[Warning: General spoilers ahead.]
Y’all know I’m ride or die on Killjoys, so I was thrilled when we heard last year that CTV had greenlit a new drama from Killjoys alumni and sisters Karen and Nikolijne (Niko) Troubetzkoy — Karen was an executive producer and Niko was a writer and producer. Separately, they’ve also worked on shows ranging from Orphan Black to The Lake to SkyMed to Transplant to Culprits and more.
This Sunday, we get a sneak peek of their passion project when Sight Unseen premieres after the NFL NFC Championship game at 10 pm ET/PT, and repeats again Monday at the same time, its timeslot for the rest of the season.
Sight Unseen is a procedural that explores the human condition as it relates to somebody whose job is to solve mysteries when their own body becomes a mystery.
Vancouver homicide detective Tess Avery (newcomer Dolly Lewis, in her first series role) quits the force when her progressive but now sudden loss of sight imperils her partner, Jake Campbell (Virgin River‘s Daniel Gillies), to whom she hasn’t disclosed her medical condition.
Her oldest friend, Matt Alleyne (The 100‘s Jarod Joseph), is the only one who knows and sets her up with a remote live-assisted guiding app to help her acclimate. Haunted by the case she left behind, and realizing she needs assistance, Tess agrees to use it, meeting and forming an unorthodox partnership with Sunny Patel (Agam Darshi, who is also a story editor and director on CBC’s upcoming Allegiance), a remote seeing eye guide who lives across the country.
An agoraphobic and true crime fanatic who leaves her apartment only through the eyes of her clients, Sunny guides Tess with the support of a micro camera and earpiece and is soon enthralled by leveling up from her armchair detective work. She is also hiding the violent secret that triggered her agoraphobia. Over the course of the 10-episode season, we’ll watch the women challenge each other over preconceptions about ability, trust, and where to draw the line.
It’s part personal story, psychological story, and medical story, and at its heart, it explores the journey of sight loss for Tess against the backdrop of her retaining her innate ability to solve things by putting all of her other available talents to work, despite her sight loss, thanks to her relationship with Sunny.
To provide an authentic representation of the sight-impaired community, the production team committed to incorporate diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) principles as a priority in front of and behind the camera, including the show’s lead, Lewis, who is sight-divergent, and consultants from conception to post-production.
This week, I had the chance to catch up with the Troubetzkoys about the project, which sprang from Karen’s personal experience with sight loss many years ago, the sisters’ unique relationship, and a radio interview with someone using a visual aid guiding app.
“It’s very much a braiding of Niko, who’s my half-sister, and my experiences. Tickling in the back of my brain was always this experience I had when I was in my twenties of completely losing my vision after a retinal detachment in one eye, but partial in the other, and a major surgery in both eyes that had me seeing nothing for a while because of a complete bandage, [except for] having tests for a few months,” explains Karen.
“But at the time that wasn’t considered blindness. I could still see shadows and lights. And then it did get gradually better, but I’ve had multiple, multiple surgeries and they always put me back so I can see, but this maybe, ‘You’re gonna go blind,’ thought tickled the back of my mind.”
“And then Niko and I have a kind of overlapping existence. We grew up separately, and I’m quite a bit older, but we sometimes crossed over at work, [where] we would feed each other lines, whether it was by text or whatever. Sometimes we overlapped on shows or calls or dealing with our family. So we had a little bit of Cyrano de Bergerac relationship going both ways. That is something that preexisted.”
“Then, one day, we were both listening to the same radio show in our separate houses and a woman with sight loss came on and she was talking about these guiding apps that exist now, like, Be My Eyes and Aira, and you heard her talk to a guide who helped her get dressed, helped her go downstairs to an Uber, get in the Uber, get out at the building that the radio station was housed in, and go up,” adds Niko.
“As she was in the elevator, there was this moment where the woman with sight loss looks in the mirrored wall of the elevator and all of a sudden the guide sees her client for the first time. And it was this really interesting revelatory conversation between the two of them.”
