'The Whispers' Bosses Promise Viewers Will Get Answers in Season 1

"You want to tell a story that has a clear-cut ending," showrunner Zack Estrin tells THR.
ABC
"The Whispers"

Recent television history is littered with the corpses of mythology-rich shows that spent so much time teasing the mystery elements that they forgot the need to deliver on what they promised. That's a danger that Zack Estrin, the showrunner for ABC's The Whispers was well aware of during production.

The series stars Lily Rabe (American Horror Story) as Claire Bennigan, an FBI agent who finds herself at the center of a mystery surrounding her back-from-the-dead husband and a conspiracy involving the children of some high-level government officials. Estrin says that it's important for viewers to feel as if they made a wise decision when they invest precious hours of their summer in a new show.

"You want audiences to feel a reward for watching this thing," Estrin told The Hollywood Reporter. "If we are lucky to have another season, then we have this little twinkle at the end that hints at where the show can go from there. But if this turns out to be a wonderful one-season ride, we are going to have a clear, satisfying ending."

THR spoke with Estrin and series creator/executive producer Soo Hugh about the upsides of being a summer series and the need to hold some facts back from the audience.

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The show is a bit hard to define in one sentence. There's a supernatural element to it and there's a sci-fi element to it. But there's also this interesting story about the relationships between parents and their kids.

Hugh: That's what totally fascinated me about the story. There's so much in here ... what is it in terms of a show? I figured out the heart of this show is about the fact that even the most powerful people have children. Even the most powerful people have weak points. Once that became clear to me and once I was able to look at it as a story about families — about two families in particular — and that their goal is to save the world, then that became the focal point of the show.

Estrin: One of the great things that was in place when I came on board was that Soo had this really great vision for treating the 13 episodes as if it were a 13-hour movie. We had it divided into three acts. The first three episodes were act one, the next five were act two and then you wrap it up in the end. It's interesting to structure it like that. A movie doesn't repeat itself, a movie keeps building. A movie has ebbs and flows, and we really wanted to keep that going across the entire season.

Is that philosophy part of the reason that there were changes to the pilot after the show was picked up to series? In the original version, there was a lot more backstory about the villains and a lot more revealing of some of the show's secrets.

Estrin: One of the things that is often said in network television is that there's the version of the that show you sell and the version of the show that you make. And I think that is what we were looking at. There was so much great material in the first pilot and we said, "Wouldn't it be great if we didn't have to tell all of this in the first 43 minutes? Wouldn't it be great if we pulled back and let the audience discover some of this with us rather than telling them everything?" And to the network's credit, they agreed and decided that rather than telling the audience what they were in for, we'd let them guess a bit. "Are we in a mystery show? Are we in a ghost show? Who exactly is this guy Drill?"

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The Whispers wasn't originally supposed to air as a summer show, but it does seem to have a lot of those elements that make watching TV in the summer so much fun.

Hugh: I think it's the perfect summer show. I was so thrilled that they gave us a summer slot. The fact that shows such as Hannibal and True Detective now launch in the summer tells us that the summer is a real, true season. And when ABC came to us with a summer slot, it just made so much sense. Summer television has a very fun, escapist feel to it and I think our show is fun.

Zack, you've been on some shows that had a lot of backstory and a lot of mythology, such as Zero Hour and Once Upon a Time in Wonderland. This show shares some of those elements, and I wonder what you took from working on those shows that you were able to put to use this time around?

Estrin: I think one of the lessons I learned is that you want to tell a very satisfying season. And I think Soo would say the same thing from working on The Killing. You want to tell a story that has a beginning, a middle and a satisfying, clear-cut ending. And the cool thing about summer is that we get to have all of our episodes. It's not the pressure of the fall where it's "you haven't hit by four episodes, you're done." You're going to get to see all the episodes, and that's a pretty great thing.

This is a show that really thrives on the strength of its acting. One of the best scenes for me in the pilot was when Claire talks about how she handles her grief.

Hugh: In that scene Claire describes it as "carrying a suitcase." In the original pilot, there was a totally different speech. Lily came in and talked about her personal experiences and how she had felt during her grieving process. It was such a beautiful anecdote and we brought that into the pilot.

The Whispers premieres June 1 at 10 p.m. on ABC. Will you tune in? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

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