“Two Doors Down,” the final episode from Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings, is notable not just because it is the series’ holiday episode, but also because its plot centers on a gay couple, Tyler (Andy Mientus) and Cole (Michael J. Willett), as well as Tyler’s conservative Southern family, to whom he isn’t out.
An episode focusing on gay characters in a series based on Dolly songs and geared toward families could be seen as a surprising choice, and it seemed like some audience members were caught off-guard at a recent screening of Heartstrings. The installment was part of a daylong marathon of all eight episodes of Heartstrings at Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, which NewNowNext attended. After “Two Doors Down” began to play, some audience members left the screening when it was revealed that Tyler and Cole were a couple.
We caught up with the episode’s screenwriter, Mark B. Perry, to talk about his involvement with Heartstrings, Dolly’s universal appeal, and his thoughts on that episode sparking a walkout at Dollywood.
Hi, Mark. First off, I was wondering: Was the song “Two Doors Down” already assigned to that episode, or did you get to pick? How did the plot come about?
Well, the song had already been pre-selected. I think they went through a hard process to select the eight songs before they actually got into the writing. And when I went in to meet they had the bare bones of a premise that had been worked out. We knew that they wanted it to be the LGBTQ episode. The basic setup was they wanted to do an episode about a relatively conservative woman who discovers that someone very close to her is gay. And we just ran with that. I mean, that’s one of the oldest plots in the world. But it’s always fun to see how you do it. I sat down and started thinking of characters and situations, and then the next thing I knew, I had the Meegers family in my head, which was pretty exciting.
Did you ever hear from Dolly’s team why it was important to have an LGBTQ episode?
I was told that Dolly herself wanted to do an LGBTQ-inclusive episode based on the fact that she has such a universal appeal. Her fan base crosses every demographic, and you stand side-by-side with people you might not socialize with at a Dolly Parton concert. She was involved in reading [plot] outlines and so forth, and it was really a phenomenal experience. I have to say it’s a lovely group of people—very supportive, and quite a lot of fun, too.
I think people will be surprised to hear that there is an LGBTQ episode in Heartstrings, and it’s such a good one. You’ve worked in television for years. How have you seen queer representation in TV evolve?
Oh, my God. Well, as recently as 1998, I had a show that I was doing for ABC. I received a phone call informing me that I had to take a character—who had been gay from the pitch and through the pilot process, and [included] when we got the series order—I had to take his backstory and do something other than have the character be gay.
Yeah. And that was in ’98, so that’s not that long ago. Then, to get a call from Dolly Parton saying, “Please do our gay episode”—I think that’s a lot of great progress.
Netflix held a Heartstrings “film festival” at Dollywood where they played the entire season. So I watched the entire show that day.
Good for you!
I loved it. “Two Doors Down” was the last episode screened, and near the beginning of episode, when it’s revealed that Tyler and Cole are a couple, some people in the audience actually left! What are your thoughts on that?
Well, I grew up in the South, so I call myself an expat Southerner, and I felt that I had a chance to write fairly and authentically about some of the attitudes in the South about being gay. So I was not surprised when I heard that some people got up and walked out. But it did make me a little sad [because] there’s nothing offensive in my episode, as far as I’m concerned. You know, it’s too bad that we’re still at a point in time where there are people who can be offended enough by that, that they would deprive themselves of what ultimately is a joyous experience.
So you had already heard that people walked out?
Yes. I have friends who were at the screenings, and they had told me about it.
I was surprised and sad when I saw that, and they missed out on what I think is the best episode.
Well, thank you. And I like to think it’s their loss.
Exactly. I felt that you really nailed the characters, and the experience of having to come out to your parents. It felt very real. Were there any autobiographical elements there?
I wouldn’t call it autobiographical. There’s a lot of differences in my story and the Meegers’ story. But having grown up in the South, I certainly was around enough of the attitudes that I believe really fueled who Amelia is. That’s Melissa Leo’s character. The night I came out to my parents and our world shifted on its axis for awhile, I went outside and sat down alone at the end of the driveway. A moment or two passed, then something rustled in the bushes and a possum came waddling toward me. It stopped a few feet away, just staring, then eventually turned and disappeared back into the hedge. When I told my then-partner, now-husband about it the next day, he looked up possums in a book of spirit animals and told me essentially what Ren says to Tyler in the episode. So I’m pleased to tell you that the possum was autobiographical.
You mentioned Dolly’s fan base earlier. Why do you think she appeals to such a large audience?
I think Dolly just has an infectious spirit. I mean, when I met her I thought, My God, she’s exactly who you would expect her to be, and then some. You know, every time you see her on a talk show and then when you get a chance to sit down with her—that’s just who she is. Plus, she writes really great music.
If you were brought back for another season of Heartstrings, is there a particular Dolly song that you would love to tackle?
Oh, that’s a good question. I should have thought about that before this. No, unfortunately I don’t have a good answer handy, but I’ll take any of them!
Like I said, your episode was my favorite. I had heard it was other people’s favorite as well, and it lived up to the hype.
Oh, good. I’m so happy to hear that. And I hope those people who walked out might actually tune in and give it another chance.
Your episode has the most Dolly in it outside of “Jolene.” Was that already the plan before you were brought on to write the script, or was that your idea to have Dolly perform at the wedding?
When I was first approached about writing the episode, the broad strokes were that it would be the season finale, the LGBTQ episode, and that Dolly Parton wanted to appear as herself and perform a mini-concert. In other words, it was a Southern gay boy’s dream come true! Working her into the episode was a truly fun challenge, and I was quite happy to have Tyler [Andy’s character] have enough connections with the music world that Dolly would happily perform at his sister’s wedding reception. The power of her music helps heal the family, so I like to think of it as a little Dolly ex-machina.
Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings is now streaming on Netflix.