“As we were each listening, we started texting with each other and it just seemed to be the most interesting idea for a procedural, where you have one character who is kind of in the other character’s head. You have two characters who are really dependent on each other.”
“And with the great twist of Sunny being an agoraphobe, they are uniquely dependent on each other. And you also have the element of, ‘What is the fresh new way that your detective solves crimes?’ We have a character who is forced to rely not solely on her sight the way most detectives do, but is really forced to look to her other senses and solve crimes in unique ways.”
Karen continues, “And that means she’s able to solve things that stump the other detectives because she comes at them from a different direction, but also she is two minds in one head. So she’s got this fresh perspective of Sunny, who is not an expert, but who sees some things in a different way than Tess would. So together they’re able to do things that the other detectives can’t at her former department.”
With the requirement to cast Tess with somebody who had experience with sight loss, the team began their exhaustive casting search earlier than normal.
“We knew it would be a challenging process and we did a huge search in Canada, trying to figure out if there was anyone unknown in Canada that we hadn’t heard of, who would be the right person for the part,” recalls Niko.
“And then eventually we expanded that search to the US, UK, Australia, New Zealand, and Europe. We also did grassroots efforts, particularly in the US, to try to find somebody. And we had a couple of great candidates who we were doing chemistry reads with. Dolly hadn’t even been part of our search, but she had read for another role with somebody we knew. They knew that she had sight loss, so they sent us her reel for this other show and we called her in and she just turned out to be the perfect fit for the part. And she’s a very, very new face.”
“We’re so fortunate to have Agam, who is just a tremendous actor with a ton of experience and also has written and directed herself and has such nuance and depth. She was really, for the most part, acting with a reader across from her. So another actor, but not Dolly, acting in solitude, going through pages and pages a day of different scenes. And she had to bring it. And she really did. She did an absolutely tremendous job.”
“And sometimes we were able to have the footage, if we are shooting in the right order, which we tried to do, to give Agam something on screen that she is reacting to. But other times, that wasn’t practical, and she’s just looking at a blank computer screen acting her heart out.”
“It’s a state secret how many pages she had to do in a day. It was so jaw-droppingly impossible. And she would show up on these days with more pages than I’ve ever heard of anyone doing in a day, I guess akin to a soap opera, maybe,” says Karen.
“Except for when Agam’s on camera, Dolly is always on camera, really working every day. And you might think she gets the day off when Agam is doing her thing. No, we were running two units. But then Dolly always wanted to be there for Agam and vice versa, to the point that sometimes we’d catch her on set reading Agam her lines at like 11 and 12 at night. We had to [tell her to go home because she was violating her turnaround time]. And she’d say, ‘Forget my turnaround. Forget all that. I just wanna be here for Agam and give her the lines. They were there for each other.”
Niko points out that they did pair the actresses at the outset to help build their camaraderie.
“It was a really exploratory process with the actors at first. And we had John Fawcett, who is a wonderful director and just fantastic with actors, for our first block and as our producing director,” she says. “So he tried to have them together as much as possible for the first block [of episodes] so that they could really establish a chemistry with each other. But then once we got beyond that, it wasn’t practical or feasible to continue that all the way through.”
The core cast is rounded out with the characters of Tess’s former partner, Jake, and her BFF, Matt, who is based on Karen and Niko’s brother, who is a game designer.
Karen says they wanted to establish two very specific vibes for them in their relationships with Tess. “We had to set Jake up with Tess as being a very tight partner in a very few minutes because of the way the trajectory of her sight goes. It’s not a spoiler to say this was a sighted homicides type of law,” she says.
“So she had a tight relationship with her partner and when she stops talking to him about what she’s doing and quits, there’s a real rift between them and [afterward], they’re slowly coming together and solving things. He’s kind of the frenemy within the force.”
