Tom Swift showrunners explain how Nancy Drew spin-off is unlike any other TV show
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Tom Swift may have originally come from Nancy Drew, but the spin-off series is going to be something completely different. While the new show is still in the same "Drew-niverse" after Tom (Tian Richards) debuted in last year's backdoor pilot that aired as a season 2 episode of Nancy Drew, Tom Swift the series is charting all-new territory.
The spin-off stars Richards as the titular Tom, described as a devilishly charming inventor with unlimited resources and unimaginable wealth who many men would kill to be, or be with. But his entire world gets turned upside down when his father mysteriously disappears, and he'll stop at nothing to discover the truth of what happened. Tom finds himself thrust into a breathtaking adventure full of conspiracies and unexplained phenomena as he fights to stay one step ahead of an Illuminati-scale cabal hellbent on stopping him. And where Nancy Drew deals with the supernatural, Tom Swift is all about the cool inventions — plus sexy high fashion, expensive cars, and sci-fi intrigue.
Co-creator Cameron Johnson calls their reimagining of the teen inventor character from the 1910 book Tom Swift and His Motor Cycle "absurd and ridiculous and fabulous — someone called it cotton candy coated in glitter, and honestly that's our goal." But showrunner Melinda Hsu Taylor quickly adds, "There's also something very substantial underneath, so I want to say it's a steak too. But that wouldn't go with the cotton candy." Showrunner Noga Landau laughs as she replies, "It's cotton candy, covered in glitter, with a steak inside of it," while Johnson changes the menu completely: "Wait, it's a delicious, slowly braised piece of pork that feels glamorous and is weighty, but is healthy and good for you."
No matter which rich entree/dessert combo whets your appetite, you better come hungry, because Tom Swift is serving up a whole meal when it premieres on the CW (May 31 at 9 p.m. ET/PT). Below, EW got the trio behind the new series to detail what else fans can expect from the spin-off.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Cameron, you're new to the Nancy Drew-niverse. How did you end up joining this world?
CAMERON JOHNSON: I ended up in the Nancy Drew-niverse after I was a writer on the last few seasons of Empire. When Empire ended, I was looking for what my next opportunity was going to be and I ended up interviewing for another show, [the new] Gossip Girl. As I was interviewing for Gossip Girl, one of the producers had this very odd look in her eye as I was describing my background, and my love of shoes, and my daddy issues, my love of science fiction, all of that. She was like, "I think there's another show you should be on." I was devastated that I did not get the job on Gossip Girl, but then I was elated to learn that the showrunners of Nancy Drew wanted to meet me.
We had, in June 2020, a nice little Zoom meeting where I didn't need to have on shoes — because it was Zoom — but I did bring some Gucci to have nearby for luck. As we started talking about how I became a writer and about my family, all that kind of stuff, at the end of it, I believe Noga's exact words were, "I think we manifested you," because what they were looking to do is create this show with a partner that was going to be about a Black gay man that comes from some money and has some daddy issues, and wanted to tell that story in a way that is thoughtful and authentic. So we came together and here we are.
How much of your own experiences did you pull from in creating this new version of Tom? It sounds like you've got a ton of similarities with him.
JOHNSON: My dad would say it's pure fiction; I, in reality, would disagree. [Laughs] I pulled quite a bit from my own experiences in terms of managing my internalized homophobia and the challenge that I think any queer person has of how there are these people who love you, but who wanted a different life for you and wanted a different world for you, and how do you square the way that you believe that they feel about you with the way that you want to live your life? And the different visions of manhood and masculinity that come together, I think that really is what we're exploring in this season of Tom Swift. When you have a parent who you are very much alike, but you are very much different from, how do you make peace with their disdain and create an identity of your own you can be excited about and proud of, even if they're not going to pat you on the back and say they're proud of you?
What did you each want to bring to this new spinoff that we haven't seen on Nancy Drew?
MELINDA HSU TAYLOR: I want it to be something that I could tell my trans teenage son, that there are stories on TV that are his stories, that he could look at a romance or hero's journey and say, "That's me," and get inspired by that. I especially wanted to reach out to kids out there who may be quietly struggling right now in the face of what's going on in the world, in our country, and just wanting them to feel celebrated and loved for who they already are.
NOGA LANDAU: I love that. I wanted to expand this universe to encompass a whole new world, and part of what I loved so much about Tom Swift is how completely different it is from Nancy Drew. Although it exists in the same universe, it's hyphy and slick and sci-fi and funny and Black and gorgeous and decked out in designer clothes. It's very different than a show about a group of kids in a small town in Maine who work in a crab shack and solve mysteries.
HSU TAYLOR: I would say that optimism is in both shows. We're relentlessly positive people, and I want folks to feel better at the end of this 42-minute experience than they did going into it. I believe there's hope for human beings in relationship to one another and in acceptance of themselves, and I really want them to feel that.
JOHNSON: There's a few things I was hoping to accomplish and bring to the show. The first one is that there are a lot of shows that are about Black people that are specifically about Black people being Black. It's like, "I'm Black, and I'm going to talk about what it's like to be Black today." It's rare that you get to see a show that feels Black, is culturally Black, and is authentically Black, but is about Black people doing some other cool thing and being happy and falling in love, especially given the way the world looks at Black men and the many stereotypes of how we're perceived both in media and otherwise. I wanted to tell a story about Black people being cool and flawed and fun and human, and in a way that we rarely get to see on TV, and to do so in a way that feels authentic.
And I think all of our goal was to recenter the narrative of who gets to be the hero, and who gets to be the coolest person on earth, who gets to be James Bond. I feel like that's what we've done. We're telling a story that has that arc, that feels familiar and feels universal, and feels accessible to everyone who wants to watch it, but at its center has a Black gay man, and a Black trans man, and a really cool dark-skinned Black girl who's smarter than all of them.
And tell me about the romance this season — who's getting lucky on Tom Swift?
JOHNSON: Oh my god, it's boys, boys, boys. It's girls, girls, girls.
LANDAU: Tom is an offshoot of Cameron Johnson so he has to live up to that, and he has a lot of suitors, and I think that's actually part of the fun of the first season. You really don't know who he's going to choose. He has sparks with everyone. There's also an interesting question of whether or not Isaac [Marquise Vilsón] will ever let him know that he's harboring some feelings for Tom also, and that's complicated because Isaac is his bodyguard. There could be even more that come out of the woodwork over the course of the season. We say in the writers room that we have our eyes set on a one true love for this character, but we're not going to say who it is yet.
JOHNSON: For every single one of our characters on this show, there is some sort of love triangle. There is something happening for Isaac, there's people for Zenzi [Ashleigh Murray], there's people for our other characters. We really want people to look at all these different suitors and see good options in all of them, and fight on Twitter over which one they want to choose.
You've talked about how Tom Swift is going to be different from Nancy Drew, but since it's in the same universe, will there be crossovers?
JOHNSON: There's some stuff to look for.
HSU TAYLOR: Yeah. We'll leave it at that.
JOHNSON: I'm just excited for people to see Tom Swift. And the cars! There are two things my dad would have succeeded in his quest to make me heterosexual: a love of cars and an enjoyment of basketball. Tom has some of the coolest cars we've ever seen. I've been obsessed with cars since I was a very little kid, and he's got several of my dream cars. If none of that interests you, then get into the clothes, because we've got a lot, a lot, a lot of Gucci, some Harbison, other cool fun stuff that you should get one piece of — don't buy the whole look, because that's tacky. But just one piece, and go from there.
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