A new kids show needed ‘palpable evil’ to work. The answer: a Disney-like conglomerate
This story contains some spoilers for Netflix’s “My Dad the Bounty Hunter” Season 1.
Sometimes, your parent’s real job is much more exciting than you could have ever imagined.
That’s what Lisa (Priah Ferguson) and Sean (Jacobi Swain) discover in “My Dad the Bounty Hunter,” the animated series out now on Netflix, when they decide to sneak into their dad Terry’s (Laz Alonso) car after he’s suddenly called in to work. It turns out when Terry is “out of town” for work, he‘s actually off-planet taking on jobs as the bounty hunter Sabo Brok.
The 10-episode first season sees the trio travel across a number of planets in pursuit of Terry’s latest bounty, while navigating the strained relationship between father and daughter caused by his absences. Terry also discovers over the course of the season that his employer — a giant company known as the Conglomerate — is more than a little problematic.
Creators and executive producers Everett Downing and Patrick Harpin explain that the inspiration for the show is personal.
“I’d been working really hard in animation,” said Downing during a recent video call. “And at the time, my daughters were younger and I just felt like I was spending so much time at work that I was missing this golden moment with them. ... And I was like, ’Man, this would be something really great to put into a story.’”
“I was kind of coming at it from the kid point of view,” said Harpin, who explained that his father used to take him and his sister to work at a local Maine TV station since they couldn’t afford a babysitter. “We loved helping him out. … So we were just pulling from our lives and wanted to make something [that] doesn’t pick sides.”
Downing and Harpin met while they were working at Sony Pictures Animation. After being in story meetings together for some time, the pair started meeting for coffee and discussing their creative aspirations and their love for movies like “The Brother From Another Planet” (1984), “The Last Starfighter” (1984) and “Attack the Block” (2011).
Their initial pitch for what would become “My Dad the Bounty Hunter” was a movie. But after some feedback, they realized the idea would work better as a series.
“We were adamant [that] we didn’t want to do monster of the week and dad’s new bounty every week,” said Downing. So the focus turned to breaking up the initial story into multiple installments.
“This story was a way that [Terry and Lisa’s] father-daughter conflict can be played out on this grander sci-fi scale,” said Harpin. “I love that it’s a series. We would never have gotten to be this specific or have this much creative freedom, I don’t think, if this was a big studio movie.”
Downing and Harpin recently joined The Times to discuss the series’ family dynamics, evil corporations and their other sci-fi influences. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
How did the show’s central family come to be?
Downing: Once we started talking about it, we knew we had to have a daughter. A daughter and father. I’ll put it out there that I’m hinting a lot of stuff on my family and my experience. Like, Lisa, there’s some elements from my daughter. ... My sister too. The sass. “No one gets to pick on my brother except for me” is a real line that my sister said while defending me from bullies.
Harpin: Having the dad be someone who’s trying [came from] my dad, [who] literally said to me, “Patrick, if you ever do a dad in something, can you not make him an idiot, please? Have one dad who’s at least trying to do the right thing.” And I was like, “OK, noted.” It was important that you see the pressure he’s under, that a lot of working-class dads are under, as well as the mom too. She’s in that same pressure cooker, raising these kids.
It’s refreshing to see that even though this family with separated parents might not be in the best place, it’s not for their lack of loving each other and trying.
Downing: These guys aren’t adversarial. It just didn’t work out. This is a positive co-parenting situation [and they’re] doing the best in their circumstances. You know, dad still loves mom and [he’s] doing the best for the kids. Mom’s being patient with dad and trying to give him a shot.
Did you always know that a giant corporation would be your big villain?
Downing: We did, actually. When we were talking about the story, Pat brought up this really cool idea of like, “What if the dad doesn’t even own his own rig? What if he doesn’t even own that ship? Who owns that ship? Who’s running it?” And that just opened up this whole bigger conversation. We didn’t want [Terry] to be a jerk who’s like, “I’m out here because I’m doing cool stuff.” No, there’s a reason he has to go out there and do these jobs and get paid. So [the question became], “Who’s he on the hook to? Who is this company that’s motivating him to always go out there?” And that’s how the Conglomerate came into the conversation.
