From the creators and executive producers of Castle comes crime procedural Take Two, starring Rachel Bilson and Eddie Cibrian.
Bilson (Hart of Dixie) stars as Sam Swift, the former star of a hit cop series who suffers a breakdown and heads to rehab. Desperate to restart her career, she begins to shadow private investigator Eddie Valetik (Cibrian, Rosewood) to research a potential comeback role.
Though Eddie resents babysitting Sam, she uses her acting skills to prove herself surprisingly valuable.
In this DQTV video, Miller and Marlowe talk about how the series mixes a case-of-the-week structure with lightly serialised elements that allow viewers to learn more about the central pair.
They also reveal the international route Take Two took to win a commission and discuss why procedurals are still in fashion despite the rise of serialised storytelling.
In addition, cast members Aliyah O’Brien (Detective Christine Rollins) and Xavier de Guzman (Roberto ‘Berto’ Vasquez) offer their take on their characters and the appeal of the series.
Take Two is produced by Tandem Productions and MilMar Pictures in coproduction with ABC Studios for ABC in the US, Germany’s VOX and France 2. It is distributed by StudioCanal.
Procedural series were once the bread and butter of US broadcast networks. But international buyers are finding them harder to come by amid the appetite for increasingly serialised storytelling. DQ examines the future of the story-of-the-week format.
For more than a decade, the Monte Carlo Television Festival has recognised the most watched television dramas in the world with its International Audience Award. Last year’s winner was NCIS, which drew 47.1 million viewers worldwide in the previous 12 months.
Since the gong was first handed out in 2006, NCIS has won three times, while CSI: Crime Scene Investigation has scooped the prize on seven occasions. The Mentalist and House also each have a win to their name.
Notice anything they have in common? They’re all US procedurals – story-of-the-week series that follow a team of crack sleuths as they bid to solve a different crime each week. Or in the case of 2009 winner House, an unlikely doctor and his unconventional medical approach, with new patients being admitted into his care in every episode.
The award is proof that US procedurals continue to be popular around the world, even if they’re not as loved as they once were at home. Because while international broadcasters have been crying out for a new influx of these traditional series, the format has been taking on a decidedly serialised evolution over the past few years. Such is the demand overseas that Germany’s RTL and TF1 in France went so far as to commission their own US procedural, hostage drama Gone, in partnership with NBCUniversal.
“I feel like they’re on life support,” Adam Pettle, showrunner of legal drama Burden of Truth, says of procedurals. “They still attract probably an older audience, while broadcasters are always trying to find a younger demographic, which is the Netflix generation where television is consumed in a very different way and people bulk-watch TV.”
Yet series such as Blue Bloods, Law & Order: SVU, NCIS (renewed for its upcoming 16th season) and its multiple spin-offs, and the ever-expanding Chicago franchise on NBC are just some of the episodic series still pulling in millions of viewers each week, not to mention the older series still drawing eyeballs in repeats and syndication.
Lloyd Segan, showrunner of detective procedural Private Eyes for Canada’s Global and ION TV in the US, describes case-of-the-week dramas as “comfort food” for viewers. “I can come home and put my feet up and watch a show where the characters are family,” he explains. “The storyline has a beginning, middle and end and I feel comfortable not having to worry about mythologies or binge-watching a series.”
With shooting on season three underway, Segan says Private Eyes – which sees Jason Priestley and Cindy Sampson team up as private investigators – is “completely procedural.” He continues: “The serialised aspects are the relationships between the main characters but the stories themselves are straight procedural. You could probably programme them in any order you wish. You don’t need a recap. The shows play to themselves. It’s a fantastic, delicious feast for audiences all over the world to enjoy.”
One showrunner who knows more about procedurals than most is Peter Lenkov, who is currently running CBS series MacGyver and Hawaii Five-0 (pictured top) and is also behind a pilot remake of Magnum PI for the same network.
“CBS still treads in that pool, they still do those kind of shows and they still do them successfully,” Lenkov says. “I know every season they still develop several traditional procedural series and they try to mix it up with how you get into those worlds and who those characters are.”
However, he adds that the network has been embracing greater serialisation in its case-of-the-week series, supporting character arcs and stories running across multiple episodes.
“That was frowned upon years ago, but is something that the studio and network really welcomes now,” Lenkov says. “My experience there over the last 10 to 15 years has been how much they have embraced serialised arcs within the traditional procedural format.”
Lenkov also has experience on serialised series, having worked on the fourth season of Fox’s real-time thriller 24 in 2004/05. “What we realised when we did that show was, even before bingeing existed, a lot of people were bingeing episodes three or four at a time,” he recalls. “That’s something that really helped changed storytelling on TV.”
Best known for long-running ABC crime procedural Castle, husband-and-wife team Andrew W Marlowe and Terri Edda Miller will be back on the network this summer with Take Two. The series stars Rachel Bilson (The O.C.) as Sam, the former star of a hit cop series who is fresh out of rehab. Desperate to restart her career, she talks her way into shadowing rough-and-tumble private investigator Eddie (Eddie Cibrian) as part of research for a potential comeback role. She soon draws on her experience as a TV cop to help solve a high-profile case, leading them to team up for future cases.
Echoing Segan, Miller believes viewers love closed-ended stories because “sometimes you don’t have the time to watch a long serialised drama and you just want to come home and watch a story that has an ending to it. There’s also the aspect of beloved characters in those stories, and that doesn’t go out of fashion either.”
Take Two, like Castle before it, is described as a light-hearted procedural that allows its creators to place just as much focus on the characters’ relationship as the crimes they solve each week.
“Terri and I both come from features so the ability to close out a story in an episode feels very comfortable to us,” Marlowe says. “But we also like big, epic storytelling where you’re telling a novel over 15 episodes. We watch that as well. The nice thing about ‘peak TV’ is there’s room for them all. For us, it isn’t one pushing the other out of the market. It’s just an expanding international palette, to allow room for all sorts of storytelling.”
Different types of storytelling don’t just extend beyond the procedural, but also within the episodic format itself. “There are some procedurals that depend upon different mechanisms of storytelling,” Marlowe continues. “Something like CSI is much more interested in the forensic evidence than it is necessarily the character journey, whereas other procedurals are much more interested in focusing on the character journeys and what their approach to crime-solving is. Even in a procedural format, there are plenty of sub-genres there for the audience.”
Hakan Kousetta, chief operating officer for television at See-Saw Films (Top of the Lake), notes that there has been an increased focus on serialisation but says all of the main US broadcasters are still hunting for “that killer procedural.”
“It’s to do with shows having characters that are so strong that the audience connects and comes back to them week on week,” he says. “Also, these particular shows contain a puzzle at their heart, which audiences love to engage in solving. In procedurals you are rebooting a new story in the same world each week, with gradual character evolution, whereas in serialised drama you need to create both a world and a set of characters that transform from one episode to the next, while delivering complex plots that hold the series together and hopefully carry your audience through to a satisfying ending.”
Pettle admits the procedural is going through an evolution. “It does still exist but it’s on its way out,” he argues. “I don’t see a younger audience tuning into it. Maybe there’s just not enough story. It’s very linear and incredibly well crafted but I think we’re moving in a different direction. The Good Wife is a procedural format with legal cases of the week but they meld personal and procedural so effortlessly on that show.
“For me as a writer and showrunner, it’s very difficult to plug into something for eight months where you’re not digging deep and writing about real people and exploring the multiple dimensions of different characters. I don’t think I could run a show like NCIS. I wouldn’t be hired to do it. I wouldn’t stay emotionally engaged in it as a creator.”
Pettle, who is also a co-showrunner on The Detail, admits CBC would not have commissioned a serialised drama like Burden of Truth six years ago, at a time when there was more demand for traditional episodic TV. The series, which like Private Eyes and The Detail is distributed by Entertainment One, sees Kristin Kreuk play a lawyer who returns to her hometown and tackle a legal case with social issues at its core.
“There’s still that balance broadcasters want,” Pettle says. “I remember on Saving Hope, which I co-ran for two years and ran on my own for two years, from year to year when we went into CTV at the beginning of the season, it was always like, ‘We want it to be more procedural,’ or, ‘We want it to be more character-driven.’ One year they gave percentages – ‘It can be 40% procedural.’ What’s in fashion is always changing.”
Pettle’s The Detail co-showrunner Ley Lukins also believes serialised storytelling has come to the forefront thanks to the introduction of Netflix, Amazon and other streaming services. “But I do believe there’s still a heavy appetite for case-of-the-week, episodic dramas,” she says. “Grey’s Anatomy is a great example of a show that has both serialised and case-of-the-week content within it. And even with something like Law & Order would still draw an audience today. But to me, and from the conversations I’ve had with people, there’s more of an expectation these days that there is a serialised element to the case of the week. If you marry the professional and the personal well, you can serve both audiences quite well.”
In the case of The Detail, which is based on British crime drama Scott & Bailey, it was US broadcaster ION Television, rather than its Canadian network CTV, that sought more procedural elements in the series. “It’s not to say we didn’t have character and that character wasn’t a major part of it, but it was definitely their wish to have a more case-of-the-week type of series because it does well for them,” Lukins says.
Hybrids such as Blindspot and The Blacklist, which marry deep mythologies with new cases each week, were heavily influenced by serialised US cable dramas, the success of which led broadcast networks to “find their own language” and remain competitive, Marlowe notes.
“There were lots of interesting experiments out there to see what the audience would respond to,” he says. “But what sustains is good storytelling and good characters. If people are engaged in the storytelling and the characters, whether it’s serialised, closed-ended or a hybrid, the audience will show up for it.”
The resurgence of procedurals, coupled with television’s never-ending infatuation with recycling old hits, means shows such as Magnum PI and Cagney & Lacey have been piloted this development season. “What you see right now is a confluence of familiar formats that people know are tried and true but also bringing in the element of IP,” says Marlowe, who believes the biggest challenge facing creators is how to break through the noise. “Some recognisable IP certainly helps.”
Lenkov says he simply prefers the challenge of mapping out 22 stories a season. “I just like the puzzle aspect of building a plot each week,” he says. “I find that a lot of fun as a writer.”
But when they’re boiled down to their bare bones, procedural series are built on the simple concept of good versus evil, he adds. “If you look at the live numbers of a lot of CBS procedurals, they do really well. It shows you there’s an audience there that still likes that format. When eight million people tune in to watch a show live, that tells you a lot of people still like the genre. They still like the crime procedural. I think it’s alive and well.”
René Balcer, best known for Law & Order and, more recently, Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders, certainly believes there is still a place for procedural television. As for what such shows might look like in the future, that is less clear. “One can argue that the success of the just-the-facts procedurals of the 1950s, such as Dragnet, was a reaction to the subjective character-driven film noir detective films of the 1940s like The Big Sleep. Audiences liked them because they were new and different. Character-driven procedurals like Hill Street Blues were a reaction to the Dragnets and Adam-12s. And, like audiences, creative content-makers get bored with the status quo, so expect the pendulum to keep swinging.”
However, Mikko Alanne, showrunner of National Geographic’s The Long Road Home, begs to differ. “In broadcast, due to the weekly format, there will likely remain room for them, but I definitely feel audiences are increasingly gravitating toward more character-driven serialised stories,” he says.
With season two of Burden of Truth in development, Pettle says there will be another single case at the show’s heart, which will focus on sharing information and protecting people’s privacy. But, interestingly, he adds there will be more episodic elements.
“It will be a more high-octane season,” he says. “Season one was all in a small town and this season will be split between the city and a small town. There will be more stories – it will still centre around a serialised case but there will be more story and a faster pace.”
Lukins concludes: “I don’t believe procedurals will ever go out of style. In a lot of ways, in shows that might not be considered procedurals per se, there is a case-of-the-week element, it’s just maybe not a cop case or a medical case. But there’s a pattern to be found in anything. And so procedurals may change in terms of how they’re delivered but I do think the formula of the procedural is here to stay.”
As broadcasters around the world continue to seek procedurals for their schedules, it’s hard to argue with Lukin’s assertion. But with today’s showrunners preferring to delve into personality over plot, what shape they may take in future is less clear.
The television landscape is awash with series set in alternative – and not particularly bright – futures. Stephen Arnell casts his eye over the dystopian series on screen, and also finds sci-fi series with a more optimistic outlook.
All-conquering AI, robots that are more human than human, apps that can mimic any possible experience, egomaniacal billionaires searching for eternal life, a world wreathed in perpetual smog, unstoppable viruses, re-animated corpses, Nazi victors in the Second World War and the knock on the door from black-garbed members of the secret police.
One would think that in a world with Donald J Trump as US president, Brexit, North Korea, Russia, global warming, cyber warfare and other woes, viewers would be looking for escapist entertainment. But perhaps counter-intuitively, the vision of an even more dire future provides some comfort in the present.
Dystopian drama has become a major TV trend over recent years, and it’s showing no sign of stopping, although there are some signs of possible fatigue, with lacklustre audiences in the UK for SS-GB (BBC1, 2017), Channel 4’s Electric Dreams (2017-18) and the recent Hard Sun (BBC1, 2018).
All had very different themes. SS-GB envisioned a Nazi occupation of the UK, Electric Dreams is an anthology series based on the work of hard sci-fi author Philip K Dick and Hard Sun was a police thriller set in a pre-apocalypse London.
In terms of the BBC1 dramas, it could be said that the rather bleak material was better suited to sister channel BBC2, while the hit-and-miss nature of portmanteau series such as Electric Dreams are known to sometimes struggle to find audiences – with the obvious exception of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror (the former C4 show now at home on Netflix).
In the US, Syfy’s Incorporated (2016-17), a Matt Damon/Ben Affleck production set in a US ruled by corporations folded after one season, as did the channel’s exploitation Death Race homage Blood Drive (2017).
Are we approaching ‘peak dystopia?’ Not just yet. In fact, not by a long chalk.
It must be noted that anticipation was high for the second seasons of The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu) and Westworld (HBO), both of which premiered recently and have been well received. Viewers are now eagerly awaiting season three of The Man in the High Castle (Amazon Prime), while Black Mirror goes from strength to strength, with filming on season five beginning recently. And AMC’s future feudal Samurai-style society drama Into the Badlands returned in April for a third run.
Netflix’s Brazilian sci-fi series 3% deals with a world very much divided into the haves and have-nots; after favourable reactions to 2016’s debut run, the drama returned for season two on April 27.
On cable, dystopian series continue to thrive. The 100 (The CW) returned for a fifth season on April 24, The Colony came back for a third run on May 2 and Van Helsing (Syfy) had a third season order in December 2017.
Netflix’s Altered Carbon (pictured top) launched to mixed reviews this February – there was high praise for the set design and production values but it was also criticised by some as owing too much to Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner (1982) and for objectifying its female characters.
Weeks after Altered Carbon dropped, Netflix also released two dystopian movies – Duncan Jones’s generally slated Mute (which shared a similar visual palate to Altered Carbon) and Alex Garland (Ex Machina)’s well-reviewed Annihilation – which may have been overkill in such a short space of time.
Data from Parrot Analytics suggests the budget-busting Altered Carbon’s patchy performance could make a sophomore season unlikely.
This year will see new dystopian drama on our screens in addition to returning series. Last week, continuing its interest in the genre, Netflix dropped the Danish thriller The Rain, which is being touted by some as its answer to The Walking Dead, except with a distinct young-adult skew.
