TORONTO - When casting the family of CBC Gem's new sitcom "Overlord and the Underwoods," about an alien living with human relatives in a Canadian suburb, showrunner Anthony Q. Farrell says it was a "pretty colourblind" process.
"We wrote all the scripts in advance, not knowing what the family was going to look like," the Toronto-based Farrell said in a phone interview.
"We didn't know any specific ethnicity. We just wrote funny scripts. Once we started auditioning, the family became clear to us."
That family turned out to be a pioneering one for the public broadcaster, he said, noting he hopes the show will "make way for more diversity and more fun" in Canadian TV.
"I think it's the first mainstream comedy on CBC with a Black family at the lead and that's huge," said Farrell, a Black writer, actor and comedian who's been trying to add more diversity to Canadian comedies for several years.
"I was like, 'Wow, this is great that we've opened the door. I'm hoping a lot more people can come through now.'"
Debuting Friday on the streaming service, "Overlord and the Underwoods" stars Troy Feldman as the second most-wanted villain in the universe, who is sent to live in the family home of his distant human cousin on Earth after snitching out his boss, the evil Mega-Lord Supreme.
The half-hour Canadian sitcom also stars Patrice Goodman and Darryl Hinds as the parents, and Ari Resnick and Kamaia Fairburn as their children.
Jayne Eastwood plays their neighbour and singer-actor Jann Arden provides the voice of R0-FL, Overlord's droid sidekick.
The first 10 episodes arrive on Friday, with the remaining to land in early 2022. The series is also set for international distribution, including BYUtv in the United States and Nickelodeon in the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand, said Farrell.
"I think the nice thing about this — the thing that catches people off-guard — is that it is a show with a Black family but it's not rooted in anything like Black trauma or anything that you see a lot of in the news," said Farrell, who wrote for the U.S. series "The Office" and CBC's "Little Mosque on the Prairie" and created the BAFTA-winning British children's show "Secret Life of Boys."
"It's just a family that's being a normal family. They happen to have an alien cousin who's living with them now."
Farrell said Ryan Wiesbrock, an executive with Los Angeles-based Cloudco Entertainment, came up with the quirky story about 10 years ago as he mused about sci-fi family shows with aliens from his youth, including "Alf" and "Mork & Mindy."
Wiesbrock teamed up with Toronto-based Marblemedia to create a show about an evil alien villain in a witness protection program and recruited Farrell. The showrunner has also worked with Marblemedia and BYUtv on the Toronto-shot comedy series "The Parker Andersons" and "Amelia Parker" — separate shows both featuring the same interracial family, blended by marriage. Both premiered in April on Super Channel Heart & Home.
A team at Toronto-based MastersFX did the visual effects for "Overlord and the Underwoods," filmed in Orangeville, Ont., but set in a nondescript suburb.
FX specialist Roger Christian, who won an Oscar for his work on the original "Star Wars," was the lead character designer and helped create the look of Overlord and R0-FL.
Arden came onboard after hearing about the show through her friend, series writer Kate Hewlett, and voiced her droid character from her home city of Calgary.
In auditioning the alien lead, Farrell wanted to not just see the actors perform, but also interview them.
"The reason why I asked for that is because, whoever this person is, they're going to be inside of a potentially very hot costume," said Farrell,who is leading a showrunner training bootcamp for the industry group BIPOC TV & Film, now through next month.
"I want to make sure that if they are in an uncomfortable situation all day long, that they're not going to be a jerk."
Farrell scored with Toronto-based Feldman, who was not only an actor, dancer, parkour artist, acrobat and stuntman — he'd also performed as the mascot for the Toronto Blue Jays.
"So you know he's been in hot costumes and still had to be nice to children," Farrell said with a laugh, noting Feldman is also a sci-fi fan and "one of the warmest people."
"He's been everything I would hope for in an Overlord. It's a weird sentence to say but it's the truth."
Farrell said the team originally planned on having someone else voice Overlord but had Feldman do it himself after hearing his lines during takes.
"In the initial scripts, we did kind of say, 'Think Ron Burgundy means meets George Takei,'" said Farrell. "And Troy just brought it."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 28, 2021.