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Weird City's Charlie Sanders on crafting a different kind of anthology series with Jordan Peele
There's a lot of excitement building up to the launch of Jordan Peele's revival of The Twilight Zone anthology series on April 1, but not many are aware that he's also got a new, original, six-episode sci-fi anthology that's dropped already. Weird City, currently available on YouTube Premium, is the brainchild of Peele and executive producer/showrunner Charlie Sanders, an Emmy-nominated writer on Key & Peele.
Boasting a roster of guest actors that includes heavyweights like LeVar Burton, Michael Cera, Rosario Dawson, Awkwafina, Laverne Cox, Ed O'Neill, Steven Yeun, and more, Weird City tells stories of a near-future city that literally separates the haves and the have-nots with a dividing line. What their lives looks like, and how the absurdity of technology unfolds in this playground, is the heart of what the show explores.
As the guy known for writing the weird sci-fi sketches on Key & Peele, Sanders says he and Peele talked about making an actual series from those ideas as far back as 2011. A Hulu series never got past development, but the idea was resuscitated by YouTube Originals as an anthology. Unlike contemporaries such as Black Mirror and Electric Dreams, however, Weird City has a through-line: LeVar Burton's character, Dr. Negari. Sanders tells us how Burton came to be the connective tissue of the series, and what they're trying to say about humanity in their stories ...
Was the series always constructed to take place in one city, connected by the Dr. Negari character?
No. We initially were just planning to have it be just a straight-up anthology, like all those other shows, but then I liked the character of Dr. Negari so much that I wrote him into another episode, and that started the snowball effect. That's kind of cool, and I've never seen it before, so I'm glad I stumbled onto it.
How many of the stories were older stories from development versus new stories?
It was a mix. One of the episodes, I had talked to Jordan about in the very, very early days of Key & Peele. And then two episodes we came up with when we were first going in to pitch it. Me, Jordan, and Sam Hanson from Mosaic all had lunch together and just started throwing around ideas, including [the pilot] "The One." I ended up writing all of those up during the Hulu process, plus an extra one. So we had four when we went to YouTube, and then me and two other writers on the show came up with two more.
How much was Jordan able to participate when the show was picked up to series?
He was busy making Us, so he wasn't there on the day-to-day, but he was a sounding board. I'd throw ideas at him. He'd throw ideas at me. And we went back and forth. He was available for me over the phone when I needed to talk about stuff.
Was there an early decision to write a series that was meant to be seen by all ages?
We wanted it to be TV-14 because I wanted to reach the biggest audience possible. Also, the inspiration for this show draws from different shows I watched when I was under 18, like Amazing Stories. And what I also liked about Amazing Stories is that they told horror stories, sci-fi stories; I wanted to do all those things. So there are darker, more disturbing, more horror-esque stories, but it does keep a comedic optimism throughout.
Let's talk about the aesthetics of the city. It looks futuristic, but not so far ahead to be distancing. How does that reflect your storytelling?
I always wanted it to be like that. When people would ask me how far in the future is it, I'd say about 30 years. A lot of the stuff we have has been heightened, but it can still look quite a bit like today, and I like that because I want the commentary to be about today. We had this really brilliant production designer, Gary Kordan, and Adam Bernstein, who directed the first two episodes, and the three of us talked a lot about how we make this look a little bit in the future, but not too far.
How did you get such an eclectic array of actors to sign up?
As far as the guest stars, that was more me and the other EPs and YouTube just being like, "Who do you think would be cool for these parts?" It was sky's the limit, and just throwing names around. Then it was so helpful to have Jordan as a producer on the project, because he would email them and go, "Hey, would you read this script that Charlie wrote?" Normally, they probably wouldn't. But almost every guest star, to a person, told me that they were interested because Jordan was producing, and then, when they read the script, they were like, "I want to do this show."
Lastly but not least, was LeVar somebody that was on Jordan's list to ask?
I was thinking specifically of him for Dr. Negari. I just wanted him in there, somewhere. I feel like I've been a fan of LeVar Burton longer than I've been a fan of any other person. The first show I ever watched was Reading Rainbow. So I was so amped when he said he'd do it, specifically for that character.
Watch Episode 1, "The One":