South Orange resident Melissa Wood gives us the grand tour of a documentary series.
You probably know actor, comedian, writer, and podcaster Rainn Wilson best from the wildly popular NBC comedy The Office, in which he gained a huge following playing the character Dwight Schrute, assistant (to the) regional manager of the Dunder Mifflin Paper Company. In his most recent project, Wilson trades his Scranton workplace for an international journey to figure out just what it is that makes a country “happy.”
Rainn Wilson and the Geography of Bliss began streaming on Peacock in May 2023, a five-episode series based on Eric Weiner’s New York Times bestselling book, The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World. “What if I traveled the world exploring what makes some places happier than others?” says Wilson during the show’s introduction. “It’s been said that the search for happiness is the chief source of unhappiness. That’s okay. I’m already unhappy. So I got nothing to lose.” Spanning four continents, the travelogue takes a comedic deep dive into multiple cultures and resurfaces with many heartening stories.
And if you haven’t heard of the World Happiness Report, well, it’s actually a thing. Iceland is up on the top of the list and Bulgaria is down low – but the series gives you a lot of delightful surprises that veer from the statistics.
“Geography of Bliss” has a decidedly local connection. South Orange resident Melissa Wood served as executive producer for the project, playing a crucial role in managing the creative vision and logistics of a show that casts a wide international net. As far as Wood is concerned, Rainn Wilson was the ideal host for such a project.
“There are a lot of travel shows out there right now – and a lot of travel hosts. But for Rainn, this is something personal,” says Wood. “He started a media company over a decade ago called SoulPancake, which is meant to explore life’s big questions – spirituality, depression, happiness. He’s naturally inclined to think about these bigger ideas.” Wilson is a practitioner of the Baha’i faith and his newest book, Soul Boom: Why We Need a Spiritual Revolution, was published in 2023.
As soon as Wood was approached with the show’s pitch, she was eager to sign on. “Everybody on the team felt that way. You want to be part of something that feels positive and celebrates humanity and has depth,” she says. “We were coming out of [the pandemic] in late 2021, Covid restrictions were starting to lift, and it felt like an amazing opportunity to reenter the world and reconnect with an optimistic pursuit.”
Wood’s previous documentary work made her an ideal candidate for this particular project. After growing up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, she made her way to New York. In 2015, Wood and her family moved to Maplewood from Brooklyn. “It’s the origin story for everybody here,” she jokes. After living in Maplewood for a year, the family moved over to South Orange. Her husband, Don, is a medical-surgical nurse and their 10-year-old daughter, Leona, will attend fifth grade at South Mountain Elementary this fall.
“I originally thought I would go into narrative film,” she recalls. But that changed when she got a tip about a documentary production company that was looking for an intern. “It wasn’t what I was originally looking for, but I feel so lucky that it happened,” she says. Wood’s impressive resume includes work appearing on Netflix, National Geographic, Showtime, Discovery, A&E, Peacock, and more. Previous documentary subjects include the secret service (“Secret Service: On the Front Line”), video game history (“High Score”), and an exploration of the landscape, land rights, and the environment of the U.S. (“American Outdoors”).
“Geography of Bliss” presents several challenges for an executive producer. Since the travelogue takes place in Iceland, Ghana, Bulgaria, and Thailand (with a concluding episode in Los Angeles), Wood and the team had their hands full scheduling the production. From a cultural perspective, Wood knew that finding the most engaging, surprising, and compelling people to interview was a top priority.
Wilson meets an assemblage of fascinating locals who usher him through his journey. “In every country we go to we hire a local producer to introduce us to people,” she says. “We’ll have lots of conversations with them about the kinds of stories we’re looking for. And then they’ll have a neighbor who they think is really interesting, and then that neighbor might have another suggestion.”
When Wilson travels to Bulgaria, he reminds us that the country scored low on the World Happiness Report. He follows a famous Bulgarian musician, Ivo Dimchev, who performs intimate house concerts for families – a ritual he began during the Covid shutdown. For all of Wilson’s curmudgeonly talk about happiness, he is genuinely touched by the event.
While Iceland rates high on the report, the population takes more antidepressants than any country on Earth. He interviews former Reykjavik mayor Jón Gnarr, a comedian who formed “The Best Party” and has said he wouldn’t form a coalition with anyone who hasn’t seen The Wire. And in Ghana, we are introduced to Esenam Nyador, known as “Miss Taxi.” She’s one of a very small group of female taxi drivers in Ghana working as a social activist to change gender norms.
The exchanges between Wilson and the people he meets are often surprising and comedic. Wood, however, wanted the series to have a variety of tones.
“We wanted to make sure that in every episode, we had an ‘it’s complicated’ beat. We didn’t want it to be a show where [the takeaway] was that life is so simple here and if you move to Iceland, everything would be great. Because life is complicated, no matter where you go,” she says. “We just wanted to find a balance between being optimistic, but also realistic about what people can expect out of a place.”
Wilson’s background in theater led him to a meeting with a local theater troupe in Accra. The group named itself the Drama Queens and explores LGBTQIA subject matter despite Ghana’s recently passed anti-LBGT bill. “That was the most complicated in terms of security,” says Wood. The troupe is forced to keep its rehearsals secret and constantly relocates its meetings. While some actors were masked to conceal their identity, others decided to show their faces. “I think part of being an activist is showing your face and not being afraid of the consequences that it might bring,” she says. “Their mission is to get the word out with their fight.”
Politics presented major challenges to the executive producer team. Russia’s attack on Ukraine forced them to change the countries they would film. “We were originally prepping to go to Moldova and Finland. When the war in Ukraine happened, Moldova was off the list. And then Finland started to get dicey [because of the proximity to Russia],” says Wood. “Obviously, there are countries that have been dealing with the fallout of war for decades, and we had to be aware of what was in our wheelhouse and what was off the table.”
The production company had to scrap an episode that would have taken place in the United Arab Emirates. “We were wrapping in Ghana. We were on top of a mountain there and I got this text about an emergency phone call because we were flying to Dubai the next morning,” Wood recalls. “I didn’t know what was going on. Apparently, The Real Housewives of Dubai had premiered and the royal family was not happy with the way their country had been represented. They basically fired everybody in the permit office. And then our permit got pulled.”
Complications aside, Wood found the project to be extremely fulfilling. “I’m still learning the lessons from the experience of making the show and I did start to see things with a different lens when I came back here,” she says. “No place is happy all the time … there’s always an ‘it’s complicated’ chapter and there are definitely complicated chapters in our community as well. But I think that we really create an environment where people feel like they can connect with their neighbors. I feel like our community has all the ingredients.”
Donny Levit is a writer, Maplewood resident, and the author of Rock n’ Roll Lies, 10 Stories. Follow him on Instagram @undertheinfluenceradio,
@kindofpoolradio and @newishradio.