Tag Archives: ABC

Designated showrunner

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.

Keith Eisner

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.”

Designated Survivor finds Kiefer Sutherland’s Tom Kirkman facing a host of new challenges

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.

Sutherland is best known for starring as Jack Bauer in 24

“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.

Keith Eisner has taken inspiration from fellow White House drama The West Wing

“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.”

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Creative arms race

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.

Shondaland’s ABC series include long-running medical drama Grey’s Anatomy

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.

Robert Kirkman

“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.”

Kirkman is best known as the creator of AMC’s The Walking Dead

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.

Noah Hawley

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.

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Doctor in the house

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.

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Going Somewhere

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.

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Will power

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.

Will is coming to TNT in the US next week

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.”

Still Star-Crossed, on ABC, has received lukewarm reviews

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).

Doctor Who’s 2007 episode The Shakespeare Code

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.

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Biopic boom

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.

Mark Fennessy

“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
and imprisoned.

“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.

House of Bond tells the rags-to-riches-to-rags tale of the late Alan Bond

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
the ABC.”

Peter Allen: Not the Boy Next Door centres on the Australian singer-songwriter and entertainer

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.”

Catching Milat focuses on backpacker murderer Ivan Milat

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.

Richard Roxburgh as Roger Rogerson in Blue Murder

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.

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Hello Mr President

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.

Kiefer Sutherland in Cannes for Mipcom 2016

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.

Sutherland as Jack Bauer in long-running drama 24

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 actor alongside Designated Survivor co-star Natascha McElhone

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.

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A stroll through Shondaland

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.

Halle Berry in Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, Rhimes’ first produced project

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.

Medical drama Grey’s Anatomy is now in its 13th season

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.

Grey’s spin-off Private Practice

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.

Scandal emerged from Rhimes’ conversation with Washington fixer Judy Smith

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 acts as the ‘dragon in the cage’ for How to Get Away With Murder

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.

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Something about Mary

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.

Tassie Cameron

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.

Caroline Dhavernas plays ER doctor Mary Harris, who has a secret life

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.

Cameron sees TV drama as a collaborative process that relies on its cast

“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.”

Richard Short plays Mary’s partner-in-crime Des

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.

Cameron was attracted to the script’s many twists and turns

“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.”

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Going against the current

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.”

Robert Connolly (right) with The Warriors co-creator Tony Briggs

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.

From left: Ben Knight, Gordan Churchill, Reece Milne and Nelson Baker in The Warriors

“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.

Robert Connolly talks to Chris Van Ingen on the Barracuda set

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.”

War miniseries Gallipoli, which Connolly produced

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.

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Westworld and The Crown head Golden Globe noms

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.

Westworld’s viewing figures improved as the debut season reached its climax

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 Duffer Brothers’ Stranger Things was one of the hits of the year

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.

Dan Fogelman’s This Is Us

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).

David Farr

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.

Donald Glover

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.

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China opens up to outside influences

The Night Manager brought 40 million views on VoD platform Youku Tudou
The Night Manager brought 40 million views on VoD platform Youku Tudou

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.

Tencent Holdings acquired fashion drama The Collection from BBC Worldwide
Tencent Holdings acquired fashion drama The Collection from BBC Worldwide

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.”

Left Bank Pictures' reboot of Strike Back will feature a largely new cast
Left Bank Pictures’ reboot of Strike Back will feature a largely new cast

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.

Fox is said to have committed to a script based on Basket Case
Fox is said to have committed to a script based on Basket Case

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.

Pitch could perform better on a new network
Pitch could perform better on a new network

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.

Wham Bam Thank You Ma’am
Aussie comedy Wham Bam Thank You Ma’am resulted from a Fresh Blood pitch

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.”

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Medical examiner

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.

David Renaud
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.

pure-genius
Pure Genius has its roots in real and developing medical techniques

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.”

Pure Genius 2
Maverick surgeon Dr Walter Wallace is played by Dermot Mulroney

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.”

PG
Pure Genius is set in the fictitious Bunker Hill hospital

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.”

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Speaking with Conviction

Conviction star Hayley Atwell tells Michael Pickard why she was drawn to the US drama after saying goodbye to Marvel’s Agent Carter.

With a career spanning stage and screen, it is within the Marvel universe that Hayley Atwell has made her name.

Starring as wartime spy Peggy Carter, she first appeared on the big screen in Captain America: The First Avenger and had roles in subsequent films Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Ant-Man and Captain America: Civil War.

More prominently, she made several appearances in Marvel’s Agents of Shield and then took the lead in fellow ABC drama Agent Carter. Running for two seasons between 2015 and this year, it followed Carter as she balanced her life as a secret agent with being a single woman in 1940s America.

But following Agent Carter’s cancellation earlier this year, Atwell can now be found on the small screen in ABC’s new legal drama Conviction (pictured above).

