'Spinning Out' Creator on Exploring Bipolar Disorder, Comparisons to 'Black Swan'

Samantha Stratton also breaks down that cliffhanger finale and how the Netflix drama series made its actors look like Olympic hopefuls.
Courtesy of Netflix
Kaya Scodelario in 'Spinning Out'

[This story contains a spoiler from the season one finale of Spinning Out.]

Since the first trailer for Netflix's Spinning Out dropped last month, the internet was quick to brand the new drama series as Black Swan on ice, drawing comparisons to both projects' high-stakes, emotionally charged competition and dangerous commitment to the craft.

Not so fast, says creator and co-showrunner Samantha Stratton (Audience Network's Mr. Mercedes), who notes that though she's flattered that her project is being likened to an Oscar best picture nominee, "I didn't want to write something where the heroine is in pieces at the end."

Unlike Natalie Portman's ballerina, ice skater Kat Baker (played by Maze Runner's Kaya Scodelario) is an Olympic hopeful struggling to return to the ice after a traumatic fall. She pivots her career to be a pairs skater with bad-boy partner Justin Davis (Evan Roderick), all while balancing complicated relationships with her mother, Carol (January Jones), and sister, Serena (Willow Shields).

Stratton tells The Hollywood Reporter that despite the comparisons to Black Swan — as well as to 1992 ice skating rom-com feature The Cutting Edge — the tone of her series is very different, as "our show is more of a coming-of age-story and Black Swan was incredibly dark. And there are dark moments of our show, but I think that in Kat's sense of hope for the future, I'd say we have a lighter tone than Black Swan."

One of those darker aspects is the bipolar disorder that Kat and her mother each struggle with, going on and off medication while falling into deep spirals of mania that affect them on and off the ice. Stratton, who herself was a high-level figure skater for 11 years, says she wrote the series "to explore the road not taken" — as she chose going to college over chasing Olympic pursuits — and though the story is somewhat based on her life, she does not wrestle with mental illness in the same way as her main character.

The Spinning Out team consulted with doctors and psychiatric groups throughout the development process to make sure they were properly representing the disorder, as Stratton says she "didn't want to write a show that was going to be about mental illness that was depressing," though she's quick to make a specific distinction. "Yes, there are moments where it treats it seriously, and there is a gravity to it for sure, but I didn't want to write a woman-on-the-verge story. I wanted to write a story about someone who could learn to live with her disorder and who could thrive," she says.

"Mental disorders can be crippling, and they can be huge mountains to climb, but they also give you a certain perspective on the world that is valuable and shows vulnerability and shows strength," the creator continues. "I hope that I've been able to depict bipolar disorder in a way that acknowledges how serious it can be and how difficult it can be to live with, but also that you can live with it successfully, and I think that's really important."

Aside from the emotional elements of the show, there is also a prominent focus on the skating itself, as a town of young skaters duke it out to win regional competitions for a chance at the Olympics. To achieve the look, Stratton says the actors went through intensive rehearsals and trained with I, Tonya choreographer Sarah Kawahara.

Some of the stars, including Roderick and Amanda Zhou, came from skating backgrounds, while those like Scodelario — who joined the project late, replacing Emma Roberts after a scheduling conflict — had to start from scratch. In the final edit, the team combined shots of the actors skating, scenes with professional doubles and visual effect face-replacement technology to make the characters seem believable as top athletes. Figure skating superfan Jonathan Van Ness and Olympian Johnny Weir also appear in the series to add some skating legitimacy.

As for the finale, the 10-episode series ends on a cliffhanger, with the audience uncertain of Kat and Justin's fate in the national competition, but Stratton jokes that she knows "exactly how they did," and if the show is renewed for a second season, "then everyone will find out."

Of the decision to focus on the fate of Kat, Serena and Carol rather than the sport, she says, "It was more important to show how the Baker family came together than to show how Kat and Justin either won or didn't win. The show really is about Kat and her relationship with her family and those three women … how those women came together and were strong for each other, for that is the most important, the heart of the show."

Spinning Out launched Jan. 1 on Netflix.