Next Stop—the CBC Gem anthology comedy series from Toronto creators Jabbari Weekes, Tichaona Tapambwa, and Phil Witmer—asserts an identity before a single frame is shown. It’s right there in the subway reference, “next” and “stop,” that promises two things if you caught the hint: That you’ve heard a TTC stop announcement to the point of hearing it in your dreams; and that this series is as much about a place as it is about a specific group of Torontonians.
Since Season 1, the genesis of Next Stop has been about a Toronto gaze—the food, the tongues, and the Black lives in-between. “We were not expecting to be here,” says Weekes when remembering the initial idea. “This all began as a proof of concept.”
In a bid to break through the fences of a stifling Canadian media industry, Weekes, Tapambwa, and Witmer went for the self-funded route. Over the course of discarded scripts and talks, a four-episode comedy series hinging on Black Torontoness was born with YouTube viewerships in mind. Playing on the odd and mundane, Next Stop gave space to bus stop jabs about Jamaican beef patties and dream fables about unemployment.
Nearly a year and a half later, Next Stop returns—backed by CBC Gem and Scarborough Pictures—with a further lean into its lived-in perception of a changing city. It’s in the witty, Atlanta-esque exchanges about ungodly city rents and downtown relationships. It’s in West Indian eats from Waakye to Fufu. And it’s in the themes of Black life, told intentionally and captured from many.
Just on the heels of the show’s recent premiere, writers and directors Weekes and Tapambwa came together to discuss Season 2’s self-satisfied way of storytelling and how Toronto informs them as creators, for better or for worse.
So, you guys go from being let go from your media jobs, manning a self-funded series, to being backed by the CBC with screenings in actual theaters. Thoughts?
Tichaona Tapambwa: It’s so interesting because we didn’t ask for this. It was mostly us trying to find our voices in filmmaking, with everything being an add-on. We’ve actually laughed among ourselves about how this all happened. Every meeting, we’d look at these team members while finding it hard to believe that we actually have a major crew that’s working on Next Stop. It’s crazy to go from six people to 90 over the course of a single season.
And the love is out there. We’ve all griped about the lack of diversity in Canadian media spaces, but seeing others find themselves through your content must feel different.
Weekes: It’s definitely great to see people going in on different episodes and all that, but on another hand, we’ve all had conversations in Toronto about what’s next in terms of giving Black Toronto the space to be a possibility on screen. Are filmmakers going to be able to create in the same ways after us? Or will our stories be considered an accident as new doors close? As much as we’d love to stay positive, we’re also paying attention to what’s next. Let’s see if we actually helped to open those doors for others because there are so many beautiful stories that we’d love to see told.
“When it comes to the lack of imagination with Canadian programming, the problem is scared money and institutional racism.”
Well, the answer to this may be obvious, but why do you think it’s still so difficult to get these diverse perspectives shown in Canada? You’d think it would be on-brand by now.
Weekes: I think we can all confidently say that Canada is not known for taking risks. Choices made in terms of Black, POC, and queer voices are normally influenced by what the U.S. just happens to be doing for example. For us, we luckily delved into these ideas during a moment of real national interest in Black stories abroad. But when it comes to the lack of imagination with Canadian programming, the problem is scared money and institutional racism.
Tapambwa: Canada’s media market compared to other locales such as the UK or the U.S. feels 10 years behind in that sense. It feels like we’re still playing catch up to something that happened back in 2015. And it has to do with the way our systems are built and how hard it is to break through those traditions.
To your credit though, for the same reasons I adore FX’s Atlanta, it’s refreshing to see a Black series that works without having to explain itself to a white audience.
Weekes: It’s funny that you brought up Atlanta. There’s a story from Donald Glover where he hands in a script to some executives and they don’t seem to understand the language and syntax of patois. It took his established name and fanbase for them to rock with it. It’s a scenario I thought a lot about. Even with the first season of Next Stop, it became about making a show—similar to Atlanta, Insecure, and a UK web series called Ackee & Saltfish—that would actually be just for Black people without the need to explain things to a whiter audience. Specifically, it was created for Black Torontonians and written for them, and if anyone outside of that loved it, that’s cool.
We’ve had people be appreciative of that even when they didn’t understand because we wouldn’t hold back on who we were.
What pushed you guys towards the non-explaining approach though? Because the temptation to aim broader for the sake of funding has always been there in every medium.
Weekes: It’s a mix of two things. We were fortunate enough to self-fund and make the first season without the interference of executives. In that way, we were able to find an audience. Having that cred gave us a level of confidence that a lot of Black creators are rarely given when dealing with a corporation like the CBC. It wasn’t about whether this would work because it already did and here’s the proof, so chill.
