I have an 8-year-old daughter and a good deal of my time and bandwidth is spent consuming various forms of totally mind-numbing entertainment with her. Much of what is produced for kids, particularly the serialized stuff, isn’t especially great and it can be tedious to sit through it. Not everything, especially in serialized form, can be Moana or a Pixar film. So when a show comes along that is smart, treats its audience with respect and care, and has entertainment value for parents and kids alike comes along, we parents get excited and become advocates for it. A few years ago one of those shows was the much beloved PBS’s Odd Squad.
I am hoping that Will vs. The Future, a show created by Tim McKeon, one of Odd Squad’s co-creators, will be another.
The pilot for Will vs. The Future is available to watch on Amazon for free through Friday, and then the provider will decide whether or not to green light the series.
The show is a middle-school-based comedy that leans heavily on Terminator tropes—its opening scene is heavy with jokes that poke fun at the tropes themselves—and it features a cast of characters both racially diverse and representative of socioeconomic realities viewers don’t typically see on kids shows.
I recently had the pleasure of talking with Will vs. The Future creator Tim McKeon for the second time—the first was when I interviewed him and Odd Squad co-creator Adam Peltzman a few years back when that [great] show was in between seasons. This time around I got to see McKeon while I was out in Los Angeles, which was a treat because seemingly devoid of ego, he’s just this guy who is really excited to make good television. We talked about the pilot, representation in kids programming, and what he hopes to see happen with the series should it get picked up.
Odd Squad was rooted in sort of a off-the-wall fantastical reality, and Will vs. The Future is as well but in a very different direction. Why did you go the Science Fiction route?
It always starts with trying to make something funny and entertaining, but I think with fantastical genres you can explore so many cool things and ideas. And with this show there are all of these undercurrents of ideas we get to explore. There is free will versus destiny on one hand and then there is the middle school story. There are all these high school stories out there about people discovering who they are, but it’s really middle school where it hits that you’re not a kid anymore.
You have Thomas F. Wilson playing the principal, and by way of his work in Back to the Future [Biff] and then in Freaks and Geeks [Coach Fredricks], his oeuvre represents both of these arenas.
Definitely! And he’s so great in this. He’s always so great. In middle school, there are all these influences around you, and you’re battling with who you think you are versus who people say you are. That was a really fun idea to wrap up in this sci-fi world.
Really, I just love sci-fi and I love time travel. In the Odd Squad writers room we reached a point where I wasn’t allowed to pitch any more time travel stories. I think we did 5? Then I worked on Gravity Falls and there is time travel in that. I worked on Adventure Time and there’s time travel in that. Any time there is an opportunity to squeeze in time travel, I’ll do it. I love it.
Is this show a bigger production than Odd Squad was? You have some great sets and dynamic effects.
It’s a big show—much bigger than Odd Squad, though we got really good at stretching budgets over there to make the show look big. If this goes to series, it is going to be really heavy on the sci-fi where the goal will be to show the future world.
The actors in this show are so great. The kids are fantastic. I recently saw kids television movie that was cast diversely, but all the characters of color and characters with accents were “the bad guys” and it felt like a huge fumble. It feels like you’re setting something up here that’s more complicated. Can you talk about that?
Our goal is always to cast the funniest, best actors, but I think working on Odd Squad for PBS and seeing the reaction from parents where kids see themselves reflected back, I have become this huge proponent of doing that more. There is so much on TV that’s just wall-to-wall white people. And as a white writer, I’m self conscious about it as well. My son is adopted from Korea, so it’s something I want him to see in the shows he watches. Gender equality is also something I am paying attention to.
When you say you’ve heard a lot from parents, what have they reported back to you?
Well with Odd Squad the main boss is Ms. O, who is African American. I just heard from tons of parents about how awesome it is to show a little girl of color in charge. She’s a competant, awesome, leader. It’s sorely lacking in TV now and it’s so important not to just have side characters of color, but to have main characters of color. And like I said, I have a 9-year-old and you just get sick of seeing shows about white kids.
And the same goes for economic status. In this show, Will doesn’t live in a very nice house. He doesn’t got to this beautiful school. You find yourself having to push for that with production designers, who are all so helpful and great, but they’re not used to that being the direction. I think it’s important to show more than just rich kids on TV.
I grew up working class and on free/reduced lunch and Roseanne was crucial for me at that time.
Roseanne was the best for that.
And not to be manipulative, but storytelling is all about struggle and it is more interesting when it’s about characters who are fighting to get out of a situation. I really hope that the show gets picked up and we can explore all of the places these stories can go.