YouTube's 'Weird City' Is Like a Funnier, More Optimistic 'Black Mirror'
While shows like Black Mirror have made bleak tales about a future that looks too close for comfort the flavor of the decade, YouTube's new original anthology series Weird City aims to break from that mold. With the six-episode series that dropped on February 13 that's since racked up more than 16 million views on its first episode, co-creator Charlie Sanders, and his former Key and Peele boss, Jordan Peele, have brought a refreshing sense of optimism to the crowded Philip K. Dick-inspired landscape.
Weird City, like many sci-fi shows that have hit the small screen in recent years, tackles the relevant issues of the day by holding up a mirror to the culture of today. Set in an America of the future, the strange city in question is separated into two factions: the affluent Above The Line and impoverished Below The Line regions, "the line" being a literal divider. Sanders and Peele distinguish their series apart from other similar-feeling shows by honing in on the minutiae of each character and the society they’re living in, building upon each oddball quirk, whether it’s exploring the lack of free will amid a future world where mobile apps dictate everyone’s decisions or showcasing a surrealist body-horror aesthetic of a society obsessed with fitness and the odd diet fads that come with it. Take, for instance, the Pom Wonderful-esque drink PEJ: In Episode 2, titled "A Family," Pomegranate Electrolyte Juice (each bottle is "infused with organic meth") is highlighted as Weird City’s workout drink of choice. But when Michael Cera’s weirdo Tawny finds a better, worm-y alternative to achieving peak physical form after buying into a cultish fitness club, things take an unexpectedly dark turn. From the show’s kooky wardrobe to its strange, fantastical take on dystopian science fiction, Weird City is basically what would happen if Black Mirror had a baby with Back to the Future Part II.
Charlie Sanders may not be a household name -- though for anyone in the know, his short-lived MTV genre comedy series Death Valley was truly something special -- but Oscar-winning Jordan Peele is. As Thrillist spoke with the series creator at the Television Critics Association winter tour in February, he was quick to acknowledge the clout the Get Out writer-director brought to Weird City as a producer. According to Sanders, if Peele's name wasn't attached to the project, they may not have gotten the lineup of guest stars (Ed O'Neill, Dylan O'Brien, LeVar Burton, Awkwafina, Rosario Dawson, and Steven Yeun, to name a few) to even consider joining the project.
"Me and the other executive producers and the writers and the YouTube people… we all just started talking about names of who, pie in the sky, we'd love to have be in this episode as this character. And with a mind towards, 'Wouldn't it be funny to do something unexpected with this actor? And put people in places where you might not expect them?'" Sanders says. "That's where having Jordan Peele be a producer on the show was absolutely essential. Almost every single one of the guest stars told me the same thing, which was: Because Jordan was involved, they were willing to take a look at it. And then they liked the material so much, they wanted to do it."
How exactly did Sanders and Peele team up on the project? After five seasons of writing together on Key and Peele, the two bonded over their passion for science fiction and horror and realized they shared similar genre sensibilities.
"By the end of Key and Peele, me and Jordan had a really cool working relationship where he could walk into my office and go, 'I want to do something about Family Matters.' And I'd go, 'OK, cool.' And then I'd write a weird sci-fi Family Matters sketch," Sanders recalls. "And we kept kind of that same thing, where, by the time the show got made, he was busy making Us, so he wasn't there on the day-to-day, but he was a sounding board. I'd throw ideas at him, he'd throw ideas at me. And we'd just riff back and forth. He was available for me when I needed to talk about stuff."
As timely as Weird City feels, Sanders reveals the show is a "labor of love" -- it had been stuck in development hell since 2011. "All the way back then, we started talking about: If Key and Peele blew up, maybe we can take these sci-fi ideas and expand them into their own show," he says. That was still the period of time before having Jordan Peele's name on something immediately turned it into gold. And, according to Sanders, the show was purchased by Hulu and then floundered until almost disappearing into oblivion.
"[After Hulu passed,] I thought Weird City was over forever and the dream was dead and I was going to move home to Minnesota and become a construction worker." But the scripts ended up making their way to YouTube, where the show got a second life.
With other sci-fi hits banking on the dystopian genre for television audiences, Sanders explains he and Peele wanted to go in a slightly different direction. Peele already has his upcoming Twilight Zone reboot, so why not keep Weird City fun?
"I wanted to keep it optimistic," Sanders says. "I mean, there are some darker stories in the episodes. I love dystopian sci-fi... it's one of my passions. But, I do feel like it's almost always kind of pessimistic, saying things are going to get worse and things are bad. And that's just not the way I feel about the world. I'm sort of an optimist, so I wanted my show to have that. I was curious what it would be like to tell sci-fi stories through an optimistic prism."
That doesn't mean the show doesn't shy away from exploring deep issues. One common thread that seems to come up again and again is the idea of free will in a society overrun by technology and automation. Weird City presents a reality in its pilot episode where people live their lives as dictated by mobile apps and AI. In its finale, it tells a meta-story about actors seemingly stuck in the story of their on-screen characters as their hit TV show meets its end. This was all by design.
"I'm constantly questioning the existence of free will or not. I'm obsessed with existentialism and stuff like that," Sanders says with a laugh, referencing episode 6 in the season as a meta-take on his own creative struggles with Hollywood. "That was sort of like my feelings of identity as a person in showbiz. Like, 'should I be doing this or not? Is this good for the world?' Most of the time it feels like it's not, but then you have moments where you do. So yeah, I think free will is a common theme throughout the entire series."