The show is set after a brutal virus wipes out most of the population, as two young siblings embark on a perilous search for safety.
The fact the virus is spread through precipitation has led some to draw somewhat unfortunate comparisons to Chubby Rain, the fictional ‘film within a film’ in the Steve Martin/Eddie Murphy comedy Bowfinger.
ABC’s The Crossing, meanwhile, debuted on April 2. The show centres on an influx of refugees in present-day Oregon, but with the twist that they are from a war-torn USA, 180 years in the future.
Starring Steve Zahn (War for the Planet of the Apes, Treme), The Crossing debuted with a modest 5.5 million viewers, with audiences declining for subsequent episodes.
On May 19, HBO will premiere its feature-length version of Fahrenheit 451, an adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s sci-fi classic that depicts a totalitarian society where books are outlawed and burned by ‘firemen.’
Fahrenheit 451 takes its title from the autoignition temperature of paper. The book was last adapted for the screen in 1966 by French auteur filmmaker Francois Truffaut and was his only English-language movie. HBO’s version boasts a stellar cast including Michael Shannon (The Shape of Water) and Michael B Jordan (Black Panther). Shannon has previously worked with Fahrenheit 451 director Ramin Bahrani on the award-winning foreclosure drama 99 Homes (2014).
On the horizon from Fremantle’s UFA Fiction (Deutschland 83) is Kelvin’s Book, from art-house film writer/director Michael Haneke (The Piano Teacher, Hidden). An English-language project, the 10×60′ series tells the story of a group of young people in the not-too-distant future who are “forced to make an emergency landing outside of their home and are confronted with the actual face of their home country for the first time.”
Next year sees the debut of Amazon Prime Video/Liberty Global’s London-set series The Feed, which “centres on the family of the man who invented an omnipresent technology called The Feed. Implanted into nearly everyone’s brain, The Feed enables people to share information, emotions and memories instantly. But when things start to go wrong and users become murderous, they struggle to control the monster they have unleashed.”
Guy Burnet, Nina Toussaint White, David Thewlis and Michelle Fairley will star in the psychological thriller, which will be distributed by All3Media International.
One new project that many spectators now believe may never make it to the screen is HBO’s Confederate, as creators David Benioff and DB Weiss (Game of Thrones) are now on board the Star Wars franchise – and the show’s concept of a continuing Southern slave-owning state has proved highly controversial in the current US political climate.
FX has recently ordered a pilot of Y: The Last Man, set in a world with only one surviving male – with strong production credentials from co-showrunners Michael Green (Logan, Bladerunner 2049, American Gods) and Aida Mashaka Croal (Turn, Luke Cage).
Israeli VoD service/cablenet HOT TV will debut Autonomies this year, which imagines the present-day country divided by a wall into two Jewish states – secular in Tel Aviv and ultra-orthodox in Jerusalem.
And to round off the dystopian shows in development, Amazon recently announced a series based on William Gibson’s The Peripheral, set in a bleak not-too-distant future (and beyond), with the Westworld team of Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan as showrunners.
Syfy’s 2015 miniseries adaptation of Arthur C Clarke’s Childhood’s End must take the prize for one of the most downbeat endings ever – concluding as it does in the total destruction of the Earth, after the planet’s mutated psychic children have been subsumed into an all-powerful alien ‘overmind.’
But lest we fall into total despair, it should be recognised that there are actually a few sci-fi TV dramas that depict a future that isn’t unrelentingly grim.
The Star Trek franchise is notable for showing an optimistic view of the times to come, with mankind becoming a force for good in the galaxy after (with notable exceptions such as Harry Mudd) curbing its greed and war-mongering.
Seth McFarlane’s affectionate Trek tribute The Orville (Fox) also has rosier take on the future, whileNetflix’s Lost in Space reboot has a not-entirely-pessimistic vision of humanity in the 21st century.
Hulu/Ch4’s upcoming Beau Willimon-scripted Martian colony drama The First (starring Sean Penn and Natasha McElhone) appears to promise a relatively upbeat approach, or at least one that’s not tipped totally in the direction of dystopian misery.
The long-running Stargate SG1 and its spin-offs portrayed a universe that was inhabited by at least a few alien species willing to befriend mankind rather than instantly vaporise Earth.
Meanwhile, Doctor Who (BBC1) generally takes a more upbeat road, as befits its family audience. Although end-of-the-world scenarios and alien domination feature frequently, the Doctor usually conveys a positive attitude, occasionally (in some incarnations) to the point of what some may deem mania.
Mystery Road is the latest Australian feature film to hit the small screen. Series director Rachel Perkins discusses working with stars Judy Davis, Aaron Pedersen and the stunning Western Australian landscape in a show that blends cop drama and outback noir.
Picnic at Hanging Rock, Wake in Fright, Wolf Creek, Romper Stomper – in the last few years, Australian drama has revisited some of the country’s most famous feature films and novels to bring new series to TV that are either sequels or reimagined interpretations of the original versions.
Now comes Mystery Road, a spin-off from Ivan Sen’s award-winning feature films Mystery Road (2013) and Goldstone (2016). The six-part series, which will air this year on the ABC, sees Detective Jay Swan (played by Aaron Pedersen) assigned to investigate the mysterious disappearance of two young farm hands on an outback cattle station. One is a local Indigenous footy hero, and the other a backpacker. Working with local cop Emma James (Judy Davis), Jay’s investigation uncovers a past injustice that threatens the fabric of the whole community.
“I’d long been an admirer of Ivan’s work so I was very excited about doing something that was a homage to that but then extended the idea further,” director Rachel Perkins says. “Having an opportunity to expand on the original film and make this noir outback cop show that dealt with both race relations and history was a really interesting crossover for me.”
Produced by Bunya Productions and distributed by All3Media International, Mystery Road was filmed on location in Wyndham, the northernmost town in Western Australia. The harsh landscape meant Perkins was able to take the show’s characters and turn up the heat on them, literally, in this small community where everybody knows each other’s business.
“It was so hot shooting in Wyndham, 40°C most days, but the landscape is this incredible backdrop,” she says. “It really is an outback town; it’s almost like a frontier town and it has all of those qualities television has when it’s really great these days. It’s not just the story you’re interested in but the world. So we looked at series like Fargo and True Detective and looked at where they were set and how they really conjured the places. We wanted to set this story in a place that was very distinctive. So far, people have been amazed by the setting and that’s been part of people enjoying the series, that experience of the Australian outback in its most incredible form.”
The location was also appropriate for its history of racial conflict, a theme that bubbles beneath the surface of Mystery Road. “It’s not a cop show, it’s not just really about two missing boys. It’s about black and white Australians and how the simmering tension of history sits under our relationship,” Perkins adds.
Fronting the show alongside Pedersen is Hollywood star Judy Davis, who recently appeared in FX series Feud. The actor’s familial history with the region meant she had a deep understanding of, and interest in, the story. “I try not to think too much about how incredibly talented she is because otherwise it might be overwhelming,” Perkins says of Davis. “But I couldn’t have asked for a better collaborator. She was really terrific and I’m not sure what I’ll ever do now because I’ll want her in every role.”
Best known for films and documentaries such as Jasper Jones, Bran Neu Dae and First Australians, plus TV series like Redfern Now, Perkins says she enjoys telling stories across a range of genres. “But I’ve particularly loved working on Mystery Road because it’s a genre piece, it’s a TV cop drama but it has all this interesting, rich historical context, shot in one of the most shootable places in Australia,” she adds. “The landscape was so extraordinary. And with people I loved working with, so it’s very special to me. Having helmed all six episodes, it was wonderful to work across a canvas that was so large, and to be able to see the story through the whole evolution and its various chapters was such a privilege. I feel very lucky.”
Harrow, Disney-owned ABC Studios International’s first scripted series, is a fresh twist on a well-worked genre. Don Groves chats to the creative team and star Ioan Gruffudd.
Four years ago, Australian screenwriter Stephen M Irwin and writer/producer Leigh McGrath had an idea for a procedural crime series centred on a brilliant yet unorthodox forensic pathologist.
Both loved classic, character-driven forensic shows like Quincy, which ran on US network NBC from 1976 to 1983 and starred Jack Klugman as an LA County medical examiner.
But they knew they needed an original angle to differentiate their show from myriad other procedurals and came up with this twist: the protagonist, Dr Daniel Harrow, committed a murder years ago, and thus much of the suspense hinges on how, why and when the crime occurred.
“It’s a ‘whydunit’ as opposed to a whodunit, where the character solves murders as well as using his skill to cover up his own crime,” says McGrath, a former story editor on Thames Television’s long-running UK cop show The Bill.
Irwin, who at the time had just scripted murder mystery Secrets & Lies for Brisbane- and now LA-based prodco Hoodlum, wrote the pilot script on spec and he and McGrath created a pitch document, with the show taking its name from the lead character’s surname.
The problem was that Hoodlum had zero experience in the crime procedural genre. “It was a big idea and it was not an easy fit in Australia or overseas, so the first challenge was getting people to read the script,” says Tracey Robertson, who founded Hoodlum with Nathan Mayfield in 1998.
Sally Riley, who had been appointed head of scripted production at Oz pubcaster the ABC in May 2016, liked the idea but could not immediately see where a show like Harrow would fit in the schedule.
Fortune was in their favour, however, when Robertson and Mayfield met with Keli Lee, the London-based MD of international content and talent at Disney’s ABC Studios International.
Lee was executive VP of talent and casting at ABC Entertainment Group when ABC greenlit the US remake of Secrets & Lies, which was co-written by Irwin and executive produced by Barbie Kligman, Robertson and Mayfield.
Lee was impressed with the Harrow script and the treatments for all 10 episodes, and within a couple of weeks commissioned the show, the studio’s first scripted series. Soon after, the ABC’s Riley came on board.
“Nathan and Tracey were absolute terriers who, by hard graft rather than good luck, got the script to the right people at the right time,” says Irwin, who wrote eight episodes and co-wrote another with Lucas Taylor, the script editor, while McGrath penned one.
The producers drew up a list of actors from Australia, the US and the UK to play the lead. Lee pushed for Welsh-born Ioan Gruffudd, whom she had known since he starred as a 200-year-old man attempting to find a key to unlock the curse of his immortality in the series Forever, which ran on ABC in 2014 and 2015.
After reading the pilot script, the LA-based Gruffudd spoke via Skype one Sunday morning Australian time with Irwin, who was at home in Brisbane. “I knew we’d found our guy, someone who could be a little bit acerbic, funny, gruff and likeable and could carry quite a lot of medical information,” Irwin says. “He also needed to have the gravitas that suggests the character might have done something quite bad for a reason to be revealed.”
Asked what differentiates Harrow from multiple other crime procedurals, Robertson says: “Some tend to just be all plot while others are all character and no plot. We have created great, well-defined characters in Harrow himself and the people around him, while each episode deals with a crime of the week. There are no cardboard cut-out stereotypes.” The drama premiered on ABC Australia in March, with Disney Media Distribution licensing the US and international rights.
To ensure the series had a large-scale, cinematic look, the producers hired directors who either had feature film experience or had worked in the TV murder-mystery genre. Kate Dennis, whose credits include the Australian original and US remake of Secrets & Lies, plus CSI: Cyber for CBS, AMC’s Turn and Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, for which she was Emmy nominated, was the setup director and directed one episode.
Dennis, who was booked to direct an episode of Netflix comic book-based drama Marvel’s Jessica Jones when Robertson offered her the gig, was initially reluctant. “I told Tracey that me and procedurals are probably not a good mix, but I read the script and thought this one was different and out of the box,” she says. “It’s very character-driven and there is the mystery of the man at its core. I was very attracted to it.”
Dennis created the look and style of the show with Robert Humphreys, who was the DOP on the first five episodes (Simon Chapman shot the remainder). During three weeks’ hectic prep, she wrote a detailed series bible for her fellow directors that set out numerous cinematographic rules, including often having the camera behind Harrow or raking past close to his face; shooting through foreground objects and shifting shadows of water or patterns on windows and other reflective surfaces; basing the colour palette on the human iris; and making Brisbane itself a character.
Tony Krawitz (The Kettering Incident), Tony Tilse (Wolf Creek, Underbelly), Daniel Nettheim (Doctor Who, Broadchurch) and Peter Salmon (Wanted, Rake) each handled two episodes, while Catriona McKenzie (The Warriors) did one.
Nettheim had long wanted to work with Robertson and Mayfield again after directing the duo’s first ever production, Fat Cow Motel, an interactive comedy drama that screened on the ABC in 2002. He watched footage of the first five episodes before directing the final two instalments. “My prerogative was to honour the earlier work and to try to bring something fresh so I was not repeating the same ideas,” he says.
“The show has a unique tone because of the level of humour. What I really enjoyed from some of the earlier episodes was seeing what an actor like Darren Gilshenan can bring to those comedy parts and how well that sits with the grimmer parts of the investigation.”
To round out the cast, the producers did a lot of chemistry tests, pairing various actors with Gruffudd. Robertson found that process so productive that she intends to use it for all future productions, including supernatural crime drama Tidelands, Netflix’s first original Australian series, which was also written by Irwin and is shooting in Queensland this year.
Ella Newton is Harrow’s estranged teenage daughter, Fern, while Anna Lise Phillips plays his ex-wife, Stephanie. Robyn Malcolm is Maxine, Harrow’s often exasperated boss, and Darren Gilshenan is Dr Lyle Fairley, a resentful colleague who keeps butting heads with Harrow.
Remy Hii portrays Simon, a forensic pathologist who is completing his studies and is a protégé of Dr Harrow. “The two have an odd-couple relationship as friends and colleagues,” Hii says. “Playing opposite Ioan was a lot of fun because he has such an incredible range. At my first audition, we did chemistry reads together and there was an immediate connection.
“A lot of the subject matter is dark because we are in a morgue for much of the series and we deal with death but the scripts are so witty and they pop off the page. All the characters are larger than life, but so relatable.”
Hii, who appears in every episode, adds: “It was a heavy workload and lightning fast – that is Australian TV. You prepare to the eyeballs and, at the same time, you are prepared to drop much of your homework in order to get it done. You never know what challenges will be thrown your way. It was a blessing working with six of Australia’s top directors – people with so many different processes, styles, visual flair and experiences.”
Mirrah Foulkes plays scenes-of-crime officer Sergeant Soraya Dass, a former detective who has moved to Brisbane from Melbourne and works with Detective Senior Sergeant Bryon Nichols (Damien Garvey). Dass develops a romantic relationship with Harrow but has her own dark secrets, says Foulkes.
Foulkes had taken time out from acting to write the screenplay for Judy & Punch – a feature she will also direct, which reimagines the puppet show Punch & Judy – when Robertson asked her to audition in early 2017. She found the short prep time challenging, noting: “My favourite part of the process is rehearsals and eking out all the interesting things that are going on in the writing. You don’t have time for that in Australian television. The best-case scenario in a show like Harrow is you get a quick catch-up with the directors and touch base on some key moments in each episode, some key emotional beats. It was incredibly hard and fast, and I enjoyed it. The scripts were hugely ambitious and the shoots were really tricky.”
Filming started in Queensland in August 2017. The budget was only slightly higher than the average for an Australian drama but did allow a nine-day schedule for each episode (seven is typical), plus elaborate set builds and hiring well-known actors such as Tony Barry, Ditch Davey, Gary Sweet, Chris Haywood and Dan Ewing for guest roles.