Conviction is halfway through its debut season on ABC
Conviction is halfway through its debut season on ABC

The London-born actor stars as Hayes Morrison, a lawyer and former First Daughter who is blackmailed into heading up a new Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) in exchange for avoiding prison. At the CIU, she and her team investigate suspected wrongful convictions as she attempts to regain the trust of her high-powered family.

The cast also includes Eddie Cahill, Shawn Ashmore, Merrin Dungey, Emily Kinney, Manny Montana and Daniel di Tomasso. Produced by The Mark Gordon Company and ABC Studios, the show’s co-creator/writer Liz Friedman and co-creator/director Liz Friedlander executive produce with Mark Gordon and Nick Pepper.

“You have this backdrop of great tension and drama as any legal procedural would be, but then you put in a character like Hayes – she’s a bit of a Tasmanian devil,” Atwell says of her character.

“She’s a former First Daughter and a brilliant lawyer but it’s almost like she has her finger on a self-destruct button. And I think a life in public scrutiny as the First Daughter, the way that’s manifested itself is quite rebellious. She’s decided to live her life on her own terms and be allowed to make all the mistakes 20-year-olds make but unfortunately we’re a decade on and she’s just stayed at the party a little too long.”

Morrison’s life takes a turn for the worse as she’s arrested for cocaine possession and, facing a spell behind bars, agrees to run the CIU – based on real-life units in operation across the US.

“They’re either going to bury her with this or she comes and works for the CIU,” continues Atwell, whose other TV credits include The Pillars of the Earth, Restless and Black Mirror. “So she’s very resistant at first and we discover throughout the pilot that she’s going to find a way of navigating this new job on her terms. She’s going to fight the system from within. So she has a lot of fun doing that.”

Atwell played the lead in Marvel's Agent Carter for two seasons
Atwell played the lead in Marvel’s Agent Carter for two seasons

Currently halfway through its 13-episode freshman season – episode seven aired in the US on Monday this week – Conviction marks a change of direction for Atwell after Agent Carter and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but one she has happily embraced.

“It was such a fresh and exciting challenge and opportunity [after Agent Carter] and, having spoken to Mark Gordon and Liz Friedlander, specifically about their vision of the show and their vision of who Hayes was, it was just this dream character – someone who is complex and multi-layered and yet you’re still rooting for her,” she reveals.

“The audience has still got to warm to her and want her to succeed and want to be concerned for her and the choices she makes and the mistakes she seems to be repeating and the difficult situation she’s in with her family. There’s a lot of empathy for her, and all of that meant that, for me as an actor, to explore little ways of expressing those different sides of her so it doesn’t just become she’s in this corporate world, this legal world, and she’s doing good. It’s not as straightforward as that because it’s much more relatable and much more human to see someone struggling with a lot of pressures from every aspect of her life.”

Distributor Entertainment One has already sold Conviction to broadcasters around the world, including Sky Living in the UK, TF1 in France and Fox Networks Group Latin America.

And Gordon, best known for producing series including Grey’s Anatomy and Criminal Minds, says it is the conflicted Morrison that gives the drama a particularly interesting premise.

“Procedurals have this stigma and what we were trying very hard to accomplish – and I think we’ve done so with Hayley – was something of a hybrid where we’re interested in her life and the other characters’ lives and, at the same time, we’re solving a case of the week,” he says. “I think the balance is working really nicely.”

Restless
Atwell in miniseries Restless, which aired on BBC1 in 2012

As Atwell recalls, Agent Carter was her first experience working on a show where scripts were still being written as filming began, which gave her little time to analyse scenes in the way she would when treading the boards in London’s West End or on Broadway.

“I found that quite thrilling because it means you just have to instinctively make choices and just commit to them,” she says. “So I feel it’s given me insight into the stamina it takes to keep that going. It means I get to have fun in the moment and that’s quite exciting because it keep you very present as an actor and wanting to play with your co-workers and finding little comic moments or moments that are not necessarily obvious in the script. It keeps you going but it does take a kind of stamina and you’ve got to keep physically fit for it.”

Gordon admits it’s “very, very hard” for Atwell and every lead actor in a network drama as they face long, gruelling hours on set.

“It’s 12- to 14-hour days, every day, five days a week for nine months,” he says. “It’s really tough. And we as producers have to protect the actors, because fast is not necessarily good. We try to do these shows as quickly as we can but, at the same time, to allow Hayley and the cast the time to do their best work.

“A show like this is deceptively tough because although we’re not blowing things up on a regular basis and there are no car chases, what we do have is a large cast and that cast is together a lot. So it takes time to photograph and film multiple angles of all these people. It’s not just shooting here, here and here, it’s across this one to talk to this actor and across Hayley to look at the other actor.

“I’ve been doing this for quite some time and once when I asked why it was taking so long, it was because we had six or seven actors and you’ve got to cover them all when they’re in the room. That just takes time.”

Atwell adds: “It just means you have to be really prepared before you go in, do the homework but also have excellent time management of just knowing how much you have to get through and creating an atmosphere where you can do your best work and not panicking or rushing through something.

