Paul Dini is a name well-known to comic fans for his work in comics and animation, most prominently on Batman: The Animated Series and such DC books as Zatanna and Gotham City Sirens. But now, the four-time Emmy winner has launched his own show, and it’s…live action?! On Cartoon Network?!
Hold on. You might like this one.
Tower Prep, which premieres Tuesday, October 19 at 8 p.m. EST (the series previewed on Saturday), takes the mythology and mystery of such genre shows as The Prisoner and Lost (where Dini worked) and puts them in a setting familiar to fans of the X-Men.
Ian Archer (Drew Van Acker) is a hothead with the odd ability to stay one step ahead in a fight by sensing his opponent’s moves in advance. After getting suspended from school, he wakes up in the titular Tower Prep…with no idea how he got there, no idea where he is, and no idea what the teachers, with names like “Headmaster” and “History,” want with him.
Soon, Ian has banded together with a similarly-powered group of kids with two goals: To find out where they are…and to escape. “Ian needs answers – he can’t buy it,” Dini says. “It’s too shifty and too good to be true.
“In a later episode, he’s going, ‘Boy, the food here is great, I’m learning things I’ve never been able to do before, my abilities are developing at an unbelievable speed…but no one’s telling me why any of this is happening, and I can’t be comfortable until I find out why it’s happening.’”
But Ian and his friends have the rest of the student body to contend with – and they have no idea who they can trust. “There are plenty of kids who are comfortable with this, and think it’s great, and there are things in their home life that make Tower the perfect place for them,” Dini says.
“But not for Ian and not for the others – they have too many questions, and faced too many injustices, and they’re not going to be comfortable until they have some answers – or maybe never.”
Ian’s crew has similar abilities – CJ (Elise Gatien) can read people’s moods based on body language, Suki (Dyana Liu) can imitate any sound she’s heard and Gabe (Ryan Pinkston) can literally talk his way out of anything. Um, so why can’t he talk his way out of Tower Prep?
“He tries!” Dini says. “He’s not as powerful as he wishes he was. There are people above him who are older and wiser and more powerful than he is, and they know ways around his abilities that we’ll see. And there are teachers and monitors with powers that checkmate the kids’. And you’ll get to see how capable the adults are, and some of their abilities too.
“They’re bringing a system of control and discipline to kids who haven’t had it before. In some cases, this is just what the kids need. But in other cases, they rebel against it because it doesn’t make sense to them.”
And then there’s the Gnomes, Tower Prep’s…unusual security force. “It felt like there had to be a little something of the bizarre in that world,” Dini says. “I wanted to create a security force for the school, and if you put yourself in a kid’s mindset, the less you see of something, the scarier it is. You don’t know if it’s a person, or a robot, but when you see one, you know you want to get away from it.
“When those lights sweep through the trees and you hear that chittering sound, suddenly you’re five years old and you have to get away. And the Gnomes know that. Their big thing is fear, and once they can get a kid to run, they’ve got ‘em.”
Tower Prep is an idea Dini has been kicking around for years, since he was sent to a prep school as a kid. “I think the seeds for Tower Prep were sown several decades ago when my parents were driving me to prep school, and I was sitting there thinking, ‘Boy, am I gonna get back at you guys some day!’” Dini says with a laugh.
“I took all the anxieties and fears and weird feelings of that time and sort of caricatured them over the years into a story about teens in a nice, comfortable life dropped in a strange, unfamiliar place and learn where they were and how to survive.
“The school had to mean something on a bigger, deeper level. There had to be bigger stakes involved for the kids, and the kids had to be deeper than just some kids who were going to go off and live in the normal world.”Dini’s talks with Cartoon Network about the project quickly went from dinner to developing the full series. Dini says he understands fans’ concerns about live-action programming a channel previously devoted to, well, cartoons. “For people not in the know, or who are afraid of change – and aren’t we all? – it’s about going in and monkeying something very near and dear to their hearts,” Dini says.
“But the important thing to know is that it’s not changing all that much – Cartoon Network is still Cartoon Network, they’re still showing cartoons and buying new ones. They’re just diversifying the kind of shows they’re airing.
“Remember, Saturday morning was all reruns of old cartoons decades ago! And then people like the Krofft Brothers came in and came up with great live-action shows like H.R. Pufnstuf and Land of the Lost. All I can say is check this out – if it’s not to your liking, there’s plenty of other shows on TV or on DVD. But don’t worry that cartoons are going away – it just means that programming has become more diversified.”
Dini says his goal with Tower Prep was to create a “lunchbox show,” the kind of all-ages SF/fantasy program he remembers from growing up, that you would usually see on a kid’s lunchbox at Kmart. Dini cites shows like Lost in Space, The Incredible Hulk and the original Battlestar Galactica as example.
“There were a lot of shows that spanned the age range from 7-8 to the teen years and beyond,” Dini says. “I loved shows like this, and wanted to see them come back ever since I was a kid. Those were the shows the kids talked about every day at school after they were on the night before.”
In a modern touch, Dini has also created an episode-to-episode mythology for Tower Prep that rewards close viewings of the show’s 13 episodes. “Very early on in the pilot, there are elements that come up that become big important elements in the first season – lines of dialogue that are casually tossed off here and there will pay off in episode eight or nine, where you’ll go, ‘Oh, that’s what they meant!’” Dini says. It’s like a mystery novel – you’ll have to keep looking back to see what this means in retrospect.”
To help with this, Dini has assembled a talented crew of writers, most notably X-Files veteran Glen Morgan as a showrunner – and his brother Darin Morgan, responsible for such surreal and acclaimed X-Files episodes as “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space” with Charles Nelson Reilly.
“Darin wrote two episodes this season, and from the moment they start, you know Darin Morgan wrote them,” Dini says. “I think one of his episodes is my favorite episode we’ve done. From the first page, I was laughing and saying, ‘We can’t do this!’ but we did it! I can’t tell you what it’s about, because it’s one of those things that won’t make sense until you’ve been watching the show. But it’s one of my favorite episodes, and it reveals a lot of information about the school’s origins.”
So how long will Tower Prep run? Viewers of the first season will get plenty of answers, but Dini says he’d like to play out the storyline over time. “I don’t know if I’d like to see it become Tower College, but I’d like to see it go on for a few more years – we have a lot of ideas and an endgame to the whole story.”
Asked to sell Tower Prep to our readers as hard as he can, Dini offers this: “There’s nothing like it on TV at all. It is a challenging show, it’s a tremendously fun show, it’s a funny show in parts. It’s a show that’s captivating to both parents and kids.
“And I think it teaches some valuable lessons to kids about getting ready for life – choose your friends wisely, listen to who you are inside, and rely on yourself when it seems darkest, and not only will you succeed, but you’ll have fun along the way.”
Enter Tower Prep Tuesday at 8 p.m. on Cartoon Network.