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August 11, 2016

A Girl's Place

Challenging the status quo and promoting STEM involvement, especially for girls. Yes, it's a kids' show.

Iva-Marie Palmer
  • Amazon Studios
  • Amazon Studios
  • J. J. Johnson

  • Amazon Studios
  • Amazon Studios
  • Amazon Studios

Summer vacation is a slippery slope for parents: When that last bell rings, we’re all good intentions and positive enrichment and reading lists and plans for screen-free days and sending kids back to school in the fall with new experiences and expanded minds.

And that can happen, to a degree. But reality is reality and sometimes, some days, kids are going to watch TV. Maybe a lot of TV. (For this writer’s part, there are moments when my older son seems out to prove that he’s an apple who hasn’t fallen far from my binge-watching tree.)

So it’s nice when there’s a show equal parts captivating, enriching and challenging, and in accepting this assignment to interview the creator of Annedroids, I found it. The live-action adventure series, created by producer/director J.J. Johnson and his Sinking Ship Entertainment, follows Anne, a young female scientist, her human friends and her android assistants (all of whom she’s created).

The stereotype-busting series, which blends STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics)  themes into each episode, is exciting not only for the scientific discoveries Anne and her main pals Shania and Nick make but also for the bigger questions it poses about what it means to be human, how we become who we are and how we learn what we’re capable of.  (Yes, in a kids’ show.)

And, refreshingly, its characters aren’t rich or famous but instead call to mind the motley but adventurous crew Gen X parents might remember from the movies of their youth, particularly The Goonies. (And, according to Johnson, that’s partly intentional.)

Entering its third season on Amazon Video (the new episodes launched June 24), Annedroids recently garnered 10 Daytime Emmys and is watched in all but four countries worldwide.

We talked to Johnson about how he creates compelling TV that says something and challenges the status quo.

One thing I noticed about the show is a sort-of resistance toward showing your characters being constantly connected, or texting or playing video games, and also going off and doing things on their own. It felt a bit like some of the movies I loved in the ‘80s. Was that intentional?

Goonies is one of my favorite movies and I love that era of television as well. I love stories with kids going out on adventures and doing it on their own; they’re driven and empowered to do their own thing. It’s not that the parents aren’t supporting them but they have their own plans and autonomy.

And even though they’re hanging out with robots, it seems like they’re not constantly turning to technology like video games or phones or whatever in their fun.

I’m glad you noticed that. In the pilot, we have Nick playing video games but he gets drawn away from it. That was our subtle dig that there’s more to life than playing video games.

That spirit of invention, and getting into a little trouble are prongs to a show that you’ve gotten lauds for because of how it’s inspiring an interest in science – STEM (science, technology, engineering mathematics) themes are woven in  – especially since you have a female lead. What inspired you to make this show?

I would say that I’ve wanted to do a science based show for a long time but I couldn’t figure out how to do the science I wanted to see as a kid – things that are more chaotic – explosions, melting, excitement -- without the concern that kids would try to emulate it and endanger themselves.

Before this, we’d done Dino Dan about a little boy loves dinosaurs so much that he imagines them in the real world and we had CG dinoscur characters.

So with Annedroids, we wanted to play with CG characters that evolved with our storyline. So we came up with robots that Anne the scientist initially builds to help with her experiments. And then the androids are able to do the science we wanted to do without our leads being in any danger themselves.

And for the setting, as a kid, I grew up in a small town and you had to make your own fun and we did break into old junkyards. I’ve always thought junkyards are so cool as places for things humanity had given up on.

We used that for Anne, our lead character, who lives in a trailer in a junkyard. She sees things not for what they are but what they can become –that’s the driving force behind her character.  She originally started as a boy character. I think because when you create TV, you’re trying to speak to the younger you, so I’d written the part as a boy building robots to help him.

What helped you make the choice to have the show fronted by a female lead?

As we were developing it, I attended that year’s Prix Jeunesse conference [a biannual conference put on by a German organization that advocates for high-quality children’s programming]. It features the best of the best from around the world and you see things from Middle East and Africa.

So you’re seeing things from around the world, and some of the shows are dealing with parents with AIDS or the refugee crisis and you realize what you can do or address.

They also put out a report on gender balance in kids’ shows around the world. In live-action television, girls only represented one of every three characters, and in animated shows it’s worse, it’s one of every four. When I saw that report I thought that was a problem and decided why wouldn’t it be a girl making androids? And the character became Anne.

How did you develop that character? What went into her?

Well, the PJ report had further analysis that showed even with roles girls did have, they played really rigid stereotypes. They’re playing the best friend, love interest, smart girl. When you only have one girl in a show, she has to represent all things for all girls. It doesn’t give you a lot of room to develop your characters.

And in Annedroids, you have two girls. Anne, your lead, who’s very scientific and then Shania, who, while she’s much more a theatrical, artsy type is still a very strong female character. Did you think that contrast is important?

