Tag Archives: Chuck Lorre

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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Amazon boards D83 sequel

Deutschland 86 is set three years after its predecessor (pictured)
Deutschland 86 is set three years after its predecessor (pictured)

There are several reasons why the US scripted content business casts such a shadow over the international drama market.

The first is that the US produces so many great scripted shows. Barely a week goes by without an eye-catching new drama going into production or development. Even now, as dozens of new shows hit the US autumn schedules, it is noticeable that the next wave of scripted projects is already shooting down the pipeline.

Second, viewers around the world love US shows. While dramas from other territories tend to have fairly well-defined regional hot spots, US shows can be found on free TV, pay TV and SVoD almost anywhere. This widespread appeal is reinforced by the availability of so many titles on US-based thematic channels (Fox, AXN and so on).

The third reason is that so many producers around the world still see entry into the US market as the pinnacle of their creative ambition. This is particularly evident in the field of scripted formats, where IP owners’ relentless pursuit of localisation is matched by a voracious appetite for ideas among US channels.

And finally, there’s the fact that the US still dictates so many of the trends in the international scripted market. The rise of Netflix and Amazon, and all of the creative innovations this has brought about, is one example. But so is the shift towards day-and-date windowing – expertly introduced by major US rights owners.

UFA Fiction CEO Nico Hofmann
UFA Fiction CEO Nico Hofmann

Having said all this, Mipcom (which began yesterday in Cannes and runs until Thursday) is one point in the calendar where US shows have to fight for exposure alongside titles from around the world.

For example, one of the biggest stories of the week so far is that UFA Fiction and Amazon are joining forces to create a sequel to German-language series Deutschland 83 (D83). Called Deutschland 86, the new show will premiere exclusively on Amazon Prime Video in Germany in 2018. In addition, all episodes of D83 are available for streaming for Prime members in Germany and Austria.

As with the first series, Sundance in the US is a coproduction partner and FremantleMedia International handles international sales. RTL, the German broadcaster that commissioned D83, has acquired free TV rights to D86.

Created by Anna Winger (head writer) and Jörg Winger, D86 returns three years after D83, in 1986, and picks up the story of East German Agent Martin Rauch. Martin has been banished to Africa until he is recruited to fight for the last gasp of Communism abroad.

Set against the backdrop of real events during the last Summer of Anxiety, when terrorism raged across Western Europe, Martin’s mission takes him to Johannesburg, Tripoli, Paris, West Berlin and finally back to East Berlin, where he is forced to face new realities at home – and to make an impossible decision

Nico Hofmann, co-CEO of UFA, said: “With this latest collaboration between Amazon, RTL Television, FremantleMedia International and UFA, a long-awaited wish comes true. This deal is a milestone in coproduction history. It will be resetting standards for the upcoming years.”

Tangled Sisters is among the Indian shows acquired by Eccho Rights
Tangled Sisters is among the Indian shows acquired by Eccho Rights

Dr Christoph Schneider, MD of Amazon Prime Video Germany, added: “After the Amazon Original You Are Wanted with Matthias Schweighöfer and Michael Bully Herbig’s Bullyparade – Der Film, Deutschland 86 is the latest German-made production that will be available exclusively on Prime Video. German series and movies are important for our Prime members and we are happy to build on our engagement with German production industry and bring new shows to our customers.”

In another interesting new development, Sweden-based distributor Eccho Rights has picked up three drama scripts from Indian broadcaster Star for the global market. The titles involved are Vera (Ek Veer Ki Ardaas… Veera), Tangled Sisters (Ek Hazaaron Mein Meri Behena) and Unexpected Love (Diya Aur Baati Hum).

The deal is significant because Eccho has made a name for itself selling Turkish scripted formats to the international market. If it has anything like the same success with Indian titles, it will represent a major breakthrough in the global drama business. The titles are also interesting because they have so many episodes – meaning there is a lot of content for buyers to work with.

Nixon Yau Lim, head of Asia Pacific at Eccho Rights, commented: “The globalisation of drama is developing at a very interesting speed and one focus of Eccho Rights is to expand our partnership with producers to manage their script assets in new markets.”

Martin Clunes in Doc Martin
Martin Clunes in Doc Martin

Also of interest this week is the news that Sony Pictures Television has licensed three drama formats to Russian broadcasters, two of which are from the UK. The first is a local version of UK drama Doc Martin called Doctor Martov, which will air on Channel 1. The show is being produced by Lean-M Productions, which will also produce local versions of Mad Dogs and The Good Wife for NTV.

