As soon as American Odyssey, NBC’s new global conspiracy thriller, ran a publicity photo of its female star Anna Friel sporting a striking blue headscarf, the Homeland comparisons were inevitable. After all, both shows explore geopolitics, question American foreign policy, and feature a headscarfed heroine at its center. But don’t tell that to showrunners Adam Armus and Nora Kay Foster.
“I think Homeland is a lazy comparison,” says Armus. “She’s a CIA agent and has had power bestowed upon her by the government. Odelle is boots on the ground, and goes through a lot. They’re nothing alike at all. I think we’re getting backlash from people who think a woman shouldn’t be fighting like that, but they do.”
Indeed, Sgt. Odelle Ballard (Friel) is nothing like Danes’s bipolar spook. She’s an FET (Female Engagement Team) soldier—a unit specializing in linguistics and medical aid used by Special Forces to engage with the female populations of Muslim nations. They also fight, too. Odelle is working with a Special Forces team that’s behind enemy lines in North Africa when they stumbles upon files on a terrorist’s laptop evidencing that an American mining corporation is funding terrorist organizations. Before you can yell “conspiracy!” a team of mercenaries from Osela, a private military contractor, has swooped in, demanded the files be handed over, and executed everyone from Odelle’s squad. She’s saved by Aslam (Omar Ghazaoui), a hardened 14-year-old Muslim boy, and the two set off on the titular odyssey back to the US of A. But Odelle managed to fire off a text message just prior to the carnage which is intercepted by a hacker with ties to Harrison Walters (Jake Robinson), an Occupy-like political activist and trust fund baby. The complicit U.S. military, including Col. Stephen Glenn (Treat Williams), is claiming Odelle died overseas, so Harrison embarks on a quest for the truth. Meanwhile, corporate lawyer Peter Decker (Peter Facinelli) has stumbled across files from the aforementioned shady, terrorist-funding corporation suggesting malfeasance. So these three disparate people are all on separate-yet-similar missions to expose a corporate scandal.
Armus and Foster who, along with Peter Horton, serve as creators as American Odyssey, view the show as one big critique of Citizens United—the relatively recent Supreme Court decision to allow corporations to bankroll political candidates.
“It’s about Citizens United,” says Foster. “That’s the thing that’s really polarized the country and obscured what’s really going on everywhere. Corporations are more powerful now than a nation-state, and people are really onto the fact that our democracy has been hijacked by corporate interests, and our votes are not really counting anymore because our candidates are all who has the most money.”
“We chose to talk about private military contractors for a reason,” adds Armus of their Blackwater-like villainous henchmen. “The idea of people being paid to fight on behalf of American corporations on foreign soil is a bizarre concept that we thought was scary.”
The most vocal opponent of the Citizens United ruling has been none other than President Obama, who stated that the controversial decision “gives the special interests and their lobbyists even more power in Washington—while undermining the influence of average Americans who make small contributions to support their preferred candidates.”
And American Odyssey is meant to tap into Obama’s fear of corporations minimizing the political impact of individual citizens. “It’s the idea that ordinary people—you don’t have to be FBI or CIA—can have an iPad or a cellphone and you can reach people and start to make a difference,” says Armus.
When asked whether or not they feel the show, like Homeland before it, casts a critical eye on U.S. foreign policy, they pause for a moment to mull the question. “In a way it is,” Armus says. “We’re trying to tap into the zeitgeist that’s out there. Ever since Citizens United and corporations became people, a lot of people felt they didn’t have a say anymore. This is about three people who could’ve been from anywhere coming together and fighting back.”
Another thing the show does that’s a rarity these days—at least for the Fox News-consuming crowd—is provide positive portraits of Muslims. Yes, there are some scattered terrorists in the mix, but there’s also, Foster says, an upcoming episode featuring “a protest of drones in a Muslim community in Brooklyn that we visit,” and there’s young Aslam, who serves as Odelle’s guardian, guide, and confidant during her odyssey back to America.
“There are Muslim characters to fall in love with on our show,” Foster says. “By the end, everyone will be fans of Aslam, and there are other sweet characters who are very helpful to Odelle.”
“They’re unexpected allies,” adds Armus. “We do think that Americans have a black-and-white opinion about people in the Muslim world, and we’re trying to open their eyes a little bit and say, ‘Look, there are good and bad guys in the Muslim world just like they’re good and bad guys in the non-Muslim world.’”
American Odyssey’s journey to the TV screen was a pretty grand one, too. A producer named Simon Maxwell approached Foster and Armus and convinced them to do a modern-day retelling of Homer’s Odyssey. At the time, the duo was working as writers and producers on the NBC series Heroes and had an overall deal with the network, so the peacock urged them to develop a sci-fi/horror series, but their hearts weren’t into it. So they wrote the American Odyssey pilot three-and-a-half years ago on spec. “The interesting odyssey of this show was we wrote the first three episodes under our deal, but they still didn’t green-light our pilot,” says Armus.
So Armus and Foster left NBC and headed over to Fox to write and produce episodes of The Following for a couple of years. Then, when Bob Greenblatt came in from Showtime to head NBC, he told them, “Hey guys, we want you to write more episodes and make a pilot for Odyssey,” so they returned to their former home.
“It’s a risky proposition for NBC,” Armus says. “They’re not sure they can do cable-like fare, but we feel this kind of show belongs on network TV for everyone to see. Everything hasn’t been great for NBC this year, but we’re hoping to try and change that.”
The first season of American Odyssey will run 13 episodes, and if the series gets picked up for a second season, they say that it will follow a similar blueprint of someone “being torn from their home and trying to return home,” albeit with different obstacles in play.”
And in order to get all their military coverage right, Armus and Foster hired a military liaison by the name of Eric Haney, who started Delta Force. Around the time of the scripting, the Blackwater trials were going on—where the firm was under fire for a 2007 incident in which Blackwater contractors killed 17 civilians in Baghdad’s Nisour Square.
According to the showrunners, Haney said that the show’s wild plot of a shady corporation ordering a Blackwater-like outfit to do its evil bidding is all too plausible.
“He knows a lot about what’s going on in North Africa, and we asked him, ‘Do you think this could ever happen?’” Foster recalls. “He said, ‘Oh, man. It’s the tip of the iceberg.’”