Welcome to “Weird City,” the futuristic metropolis where citizens either live “above” or “below” the line, dating apps dictate your total happiness, and Levar Burton is a seemingly all-knowing being. The YouTube sci-fi series, which hails from co-creators Jordan Peele and Charlie Sanders, kicks off its original six-episode run on Feb. 13 to put a comedic twist on the current anthology series trend.
Each standalone episode features a unique story within the framework of the city itself, with certain characters (like Burton) popping up throughout to thread the narratives together. Meanwhile a slew of guest stars including Ed O’Neill, Mark Hamill, Awkwafina, Laverne Cox and Sara Gilbert help bring the stories to life.
“There are definitely a lot of meta layers going on,” says Sanders, who notes he was largely inspired by Steven Spielberg’s “Amazing Stories” from the mid-1980s. “In each story the main characters are going to have standalone stories, but viewers will be rewarded with a lot of Easter eggs. Since it all takes place in the same city, some characters cross over; there are references to some of the same things. It really rewards a binge watch.”
Here, Variety catches up with Sanders to discuss the series’ long gestational period (it was originally developed for Hulu), the challenges of crafting episodic anthologies and the importance of attracting notable guest stars to the format.
This series was developed over half a dozen years — how do you evolve the stories to remain relevant to your original concept while maintaining relevancy?
Some of the issues are evergreen and some are very particular to the time. … Dating and services that say they can have the perfect person for you, that’s evergreen. That’s always interesting. But the specifics we can litter in later. We use the specifics to poke fun at the more immediate stuff.
What has been the biggest challenge in doing an episodic anthology?
The main challenge was getting anyone to do it because most places weren’t interested in doing an anthology. But once we were there, the writing is a little different because it’s almost a little bit more like writing a movie. You’re going to introduce he characters at the beginning and at the end their stories wrap up. So you have to pack in a little more information like that. I had fun doing that. Later in the end, the connective tissue is also a challenging but fun thing to do.
Creatively how do you plot and plan that connective tissue?
I had written four of the scripts before we got picked up at YouTube, so I had already put that in and that was just me cracking myself up. Like, “Oh it would be funny to see this security guard we saw last episode,” or to hear a reference to that business we’d heard of. And when we wrote the last two episodes in the writers’ room, we first came up with the plots of what the episodes would be, explored them, came up with those plot points, and then layered the references in.
How are you hoping audiences consume this?
The first episode sets up the world the most of any of the episodes, so it is helpful to watch the first episode first. But you could really jump in with any of them and you’d probably enjoy the story. I think any way people enjoy the story is fine — if they watch one a week or one a night. But I think the most rewarding way would be to binge watch all six of them. That’s when you’re going to really immerse yourself in this world and really see all of these references and this connective tissue.
What was your pitch for getting these actors on board?
We went to them, and we had specific people in mind to play specific parts. That is where Monkey Paw and Jordan were absolutely enormously helpful, because everybody is interested in a Jordan Peele project. So Jordan would go to them and say hey, “Would you read the script?” and then almost every actor told me the same thing, which was they were interested because Jordan was involved and they loved the material so much that they wanted to do it.
Does having a notable guest star become important in attracting attention?
I feel like every single guest star we have on the show has their own group of fans. So I guess my hope is that their fans will tune in to see them and then the world will be intriguing enough that they go, “Even though that person’s not going to be back, I want to see what happens in this world.” And for people that do that there are a lot of rewards.
Were there any specific sci-fi tropes you enjoyed poking fun at?
We talked about some of the TV sci-fi. My favorite movies of all time — I like the new “Planet of the Apes” a lot — but my favorite movies of all time were the five original “Planet of the Apes.” I’ve always enjoyed dystopian future stuff. That’s a trope I really like. Although I’m kind of an optimistic person. Our episodes are set in a dystopian future, but not everything is bad. There’s good stuff and bad stuff. There’s a lot of optimism in the show. So that was my twist on one of the tropes I liked.
“Weird City” premieres Feb. 13 on YouTube.