Jane on Apple TV+

J.J. Johnson, the creator of a new environmentally themed family series for Apple TV+, hit the jackpot when it comes to “Jane.” He landed a vivacious young actor (Ava Louise Murchison) to represent the ideals of renowned conservationist Dr. Jane Goodall, enlisted some of the most accomplished women in science to make stirring cameos, and assembled a behind-the-scenes crew nearly as diverse as the ensemble cast.

In short, “Jane” is exactly the kind of show the Geena Davis Institute can get behind, which is why this See Jane Spotlight features our interview with Johnson, the Canadian-born, seven-time Emmy-winning executive producer and director. The mission-driven, 10-episode series premiered globally on Apple TV+ on Friday, April 14.

“Jane” centers on the character of Jane Garcia (Murchison), a 9-year-old budding environmentalist on a quest to save endangered animals. Using her super-sized imagination, Jane takes her best friends David (Mason Blomberg of “Shameless”), and Greybeard the chimpanzee on epic adventures to help protect wild animals all around the world. In the least, it promises to be the best series of the year in which the opening scene features a polar bear chasing a chimpanzee riding a snowmobile while deftly avoiding the crush of an avalanche. And that’s just Episode 1.

“It all goes back to the ‘Jane’ character wanting to help the world. Because she lives in the middle of nowhere, and doesn’t feel that she can directly affect these animals’ lives, she imagines these fantastical situations where she is able to save those animals,’’ Johnson said. “And then, of course, that imagination starts to bleed into the real world and inspires some real-world changes.”

From Sinking Ship Entertainment, “Jane,” is a live-action/CGI blended series created by Johnson, who executive produced alongside Christin Simms, Blair Powers, Matt Bishop and the Jane Goodall Institute’s Andria Teather. The show has the backing of Dr. Goodall herself. In a statement issued by Apple TV+, the 89-year-old primatologist said: “I believe that stories have the power to inspire people to action. I am very hopeful that this series will encourage young people, their families, and friends to help save animals around the world.”

And while the storyline and spirit of “Jane” can be traced directly to the world’s foremost expert on chimpanzees, the show owes a debt to another source of inspiration: Geena Davis, the two-time Academy Award winner and founder and chair of the Geena Davis Institute.

A decade ago, Johnson happened upon the Institute’s research regarding the dearth of female characters in children’s programming. Heeding the urgent call to advance diversity and break gender stereotypes, Johnson immediately changed the lead character in his STEM-show “Annedroids” to be a girl, instead of a boy, who loves creating robots, and subsequently reimagined his popular “Dino Dan” series to have a female lead, becoming “Dino Dana” on Amazon Prime, and featuring a girl who imagines dinosaurs into the real world to conduct experiments and learn more about them. And just like that, girls had two more high-profile role models in STEM. As Geena likes to say, “If you can see it, you can be it.” Then and now, Johnson gives female audiences a character worthy of “being.”

“It’s been now more than 10 years that I really started being exposed to some of the research and realizing how underrepresented girls were in both animation and live-action programming,” Johnson said. “Honestly, back then, when I created shows I was primarily thinking about what I would want to say to my younger self. So naturally, the lead characters were boys. It was such an eye-opener to see the data and realize how easily it would be to help change the narrative immediately.”

Continued conversations with Geena Davis and Madeline Di Nonno, the President and CEO of the Institute, have only reinforced Johnson’s commitment to positive representation of women on screen. “The Institute has been such a huge supporter of our shows such as ‘Annedroids’ and ‘Dino Dana’ and I think we really share a similar progressive belief,” he said. “Encounters with the Institute always remind me of the need to keep pushing and keep trying — both in front and behind the camera. And that’s the next big push for us, is making sure that all of our teams reflect our casts, and we’re getting closer and closer to being able to do so.”

With “Jane”, this writer and executive producer has yet another compelling female protagonist to propel the action. As portrayed by Ava Louise Murchison (“Reacher”) the Goodall-inspired character represents the struggle of so many well-meaning people who want to do something to save the planet’s resources but aren’t sure how.

“I really love this character because she’s not perfect,” Johnson said. “She’s desperate to help the environment, but she gets overwhelmed, angry, and anxious. And I sometimes worry that we look at those emotions as negative. This show is really trying to demonstrate how you can take that anger and anxiety and turn it into good, and find your voice.

“Ava Louise was one of the few performers who was able to turn that feeling of ‘overwhelmed’ into these really heartfelt moments. And you need that heart. You need to see where her passion is coming from.”

The first episode centers on the plight of polar bears, perhaps the most conspicuous victims in the era of climate change. The arctic denizens are already under great strain because of a melting habitat that is causing their population to collapse. But the series isn’t heavy-handed – it’s exciting, entertaining and spiced with genuine humor. A slew of guest stars includes Emmy Award winner Mary-Louise Parker (“Weeds”), Paul Sun-Hyung Lee (“The Mandalorian”), Al Rodrigo (“Puss in Boots: The Last Wish”) and Academy Award nominee Graham Greene (“Dances with Wolves”).

It also features real-life female superstars from the world of STEM. Jill Heinerth, a cave diver, underwater explorer and photographer, closes out Episode 1 by serving as the role model she never had. Heinerth, born in the mid-1960s, grew up wanting to fly to the moon like Neil Armstrong or embrace the sea like Jacques Cousteau. Instead, in the first episode of “Jane”, she explains to the characters that “adults told me that little girls couldn’t grow up to be astronauts or divers. Today, I just want to be the woman I wish I’d met when I was 10 years old.”

That line showcases the best of the Geena Davis Institute’s ethos and mission, which is why our founder and chair embraces “Jane” to the fullest.

Even the song in “Jane’s” closing credits hits the right notes. Johnson recalled being midway through explaining the show to songwriting legend Diane Warren when the Grammy-winning lyricist stopped him cold. “At a certain point, she kind of cuts me off,” Johnson said, “and she’s like, ‘I get it! She’s a bad-ass girl who wants to save the world and everyone’s against her and she’s gotta fight through them.’”

Johnson laughed as he recounted the story.

“And I was like, ‘That is a perfect way of saying it!’” he said. “And with that, she disappeared and came back with this song (“One Step Closer,” sung by Leona Lewis) where the refrain is, ‘With every one step, you’re one step closer to your goal.’ That’s exactly what the show is trying to say.”

Apple TV+ is available on the Apple TV app in over 100 countries and regions, on over 1 billion screens. For more information, visit the Apple TV+ site to see the full list of supported devices.