“That’s something we’re always playing with really, and half the work is making it efficient but making sure those time limits aren’t compromising the quality of your work.”

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Networks bank on spin-off series

The Big Bang Theory spin-off will focus on Sheldon Cooper
The Big Bang Theory spin-off will focus on Sheldon Cooper’s younger years

In a relatively quiet week on the commissioning front, one of the more interesting stories is that US network CBS is developing a prequel to its hit comedy series The Big Bang Theory.

Now in its 10th season, the Chuck Lorre/Bill Prady-created show continues to attract an audience in excess of 14 million, so it’s no surprise that CBS would want to build on that strength.

According to US reports, Lorre, Prady and showrunner Steve Molaro will oversee the project, which will focus on the younger years of key character Sheldon Cooper. None of The Big Bang Theory cast will be involved in the new sitcom except Jim Parsons, who plays Cooper and will executive produce the spin-off.

Interestingly, rival network ABC has also announced plans for a spin-off from its sitcom The Goldbergs, created by Adam Goldberg. Unlike the CBS project, this will be a sequel as opposed to a prequel. The Goldbergs, now in its fourth season, is set in the 1980s, but the new show will be set in the 1990s. It will star Bryan Callen, who plays a gym teacher in the current series.

The spin-off from The Goldbergs will centre on
The spin-off from The Goldbergs will centre on Bryan Callen’s character Mr Meller

The spin-off trend is not new – think Cheers/Frasier and Friends/Joey. But it fits well alongside the TV industry’s growing reliance on TV-to-movie spin-offs and TV reboots, giving networks a promotional boost from the outset.

And, for the most part, it works well. In the drama procedural arena, for example, we’ve seen franchises like Gotham (ABC), CSI and JAG/NCIS (both CBS) prosper, while Dick Wolf has created an entire world out of Chicago-based dramas for NBC. More recently, there have been examples such as NBC’s The Blacklist: Redemption and CBS’s The Good Fight, the latter an extension of The Good Wife.

US cable network AMC has also got in on the act with Breaking bad spin-off Better Call Saul and The Walking Dead spin-off Fear The Walking Dead – both of which have rated well enough to justify their existence.

There are also reports that Netflix is planning a Daredevil spin-off with The Punisher (based on the Marvel Comics anti-hero), while outside of the US the success of ITV’s Morse prequel Endeavour has encouraged the network to follow up with a Prime Suspect prequel called Tennison (coming soon). In Italy, Rai has also enjoyed decent levels of success with Young Montalbano, a prequel of its hit detective series Inspector Montalbano.

Jon Bernthal as The Punisher in Daredevil
Jon Bernthal as The Punisher in Daredevil

However, as the Friends/Joey example shows, spin-offs aren’t always guaranteed to succeed. And there has been a more recent example of an unsuccessful spin-off in the shape of Ravenswood, which grew out of Freeform’s hit series Pretty Little Liars. But overall there is enough of a hit record for networks to take notice.

There are a couple of reasons why they seem to stick. One is that spin-offs often centre on actor/character combinations that the audience still loves – unlike TV reboots where the audience is being asked to like something that was popular 20 to 30 years ago. Another is that they are generally written by the same team that created the original, so there is a continuation of tone that audiences connect with. Again, expecting a new creative team to run with something that is decades old is not a simple process.

Prequels, of course, require the audience to accept a new actor or actress in the central role. But there is something inherently appealing about seeing the youthful back story of a mature character you’ve grown to love over several seasons. Besides, the time gap from original series to spin-off is usually shorter than the kind of TV reboots we’ve witnessed in the last few years.

Pulling
Pulling is set to be remade in the US

In fact, the hit rate on spin-offs is such that networks would be foolish not to at least consider them. Is there any reason, for example, why ABC would not consider some kind of extension of Modern Family? Imagine a young Phil Dunphy at college – the only downside here being the likelihood of getting anyone to live up to the high standards set by actor Ty Burrell. Or what about a Game of Thrones prequel? It will be a major surprise if HBO lets its biggest franchise go without trying to create a follow-up.

Returning briefly to the subject of comedy, there are also reports this week that NBC is developing a US remake of UK comedy Pulling, which first aired on BBC3. The original show was written by Sharon Horgan and Denis Kelly, who are attached to the US adaptation as exec producers.

Actor/writer Horgan is already well known to the US market having written HBO comedy Divorce, which has Sarah Jessica Parker in the lead role. She was also nominated for a Primetime Emmy for Channel 4 sitcom Catastrophe, alongside Rob Delaney (Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series).

Darren Criss in Glee
Darren Criss in Glee

Also this week, pundits are predicting that ABC’s legal drama Conviction is destined for cancellation. The first season of the show, which stars Hayley Atwell, has been limited to 13 episodes, which doesn’t augur well.

