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'Tom Swift' infuses classic novel with contemporary ideas

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When Tian Richards was a guest star on “Nancy Drew,” he kept a close eye on Kennedy McMann, who plays the small-town crime solver.

“To watch Kennedy take control of the set as a leader and be so beautiful and fearless, it really gave me insight into what I hoped was to come,” says Richards. He wanted to be the lead of a series, but there were no guarantees.

Flash forward several years and, today, Richards is the leader of “Tom Swift,” a wildly different imagining of the early 20th century book series. Instead of merely inventing machines that make life easier, he’s a queer billionaire sending rocket ships into space.

“When we were working on this, I was in my Black joy phase, where I was trying to create TV shows that were about Black people being happy, looking fabulous, having fun, falling in love and having deep emotional connections being resonant,” says co-creator Cameron Johnson. The goal wasn’t to update a classic but to put a new stamp on an old premise. “It’s a show about Black people being Black in the same way that ‘Step by Step’ is a show about white people being white. It’s a show about a family.”

This Tom Swift is a member of the Black elite – “the 1 percent not by way of music or basketball,” Richards says. “Our heritage and legacy is tech. I get to go into the arsenal of Black inventors and creators (like) George Washington Carver, Benjamin Banneker and Lonnie Johnson.”

In the process, he says, “Tom Swift” could interest teens in STEM subjects. “It’s never looked before like this, you know?”

The series’ mission is to talk about people who most haven’t been seen before living lives that viewers may recognize. “Our goal is not necessarily to do some sort of like Black excellence porn,” Johnson adds.

While there could be an opportunity for Nancy Drew to visit Tom Swift’s world, the two shows aren’t just set in different worlds, they’re also approximately three years apart.

“Tom has definitely grown up a little more,” Richards says. “When we first meet him, he has just completed a spaceship. You get to see him with his family and his friends in his hometown. (In ‘Nancy Drew), we got like an appetizer of Tom. But now you get a full course.”

Need a real time machine moment? At 18, Richards says, he worked as a personal assistant, helping a videographer put actors on tape. “In walks this beautiful woman and she gets on tape and does it in one take. I said, ‘Who is that?’ And it was April Parker Jones and all these years later, we’re doing a series together.” Jones plays Lorraine Swift, Tom’s mother.

“Tom Swift” is also the first show to feature a gay Black man as its leading character. Johnson says The CW is the perfect place for the show because executives there have encouraged him to “make it gayer, make it queerer, make it Blacker. We’ll be on notes calls and I’m like, ‘There’s no way they’re going to let me get away with this,’ and then the execs are like, ‘Yes, absolutely. We are not only going to let you get away with this, we’d like you to do more.’”

For Richards, the freedom has been gratifying. During the pandemic, Johnson and the other producers took him under wing and helped him feel like he was part of their families. “They sent me beautiful words of inspiration,” he says. “And, Cameron’s like, ‘What clothes are you buying?’ So I’ve stepped m fashion game up tremendously because the people I know only wear gym clothes 24/7.”

Getting to this place in the business wasn’t an accident, he insists. “I kept my faith. I researched. I just didn’t sit at home being idle. I went to visit MIT. I went to space museums. I researched. I read books. So I was really able to keep myself immersed in the world of ‘Tom Swift’ without racking my brain.”

“Tom Swift” airs on The CW.

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