Edward Burns was only 12-years-old in 1980, so he doesn’t consider that decade to be one he experienced to the fullest at the time. Having some distance from the politics or harder events of the time period, though, makes him look back on it fondly as a simpler time, “the way you look back at an old photograph and think, ‘Oh that looks so nice,’” he says. That is what made it the perfect setting for his new Epix dramedy “Bridge and Tunnel.”
“I thought of this as, ‘You’re making “Downton Abbey.”‘ In no way was I trying to recreate the 1970s [or] 1980s, but look at it through the rose-colored, nostalgia look back,” Burns tells Variety.
“The time period that I’ve always been obsessed with is the late-’70s in New York: You’ve got the birth of punk and New Wave and hip hop; you’ve got a great art scene; you’ve got a great fashion scene. New York is still gritty, but I’ve always romanticized it,” he continues. “The scenes of the block are clearly me reminiscing about what that felt like as a little kid.”
“Bridge and Tunnel,” which Burns created, as well as writes, produces, directs and stars in, centers on six young friends who are all set to embark on their professional careers and true adult lives after having graduated from college — but first they reunite in their hometown on Long Island, and old relationship dynamics rear their heads, which threatens to upend some of their plans. The central character of Jimmy (Sam Vartholomeos), for example, is all set to be a photographer’s assistant for National Geographic but being back in Jill’s (Caitlin Stasey) orbit makes him think twice about leaving New York because he doesn’t want to lose their romance.
“I’m sure most people can relate to that night before Thanksgiving when you’re younger [feeling]: you go home to your parents’ house and everyone goes to the local bar, and I always thought it was interesting that regardless of what was going on, the old pecking order, for some reason, reestablished itself. That was one of the things I wanted to play with,” says Burns.
Other characters are struggling with following their dreams, without backup plans and to varying degrees of success: Pags (Brian Muller) wants to be in music; Jill wants to be a fashion designer; Mikey (Jan Luis Castellanos) has artistic talent but is actually trying to start a career in accounting; Tammy (Gigi Zumbado) works as a waitress, and Stacey (Isabella Farrell) has been living big city life in Manhattan by moving in with a boyfriend.
Although a lot about “Bridge and Tunnel” is perfectly in-line with Burns’ past catalogue of work, from its New York sensibility, to its complicated relationship dynamics, and despite Burns having grown up on Long Island with dreams of pursuing the art of filmmaking himself, he says he did not intentionally draw on anyone he knew or use his own experiences to shape these characters. (In fact, it was only when he was filming the show that his longtime producing partner Aaron Lubin pointed out that the on-screen dynamic between Burns’ character Artie and his son Jimmy was similar to Burns’ relationship with his own teenage children. “My kids are in high school so the college conversations have started, and the idea of empty nesting is somewhat disconcerting,” he says.)
In order to craft his characters, “I tried to put myself into Seasons 2 and 3. What are the dreams that each one of my six leads are going to have that are going to be fun to drop them into in 1981 New York?” Burns says. “I had so many different places to go, so I built backwards from there.”
The idea for “Bridge and Tunnel” as a series started over dinner between Burns and Epix president Michael Wright, the auteur recalls. It was a few years ago, well before the COVID-19 pandemic upended the way the world worked but already in the middle of Donald Trump’s presidency, which had already caused a lot of division. Burns says Wright turned to him and said, “I need a show that will put a smile on your face. We are living through some really tough times and there’s a lot of very good programming out there that is dark and depressing, and you turn on the TV at night and you just want, maybe, to have another option.”
Burns says he knew Wright was a fan of “Diner,” Barry Levinson’s 1982 film, and Wright was also championing period pieces. These two elements proved to be the key elements that shaped “Bridge and Tunnel.”
Originally, Burns shares, the first season of the show was going to be eight episodes in length, with half of them showing the dynamics of these friends on Long Island, and half following their adventures in Manhattan. The pandemic forced Burns to pivot, and to condense his season into only six episodes. “Twenty-percent of our budget had to go to COVID protocols,” he explains, citing everything from testing and PPE to “moving people out of their homes” when shooting on location. Additionally, Manhattan was closed for productions, so Burns reimagined a number of scenes that would have been in a restaurant or night club in the city to take place on Long Island.
A park became an important hangout area for this group of friends, which was a “happy accident,” Burns says. He wanted to set as many scenes as he could outside to make everyone as safe as possible, and he also wanted to “embrace the simple pleasures of a smaller world,” including “sitting on your front stoop with your girlfriend, just talking; sitting on the hood of your car sharing a beer with a friend, grilling in the backyard, family dinners.”
“It ended up being a happy accident,” he says, but “it ended up being some of my favorite stuff.”
“Bridge and Tunnel” premieres Jan. 24 at 9 p.m. on Epix.