By Matt Levy
Finding an apartment when you move to a new town is not easy. You don’t know the strangers interviewing you to be their future roommate and they don’t know you either. It’s a bit uncomfortable. Now, imagine in this scenario you’re from Mercury and these new roommates are from Jupiter and…New Jersey?
Also, you all live in modern day Los Angeles. That’s the central premise of the brilliant, new eight-episode Millennial Sci-Fi web series, Not From Around Here, that takes place in an alternate universe where aliens live regular lives alongside regular humans. Here, the heroes are aliens from our solar system which is, yes, “not from around here” but it’s also not galaxies far, far away.
Basically, imagine if Broad City met Deep Space Nine but these aliens are “homies living typical millennial lives, eating tacos, and tripping out on drugs together” and you have creator Shannon Dee’s vision in a nutshell.
It’s never explicitly commented on in the series but in the show’s universe, there is intelligent life on all eight planets (pour one out for Pluto), and they operate similarly to how countries on Earth do. There are wars, alliances, unions, and traveling between planets is as easy as booking a flight to Rome. In fact, the show’s first episode opens with a television announcer explaining space travel cheerfully to prospective passengers:
“You’re embarking on a journey to our solar system’s third planet, Earth. As you know, Mercury is the last of the eight planets to venture out and all of us here on Earth are excited to have you. You’ll be meeting aliens from not only our Solar System, but galaxies far beyond. So buckle up and get ready to go to Earth, a paradise 4 billion years in the making. Away we go!”
Presumably, one of those passengers is 20-something Mercurian, Mallory (Jasmine Dubauskas), who leaves her home to create a better life for herself on Earth, the planet of opportunity. There she meets and builds a familiar rapport with her aforementioned new roomies: Eve (the show’s creator Shannon Dee), an eccentric New Jerseyan who keeps a glitchy clone of herself appropriately dubbed Eve 2.0 around to take on her chores, and June (Missy McIntosh), a ball of gas from Jupiter whose only way of survival on Earth is being encased in a spacesuit.
On her journey, the naive, “aww shucks’’ Mallory with a 50s sensibility encounters a slew of unique alien life forms from all over the universe. In a bit of clever commentary by Dee, these characters come from the sprawling solar system, yet they all reside in a single California neighborhood effectively creating a true melting pot.
Most shows create worlds; this one built a whole universe and placed it in a single city. Far out.
In episodes clocking in at 10–12 minutes, NFAH deftly juggles storylines highlighting all different kinds of life forms like a happy-go-lucky showtune belting Martian landlord, Bruce (Kenneth Rosendo), a goth, Neptunian drug dealer (Max Hawksford), a cuckolding couple from Venus (Horace Gold and Maxi Witrak), a party girl from the Andromeda galaxy (Kenzie Harr), a Plutonian with a kinky fetish (Ric Rosario) and a love interest (Ross van Dongen) dubbed “The Poor Man’s Kramer” hailing from the most foreign place of all: Milwaukee. The running joke that humans from other parts of America sometimes feel the most foreign in a world where residents are literally from other planets is one of the series’ richest gags.
This universe was first dreamt up in 2015, when the show’s writer, director and star Shannon Dee was up in Big Sur for one of her best friend’s birthdays. The group camped at a beautiful site in the woods and decided to partake in some magic mushrooms. In a state of bliss, Dee peered up at the night sky and thought out loud, “Wouldn’t it be cool if all the planets in our Solar System had life on them? We could be friends!”
From there, the concept for Not From Around Here was born.
Dee, a native of Merchantville, New Jersey and current Los Angeles resident, has always been insecure about creating and putting her ideas out into the world. In film school, she only worked on her friends’ projects because she didn’t have the confidence to write or direct anything of her own. Luckily for us, the shy, little girl inside of Shannon saw her Big Sur vision through.
Her parents see it differently. They say their daughter has been directing since she started talking. In fact, whenever Shannon played Barbies or American Girl Dolls with her older sister and friends, she not only told them what to do but also fed them lines and critiqued their performances. Thankfully, Dee displays much more patience and understanding on set these days.
Collaborating closely with her writing and producing partner, Kenneth Rosendo, the twosome created a language, shorthand, internal logic and style all their own behind the jokes that fly at you faster than a meteor in the series. Many of these bits not only build character but also carefully poke fun at the reality this series has created. Two favorites include June sobbing and saying, “I’m not crying, it’s condensation. There’s a huge difference,” or when Mallory is having a rough day and Eve spouts out, “Mercury must be in retrograde.” The greatest line of all though is, “I’m not spacist, you’re just weird.”
