Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker
If Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker's longtime writing parternership was a romantic comedy, they'd tell you their "meet cute" moment came in dramatic writing class at NYU, when their eyes met while trying not to laugh out loud at a professor's off-kilter remark.
More than a decade later, the executive producers have become one of TV's most prolific showrunner duos, with a specialty in emotional, character-driven comedy and drama. They've been coshowrunners with creator Dan Fogelman for NBC's This Is Us, which just wrapped its sixth and final season. They're also the creators and showrunners of two Hulu shows, Love, Victor and How I Met Your Father.
The latter series — a gender-reversed spinoff of CBS's How I Met Your Mother — stars Hilary Duff (Lizzie McGuire, Younger) as Sophie, a lovelorn thirty-something photographer trying to find her soulmate in Manhattan. (For the record, Duff has said she doesn't believe in soulmates.) Like its predecessor, the show is narrated by an older version of the protagonist — in this case, it's Kim Cattrall (Sex and the City) telling the story to her offscreen son in the year 2050.
HIMYF is a multicam sitcom with a laugh track, a format that's new to Aptaker and Berger — and Hulu, too. Billy Rosenberg, Hulu's head of comedy originals, says, "As a culture, we grew up watching multicams, and for many working in comedy it's the holy grail format that made us fall in love with the genre."
Production company 20th Television, which had initially tried — and failed — to mount a version of HIMYF at CBS, approached Aptaker and Berger to develop a sequel in 2016. The pair wrote a pilot script, which was shelved when This Is Us creator Dan Fogelman asked the duo to co-run that series. "It was an opportunity we couldn't pass up," Berger says, "and we knew we couldn't do those two projects simultaneously."
Cut to 2021. With This Is Us winding down, Aptaker and Berger were ready to look ahead to their next project. "We dusted off the HIMYF script, and luckily it was at the exact same time that Hilary was coming up for air after Younger," Berger says. "It was ready to have its moment."
Aptaker acknowledges that, after five years away from the script, "a lot of rewriting happened." One thing both he and Berger agreed on is that the pandemic would not factor into the story.
"We've all been so cooped up," he says. "What multicam sitcoms do best is provide comfort and escape with that cozy group of friends you can hang out with every week. We felt that what people needed was a little bit of escapism and romance — and a version of New York City where there isn't Covid and people aren't worried about having to wear their masks out in public."
Aptaker and Berger were aware they had a tough act to follow. HIMYM ran for nine seasons and averaged 10.5 million viewers in its final season.
"It has such a loyal fan base," Berger says. "We thought, 'Are we setting ourselves up to be compared to the original for all of time?' At the same time, it's a world we knew and loved. Isaac and I met at NYU, lived together as roommates in the East Village, went out to bars with friends, hung out on rooftops and talked till dawn. Whatever fears we had were overridden by how excited we were to take on the project."
Hulu was excited enough to order a twenty-episode second season. "We'll have the space to arc out our romantic mystery," Aptaker says, "while also having the room to tell those fun, standalone 'crazy night in New York where you stayed up till dawn' stories that we often didn't have room for in season one."
The mystery, of course, is the identity of the father, which remains classified, known only to the showrunners. At the end of episode one, viewers were teased with four potential candidates. Of those, Duff believes that handsome, aspiring musician–Uber driver Jesse (Christopher Lowell) — still smarting from a rejected marriage proposal that went viral — is the best fit. "Jesse has this cynical outer shell and Sophie is so exuberant and positive," Duff points out. "She'll eventually bring out who Jesse is."
For good measure, a fifth suitor, cultured vice-principal Drew (Josh Peck), was cleverly introduced at the end of episode three, a quick flashback revealing a chance encounter he and Sophie had in episode one. But love is fickle, both in life and on television. In a series of end-of-season twists that would make The Bachelor proud, Sophie broke up with Drew, cooled with Jesse and welcomed one of the early candidates, marine biologist Ian (Daniel Augustin), just back from Australia.
The show's most poignant subplot involves Jesse's adopted Asian sister, Ellen (Tien Tran), who's just moved to New York after a divorce from her wife. Separated early when their own parents divorced, brother and sister are virtual strangers, tentatively trying to forge a familial bond. Their mixed-race pairing recalls brothers Barney (Neil Patrick Harris) and James (Wayne Brady) in HIMYM, one of many connective threads that link the two shows.
"Jesse and Ellen are asking, 'What is our sibling dynamic when we're trying to get to know each other so late in life, when we don't have this shared history to lean back on?'"Aptaker explains.
Duff, initially hesitant to take on the role of Sophie, was relieved to learn the show was a sequel and not a reboot. "Elizabeth and Isaac made me feel confident that these were all new characters, and that Sophie was on her own track and her own adventure to figure out her life," she says.
As for their lead, Aptaker offers, "Who isn't a fan of Hilary Duff?
She has that star quality — you care who she ends up with and you root for her right away."
In real life, Duff is settled into domestic bliss, married to musician-producer Matthew Koma. It's a life her character can only aspire to.
