There is a good reason that the new bilingual series “Casa Grande,” available on the streaming service of Amazon Freevee, has elements that fans of the series “Downtown Abbey” will find familiar. The creative team behind the series – that includes executive producer/writer Lauren Swickard and executive producer Ava Rettke – was in the middle of watching the British series about the lives of the haves and have nots when they started creating their show.
While that much heralded series looked at a wealthy British family and their servants, “Casa Grande” deals with California’s underpaid farmworkers and the wealthier families who depend on them to be their workforce. Both tell stories of how these two worlds are very different but at the same time are deeply connected.
The Clarkman family owns a massive spread of land in Northern California. It is so big that it takes a large force of workers – some undocumented – to keep everything running smoothly. This is the framework to explore universal themes of class, immigration, culture and family.
Telling the stories that weave in and out of each other was a challenge for the creative team.
Rettke says, “I think what is so incredible is that we are able to see the juxtaposition of the two families. They live on the same property but they have vastly different realities. Lauren and the writers room did a great job making sure that we were equally showing each family and each family member. There is not one character that you don’t get to know.”
She adds because of the large number of characters, this was not an easy task but from the start the group was determined to make this a production that examined both groups equally. The cast includes John Pyper-Ferguson, Christina Moore, Madison Lawlor, Javier Bolaños, Karen Bethzabe, Raquel Dominguez, James Marsters, Kate, Daniel Edward Mora and Laura Alemán.
The cast of “Casa Grande” includes veteran actors and some new faces. Swickard explains that the emphasis was just finding the right people to bring these roles to life.
“It was such a pleasure to see a lot of these actors who had not been a lead in a television series really dive in and do something like this for the first time,” Swickard says. “Every single person was such a pro on the set and no one seemed like a novice.
“The veterans took the helm and led the way.”
The task of creating the look for the series fell to Gabriela Tagliavini, an award-winning writer/director. Along with working with companies such as Netflix and Disney, she directed three movies that became the top films in Mexico and Spain.
Directors of the first episode of a series establish the look and tone that will be followed by each director that follows. It’s a lot of pressure but one that Tagliavini embraced. She was confident that the writing and characters were so strong that all that was needed was the right cast.
“Alfred Hitchcock used to say that when you pick the right people, you don’t have to direct. You just let them do what they do,” Tagliavini says.
Along with “Downton Abbey,” comparisons are being drawn between “Casa Grande” and “Yellowstone” and “Upstairs, Downstairs.” There is also a “Romeo and Juliet” angle with the characters played by Lawlor and Bolaños. She plays the rebellious daughter of the Clarkman family while he is one of the farm workers. Their relationship sends a ripple through all of the other elements of the series based on the fact they are star-crossed lovers.
Having a romantic element is nothing new for a production produced by Rettke. Her past works have included “I Believe in Santa” and “A California Christmas.”
Rettke has high praise for Lawler and Bolaños.
“The chemistry they have jumps off the screen,” Rettke says. “It is such a relatable topic for everybody. It is such a universal love story. They love each other no matter their circumstances, their families.”
“Casa Grande” deals with a lot of elements but Swickard stresses the strength of the series is that they are giving a voice to a community of people who have been historically overlooked.
“These migrant workers are the people who put groceries in our grocery stores,” Swickard says. “You go through life and don’t think about these people and yet they are this beautiful community.
“I would love our audience to experience these wonderful people and spark new conversations at home. I am excited for audiences to see these stories of the migrant work force in California.”
“Casa Grande” is now available on Amazon Freevee, the streaming service formerly known as IMDb TV. Along with this series, the streaming video service offers thousands of premium movies and TV shows that are available free. It is available as a standalone app on many connected TVs and devices including Fire TV, Roku and Samsung.