Monica Owusu-Breen is probably behind most of your favorite genre television. The prolific producer and screenwriter has worked on shows like Alias (which she joined in Season 3), LOST, Fringe and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. She was showrunner on Midnight, Texas for its first season, and this weekend at San Diego Comic-Con the news broke that she would be penning the pilot script and serving as showrunner on the upcoming reboot of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (with original creator Joss Whedon executive producing).
SYFY FANGRRLS had the opportunity to speak with Owusu-Breen a few days after she appeared on a Comic-Con panel to discuss badass female scientists in the lab and on the screen. We discuss the happy accident that led to her writing women in STEM fields, the relatability of Sydney Bristow and the surprising rules of supernatural shows.
You’ve contributed to a lot of really beloved genre shows over the course of your career, specifically ones that have included female protagonists working in STEM fields.
Yeah. Which is, for me, it’s one of those beautiful accidents of my life. I used to be a kid who went to a middle school for gifted and talented kids and I was in science talent … Science has always been a sort of fascination for me, or just the way biology works, the way humans work. And so I’ve always lucked out in that a lot of my favorite characters have had this interest that I didn’t pursue as a career but have always had.
What do you love most about writing those kinds of badass female scientist characters?
Well, I love their curiosity. I love that they look at the world and don’t just accept it but want to ask questions of it, want to understand it fundamentally, mentally. Writing a curious character is always super fun. Also, writing characters who have to go up against the world that isn’t open for them. So I do feel like for me there’s been something wonderful about writing characters like that.
Sydney Bristow wasn’t a scientist, but she was brilliant and she spoke a million languages and she could do scientific things when necessary. And for me, as a kid who grew up watching television and just by virtue of what was on TV or what was on screen having to identify with the male character always because he was the hero and that’s what I wanted to be in my little mind … I realized that for me there’s something so glorious about always writing that character as female, when my memory of it is male. So Sydney was my James Bond. But she was the James Bond who also had the dating relationship I can relate to — unlike James Bond. As a girl you’re sort of shut out of that story a little bit when he starts using women.
It’s always a different subjectivity, and that’s a moment where, as you’re watching it and you’re with James Bond, you’re like, “Oh, no, I can’t be with you now in this moment.” And with Sydney, it was her being a woman and her being a kickass spy and her being brilliant and her being a student. It was all part and parcel of the package, and there was so much relatability. Even though I couldn’t relate to her diffusing a bomb, I could definitely relate to, “How do you do this really hard job and maintain a relationship?”
Genre in particular lends itself to the possibility of more of that inclusion, especially when the storylines are dealing with elements that are more fantastical.
Completely. And I always go back to the original Star Trek, where that was a diverse world in space. And there’s a reason that show lives on, because so many people found meaning there. My father used to watch it in Africa. But there’s someone for everyone to relate to, and it feels like an inclusive world. Part of it is that science fiction or fantasy thinks outside of how we’re limited now, in the present. But as a writer it lends itself to a lot of just telling different kinds of stories. There’s an openness to the audience, too.
Why do you think it’s so important for sci-fi and fantasy to portray women in science, which tends to be a more material field?
For me, what’s really important is when you think scientist, you think a certain image, just by virtue of history. That image is not true. And for me as a writer to put images on screen that change our most basic stereotypes of these things, suddenly as a girl growing up, you’re not the aberration to think, “I can be a scientist.” It’s just open to you. It’s a possibility. You see it, it’s there. And so there’s a beauty in that.
Shonda Rhimes talked about that on casting Grey’s Anatomy. You look at a lab or you look at a hospital, and there are people of all different races and ethnicities, and there are tons of women. I do think it’s changing, so I don’t want to speak with too broad a brush here, but for a long time hospitals were only employed with doctors who were white guys. But our perception is a shorthand, it’s taking a while to catch up. And I think it’s desperately important that our shorthand reflect the world, which is a diverse world.
You worked on Fringe, which is a show that blended elements that were both quantifiable but also the unexplainable. As a writer, what’s the hardest part of balancing the science and the fiction on those scripts?
