“Limetown,” the podcast from creators Zack Akers and Skip Bronkie, was a runaway hit when it debuted in 2015 largely due to its use of format. Four years later, its creators are teaming up with Jessica Biel and Facebook, hoping “Limetown” can make a similar mark on screen.
Premiering at the height of the post-“Serial” true crime podcast boom, the audio version of “Limetown” borrowed the genre’s most distinctive trademarks to tell a fictional story about 300 people who disappeared from a shady Tennessee research facility without so much as a note. Framed as a radio series, the story was told through the voice of Lia Haddock, a journalist for the fictional American Public Radio whose uncle Emile Haddock was one of those who went missing.
“The best part was Jessica called me in a panic after she finished it, literally — she thought it was real,” Biel’s producing partner Michelle Purple said in an interview with TheWrap. “She started googling Lia Haddock, she started googling Limetown. I’m driving over Coldwater Canyon and she’s like, ‘Michelle, how have we not heard about this?'”
Biel’s momentary frenzy was convincing enough to get Purple to pull over and look it up herself. “Right then and there we were both like, ‘There’s something great here,'” she said. “And we can be a part of it.”
By the time they were approached by Akers and Bronkie, the “Limetown” adaptation had already been sold to Facebook’s streaming service, Facebook Watch. Biel and Purple jumped at the chance to produce the show, with Biel also signing on to star as Lia.
“I love this crazy story, I feel like it could totally happen,” Biel recalled thinking to herself. “I want to watch this show.”
Then came the million-dollar question, everyone involved was betting they could answer: How do you take a show specifically designed as an audio mystery and turn it into a TV series without sacrificing the elements that made it so successful in the first place?
For Biel and Purple, who first approached the project as listeners, the way in was clear. You go through Lia.
As voiced by Annie-Sage Whitehurst, the podcast’s Lia is your typically unflappable radio journalist. Her manner is subdued, her emotions are tempered; a studied riff on the relaxed, casual inflections of “Serial’s” Sarah Koenig and countless other podcast voices shaped by influence of NPR and Ira Glass. It’s that meticulously crafted ease that makes moments where Lia does sound out of control all the more jarring and makes “Limetown” such a compelling listen.
On Facebook, the camera stays with Lia even when she’s off mic. A scene early on shows her furiously scratching out a draft of her script, then taking a beat to steady herself and get into character before hitting record.
“In the podcast, Lia is very much the mechanism to get us through the story. She’s just kind of this hard-nosed reporter really going after the story,” Biel said. “So there was a lot of opportunity there for the character. Michelle and I thought long and hard about that. Is there enough here that we can make something, make a really, really compelling character?”
Right off the bat, Biel’s Lia is notably spikier than the character from the podcast. She’s driven by ego and quick with a defensive barb. Her commitment to the Limetown story and solving the mystery of her uncle’s disappearance verges on obsession and has alienated her almost entirely from the people around her. She has a new love interest for the show (perhaps more accurately, if somewhat clinically, described as a sexual partner) but little social life to speak of, and she shows no interest in being liked by the people she works with or understood by anyone at all.
To shape the character, Biel and Purple worked with Akers and Bronkie, who are serving as showrunners on the adaptation as well. They drew on both the existing material from the podcast and the 2018 prequel novel Akers and Bronkie wrote with author Cote Smith, which laid out in detail the backstories of Lia, Emile and Limetown.
“We had so much source material to work with,” Biel said. “All this history of this family. Her relationship to her parents, her relationship to her uncle, what her life was like growing up. We went back there and started there. What is this thing with her uncle? Why is the family dynamic strained? Why is it dysfunctional?”
“We took those really traumatic moments from her childhood and we worked from that point,” she said. “Take her relationship with her uncle … he’s like a rock to her. And when he gets taken away, there’s an abandonment issue there. Her safety’s been taken away. What happens and who do you become when those two things have happened to you?”
But while Lia’s personal issues inform and drive her professional life, “Limetown’s” producers came into the process consciously trying to avoid the much-maligned trope of the female journalist who can’t help but mix the two. There are no inappropriate sexual relationships with sources, she’s not an alcoholic stumbling her way through interviews, and no one is getting thrown under a train by a member of the U.S. Congress.
“This person, she really cares,” Biel said. She explained that the Lia sees the Limetown story as her “pathway” to getting answers about her family, and she knows she doesn’t get to the point in her career where she can get those answers without being a competent, accomplished journalist.
“She’s serious about it. That shows in her wardrobe. It shows in how she presents herself. She is a professional,” she said. “She has a big ego, and those things are important to her. She wants to play the part, she wants to get the story.”
If anything, the moral divide between Lia’s personal and professional selves bleeds in the opposite direction. She carries her recorder with her into personal interactions, listening back to tape of past interactions as she drifts off to sleep in what Biel describes as a voyeuristic form of “pain relief.”
“Some people drink, some people cut themselves, some people have to do certain things to feel something,” she said. “She’s releasing the pressure a little bit.”
For all that the show reveals about its central character, Facebook’s “Limetown” adaptation is largely faithful to its source material in terms of story and tone. With the creators of the podcast at the helm, it utilizes the platform’s tight half-hour running time for dramas to maintain much of the podcast’s structure and pacing, with key scenes and lines of dialogue re-created nearly word-for-word.
“I do think that the podcast mega-fans will not be disappointed. What they want to know and how they want it to end is what they get,” Biel said. The only significant changes to the story exist to serve the medium of the character.
“We only take major creative liberties a couple of times,” she said, “just to ratchet up the tension and to give Lia even bigger risks to weigh to decide if it’s worth it. If she’s willing to put her life at risk — to put other people’s lives at risk — to make these choices.”
New episodes of “Limetown” stream Wednesdays on Facebook Watch.