I think we’ve all had those moments as Black viewers when you’re watching something with Black leads and they’re constantly clarifying the things that are inherent to our culture. It can completely unravel your experience. We appreciate creators who can, or have to get their money that way, but it’s not for us. And that means asking ourselves loudly, who is this content for?
That question doesn’t matter without answering it through the cast though. It felt like there was intentionality behind your choices, from episodes “Radius” to “Aftermath.”
Weekes: Honestly, the name of the game since before we even figured out the theme was to make this thing as far-left heterosexual as possible. It was super important for us to represent the Black queer community and every space, gender, or lack thereof that comes. The episode “Radius” was such a fun story spun from conversations with a member of our team about dating outside of Toronto. I just enjoy escalation and chaos personally. And we wanted to explore this story literally and figuratively. What if this person is queer, or in an open relationship, and what does that all look like? How do we treat this as a natural extension rather than some sticking point?
Tapambwa: With episode “Aftermath,” I’ve always been interested in the vogue community, whether it be from New York, France, or Toronto. Just season 2 in general gave us the point of view to have these characters just be themselves without having to explain. The scene is messy but it’s a beautiful kind of messy. It’s true that these different communities don’t all mingle with each other in Toronto, but that doesn’t mean we’re not supposed to showcase them in their natural elements.
“Toronto is still beautiful in terms of the cultural mosaic that it is. But it can also be a lie in the way it treats that image of equality, which isn’t really equal.”
The city of Toronto felt as much of a character as anyone. With the variance of Blackness being a theme this season, what did you guys learn about this city that you didn’t already know?
Weekes: Let me just say that my answer is informed by us filming this during the pandemic. But if we learned anything, it’s how disconnected Black Toronto is. When people think of that group, they think of white Torontonians in Bay Street in contrast to Black Toronto with their “wha gwan,” “deffaz” terms in a hip-hop community context. But when our crew had this conversation, we realized how many people were not aware of the different pockets of this city. A huge amount of people know nothing about the ballroom scene in Toronto for example. We also don’t talk about the Black women in the city who identify as bisexual or pansexual. These spaces are virtually unknown to so many people.
Tapambwa: Right. The recent growth of immigrants arriving in the GTA is creating a varied group of communities, but a good deal of these communities will stay in the east or west ends without mingling. It exposes how limited everyone’s friend group really is.
So be real here, given how much you’ve thought about the city, have your ideas about living in Toronto changed?
Weekes: Honestly, it’s gotten more miserable. We had some cynicism with Next Stop Season 1. It’s what inspired episode “Pool,” around the idea of moving out of Toronto, which we were in support of. We had to work really hard to express the opposite argument honestly. But now, we’ve got a housing crisis with people being pushed out. The restaurants we love are suddenly disappearing as condos pop up. The truth is, it feels like there’s not much room to play in Toronto. We have a rich culture and people want to mess it up with property developments now?
So are we talking about a permanent leave in the future?
Weekes: We wouldn’t leave permanently. The idea is, if you have enough money, hopefully, you’d go back and forth from whatever is out there. Because Toronto is still beautiful in terms of the cultural mosaic that it is. But it can also be a lie in the way it treats that image of equality, which isn’t really equal.
Speaking of the image of things, I noticed how you’ve steered clear of certain events. The past year and a half involved a pandemic and a grouping of racial reckonings. What were your thoughts behind avoiding that?
Tapambwa: I prefer trauma to be hidden within conversations and interactions. Episode “Aftermath” at face value is actually very traumatic. None of them are older than 28, and they’ve never had a relationship that’s lasted over a year. It’s in there. And this is how Black people deal. We laugh and drink through it, which can be our medicine at times.
Weekes: Those moments need to feel organic. It’s not natural for someone to pull up with a BLM sign out of nowhere. That’s not how life happens and there’s an artificiality to that. Believe me, our early drafts were much darker. But we had to figure out a balance because even with our climate, we still have our laughs. They might be from a dark point of view, but we wanted it digestible versus some form of racial or poverty porn.
What was also digestible came through the production. Everything was upped, from the use of color to the cinematography in Season 2. How exactly does the support of a whole broadcasting company translate to you guys on a grounded level?
Weekes: It was in the practical. Black skin for example is just one of the most beautiful things rendered on what’s obviously a white supremacist camera machine. We were specific about having actors of a darker complexion. That requires a bigger budget in terms of color grading and making sure the skin can properly pop without meshing into the backgrounds. It’s funny, with bigger-budgeted Canadian shows, Black people still look bad or underexposed. It’s really about having a team that cares about Black people being represented visually and narratively that matters here. We have a show with Black people looking as good as they should and it’s something we hope to become better at.
Canadians can view Next Stop free on CBC Gem.