“When you have a big international partner in Disney-ABC, the bar is raised in production values,” Mayfield says. “This is about taking a show that speaks to its Australian audience but is viable and competitive to sell internationally. Disney-ABC brought a wealth of knowledge, information and experience. We got a lot of valuable insights into storylines and character beats.”
Business partners for 21 years, Robertson and Mayfield share every aspect of their jobs, from creative development and physical production through to business affairs, although he is Brisbane-based and she spends most of her time in LA.
“We are a very close-knit team,” Mayfield says. “There is a short-hand and a trust that have been built over two decades. We do butt heads occasionally on creative things when neither of us has the answer, but that is healthy because the best idea wins. We always want to deliver on the promise.”
Gruffudd gravitates to the dark side
Ioan Gruffudd follows his riveting performance as a renowned surgeon accused of date rape in the SundanceTV and ITV series Liar by playing a forensic psychologist who harbours a dark secret in Harrow. DQ gives him a call.
It’s no coincidence Ioan Gruffudd is now being cast as damaged characters after playing heroic types in Horatio Hornblower, Black Hawk Down and two Fantastic Four comic book adaptations.
“I’d been dying to play these three-dimensional parts, flawed characters, for such a long time but I’d never really looked old enough or had enough weight and gravitas in my face and experiences before,” the Welsh actor says on the line from Brisbane while shooting the final episodes of Harrow. “I’m meeting these characters in the right time of my life. I’m in my 40s and I am starting to look right for these parts.”
Gruffudd did not expect the critical acclaim that greeted Liar in the UK, the US and Australia, which no doubt persuaded the networks to greenlight a second season from the creators Jack Williams and Harry Williams. The first season of the show saw Gruffudd’s character accused of rape, with viewers left to unravel the truth.
“We knew we were doing something special and good but you just never know, until you go out there into the universe, how people are going to respond,” he says. “I think the purpose of casting me was to put people off the scent, especially in those early episodes, to lull the audience into a false sense of security that this guy could not possibly have done this.”
Gruffudd leapt at the chance to play the title role in Hoodlum Entertainment’s Harrow, drawn to the scripts by Stephen M Irwin and producer Leigh McGrath. He relished the prospect of playing a character he describes as eccentric, slightly curmudgeonly, borderline arrogant and selfish but also funny.
In addition, he was a fan of Hoodlum’s Irwin-scripted Australian series Secrets & Lies, rating Irwin as an exceptional writer. And he was happy to return to Queensland, where he had worked on the films San Andreas and Sanctum.
Harrow also stars Remy Hii, Mirrah Foulkes, Ella Newton, Darren Gilshenan, Anna Lise Phillips and Robyn Malcolm, for whom Gruffudd is full of praise. “I am working with the crème de la crème of Australian actors. They are stars in their own right and could lead a show in their own right,” he says.
Similarly effusive over set-up director Kate Dennis, he says: “Kate blessed the ship and all who sailed in her. She set up the look, the costumes, the production design and the tone. It is unique but there are elements of House, Rake and CSI. It’s funny when it’s supposed to be funny, with office gallows humour, and the next scene could be quite sad and tragic.”
Dennis marvelled at Gruffudd’s ability to tread the fine line between comedy and drama, the ease with which he mastered wads of dialogue laden with medical terms and his ever-cheerful demeanour on set. “He’s a genuinely terrific person to be around and deeply professional,” she says.
Hoodlum’s Tracey Robertson adds: “The show has a great sense of humour and deals with the light and the dark really well. Dr Harrow has his own view of the world and is a really lovable character, which Ioan sells to the moon and back.”
Australian medical drama Pulse highlights some of the challenges facing hospitals down under. Stars Claire van der Boom and Pallavi Sharda discuss the series’ real-life origins and overcoming diversity and gender imbalance on screen.
For Australian actors Claire van der Boom and Pallavi Sharda, the chance to appear in medical drama Pulse marked something of a homecoming.
LA-based van der Boom has been on screen in the US in shows such as NBC’s Game of Silence and CBS procedural Hawaii Five-O. Sharda, meanwhile, has starred on the big screen in films such as Oscar-nominated Lion and Bollywood productions Begum Jaan, Hawaizaada, Besharam and Heroine.
But they both returned down under for the eight-part ABC series, based on the true story of a transplant patient who was inspired to become a doctor. Van der Boom plays Frankie, a high-flying financial analyst who was given a second chance at life following a kidney transplant and, inspired by the man who saved her life, she trains to become a doctor at a major teaching hospital.
The series, produced by Clandestine Beyond in association with Beyond Entertainment and distributed by ABC Commercial, also highlights many real-world issues facing hospitals in Australia as the medical staff confront the political, personal and professional realities of working in an ailing system. In fact, as preparation, van der Boom watched UK factual series Hospital, which she says featured similar problems such as bed shortages, lack of places for medical students and the issue of suicide among trainee doctors.
“[The profession] is still very male-orientated so we’re dealing with a lot of that,” she continues. “In terms of patients, we’re dealing with the morals around what it is to be an old person with a pacemaker and when they want to turn it off, and a female refugee who doesn’t have her papers, so can we operate on her and [what if] she gets deported? It has all those huge questions, like whether or not a gay partner can come in over a sister when someone’s in a life-or-death situation. So all of that is global. I was really proud of our writers; they really crammed it full of cutting-edge questions.”
Sharda plays Tanya Kalahari, a “maverick” doctor senior to van der Boom’s Frankie, leading to some compelling head-to-head battles on the hospital ward.
“She’s someone who has worked really hard but is fighting the fact that her father is the head of medical and is trying to prove herself, as opposed to being someone who may be there through nepotism,” she explains.
More appealing to Sharda, however, was the fact she felt this was a part in an Australian show – created by Kris Wyld, Michael Miller and Mel Hill – she could really “dig her teeth into.”
“It was really interesting because, being an Indian-origin Australian actor, it’s a pioneering cast in terms of the representation of people from different ethnic backgrounds and different sexual orientations, and [it looks at] very cutting-edge issues we need to explore now,” she explains. “I hadn’t had access to writing like that before or been given a script to read where I thought, ‘That seems like an authentic character I believe in.’
“The funny thing is an Indian doctor is a stereotype in itself, but here we are all playing doctors. It was really nice to be in the mainstream in this show and the ‘us and them’ was really broken down. Australia has been a little bit slower [to tackle on-screen diversity], only because our waves of immigration have worked very differently.”
With a lack of Asian stars on screen, Sharda looked up to talent such as British stars Meera Syal and Sanjeev Bhaskar and director Gurinder Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham). Now she says Australia is opening up more to diversity.
“I had to go to India to become an actor to a certain degree, because those opportunities definitely weren’t there in Australia seven or eight years ago,” she notes. “I don’t begrudge the industry for that, but it takes time and every industry has it’s teething process with these things.
“The same is true with any industry. Bollywood is pretty homogenous in it’s own representation of what being Indian means. It just talks about north Indian culture, for example. So it’s not that one is better than the other. For me, it’s nice to work in Australia because I’m Australian.”
As a renal resident at City West Public Hospital, Frankie must hide the fact that she is not only a transplant doctor but a transplant patient too, a fact she fears could destroy her career if discovered.
That overarching plot line, coupled with the true story behind the drama, meant van der Boom learned an incredible amount about dialysis and kidney diseases during the course of production, leading her to become very passionate about the subject of transplants and donor registration.
“Australia has some of the worst transplant rates in the world and a lot of people die waiting,” the actor says. “Particularly if you’re a young person who gets a kidney disease, it’s a life sentence, in a way, because it’s about eight years for a transplant. People don’t realise you can walk into a hospital and give a kidney. If you’re a recipient of a kidney from a living donor, it lasts twice as long as a deceased person’s, so there really are incredible options in science people aren’t really talking about.”
As well as greater diversity on screen, van der Boom and Sharda also recognise the greater opportunities now for female actors in television, particularly in leading roles.
“We’re starting to see less of ‘woman, smart and beautiful’ in a script,” van der Boom explains. “Now it’s just ‘woman.’ Thank God that’s changing, but on this show, it just wasn’t important in the audition and the first couple of scripts I got. It was such a relief to find the love life was the fourth most important thing. We don’t have to talk about it, it just bubbles to the surface. We hope there’s more of that.”
Sharda picks up: “I do feel this convergence on so many levels of so many things I’ve been mentally fighting since I was a younger actor. This year I had a film released in India called Begum, in which I played a sex worker. It was about 11 women fighting for their house at the time of partition, where the British drew a line between India and Pakistan and pissed off.
“Our histories have been told in a certain way for so long, and all the storytelling I’ve been a part of in the last year-and-a-half has made me consider the history I’m a part of and how that storytelling has occurred, and the role I can play going forward.
“If we’re looking at what’s going on in Hollywood, Bollywood wasn’t even there. Then I saw this sea change and a global consciousness shift in the last couple of years. I feel really pleased that, at a global level, everyone’s thinking about those things.”
Van der Boom now hopes to return to Australia at least once a year to work on projects that are “quintessentially Australian,” while Sharda is writing a book about her cross-cultural experiences, reflecting on the ideas of dual identity and representation in a multi-cultural society. But the screen remains her priority, noting that it’s not the medium but the story that is now the most important thing when it comes to choosing acting roles.
“We’ve moved beyond ‘film versus television,’ with such great television being made,” she adds. “With Netflix, Amazon and all these people coming into India and making original content, the quality and production values have gone up, so it’s just more about the scope of storytelling for me. I’m an Indian dancer so one thing I want to do more is concentrate on live work. I feel like I’ve ignored that in the last few years. Anything I can do that is fusion and bringing cultures together, it doesn’t matter what the medium is.”
Ioan Gruffudd investigates the truth behind a series of mysterious deaths in Australian crime drama Harrow. DQ hears more about the show from Hoodlum producer Tracey Robertson and Sally Riley, head of scripted production at broadcaster the ABC.
Ioan Gruffudd is used to dealing with dead bodies. In US network ABC’s fantasy drama Forever, he played Dr Henry Morgan, an immortal New York medical examiner who uses his knowledge to help solve crimes and seek a way to end his immortality.
Now he is back on screen as another medical examiner, Dr Daniel Harrow, in a new crime drama commissioned by Australian pubcaster the ABC. The series, called Harrow, follows a brilliant forensic pathologist who can solve cases others can’t. But when a secret from his past threatens his career and family, he needs to use all his genius to keep one crime buried forever.
Described as smart and impatient, a dedicated scientist and a maverick rule-breaker, Harrow knows he’s the best pathologist around and won’t stop until he uncovers the truth about why people have died.
The 10-part series, which debuts this Friday, sees him investigate the suspected suicide of a young girl, the death of a woman killed by a crossbow and the discovery of a human arm found inside a dead crocodile, among others.
Harrow is produced by Hoodlum Entertainment and ABC Studios International, with Disney Media Distribution handling international sales. It was co-created by Stephen M Irwin and Leigh McGrath, who produce with Hoodlum’s Tracey Robertson and Nathan Mayfield.
“We’ve worked with Stephen quite a bit on other projects [including Secrets & Lies] so he’s a really great collaborator of ours,” explains Robertson. “He wanted to write a show that was very character-heavy but also has a story of the week, so it’s a very strong character piece but it’s also a procedural so we solve a crime every week. Dr Daniel Harrow is a forensic pathologist so we visit the stories but we also have a strong story about him when he visits the dark side.”
Harrow marks the first series from ABC Studios International, which is led by Keli Lee, ABC Entertainment’s MD of international content and talent.
“Stephen and Leigh had developed the script independently, so we had the script and also the story arc of where we wanted to go with the show,” Robertson recalls. “We gave it to Keli, who we work with at ABC Studios. We pitched it to her in October 2016, she read it overnight and pretty much we were in production six months later.”
Once ABC Studios was on board, the ABC in Australia quickly followed. The broadcaster paid for the series development and the speed of the project meant production wrapped at the end of last year.
“We’re hoping it will be original enough for us that it will become one of our returning shows that fill a gap for us,” says Sally Riley, the broadcaster’s head of scripted production. “We have an older audience so with this show we’re trying to keep this older audience happy, but with Ioan Gruffudd in there will hopefully bring a younger group as well.
“The thing that attracted me to it was at its heart, it’s a show about a man trying to protect his family and how far you would go to protect your family. It’s got a great tone, it’s quite funny but it also has a dark edge, which is a really hard combination to do well and Stephen Irwin does a great job with that. Ioan cracks it for us. We’re really excited and hopefully we’ll go to another season.”
Both Riley and Robertson insist the show will stand out from similar dramas, such as Forever and Dexter, in which a forensics expert is also a compulsive serial killer.
“It does have a bit of a Dexter edge – [Harrow is] a forensic pathologist, we see him cutting up bodies,” Riley explains. “The difference with him is he’s really interested in the dead people; he sits and talks to them. He tries to figure out why they do things, he’s not just chopping them up and finding what the clues are. He’s actually going into their lives and talking to their families and really wants to find out why they’re in this situation.
“They’re usually unique murders that happen in this show so there’s always a twist. Harrow doesn’t always win in the end – he solves the crime but then there’s another twist from the overarching story about the dead body you see.”
Robertson, who is also working with Irwin on Netflix’s first Australian original drama, Tidelands, adds: “As with Stephen’s writing, there’s always an emotional reason why things have happened. It’s not just pulling off the mask and he’s a dark person. There are really strong character traits as to why everything has happened, which I think sets it apart.”
As the newly appointed showrunner of White House drama Designated Survivor, Keith Eisner is taking the series in a new direction. He tells DQ about his plans for the ABC show, comparisons to The West Wing and making a political drama in the era of Donald Trump.
Designated Survivor launched last autumn with the huge expectation that came with seeing 24 star Kiefer Sutherland playing the character that, until recently, he was usually tasked with saving – the president of the United States.
But for the most part, what began as a mix of political drama, thriller and family saga settled into familiar rhythms of the show that made Jack Bauer a household name – a terrorist plot, conspiracies and double-crossings, only without the iconic digital clock counting down.
Yet when the ABC series returns for season two on Wednesday, September 27, viewers should expect a markedly different show under the stewardship of new showrunner Keith Eisner.
“The show was very much a thriller last year,” he says. “We’re broadening that to make it much more of a West Wing-type White House drama, which very much deals with the events that a novice president would face on a week-to-week basis, while still retaining a lot of what people loved about the show and involving more intrigue this year than gun-toting antics every week.”
Sutherland stars as Tom Kirkman, a lower-level cabinet member who suddenly finds himself appointed president after a catastrophic attack on the US Capitol during the State of the Union. Season one saw him struggle to keep the country and his family together while leading the search to find those responsible for the attack.
It concluded with a major cliffhanger involving the suspected conspirator, and Eisner promises that storyline will be resolved over the first few episodes of season two, despite the show restarting six months on from the events at the end of season one.
“We felt very much that last year was the story of a Mr Smith Goes to Washington-type character, a deer caught in the headlights,” Eisner says of Kirkman’s sudden elevation to commander-in-chief. “We really wanted to ground the president a little bit more [this season]. We still centre on our theme – an ordinary man caught in an extraordinary situation – but we wanted him to find his feet a bit as president.”
