One minute, Ian Archer is playing an online fantasy game and complaining about being trapped in "jerkwater suburbia." The next, he wakes up in an unfamiliar dorm room surrounded by three strangers wearing prep-school uniforms.
Disoriented and scared, he demands to know, "Where am I?"
The teenager (played by Drew Van Acker) has arrived at "Tower Prep," a mysterious academy for teens with special abilities — and the title of a new hourlong live action series premiering Oct. 19 on Cartoon Network. He and the other students find themselves in a tense, off-kilter world where they are cut off from everything familiar. They don't know where they are or why they're effectively being held captive in a school with the vague mission of helping them master their "unique potential."
"Tower Prep" invites comparisons to a number of popular shows, starting with ABC's " Lost." As on "Lost," castaways find themselves on a secret island, surrounded by unfriendly natives — in this case, strange guardians called "gnomes" that patrol the woods. Each teen has special powers, much like the ordinary people who discovered their superhuman abilities on NBC's "Heroes." And there's a bit of " Harry Potter" thrown in for good measure, as a gang of schoolmates bands together to solve mysteries.
Creator and executive producer Paul Dini said he found inspiration closer to home: He was shipped off to boarding school at age 13.
"I remembered what it was like. The weirdness, being the odd man out, trying to make my way around campus and trying to figure out who my friends would be, who to steer clear of," Dini said. "I wrote it all down in a fanciful way — the feelings of alienation, the feelings of uncertainty, of being away from home for the first time."
Dini weaves all the isolation, temporary alliances and betrayals into an action-packed story that is equal parts drama, mystery and sci-fi thriller. Cartoon Network hopes this blend of genres will help the network extend its reach beyond its core viewership of boys ages 6 to 11, hooking teens — and perhaps sci-fi loving adults. A few girls might even be lured by the show's strong female characters, if not by Van Acker's gym-enhanced good looks, displayed in the series' opening scene, in which his shirt is ripped open to expose perfectly sculpted abs.
Cartoon Network is seeking to build on the solid performance of its first live-action series, "Unnatural History," which has seen double-digit ratings gains among boys ages 6 to 11 since its June debut. Executives sought out Dini because he has an established following among fanboys who admire his work in animation and blog about it obsessively. And he delivered a concept that hits all the right notes for the network's core demographic: action, adventure and intrigue.
"We were talking to him about not limiting yourself," said Rob Swartz, Cartoon Network's vice president of original series. "He started telling the story of his vision for the show and our hearts started racing."
For those outside the Comic-Con orbit, Dini is best known for his work with DC's famously brooding crime-fighter Batman, writing for the television animated series "Batman," "Batman Beyond," "Justice League" and the TV movie "Batman: Mask of the Phantasm," as well as for his ability to create compelling narratives for lesser-known DC characters such as Shazam and Zatanna.
"He finds what's cool and interesting about those characters and also finds the best story," said Mike Cotton, editor of Wizard, a monthly comics and pop culture magazine. "Any character he touches, he elevates."
With the cast of "Tower Prep," Dini elected to endow his characters with special abilities that fell short of the full leotard-and-cape treatment.
"I didn't want kids flying or shooting lasers from their eyes, or anything too fantastic," Dini said. "I wanted to keep them in line with what a basic kid would like, in terms of getting through school."
The central character, Ian Archer, played by Van Acker, is the rebel with a sense of social justice. In the first minutes of the series pilot, he throws himself into a schoolyard brawl and wrestles the bully to the asphalt. He possesses such attainable traits as strength and courage, but also something the creator calls "pre-flex" — the ability to anticipate when something bad is about to happen, and react.
Archer's prospective love interest, CJ Ward (Elise Gatien), has the uncanny ability to read people's emotions. Comedic foil Gabe Forrest ( Ryan Pinkston) is gifted with a quick wit and silver tongue that help him escape trouble, while Suki Sato (Dyana Liu) has the gift of mimicry, helping her to blend in.
"As a writer, every time I create a character I try to go for something to captivate the audience in some way. It's also an extension of how the audience would like to see themselves," Dini said. "[Ian] is kind of a wish-fulfillment character. He goes from being a loner and outcast to being a leader. I think we all feel that at some point in the teen years."