Since ABC Family changed its name to Freeform last year, their programming has been undergoing a bit of a genre renaissance. While their demo firmly remains teen- and young adult-oriented, shows like Dead of Summer, Stitchers and Shadowhunters: The Mortal Instruments are broadening their base by targeting the YA audience that likes some high concept in their TV relationship dramas. Their latest, Beyond, comes with some serious genre television pedigree, as it's executive-produced under Tim Kring's shingle and co-showrun by Adam Nussdorf, formerly of Lost and Once Upon a Time in Wonderland, and David Eick, of the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica.
Beyond focuses on the weird and semi-tragic tale of 13-year-old Holden Matthews. An average kid from an average family, in the opening teaser he's pulled to a place in the woods where something very strange happens to him, which puts him in a coma for 12 years. He awakens in a 25-year-old body, with the world having moved on, including his wounded and ever-hopeful family. How he just happens to wake up and be prone to more weird occurrences is the thrust of the engaging series that feels like a mash-up of Big and The Twilight Zone. Anchored by a charming and heartfelt performance by Burkely Duffield as Holden, and a great, grounded supporting cast, Beyond engages from the pilot laying out the pathos of adolescence set against some very trippy sci-fi storytelling.
In an exclusive interview with creator Nussdorf and veteran executive producer Eick, the pair talk about how they've constructed their show based on their good, and bad, experiences writing for recent genre series, inspiring Holden's journey via some classic dramas, and how the show can be binged all at once starting today.
Where did the inspiration for Beyond start?
Adam: The minute I got kicked out of my office for Once Upon a Time in Wonderland, I needed an idea. [Laughs] Beyond came about from wanting to write a spec script to write on another show. I'm a big science fiction fan too, so something in that supernatural element. I couldn't write a doctor show or a lawyer show. I don't know that space. The only thing I know is what I grew up with, which is a middle class, suburban family. I love family dramas, like we talk a lot about Ordinary People, which is a huge influence, or Running on Empty and American Beauty. I wanted to tell a story about a family turned upside down, but no one dies. How about a coma, and then one thing led to the next, which is if he fell into a coma at 13, would he still have that mindset when he wakes up? How would it affect the family? The icing on the cake is that there's a lot we don't know about human consciousness, so then what if his consciousness was able to travel? So another big influence is Stephen King with Firestarter and what can we do with the brain if we're pushed.
David: This was an existing thing when I came onto it, but the references we were making to its ongoing life were not only similar but odd, like Ordinary People. It cracked open a lot of new thought. Early on we said we don't want this to be Escape From Witch Mountain, where a kid has powers and the government chases the kid. So we then looked at Altered States, and documentaries about Ayahuasca, or the God Particle. These are people who are Ivy League Ph.D.s convinced that there is a whole untapped universe that all living things share that we know almost nothing about. There is something in the air right now about what it means to be a human being with a brain we only understand a tiny piece about. All of that takes us way away from a kid with powers, and more into the powers are accidental side effects that he can't control coming from this journey. In fact he blanches at the word "powers," because that implies intent or control which he doesn't have.
Great sci-fi always lives in the metaphor, and Holden grappling with his man's body in a brand new world certainly speaks to the terrifying aspects of puberty and change.
Adam: When you are telling a story about adolescence, you want to be normal and fit in, but what can we throw at this character that makes him so far from normal? It all ties back to this idea of growing up and being comfortable with who you are, and in your own body.
Both of you come from shows with serialized storytelling, and the mysteries of Holden's circumstances are certainly tipped up to follow that path by the end of the pilot. Did you write the series knowing it would be binge-dropped on audiences?
Adam: No, we didn't know that. Certainly some episodes are more mythology driven, and then we'll take a break and one will be purely about Holden asking someone out on a date. It's a constant balance, even deciding when to dole out pieces of mythology. We are both conscious of not withholding from the audience. When you know a creator has all the answers and they save all the answers to the ninth episode, and you sense that, then you ask why am I watching one through eight? But at the same time, mystery is such a beautiful thing in storytelling, so it's finding the balance of just giving them enough to follow but still holding onto the great reveal.
David: In this case too, we spent the first chunk of the writer's room just talking about the mythology and not the stories. What is the universe we are going to explore? What are its rules? What genre tropes do we want to embrace, avoid, or subvert? We both have been in situations where we saw an absence of proper mythology planning that threw a show off the rails. But at the same time, I'm a big believer that you don't figure out so much ahead of time that you lose the opportunity of a great idea that comes up at a late stage. Often with genre shows now, it's a beautiful pilot directed by someone who won Oscars, but then you get a sense the show had no road map. Our show won't be known for that. Even when you may not know what's going on, we've figured some shit out. [Laughs]
Is there a model that helped you figure out your mix?
Adam: Lost was so good at just focusing on the characters. The flashbacks were so engaging that they could be a show. It's that devotion to character that made the sci-fi stuff work. It made it thrilling because you cared about the journey of these people so finding that balance was important. So overall, the character stuff and the mythology stuff have to work independently from one another. If you take the mythology stuff out, the character stuff has to have an arc and grounded story. And if you take the characters out, the mythology has to be fresh and new and exciting. It should tease a larger, intriguing story.
One of the standout elements of the show is your cast. Burkely really makes you feel for Holden's dilemma, and he's supported by Jonathan Whitesell as his empathetic brother Luke, and his parents, played by Michael McGrady and Romy Rosemont.
David: Thank you. The cast is so great. We have done all this homework but television is about this [pointing to Burkely Duffield's face on the promo card]. Because we got this guy, we will be 51% of the way there with the storytelling.
How hard was it to find Burkely Duffield?
Adam: It was difficult but this wasn't a feature so we weren't looking for nine months. We looked in LA and Vancouver and basically had a month and half.
With the first season, how much time does the series cover in Holden's acclimation to his new reality?
Adam: It's a couple weeks. So many of these episodes use direct pick-ups so a couple episodes are just two or three days. It's all part of the same story. Episodes may stand out because Holden does this or that but all 10 are one cohesive story.
Beyond premieres Jan. 2 at 9pm EST/8pm CT, or you can binge all 10 episodes now on Freeform.