“[He’s] a little bit of an enemy. A little bit of a competitor. But eventually, when things get tough, they do team up to solve crimes for the greater good. So we kind of loved keeping that edgy. And a little bit like you’re not quite sure what’s gonna happen between them. Then with Matt, you just want someone who has a shared history and has your back and that you can talk to. And we didn’t want Tess confessing too many personal things to Sunny at first.”
“She’s a detective. She should be cautious. This relationship is something she needs. But she does vet Sunny. And then very slowly Sunny gets under her skin because she’s always in her ear and she’s funny and charming and they can’t help but share things. Niko and I were creating a character in Tess who isn’t one who hangs out with the girls or has a lot of fun. All she cares about is solving crime. She’s driven hell-bent on that. So this is maybe her only female friend. She wouldn’t even call Sunny a friend at first. That’s what’s happening, whether she likes it or not.”
The show takes the time, throughout each episode, to show us not only what Sunny is seeing as Tess’s virtual sight, but also what Tess is experiencing through her own eyes.
“It’s like a kaleidoscope. You’re talking about all these different vision attributes in one person at the same time, which is something we try to do visually with our point of view,” explains Karen. “People [with sight loss] have multiple things going on sometimes, and so the vision changes depending on how the light hits, the darkness, the atmosphere. which allows you to have a show which organically changes a little bit what that sight is.”
“So many shows choose blindness for clarity, but [their] blindness is a closed box. And you’re just watching that character from the outside. So therefore you believe that it’s just a closed, blind, black box. And yet very few people who identify as blind see just blackness. I think that is important [to distinguish].”
“We’re in a visual medium. It’s a visual art. And so it’s amazing to be able to put something on screen that’s visually compelling, thought-provoking, and let’s just say it increases the stakes when you’re in her vision. Even when you’re in Sunny’s camera vision watching for her, you feel an increase in stakes because there’s a limit to what Sunny can see and reality only exists in that frame for her. And there can be danger just outside the frame.”
While the sisters call Toronto home, filming took them across the country to Vancouver, for both practical and plot reasons.
“Vancouver is beautiful. So we’re excited by that. And it’s also dictated by tax credits and financing. I was born in Vancouver and hadn’t been there for so long. It was really beautiful to be back. And Niko, I think, fell in love with it,” says Karen.
“I sure did. It’s a wonderful crew. Just a beautiful city to shoot in and everything is super film-friendly, great studios that we couldn’t have asked for a better place to shoot,” agrees Niko.
“And a shout out to Front Street who really made us feel welcome. They rolled out the welcome mat, they had lovely offices and the keys and heads of departments, it was really one of those co-collaborations where everyone was building on everyone’s ideas,” adds Karen.
“We were able to really come together and everyone was so thrilled to be together again, collaborating in real time on something that was so challenging and filmically challenging. So it was interesting for the old guard who’d done tons of stuff, [to say], ‘Sure, we’ve got three streams of footage here we’re trying to do very fast and converge into one.’ I think everyone had fun with the challenges.”
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“The other thing that we really wanted with the show, because it’s about sight and deception and all that, is that sense of reflective surfaces and mirrors and water. And so we got that. We didn’t get the rain we hoped for. We paid for some rain in the pilot. But in the fall, we got some more rain, which was nice, but we can’t complain with the beauty.”
Sight Unseen will have a sneak peek premiere Sunday after the NFC football championship game at 10 pm ET/PT on CTV and then have its official premiere Monday at 10 pm ET/PT.
You’ll also be able to stream it online at CTV.ca after the premiere. The series is due to land on The CW in the US later this year. Here’s a sneak peek.
Truth hides in the shadows. Here’s your first look at the new CTV Original crime drama #SightUnseen. Don’t miss the series premiere Mon Jan 22 at 10/8mt, plus, watch a special preview Sun Jan 21 right after the NFL. pic.twitter.com/1quwmHxIU9
— CTV (@CTV) January 3, 2024
Photos and video courtesy of CTV.