Long before the young adult craze took over bookstores and movie theaters, there was Greek mythology. Endowed with supernatural powers but still unmistakably human in their emotional volatility, gods like Zeus, Hera and Ares were in many ways the forerunners to more contemporary figures like Harry Potter, Bella Swan and Katniss Everdeen. While the youth of these iconic characters made their adolescent struggles relatable, the immortality of the gods always rendered them distant and inaccessible.
But now, the gods are coming of age.
“Pantheon University,” a new TUTV webseries produced by Neat-O Productions that premiered online on Monday, April 18, takes the stories of Greek mythology and transplants them to a much more familiar setting: a college campus.
Although the beer-drenched depths of a fraternity house basement might seem like a far cry from the lofty heights of Mount Olympus, for Imogen Browder, one of the executive producers as well as a co-writer of the series, inspiration struck when she realized just how closely the gods resembled stereotypical college students.
“We were out to dinner with a bunch of friends and just kind of started talking about archetypes in college, and the way you could so easily fit that in with the Greek mythology archetypes,” Browder, a senior, said.
Of course, the standard college archetypes are tougher to discern at a school like Tufts, which prides itself on its quirkiness. Ed Rosini, who collaborated with Browder on the script for “Pantheon University” and served as another executive producer, acknowledges that the series is in some ways modeled after a larger university, though the show certainly features elements of Tufts culture and was shot entirely on-campus.
“In terms of scale, it’s maybe closer to a state school where you get the extremities in every department,” Rosini, a senior, said. “So there are the sports people who will live and die by their sport, there are the musical theater people who will do anything to get the show done, there are the fraternity presidents who have sway over campus life.”
The show, which began as a casual topic of dinner conversation, soon blossomed into a full-fledged idea.
“About a week later, Imogen and I, when we were trying to think of a series, thought, ‘Hey — that was a good idea,’” Rosini said.
Drawing primarily on Edith Hamilton’s “Mythology” (1942) as source material, he and Browder starting drafting scripts for the episodes last summer.
Perhaps counterintuitively, they cast the show before they had finalized the scripts for each episode. According to Rosini, the thinking behind their decision had to do with keeping the creative process as open and collaborative as possible.
“We didn’t have all the episodes written when we cast the show. We had ideas for all the characters, but we had the chance to base how the character was going to evolve around the person we cast for it,” he said.
By jettisoning preconceived notions to see what each actor brought to the table, the creators allowed room for creative interpretation of the roles. This collaborative ethos extended to the pre-production phase of the series, which lasted all of the fall semester. Each episode of the series was directed by a different person, and each had a different director of photography. Cast members had plenty of creative input, too.
“There was a sense of trying to get as many voices on the episodes as we possibly could,” Browder said.
Still, this kind of egalitarian approach had its downsides, as the executive producers came to realize, especially during post-production.
“Spreading out the work makes everyone’s lives easier on an individual level because the volume of work is less, but it doesn’t make it faster because it’s harder to communicate with a big team of people,” Emma Wold, who served as both casting director and executive producer for the series, said.
On the subject of coordinating schedules during the pre-production phase, which involved shooting for 20 hours each weekend and managing a cast of 35 actors, Wold was far more blunt.
“The short answer is, it’s a nightmare,” she said. “A nightmare and a beautiful monster at the same time.”
Another unique feature of the series was the way in which it was released. Rather than releasing an episode every week as TUTV has done with past series like “Jules and Monty” and “Wavejack,” the executive producers decided to release “Pantheon University” all at once, a lá Netflix shows like “House of Cards” (2013 – 2016). Part of this was just a clear-eyed acknowledgment of the modern entertainment landscape. To a generation that introduced “binge watching” into the cultural vernacular, the weekly installment model — especially for a web series — seems like a quaint anachronism.
“Young audiences — and our audiences tend to be pretty young — are really into the binge-consumption model,” Wold said.
However, the choice to release all of the episodes online at once also allowed the writers to take creative liberties. Browder said that while she and Rosini were working on the scripts, they were not constrained by the often suffocating conventions of TV writing.
“Knowing that all episodes were going to be released in a dump, that each episode could be self-contained, we didn’t need to leave big cliffhangers at the end of every single one,” she said.
While each episode can stand on its own, Browder still believes the show is best viewed all at once.
“I think it makes more sense to binge-watch it, because you have the references readily available, you have a full sense of what the story is,” she said.
Although many of those involved with “Pantheon University” are graduating this year, they are grateful for the opportunities TUTV has given them, as well as the possibilities it has opened up.
“Seeing the growth of everything through TUTV Productions, I think the interest in this medium and careers has really increased in the community, and a lot of us now are interested in pursuing this in a professional sense,” Tyler Beardsley, who stars in the series as Zeus, said.
Rosini echoed this sentiment, saying that TUTV is “taking leaps and bounds forward because they have all these new people who are hungry to do stuff.”
They are also excited for how the organization might evolve in the coming years, especially with the advent of the Film and Media Studies major this year.
“I think the FMS major coming about is really timely because there is definitely student interest in production and a need to create,” Browder said.
That sentiment certainly holds true for the committed group of individuals who devoted their weekends and evenings to putting “Pantheon University” together piece-by-piece, and learn the ins and outs of filmmaking along the way. Sometimes that meant improvising with what was on hand, with Rosini recounting a time the TUTV crew had once used lemonade as a light diffuser.
“Now that there are classes being offered, I can’t wait to see what comes next with people who have actually learned to edit and learned to use cameras,” he said.
As exciting as this new film curriculum sounds, the executive producers acknowledge the possibility of raw creative enthuasiasm getting lost.
“I would take trial-by-education over trial-by-fire any day,” Wold said.
From her high perch on Mount Olympus, Athena, goddess of wisdom, must have nodded approvingly.