To that effect, “White House stories” will feature much more prominently in a show designed to be faster and funnier, with a bit of romance included too. The expanded cast includes White House counsel Kendra Daynes (played by Zoe McLellan), political director Lyor Boone (Paulo Costanzo) and British MI6 agent Damian Rennett (Ben Lawson), who could prove to be a love interest for Maggie Q’s FBI agent Hannah Wells.
It’s all part of the distinct vision Eisner has for the show, which he joined in May as the series’ fourth showrunner in just a year, following Amy B Harris, Jon Harmon Feldman and Jeff Melvoin. “I thought the show was terrific last year but the difficulty is there are only so many ways to try to kill the president,” he tells DQ during a break from rewriting episode six.
“In terms of making sure this was a show that can run for many years, it was about broadening that storytelling base. We’re well into our new journey here, we’re excited about it and we have the secret weapon, the fantastic Kiefer Sutherland. He was so good last year – wait until you see what he does this year.”
Eisner’s career working on shows such as The Good Wife, NYPD Blue, Law & Order and Gilmore Girls points to the type of stories he will seek to bring into the show, while he says he also wants to make it more aspirational for viewers: “In these times, it is not a bad thing to see a president that wrestles with difficult decisions but is someone we admire and see trying to do the best he can in every situation.
“He doesn’t always make the right decisions; that’s part of the game and one of the things Tom Kirkman wrestles with on a week-to-week basis. He also wrestles with family issues, which are coming a little bit more to the fore, as does his marriage. We are doing personal stories for all our characters, so we will go outside the confines of the White House to see them and to see their lives and become more invested in them.”
Of course, Designated Survivor is now operating in a world where the real White House has the kinds of storylines and plot twists than a screenwriter couldn’t dream of. How, then, does Eisner plan on running a political drama in the era of President Trump?
“We’re not trying to be an express commentary on the Trump White House,” he says. “We’re trying to be our own story about our own president, who always tries to do the right thing in difficult situations. Having said that, there are obviously issues in the real world that we can’t be blind to, because they inform our drama. Without being an express commentary, there might occasionally be parallels or situations where we see how our president reacts in a similar situation and whether he reacts differently or in the same way.
“We think, more than anything, the attention given to the White House in 2017 is a great opportunity for us to portray a different kind of White House perhaps, but a White House also struggling with a lot of things that perhaps the Trump administration struggles with.”
However, it’s a fictional White House that will likely have more bearing on Designated Survivor’s new direction. The success of NBC’s The West Wing has cast a long shadow over other political series ever since the Emmy-winning show began in 1999, “but it’s not a bad shadow,” Eisner admits.
“The things that Aaron [Sorkin, The West Wing creator] pioneered are very much part of the tapestry now – the ‘Walk and Talks,’ the humour. One embraces that, one doesn’t shy away from it. What’s very different was The West Wing was 20 years ago. The world has changed and how we deal with issues and social media and the speed of everything informs a different type of storytelling.
“We’re also different because we have a component The West Wing never had, which is this thriller/action/intrigue component built into the show, and that will continue to be part of the show and makes it very different. We have everything we feel The West Wing had but we have this additional component, so the cocktail of the show tastes different.”
There are some limits to the changes Eisner is bringing in. Fans around the world who tuned in to binge Designated Survivor on Netflix, following a worldwide deal with distributor Entertainment One, will be happy to hear that the series will retain its serialised elements, with plenty of jeopardy and cliffhangers still to come.
“I don’t think anyone who watched the show last year will be disappointed because there’s going to be a lot of what they love,” the showrunner says. “People will want to continue to binge it because some of the serialised stuff will still be there. But the other advantage in terms of broadening the base is if you’re not one of those people who binges on shows but occasionally likes to check in, there’s a standalone component to the show this year that will allow you to not know everything about the mythology we built up and still enjoy the show as a standalone episode.”
With his time spent on The Good Wife and Law & Order, Eisner has learned his craft by working with acclaimed showrunners including Michelle and Robert King and Dick Wolf, respectively. As such, he admits is “very story-driven and character-driven as a showrunner,” adding: “I arc things out, I focus on real human behaviour and make sure it’s relatable and complicated, but I like conflict too. The shows I’ve worked on have dealt with that a lot.
“I’m very much focused on producing a television show that deals with conflict and emotion. I think people will find the show very emotional this year. The stories will climax in, we hope, very surprising ways that will move you and make you laugh, hopefully make you think and occasionally scare you a little bit too.”
As Netflix and Amazon continue to flex their financial muscles, battle lines are being drawn between network, cable and digital channels in the fight for top writing talent.
Call it what you will – peak TV, the new golden age or even the first platinum era of television – there are few signs that the number of scripted dramas being produced around the world, and particularly in the US, is on the wane.
So as the transfer window for football leagues across Europe enters its final days, television is doing its best to keep up, with rival players fighting to sign up some of the small screen’s biggest talents in the hope of continuing to attract viewers.
If former Barcelona superstar Neymar is worth a world-record transfer fee of £200m (US$258m) to Paris Saint-Germain, how valuable is showrunner extraordinaire Shonda Rhimes (pictured above) to Netflix?
However much Rhimes will earn, Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos would doubtless say she is worth every cent after the showrunner agreed to bring her Shondaland production company to the US streaming giant in a multi-year deal that will see her create new series for the platform. Indeed, Sarandos described Rhimes as “one of the greatest storytellers in the history of television” after securing her signature.
And who is in any doubt over the credibility of that statement? This is, after all, a writer and producer who has her own night on US network ABC, with Shondaland series Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and How To Get Away With Murder bringing in primetime audiences every Thursday.
But while becoming synonymous with ABC, which also previously aired Shondaland dramas The Catch and Still Star-Crossed, among others, Rhimes has slowly built up a relationship with Netflix. The streamer has global rights outside of the US to How To Get Away With Murder and also airs Grey’s and Scandal in many other territories.
Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that despite a long and successful partnership with the network, she has jumped ship with the promise of untold production budgets and the opportunity to tell any story she likes without having to jump through the hoops laid out by a broadcast network’s standards and practices department.
“Her work is gripping, inventive, pulse-pounding, heart-stopping, taboo-breaking television at its best,” Sarandos continued, with all the hyperbole of a football club chairman announcing his club’s latest star signing, lacking only a Netflix T-shirt with Rhimes’ name across the back. “I’ve gotten the chance to know Shonda and she’s a true Netflixer at heart – she loves TV and films, she cares passionately about her work and she delivers for her audience.”
Rhimes hinted at the potential to break away from the more stringent rules at ABC when she said: “Ted provides a clear, fearless space for creators at Netflix. He understood what I was looking for – the opportunity to build a vibrant new storytelling home for writers with the unique creative freedom and instantaneous global reach provided by Netflix’s singular sense of innovation. The future of Shondaland at Netflix has limitless possibilities.”
While Grey’s, now entering its 14th season, and its ABC stablemates will not be moving with Rhimes, one wonders what new projects Shondaland will be pitching to the streamer.
In the case of The Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman, the dark content that comprises his comic book back catalogue and the output of his Skybound Entertainment prodco provides a clue of what is likely to come now that he too has agreed an online deal, with Amazon being the beneficiary in this case.
The Walking Dead is one of the biggest shows in the world, giving cable network AMC the kinds of ratings that broadcast networks would once have considered unremarkable. Kirkman is also behind Cinemax’s Outcast and is developing pre-apocalyptic drama Five Year, which is being prepared for multiple territories including Germany, India, Brazil and Italy.
“Robert is a gifted storyteller who shares our passion for elevated genre storytelling that pushes boundaries,” said Sharon Tal Yguado, head of event series at Amazon Studios, which is ramping up its focus on science-fiction, fantasy and horror series. “Robert and the team at Skybound are some of the most innovative and fearless creatives in the business. Together, we plan to explore immersive worlds and bold ideas for Prime Video.”
The digital tractor beam has also managed to pull in major movie talent, with Netflix revealing it had tapped the sought-after Coen Brothers (The Big Lebowski, No Country for Old Men) to produce western anthology series The Ballad of Buster Scruggs – a six-parter starring Tim Blake Nelson that will feature six different frontier tales featuring the eponymous character.
“We are streaming, motherfuckers,” said Joel and Ethan Coen, understatedly, in what was another coup for Netflix in the wake of Disney’s revelation that it would be pulling its movie titles from the SVoD player in 2019.
It’s a stark reality that the some of the biggest names in TV and film will head to Netflix and Amazon due to the promise of being given the freedom to let their creative juices flow. But what is left for the networks they leave behind? AMC will have to make do without the next series from Kirkman, while Matthew Weiner, who spent eight years at the channel with Mad Men, has also set up his next show – The Romanoffs – at Amazon. Cable rival FX, meanwhile, has been tying down its biggest creative assets, among them Noah Hawley (Fargo, Legion) and Donald Glover (Atlanta), for fear of them also moving on.
But it is broadcast networks that will face the biggest challenge. Already trailing in the wake of their subscription-based competitors and unable to place the same bets on niche dramas as their cable and streaming rivals, the onus is on them to unearth new gems each year to keep their advertisers happy.
ABC Studios has been doing some transfer business of its own, reuniting with veteran showrunner Carlton Cuse (Jack Ryan, Bates Motel) who oversaw six seasons of Lost for the Alphanet Network. The hope will be that he can steer some new shows in its direction.
But like smaller football clubs facing off against their bigger rivals, television now has a new ecosystem, and it’s likely networks will have to get used to seeing their best and brightest talents picked off.
The demanding nature of network dramas means they should continue to be the biggest training ground for up-and-coming writing talent as writers rooms grapple with the demands of 22-episode seasons. That’s where the next great storytellers will emerge to take the places of Rhimes et al.
Freddie Highmore takes the lead in ABC’s The Good Doctor, the story of an autistic trainee doctor trying to make his way through a highly competitive teaching hospital.
Executive producers Daniel Dae Kim (Lost, Hawaii Five-0) and David Shore, who wrote the pilot, discuss why they wanted to produce a show about a hero in the age of anti-heroes on the big and small screens.
They also discuss how they adapted the South Korean series on which The Good Doctor is based for a US audience, while Shore – best known as the creator of hit medical series House – explains his decision to return to a hospital setting and how the show will balance procedural and serialised elements.
The Good Doctor is produced by Sony Pictures Television, Shore Z and 3 AD and distributed by Sony.
Described as a romantic thriller, ABC’s Somewhere Between sees a mother given the chance to save her daughter’s life when she is transported back to eight days before her murder.
Speaking to DQ, movie star Paula Patton (Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, Warcraft) discusses the character she plays in her first leading television role and the appeal of starring in a broadcast network drama.
Meanwhile, showrunner Stephen Tolkin reflects on the Korean series that inspired Somewhere Between and talks about how he adapted it for US audiences.
Somewhere Between is produced by ITV Studios America and Canada’s Thunderbird Entertainment and distributed by ITV Studios Global Entertainment.
With TNT’s Will and ABC’s Romeo & Juliet sequel Still Star-Crossed airing this summer, Stephen Arnell looks at William Shakespeare’s record as a drama character in his own right.
From the BBC’s recent The Hollow Crown and Russell T Davies’ Midsummer Night’s Dream (pictured top) to Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing, Michael Fassbender’s Macbeth and Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus, TV or movie adaptations of the William Shakespeare’s work always seem to be in production.
And, of course, spoofs (Gnomeo & Juliet, Hamlet Goes Business, Strange Brew), present-day versions using Shakespeare’s plotlines but ditching the verse (My Kingdom/King Lear and My Own Private Idaho/Henry IV and V) and teen comedies based on his work but similarly verse-free, such as 10 Things I Hate About You (The Taming of The Shrew), Get Over It (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) and She’s The Man (Twelfth Night) have become cottage industries in themselves.
Movie classics Forbidden Planet, West Side Story, Akira Kurosawa’s Ran and The Lion King were not-so-thinly veiled takes on The Tempest, Romeo & Juliet, King Lear and Hamlet respectively.
But recent years have seen a new twist, with Shakespeare the man making increasing appearances as a character on TV and in movies.
This month will see US cable channel TNT debut the ‘young Shakespeare’ series Will, which launches on July 10. Originally intended for the now defunct Pivot, Will is part of TNT’s ongoing transformational drama drive, led by ex-Fox boss Kevin Reilly.
Apparently presenting the feisty iconoclastic ‘rock ’n’ roll’ side of the Bard, the tone of the series looks set to mirror writer and creator Craig Pearce’s previous work as the scribe on fellow Australian Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge! and The Great Gatsby.
Echoing these movies and other period dramas such as Peaky Blinders, Will boasts a contemporary soundtrack, although veteran composer Stephen Warbeck will be handling the score.
Coincidentally, Warbeck was responsible for the score to Shakespeare in Love, as well as the Henry IV section of The Hollow Crown.
Back in January, Pearce was quoted at the TCA Winter Press Tour as saying that his models in the show for the playwriting fraternity of Elizabethan England were rock stars Mick Jagger and David Bowie, adding: “Theatre back then was like punk rock.”
The show boasts an excellent pedigree behind the camera, with the renowned Shekhar Kapur both directing and executive-producing Will. Having helmed both Elizabeth (1998) and its sequel The Golden Age (2007), Kapur obviously has a feel for the era.
To some, Kapur’s statement that: “If today Shakespeare was around he would’ve been a rapper on the streets,” may ring alarm bells for those who prefer their historical drama straighter than the likes of Reign (The CW) and Casanova (BBC3).
Looking at the acting talent on display, Will has balanced the casting of the largely unknown young British stage actor Laurie Davidson as the lead with a strong supporting company grounded in period drama.
This includes Colm Meany (Hell on Wheels), Ewan Bremner (T2 Trainspotting, Elizabeth I) and Jamie Campbell Bower (Anonymous, Camelot) as Shakespeare’s rival playwright Christopher Marlowe.
ABC’s Still Star-Crossed, the ‘sequel’ to Romeo & Juliet based on the popular Melinda Taub novel, made its debut in May. Produced by one-woman production powerhouse Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, How to Get Away With Murder), the show’s Brit-skewed cast includes relative newcomers Lashana Lynch (Death in Paradise) and Wade Briggs (Please Like Me), together with old hands Anthony Head (Buffy The Vampire Slayer) and Grant Bowler (Ugly Betty).
The role of Count Paris falls to doublet and hose go-to guy Torrance Coombs, familiar to viewers as Thomas Culpepper in The Tudors (Showtime) and as Sebastian (Bash) in Reign (The CW). Reviews have been mixed, whilst audiences have declined from a soft 2.29 million launch, necessitating a schedule move from Monday to Saturday, typically the sign of imminent cancellation.
Variety commented: “While there’s pageantry aplenty, the dialogue is littered with too many lumpy Shakespeare-lite lines and some jarring uses of slang.” The Los Angeles Times wasn’t any kinder: “Parting with Still Star-Crossed after one episode isn’t likely to bring sweet sorrow, but rather the relief of a tragedy averted.”
Shakespeare has featured as a character in a fair few movies over the years, including Roland Emmerich’s Was Shakespeare a Fraud?, drama Anonymous (2011) and the Oscar-winning Shakespeare in Love (1998), the popularity of which tempted the French to try their hand with less success in 2007 with the similar Moliere.
On television, Shakespeare is currently the subject of Ben Elton’s sitcom Upstart Crow (BBC2), a show which has gone some way to restoring the writer’s reputation, harking back to his fondly remembered Blackadder – interestingly, the millennium special Blackadder Back & Forth featured Colin Firth as The Bard of Avon. And, of course, the period-drama-friendly Firth played Lord Wessex in the aforementioned Shakespeare in Love.
