Franco finds his groove in sixties series

Andy Fry
By Andy Fry
April 29, 2016

Hit & Miss
James Franco in 11.22.63
James Franco in 11.22.63

James Franco isn’t afraid to follow his muse. Like Johnny Depp, Joaquin Phoenix and Shia LaBeouf, the actor is willing to challenge himself by getting involved in eclectic and experimental projects. Like all these guys, however, he also has the ability to cross comfortably into the mainstream, as he is now doing in 11.22.63.

For those unfamiliar with the show, it sees Franco as a teacher who goes back through a time portal in an attempt to stop the assassination of US president John F Kennedy.

Based on a story by Stephen King, it’s a slick, well-acted production that has generally received positive reviews from critics. And Franco is really good – playing a slightly sardonic but essentially straight romantic lead, instead of his more usual manic characters.

It’s hard to tell if the wider audience likes the show, because it is airing on SVoD platform Hulu in the US (Fox in the international market). But an IMDb score of 8.5 is respectable, suggesting it has a pretty loyal fanbase.

While there is potential for 11.22.63 to trip over its time travel parameters, it seems self-evident on the basis of this performance that Franco will be able to grab himself as much TV work as he wants.

Indeed, he is already lined up to appear in HBO’s forthcoming The Deuce. Although The Deuce isn’t due out until 2017, it has ‘award contender’ written all over it.

Written by David Simon (The Wire), it follows the rise of the porn industry in New York from the early 1970s and through the mid-1980s. Aside from Franco, it also stars the superb Maggie Gyllenhaal, who has already proved her TV credentials in acclaimed BBC series The Honourable Woman.

Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen in the season six premiere of HBO's Game of Thrones
Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen in the season six premiere of HBO’s Game of Thrones

While checking out 11.22.63 on IMDb, I also paused to see which current scripted series ranks highest, to see if it is reasonable to claim a correlation between the website’s ratings and the more tangible world of audience research.

Top of the pile by some margin is HBO’s Game of Thrones (GoT), which has a rating of 9.4 (the same as Breaking Bad and The Wire). By good fortune, GoT has also just returned for a new season, its sixth, which means it is possible to bring hard numbers to the table.

The audience figures for last Sunday’s 21.00 premiere were, as expected, huge – confirming the IMDb indicators. The initial broadcast attracted an audience of around eight million. This figure rose to 10.7 million after two TV encores and streaming figures were added in. This is a record, around 400,000 higher than the previous best.

Close analysis of the show threw up two possible areas of concern for HBO. One was a reduction in the number of 18-49 viewers, down around 5% on the season five finale. The other was that the linear TV broadcasters were slightly down on last year as well – suggesting audiences are migrating to other platforms.

Roots makes its debut next month
Roots makes its debut next month

But these are relatively minor issues when weighed against the bigger picture. Indeed, the 10.7 million audience above only tells part of the story. It’s inevitable, for example, that this figure will increase significantly once the show’s Live+ 7-day ratings are in. Not to be overlooked either is GoT’s international appeal. In the UK, for example, the season six premiere attracted 2.2 million, the drama’s biggest overnight audience ever (a fact made even more impressive by the fact it was simulcast at 02.00).

Also worth noting is the fact that GoT is still a huge hit with pirates, with one million illegal downloads in the first few days. While that may represent lost revenue to HBO, a more enlightened view of piracy would see this as a marketing boost for the show, helping maintain its water-cooler credentials.

Perhaps a bigger concern for HBO is the fact GoT, which is based on the spectacular novels by George RR Martin, will have to end one day. Although season seven has already been commissioned, the writers, David Benioff and Dan Weiss, recently told the Radio Times they are already planning the show’s end: “We’re approaching the finish line. From the outset, our hope was to tell a complete story – beginning, middle and end. We are writing the final act now, and the last thing we want to do is stay on stage after the play is over.

“In the beginning, we hoped that if the show worked, we’d get seven seasons to tell the tale. Seven kingdoms, seven gods, seven books – seven felt like a lucky number. The actual messiness of storytelling might not be quite that numerologically elegant. But we’re looking at somewhere between 70 and 75 hours before the credits roll for the last time.”

Maybe for their next trick they could do Lord of the Rings, which would probably also benefit from a six- or seven-season run on TV.

Peaky Blinders looks to have plenty of mileage yet
Peaky Blinders looks capable of a long run

Elsewhere, A+E Studios International has reported that broadcasters in more than 50 territories have acquired the eight-hour slavery-focused miniseries Roots. Buyers include SBS in Australia, TVNZ in New Zealand, Thai PBS, D’Live in South Korea, Atres Media in Spain, HBO Europe, RTL in the Netherlands and Crave in Canada – demonstrating a broad interest in the show.

Based on Alex Haley’s 1976 novel, the series debuts on A&E, History and Lifetime in the US on May 30. It stars Forest Whitaker, Anna Paquin, Laurence Fishburne and Jonathan Rhys Meyers – the kind of cast that really demands audiences tune in. And at least on this occasion we’ll be able to check the audience figures on the show.

In terms of other upcoming shows expected to land with a bang, May 5 sees the return of Peaky Blinders on BBC2 for its third season. A terrific piece of television, there is hopefully plenty of life left in this franchise – with creator Steven Knight keen to push Peaky towards a conclusion at the start of the Second World War. Season three opens in 1924 so it could potentially run and run. Oh, and it has an 8.8 rating on IMDb, which is just about right.

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