Peter Horton Wants Viewers to Question Democracy With NBC's 'American Odyssey'

The writer-director says new conspiracy drama is out to ask "Where does the power lie today?"
Virginia Sherwood/NBC

Following in the footsteps of Homeland comes NBC's newly re-titled American Odyssey, a conspiracy drama that weaves together three distinct and intricate tales that all tie in to a larger political cover-up.

At the center of the story is Sgt. Odelle Ballard (Anna Friel), whose troop is on a mission in North Africa to find a terrorist's wife, but end up finding and killing the terrorist instead, and in the process, uncover documents about a U.S. corporation that is funding said terrorist. While Ballard should be lauded as a hero, a team of private military contractors instead are brought in to wipe out her entire troop, and she must play dead in order to save her own life. Her journey then turns into a quest to get herself home, while the rest of the world believes she is dead.

"It's not a cop show; it's not an FBI show; it's not a CIA show; it's about so much more and something so much more important than that, which is asking the basic question, 'Where does power lie today?' " writer-director Peter Horton told The Hollywood Reporter. "We're seeing three normal individuals — normal people — try and exercise that power. They're seeing something they feel is wrong taking place. The little pieces of what they see seem wrong to them so they want to do something about it."

While a sergeant typically does have power, Odelle finds herself in a distant land with no method of communication and a group of powerful people out to silence her if the public begins to suspect she is alive. She has some help, however, in young political activist Harrison (Jake Robinson), who has access to the media thanks to his famous and wealthy father. He begins to investigate what really happened when her troop was ambushed. Peter (Peter Facinelli), a former U.S. Attorney-turned-corporate lawyer for the company that funded the terrorist is starting to connect the dots, too. While each character is in a different place, there is still strength in numbers and value in partnership — no matter how small.

Horton spoke with THR about the scope of the NBC drama and how these three characters may be able to come together to expose the truth.

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What's the appeal of doing such a big scope show on a broadcast network?

Networks have had a grand tradition of big shows and very large perspective shows, whether they're miniseries like Roots or Shogun, all the way through to shows like Lost. There's been a real tradition there, but it's also been specific to this network for me. I've done five pilots for [Bob Greenblatt], and he's put all but one on the air. I really love his sensibility. Coming from Showtime to a network, to me, was the perfect place for this show to land because it still embodied the size of a network but with the sensibility of someone who, I think, realizes the necessity for networks to evolve, and evolve creatively, toward the high bar that cable has now set. It just felt like this show was a good match with his sensibility and this network.

There are three core characters at the center of this story — Peter, Harrison and Odelle. How do you balance the storytelling of revealing each person’s journey in this bigger picture?

What we're finding is the luxury of being able to tell a story in three bubbles really helps us fill our tanks with the fuel that drives our show, which is tension. When you're in a story for a period of time and all of a sudden you get a little bit bored (laughs), you can go to the other story, and there's an infusion of tension because it's a new world, and where are they now? Conceptually that's been a really fun way to tell the story. The audience gets this omniscient view where we get to see all three points of view, and we see things that [not all of the characters] see, and that can be fun [too]. Both Peter and Jake are well aware of Odelle Ballard — that she's supposedly dead but they're thinking maybe she's not — but she's not aware of them. And at some point those lines certainly find ways to cross. We have a cross in episode three where Suzanne [Sadie Sink], Odelle's daughter, runs away from home and goes to the park where the demonstration is taking place, and she gets there right when it's falling apart, and because of that, she runs into Harrison, who's sitting there by himself. She comes up to him and goes, "Oh my God, you believe my mother's alive, right?" And he goes, "Who are you? Odelle Ballard has a daughter? There's a personal component to this!" And they connect. Eventually, there are other connections between characters as we go along. But we don't really rush to that [because] the part of the fun is knowing what we know and seeing the limitations of what they know.

The inclination is to root for these characters to expose the truth, but there is danger in the how and when of that because if they're not careful they can be silenced.

One of our challenges has been figuring out how to keep a character ignorant of certain things in the age of such extensive communication, and we really try to approach that honestly. If they Google everything they can, what would they find out? Or if Odelle tries to call home, what trouble does that get her into? What we've found is that as you follow those roads, they present as their own hazards and their own land mines. We really try to let our characters step on those land mines. We wanted to go down the road with these characters.

Some things that have happened are pure kismet. For example, even to the point where one of the big characters, Sophia, who gets introduced in episode two is a Greek candidate for Prime Minister, who looks like she's going to win based on a Greeks for Greece platform, and basically is going to wipe out Greek debt. That's exactly what's happening in Greece today. (Laughs.) What are the implications of that — if indeed the candidate who got just elected follows through on promises? What would that do to the Euro? What would that do to the economy? Or the fact that North Africa is the new seed of terrorism? ISIS is moving into Libya. The new hotbed of terrorism seems to be migrating south, and here we are in Mali. We're operating in the world as we know it today and asking honest questions about it. You're on the edge of your seat — but in ways that are certainly meaningful [in addition to] entertaining.

