Anonymous Content producer Joy Gorman Wettels was driving her daughter to school one morning in 2018 when she got word that the Season 2 premiere of “13 Reasons Why,” the Netflix series she executive produced, would have to be canceled, following a shooting at a high school in Santa Fe. Her daughter, then just a kindergartner, unwittingly overheard the whole call — including news of the shooting.
The enormities of parenting in this age — amid what often feels like a steady drumbeat of grim news in the headlines — are not lost on Gorman Wettels. Children have to deal with so much, so early. But instead of shielding them from the realities of the world, she believes we should equip the next generation with the emotional tools they need to get through it.
“These kids have lockdown drills and walkouts in elementary school,” she tells Variety. “And I actually think helicopter parenting is not helping them, and that if we can figure out a way to collectively share the burden of that news, and be honest with them and talk to them… with as much respect as we treat each other, that they’re going to have better tools to deal with what they’re actually facing.”
That philosophy flows through Apple TV Plus’ new series “Home Before Dark,” based on real-life pre-teen journalist Hilde Lysiak, who at 9 years old broke the news of a grisly local murder through her self-published newsletter, the Orange Street News.
In the show, the fictional Hilde (Brooklynn Prince) roams the streets independently on her bicycle, trying to find answers to her many questions about what she believes to be the homicide of a woman who lives down the street. She publishes an email newsletter about the matter, and is roundly mocked by her peers at school. When her father, a former reporter (played by Jim Sturgess) deletes the mean and nasty comments off her site, the young girl isn’t upset about the commentary, but at the fact that her father hid it from her.
“Home Before Dark” — a show about solving a mystery, but also one about family — is part of the social-impact programming slate that Gorman Wettels is building at Anonymous. She hopes it will speak to today’s youth.
“Kids want to take back this country; kids want to fight for what’s right,” says Gorman Wettels. “Greta [Thunberg], Emma [Gonzalez], Hilde: There are these little girls who are growing up to be so powerful and so active, and protecting the world they are being raised in. What [television shows] do those girls have to watch?”
It was at the Tribeca Disruptive Innovation Awards in 2016 that Gorman Wettels first saw then-9-year-old journalist Hilde Lysiak on stage. She just so happened to be sitting right behind Lysiak’s parents, and struck up a conversation about their determined, spirited daughter. From there, what would become “Home Before Dark” developed at Paramount Television for two years, during which time Gorman Wettels paired up writer Dana Fox — then working on 2021 Disney film release “Cruella” — with a “mom friend” from her daughter’s preschool, Dara Resnik, who had experience working on procedurals such as ABC’s “Castle.”
“I thought that was a really smart marriage — to put these two women together who were also moms, who were also raising kids that we felt needed that really smart, elevated content that we used to see,” says Gorman Wettels. “We wanted see what that looked like at home.”
Gorman Wettels resisted calls to age up the fictional Hilde, pointing out that the age of the real-life inspiration for the series. Lysiak, she says, is the “North Star” of the tone of the show, which has taken on the challenge of approaching darker issues from a lens appropriate for kids.
Gorman Wettels was raised by a single mother in a working class family “who didn’t have the luxury of hiding a lot of reality from me,” she says.
“I watched ‘Kramer Vs. Kramer’ when my parents were going through a divorce,” she notes with a chuckle. “So I always feel like the best thing we can do is show kids some version of the truth that will help us create a conversation with our children and shed some light on what’s real in the world.”
The series has become very personal for the producer. Gorman Wettels’ own daughter, just a bit younger than Prince, has become good friends with the actor over the last two years. And the real-life Lysiak sends her daughter copies of the series of books she helped pen for Scholastic.
“That’s why this show touches me so deeply,” says Gorman Wettels. “It’s one of those moments in your career where you feel like, ‘Wow, we can balance work and family and do work that’s important to our family.’ The fact that we can give that gift to the world right now when everybody’s trapped at home with their families in this unprecedented time… [It’s] wild and fortuitous that it would come out of this time.”
“Home Before Dark” is streaming now on Apple TV Plus.