However, this setback doesn’t seem to have reduced US network interest in legal subject matter. CBS, for example, is developing a drama about a US senator who withdraws from office to join his brother’s private-investigation law firm, unearthing the truth in high-profile and top-secret cases.

In other stories this week, Glee star Darren Criss is working with Fox on a new project called Royalties. According to Entertainment Weekly, Royalties is a “workplace comedy detailing the unseen, unsung, and unglamorous heroes behind the pop stars – the producers and songwriters whose day job it is to crank out hits. Sometimes it’s sexy, but most of the time it’s just like every other workplace: day-to-day minutiae, office politics, and clashing personalities. Royalties is about a small publishing company, Royalty Music, and a one-hit wonder who returns to the fold in the hopes of making it big again.”

Fox is also trying to get into the vampire scripted series business. This week it ordered a pilot based on Justin Cronin’s boot trilogy The Passage.

Fauda
Fauda’s second season has been picked up by Netflix

Away from US drama, Netflix has acquired the upcoming second season of Fauda, a hard-hitting Israeli political thriller that follows a unit of the Israeli army working undercover in Palestine. The global SVoD platform has also picked up the show’s first season, which initially aired on cable broadcaster Yes last year.

Following up on last week’s column about Nordic drama, this week has seen UK-based SVoD platform Walter Presents pick up Valkyrien from distributor About Premium Content.

The eight-part series, produced by Tordenfilm for NRK and written by showrunner Erik Richter Strand (Occupied), revolves around an illegal hospital hidden in an Oslo underground station. It tells the story of a physician who fakes his terminally ill wife’s death to secretly keep her alive in an induced coma while he tries to find a cure. To finance his activities, he makes alliances with the criminal world and treats patients who need to stay off the grid.

In the UK, meanwhile, BBC3 has joined forces with actor Idris Elba on a series of short films that will bring established talent together with new writers and actors. Called Five by Five, the project will consist of five standalone five-minute shows that are set in London and question identity and changing perceptions.

Valkyrien
Valkyrien will air on Walter Presents

Elba will appear alongside talent such as Nina Yndis (Peaky Blinders) and Andrei Zayats (The Night Manager) in the shows, which are being produced by Elba’s production company Green Door Pictures and BBC Studios.

The films are written by Cat Jones (Flea, Harlots) and new writers Lee Coan, Namsi Khan, Selina Lim and Nathaniel Price.

“I have spent time with these talented five writers and observed their storylining process,” said Elba. “The scripts are uplifting and incredible, and with this group of young actors now attached to star, BBC3 viewers are in for an absolute blast. I couldn’t be prouder of what they have achieved.”

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Grisham gets the TV treatment

The 1997 Rainmaker movie
The 1997 Rainmaker movie

For decades, John Grisham has written great novels about lawyers. And some of them have been turned into classy movies. The Firm is the most obvious example, but the likes of The Client, The Pelican Brief and Runaway Jury were also entertaining films.

For some reason, however, Grisham’s works have not translated well to television – which is a surprise given that US networks are always on the hunt for series with a legal underpinning. The Client was turned into a TV series in 1995 but only lasted one 20-episode season. Eight years later, The Street Lawyer was piloted but got no further. And in 2011, there was a TV version of The Firm, which imagined the central characters 10 years on from the film. Again, this only lasted one 22-episode season before being pulled.

Now, though, there is to be another attempt to bring Grisham’s magic to the small screen. This time it is the turn of The Rainmaker, a popular novel that was adapted into a 1997 movie by Francis Ford Coppola. The original starred Matt Damon, Danny DeVito, Claire Danes and Mickey Rourke and told the story of a young lawyer who finds himself fighting a court case against a huge law firm that he previously aspired to work for.

Will Smith and Gene Hackman in the Enemy of the State film
Will Smith and Gene Hackman in the Enemy of the State film, which is being adapted by ABC

The Rainmaker is being adapted by Code Black creator/executive producer Michael Seitzman, who will write it with Brett Mahoney. Seitzman said: “I’ve always loved Grisham’s book. One of the things that always struck me about it is that the story has a wonderful character for a TV show – a young lawyer right out of law school, no money, no white-shoe law firm scooping him up, forced to work for a crooked lawyer named Bruiser, representing criminals one minute and chasing ambulances the next. Then he stumbles on a big case against an impossible adversary, with high stakes that are both professional and personal. That just feels like a show I want to watch.”

Another legal drama in the works is Reversible Error, an NBC show from Barbara Curry and Chris Morgan. This one is about a former attorney who is freed from prison after her conviction for murdering her husband is reversed. Now she must find her husband’s real killer, before a vindictive district attorney finds a way to prosecute her again. Curry, who used to work as a federal prosecutor, is writing the project and will executive produce.

Barracuda
Barracuda has been picked up by BBC3

Still in the US, there are reports of another movie-to-TV reboot, with ABC planning a series based on the 1998 feature film Enemy of the State. The show is being produced by ABC Studios and Jerry Bruckheimer, who was also behind the original movie. The new version will focus on an attorney and an FBI agent who try to stop state secrets being exposed. Bruckheimer’s deal with ABC is the first that the veteran producer has signed since the end of his exclusive 15-year relationship with Warner Bros Television.

