One of the best-kept Bay Area entertainment secrets is the addictive web series “The North Pole,” an of-the-moment slice of fictional East Bay life that’s set in North Oakland and effortlessly captures a diverse, vibrant city and its vocal, but supportive, inhabitants.
It’s funny, alive and is crammed with major shock-wave issues of today — deportation, racism, social media addiction, climate change. And that’s just a few.
Last season’s cliffhanger found Benny (San Francisco actor Santiago Rosas) heading to jail due to being an undocumented immigrant. In Season 2 (available now), he swiftly gets out — thanks to a savvy attorney (Rosario Dawson). Once freed, he and his three North Pole friends played by other talented actors — Reyna Amaya, Donte Clark and Eli Marienthal — devise a novel plan to protest while becoming more active in city politics.
To reveal what those steps are would only bring up major spoilers. Let’s just say there are surprises aplenty, including who is behind the voice of the Polar Bear wandering around the city. (The “masked one” belongs to “Sorry to Bother You” auteur Boots Riley.)
He is not the only notable star in this growing ever hotter web series. The show caught the attention of actress Dawson, who became so taken with Season 1 that she promptly signed on as an executive producer when asked. It’s a move that further validates cast and crew and their project.
In a prepared statement, Dawson — star of “Rent” and Netflix’s “Luke Cage” — explained what drew her to “Pole.”
“I’m excited to be part of this show that’s both outrageously funny and deadly serious — and could not be more timely,” she wrote. “At a moment when children are being thrown in cages at the border, and so many of our communities and environments are under attack, ‘The North Pole’ flips the script with radical black and brown characters speaking their unfiltered truth and reclaiming their power.”
Essential to the show’s success is that it is not only woke, but outrageously smart and funny. It also “doesn’t pull any punches,” says writer/co-executive producer and co-creator Josh Healey. (You can view both seasons at thenorthpoleshow.com or on YouTube.)
The series came about in brainstorming sessions with writers and filmmakers involved in various Bay Area projects from Oakland-based Destiny Arts Center, San Francisco-based Youth Speaks, Oakland-based Movement Generation, and others.
“We really wanted to do something that got deeper into storytelling and character and narrative, and make people fall in love with all of the amazing, brilliant and ridiculous people that we know in Oakland,” says Healey, who moved 11 years ago here from Washington, D.C.
“We wanted to have these friends — Benny, Nina and Marcus and the newcomer, the white boy Finn — struggle with stuff that our generation, neighborhoods and communities are struggling with — like rent hikes, immigration issues and Twitter ridiculousness. But also let them be who they are,” he adds.
That’s a lot of thematic territory to cover in the format of bite-sized episodes that max out at 12-15 minutes. But “The North Pole” ditches the kitchen-sink-and-all trap mostly because it openly defies labels.
“You can’t distinguish between these different issues because they all relate to each other and to our lives,” Healey says.
“People don’t know what to call (‘The North Pole’). Is it an immigration show? Is it a climate show? Is it an Oakland show? Yes. Yes. Yes. It’s a human show and these are the stories and the issues of our time. My job and our job as writers is to reflect the times that we live in.”
That’s partly what drew Amaya, who is a co-writer and comic, to play Nina, a web-show host with a cellphone at the ready for every occasion.
“I read the script, and I was like, ‘I have to do this project,’” she said. “I just loved the character.”
As does the community of Oakland. At a sold-put screening Sept. 5 at the Grand Lake Theatre, Amaya was touched by how residents and friends and family came out in force to support this homegrown production.
“As an Oakland native performing at the Grand Lake Theatre is like performing at the Apollo in New York,” she said. “It’s like the community center for theaters and activism.”
The Bay Area has certainly been a creative magnet for filmmakers with inventive films from “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” “Blindspotting,” “Sorry to Bother You” and “Kicks” — to name but a few — tapping a nerve felt throughout the nation.
So why does the Bay Area — even with its skyrocketing rents and traffic woes — hold appeal and capture the attention of a nation?
“I feel like I’m super biased,” Amaya says. “The Bay Area is the best place in the nation. It’s a special bubble of a place. It’s also a cultural hub and has been for a really long time. It is also an activist hub and it has been that way for a really, really long time. So I think it’s one of those places that has attracted movers and shakers and expressive human beings.
“We have a whole bunch of cultures, perspectives and ways of looking at life, and I think that makes us attractive to many other places, and relatable to many other places.”
To play Benny, who is Salvadoran, Rosas — whose family came from Mexico — embarked on research and drew on his time growing up in Phoenix, Arizona, and hearing about the plights of friends and co-workers. And the passage of anti-immigation legislation.
“I saw how my community handled it, a lot of grassroots, a lot of activism, a lot of organizing.”
He considers the show to be a call for action.
“It represents that you can change the immigration system and any issue that you are really passionate about, as long as you can get together and tell your stories.”
But will the story continue for Season 3?
Healey doesn’t entirely know what the direction if that should be the case, but does note the evolution of the series and the characters, and where it might go.
“Season 1 is really about four friends. It’s about them kind of learning about realizing the issues and facing them,” he said. “Season 2 is about them taking more action. They’re more responsive; they’re stepping up to the plate.
“I think what I’m interested in, if we continue, is maybe less about the issues but more about the characters as they come into some sense of grappling not only with what it means to protest, but to be in power.”