An idyllic private island retreat sees a set of estranged, longtime companions reunite after nearly 30 years of jobs and distance pulling them in opposite directions. Amidst the celebration, nefarious footage of a transgression against a female friend mysteriously resurfaces. The guilty party seeks to figure out the source of the revealing video while desperately trying to keep it under wraps from the others.

Two Summers,” the eight-episode psychological thriller produced by Antwerp-based Panenka, is equal parts whodunnit and character study. The start of the series reveals shared tragedies via flashbacks of the carefree summer, turned on its head when a fire rips through the vacation home, taking innocence with it. Back to the present day, tension mounts as the crew convenes to fete amidst a handful of perplexing circumstances.

Written by Paul Baeten and Tom Lenaerts (“Over Water”), this Flemish show saw the best kick-off ever for a fiction series with its VRT streaming launch, seeing 1 million starts in less than a week. The series is also set to broadcast via Netflix, with international sales headed up by France TV Distribution.

Ahead of its competition in Series Mania’s International Panorama, Baeten spoke with Variety on the show’s themes and keeping up with the intensity a streaming episodic demands.

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Two Summers Brecht Vanhoenacker

How important is character development when creating an ensemble series like ‘Two Summers?’ Each character is essentially supported by those around them, at times they morph into one unit. 

Baeten: You said it right, they are an entity. The ensemble, as a whole, is the protagonist. But, as the series develops, we learn from each character what their secrets, disappointments, dreams and plans are. The group is an explosion in that sense; in the beginning they are close together, under high pressure, and by the end everyone is scattered apart. This is a series that really digs deeper each episode, which is why it opens with nothing but good intentions (at least on the outside) in a paradisiacal setting. But we all know what happens to paradise when humans settle there.

When composing a series for streaming platforms, how do you decide the pacing? As audiences binge, thinking of further seasons, how do you set out to tell the story as not to give it all up in one go and leave room for the story to develop even further after the debut?

Baeten: I believe that any story, be it in a book or in a movie or in the theater, has to convince at the scene-level. In the scene, the viewer must be able to feel the emotions, believe the decisions of the characters. But above that, you have to take into account what you’re creating and whom you’re creating it for. It was the first time I actually sat down and worked on hooks and cliffhangers that I hoped would convince the viewer to watch until the end. It is a sort of game you play with the viewers in which you can challenge them but you always have to remain respectful. A cliffhanger must be anchored in the story, otherwise you get the same feeling as you do with clickbait: Big promises that are always followed by disappointment. So I ask myself, “what would really blow me away as a viewer?” Without thinking about how later on, as a writer, I will have to solve the problems that the answer to that question will undoubtedly create. You have to try to be both: Viewer and writer. The first one needs to make life hard on the latter.

The series presents a narrative that calls into question the bonds people create and hold onto throughout their lifetimes. Friends that could have very easily separated for good are together again to reexamine those bonds. Could it be the mutual trauma they’ve suffered that’s kept them bound all of these years despite distance and hardship?

That’s definitely one of the things that has connected them through all those years, yes, even though they didn’t know about each other. That’s the beauty but also the crazy thing about friendship, it’s such a mix of good moments, warmth, forgiveness, laughter and support, and at the same time, we also experience our hardest and most painful moments with those same people. Our childhood friends know us like no one else and see through us. Without our friends we are a bit out of control, we lack a certain compass. That’s why it’s all the more terrifying when those relationships are about to explode.

The characters seem polar opposites in present day and flashbacks. Can you remark on the decision to make them dissimilar rather than complementary to one another? 

Yes, one of the themes that attracted me was how we often drift away from our ideals and dreams as we get older. How time corrupts us. Also because we usually don’t see it ourselves. The youngsters in the series believe in everything they say or do, but so do the 50-somethings. The scenes with the couples make that very clear as well: Who was the man you fell in love with and what has he become thirty years later? Why did the same woman barely look at you 30 years ago and maybe will turn out to be your great love after all? Those things happen because life is often a matter of timing and dreams that may or may not be compatible. People become more interesting as they change, fall and get up and fall again. The same goes for fictional characters.

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Two Summers Brecht Vanhoenacker