NBC is also looking at a movie-to-TV adaptation about hackers (a subject that has been in demand since the success of Mr Robot). The project is Sneakers, which started life as a Robert Redford movie back in 1992. There are also reports this week that NBC is talking to Jack Reacher novelist Lee Child about a drama called Last Hope. Child is working with screenwriter Andrew Dettmann on the project, which is about a former military police investigator who seeks justice for people with nowhere else to go.

Guilt
Guilt will not return to Freeform

Fox is also busy, with reports of a new cop show called Kin. This one centres on a Florida law-enforcement family who become the main suspects in the disappearance of a drug cartel leader following a DEA plane crash. Kevin O’Hare will write the project.

And CBS has ordered a 13-part summer series from Alex Kutzman, executive producer on the new Star Trek series. Called Salvation, it centres on an MIT student who discovers that an asteroid is on course to collide with Earth. News of the CBS series comes in the same week that summer dramas BrainDead and American Gothic were cancelled by the network. Also on the cancellation front, Freeform (previously ABC Family) has announced there will not be a second season of Guilt, a thriller set in London about a young American woman accused of killing her roommate. The show, loosely inspired by the Amanda Knox story, rated pretty poorly.

The Young Pope
Jude Law in The Young Pope

In Europe, FremantleMedia-backed production The Young Pope has secured a second series. The show, which was launched to widespread acclaim this year, stars Jude Law as a maverick American-born Pope. The show was set up as an HBO, Sky and Canal+ copro with FremantleMedia International handling sales. FMI secured a sale into the Japanese market at Mipcom last week.

It’s been a busy week on the acquisition front thanks to the recently-ended Mipcom event in Cannes (see this column). One deal completed after our market round-up was BBC3’s acquisition of Australian drama Barracuda from NBCUniversal International Distribution. The four-part series, based on a book by Christos Tsiolkas (The Slap), tells the story of a 16-year-old boy attempting to become an Olympic swimmer.  Sue Deeks, head of programme acquisition at the BBC, said the show “is a compelling, complex and emotional drama – beautifully filmed and performed.”

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US continues love affair with La Plante

Lynda La Plante
Lynda La Plante

Masterpiece, the prestigious drama strand that airs on PBS in the US, has come on board Prime Suspect prequel Tennison as a coproducer alongside ITV Studios and NoHo Film & Television.

The six-part series has been created and written by Lynda La Plante, who also wrote the first episodes of the original Prime Suspect franchise way back in 1991. La Plante’s three-decade association with the ground-breaking Prime Suspect franchise also saw her co-create a US version of the show for NBC in 2011.

La Plante, successful as both a novelist and a screenwriter, has always been known for her ability to create gritty female voices. Until now, most of her hit dramas have been centred on women in contemporary settings. But Tennison sees her most famous creation, Detective Jane Tennison, starting out her career as an ambitious 22-year-old in the 1970s. As such, it’s an opportunity for La Plante to explore what it would have been like for a female officer in an era of chauvinism and rule-bending.

The story begins when Jane is confronted with a brutal murder. Not only does she have to contend with the impact of violent crime, she also has to establish herself in a male-dominated workplace.

Aside from Prime Suspect and Tennison, La Plante’s best-known franchise is probably Widows, which first saw the light of day in 1983, introducing the world to the ferocious Dolly Rawlins. The first series of this story saw four women executing a heist that had been set up by their gangster husbands, presumed dead in a fire. The story continued with a follow-up series in 1985 and a spin-off in 1995 entitled She’s Out – again centring on Rawlins.

Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect
Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect

Like Prime Suspect, Widows was also transformed into a US TV series, in 2002. And, again like Prime Suspect, it continues to be evolved for new audiences. The latest incarnation of Widows is a movie version that is to be directed by Steve McQueen. La Plante is involved in the character development for the film, with the screenplay being written by Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl). Viola Davis (How To Get Away With Murder) is reported to be in the cast. There’s no confirmation yet that she will play the part of Rawlins, but assuming she does it would be an inspired choice.

Another female writer in the news is novelist Rose Tremain, who is developing two of her novels for TV with indie producer Buccaneer Media (Marcella). One of the novels is The Road Home, about a widower who travels from his Eastern European village to London in search of work to support his family back home.

The other is The Gustav Sonata, about a young boy growing up in a Swiss town and his friendship with a talented Jewish pianist.

Tremain is the award-winning author of 14 novels but has never written a TV script. However, she will be writing the teleplay for The Road Home. Despite the clear stylistic differences between novels and screenplays, this is a growing trend as producers look for ways to introduce new voices to the TV ecosystem. It’s one that’s likely to continue following the success novelist Daisy Goodwin has had bringing Victoria to the screen for ITV.