Harpin: Early on, we were actually going to have a father-daughter kind of sci-fi thing mirroring that of [Terry and Lisa’s], but it was so … just “Star Wars,” and we’re already going to get hit with that comparison, which we don’t want. So it was like, “Well, what’s the modern kind of evil? What’s a more palpable evil for today?” And one of the things that has always stuck in my craw is the Weyland-Yutani Corporation from “Alien.” Where, like, the alien is the monster of the movie, but then as you start to watch, especially “Aliens,” you see they’re also kind of the monster in this. That sticks in your head as a kid because you [realize], “Wait, the world they’re in itself is corrupt and messed up.” I think that’s a villain that people can believe in and it’s not just, “I’m evil for the sake of being evil.” It’s also something that’s on Earth, but you can easily see it in space. [“Dune” author] Frank Herbert was doing that, where it’s just another kind of colonialism — space colonialism.
It seems like a very specific reference, to have a theme park called the happiest place in the galaxy.
Harpin: I don’t know what you’re talking about. What?
Downing: What in the world?
Harpin: What evil corporation could we be referencing?
I’m here to ask the questions.
Downing: It’s all about the synergy too. The idea of using every part of the buffalo in a sinister way.
Harpin: The theme park, to me, was a way that kids have an entry point to understanding [the situation]. I’m laughing, I’m having fun, but this is ridiculously horrible, what [the Conglomerate] is doing. It’s a dark reveal, but it’s darkly comedic.
Some of the specifics happening at the park, the younger viewers might not get it until later, but having your voice taken away is like one of the most horrific things that can happen to you.
Harpin: No, if you unpack it, it’s dark.
Downing: It’s really messed up.
The show also visits fun places other than the theme park. In one episode, you see a space swap meet.
Harpin: I wrote that episode. I was talking with Ev and we wanted some kind of Tatooine, Arrakis-type planet. And my cousins took me to the pulga they go to in Northern California. I was like, “What’s a pulga?” and they were like, “Oh, it’s the flea market.” And I was like, “That sounds like a planet to me.” Then [came] the idea of flea aliens worshipping instead of, like, sandworms, they’re giant corgi dog worms. So, as you could see, we’re just having a lot of fun. We’re just throwing it all in the pie. But we’re remixing sci-fi in ways where it’s kind of familiar, but also not.
You’ve mentioned “Alien,” but what do you consider the influences or touchstones that your show is in conversation with?
Harpin: “The Fifth Element” was a big one.
Downing: We love grounded sci-fi, so we were talking about “Outland,” we were talking about “Alien.” We were talking about a lot of gritty movies. But that’s a whole sort of brown template. It’s a kid’s show, so we want something vibrant. So “Fifth Element” came into the conversation, and it made complete sense. You have this vibrant, over-the-top world layered on top of it, and it really makes it stand out against a lot of the sci-fi out there.
Harpin: And tonally, this show has a lot of range on purpose. We can deliver on comedy and still have stakes — people can still get killed in this world. The bad guys are playing for keeps. “Time Bandits,” that was one, watching as a kid, that felt like that. Where it’s very funny, but scary too, where it felt like any of these characters could get killed. So we wanted that range for our viewers.
A lot of stuff you think is for kids is scary.
Harpin: I grew up watching all this wild ‘80s stuff for kids. Even “The Last Unicorn” is, like, jeez. There’s “The NeverEnding Story,” “The Secret of NIMH.” They were not holding back. It kind of traumatized you, but you loved it, and those are the movies I remember. I go back and watch them and [they’re] still really good. This still makes me feel something. Those are the movies that changed me. The stuff that’s like, a little bit out of my age range, but there’s a kid in it, like “Jurassic Park” or “Terminator 2.”
Downing: Even stuff like “Willow.” It’s crazy.
‘My Dad the Bounty Hunter’
When: Any time
Rating: TV-Y7 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 7 with advisories for fantasy violence, fear and coarse language)
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