Moving at a 30 Rock-like pace with references to Titanic, “Macarena” and Thumbelina in the space of just a few scenes, and quick asides like, “How is Bieber allowed to go to Mars?” and “Avatar is so unrealistic,” the series rewards rewatch for comedy fans. As someone who has watched the series multiple times, I promise that the second time around you’ll catch gags you completely missed on first viewing.
Best of all, there’s a brief bottle episode ironically titled “This Sucks” that chooses to highlight physical comedy instead of the rapid fire verbal tit for tat culminating in a silent film romance between Dee’s android character Eve 2.0 and a roomba that is equal parts Buster Keaton and Wall•E. It was so funny and heartfelt, I didn’t watch it two times. I watched it three times.
However, no matter how many great jokes are in situation comedies, great characters and performances are needed to match them. In Not From Around Here, each of the lead actors breathe life into the series refusing to hold back. In episode five titled “Trash Pie,” we see Dee deliver on that show’s title eating pie from a trash can. In this same installment, there’s a scene where Dubauskas realistically recreates diarrhea holding nothing back. In a separate episode, McIntosh soulfully re-enacts a bad trip (their drug of choice? It’s from Neptune and called “Doody”) bringing a mania and melancholy demonstrating what it would be like for someone from Jupiter to get high that only adds to the absurdity and hilarity of the proceedings. Plus, all of their improv skills are on display as Dee and her editor Brian Hathaway allow alternate lines to make their way into scenes showcasing the actors’ improvisational skills.
Hathaway and Rosendo weren’t Dee’s only key collaborators; she also had a seasoned Director of Photography in Emilio Mejia who jumped aboard the project just a few weeks prior to shooting. Even though Shannon attended film school, she claims she “knows virtually nothing about how a camera works.” Not only did Mejia help stylize the series, he was Shannon’s second set of eyes to catch any mishaps. It was a collaborative effort by all involved. Dee was also assisted by brilliant makeup artists, Olya Tizer, Olga Tarnovetska and Megan Longmeyer, who created such lifelike makeup/prosthetics that they made aliens pass as, well, aliens. That’s not to mention the kitschy, sharp animated titles by Mark Olsen which featured cartoons by Tyler Waite, special effects props by Natasha Pirouzian, or Not From Around Here’s perfect throwback 60s sitcom theme song. There’s so much to love about this series and it shows in the work of all those who put the hours in making this dream universe a reality.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise then that Not From Around Here has made the festival rounds winning Best Web Series Episode at the Austin Comedy Short Film Festival for the fan-favorite, “‘Ello Puppet.” Other accolades include Best Makeup & Hairstyling at the Indie Short Fest in Los Angeles and nominations for Best Web Series/TV Pilot, Best Web & New Media, and Best First Time Director. The series is also an Official Selection at the Portland Comedy Film Festival, Chicago Indie Film Awards, New York TriState International Film Festival, the Toronto Film Magazine Festival and the Hollywood International Golden Age Festival.
The industry is noticing which is great because Dee hopes to have a network like FX or Comedy Central turn Not From Around Here into a long running series; the possibilities are endless. The universe is expanding after all which is perfect for these roommates.
Writing about this show was such a joy that it hurt to not include behind the scenes stories that were shared with me. That’s why if you’ve gotten this far, I’ve included this BTS nugget for you:
Shannon’s talented friend, Natasha Pirouzian and her husband Matt Susterich, created the space helmet for June. The helmet‘s intricate design involves two layers of thick glass filled with glitter, glue, and water. The three of them were up late the night before the first shoot day making sure the helmet was camera ready. They used epoxy to hold it together and left it outside overnight due to the toxic smell. Dee was paranoid it would break and had nightmares her roommate knocked it over on his way out.
This fear was not unfounded; if the helmet was damaged in any way, the next four days of production would be rendered useless; they were relying on this thing. Thankfully, the next morning, the helmet was still intact, and was driven to set safely.
On the very first take, the glass part of the helmet fell off in the middle of the scene, revealing Missy under the helmet.
Shannon had her first major directorial challenge. She excused herself and went outside to gather her thoughts. Dee’s mind was racing — “Do I rewrite the character as an alien that’s not in a suit? Could that even work?” She’d have to change so many jokes, story lines and was panicking. Luckily, Shannon’s right hand man & co-producer, Kenneth Rosendo, grabbed the helmet and began putting it back together. Given ten minutes and black gaffer’s tape, he had it put together even stronger than it was before. The show was back on.