The Hidden Depths of Dimension 404: An Interview With Co-Creator Dez Dolly
In dark times, there is a glimmer of hope in this golden age of television. All I need to do to see resistance in art is merely turn on a screen. Zombie shows are stealing their poster taglines from musicals about the American Revolution. Rise up! It’s kind of funny for a zombie show, and I needed to laugh.
I’m forever rising up, but several weeks ago I just wanted to sit and watch something light. I saw Dimension 404 on Hulu. Escaping to another dimension seemed like a great idea. So, as a feminist TV blogger I leaned in on an investigation. I asked my partner what it was. “It’s this show that is trying to be like Black Mirror, but lighter I think. Lower budget.”
I didn’t want another Black Mirror at that moment. I wasn’t sure what I wanted. But I began my travels into the unknown to Dimension 404 anyway—well, as unknown as something can be when you see Patton Oswalt is in it. What I found in Dimension 404 was a needed glimmer of light.
It may be a shout-out to The Outer Limits, but it covers new ground with its perfect casting, time travel paradoxes, and gay teenagers fighting video game demons. The tone is always shifting and always working with a penchant for optimism but a need for chaos.
I reached out to Dez Dolly, one of the shows creators a few questions:
TMS (Jody Sollazzo): What are your influences, TV, movies, games, books … anything?
Dez Dolly: The staff writers and I all have a history with short horror and science fiction, most notably the writings of Asimov, Phillip K. Dick, Steven King, Harlan Ellison, Richard Matheson, and EC Comics. One of my absolute favorite books was Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark–an anthological collection of spooky tales for kids. As far as movies and TV, I grew up on a steady diet of USA’s Up All Night and Monstervision: With Joe Bob Briggs. My father would take me to the video store and we’d rent all the classics–he was a big cinephile, so I was heavily influenced by this confluence of high art and low-brow, trash cinema. And of course, my fellow producers and I are all Nintendo kids, so that love of games was inescapable as well. As post-modern babies there was no shortage of influence and inspiration from which to draw.
TMS: When you began to write Dimension 404 what did you hope to put out in a show that wasn’t already there in this Golden Age of television?
Dolly: There were no other episodic anthologies on television when we began development of Dimension 404. As fans of the format, and the ability to tell myriad surprising short stories with a moral hook, we took it upon ourselves to put that out into the world. My fellow writers knew it just had to be fresh, and it had to be relevant. Much like the way Twilight Zone delved into post WWII fears of the nuclear bomb, and dysfunction of the nuclear family, Dimension 404’s primary thematic aim is to explore our current relationship to a hyper-evolving technological landscape. Though unlike other anthologies released as of late, Dimension 404 has no interest in being a show fixated on techno-phobia, rather we strive to aim an optimistic lens on humanity’s ability to adapt. I think you’ll see many of our stories concern themselves with characters overcoming the challenges of their not-so everyday lives. Secondly, I’m a firm believer in showmanship, so our stories had to be, first and foremost, entertaining as all hell.
TMS: Do you think this is really The Golden Age of television?
Dolly: I am hard pressed to think of a more exciting time in television. There are quite literally too many amazing shows to watch. A blessing, and a curse.
It’s true. We also have all become very entitled when it comes to TV. Present company very much included. I don’t really need my therapist’s license to tell you it makes sense. We are living in an age where we are getting less in real life, so we expect to have it all in our entertainment and we want it NOW. We want everything to be made for us in the exact flavor we want it. No one may be listening to us about our rights and equal pay, but they will hear us about our show complaints or at least get others to agree.
At the end of 1996, I saw a Buffy the Vampire Slayer ad on the side of a bus. I thought it was going to be 90210 with vampires. I thought nothing could be more feminist than the X-files and Star Trek Voyager. I was a naïve 90s child. I had some very nice chokers and was very edgy with my nose ring.
Of course, I’m not saying the good old days were when we had three shows to choose from with buried gays, and Oprah was the only woman of color most saw on TV. I’m just saying I’m glad I kicked it old school for Dimension 404 and gave it a chance.
It’s not genre-smashing Buffy, or anything. I’m happy I didn’t start with episode one, “Matchmaker,” even though I would have stuck with it for the hysterical faux E-Harmony commercials.
Did anyone see the faux commercials Donald Glover wrote for Atlanta that satirized racist marketing? These E-Harmony parodies were that for online daters, only the struggle is anything but real because .
