These questions inspired her to do a high school project about the lack of “people like us” on TV. She made it funny, and people liked it, so she kept writing and trying to be funny. Her determination wavered a bit at Ryerson University where she took a degree in Radio and Television Arts and, technically, headed for a career in journalism. “The other day I found drafts of all these letters I was sending out. ‘Dear Marketplace, I would really like to write for the show.’ That kind of thing. I just wanted to write, really. And step by step, I got there.”
First she was a lowly script co-ordinator on Our Hero and then a script she wrote landed with Linda Schuyler, co-creator of the Degrassi series and executive producer of Degrassi: The Next Generation. In 2007 Santamaria was a writer on the show and executive story editor. “I was star-struck by Degrassi,” she says. “My sister and I watched the original series when we were kids. It was a show that felt Canadian, that felt like it was about people like us. It’s a legendary show. People here in L.A. are actually very impressed that I worked on Degrassi.”
That period was a golden age for Degrassi. Two of the female leads would become major stars, Nina Dobrev on Vampire Diaries and Shenae Grimes on 90210. But it was actor Aubrey Graham, now known as the superstar singer Drake, whom Santamaria remembers most fondly. “I loved writing for him. He was a natural. Drake wouldn’t know me from hole in the ground, but it was pleasure to create stories for his character.”
The Degrassi job led to Little Mosque on the Prairie, another show that, she felt, inched toward depicting the Canada represented by her family. She is emphatically dismissive of the idea that the show is controversial. “ Little Mosque is a light family comedy about a community that lives in rural Saskatchewan. The fact that the show was even considered ‘controversial’ should have been the controversy. In my opinion, depicting Muslims and Islam shouldn’t automatically be met with more contention than depicting any other faith would.”
After Little Mosque came How To Be Indie, that first “real job,” and a very personal creation that, because it was aimed at that age group between kids and teenagers, flew under the radar of Canadian media coverage. But it had a huge and devoted audience on YTV. The flimsiest of shows, it was about little Indie Mehta (Melinda Shankar) dealing with both school and family, where she felt little understood – but everything worked out as long as she had a sense of humour about culture clashes and boys.
“I just channelled family, my relationships and the situation of my friends,” says Santamaria.
In 2010, she moved to LA. “I had five seconds of bravery,” she says. “I just decided to do it. I’d written a spec script for a new show and decided to try to make it in L.A., in the TV world here. If I hadn’t had those five seconds, I’d still be in Canada.”
She had few contacts, but a meeting with bosses of the NBC comedy Outsourced, one of the network’s highly-touted shows for the 2010/11 season, led to an instant job offer. The show, a satire set at an Indian call centre, a workplace to which American jobs have been lost, was risky for NBC. Would American viewers find the Mumbai setting exotic or would they hate it?
Reviews were mixed and the ratings went up and down for a show that was, for network TV, daringly droll about cultural mix-ups between American bosses and Indian workers. “What did I learn? For now, America still likes their Indian characters in small doses, I guess,” she says ruefully. “Some of the feedback bordered on racist. It was a time when this Canadian was baffled by the fuss.”
When NBC cancelled Outsourced last year, she was hired to work on Community, another show considered risky, though more for creative and storytelling tactics than cultural reasons. And while she waits for her episode to air, she works. Always writing. “I'm currently consulting on, as well as in talks, to develop projects for CBC and CTV. I'm helping friends develop another show, working on my own comedy pilot. I can’t stop writing. This meeting is a real distraction from it.”
So I let her go back to work, back to Hollywood, where she made it in the TV business. And her family should be impressed, as any family would be.