Recent comedy shows that have featured the playwright as a character include Comedy Central’s Drunk History (where he was played by John Cho) and The History Channel’s Great Minds with Dan Harmon, where in a bar conversation Shakespeare (Thomas Middleditch) praises the reviled De Niro/Efron comedy Dirty Grandpa at the expense of Harmon’s own Community.
In April 2016, Tom Stourton (Loaded) played Shakespeare in the popular BBC children’s history sketch series Horrible Histories. Prior to this, the Horrible Histories team were behind the little-seen 2015 comedy movie Bill, with Mathew Baynton (You Me & The Apocalypse) as the titular character, together with support turns from Damien Lewis (Billions) and Helen McCory (Peaky Blinders).
Shakespeare has also featured as a character in the long-running sci-fi series Dr Who, notably in 2007’s The Shakespeare Code, an episode that spoofed The Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown and the Back to the Future and Harry Potter movies.
The episode sees the Doctor suggesting some of the playwright’s most famous lines, including “All the world’s a stage” and “The play’s the thing” – which, to some, consciously mirrors Back to the Future’s controversial scene where Marty McFly’s guitar riffs ‘inspire’ a young Chuck Berry.
One has to go back to 1978 for the last fully fledged series with the Bard as the main character, ITV’s Will Shakespeare, a six-part series starring Tim Curry (The Rocky Horror Picture Show, It) in the lead role and Ian McShane (American Gods, Deadwood) as his peer ‘Kit’ Marlowe.
Writer John Mortimer (A Voyage Around My Father) based each episode on the creation of a particular play, with Shakespeare often introducing autobiographical details, such as ‘The Dark Lady’ and a supposedly homoerotic relationship with the Earl of Southampton (played by Nicholas Clay).
Possessing the handsome production values typical of Lew Grade’s ATV (Jesus of Nazareth, Moses the Lawgiver), the series may gain a second life if Will proves a hit.
True-life stories of the famous and infamous continue to win commissions in Australia – but for how long? DQ investigates.
Australian TV dramas inspired by real people, living and dead, have been consistently popular with audiences over the past four or five years – but is that boom about to bust?
Although four biographically based miniseries are in the can or due to go into production this year, and another has already gone to air, some producers and broadcasters believe the cycle is exhausting itself. Others still see plenty of potential for the genre.
“The biopic genre is tired and the subject matter is running thin,” says Endemol Shine Australia (ESA) CEO Mark Fennessy, whose firm produced the top-rating minis Never Tear Us Apart: The Untold Story of INXS, Catching Milat and Peter Allen: Not the Boy Next Door for the Seven Network and Brock for Network Ten.
“In recent times we’ve seen a definite trend towards more contemporary subjects where the primary audience has an emotional connection – often to their younger days,” Fennessy continues. “As often happens in Australia, everyone quickly jumps on the bandwagon and so it’s largely eating itself now.”
Australia’s Nine Network has ridden the true-life wave with CJZ’s House of Hancock, Southern Star Entertainment’s Howzat: Kerry Packer’s War and, less successfully, the FremantleMedia Australia (FMA) telepic Schapelle, about the conviction of Schapelle Coby for drug trafficking – which came off second best against the INXS mini. Later this year Nine will launch CJZ’s House of Bond, the rags-to-riches-to-rags tale of the late Alan Bond, the flamboyant English immigrant who helped engineer Australia’s famous America’s Cup yacht race victory, bought the Nine network from Kerry Packer and was later declared bankrupt, convicted of fraud
“The challenge with biopics is to find a subject matter with broad audience appeal, a riveting story and contemporary relevance,” says Andy Ryan, Nine’s co-head of drama. “But there is definitely a limit to the genre.”
CJZ MD Nick Murray contends shows such as House of Bond go much further than linear biopics. “It’s the rise and fall of the house of Bond – the influence of both wives, the business advisors and Bond’s ability to talk or con people and banks into doing what he wanted. What on earth motivated them all?” he says.
Ryan concurs: “House of Bond is very much like the man himself – colourful, outrageous and always entertaining. Bond’s life was a roller coaster of excitement and emotion, and we think we’ve captured that in the drama.”
Rebecca Heap, head of programming and digital at Australian pubcaster the ABC, sees a bright future for drama based on real people: “Audiences love Australian stories, and bios have the ability to capture our imagination on two levels – telling the story of the subject and the story of our society at that point in time. There will continue to be room for well-written and well-executed stories about extraordinary Australians, both famous and infamous.”
The ABC has commissioned The Easybeats from Sony-owned Playmaker Media, the saga of five young immigrants who met in a Sydney migrant hostel in 1964 and went on to create Australia’s first truly international rock group. On paper, the project may have seemed more suited to a commercial network, but Heap says: “The Easybeats is a great Australian success story with a killer soundtrack. What’s not to love? It maps the beginning of a new Australian identity, one that places us on the world music stage and celebrates the role of diversity in getting us there, making it a perfect fit for
FMA director of drama Jo Porter says: “We are in the midst of a cycle of biopics that reflects the appetite of audiences to celebrate significant individuals who have helped define how Australians feel about themselves both locally and globally. We would consider another biopic; the challenge is they need to also have international audience resonance to get the support of distribution.”
Porter oversaw the production of Hoges (pictured top), the saga of Paul Hogan, the former Sydney Harbour Bridge worker who found fame and fortune as the host of his own TV show and as the creator and star of the Crocodile Dundee movies. The two-parter, which featured Josh Lawson as Hogan, Ryan Corr as his manager/on-air sidekick John ‘Strop’ Cornell and Justine Clarke as Noelene Hogan, screened on Seven in February, winning its 21.00 and 20.30 timeslots, each drawing a consolidated audience of 1.5 million – but the broadcaster was hoping for more. “I don’t put the numbers in the fail category, more the underwhelming category. You can’t win them all,” says Angus Ross, Seven’s director of network programming.
Distributor FremantleMedia International is an investor in Hoges and will sell the project internationally. Porter says: “We’re so pleased international buyers who loved our larrikin hero in Crocodile Dundee will have the chance to see the story behind the man.”
Perhaps reflecting a limited pool of subjects, Nine originally intended to commission minis on Hogan (from ESA) and Olivia Newton-John (Screentime), but Seven got in first on both occasions.
Seven’s Newton-John drama is produced by FMA and directed by Shawn Seet. It stars Delta Goodrem as the actor and singer who blazed a trail in Hollywood as the star of Grease and Xanadu, recording five number-one hits and winning four Grammy Awards.
“We are delighted with the strength of Shawn Seet’s creative vision and realisation of this story. It’s fantastic to celebrate a female Australian legend,” says Porter.
Seven has also commissioned Banijay-owned Screentime to produce Warnie, which will explore the paradox of former champion cricketer Shane Warne, widely regarded as the most admired, criticised and publicised Australian sportsman of the modern era.
Matt Ford (creator of Playmaker Media’s ABC drama Hiding) is writing the scripts and Kerrie Mainwaring will produce with investment from Screen Australia and Film Victoria.
“Warnie’s story is not only the story of one of the world’s greatest cricketers but his off-field antics have kept tabloids in business for years. He is so compelling on and off the field, you can’t look away,” Ross says.
In a similar vein, true-crime dramas have long been reliable ratings performers, most notably Screentime’s Underbelly franchise, which started on Nine in 2008. The latest iteration, Underbelly Files: Chopper, will tell the story of Mark ‘Chopper’ Read, one of Australia’s most notorious gangsters. Read, whose exploits were dramatised in the 2000 Australian movie Chopper, starring Eric Bana, died from liver cancer in 2013, aged 58.
ESA, meanwhile, has produced Blue Murder: Killer Cop, which stars Richard Roxburgh as notorious former detective Roger Rogerson, now serving a life sentence for the murder of a drug dealer. A sequel to Blue Murder, which aired on the ABC in 1995, it will premiere on Seven this autumn.
Toni Collette, Matt Nable, Dan Wyllie, Emma Booth, Justin Smith, Damian Walshe-Howling, Steve Le Marquand, Aaron Pedersen and Aaron Jeffery co-star in the show. It has been directed by Michael Jenkins and executive produced by John Edwards, who collaborated on the original series.
Ross says: “The powerful performances will give a no-holds-barred look at the downfall of Roger Rogerson. It is not for the faint-hearted.”
Opinions are divided over whether producers need the co-operation of their subjects – an issue that flared when billionaire Gina Rinehart sued Nine and CJZ, claiming the 2015 drama House of Hancock defamed her.
The programme focused on the feud between the late Lang Hancock (played by Sam Neill), his wife Rose Lacson (Peta Sergeant) and his daughter Gina (Mandy McElhinney).
The case was settled out of court in February, with Nine agreeing not to rebroadcast or stream the show and the broadcaster and producers publicly apologising to Rinehart and her family for any hurt or offence caused by the broadcast and its promotion.
Despite that, Murray says: “Personally, I think these stories are told better without the co-operation of the subjects. Imagine how different House of Hancock would have been if Gina Rinehart had script approval.”
CJZ head of drama Paul Bennett adds: “We do a huge amount of research on these productions and talk to as many people as we can, including the subjects if they are open to it. However, it is not essential at all to have their co-operation; in fact, having them on board has the potential to skew the process, as it can tend to make the piece more of a love letter to the subject rather than a more honest and probing investigation of their lives and what makes them tick.”
Newton-John was supportive of FMA’s mini, while Hoges’ producers obtained permission from Hogan and Cornell to recreate scenes from their TV shows and films. Both savvy businessmen, they own all rights to their content.
ESA’s Fennessy says: “If the subject is still living, it’s absolutely preferable to have their endorsement and support. If the subject is deceased, it’s just as important to have such from immediate family or the estate.”
While subjects who are internationally known are an advantage for producers in securing international distribution, this isn’t critical to the funding process. According to Ross, having a name who can help offshore sales is a bonus but that does not make or break the viability of a project, based on the current funding model.
However, Endemol Shine International CEO Cathy Payne notes that bios’ international potential hinges on their relevance to international audiences.
Crime sagas such as Catching Milat often travel more successfully than generic stories, she says, while Peter Allen: Not the Boy Next Door struggled because Allen is not widely known outside Australia, despite his 1981 Academy Award for the theme song to the movie Arthur, his brief marriage to Liza Minnelli and the Broadway hit The Boy from Oz, which starred Hugh Jackman.
While biopics have the potential to be big hits at home and abroad, finding a star name or story worthy of the television treatment is the key to success – but the reliance on public awareness or curiosity over the topic may also prove to be the limitation for the genre.
US star Kiefer Sutherland reveals why he elected to play the president in US drama Designated Survivor and what he learned from working on 24.
Best known for saving the day – and quite often the US president – in action drama 24, Kiefer Sutherland still finds himself spending plenty of time in the Oval Office.
Only now he plays the president as the star of ABC drama Designated Survivor. The political series sees Sutherland’s Tom Kirkman, the US secretary of housing and urban development, rapidly promoted to become the leader of the free world after an explosion during the State of the Union address claims the lives of the incumbent and all other members of the US cabinet.
The drama, from creator David Guggenheim and producer Mark Gordon, debuted last September to more than 10 million viewers and a week later, it was handed a full season order of 22 episodes for the 2016/17 season.
It also airs on CTV in Canada and around the world on Netflix following deals with distributor Entertainment One (eOne).
Sutherland has built his career across television and film, with big-screen credits including Stand By Me, The Lost Boys, A Few Good Men and A Time to Kill. So when he gave a keynote address at television industry event Mipcom, DQ was in the audience to hear more from the London-born Canadian actor.
Sutherland hadn’t planned on joining another network drama…
My experience on 24 was the greatest experience I’ve had as an actor. Having done a lot of smaller movies that no one ever saw, I remembered it was nice to have people watch what you do and enjoy it. So I was so grateful for that. Having said that, it was nine years, anywhere between 12 and 15 hours a day, five days a week, 10 months a year – it’s a lot of work, so when I did 24 I wasn’t aware of any of that.
When I agreed to do Designated Survivor, I was completely aware of that. So it was a big decision and when I first got the script, it was sent to me by Mark Gordon. We’ve been friends for 20 years and I was doing a film with Michelle Pfeiffer, a very small picture. I was getting into some music things, and taking on the responsibility of a television show was not in the forefront of my mind.
But his attitude changed when he read the pilot script…
I was going to give it what I call a cursory read – I was going to read it really quickly to gain enough information about the script to explain to Mark why I couldn’t do it. And I got to about page 25 and I went, “Fuck.” I knew I was potentially holding what I was going to be doing for 10 years if I was lucky, and I went back and re-read it. But the opposite thing happened – I got to the end almost praying it stayed as good as it was and David Guggenheim really wrote a script that spoke to me.
The actor could see similarities between Jack Bauer and Tom Kirkman…
It wasn’t until I actually started performing the character that I realised there was a real similarity to Jack Bauer I had not anticipated. Their skill set is very different. President Tom Kirkman probably doesn’t know how to load a gun, let alone shoot it. But the fact is both characters have a desire to serve and both characters are willing to take on a fight they know they can’t possibly win. That through line in both characters is something I obviously really relate to. I would like to aspire to be one of those people. It ended up being something that I knew if I chose not to do it for a lot of very reasonable reasons, I would really regret it. I do not regret the decision [to sign up] for a second.
Tom Kirkman was inspired by Franklin D Roosevelt, because Abraham Lincoln “would have been too obvious…”
One of the nice things about the character is he’s not even elected, he’s not even an elected member of the cabinet. He’s an architect who had very specific ideas about urban planning and affordable housing across the country and that’s how he became part of the cabinet. So he had no political aspirations. What is nice about this character is he can approach the country’s issues, domestic and abroad, with common sense and a sense of fairness and what he thinks is right or wrong, as opposed to a political agenda that’s been dictated by three years of campaigning. That is a really fresh point of view. Common sense is the foundation of the character, and when he becomes more political, that’s when he starts to make mistakes and that will be a constant thread in the character throughout the whole show.
As an exec producer of Designated Survivor, he sees himself as the show’s ambassador…
I was an exec producer on 24 as well and Joel Surnow [the creator of 24] taught me something: the writers had all the offices on the second floor of the stage where we shot, we never went up there and they never came down. As I’m experiencing on this show, that was very unique. I once asked Joel, “Why don’t you ever come down?” He said it was because he hired the people he wanted to do what they’re doing and he didn’t have to oversee everything because he hired the people that he really wanted to do it. It’s a really valuable lesson. Mark is the producer of this show; I work as an ambassador because of the amount of actors we do have coming in and out of the show. I try to make sure they’re comfortable if they’re having a problem with part of the script, I’ll try to work it out with them or direct them to who else to talk to. That’s really my role. I’m certainly not sitting in budget meetings or things like that.
The biggest problem on 24 was also the ‘star’ of the show…
When I first read this script [for Designated Survivor], as much as I was moved by the characters, I had learned a lot from 24 about what would potentially make the show great and what would not. 24’s real -ime aspect, which was in my opinion the real star of the show, was also a problem. We would paint ourselves into a corner in the storyline and it was almost every year, right around episode 14 or 15 and we’d have to do something wonky to get around it, but we’d make up for it in the last eight episodes. It was something we really had difficulty every year navigating and I think Howard Gordon would be the first to acknowledge that.
