It never hurts to have the world’s richest man as a fan. When Syfy canceled “The Expanse” last year after a three-year run, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, reportedly a follower of the show and the books it is based on, helped along the deep-space drama’s move to Amazon Prime, where its fourth season premieres on Friday.
“It’s Jeff Bezos’ favorite TV show,” says Andrew Kosove of Alcon TV, which produces the program. “I believe [the move to Amazon] was because of Jeff Bezos: ‘I like watching the show, so let’s make it work.’” (Bezos declined a request for comment.)
But it wasn’t just Bezos who lobbied for the program, a richly produced, plot-heavy enterprise that, like all good science fiction, deals with contemporary issues: superpower rivalries, developing world exploitation, refugees and the uses and abuses of technology. “The Expanse” also has a hardcore fan base, which mobilized on social media to save the show — and set up a GoFundMe page to pay for a plane to fly a #SaveTheExpanse banner over Amazon Studios’ Santa Monica headquarters.
“That banner over the offices happened at the right time, because [Bezos] was hearing a groundswell from family members and others,” says Vernon Sanders, Amazon Studios’ cohead of TV. “Fan passion made an impact, and the fact there were a lot of people close to Jeff who were fans of the show, plus his interest in space exploration” all played into the decision. (Bezos founded Blue Origin, a privately funded space company.) Bezos announced the acquisition himself at a meeting of the International Space Development Conference.
“The Expanse” was also an ideal candidate for the transition to streaming. In fact, as far as its creators and cast were concerned, the show was always a better fit in a streaming environment.
“With a streaming platform, it lends itself to the fluency of the narrative structure, whereas if you have to wait a week until new episodes, some of that gets lost in between viewing experiences,” says series star Steven Strait, who plays James Holden, captain of the spaceship Rocinante (yes, named after Don Quixote’s horse), whose crew is central to the series’ plot.
“We were the oddball child on Syfy, because we had always looked on this show as complex and tightly arced,” adds showrunner and executive producer Naren Shankar. “We weren’t doing episode-of-the-week, even on Syfy. And we never wrote out breaks into our scripts; we never wrote for commercials.”
Though the program retains its veteran cast and crew, as well as the mandate to film the series of eight “Expanse” books written by James S.A. Corey — the pseudonym of authors Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham — moving to Amazon has meant one significant change: a new measure of creative freedom. “On Syfy, we had 43 minutes [of running time per episode], and that was it,” adds Shankar. “When you can do an episode that’s 42 minutes, or 52, that’s phenomenal from a creative standpoint.”
“In terms of the actual episodes, the freedom to have longer or shorter running times is an incredible revelation for us in terms of what we want to say,” says Strait. “As well as a lack of restriction in terms of what we can show and say.”
Truth is, “The Expanse” never stinted on the use of expletives, but those terms were muted when the show aired on Syfy. Now that they can be fully heard on Amazon, people involved with the show feel it adds to the program’s strengths. A character like Chrisjen Avasarala, for example, a U.N. diplomat played by Shohreh Aghdashloo, can now be heard in all her foul-mouthed, curses-like-a-sailor glory.
“The show has never really been graphic or exploitative,” says Shankar, “but we don’t have those restrictions now, so we can do things honestly. All of those elements add to making things more real; you’re not being hemmed in.”
“With Syfy, in the middle of the season, their standards and practices on profanity and nudity would change,” notes Kosove. “We never knew from season to season what those standards and practices would be. Being able to have creative flexibility is helpful.”
Similarly, the dreaded phenomenon of network notes — in which executives suggest changes to a particular episode or story arc — is more or less a nonfactor for “The Expanse.” “It was a fairly smooth transition,” says Sanders. “We didn’t make requests in terms of ‘add this’ or ‘eliminate that.’ We did want them to realize that we release all the shows at once, and to write with that in mind. Mostly it was us saying we wanted to stay true to the show the fans love. We didn’t come with a big agenda.”
The process is simple enough. Each season, Shankar and his writers map out in detail the character arcs and the structure of the episodes. Since there is no plan to diverge from the plot of the novels in any substantial way, this makes things flow smoothly. Then they sit down with the people from Amazon to finalize the outlines. “The process is ongoing,” says Shankar, “and because it’s such a tightly arced show, you can’t just change in the middle of things.”
Shankar and company will have plenty of space to play out those arcs: Amazon has already renewed “The Expanse” for a fifth season, in part on the strength of Season 3’s performance on the streaming platform. (It has been available globally for the past several months.) And, says Sanders, “We were so pleased with Season 4, we knew it made business sense for us to renew the show, rather than waiting.”
Season 4 will debut in more than 200 countries and territories, its widest potential audience ever — a fact that has not been lost on Shankar. “Amazon is a great place to make this kind of drama,” he says. “We have a mature show, which is very different from starting a show in Season 1. Basic cable is a tough place to do a show like this. This is the platform this show was made for.”