Here’s what Dez has to say about those commercials:
TMS: I LOVED the faux E-Harmony commercials. Who came up with those?
Dolly: Believe it or not those came about in post-production. We were contractually obligated to deliver 42-minute episodes, and Matchmaker was desperately light. I can’t remember whose idea it was specifically, but the commercials provided for a cost effective, entertaining, and thematically apt way to pad the episode runtime. Ah … the realities of low budget filmmaking. You’re not supposed to peek behind the curtain like this!
TMS: I particularly loved the woman in them. I saw her show up in some other episodes. Who is she?
That is Catherine Farington-Garcia. She’s the director of operations at RocketJump and she was our staff writer on half the first season episodes. She’s a wonderful actress and we’re very lucky to have her around whenever we need someone with talent to sell another one of our hack scenes. That’s her real-life husband playing her match in the commercials!
Hysterical. So, why would I not have instantly been a huge fan if I started with this, the first, episode? Well, the main character in Matchmaker is Adam. He’s a way too-cute twenty-something guy. He also just happens to also be nice guy that gets his heart smashed by a seemingly cold woman.
Wait! Adam is the only straight white male under thirty-five that plays a main character in any episode. Here is what I asked Dez about it.
TMS: I have to say if I saw this episode first I would think the series may be slanted towards the hetero white guy geek who can’t get girls—not that there’s anything wrong with that. We all have a lot of practice in identifying with characters that aren’t exactly us, but that was truly the only episode where the main character was a straight white dude under thirty-five. Was there any meaning to the order of episodes?
Dolly: That’s an astute observation, one not at all lost on the producers. Our goal in casting, from day one, was to have as diverse as cast as humanly possible. We wanted this show to accurately represent the world we live in. This goal was definitely achieved if you view the show as a whole. In the case of some episodes appearing less diverse than others, it comes down to so many factors pertaining to the realities of production schedules, availability, network approvals, etc.
Regarding the order of episodes, this was settled after a great deal of discussion with the network. In the end, we agreed upon an order that provided for the most welcoming and populous entry point for a new audience. To be blunt, we scheduled the really weird shit to air at a later date.
It’s not exactly a spoiler that a network would think the white hetero male point of view would be seen as “the most welcoming and populous entry point for a new audience.” The episode did look at the coldness of dating from the male point of view. Dolly said Adam’s character was solely from the experience of the male writer’s experience of the disposable dating culture , but it wasn’t unsympathetic to the main female character. I asked him how the episode would be if the genders were flipped. He answered, “I shudder to think of what the tone would have been if we featured male character cranking out ‘disposable’ female objects. I think a gender swap would have had disastrous consequences.”
The episode actually got deeper than I expected. I also never stopped laughing. The message of the episode is very humanist and maybe even feminist—nah, its humanist, but that’s okay.
Dimension 404 can be easily tagged as Black Mirror Lite. But, it is only like Black Mirror in the way Buffy is like the Walking Dead. Both Buffy and the Walking Dead can be said to exist in a science fiction subgenre with stories about the world constantly ending. In both shows, life-threatening situations constantly arise with attacks from both the undead and the living. But the seemingly less “serious” lower budget show (Buffy) is able to bring more in subtly and broader emotion into any given episode.
You can compare Dimension 404 and Black Mirror in the same way. Both shows are single-episode character-driven stories in worlds of science fiction. But Black Mirror is a sledgehammer that sometimes gets a little preachy. Dimension 404 is more of scratchy kitty cat. It’s always cute, but sometimes it really cuts you and you don’t even notice until later. You tend take a sledgehammer more seriously than a scratchy kitty when it’s in front of you, but then you find you think about scratchy kitty a lot more.
Dimension 404 is not Buffy—while most of the episodes have female protagonists, only two pass the Bechdel test. However, much like Buffy and classic sci-fi/paranormal shows dismissed as trivial, Dimension 404 had hidden depth. Its worlds are there to support the character’s development and choices. Meanwhile, in the more acclaimed dramas of The Walking Dead and Black Mirror, the world tends to overshadow the characters.
It’s hard to picture Rick Grimes in the world of Buffy Summers, though I look forward to all your fanfic links. Meanwhile, if you dropped Buffy Summers into any another world or show, you feel like you know what she would do.
You can do this with most main characters in Dimension 404. This is especially impressive since we only get them for one episode. What would Jane Lee, the US military psychotherapist (played by Constance Wu), do if she was in Black Mirror’s computer simulated world of 80’s San Junipero? She’d find a way to keep being a psychotherapist for all the people in existential crisis due to the fact that they are technically dead.
