Oakland-based Offsides Productions, led by executive producer and writer Josh Healey and executive producer and director Yvan Iturriaga, is known for making social-justice-minded web series that call into question who we are as a society and what we are doing to make it better.
The team is best known for the satirical web series The North Pole, which explores the story of three friends living in North Oakland dealing with forces that threaten to disrupt their daily lives, like gentrification, racism, and immigration.
Following on the success of The North Pole and other politically-oriented videos they’ve produced since then, Healey and Iturriaga are again asking crucial questions: How does society move forward after the pandemic? What does a new “normal” look like?
Their new series, Normal Ain’t Normal, seeks to answer these questions with help from a host of local talent and some big names: Rosario Dawson co-produced and co-stars (Dawson also co-starred in season 2 of The North Pole) with Healey and Iturriaga credited as co-creators and writers. Best-selling Oakland author Tommy Orange (There, There), actress/comedian Reyna Amaya, and local author, chef, restaurant owner (Reem’s California), and James Beard Award finalist Reem Assil also contributed writing. Assil also plays the main character in the episode she co-wrote.
“We both come from an organizing background as well as the artistic background,” said Healey about his creative partnership with Iturriaga. “For this show, we wanted to challenge and subvert this idea of ‘going back to normal in America,’ when so much of what’s normalized in America is inequality, injustice, and racism. ‘Normal’ is what got us into this crisis in the first place.”
The four-episode web series follows four working-class residents in Oakland as they struggle to navigate their lives amid growing inequalities exacerbated by the pandemic. Each episode tackles a different theme: medical debt, the fight for immigrant workers’ rights, food insecurity amongst restaurant workers, land rights, and unequal access to housing. The series debuted on Sept. 27 on Buzzfeed, with new episodes set to be released every Tuesday over the next month.
The writing process was time-consuming, said Iturriaga, and entailed a lot of fine-tuning and “back-and-forth” on drafts. “To be honest with you, we always make it hard on ourselves,” he said. “We want to do stuff that’s different.”
For Healy and Iturriaga, the creative process begins with drawing on their own lived experiences in Oakland. ”Who are some characters, some stories, either in our own lives or in our neighbors’ lives that we know about, that you don’t normally see on screen?” Healey said.
Another key element of their writing, said Healy, is comedy. “We always want to hit people in their hearts, minds, and funny bones.”
Orange’s episode tells the story of a property owner trying to build generational wealth within their family at the cost of long-term working-class tenants who are barely making ends meet to pay their rent. D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai (Reservation Dogs) plays Wes, a Native American young man grappling with family conflict and greed alongside his older brother, played by Martin Sensmeier (Yellowstone).
“The goal is to create a format that could keep growing,” Iturriaga said of featuring a revolving cast of actors and other creatives. “We really like the idea of bringing new writers, but other directors too—directors that are up and coming, and some who are established. I like that potential.”
In her episode, co-writer and lead actor Assil explores the pandemic’s impacts on the local restaurant industry and what it was like for restaurant owners trying to keep their businesses afloat while dealing with inflation and still paying restaurant workers a living wage.
“America and the Bay Area have no shortage of injustices that are normalized that are right for the picking for creative pursuits,” Healey said. “With gun violence, we’ve normalized it. You read about these latest shootings, and you think about it for a minute, and then you just keep moving because we don’t know what to do.”
As long as there’s an audience for their work, Healy and Iturriaga plan to continue producing content that delves into these often untold stories from a local perspective. In so doing, they can boost Oakland’s reputation as a filmmaking hub while also creating jobs in their community.
“There is an energy that’s been bubbling up over the last couple of years,” Healey said. “What I love about the Bay filmmaking scene, as opposed to other cities, is just this beautiful spirit of collaboration and independence as opposed to competition.”
Still, he added, “we need more places for filmmakers to come together. But I also think there could be a shift in mentality in what we are trying to do. I encourage artists: Don’t wait around if you have a story to tell. There are great filmmakers here who can help you make it happen.”
Healey and Iturriaga will continue working on projects that spark conversations about the world around us and how we can help to make it better as a community.
“If Josh and I can get a second season of Normal ain’t Normal with four or five other episodes, then there’s more people in the community who get to tell their stories,” Iturriaga said. “We see ourselves reflected, and that’s how we start building.”
New episodes of Normal Ain’t Normal will premiere every Tuesday on Buzzfeed over the next month. Watch episode 1, “Life and Debt,” by clicking the embedded video above.