But Designated Survivor was designed to avoid those same challenges…
It was designed to never get caught in that position. This show works on three different prongs. So you have a terrorist attack and an FBI investigation into who did this attack and what would be the appropriate response – that’s the thriller aspect of the show. Then you have a family drama, of what happens to a family that is split up, or is moved into the White House overnight. What does that do to the dynamic of his marriage, how does it affect how he interacts and behaves with his children? That’s its own storyline. And there’s the political aspect – how do you stabilise the country after having its entire government wiped out? How do you rebuild the government and shore up the country on an international level?
Those are all things we’ll be dealing with throughout this first season. If at one point the political storyline is having difficulty, then all of a sudden the show can shift back to being a family drama for two episodes and giving a reason for the political thing to take over. It’s the same with the investigation. So the fact that three storylines are living within the show, all at the same time, gives the writers incredible flexibility to also react to what the audience is enjoying about the show. For those reasons, the show has a flexibility that I think is stronger than anything I’ve been a part of so far.
Sutherland wasn’t sure he wanted to do television before 24 changed his mind…
When I took 24, I wasn’t very clear on how it all worked. I remember thinking I didn’t really want to do a television show – and of course it ended up becoming the greatest experience I’ve had as an actor. I seem to land in certain situations. If I manage to get out of my own way, things can work out and 24 was the great lesson for that for me.
He now believes the small screen is the most exciting medium in entertainment…
When I started working, there were five studios in the US and all five studios were making 50 to 60 movies a year. Now there are barely three studios in the US and they’re making about 15 movies a year. And if you’re going to do one of those movies, there’s a pretty good chance you’re going to be wearing tights and a cape! So all of the movies I loved watching when I was a kid – whether it was The Godfather, Lawrence of Arabia, Serpico, The French Connection, Ordinary People, Terms of Endearment – those movies aren’t really getting made the way they were and that drama, that kind of storytelling has been absorbed by television, whether it’s 24, The Sopranos, The Wire, Sex and the City or Game of Thrones. The list is endless and the fact we’ve moved from three channels to four channels to 500 channels, content is king – and for the writers who want to tell real drama, television is where it is at right now.
Showrunner extraordinaire Shonda Rhimes walks back through her career, from her start in films to launching Grey’s Anatomy and bringing through new writers at her production label Shondaland.
With four series currently on air, it’s no wonder Shonda Rhimes is regarded as one of the most powerful women in television.
The showrunner is most famous for Grey’s Anatomy, the ABC medical drama now in its 13th season, while political thriller Scandal, starring Kerry Washington, recently returned to the same network for its sixth outing.
Through her production company Shondaland, Rhimes (pictured above) is also an executive producer on other ABC dramas such as How to Get Away With Murder, The Catch and the forthcoming series Still Star-Crossed (working title).
Her other credits include Grey’s spin-off Private Practice, which ran for six seasons to 2013, Gilded Lilys, Off the Map, The Princess Diaries 2 and Britney Spears film Crossroads.
Named Mipcom’s Personality of the Year 2016, Rhimes walks DQ back through her career, from her beginning as a film screenwriter to her current home in television, revealing how she works with actors and what she has learned running her own production company.
There wasn’t a time when she didn’t consider herself a storyteller…
I was always a storyteller. I don’t think there was a time I thought of myself as anything but. I really was making up stories into a tape recorder and trying to get my mum to type them up before I could write myself. That’s sort of how we spent our time as kids, my sister and I.
She started off with aspirations to work in film…
Back then, I got out of film school and, at that point in time, film really was what was happening. Television wasn’t as big. Sitcoms were big – it was the Seinfeld era – but dramas weren’t, so movies really did feel like where it was at. I thought I would write movies, so I started out doing that. I sold spec scripts and things but my first produced project was Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, which starred Halle Berry, for HBO.
But series such as 24 and Buffy the Vampire Slayer demonstrated the possibilities of television…
I started writing teen girl movies – Crossroads and The Princess Diaries 2. I enjoyed it, it was a living and it was great but there wasn’t a lot of character development going on in those movies. Things were more blockbustery. Then I had a baby – I adopted a baby – and I was at home a lot. What you realise when you’re at home that much is there’s a lot of television to be watched, and I started really watching it. I watched an entire season of 24 in 24 hours and I loved it. I thought, ‘Wow, this is where all the character development is happening, this is really interesting.’ I watched three seasons of Buffy in four days – babies never sleep,so you’re always awake and you’re watching. It was genius to me because that’s where you could really develop characters. I remember calling my agent saying I wanted to do TV. He sent me over to ABC Studios, which was then called Touchstone, and I had a meeting. They said, ‘You want to write TV, that sounds great, let’s try it out’ – and we tried it out.
Her first pilot didn’t get made – but her second was Grey’s Anatomy…
The first year I wrote a pilot about war correspondents. I wrote the script and I was really proud of it, it was a really great experience. It didn’t get made because it was about war correspondents and they were having a lot of fun, drinking and having a lot of sex while covering the war. We were at war so that did not feel very appropriate. The next year I remember asking very clearly what [then Disney president] Bob Iger wanted to see. They said he wanted a medical show – so I wrote a medical show about people who were very competitive and had a lot of sex and really enjoyed doing these things while doing surgery, and that was Grey’s Anatomy.
It was a big change going from movie writer to TV showrunner…
It’s a really interesting job. You go from being a movie writer where you’re at home in your pyjamas by yourself and you type one script a year – literally I would spend 300 days doing nothing, 40 days thinking, 15 days writing and one day celebrating the fact I’d written something – to suddenly you have to churn out a script every eight to nine days, you have 300 people working for you and you have to run a writers room and know what you’re doing. It was zero to 3,000 in an instant. And if you’re a very introverted person, if you’ve never held any other TV job before apart from possibly being an assistant, it’s pretty intense, so I learned a lot. I learned pretty much everything you could possibly learn as fast as possible.
Every season of Grey’s Anatomy is treated as a different show…
I always think of the fact that [lead character] Meredith Grey has been on a journey now for 13 seasons. It’s not the same show every year and even though there’s a procedural element every week, it is a character journey. I feel like I’ve been writing a novel for 13 years and Ellen Pompeo, who plays Meredith, and I have been locked together in this very interesting journey for a long time. I try to look at each season as if it’s a completely different show, not as if we’re going to tell the same story we told last season or we’re going to try to repeat the feeling we got the last season. Instead, we question where Meredith is now, how we make that story feel interesting and how we are going to tell it. On Grey’s, I know how each season is going to end. We start with that last episode in mind and try to get there.
Life and death experiences are at the heart of any hospital drama…
On a bad day [in the medical profession], you actually kill someone. That is the point of the job and, on a good day, you save someone’s life. When you have a creative thought in that job, you are inventing a new medical procedure that’s going to change the way someone lives or dies, or breathes or moves. In our job, when I have a creative thought, it just changes the story. So there’s something really visceral about that job that I love. I also loved, especially in the beginning, the cut-throat nature of it for women. There really were about six women out of 20 for every medical class, which is what they say in the pilot. That was interesting to me, to be in a place where you were so overwhelmed by the men in the programme and thought to be less. That’s no longer true – there are a lot more women surgeons now – but at the time, that felt like a fascinating world to enter.
Private Practice was born when ABC wanted a Grey’s spin-off…
Private Practice came along because the president of the network at the time, Steve McPherson, said he wanted a spin-off – and I am nothing if not obliging. I’m a very straight-A student and I thought, ‘Well, OK, let’s make a spin-off.’ I started thinking about it and I really loved the character of Addison, who had come on to be just a guest star and ended up staying. It was something about that character and who she was and what she could be that felt interesting to me, and I wondered how we could make that into a show. What was great about Private Practice was it was very different to Grey’s. Grey’s was about these surgeons and how they felt about their patients. Private Practice was about the moral and ethical dilemmas of medicine, which is very different.
Rhimes initially didn’t want to take the meeting that led to Scandal…
When Scandal came about, I had two shows going at the time. I was exhausted and [Shondaland exec producer] Betsy Beers kept saying there was this woman I should meet – Washington fixer Judy Smith. I kept saying I’m not writing any more shows but that I would see her for 15 minutes. So Judy came in. She’d done everything from representing Monica Lewinsky to getting [Associate Justice of the Supreme Court] Clarence Thomas through his [confirmation] hearings. We sat down and started to talk. About four hours later, I looked up and thought, ‘I’m hungry.’ That’s the only reason I looked up. And I realised there was a show in there – there were hundreds of episodes in what this woman did for a living. It was fascinating. I was stuck because suddenly I had all these stories in my head and that was a show. It took about a year for me to write it and then I went away for four or five days and wrote the script, came back and turned it in. It’s been a lot of fun.
She has a particular role on Shondaland series that aren’t her own…
On How to Get Away With Murder and The Catch, when we’re not in the first season of a show, I haven’t created it and I’m not running it, my job is really just ‘dragon in a cage.’ I’m the dragon that Pete [Nowalk, showrunner] can release on HTGAWM when he feels like he needs some extra power behind him to talk to the studio or the network about something. In the first season of Grey’s, I used to call Mark Gordon, who is our non-writing exec producer, my dragon because he was the most powerful person on our show. So I say to Pete, ‘I’m your dragon.’ It’s the same thing for Allan Heinberg on The Catch, I try to do that for him as well. Creatively I’m there if he needs me but generally these are people who really know what they’re doing.
There’s a contract between Rhimes and her actors…
My contract with all the actors is that they have to say the words as they are written. We’re not going to discuss the text or the words, that’s just the way they are. However, while I’m not going to change the words, I’m also not going to go down to the stage to tell the actors how to say them or interpret them. What I love about that is you then get these performances back that inform whatever’s going to happen next.
The best part about Shondaland is finding new talent…
Stacey McKee, who was an assistant on the Grey’s pilot, is now the head writer. It’s wonderful to have people who you can bring up and give these opportunities to learn how to tell story the way Shondaland tells story, which is really through character and about character. I always say story is best told by determining the worst possible thing that could happen in this moment to the character, then making that happen and getting them out of it. That sort of storytelling you learn really well while working in Shondaland, so we hire our assistants and we know they have the potential to be writers and from there on up. That’s how we promote our writers, that’s how we train them.
Rhimes has trained herself to write anywhere…
I can write anywhere and I trained myself that way, simply because when you have small children and when you travel and when there are so many shows in so many different lots and locations, you really have to figure out a way to write anywhere. So basically my Pavlovian reflex is as long as I have headphones on and music in my ears, I can write wherever I am. I don’t have to be in a specific place, the headphones are what transport me.
But she often acts out her characters as she does so…
There was a time when I didn’t enjoy writing but I really enjoy the process now. I enjoy getting to go sit in the world of the hospital, I enjoy getting to be Meredith Grey for a while. I enjoy getting to be Fitz or Liv or any of those characters. It’s fun. My assistants will tell you I say all the dialogue aloud while I’m writing, very passionately, and I act it all out. I don’t hear it because I’m wearing headphones and there’s music playing, but I do it and Betsy [Beers] makes fun of me. It’s very important to me to make sure it feels alright and acts out well, and I think it’s a little bit of playacting. It’s a lot of fun for me.
Mary Kills People showrunner Tassie Cameron tells Michael Pickard how the Canadian drama strikes a balance between the serious subject at the heart of the story and its lighter, humorous moments.
As befits a drama set in the morally grey world of assisted suicide, the opening minutes of Mary Kills People are a sombre affair.
Mary, played by Hannibal actor Caroline Dhavernas, is administering a fatal dose of drugs to an American football superstar as she helps him to carry out his wish to die, all behind the back of his unsuspecting wife.
Then suddenly, as the doctor and her assistant make their escape, the seemingly dead patient comes back to life, kickstarting a shift in tone as Mary comedically attempts to finish the job before his soon-to-be widow, now returned home, discovers what has happened.
Viewers may not know whether they can, or should, laugh as this opening phase comes to a head, with Mary and Des (Richard Short), her trusted partner-in-crime, ordering Mexican food at a drive-thru just minutes after killing their latest patient.
“I thought the script was so surprising tonally; there were so many turns that weren’t action or investigative turns but were character turns that whipped me around all over the place and surprised me in a way I don’t normally get,” admits showrunner Tassie Cameron. “It will be very interesting to see how people take it.
“My sister [exec producer Amy Cameron] was saying that people at a screening were quite shocked at the opening. They weren’t sure whether they were allowed to laugh or what they were supposed to be doing. Then when they’re ordering fast food and talking passionately but with a sense of humour about what they’re doing, I hope that gets you through that. You have the opening, you’re surprised and then you pick up on what the tone is meant to be.”
The eponymous Mary is Dr Mary Harris, a single mother and ER doctor by day, who also moonlights as an underground angel of death, helping terminally ill people to die on their own terms. But as her secret business booms, her double life becomes increasingly complicated when the police start to close in.
The tone of the series was a huge talking point during the show’s development, but Cameron says there was never an argument about shifting it away from creator Tara Armstrong’s original script.
“What drew us all to the material was the shifting tone, the moments of lightness and levity between these characters,” the showrunner says. “None of us ever set out wanting to make an issue piece [about assisted suicide]. We want to explore the issue, of course, and do it in an organic, thoughtful and respectful way but we were trying to make something that was surprising, entertaining, character-driven and not completely issue-based.
“Certainly Mary has her opinion – she tells us all the way through and she’s our hero – but her reasons for believing in it so passionately are quite complicated. We do explore the other side of the issue and the police are involved, so I hope it’s balanced. We’re not trying to dig in and convert people into thinking assisted suicide is the way to go. We’re just trying to show one person who’s passionate about what she believes and why.”
Setting up Mary as an ER doctor further muddies the moral waters, as she saves lives by day before facilitating the wishes of those who want to die when she’s off-duty.
Mary was always a doctor, Cameron says, before revealing she was put into the emergency room to enhance that very juxtaposition. “It felt realistic,” she says. “Many of the doctors we’ve spoken to who believe in assisted suicide also believe in doing everything they can to save their patients if they want to be saved.
“All the way through we tried to be as accurate as possible. We had a police consultant, spoke with many doctors, spoke with people who specialise with medical ethics and we read a lot. And, of course, the more you talk to people about it, it’s interesting how many people ended up having a direct experience with this topic as we talked about it.”
The six-part series, which debuted on Canada’s Global TV on January 25, carries elements of a mystery thriller, as the police chase down Mary, but also as viewers uncover who Mary is, her story and why she has this duel life. It was a conscious decision by the creative team to slowly reveal her true character over the course of the short run, revealing her to be strong, passionate and a force of nature while at the same time highlighting her flaws as she struggles with life as a single parent.
Cameron attributes much of Mary’s characterisation to actor Dhavernas. “She brought so much to the part,” she says. “She was magnificent. She’s a very self-contained actor and a very subtle actor. As soon as we realised she was available — we’d all seen her on Hannibal and I’d been following her career for years since [Fox’s 2004 comedy-drama] Wonderfalls, which I thought she was terrific in — we put it to her and she was phenomenal to work with.”
Cameron has previously been showrunner on Flashpoint and Rookie Blue, the police procedural that ran for seven years on Global and US network ABC. She’s also recently exec produced Jason Priestley PI drama Private Eyes.
