How NBC's sci-fi Listener will balance mythology with stand-alone stories

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

Star Craig Olejnik and producer Christina Jennings of NBC's upcoming series The Listener told reporters that the show is very much in the sci-fi vein and said that it embraces its genre roots.

The Listener follows Toby Logan (Olejnik), a 25-year-old paramedic with a special gift: He's a telepath. NBC will launch The Listener with a two-hour premiere on Thursday, with subsequent episodes airing on Thursdays throughout the summer.

SCI FI Wire was on the line last week when Olejnik (Thir13en Ghosts) and Jennings (ReGenesis) took part in a conference call with reporters. The following are edited excerpts from that conversation.

Is Toby really as good as he seems? Will he remain this really good Robin Hood kind of a character, or does he have some flaws?

Olejnik: Well, he's human. He's thankfully born with flaws, which, in my opinion, makes him exciting. Throughout the season there are certainly highs and lows, yes. I don't know where we're going in season two, but season one you're basically getting him at the beginning, him really beginning to explore this ability that he's always pushed off to the side. So, of course, with any new power, he's really learning how to wield it. So it's, you know, a young Jedi, basically, honing his powers. Trial and error. And with the help of [his mentor] Ray Mercer, played by Colm Feore, he's able to streamline his relationship with his ability.

Why it is that Ray says "No one must know"? Is someone after Toby? Is there something else going on the backstory that we haven't learned yet?

Jennings: Yes, I was just going to say that I think that one of the things we've said in terms of the series was that you wouldn't really want a lot of people to know that you could read minds. First of all, it would really affect your personal relationships, because people couldn't hide anything from you. And the other thing for Toby, I think, is what would happen if he got into the wrong people's hands. The fundamental question Toby asks himself is "How did I get this way? Are there others like me out there?" And that's really what drives [the story] week by week. And toward the end of the season we will realize that he is on other people's radar.

And why will people want to take their time to tune in to see the show?

Olejnik: For, basically, the adventures of Toby, and his gift. I think it's going to be about the relationship you have with the characters that people will connect to.

Jennings: You have in Toby Logan, in effect, a reluctant hero. He's someone who the gift has formed who he is. He's been a bit of a loner in his life. He's a good-looking guy that would really like this gift thing to go away and he can just go on being a normal person, but he can't.

And in the first episode, he realizes that he's heard a cry for help from a stranger. He could ignore it. And if he ignores it, something horrible might happen to that person he's never met. He knows nothing. But that day he realizes "I've been given this gift for a reason, and I have to do something." And so when you ask why would people want to watch it, I think there's something inherent in that there are people that are prepared to help true strangers. So I think that's one of the reasons we think people might want to tune in. I think the other [reason] is that I think that we don't take ourselves too seriously. We have fun in the show. There is some humor. And I think audiences are looking for that.

We've spoken to the producers and actors from such shows as Eleventh Hour and Jericho. They were very insistent that the shows were not science fiction, not fantasy. How strongly will The Listener embrace its genre roots?

Jennings: It very much does embrace its sci-fi roots. You know, there aren't telepaths in the world, and so we've always said that we are a soft sci-fi show. And as we look forward to the next season and the season beyond that, I think we'll see even a bit more of that come out.

Following that up, some shows are like Fringe, which are episode by episode very cool as stand-alones but offer a lot of backstory, mythology, inside stuff for people who watch every single episode religiously. And then there are shows like Lost, where you must watch every episode or you're completely lost. Where on that scale does The Listener fall?

Jennings: It's very much Fringe. That's actually a very good example. You can watch Fringe, miss three episodes and not realize there's a whole thing going on with his dad. So there is, ... we do try and answer those questions. "Are there others out there like me?" and "How did I become this way?" And, I think, probably by the end of the 13 hours, the 13th episode, we start to get glimpses into some of those questions more. So, very much, you can miss a couple of shows in the middle and it won't affect your enjoyment.