Friday Night Lights was recognized not only for weaving incredibly relatable tales of drama and romance but for presenting small-town Texas high school football in an authentic way. The folks behind 21 Thunder are hoping they’ve done the same for soccer.
Debuting Monday at 9 p.m. on CBC, 21 Thunder‘s eight episode first season introduces viewers to a large cast of characters swirling around a common interest: under-21 soccer in Montreal. All are devoted to the sport in some way, and everyone appears to have a secret. There is coach Christy Cook (Stephanie Bennett), an Olympic soccer hero forced on the team for PR reasons; striker Nolan Gallard (RJ Fetherstonhaugh), whose gang member past revisits him; and gifted Ivory Coast midfielder Junior Lolo (Emmanuel Kabongo), who chooses Montreal over playing in bigger leagues elsewhere.
“Junior is a young man who is secretly on a mission,” Kabongo says. “He could have gone anywhere in the world and played in the Premier League or the Spanish League. He decides he wants to come to Montreal. Underneath, he’s searching for something that he lost, and for him, what matters more than soccer is family. Yes, he’s skilled, but family is the most important thing to him. Also, through him, you get to see life as an immigrant in Canada.”
“There is a lot that happens with her and you will find out and see where Christy starts and her progression,” Bennett hints of her character. “She starts out and doesn’t really know what she’s doing and is trying out this new role. Then she begins to build relationships with the players and those relationships change throughout the season.”
Co-creator and executive producer Kenneth Hirsch says that he, along with Riley Adams and Adrian Wills, wanted to set a television show in the world of competitive sports one step from the professionals, making it more accessible to viewers. Who hasn’t at least played house league baseball, basketball or soccer, or competed in gymnastics or volleyball as a kid? The trio shuffled different sports into the mix before deciding on soccer.
“We looked at hockey, we looked at basketball … we knew we wanted to set this in Montreal as Montreal,” Hirsch says. “We thought soccer first because it’s growing very quickly in Canada. More kids are playing soccer than hockey. And second, we thought the soccer pitch is a great microcosm of Canadian society. It’s very diverse and you have many intersecting stories happening there. We thought it was the perfect lens to tell Canadian stories and from which to find characters to tell the really compelling stories of.”
There is plenty of drama in the first episode to fuel interest in the rest of the season. Davey Gunn (Ryan Pierce), an international soccer superstar has an impact on the Montreal Thunder players, and not in a pleasant way; and Albert Rocas (Conrad Pla) is a tough and demanding coach. But as intriguing as the interweaving stories are, the soccer footage is incredible. Credit for that goes to showrunner and executive producer Malcolm MacRury, who got help from the team and staff at Concordia University, their own consultants and cast who have played the beautiful game to get it right.
“We were very fortunate to find actors who were actors first and were convincing on the field so we actually film the sequences, including stunts, without having to double the players,” MacRury says. And though they could control how the show looked and felt, no one had control over the weather, as Kabongo found out during production.
“Junior had to kick a ball from half field,” Kabongo recalls. “I was practicing and I was getting it. On the day of shooting, it decided to rain and it was four degrees at four in the morning. The ball was slippery, I was wearing gloves to keep my hands warm. My toes were cold, and every kick kept missing the distance. Then I got one, and my reaction was so real, I was so happy.”
21 Thunder airs Mondays at 9 p.m. on CBC.
Images courtesy of CBC.