The Austrians are well known on the international market for the quality of their factual programming, but the country has never really made much of an impact in the scripted arena.
Its most high-profile drama export is Kommissar Rex, a police procedural about a German Shepherd dog (Rex) and the humans he works with at Vienna’s homicide unit. The show ran from 1994 to 2004 and was then revived as an Austro-Italian coproduction, with Rex’s activities shifting to Rome.
This week, however, Austria has been making headlines with two scripted shows aired by public broadcaster ORF that have picked up by ABC network in the US. That, surely, is proof that the US networks are now looking everywhere for compelling drama ideas that can be adapted for their domestic market.
The first of the two ideas is a comedy called Braunschlag. Produced by Superfilm, it follows the mayor of a community called Braunschlag who embarks upon a plan to save the town from bankruptcy. In the ORF version the mayor is male, but in ABC’s version the character will be a young woman. In both cases, the protagonist has to deal with all manner of problems, from dysfunctional family relations to meddling from the mafia.
Braunschlag was written by David Schalko, who turned his back on a career in economics to become a writer. After stints as a poet, author, advertising copywriter and music video producer, his TV career really took off in 2002 when he co-created satirical comedy show Sendung Ohne Namen, a finalist at the New York Television Awards and the Rose d’Or Festival.
Schalko’s subsequent credits included Undercover, Sunshine Airlines, Heaven, The Miracle of Vienna, Braggart and Kupetzy, before he went on to pen Braunschlag in 2012. Throughout his career Schalko has never been afraid to use experimental narrative styles – something that doesn’t always chime with critics and audiences. But in the case of Braunschlag he scored a major hit, attracting more than one million viewers on Tuesday nights and securing another Rose d’Or nomination.
Since then he has written an eight-part miniseries for ORF called Old Money (Altes Geld), about greed and corruption among the super rich. The story centres on a rich industrialist who learns he has a liver problem and will die within a year unless he finds an organ donor. Like Braunschlag, Old Money is produced by Superfilm (a company that Schalko co-founded).
The other Austrian success this week is Janus, a crime drama written by Jacob Groll and Sarah Wassermair. Also picked up by ABC, Janus focuses on Dr Leo Benedict, a forensic psychologist who deals with deranged criminals. When Leo looks into a series of mysterious suicides, he stumbles across a shadowy pharmaceutical company called Janus and is shocked when he discovers what is actually behind the suicides.
Prior to this seven-part serial, Groll was best known for his documentary The Sound of Hollywood, while Wassermair’s credits include musicals for children’s theatre. However, the two of them have also been working together on ORF’s popular crime series Soko Donau (aka Vienna Crime Squad). So far they have collaborated on eight episodes, with the ninth soon to air (Heldentod, the first episode of season 11). It’s not clear yet how much they will have to do with the US adaptation of Janus but the deal will certainly bring them a welcome profile boost.
Elsewhere, the big breakthrough of the week belongs to US writer Corinne Brinkerhoff, who is writing and executive producing American Gothic. Produced by Amblin TV for CBS, the show is a murder mystery set in Boston.
Due to air in a slightly softer summer slot, it is about a prominent Boston family that makes “a chilling discovery that links their recently deceased patriarch to a string of murders spanning decades, amid the suspicion that one of them may have been his accomplice.”
Brinkerhoff has consolidated her reputation as a writer on shows such as The Good Wife and Elementary. However, her entry into the business came when she landed a job as a production assistant for David E Kelly.
In an interview with Lara Ehrlich from BU Today (the newspaper of her former university, Boston), she recalls how it started: “I typed up (story ideas for Kelly’s show Boston Legal) every week for a couple of months, with no response. I completely understood – the guy is a titan of the TV industry, and he had his hands full without poring over the half-baked notions of a production assistant. But I was young and eager, and I’d never written a spec script outside of BU classwork, so I took my two favourite ideas and wrote a spec for Boston Legal.
“One day he said, ‘Let’s talk about your ideas.’ He liked two out of probably 40. As luck would have it, they were the same two I’d written into the spec script. I handed him the script and asked if he’d read it. He called me the next day. He said something like: ‘This is good. This should be an episode.’”
After Boston Legal, The Good Wife was a big step up, acting as a bridge to Brinkerhoff’s new role. She added: “I was terrified. I don’t think I spoke for the first three months. I guess they liked my scripts enough to let me stick around. My three years on that show really taught me how to build stories collaboratively in a writers room. There was an emphasis on making choices that subvert expectations and thinking visually instead of just verbally when writing a scene. It was an extremely valuable experience – and lots of fun. We spent 45 hours a week together in a little room, and the other writers became my hilarious, neurotic little second family.”
Another writer in the news this week is Ben Barnz, who has been greenlit by ABC to write House of Moore, a dark comedy set in the fashion world. Similar in tone to The Devil Wears Prada, the show is being set up as a vehicle for actress Felicity Huffman (American Crime, Desperate Housewives), who will also executive produce.
This is the second high-profile TV project to which Barnz has been linked this autumn. In September, he was named as writer/director of Valentina, ABC Family’s planned adaptation of RCTV telenovela My Gorda Bella Valentina. All of this is a significant switch in direction for the scribe, whose credits to date include movies such as Beastly and Cake.