Nearly two years ago, Netflix released a holiday treat for toy collectors, casual fans, and viewers interested in the weird, and at times controversial, backstories behind iconic pieces of pop culture. The Toys That Made Us instantly became a hit documentary series with episodes recounting the history of the infamous Star Wars licensing deal, the groundbreaking rise of Barbie, and the origins of macho men action figures He-Man and G.I. Joe. Ever since the first season dropped, fans of the show have been lobbying to see their favorite childhood toys receive the Toys That Made Us treatment. However, landing a coveting spot on the show is an exclusive club. Land of misfit toys this is not.
When we caught up with series creator, passionate toy collector, and occasional Den of Geek guest columnist Brian Volk-Weiss, he filled us in on the episode selection process, why a toy must be on the “Mount Rushmore of Toys” as he coined it, and what’s new for the third season. Volk-Weiss also recently wrote column for us about how he sold the show to Netflix, which you can read here.
DEN OF GEEK: To kick this off, what are the episodes in Toys season 3?
BRIAN VOLK-WEISS: Ninja Turtles, wrestling, Power Rangers, and My Little Pony. By the way, My Little Pony from a financial standpoint is where you can clean up. Because, A, that’s the cheapest stuff there is of the four new brands. And B, it has the highest possible ramp-up because it’s so low right now and, as you probably know, it’s becoming more and more of a coed toy.
What I loved about the show from the first season is the light-hearted, humorous tone you established. My Little Pony seems like a prime opportunity in season three to continue to that. After making two seasons, do you feel more confident to dive even further into that tone?
My background is comedy. So when the show got green-lit, I hired the people I know and love and trust, and I just made the show that was in our DNA. I knew there was more comedy in it than had another company made it, but it was only after it came out and I saw the reaction to the comedy, that I was like, “Oh, I think a lot of why it’s resonating is the comedy.”
To your question, early on in season three when I was starting to look at first cuts and we were going from the assembly stage… First you assemble it and it’s just a bunch of stuff grouped together, but then we spend about a month turning it from the assembly into the first cut. We went too far. It was like we were trying to up ourselves with the comedy.
So we actually had to dial back the humor because it’s not a comedy. We need to use comedy to help tell the story. The other thing that’s great about comedy is, for someone who’s not into a certain toy, the comedy is what will keep a completely uninterested person watching. Because they’re like, “I don’t care about G.I. Joe, but this is really funny, so I’m going to keep watching.” So that’s how we use the comedy in seasons one and two and that’s what we had to revert to, in season three.
How did you narrow down the topics for season three? What was it about these four toy brands that made them work for the show and is there something thematically that ties them all together for season 3?
There’s no thematic tie to season three episodes that’s any different than seasons one and two. We had certain rules that we followed in season one and season two. We have this thing, it’s called the Mount Rushmore of Toys. Every toy needs to have at least one character that could be on the Mount Rushmore of Toys. My wife doesn’t know anything about Transformers, but she knows who Bumblebee is, she knows who Optimus Prime is. So all four toys had to have that.
Then, it had to be great stories. There’s some huge toys that they were like, “Let’s make this.” They made it, it was a hit, no twist, no turns. So that also removed certain toys, because it’s just a boring story. Then, the third thing is, you really want to have a toy that crosses at least two but hopefully three or four generations, because you want to have as many viewers as possible. You want mothers to show their daughters. So you want, ideally, grandmothers and mothers to bring in their daughters.
Are there any changes in the format for season 3?
There’s a huge format change. We stopped doing the reenactments. The main reason was that no one seemed to care about them. For every 1,000 DMs or Facebook messages we would get, two would be about the reenactments. So we were putting a significant amount of our budget into the reenactments, which nobody cared about. Again, I’ve been doing a lot of personal appearances now, meeting with fans and talking to people. And I asked, I started doing my own internal poll. I said to people like, “What do you love about the show?” Nobody said the reenactments.
By the way, of the reenactments, if people talked about it at all, the only one people talked about was Star Wars. So, I was like, “Why are we spending a significant percentage of our budget on something nobody cares about?”
The other issue, and this was more important than budget, is that Netflix really wants us to be under 50 minutes. Every now and then we go over 50. So, let’s just say it’s 50 minutes, we’re putting 10 percent of our time into a reenactment. Star Trek is 43 minutes, that reenactment is like four minutes. So, the main reason I did what I did was to have more time to tell the story. The budget was probably 30 percent of the reason, 70 percent of it was to have more time.
How much stock do you put into fan comments? Besides the reenactments, do you take feedback into production meetings?
There’s basically three different types of fan feedback. There’s good fan feedback that, “Oh, I didn’t think of that. Let’s do that.” There’s good fan feedback where it’s like, “That’s a great idea, we thought about that. If you had made the show, you probably also would’ve concluded not to do it.” And then there’s bad fan-feedback, which is some degree of angry, crazy people, mad about God knows what.
Then there’s also nice people who are like, “You need to do an episode on Mask.” It’s like, “Why? It was two years of it, it failed miserably. That’s not even a one-generation toy. This is not a cheap show to make. Why would we do Mask, when Hot Wheels hasn’t been done or Strawberry Shortcake?
So the good stuff that we didn’t think of absolutely has made it to season three and also into [the spinoff] The Movies That Made Us. So we did learn great stuff. Then, we always write back to the people who have good stuff, where we’re like, “That’s great. Here’s why we didn’t do it.”
We’ll keep you posted on an official premiere date for The Toys That Made Us season 3.
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