you wonder. What if he's … ?
This scenario, or one like it, happened to Kit Steinkellner a few years back. But it had an exceptionally happy ending: Not only was her spouse okay, but Steinkellner turned the idea into a new web series called Sorry for Your Loss.
Premiering on Facebook Watch in September and with the season's final episodes dropping today, the show stars Elizabeth Olson as a young woman struggling to recover from the sudden death of her husband. It has a 94 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, the first episode had 2.8 million views in the first week — and it was all inspired by that one horrific night of worry.
"I felt vulnerable and unsafe in that moment and really started thinking about what I would have to do to survive this impossible thing," Steinkellner said in a recent interview. She has won heaps of awards as a playwright, and something about this scenario ignited her imagination. "I started thinking about this character and the people in her life and it started to really take shape in a way that was so exciting to me. Some ideas and scripts have a little bit of extra pixie dust on them. I can't quite explain why."
Steinkellner describes the series as a love letter to her husband — and her family. The first episode features a flashback of the main character celebrating winter solstice on the beach with her family, writing their regrets on scraps of paper, burning them in the sand, and tossing the ashes into the surf. It's a real-life ritual the Steinkellner family practices every year at New Year's on a beach where she grew up near Santa Barbara, California.
Steinkellner's parents are multiple Emmy-winning writers of TV's Cheers, so TV production is in her blood — but Steinkellner herself had only written for one series, Amazon's Z: The Beginning of Everything, when she made what she calls "this crazy leap" to being a young creator, writer, and executive producer on a show with a straight-to-series offer.
"It's really jumping from 10 to 100," says Steinkellner, who learned how to trust her gut over the course of the season. "The metaphor is not knowing how to swim and maybe you're doggie paddling and flailing at first, but the more you do it, the more graceful your strokes become."
Though she didn't bring experience to her role as showrunner, Steinkellner did bring some valuable qualities to the job — which she says often feels like being a camp counselor, therapist, and mom. "I'm pretty calm under pressure. I'm nimble and I can pivot. I'm congenial," she said. "If you're a rigid personality or handle stress badly, this can be an incredibly challenging job."
One challenge on a show about grief, of course, is keeping the story, dialogue, and tone authentic and raw, without ever dipping into maudlin or sappy. "I've said in the writers room that often the hardest we laugh in life is at funerals and in hospital waiting rooms," she said. "Humor and pain go hand in hand. For me, real life is funny and romantic and weird and devastating. So [our rule] was making sure we were touching all those facets."
Steinkellner and her team have produced 10 episodes of Sorry for Your Loss and if they're lucky, it will get picked up for a second season. But as the series teaches us, the future is impossible to predict.
"For now, I think I've made a great season of television," Steinkellner says. "Life is a mystery."
This article was originally published in the Santa Barbara Independent. It has been reprinted with permission.