Rose Tremain
Rose Tremain

Production companies tend to control the risk of parachuting novelists into TV by supporting them with executives that are well-versed in the nuances of TV writing. In this case, Buccaneer has brought in Bafta winner Lynn Horsford as an executive producer. Horsford’s glittering film and TV career includes dramas like Any Human Heart, Birdsong, The 7.39 and Boy A.

There was another UK book adaptation story this week, with Big Talk Productions announcing that it’s developing a drama series based on Gordon Stevens’ 2006 book The Originals: The Secret History of the Birth of the SAS. The new series, to be called SAS: The Originals, will be written by James Woods (co-creator of comedy series Rev) and Rupert Walters (Spooks).

Stevens’ book is based on 120 hours of video and audio tape about the formation of the Special Air Service (similar to Delta Force or the Navy SEALs in the US) during the Second World War. It will be supplemented by Wood and Walters’ own research to create a drama about the origins of the world-famous fighting force.

Post-Rev, Woods has also been working on an adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s classic novel Decline and Fall for BBC2. He previously worked with Walters on Ambassadors, a three-part miniseries starring comedian David Mitchell. That show was a Big Talk production for BBC2. It didn’t rate especially well but it did get some fairly positive feedback from TV critics.

Tony Briggs
Tony Briggs

In Australia, meanwhile, ABC has commissioned a comedy-drama series from an all-indigenous team of directors and writers. Warriors is set in the world of Australian Rules Football and tells the story of an 18-year-old indigenous footballer who is drafted to play in the elite Australian Rules Football league.

The series is from Robert Connolly’s production company Arenamedia and will be distributed internationally by Entertainment One. Screen Australia and Film Victoria also helped finance the show.

The series was created by Connolly and Tony Briggs, who is one of the writers. Briggs is well known in Australia as an actor but turned his hand to writing with 2012 movie The Sapphires. That told the story of a talented young Australian aboriginal girl group called up to entertain US troops during the Vietnam war.

The other writers on the show are Jon Bell and Tracey Rigney. Bell’s credits include international hit series Cleverman and The Gods of Wheat Street. Rigney, meanwhile, is a newcomer to TV but not to writing. Having studied creative writing at the University of Melbourne, her first play – Belonging – was staged in Melbourne when she was just 21. She has since written and directed films including Man Real, Abalone and Endangered.

Commenting on why Warriors attracted finance, Penny Smallacombe, head of indigenous at Screen Australia, said: “What attracted us to this project was both the concept of following four mischievous footballers experiencing the highs, lows and often funny situations of life as an elite athlete, and the opportunity for indigenous creatives to partner with highly regarded practitioners and accelerate their career trajectory.”

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Israeli and Icelandic formats crack US

Casey Bloys
HBO’s Casey Bloys

Israel’s Keshet International (KI) looks to have achieved another major breakthrough in the scripted formats sector. After In Treatment, Homeland and The A Word (all based on Keshet formats), it has now teamed up with HBO in the US on a drama about the true-life kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers in 2014.

The 10-episode series is the first project to be produced for HBO by its former boss Michael Lombardo, who has a production deal with the network. The creative team behind the show, which will be filmed in Israel, is headed by Hagai Levi and Noah Stollman.

“HBO has always been a home to me. I’m so thrilled to work with them again, and regroup with my good friends from Keshet,” said Levi, who also created hit series The Affair for Showtime.

HBO president Casey Bloys added: “We’re excited to work with Keshet and this talented and creative group led by Hagai Levi. We look forward to sharing this important story with our subscribers.”

The series centres on the disappearance and subsequent search for the three teenagers amid escalating tension and conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians. It will be distributed internationally by KI. Avi Nir, the head of KI’s parent company Keshet Media Group, said: “We are thrilled to partner with HBO, the ultimate quality TV powerhouse, and to bring together Israel’s finest in TV and film, led by Hagai Levi, Noah Stollman and Joseph Cedar [the director of the as-yet-unnamed series]. We are all ready for the challenging journey on which this extraordinary story will take us.”

Iceland's Réttur is being adapted for NBC
Iceland’s Réttur is being adapted for NBC

Another interesting story on the format front is NBC’s decision to pilot Infamous, a legal drama based on a 2009 Icelandic series called Réttur. The new version is being written/executive produced by Eli Attie (House) and executive produced by the team behind This Is Us (John Requa and Glenn Ficarra).

Infamous centres on a hotshot attorney who is jailed for a murder he doesn’t remember, and believes he didn’t commit. Six years later, he’s released on a technicality and tries to juggle his day job with finding out what actually happened to put him in jail. The original, created by Sigurjón Kjartansson, ran for three seasons.

Still in the US, ABC is piloting a new series called Protect & Serve. The series centres on a city struggling to cope with the unrest that is stirred up when the police shoot an unarmed man. The show was created by Barbie Kligman and Aaron Kaplan, with Kligman and her husband Billy Malone writing the script.

