May 20, 2024

SPOILER ALERT: This story contains spoilers for “Smile,” the fourth episode of Season 2 of “Shining Vale,” now streaming on the Starz app.

With each passing episode on the set of Starz’s horror comedy “Shining Vale,” Greg Kinnear made a habit of asking co-creator Jeff Astrof how he planned to get the characters out of the spooky corners he backed them into.

“And every time I told him, ‘Just trust me, we’re gonna get out of it,’” Astrof tells Variety. But even he admits the latest twist required some extra explaining.

In the final moments of Episode 4, mere minutes after Pat (Courteney Cox) and Terry (Kinnear) tell their children Gaynor (Gus Birney) and Jake (Dylan Gage) they are getting a divorce, Pat learns she is pregnant. The baby could be amnesiac Terry’s, with whom Pat had reconnected before he learned about his wife’s affair –– again. But given the nature of the haunted house series, it is far more likely the baby was conceived during the demonic dream orgy Pat found herself at the center of during last week’s episode.

After pitching the twist, Astrof says the logical first question that arose in the writers room was a respectful but realistic ”How?” Even Cox, who is 59 years old, questioned the viability of the pregnancy –– if only for a moment.

“Courteney was, of course, very game for it,” Astrof says. “When I first told her, she said, “Wow, holy shit! How are you going to do that?” I just said, “We’ll do it if you’ll do it!” And she was all in.”

Astrof confirms Pat’s pregnancy will launch “Shining Vale” into a full-fledged “Rosemary’s Baby” homage –– if that gives viewers any indication of who the father might be. But the twist itself is actually rooted in co-creator Sharon Horgan’s pilot script.

“Going back to Sharon’s original pages, she has this quote that opens our series that said, ‘Women are more than twice as likely as men to be depressed or demonically possessed –– and the symptoms are the same.’” Astrof says. “I did a deep dive on that, and basically a lot of it is because of hormones. There is something called hormonal schizophrenia, and the other groups that experience these mood changes and almost demonic-like symptoms are adolescents, which we have in Gaynor — and pregnant women. I thought that was fantastic.”

Courtesy of Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/Starz

The show has been laying the groundwork for this twist all season, especially with the introduction of Mira Sorvino’s new role as the empathetic, but nosy neighbor, Ruth. The character’s name is a nod to Ruth Gordon, who won an Oscar for playing the sinister neighbor Minnie in 1968’s “Rosemary’s Baby.” After Sorvino played the aptly named Rosemary, the murderous housewife haunting Pat in Season 1, Astrof said he was happy to hand the Oscar winner a new character to feast on. But he struggled with telling her that character would be based on Gordon.

“Every single person fought me on it but I said, “I’m not having Mira go from playing a ghost who masturbates in a bathtub to playing Ruth Gordon,” he says, laughing. “I just can’t do it! I couldn’t have that conversation with Mira. We wanted to give her more.”

This led to the introduction of Sorvino’s second new character this season –– Nellie Bly, the real-life journalist who had herself committed to an asylum in 1887 to author an exposé on the treatment of patients. The arrival of the character, who appears to Pat in a dream-like state, finally explains the photo Pat saw as she was being committed in the Season 1 finale — an image of an old asylum orderly who looked a lot like Rosemary.

“We did a lot of deep dives on women’s sanitariums, and we thought it would be interesting if what Pat saw was real, or at least thought it was real,” Astrof says. “So we thought, let’s have Mira do it.”

It is Nellie who terrifyingly delivers the news of Pat’s bundle of joy (or dread?) at the end of the episode, written in blood on her arm.

But “Rosemary’s Baby” won’t be the only classic horror movie given a spotlight this season. In recent episodes, Gaynor has become convinced she inherited the mental instability that landed her mother and her grandmother (Judith Light) in the asylum. This week’s encounter with a man in a black hat standing under a streetlamp outside her window doesn’t convince her otherwise. The image is an instantly recognizable nod to “The Exorcist,” which could mean Gaynor needs a visit from a holier power to break the family cycle.

“I love Gus as an actor, and I wanted to see how much I could write for her,” Astrof says. “I just don’t think we have found her ceiling yet. Plus, you get claustrophobic sometimes in a haunted house story. How many times can Pat see a ghost that isn’t a ghost? I had family trauma growing up, and it affected me, and who I am. That’s what family trauma does, and we want to explore that with Gaynor.”

Fresh trauma to sort through could be on the horizon as the Phelps family grapples with the reality of their newest addition, and Astrof took it all as a personal challenge to prove that Pat is not past her “Rosemary’s Baby” prime.

“I was just excited to see what could happen with this story, and I like the idea that Pat and Terry split up only to then have to face this unexpected life cycle later in life,” he says. “Plus, it gives us a chance to do some really spooky shit.”

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