And unlike Rookie Blue, which she co-created, she says she has no problems running a show she didn’t originate, such as Flashpoint and now Mary Kills People.
“I love working with other writers; I learn so much from the process,” she explains. “I have no ego about it having to be my own. I co-wrote the last episode of Mary with Tara and Marsha Green so the only credit I have is the third co-writer. But there’s so many components to showrunning that aren’t just about the writing. I felt that’s where Amy and I were able to be very helpful to Tara and guide her vision, support it and interpret it in all the other myriad of ways that need to be addressed when you’re shooting.”
Cameron describes herself as a very collaborative partner who values everyone’s ideas, whether they come from the writers’ room or the floor of the set. “I feel like for people to do their best work, they need to feel that they can throw out all the bad ideas, and maybe there will be a good idea in there and no one will make fun of them,” she says. “I’m just very hardworking and a perfectionist about the scripts. I believe that a show is made on scripts and casting and those are the most important things.”
She also enjoys working with actors, whether they want to adjust something in the script or talk through a scene with her before they commit to camera. “I love being surprised by actors as well,” she continues. “The script is a guideline. There’s certain words and speeches you want to protect for various reasons but I think it’s a very collaborative form.”
That collaboration on Mary Kills People extended to the all-female creative team, with the exception of producer Norman Denver.
Cameron and her label Cameron Pictures, established with her sister Amy, partnered on Mary Kills People with Entertainment One (eOne), which also distributes the series internationally. Tassie and Amy Cameron both exec produce with Tecca Crosby, eOne’s Tashi Bieler and director Holly Dale, while creator Armstrong is co-exec producer.
“I’d never worked with so many women in so many positions. You would sit around the table at a creative meeting and everyone would be a woman,” Cameron says. “It was a very interesting and exciting experience to work with so many smart women on a project like this. I hope the end result for people on set was a safe, collaborative, supportive environment without a lot of big egos. We were all just collaborating to make it the best we could make it.
“It wasn’t by design, it happened that way. It was very organic, it wasn’t a mission statement. It’s a great time to be a female writer and showrunner. The challenges still lie more in diverse writers and directors. That’s where the work needs to be done. It still needs to be done in terms of gender. I keep seeing studies where a tiny percentage of directors in television in the US are women. It’s very disheartening. So maybe Mary Kills People was an unusual thing.”
An unusual thing, perhaps, both in terms of its development and its storyline, which may not have been considered worthy of transmission had it not been for the drama boom that has given rise to antiheroes and morally challenged characters, both male and female.
“The first aim for the show is to entertain and surprise and to portray an incredibly complicated female character,” Cameron continues. “But certainly I think we were all struck by how moving and how real the death sequences feel throughout the series. There’s a sequence at the end of the second episode I find so moving I can’t stand it. But its undercut with some humour. I think we’re just trying to be honest. Death, and life, are complicated, sad, funny. It’s a mix of tones and I think we’re trying to reflect that.”
One day, Cameron would like to find a genre show like Orphan Black to work on, but for now, she’s already back in production, this time on her next project, Ten Days in the Valley.
Ordered straight-to-series by ABC, the 10-part drama stars Kyra Sedgwick (The Closer) as Jane Sadler, an overworked television producer and single mother in the middle of a fractious separation. When her young daughter goes missing in the middle of the night, Jane’s world – and her controversial police series – implodes. Life imitates art: everything’s a mystery, everyone has a secret and no one can be trusted.
Cameron, who is the creator, writer and showrunner, also executive produces with Sedgwick, Jill Littman, David Ellison, Dana Goldberg and Marcy Ross. It is produced by Skydance Television.
“Mary Kills People debuts on Lifetime in the US in April and then Ten Days is premiering [on ABC] in May,” she reveals. “It was a really risky show – I never thought it would get made. It’s about a showrunner and I set out thinking I’m going to feel free to break any rules I’ve made for myself over the last few years of making television. I was just going to have fun and do something different. So I broke the rules of writing about the industry and I’ve got journalists, who everyone says are verboten on television – I just threw in anything I found interesting that people told me I shouldn’t write about. So imagine my surprise when ABC sent it straight to series.
“It’s really fun for me. We’re shooting at Paramount and we’re getting the real crew to sign off being the crew on camera for the show-within-a-show. It’s very meta and mind-boggling a little bit, but it’s fun.
“I don’t know whether more Mary will happen. That depends on how many people watch it, but I’ll get through Ten Days and then come straight home to work on season two of Mary Kills People.”
Australian filmmaker Robert Connolly is bringing his brand of edgy and original content to the small screen with dramas including Barracuda and new series The Warriors.
Earlier this year, prolific Australian producer, director, writer and distributor Robert Connolly directed Barracuda, the saga of a gay 17-year-old Greek/Australian who dreams of winning swimming medals at the Olympics.
Now he is producing The Warriors, an eight-part comedy-drama about another 17-year-old – this time an indigenous lad who is drafted to play for an Australian rules football team in Melbourne. The show, to air in 2017, is being made in collaboration with a 100% indigenous team of writers and directors.
Both projects were commissioned by Aussie public broadcaster ABC, typifying the growing willingness of free-to-air broadcasters to embrace edgy, original and adventurous content.
The Warriors is the first TV venture from Connolly’s feature-film prodco Arenamedia. Likening the show’s tone to HBO’s Entourage, he says: “It’s a mischievous, cheeky comedy-drama that deals with a bunch of young Australian rules football players living in a shared house in the lead-up to the first game of the season.”
Newcomer Gordan Churchill plays Maki, the number-one draft pick who relocates from a remote indigenous community to Melbourne to play the game he loves. The series also introduces Nelson Baker and Ben Knight as mischievous teammates Zane and Scottie, while Reece Milne (Home & Away) plays Doc, the experienced captain tasked with showing the players the ropes.
Tasia Zalar (Wentworth, The Straits) portrays Zane’s sister Ava, who joins the boys to try out for the women’s league; Lisa McCune is the team’s communications manager who fighs a losing battle to keep the boys out of trouble; Vince Colosimo is the coach responsible for getting the lowly team back in contention for the finals; and John Howard plays the club president.
Entertainment One has the Australian and international rights to the series, while funding agencies Screen Australia and Film Victoria are among the investors. “You would think a show about Australian rules football might not have international legs but, with such diverse content screening across cable and online platforms, people are really enjoying finding edgy stuff that is on the fringes, which is exciting,” says Connolly. “They are looking for distinctive programming that can stand out among all the content on these platforms.”
Connolly and writer Tony Briggs (The Sapphires) came up with the concept, which draws on Briggs’ background as a professional sprinter.
ABC director of TV Richard Finlayson credits Sally Riley, the pubcaster’s head of scripted production and former head of indigenous, with backing shows such as The Warriors and Cleverman. The latter was acquired by SundanceTV in the US, which has commissioned a second season of the drama, produced by Australia’s Goalpost Pictures and New Zealand’s Pukeko Pictures. The show melds Aboriginal mythology and a dystopian near-future.
“It would have been difficult to imagine you could mount a production with 100% indigenous talent over the last decade,” Finlayson says. “Programmes like Cleverman and now The Warriors show how far Sally, with the help of many others, has been able to bring the industry. It’s great being able to find those kinds of tropes that contemporary audiences can really relate to. I like the idea of Rob bringing to life the whole canvas of Aussies rules football and the role indigenous players have in that environment.”
With scripts written by Briggs, Jon Bell (Cleverman, The Gods of Wheat Street, Redfern Now) and emerging writer Tracey Rigney, The Warriors is directed by Catriona McKenzie, Adrian Wills, Steven McGregor and Bec Cole. Arenamedia’s Liz Kearney and John Harvey are the producers.
Barracuda, meanwhile, was produced by NBCUniversal’s Matchbox Pictures. It is based on a Christos Tsiolkas novel set in Melbourne in 1996 and follows Danny Kelly (played by newcomer Elias Anton) as he begins a high-school scholarship to pursue his dream of becoming an elite swimmer.
Trained by Hungarian coach Frank Torma (Matt Nable), Danny aims to compete in the school championships but is resented as a “wog” upstart by swimming squad members Martin Taylor (Benjamin Kindon), Wilco (Andrew Creer), Scooter (Rhys Mitchell) and Tsitsas (Joe Clocek).
Victoria Haralabidou and Jeremy Lindsay Taylor play Danny’s supportive parents and Rachel Griffiths is Martin’s snobbish mother Samantha.
The drama turned out to be prescient, with the Australian swimming team underperforming at this summer’s Rio Olympics, winning only three gold, four silver and three bronze medals.
Ten years ago, Connolly surmises, a project like Barracuda probably would have been made as a theatrical feature, but TV is now the natural outlet for such fare. “Middle-ground, well-made drama does not have a home in cinemas anymore,” he says. “If you want to make a feature film now, it either has to be to massive, ambitious and high budget to compete in that world, or smaller, bolder and distinctive cinema.”
Produced by Tony Ayres and Amanda Higgs, Barracuda deals with myriad themes including class, sexuality and the pressure to perform in an elite sport. NBCUniversal International is now launching international sales of the miniseries at Mipcom.
Matchbox Pictures CEO Chris Oliver-Taylor says: “Barracuda has already had significant interest internationally. The story is something many countries can relate to and, with the quality of the writing, acting and of course the direction, we believe Barracuda stands up to any international drama in the market. We expect the series to sell strongly, much like The Slap and our other miniseries Devil’s Playground and Glitch.”
Finlayson continues: “Barracuda is another example of a complicated story about class and race and the sacrifices you make when you dedicate your life to any single cause, through the lens of Olympic swimming. I like the idea of those issues being addressed in a really contemporary and accessible environment. That, to me, is public broadcasting at its best.”
Barracuda was Connolly’s second collaboration with Tsiolkas and his third with Matchbox. He directed The Slap, an adaptation of the author’s novel about the ramifications of a man slapping a child at a party, for the ABC; and Underground: The Julian Assange Story, a telemovie about the WikiLeaks founder starring Alex Williams, Rachel Griffiths and Anthony LaPaglia, for Network Ten.
With Endemol Australia’s Imogen Banks and John Edwards, he also produced the First World War miniseries Gallipoli for Australia’s Nine Network.
Tsiolkas was involved in Barracuda’s script development but trusted screenwriters Blake Ayshford and Belinda Chayko to adapt his novel. “Christos came in early, when we were just working out our initial take on the material,” Ayshford says. “That was very nerve-wracking, but he looked at the board on which we had broken the story into episodes and said, ‘You’ve made me very happy.’ Then he told us to ‘smash it apart,’ so I felt it was OK to take some liberties.”
It was the first time working with Chayko for Ayshford, whose credits include Devil’s Playground, the movie Cut Snake, episodes of kids’ shows Nowhere Boys and Tomorrow, When the War Began and dramas The Code, The Straits and Crownies.
Both took part in a three-month script workshop in Melbourne before shooting started. “Belinda is a very talented and bold writer and we just sort of clicked in how we saw the show and what we thought we’d do,” Ayshford says. “I was always going to write the pilot, so she wrote the ending. We read each other’s work and gave feedback so we were on the same page.
“Tony Ayres and Amanda Higgs kept us all on the same track. That said, we were each given licence to imagine the scripts as we saw fit, while needing to hit certain shared plot beats.”
The writer says Connolly brought enthusiasm, curiosity and highly original visual ideas to the project, plus a real respect for the writing. “Rob also has a real respect for the audience. He told me he wanted to make a show that people actually wanted to watch,” he says. “Not one they felt they had to watch in a dutiful way but that was genuinely popular. I really respected his desire for a wide audience for what is potentially a bruising and confronting subject, and that sets him apart from many other directors in my experience.”
Ayers first worked with Connolly on The Slap, then the Assange telepic. “Rob is really great with inventing stylish ways to tell stories,” he says. “He has a genius for bringing out the best in people. He is very clear about what he thinks. As a director he is a real captain and he has a muscular visual style that works very well for a show like Barracuda. He has great energy and passion and as a distributor he has a genius for marketing.”
After graduating from the producing course at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School in Sydney, Connolly initially pursued a career in live theatre. He produced his first feature – The Boys, a tough drama directed by Rowan Woods – in 1998. Based on a Stephen Sewell stage play, the film starred David Wenham, Toni Collette and Lynette Curran. His first time directing a feature came with 2001’s The Bank, a thriller about corruption in the finance world. This again starred Wenham, along with Anthony LaPaglia and Sibylla Budd.
A political activist, Connolly also directed 2009’s Balibo, which chronicled the investigation of the murder of five Australian journalists and cameramen in East Timor in 1975. This year his distribution company CinemaPlus staged event cinema screenings of Australian director Eva Orner’s documentary Chasing Asylum. The film is a shocking exposé of the mistreatment of asylum seekers in the Australian government’s detention camps on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island and the Republic of Nauru.
Connolly cites Australia’s Peter Weir and Poland’s Krzysztof Kieślowski (primarily for Dekalog, the epic miniseries based on the Ten Commandments) as his two major influences.
He rates Weir’s Gallipoli (1980), which he saw while he was in school, as one of his favourite films, in addition to fellow Weir works The Cars that Ate Paris (1974) and Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975). He also enjoyed the director’s Hollywood forays, Witness (1985) and Fearless (1993).
But Connolly does not strive to be flamboyant, describing his approach as a “forensic examination of aspects of the human condition and how society functions.” While directing the Julian Assange telepic, he learned a lot from Network 10 head of drama Rick Maier on taking a pragmatic approach to capturing a TV audience and dealing with commercial breaks. And unlike some directors who meticulously plan or storyboard each shot, Connolly likes the element of surprise.
“My style has journeyed from a more formal, structured use of the camera in a film like The Bank to attempting to achieve a style where the camera is capturing perceived real events unfolding in front of you rather than constructing them,” he explains. “I have moved away from specific tracking shots and a formal composition to the point where I try to create a dynamic between the camera and what is happening in front of it, as if the camera is capturing something for the first time.
“When I call ‘action’ I hope I have created an environment on the set where I don’t know exactly what’s about to happen. If I am not surprised by what’s happening in front of me, how can I expect the audience to be?”
Ayshford says of Connolly: “I have always liked how Rob makes dramas about the world we actually live in, not ones that ignore the political and social realities of our society. In that way he feels more like a British filmmaker to me, and I love that about his work.
“He wants to make engaging films about real people in real situations. There’s a few I really love: from the danger of The Boys and the outrage of Balibo to the nerd thrills of Underground.”
Seeing an untapped market for Australian children’s films, Connolly directed Paper Planes, which starred Sam Worthington, Ed Oxenbould and Deborah Mailman and was one of the highest grossers of 2015. His next feature will be Blueback, a family film that he’s adapting from Australian author Tim Winton’s eponymous 1997 novella, a fable about a young girl’s passion for saving the Great Barrier Reef and the oceans, and her friendship with a groper fish.
The Hollywood Foreign Press Association has revealed the nominations for its annual Golden Globe film and TV awards – the next edition of which will be held in February 2017.
Some TV shows on the shortlists seem to have become permanent fixtures, notably Game of Thrones, Transparent and Veep. But there will also be stiff competition from a range of excellent new shows.
A key contender in the Best Television Series – Drama category is HBO’s Westworld, which also picked up nominations in two other categories. Created by husband-and-wife team Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, the show has just finished its first season with an average of 1.8 million (same-day viewing). However, the most encouraging thing about the show is that its audience has been rising since episode five, with the finale achieving the show’s best ratings to date (2.2 million). All of which bodes well for the second, which is likely to air in 2018.