Yes, very much. Anne is an interesting character because she’s kind of like a recluse at beginning. She’s doing science experiments, she’s literally building her own friends, and she’s homeschooled. Shania represented the antithesis of that – she’s very in the world, she’s more into pop culture – in my mind, she’s the most competent of the three, but she represents a different type of girl.

I just liked Shania being this really loud, funny and quirky personality who dances to her own tune. And really provides a counterpoint to Anne who is quieter and more introspective. Where Anne is more analytical, Shania thinks more with her heart.

Were the characters based on anyone you know?

Combinations of people. I have, no, I survived growing up with two older sisters. I certainly used them as an influences. They’re both extremely funny and smart and into a lot of things.

Can we talk about Pal, because it is clearly more than a robot but a character unto itself.

Pal, the android they bring to life in first episode, with the show, we really are kind of charting Pal’s growth. Over the seasons, we watch as Pal develops as a human being – it’s not programmed as either gender, so with Anne and Shania and Nick, we wanted to provide different kinds of kids for Pal to observe as it create its personality.

Is Pal your way of addressing  gender identity?

1000 percent. I’m a big fan of sci-fi because I think it’s a way to examine life. This is real-life stuff and we’re looking at it through the lens and the drama of science. Pal is a classic blank-slate character who is coming to life – trying to figure out what it is to exist. The hope is that mirrors what kids are going through in the everyday as they try to figure out their place in the world.

It’s a sophisticated topic that seems to put a lot of trust in younger audiences. Do you think kids TV, or at least kids’ TV in the U.S. pulls back from that?

I think sometimes TV underestimates the sophistication of our audience and their emotional capability. We try to make shows that counter that (not trusting kids). We have a lot of very real things going on.

Anne’s mom left, Nick’s mom and dad are divorced and his mom is out of work. Shania is a foster kid who’s been adopted by a woman who she calls Grandma. Those aren’t the main drives of the show but they’re the undercurrents. Science doesn’t exist in a vacuum, so we wanted to find ways to mix it with real life.

Did you have challenges getting the show out there because of some of the heavier stuff it tackles?

 We had a hard time pitching the show in the U.S. –  five years ago, we got a lot of rejection because we had  a girl lead and no one thought boys would watch a show with a girl scientist. To Amazon’s credit, they took on a risk.

It’s a sad state of affairs that people were afraid to pick up a show with a girl scientist. So, we’re humbled by the critical success – the 10 Emmy nominations blew our minds. And the show had sold in every country in the world but four. It’s one of our biggest sellers and performing extremely well.

Do you hear anecdotally or otherwise how it’s influencing kids?

Prix Jeunesse did a study on it and showed to kids in the U.S., Germany and Canada. Before showing it to kids, they  asked girls what they wanted to be and asked boys what they thought girls were capable of. A lot of girls said things like actress or singer before, and the boys seemed to think girls could not be inventors or scientists. 

After screening it, they saw  a 30 percent change in the girls, who then said they wanted to do things like be engineers or scientists, as well as more boys realizing girls were capable of anything.

So, that was great but at the same time it begs the questions why doesn’t more TV like this exist. Because we really think kids need to see it to be it.

Were there any other interesting findings in the study?

Well, after the pilot all girls said Pal was girl and all the boys said that it was a boy. We loved that they all saw themselves in Pal.

So what’s next, how do you keep this up?

We certainly are galvanized to keep pushing – we pitched a girl spinoff of Dino Dan, called Dino Dana, that’s coming to Amazon, about a girl who loves dinosaurs, and spends her time tracking them down [in modern times] and trying to figure out how they lived.

And in general, we are looking to always find ways to truthfully show reality. On Annedroids, we have odd squad, we show a variety of characters.

I think one of the things we wanted to accomplish with this show – besides tackling  gender stereotypes –was addressing economic stereotypes. So much kids’ TV is about kids with lavish lifestyles, who live in hotels or on cruise ships or big houses.

And that’s true of a lot of TV. Really, shows like Roseanne – that was the only one growing up where that kids felt like there were living more like my situation. Money is being discussed, kids live in real homes.

On Annedroids, Anne lives in a trailer in the junkyard, her room probably smallest in any kids show ever. Nick’s mom is out of work. We talk about aspirational TV all the time but I don’t think the shows with wealthier characters are aspirational. That’s escapism. It’s not a bad thing and there’s a place for it but it shouldn’t be 99 percent of all shows.

Annedroids to me, is aspirational. They’re kids with real lives setting achievable goals. Anne wants to make a difference and build things instead of being a rock star or an actress.  These are real things kids are more likely to be able to do, unlike some of what other kids’ TV shows them. I hear about kids raiding recycling bins to build things and that kind of feedback makes us feel very “mission accomplished.”

It’s also proof that, beyond the critical acclaim, real kids are watching.

Johnson: Yes, we’re really proud of that. I think until you have shows that try to buck the trend and prove it – not just on a critical level but a business level – things won’t change. I’m thrilled this show has proven it can be a biz success picked up all over the world, and a critical success with awards and reviews and also a social success because it’s actually changing the way kids see themselves and each other.

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