This seems to be a popular theme for US TV drama at the moment, reflecting the number of high-profile incidents in which controversial police shootings have inspired riots and retaliation. Fox, for example, is working on Shots Fired, a drama that explores the aftermath of racially charged shootings in a Tennessee town.

Dynamic Television has taken the rights to Hulu's East Los High
Dynamic Television has taken the rights to Hulu’s East Los High

Also within the ABC family, cable channel Freeform has commissioned a third season of drama series Stitchers. The show hasn’t been a huge hit for Freeform (season two averaged 387,000 per episode) but will provide some stability as Freeform’s top two shows Pretty Little Liars and Switched At Birth move inexorably towards extinction. For those unfamiliar with the show, it focuses on a female hacker who joins a government agency that investigates murders by hacking into the brains of the deceased.

Turning to Europe, UFA Fiction and ZDF began production this week on their new miniseries drama Heaven & Hell – Martin Luther (working title). Marking 500 years since the Reformation, the series tells the story of Martin Luther, the visionary reformer and one of the most important religious figures in history.

Filming commenced in Prague and the surrounding areas and will continue until early December. Executive producers Benjamin Benedict and Joachim Kosack of UFA Fiction said: “The radical perspective on those early days of the Reformation that Heaven & Hell – Martin Luther enables us to portray human inconsistencies, depths and conflicts. This is a story of a group of people alive 500 years ago whose internal convictions led them to forge a new path – one that ultimately changed the world.”

The show is the latest in a line of big-budget coproductions that have tackled pre-20th century European historical subjects. Others include Borgia, Versailles, 1864, Victoria, Maximilian and Marie de Bourgogne, Medici: Masters of Florence and the BBC’s literary adaptations such as Wolf Hall and War & Peace (and the in-development Les Miserables and A Place of Greater Safety) . The new Martin Luther project will be distributed by FremantleMedia International.

Black-ish will air on E4 in the UK
Black-ish will air on E4 in the UK

There has also been a lot of movement in drama acquisition and distribution business this week. Channel 4 in the UK, for example, has acquired the rights to ABC comedy Black-ish for its digital channel E4.

Dynamic Television, meanwhile, has acquired the global rights to Hulu original series East Los High, which tells the story of a group of inner-city high-school students in LA. Dynamic managing partner Daniel March said: “The series is a game-changer that has completely shattered the bar in the genre. This is a high-powered, emotional drama that speaks to the most sought-after youth audience by tackling everyday challenges.”

Also this week, German, UK and French on-demand services have picked up 12-part Norwegian drama Young & Promising from Nevision-owned distributor About Premium Content. The show, which follows a group of aspirational young urban women, will be streamed on ARD/ZDF-owned Funk in Germany, Channel 4’s Walter Presents in the UK and CanalPlay in France.

Laurent Boissel, joint CEO and co-founder at APC, said: “VoD platforms and broadcasters continue to look for quality drama targeted at millennials. With its strong female leads and a tone that resonates with our time, Young & Promising will appeal to this audience.”

Young & Promising has been acquired by German, UK and French on-demand services
Young & Promising has been acquired by German, UK and French on-demand services

Still in the world of streamers, US-based Acorn is partnering the BBC and All3Media International on Close to the Enemy, a Stephen Poliakoff drama set in a bomb-damaged London hotel in the aftermath of the Second World War. The drama, which Poliakoff discussed during last year’s C21 Drama Summit in London, follows an intelligence officer captain whose last task for the Army is to ensure that a captured German scientist starts working for the British RAF on developing the jet engine.

There’s also good news this week for Dori Media Group, which has licensed acclaimed series El Marginal to French pay TV channel Canal+. Nadav Palti, CEO of Dori Media, said: “Canal+ is a premium pay TV channel that provides its subscribers with access to the highest-quality content. The sale of El Marginal is, therefore, a ringing endorsement of the quality of the show.”

The series focuses on the story of Miguel Dimarco, an ex-cop who enters the San Onofre prison under a false identity as a convict. His mission is to infiltrate a gang of prisoners who have organised the kidnapping of a judge’s daughter. Miguel must discover the whereabouts of the girl and set her free. He meets the objective but someone betrays him, leaving him behind bars with no witnesses who know his true identity.

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NBC has strong start with This Is Us

This Is Us
Season one of This Is Us will now comprise 18 episodes

After a promising debut for This Is Us, NBC has given the new drama an additional five episodes, taking the total number of instalments for the first season to 18. The decision was made on the eve of the show’s second episode.

Citing Live+5-day data, NBC said the show’s premiere attracted 14.3 million viewers. It also set records on NBC’s digital platform.

Commenting on the decision to extend the show from its initial 13-episode order, NBC’s Jennifer Salke said: “It’s a rare moment in this business when a show so instantly delivers both critical acclaim and hit ratings, but This Is Us is just such an achievement. Creator Dan Fogelman, along with co-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa and the producers, cast and crew, has delivered the kind of heart and depth that resonates with every segment of the audience and we’re proud to extend it.”