Also in the running is Netflix’s royal epic The Crown, which we discussed last week. Written by Peter Morgan, the show is up for Best Television Series – Drama as well as two acting gongs. It’s 10 years since Morgan received an Oscar nomination for The Queen, so perhaps now would be a fitting time for him to win a top award for his royal endeavours. With an IMDb score of 9.0 and superb reviews, it’s another incredibly strong contender.
Arguably the surprise package of the year has been another Netflix show, Stranger Things, which also finished its first season with an IMDb score of 9. Up for awards in two categories (including Best TV Drama), the show follows the disappearance of a young boy at the same time as the appearance of a girl with telekinetic powers.
The show was created by the Duffer Brothers, who featured in this DQ feature on 1980s-inspired TV. Commenting on the Netflix relationship, Ross Duffer said: “They have been incredibly supportive of our vision from the very beginning, and they’ve placed so much trust in us. We also just love Netflix as a platform, because it allows people to watch the show at their own pace. This story is not necessarily intended to be watched over eight weeks. The hope is that people will get hooked and the crescendo will feel even more impactful when it’s watched over a relatively short period of time. We want the audience to feel like they’re watching an epic summer movie.”
The Best TV Drama category is rounded out by the much feted Game of Thrones (David Benioff and DB Weiss) and This Is Us, the only one of the five shows that airs on a free-to-air network in the US (NBC). The latter has been one of the strongest-performing new shows of the 2016/2017 season and is very likely to be renewed for a second season.
It was created by Dan Fogelman, whose credits include Tangled, Cars and Crazy, Stupid, Love. Fogelman also wrote Fox’s new drama Pitch and is waiting to see if that show has done well enough to secure a renewal.
Battling it out for Best Television Limited Series or Motion Picture Made for Television are American Crime, The Dresser, The Night Manager, The Night Of and The People v OJ Simpson: American Crime Story.
ABC’s American Crime, recently commissioned for a third season, is the creation of John Ridley, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of 12 Years a Slave. It is pretty well regarded by critics but is unlikely to come out ahead of some of the other shows in this category.
FX’s American Crime Story: The People v OJ Simpson, winner of five Emmys, is probably the one to beat. Created by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, it has been nominated in three categories at this year’s Globes.
That said, the Golden Globes isn’t shy of choosing outsiders – as it did last year when it gave Mr Robot, Mozart in the Jungle and Wolf Hall the top drama awards. Wolf Hall’s success in this category last year provides encouragement for the British nominees – The Night Manager, written by David Farr based on the John Le Carre novel; and The Dresser, the latest adaptation of Ronald Harwood’s acclaimed 1980 play of the same name (written for screen and adapted by Richard Eyre).
However, both of them will have to go some way to beat HBO’s The Night Of, created by Richard Price and Steven Zaillian. Of course, if The Night Of does win it will owe a debt to the Brits, because it is based on Peter Moffat’s excellent series Criminal Justice (BBC, 2008/2009).
As referenced above, Mozart in the Jungle was the surprise winner of Best Television Series – Musical or Comedy category at last year’s Golden Globes. So it’s hard to predict which show will come out on top this time out. Mozart, created by Alex Timbers, Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman and Paul Weitz, is in the running again, as are Jill Soloway’s Transparent and Armando Iannucci’s Veep, both of which are strong contenders.
This is, however, a category where the Globes could make a positive statement in favour of diversity, with both Atlanta and Black-ish on its shortlist.
Donald Glover’s Atlanta has been a success for FX this year, generating an 8.7 rating on IMDb and bedding in with a respectable 880,000 average audience for season one. ABC’s Black-ish is now in season three and hovers around the five million mark. Created by Kenya Barris, the show has been a solid performer but would be a surprising winner.
The five dramas that received nominations in Best Performance by an Actor in a Television Series – Drama were Mr Robot, Better Call Saul, The Americans, Ray Donovan and Goliath. In other words, a completely different line-up to the overall best drama category. This contrasts with Best Performance by an Actor in a Television Series – Musical or Comedy, where the only divergence from the overall category was a nomination for Graves instead of Veep. This is explained by the fact that the heartbeat of Veep is Julia Louis-Dreyfus, nominated in the actress category. If there’s a conclusion to be drawn out here, it’s that there is generally closer alignment between creator and cast in comedy series.
In terms of shows that have been overlooked this year, the Globes didn’t pay much attention to Fox’s Empire and Netflix’s much-feted Orange is the New Black. The mood also seems to have moved away from Shondaland dramas for the time being.
In fact, viewed from the perspective of writers, it’s been a pretty poor year for women, with Lisa Joy and Jill Soloway the only two high-profile female figures to be involved in the headline categories. It’s a reminder that supporting diversity has many dimensions.
About once a year the media reports that the Chinese government is planning to clamp down on the amount of foreign drama that appears on the country’s TV channels and streaming platforms. But developments in the past few months suggest that this is either inaccurate or isn’t having much of an impact.
This summer, for example, critically acclaimed BBC-AMC series The Night Manager generated an impressive 40 million views on streaming platform Youku Tudou. More recently, we reported Fuji TV’s entry into the China market via a scripted content partnership with Shanghai Media Group. And last week we reported how Sony Pictures Television (SPT)’s on-demand platform Crackle has joined forces with another leading internet TV service, iQIYI, on a three-part Mandarin-language drama.
There’s more activity this week that suggests China is continuing to open up to outside influences. Firstly, in a deal announced at Asia Television Forum in Singapore, China’s Tencent Holdings picked up fashion drama The Collection from BBC Worldwide. Secondly, UK producer/broadcaster ITV revealed that it has formed a partnership with Chinese producer Huace Film & TV that will see the latter remake an ITV scripted show for China. Discussions are still underway as to which show, but the deal is being heralded as a breakthrough by the UK company.
Commenting on the news, Mike Beale, executive VP of global development and formats for ITV Studios, said: “Much like the rest of the world, the demand for drama in Asia continues to grow, and our relationships with some of the world’s best producers and writers positions us perfectly to take advantage of this.”
Elsewhere, Sky1 in the UK and Cinemax in the US have announced that there is to be a new series of action-adventure drama Strike Back. As with previous series, the show will be produced by SPT-owned Left Bank Pictures, but there will be a largely new cast.
Based on a novel by Chris Ryan, Strike Back centres on the activities of Section 20, a secret branch of the UK defence forces that undertakes high-risk missions around the world. The show ran for five seasons until 2015 – a total of 46 episodes. It then had a hiatus, with production of the new series starting in 2017.
The previous series of the show did well on Sky1 and Cinemax and was also sold into markets like Australia, Canada and France. Commenting on the show’s comeback, Adam MacDonald, director of Sky1, said: “We’re thrilled to be working with Cinemax again to deliver more edge-of-your-seat action-adventure. At such an interesting time in global politics, this series delivers a compelling take on world events and the murky world of espionage.”
Executive producer Andy Harries added: “Strike Back is the show that took Left Bank Pictures onto the international stage and we are thrilled to be back with such an exciting cast and a world-class team of writers, directors and producers. With a fan base spread over 150 countries, Strike Back is TV at its very best, where the military comes first. Our new stars have amazing physical skills, which, combined with their training, will make the show rock.”
Leaving aside the long-running success of Homeland on Showtime, Strike Back’s mix of action and espionage is something of a rarity in the international market right now, with broadcasters having moved in the direction of sci-fi, superheroes and fantasy. However, there are a few upcoming titles that suggest the market is shifting back in this direction. These include History Channel’s Navy Seal drama Six and Fox’s reboot of 24. There are also a few new shows coming out of Israel such as False Flag and Fauda, the latter having been picked up globally by Netflix.
In another interesting move, Fox is reported to have given a script commitment to Basket Case, a TV drama based on the 2002 novel by Carl Hiaasen. Although a terrific writer with around 15 novels and five children’s books to his name, Hiaasen’s work has rarely been adapted for film or TV. His 1993 novel Strip Tease was turned into a film in 1996 and his 2002 kids book Hoot received similar treatment in 2006. But other than that, there is little to report.
Basket Case centres on a former hotshot investigative reporter, Jack Tagger, who’s now an obituary writer. It will be adapted by White Collar and Graceland creator Jeff Eastin, and Life in Pieces executive producer Jason Winer. Presumably if it’s a hit we can expect Hiaasen novels to become another regular source of inspiration for the scripted TV trade.
Still in the US, Fox drama Pitch has just come to the end of its first season. The show, which tells the story of the first woman to play for a Major League Baseball team, was well received by critics but delivered pretty poor ratings – 4.23 million at the start falling to 2.89 million at the end of its 10-episode run. This puts it down among the weaker scripted performers on Fox, such as Scream Queens, The Exorcist and the rapidly-fading Rosewood.
With its low ratings, Pitch would be an easy cancellation for Fox. But the fact is that the channel doesn’t have many hits at the moment – with Empire and Lethal Weapon some way ahead of the pack. So it may decide to back a second season of Pitch.
If Pitch is cancelled, there is talk of it moving to another network. Of course, there is always talk of series moving network when they are dropped, but Pitch really does seem like a show that could do a job in a less ferocious competitive scenario. If the show doesn’t survive in any form, then it just goes to prove how hard it is to make dramas that have sports as their backdrop.
Finally, Australian pubcaster ABC and Screen Australia have teamed up again to uncover the next generation of home-grown comedy talent through their Fresh Blood talent initiative.
The first wave of Fresh Blood launched in 2013 with 72 comedy sketches created by 24 teams. Five of those teams were selected to make TV pilots for ABC and two of them were then launched as six-episode half-hour series: Fancy Boy and Wham Bam Thank You Ma’am. A new wave of Fresh Blood sees 20 up-and-coming comedy teams each awarded US$15,000 to produce three sketches. During 2018, four of those teams will be selected to produce a TV comedy pilot.
Mike Cowap, investment manager at Screen Australia, said. “For new comedy writers, performers and directors, Fresh Blood is a launchpad like no other, providing opportunities and exposure that can set up ambitious creators for successful futures.”
Fact trumps fiction in US medical drama Pure Genius, which offers a glimpse into treatments of the future. Michael Pickard discusses the show with writer David Renaud.
From storylines featuring mind-reading technology to using spider silk screws to repair a broken leg, US series Pure Genius might appear more medical fantasy than medical drama.
But as staff writer David Renaud reveals, there’s nothing in the show that’s completely fictitious.
“Everything is real, everything is based on reality,” he says of the CBS drama, which began its first 13-episode season in October. “There’s this weird perception that it isn’t but it doesn’t take much Google searching to find out most of this stuff is happening. When [showrunner] Jason Katims convened the writers’ room, he did not want to make a science fiction show. He wanted to make an aspirational medical show and that’s been the directive we’ve tried to follow as we explore the technology and medicine behind a lot of the cases in the show.”
Set at futuristic hospital Bunker Hill, the story centres on young Silicon Valley tech billionaire James Bell (played by Augustus Prew) who builds the ultimate cutting-edge hospital that treats only the rarest medical mysteries. Lending credibility to this new venture is Dr Walter Wallace (Dermot Mulroney), a maverick surgeon who’s the first to discover that his boss’s mission is to take the bureaucracy out of medicine, use the most forward thinking technology practitioners and just save lives – including his own.
The cast also features Odette Annable, Reshma Shetty, Aaron Jennings, Ward Horton and Brenda Song.
Katims (Parenthood, Friday Night Lights) executive produces with David Semel and Michelle Lee for Universal Television Studios and CBS Television Studios. Distribution is handled by NBCUniversal International Distribution, with Universal Channel picking up the show in the UK.
Renaud is a family-doctor-turned-TV-writer who left medicine to complete the Disney-ABC Writing Program in 2015/16. His first show was ABC’s Blood & Oil, before he joined the writers’ room of Pure Genius earlier this year.
And it was while reading the pilot script for the show, formerly known as Bunker Hill, that the medical drama stood out to him, particularly due to the similarities he shared with the lead character.
“I had a spinal cord injury when I was in high school and after that injury, I woke up in a hospital room with the doctor telling me I was never going to walk again. So I decided I was going to try to find a cure for paralysis,” Renaud reveals. “The fact I went to med school to find a cure for myself really spoke to me about James Bell. I definitely connected to James’ motivation [to use the hospital to find a cure for his own illness].
“I’m also a huge fan of Parenthood, Friday Night Lights and all of Jason’s work, so any opportunity to work with him, no matter what the show was, I would have snapped up. So it was just lucky he was getting into the medical drama game.”
This isn’t your usual medical drama, however. From the opening scenes of the pilot, it’s clear Bunker Hill is a very special hospital where all manner of technology and techniques are used to save patients’ lives by any means possible. But under Katims’ leadership, characters always come first when it comes to creating storylines for each episode.
“Jason is really a character person and cares about why patients are there and how an illness can impact their life in a positive and negative way,” Renaud says. “We’ll usually start with character stories and bring in a really cool technology, like the liver regeneration. Jason wanted to tell a story about whether two people can come together over a broken relationship and then we needed to find some medical way to tell that story. I found this interesting article about regenerating the livers of alcoholics – so what if the only person that could give someone a liver was an alcoholic? That research is actually being done in Edinburgh; everything on the show is really happening.”
So while everything shown on Pure Genius has its roots in reality, Renaud admits there have been occasions where some stories look further into the future than others.
“In the beginning, Jason would always ask if something was real because he didn’t want anything fake,” he continues. “Then we got to the point where he trusted us! Jason was very particular about everything being rooted in reality. The brain reading in episode one is definitely pushing that technology more than five minutes into the future. They’re doing brain-to-brain communication – that is definitely happening, at a very basic level. It’s a bit of a leap but it’s definitely happening.”
Bringing new medical procedures and techniques to the small screen isn’t just a job for the writers, however, as both production designer Steven Jordan and property master Jeff Johnson are tasked with creating whatever is in the script, with just days to complete the job before each episode starts filming.
“We have a lot of sets built that Steven’s designed but every episode has a new location,” Renaud notes. “There’s also a lot of props and medical technologies we give them and they have a week-and-a-half to turn around, so they read the script and have got to have spider silk screws or a liver to pull out of someone to put into someone else.
“For the props, we’ll usually give them examples of things in reality they can be based on and Jeff will go and put his interpretation on it for the Bunker Hill version. Sometimes there are things we’ve read about in a research paper and there’s no way to tell what something looks like. But then Jason and the director can weigh in on what something looks like. To me, as a young writer, it gets turned around incredibly efficiently and very fast.”
With Pure Genius joining a list of US medical dramas that boasts long-running series such as Grey’s Anatomy and daytime soap General Hospital as well as Code Black, Chicago Med and Mercy Street, among others, the genre continues to find compelling stories to tell against the backdrop of life-and-death situations.
And it’s for that very reason that Renaud believes hospital-set scripted series remain so popular among viewers.
“Not everyone’s been to space like in Battlestar Galactica but everybody has been touched by a health crisis, whether themselves or a family member,” he observes. “So I feel like these stories are relatable, the stakes are high, medical dramas tend to do well when lives get saved and there’s something about the hope that somebody will do everything they can to save your life. There’s a bit of wish fulfilment tucked in there.
“They’re not going anywhere. There will always be medical dramas because these are human stories, and they’re great stories to tell.”