Fringe was such a fun experience, because what we’d do is the showrunners would say, “We want to do an episode about invisibility.” And then as a writer’s room, we had a lot of brilliant people who were not scientists but were smart and interested in science and pursued it as a hobby, just understanding science. So we’d think about invisibility, where do you see that in nature? You come up with octopi. How do octopi work? And then you make phone calls to scientists. “Can you explain to us how an octopus can change to appear like its background?” And suddenly you’re back filling the story that’s a genre story with a possible explanation based in the natural world.
As a writer it was a joy, because you got to exercise all these different muscles, whether it be just your understanding of science and cellular structure, and your crazy creativity and applying that in the most wild and insane way. So Fringe was just fun. I mean it was really, really fun.
And Walter Bishop is a scientist who’s a man, but also his motivations were very much the motivations you find with women: to save his son, to save his family, to be able to rip apart a universe to save a family. It could make me cry even thinking about it right now, because I was so moved by that story. So it gave it the heart, with the science, with the crazy sci-fi stories. To me there was nothing better than that.
I have a significantly autistic son, and so it’s the only show I’ve ever written about what it’s like to have a significantly disabled child in your family. It was one of those shows that let you really put an emotional throughline in there that you didn’t see coming and that was really emotional and relatable for some, but at the same time was still the cool science sci-fi story. And so you sort of just hide the emotional stuff in there.
You also worked on Midnight, Texas, which focuses more on a found family and supernatural characters. What was it like for you making a jump to that kind of a show after working on shows that were more science focused?
Well, I think one of the important things, and this is funny: you need your rules. You need your disciplines. And science gives you a discipline. You actually are locked in to the way the world works, or the way at least we understand the world’s working. With the supernatural, you don’t want it to be all possible things at all times. What are the rules of this world? You’re sort of making up a rule system so that it doesn’t feel unhinged.
Psychic rules are very complicated, because psychics don’t get visions always. They can’t touch you and immediately know your future. I’m talking in the real world, the way like psychics work. It’s an impression, it’s something you interpret. Sometimes you get something very strong. Sometimes you get no impression at all. And so it’s about how to make that not feel random. And that’s a challenge. There haven’t been a ton of psychics on TV, and I do think it’s a hard thing to explain, ’cause everyone wants rules and the rules of psychics are hard. There are no rules, because the truth of the matter is if you had a character who at every point can tell you the future and the past, there’s no story you can tell around that person.
‘Cause he or she knows all. So it was just a matter of finding what the rules of that world were and holding true to them, whether the rules were [that] Manfred will feel something or not tell something and he’s gonna be vulnerable, but it’s also gonna frustrate him that he can’t always get a message. Just having some guideposts for how every character’s sort of powers work, what their mythology is, and sort of being true to the limitations of that, and then exploring the wildness within it. Does that make sense?
I’d never thought of it that way before, but it does make sense, because in terms of storytelling you really can’t make somebody too overpowered.
Right, or you can’t make it so the witch can always cast a spell that fixes it.
It would be a really boring show. You have to sort of come up with those parameters that let you tell stories where the characters are facing obstacles despite the fact that they have powers.
What are you currently FANGRRLing over at the moment in terms of genre?
Can I specify one episode of television that has been obsessing me?
My husband loves Westworld, and I’ve just not been able to keep up, so I’ll catch episodes with him but mostly it’s not one of the go-tos. But there is an episode with Zahn [McClarnon], who was on Midnight, Texas [“Kiksuya”]. That episode, I love. It blew my mind in a way I couldn’t describe it. Its perception of history and meaning, I just was blown away by the writing, by the look.
Also Impulse, on YouTube. My friend Lauren LeFranc is the showrunner on it. It is beautiful, and the lead is magnificent, and it is telling a story of power from a woman’s perspective that is so strong and powerful and sad and heartbreaking. And it deals with sexual assault really honestly in a genre world. My hats are off to Lauren, because I think what she’s done is really beautiful, and I hope people watch it. It just got a second season, and I love her, and I love the show.