Neither Laura Zak nor Jen Richards are particular fans of romantic comedies. But in “Her Story,” the six-episode web series of which they’re both co-writers and co-stars, that’s exactly what they’ve created. “Her Story,” released in late January, lays out a familiar narrative: two attractive, young city dwellers meet and fall for each other, overcoming an obstacle or three between their meet-cute and their happy ending.But “Her Story” lays out that narrative in unfamiliar ways, both to fans of other L.A. dramedies like Togetherness or Judd Apatow’s forthcoming Love as well as Zak and Richards themselves. For one thing, it’s a queer love story, in which the two romantic leads are alt-weekly journalist Allie (Zak) and her subject-turned-crush Violet (Richards). For another, it’s an urban hangout series where two of the three leads are trans women. And behind the camera, every frame of its half-dozen installments is directed by transgender Navajo filmmaker Sydney Freeland, with help from cinematographer Bérénice Eveno.
This “overlap of familiarity and commonality with newness and excitement,” Zak says, is built into the DNA of the show — because it’s drawn directly from her and Richards’ experience. The two met on the set of #Hashtag, a two-season web series Zak also co-wrote and co-starred in with comedian Caitlin Bergh. Richards then appeared in a cameo role as a trans woman who briefly flirts with Zak’s character, making the future collaborators’ first-ever meeting a testament to their onscreen chemistry.
In addition to writing and eventually acting, both Zak and Richards come from social justice backgrounds, a fact that’s both clear in and organically integrated into Her Story‘s themes. Zak worked for nearly a decade with Eve Ensler’s V Day before transitioning into screenwriting; Richards is a prolific nonfiction writer and the creator of We Happy Trans (“I invited people to tell positive stories about transgender experiences…part of the reason I delayed my own transition so long was that I had only ever heard negative stories, and I was shocked to find that when I actually transitioned, my life got better”) and the Trans 100. While Zak became interested in film and television on her own, Richards began penning scripts at the urging of Transparent‘s Jill Soloway, whose Amazon series was still in development. A key piece of advice: “Your first script is gonna be therapy.”
Zak and Richards initially conceived of Her Story as a spinoff of Hashtag, to be shot in the middle of a Chicago winter — ironic considering the final product, which features not just original characters but a warm, lush version of L.A.’s East Side deliberately crafted by Eveno to look “feminine.” Once they’d locked down the basic concept, they cast their third lead: Angelica Ross, director and CEO of talent incubator TransTech Social Enterprises and Richards’ roommate at the time. In the show, Ross plays Paige, a close confidante of Violet’s and high-powered attorney for Lambda Legal whose dating life as a trans woman who frequently passes for cis parallels, but doesn’t exactly mirror, her friend’s.
According to Richards, Ross’s casting allowed for Her Story to reflect a multiplicity of trans experiences that reflects the trans community’s real-life diversity: “I thought it was really interesting, the differences between Angelica and I, because Angelica 100% completely passes all the time; no one knows she’s trans unless she discloses it. Whereas it’s a 50/50 shot with me…Then also our racial differences [Ross is African-American] and our ages and educational backgrounds — all these different factors came into play.”
Much of Her Story mixes rom-com fixtures (fancy dinner dates; gelato-induced “foodgasms”) with explicit conversations about issues specific to trans life (Allie fends off the derision of a friend whose feminism is decidedly trans-exclusionary; over the course of the season, it’s revealed that Violet is, spoiler alert, in an abusive relationship with a former client from her brief time as an escort). But there are also more subtle elements to Her Story‘s specificity, particularly at the core emotional — rather than situational — road block to Allie and Violet’s relationship.
“Jen and I have both had a lot of conversations about and are interested in this idea of when you hold on so tightly to your own sense of identity and label, and who you think you’re supposed to be attracted to, and conducting your life in a way where you’re expecting to be attracted to a certain type of person,” Zak says. “On Violet’s side, she worries that being attracted to a woman is going to make her seem like less of a woman. And on Ali’s side, she’s worried that being attracted to a trans woman is going to make her seem like less of a lesbian. And so these two characters, who have this very natural chemistry and very healthy, lovely dynamic with one another — we were hoping to implicate the audience in rooting for these two people to get together, and rooting for these two people to get over their own shit.”
Both Zak and Richards described their ambition to tell a story they simply hadn’t seen before, a testament to the rarity of narratives both about and by trans (and queer, and even female) people as well as the uniqueness of Her Story itself. And thanks to their onscreen chemistry, and Ross’s performance as a woman tentatively entering a relationship with a cis man, they largely succeed. Her Story is a romance that’s both novel and completely familiar; the fact that it’s easy to watch in the time it takes to finish a single episode of a cable drama is an added bonus.
The full first season of Her Story is available for streaming.