"Sophie's on a journey of self-discovery, looking inward and figuring out who she is," Berger says. "We make a point in the first episode that she's been on eighty-seven Tinder dates. If you've been on that many dates, maybe there is something in your life that you have to figure out before you end up with your perfect match."
Still, "Sophie puts a positive spin on everything," Duff says. "She's the girl who, even if none of her friends can come out that night, something magical will happen to her. I guess I'm a lot more jaded. I don't feel as trusting in love as she does. She's willing to put herself out there, and I commend her for that."
Aptaker and Berger's own destinies were shaped early. Growing up in the Boston suburbs, Aptaker penned a Boy Meets World spec when he was ten. Down in Queens, Berger offered frequent advice to the head writer of Sesame Street — who happened to be her father, Lou Berger.
Following their "meet cute" at NYU, the two teamed up once they'd heard each other's work read aloud in screenwriting class. "We found the same things funny and the same stories interesting," Aptaker recalls.
They won a $10,000 grant to produce a thirty-minute pilot, which they filmed out of their apartment. The title of that project, The Walk-Up, became the name of the production company they launched in 2019. In a good omen for their budding collaboration, "We didn't murder each other through that process of turning our tiny living room into a set," Aptaker says.
"We became friends and had a lot of fun together," Berger adds. "It felt like a good mix for a partnership."
Once they'd moved to L.A, the partners worked on shows like Friends with Benefits, I Want My Pants Back and Grandfathered before landing at This Is Us in 2016.
"They happen to be crazy talented and have an eye for putting things on TV that make people feel good," Duff says.
Those good feelings were in constant flow on This Is Us, where Mandy Moore played family matriarch Rebecca Pearson. "When I first met [Elizabeth and Isaac], I thought, 'They're so young, so accomplished,'" she says. "Dan [Fogelman] trusted them implicitly, so I totally got on board."
This Is Us has brought both Aptaker and Berger four Emmy nominations — in 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2021 — when the series competed as outstanding drama. Its conclusion marks the end of a show like none other, one that made inventive use of parallel timelines to interweave the stories of generations of the Pearson clan. For the past two seasons, it has signposted its teary finale, teasing flash forwards to a future when Rebecca lies dying of Alzheimer's.
"I don't think I'll ever again have the opportunity to play someone from her mid-twenties to her mid-eighties and everything she experiences," Moore observes. "Losing a child, losing a spouse, remarrying, having grandchildren, trying to resurrect a music career — there's so much that lives in these stories."
Berger acknowledges, "It's an extraordinary chapter of our life, and I'm not sure we'll feel anything like it again. Of course, you feel pressure to give fans the ending they've been waiting for." And, Aptaker adds, "You want to make sure everyone gets a really nice last moment."
Fans of Love, Victor were saddened by the news that the coming-of-age series — which picks up where Aptaker and Berger's romantic comedy-drama, Love, Simon left off — will conclude after season three. But the season two cliffhanger gave viewers much to buzz about.
The titular hero — high schooler Victor Salazar, played by Michael Cimino — spent all of season one working up the courage to come out as gay to his family. But at the close of the second season, he finds himself with two potential love interests, longtime boyfriend Benji (George Sear) and sensitive newcomer Rahim (Anthony Keyvan). In the final shot, Victor shows up at a doorstep, there's a closeup of his hand ringing a doorbell... and the screen fades to black.
"Fans on Twitter were so passionate and divided about who's behind that door," Aptaker says. "You can't figure it out!" Berger interjects. "Don't even try!"
Via email, director Jason Ensler writes: "The key to achieving our cliffhanger was to embrace ambiguity; the ambiguity of the doorbell — which is purposefully misleading — and the ambiguity of the space behind Victor at the door. We used much longer lenses than usual, which created a compressed and nondescript background for Victor. And in a world where an audience can study frame by frame, there had to be no room for accurate interpretation; only emotional guesswork on the part of the audience."
Aptaker and Berger recently re-upped a three-year overall deal with 20th Television, their longtime studio. "They are the full package — gifted, ambitious, able to write any genre," says Karey Burke, president of 20th Television. "They are also grounded, lovely human beings, which they'd have every excuse not to be, given how talented they are."
The duo continues to expand into feature films as well. Aptaker and Berger recently wrote and produced I Want You Back for Prime Video. Directed by Jason Orley (Big Time Adolescence), the romantic comedy stars Charlie Day and Jenny Slate as jilted lovers who scheme to win back their exes (Gina Rodriguez and Scott Eastwood) by sabotaging their new relationships.
"We love the grounded old rom-coms like When Harry Met Sally — where it feels like it's taking place in our actual reality and the characters feel like your funniest friends that you see at the bar,"
"We're always looking to do new things," adds Aptaker. Those things include Turtles All the Way Down, a film for HBO Max based on the 2017 novel by John Green. "It's a pure drama about a young woman struggling with very serious mental health issues," he explains. "That will be a complete departure for us. There's 'rom' in there, but not a lot of 'com.'"
Seasons one through six of This Is Us are available on Hulu and NBC.com; seasons one and two of Love, Victor are available on Hulu, with season three debuting June 15; season one of How I Met Your Father is available on Hulu.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine issue #6, 2022, under the title, "The Art of Us."