Tragedy, resilience, and family ties are at the heart of Netflix’s upcoming family drama “Northern Rescue.” Created by David Cormican, the series debuted on the streaming service March 1.
Following the West family in the midst of tragedy and loss, the first two of the series’ ten episodes seethe death of the family matriarch, which then spurs the patriarch, John West (Billy Baldwin), to pick up and move his three children Maddie (Amalia Williamson), Scout (Spencer Macpherson) and Taylor (Taylor Thorne) back to his childhood home of Turtle Bay Island to live with his sister-in-law Charlie (Kathleen Robertson), where he takes a job as the head of the sleepy town’s search and rescue team.
Cormican is no stranger to Netflix — he’s worked with streaming giant before on what he calls “sci-fi genre-skewing” shows like “Between” and “Shadow Hunters” as well as on historical drama “Tokyo Trial.”
What sets this family drama apart from the rest, Cormican says, is that the emotional core of the show is based on the crew’s real life experiences.
“We like to write from truth,” he says. “Almost everything you watch is going to be based on some nugget of truth that we’ve unearthed.”
Cormican was quick to assure that “it gets brighter and more optimistic” after the first two episodes, which find the Wests walloped by grief and adrift in their new home when their sister-in-law’s house burns down the day they arrive.
“As much as we have some action and adventure for people now and then, at the heart of it, we’re not just a sad, get your Kleenex box out show,” Cormican says. “We have some emotional jeopardy as well…we’re a bit of a hybrid, so that allows us to appeal potentially to a wider swath of audience.”
For Cormican, “Northern Rescue” is something of a passion project. On top of being the show’s creator, he was also heavily involved in writing and producing. “This one is a bit of a baby for me,” he says. “I’m the excited, nervous, expectant father in the delivery room, waiting for our child to be born into the world.”
Variety caught up with Cormican a day before the show’s launch.
We have two classic stories here: Mother dying of cancer, and the family moving back to a sleepy hometown by the sea. What makes that premise such a timeless jumping off point for a story about family?
One of our partners on this also suffered a personal tragedy, lost his mother during the development period. So a lot of these stories are very personal in that regard. We’ve all suffered our own degrees of loss throughout our own families, so it was a lot of very close material that we were able to pull from and be inspired from. So the big thing that were common amongst all of us was this notion that the nuclear def of a family doesn’t really exist anymore. There’s family that is thrust upon us that you’re either born or adopted into, and then there’s those that you choose. We’d all had these incredible extended families — I’m not just talking aunts and uncles, but the people that you’d call aunt or uncle, or people that weren’t really cousins but they were always around. So there was that notion that blood is sometimes thicker than your bloodline.
Family, resentment, loss, love, tragedy — there’s so much going on here. How do you weave these tangled webs of emotions while keeping these characters complex but easily understood and identified with?
There’s this fine line between tragedy and joy and comedy or levity and heartbreak. We’re constantly going back and forth with all of these mixed emotions. For the actors, it was just about arming them with as much of a backstory as possible, and also giving them as much of the secrets ahead that we could to sort of help inform their part of the journey. You put words on a page, but then the magic really starts to happen when everyone else starts to interpret it a little bit differently, and then they add all the different layers of their life and their own personal heartbreaks and sacrifices and losses and loves and joys and milestones…so it’s been a really exciting part of the story to see that and build these characters together, even though we had the road map painted already.
How did the idea for this show come to fruition?
It started back two festivals ago, in 2017 at the Banff World Media Festival. I was sitting down with Larry Tanz and Lauren Smith [of Netflix], catching up. We did “Between,” “Tokyo Trial,” and “Shadow Hunters,” so we’ve had a history of working with Netflix…and Larry threw a curve ball at me by saying, ‘What have you got for family drama?’ This ‘Northern Rescue’ thing sounds pretty interesting. So I said, ‘What? You guys don’t do family drama.’ And he was like ‘No no, what have you got?’ And at that point we had 2 scripts written. So we shared the scripts, and I think actually within two weeks we had our first offer from them. It moved really quickly from there..the curveball for us was we were always so focused on sci fi genre skewing projects that we completely slipped the fact that we should be talking to [Netflix] as well about the family drama genre.
Why do you think Netflix wants to move more into the family space?
I think they’ve done such a good job in the other genres, that it’s just a natural extension of the brand. Netflix is in so many millions of households across the world, and within each of those you have viewers of different tastes. So I think they’re extending the value of their subscription service to get something for everyone in each household…that would be my guess. I think to go even further, they probably have the analytics and data that’s driving the decisions by seeing on some of the other scripted content they’ve been licensing, to see where there is that need or that desire for those types of projects. I think they saw a lot of success with ‘Fuller House,’ and ‘The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’…They’ve had an uptick with other family drama shows that lead to this push.
What sets “Northern Rescue” apart from other family dramas?
I think for us some of the magic really was in the casting, and how this family has gelled not just on screen but off. We took over a community called Parry Sound, a 3 hour drive north of Toronto. Everyone was basically on location. We had everyone in separate homes or hotel rooms or cottages, and part way through, we were getting requests from some of our lead cast to all start rooming dormitory style in larger homes. So we of course obliged to that request because we were creating this family dynamic off the screen as well. So that was pretty unique. I’ve seen close casts, but I’ve never seen people who spend 14, 16 hours on set [who] still want go home and live with [each other].
“Northern Rescue” begins streaming on Netflix March 1.