This Is Us is also making waves in the international market, with Channel 4 in the UK picking up the show last week. Jay Hunt, Channel 4’s chief creative officer, said: “This Is Us is unmissably life affirming with a warmth that has drawn critical acclaim and bumper ratings. It’s a great addition to our slate of acquired shows – from Deutschland 83 to Fargo.”

Fogelman’s other new series, Pitch, hasn’t had such a bright start, however. The story of the first-ever female Major League Baseball pitcher, the show was one of Fox’s weaker performers last week, bringing in 4.2 million viewers.

It has had a decent amount of critical approval, which means it will almost certainly complete its initial 13-episode run, but it will need to win over audiences quickly to secure an extended run or second season.

The first episode of CBS's Macgyver reboot picked up almost 11 million viewers
The first episode of CBS’s Macgyver reboot picked up almost 11 million viewers

Among the other new US series to have hit the air, CBS reboot MacGyver has had a strong start, securing an audience of around 10.9 million for its first episode. This is the best performance by a Friday-night scripted series on the network since Hawaii Five-0 in 2014.

With the show’s debut clearly benefiting from in-built name awareness, it will be interesting to see if it manages to hold on to that number through episodes two and three. If it does, it means the revival is an inspired move. If it drops away quickly, it will resemble ABC’s experience with The Muppets last year – namely a strong start followed by rapid loss of audience interest.

The fate of MacGyver may have some influence on whether the big four US networks continue to look at reviving classic series. Others currently in the works are The Rockford Files and LA Law, and success for MacGyver will certainly mean more.

By contrast to MacGyver, ABC’s Notorious has started very badly and looks like a prime candidate for early cancellation. Fox’s reboot of The Exorcist, with 2.9 million viewers, has also started slowly but may find its niche in international distribution because of its name recognition and supernatural subject matter.

Still in the US, FX has revealed that season four of its vampire virus series The Strain will be the last. The Strain’s writer and showrunner  is Carlton Cuse, who is also coming to the end of A&E’s Bates Motel.

The Strain will conclude with its fourth outing
The Strain will conclude with its fourth outing

There had been talk of The Strain operating to a five-season story arc, but four seasons is probably enough to play the concept out. Strong in season one, the pace and direction of the narrative started to falter in season two – something that has been reflected in the ratings.

The downward path of the ratings tells the story. While season one averaged 2.2 million, season two came in at 1.34 million (this season also suffered from an awkward piece of recasting). Now in season three, the show is averaging 1.1 million but the latest episode attracted just 880,000 – the sign of a franchise coming to the end of its life.

Elsewhere, it has been a busy week for Australian drama. On the domestic front, Nine Network has commissioned a second season of Doctor Doctor, a local comedy drama about a formerly high-flying surgeon who is forced to work as a GP in the small country town where he grew up. The series, which sounds similar to DRG’s hit format Doc Martin, was only two episodes into the first season when Nine announced the recommission.

The show’s synopsis says: “When he is knocked off his pedestal and on to the Impaired Registrants Programme, prodigal Sydney surgeon and party boy Hugh Knight must return to his home in rural Whyhope where he might learn to swallow his pride and mend his ways – or not.”

Deep Water has been picked up by Acorn
Deep Water has been picked up by Acorn

Meanwhile, US-based SVoD platform Acorn has acquired two Australian series from distributor DCD Rights. The first is Deep Water, a four-part series inspired by a crime wave targeting gay people in Sydney’s coastal communities in the 1980s and 90s. The show is a Blackfella Films production for SBS Broadcasting Australia, Screen Australia and Screen New South Wales.

Acorn TV has also picked up the second season of political thriller The Code, which is produced by Playmaker Media for Australian public broadcaster ABC. Both series have also been acquired by BBC4 in the UK, a channel that is often used as a barometer of whether a show has international sales potential.

Finally, some desperately sad news this week with the untimely death of Gary Glasberg, executive producer/showrunner of NCIS and creator/executive producer of NCIS: New Orleans. Glasberg, just 50 years old, died suddenly in his sleep on September 28.

A well-liked figure, Glasberg joined NCIS in 2009 and helped confirm its status as one of the biggest drama hits in the world – a huge ratings success in the US and widely distributed internationally.

Gary Glasberg
Gary Glasberg

His previous credits included The Mentalist, Crossing Jordan and Bones.

“Today is an overwhelmingly sad day for NCIS, CBS and anyone who was blessed to spend time with Gary Glasberg,” said CBS president of entertainment Glenn Geller. “We have lost a cherished friend, gifted creative voice, respected leader and, most memorably, someone whose warmth and kindness was felt by all around him. Our heartfelt thoughts and sympathies go out to his wife, Mimi, his two sons and all his family and friends.”

CBS TV Studios president David Stapf added: “He brought kindness, integrity and class to everything he did. His remarkable talent as a writer and producer was only matched by his ability to connect with people.”

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