Veteran showrunners Adam Armus and Nora Kay Foster say their “addicting” new NBC series “American Odyssey” is not the same terrorism story Hollywood has told for the past 15 years – and a look at the pilot, which premieres tonight, bears that out.
“The kind of story that we’re trying to tell is a story of hope,” Armus said in an interview with TheWrap.
“You’re an ordinary person, you don’t have any sort of a license or a gun or anything particular that makes you powerful, but you can make a difference,” he added.
Armus and Foster have been a writing team for more than two decades, collaborating on “Xena: Warrior Princess” and NBC’s “Heroes” among other series. The gritty realism of the multiple storylines in “American Odyssey,” which was created by Armus, Foster and Peter Horton, is a departure from the type of story they’d created for much of their careers.
“Adam and I come from a world of superheroes,” Foster told TheWrap.
It was important, then, that the characters and cultures depicted in “American Odyssey” be as relatable as possible.
“We’re looking at these stories through the eyes of the people inhabiting them, and they are real people with real families and real life goals,” Foster said.
The series follows Army Sgt. Odelle Ballard — played by Anna Friel who is relatively unknown outside of ABC’s small but loyal fanbase for short-lived “Pushing Daisies” — as she struggles to make it home after discovering a dangerous government secret during a raid in Mali. The truth of what Odelle finds and the truth of what happens to her in north Africa drives multiple intricate storylines through an often violent conspiracy.
Foster admits that the violence against Friel’s character was, at times, quite disturbing to her.
“I really struggle with that, I have to say,” Foster said.
“There were times at which I really, really didn’t want to go the direction we were going,” she added, but said the tables turn when Odelle starts to fight back.
Foster and Armus were not worried about Friel’s ability to handle the intensity of the role – eventually.
“She’s small in stature,” Armus said. “We were a little wary about that – can she carry all the equipment, can she carry the gun?”
But Friel put in four hours a day training with the men who make up her unit of soldiers to toughen up for the role.
That role, Armus said, was coveted among a particular group of Hollywood stars.
“Actresses of a certain age, they move to TV at a certain time, and a lot of actresses wanted this part,” Armus said. “This is a very strong female lead. But honestly we wanted the best actress for the role, and Anna – she brought it, and we’re so happy with her.”
Big name actors and actresses headlining limited series or short-season shows have been a mixed bag lately. CBS boasted Academy Award winner Halle Berry in Steven Spielberg‘s “Extant” last summer, which was renewed despite a middling 1.7 average rating in the 18 to 49 demographic.
Foster and Armus said British actress Friel’s relative anonymity is a strength, allowing viewers to immerse themselves in Odelle Ballard’s plight.
The reality of the culture in north Africa in part dictated the depiction of that struggle.
“We wanted to be realistic in that portrayal,” Armus said.
“Trapped in this culture in north Africa outside of big cities – it’s not an easy place for a woman generally, and for an American woman soldier it’s going to be even harder,” he added. “So it was our intent to show that realistically, but also show the fact that she perseveres and that she fights back.”
The choice of Mali, a large but sparsely populated country in northwestern Africa, was intended to reflect the changing landscape of Islamist terrorism, the showrunners said.
“When we originally wrote this more than three years ago, we set in the typical place which was Afghanistan and Iraq, those areas, and you know, everybody tells those stories,” Armus said.
“We knew that If we’re going to be future looking, [north Africa] is where all the problems are happening now, and so that’s why we decided to make the change,” he added. “When we brought it to the network, and we pitched them the idea of changing it, they were happy about it, because people were tired of the same old locations.”
But the showrunners said it was critical for them to represent multiple points of view within each of their stories, including and especially within the Muslim cultures portrayed.
“Our intent was to show Muslim culture, to show Islam as not monolithic, as something that, just like in any culture, has people from all stripes and with all kinds of points of view,” Armus said.
“Evenhandedly, we hope,” Foster added.
As far as that last-minute name change (NBC changed the title from “Odyssey” to “American Odyssey” just a few weeks before Sunday’s premiere), Foster and Armus said they welcomed the switch.
The idea was to tell a modern-day story of a soldier returning home against all odds, like Homer’s “Odyssey,” but the public just didn’t get it.
“As we got closer to launch, people were sort of confused by the name – is it Homer’s ‘Odyssey’? Is it a Greek show?” Armus said.
“Actually, somebody asked me if it was sci-fi,” Foster added.
So the network pitched adding “American” at the top, and the rest is history.
And no, the producers are not miffed that their show is now a part of the legion of “American [NOUN]” titled projects – like “American Sniper,” “American Dad” and “American Crime.” If it helps clarify the concept of the show, they say, it’s an important fix.
“I’m actually glad they changed the name,” Foster said.
And if got people talking about the show – well, as they say, no publicity is bad publicity.
“American Odyssey” premieres tonight at 10/9c on NBC.