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The show is being marketed with the hashtag of #OdelleLives, which might make it feel like she's the center of the show to some, despite Peter and Harrison's importance in the bigger picture.

In this season, her story is the catalyst, for sure. And consequently, you're going to feel in this first season that she's the cornerstone, but boy are Peter and Harrison's stories the next two seasons stones in the building! They all three do balance, for sure, in the series. The genesis for this project was someone coming and saying, "Wouldn't it be fun to do a modern take on [Homer's] The Odyssey?" And what does that mean? But when you really think about it, the theme of finding your way home is wonderfully potent, and that is what Odelle is trying to do.

What is the biggest hurdle for her in trying to get herself home? 

She's cast adrift in the Northern Mali part of the Sahara Desert, trying to pretend that she's not an American soldier. It's a really cool journey. When everyone in the world, outside of her little sphere that she's trying to survive in, thinks she's dead, including her family — except her daughter, who has this undaunted faith that somehow her mom is alive. It's heartbreaking. Her husband is trying to find a way for her daughter to accept and move on, and her daughter is refusing to [do that]. Then she has this new family she's forming with Aslam [Omar Ghazaoui], who's this amazing kid who helps her when no one would.

The character of Bob (Nate Mooney) is the quintessential conspiracy theorist in that he talks a little too fast because his brain races a million miles a minute and people find him a little bit odd and don’t take him too seriously, but he truly is smart and did stumble onto something real. And similarly with Harrison, you could just see him as a bored, rebelling rich kid. How much are you trying to make a statement about the various players in situations like this, not being entirely what they seem? 

There are those that can seem a little bit trope-like [at the start] but our approach to all of those people is they all have a point of view, and it's a point of view they all believe in. It's a little bit easier to talk about the villains because traditionally they're a little broader, but we really give Alex Baker a point of view, and a valid one. By the end of the season, you may go, "Maybe he's right." As much as you hate him. And same thing with Col. Glen [Treat Williams] or any of them. We're interested in knowing all of the characters' points of views. When you have Dick Cheney, who was not only the vice president but also the head of Halliburton, and then the U.S. goes to war, and Halliburton gets the first big contract and makes millions of dollars, on the face value you go, "That seems really screwed up; that's a conflict of interest." (Laughs.) But what's Dick Cheney's point of view? We've done that with all of our villains. When you get to someone like Harrison, sure, the onset of that character is kind of familiar, but how does a character like that find depth and evolve? One of the things that's interesting about someone like that who's had a cushioned life, he's someone who's not had struggle and hasn't had hard experience, and we're defined by our struggle. So if you haven't had struggle, that's its own struggle. We give him struggle and see what he finds about himself this season. By the end, this guy is a totally different person. He's pursued a truth; he thinks he's onto something. His initial motivation is to prove that he is something, but that pursuit leads him into unfathomable agony and pain.

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Having directed the pilot, you really set the visual tone for the series as well. What key elements did you mandate future episode directors keep in order to match not only the style but also the tone and intensity of the pilot? 

I directed the pilot and the first episode to try and set that tone. There's such a wonderful disparity in the worlds that I really wanted to keep going — the colors, for example: there's the blued and grays of New York vs. the yellows and earth tones of Mali. There's the longer lens, kind of "insider" feel to New York vs. the more handheld Hurt Locker feel in Mali. I set up those ideas and then let these directors take those and make them their own, and they've done some beautiful work with it. I grew up on thirtysomething and they approached that show with: "Bring something new. Don't just do what the other directors had done." And so, I grew up with that sensibility. Everyone had different styles and different approaches, and that worked really well for that show because it was such a stable concept that putting different stamps on it was fine. And then you evolve into this world where there's much more branding, and it's mandated almost to "Let's establish a look and try to do that every single week so everyone can identify this show as that show." I land somewhere in the middle [though]. I go, "Here's the look that we want. Here's the feel that we want. Now make it your own. Make that interesting to you." And so far that's worked really well.

American Odyssey makes a statement about the corruption of power, whether entirely intentional or not. What do you hope the audience takes away about power and corruption? What are the questions you want them to be asking, not only about your show but about society?

In a democracy — even one as advanced as this one — do we still have power? Do we still have representative government? Do we still have the ability to assert our values in our society for ourselves, or has that been subjugated to different places? It's not a rhetorical question; we're truly asking it. Do we have a responsibility to look into these situations and due our diligence? To stand up for what you believe is right is going to cost you; there's going to be real sacrifice involved in it, and what is that like? You may have to truly sacrifice, and not just your comfort [but also] your wellbeing, your family, your life, for something that you feel is right. It's posing those kinds of questions, and I think when you're posing questions that are that acute and real for everybody — because whether you're a Democrat or a Republican or anything right now, you may feel powerless — that's a story that deserves our commitment and our full selves.

American Odyssey premieres April 5 at 10 p.m. on NBC.

Twitter: @danielletbd

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