TMS: So did you start out wanting to write such a huge statement about the price of “safety” and being a caregiver and the triumph of the human spirit or were you just thinking it would be cool if a therapist talked to a big brain?
Dolly: I must admit … the idea of doing a Christmas episode featuring a massive talking meat blob was definitely the main attracting factor. It was an idea pitched by Will Campos, too bizarre to pass up. It’s a true testament to his skill to weave those beautiful themes so flawlessly into what is otherwise a bonkers episode of pulp TV. But that’s the value of science fiction. The best sci-fi is a reflection of our culture, and it promotes learning and understanding of the most complicated aspects of the human condition while creating wonder with the Universe.
TMS: Was this set out to be a Christmas episode?
Dolly: Always. We’re crazy like that. The Christmas backdrop was always a fundamental aspect of the story.
TMS: Do you think an AI could ever fully predict or understand human behavior?
Dolly: I absolutely think so. Next to global warming, superbugs and nuclear proliferation, I think AI potentially poses one of the greatest existential threats to the human race. It will either aid us in travelling across the galaxy to unknown worlds, or it will destroy us all.
During a Buffy or Dimension 404 episode, you will most likely experience a spectrum of emotions every single time. While Black Mirror and Walking Dead have their lighter moments, you are pretty aware of what they are going for in an episode. In this Golden Age of Television and Dark Age of politics, people seem to want the twist while also knowing to expect it. Again, I don’t need my degree to understand that we may want to control our surprises now.
Shows like Black Mirror and Walking Dead value twists, but really, you know what to expect emotionally. You may not know who is going to die, but you still always know that someone will. In Dimension 404, you aren’t so sure and if you aren’t so into emotions, there is always something there if you are, say, a gamer. In my opinion the best episode for both is “Polybius” (pul-ee-bee-us). This featured one gay teen, Andrew (Ryan Lee), and another questioning, Jess (Sterling Beaumon), along with their friend (Gabrielle Elyse) and a possessed video game in a small town in 1984.
TMS: Did you play any old school video games to write the ep, or are you guys just always playing them?
Dolly: The writers and I grew up playing anything and everything, form Nintendo onward. We even had an Atari when I was a kid (now I’m showing my age). We did a lot of research on arcade games of the era, visited some arcades in LA to see how the operate, how they photograph, that kind of thing. Our version of the Polybius game is an amalgam of a number of inspirations.
TMS: Any Easter eggs one might have missed in Alex’s books and comic books?
Dolly: There might be one or two that have yet to be discovered.
TMS: Was them pronouncing the game Poly-bi-us at first intentionally funny or are we just pervy for laughing?
Dolly: I have to admit, that interpretation of the read was lost on me. What a wonderful observation. The difficulty with the pronunciation just came from the writers’ own experience pitching the story. I’m going to take full credit for that now though!
I have to confess I am a romantic and was very much rooting for the young gay ‘ship of Jess/Alex in impossible odds of 80s suburbia. Like any good paranormal thriller the satanic video game was the least of their worries. Dolly drew on some of his own experiences for this.
TMS: So, who “researched” what it was like to grow up in such intolerant times?
Dolly: The high school scenes were definitely inspired by my high school experience. The things that happened in the boy’s locker room… it’s a total horror show.
TMS: So, do Alex and Jess ever get together?
Dolly: It was really important to me that they never happen and they both learn to be okay with that. I wanted to subvert the traditional TV tropes and explore another type of healthy relationship.
Funny story – there was a version of “Cinethrax” (episode 2, Gen X vs. Millennials vs. an assimilating creature with Patton Oswalt and Sarah Hyland) where Andrew & Jess were all grown up attending the Chosen movie on a date.
The tag in Dimension 404 is: “The surprise twist is only the beginning.” I look forward to what is in store and hope to get more female characters talking to each other. They are able to accomplish a lot on a very small budget, so I hope to look forward to more diversity, rich characters, and tones in familiar sci-fi stories.
Jody Sollazzo is a published science fiction/fantasy author of short stories. She is also licensed mental health therapist with a Master’s in psychology. She has worked with survivors of trauma and abuse and has performed research on disability, women, and sexuality. She is working on a novel about witches with disabilities and the fairies who love them. Follow her on Twitter and Goodreads.
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