Away from Mipcom, UK broadcaster ITV announced a slate of news dramas this week, the first commissions by its new head of drama Polly Hill. The titles are Trauma by Mike Bartlett, Girlfriends by Kay Mellor, White Dragon by Mark Denton and Jonny Stockwood, and Next of Kin by Paul Rutman and Natasha Narayan.

Hill said: “All four are authored contemporary pieces, from wonderful writers who have a compelling story to tell. I think audiences are looking for drama with real authorship, and I am delighted that I start at ITV with a mix of great experience and new voices. This is just the start of what I hope will be an exciting journey for us and the audience.”

Mike Bartlett
Mike Bartlett

Trauma is a three-part story set in the trauma department of a central London hospital. It tells the story of a 15-year-old boy who dies under the care of trauma consultant Jon Stephens. Devastated and heartbroken, the boy’s father believes Jon is responsible for his death and as he strives for justice, he begins to unpick the fabric of Jon’s life.

“Trauma is a story about two fathers with very different lives, locked in conflict,” says Bartlett, creator of last year’s hit BBC drama Doctor Foster. “I hope the series will be moving, terrifying and timely. If we mistrust institutions and experts, what happens when we desperately need them?”

White Dragon, meanwhile, is a conspiracy thriller from screenwriting newcomers Mark Denton and Jonny Stockwood. Filmed on location in Asia, it will tell the story of Professor Jonah Mulray, whose life is turned upside down when his wife, Megan, is killed in a car-crash in Hong Kong. Not long after arriving in Hong Kong, Jonah makes a shocking discovery about his wife.

Finally, a few stories from the US. First up, US cable channel Syfy has ordered a second season of Van Helsing, a female take on the classic vampire hunter story. The hour-long drama will go into production in January 2017, with an additional 13 episodes planned.

Van Helsing has been given a second season
Van Helsing has been given a second season

There are also reports this week that Amazon has teamed up with producer Chuck Lorre to make a TV series based on Tom Wolfe’s acclaimed 1980s novel The Bonfire of the Vanities. The book was turned into a movie in 1990 that failed to live up to the hype. However, its sprawling New York-based narrative is probably better-suited to a limited TV series treatment.

Finally, MTV has greenlit a shortened third run of its horror series Scream. Season one had 13 episodes and season two had 10. The new series will have six episodes and, given the show’s rapidly declining audience ratings, will probably also be its finale.

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Wentworth locks down third format deal

Wentworth
Wentworth is being remade in Flemish

There’s a strong international flavour to drama commissioning this week, with plenty of action in terms of format deals, coproductions, acquisitions and plans for movie adaptations.

FremantleMedia, for example, has just announced that its Australian prison drama Wentworth is being remade in Flemish for Belgium-based commercial broadcaster. With a working title of Gent-West, the new 10-part drama will be coproduced by FremantleMedia Belgium and Marmalade Productions. Although the show doesn’t debut on Vier until 2018, it will be shown prior to that on Telenet’s paid cable channels Play and Play More.

Stefan De Keyser, MD of FremantleMedia Belgium, called Wentworth “an explosive drama filled with twists and emotion. Its suspenseful storylines and powerful female cast are sure to captivate Flemish audiences and we hope that Vier’s commission will build on the worldwide success of this scripted property.”

The Flemish version of the show will be the third adaptation following Celblok H (Netherlands) and Block B – Unter Arrest (Germany). Wentworth is also popular in its original form: to date, the show has aired in 141 countries worldwide and is still going strong on home soil after four series on SoHo.

Shortland Street
Shortland Street’s Ukranian adaptation is going great guns

FremantleMedia also revealed this week that the new Ukranian version of its New Zealand soap Shortland Street has started well. Known locally as Central Hospital, the 60-part drama is currently airing on channel 1+1 and is Ukraine’s number-one show. Central Hospital has also been sold on in its completed form to Georgia and Kazakhstan. Following the success of the show, Anne Kirsipuu, format sales director for CIS, Ukraine, Georgia and the Baltic States at FM, said: “We’re looking forward to introducing more local adaptations (of other FM shows) soon.”

Elsewhere in Europe, producer/distributor Beta Film has secured the rights for Light of Elna, a Nazi-refugee drama directed by Sílvia Quer (Velvet, Grand Hotel). The Spanish-Swiss coproduction tells the story of Swiss teacher Elisabeth Eidenbenz, who created a maternity home for female WW2 refugees about to give birth. Beta Film will serve as the worldwide distributor, having previously sold Spanish dramas Velvet & Grand Hotel worldwide.

Scandinavian crime drama continues to prove its appeal worldwide. This week, Germany’s ZDF Enterprises (a big supporter of Nordic Noir) licensed the third season of Bron (The Bridge) to Japan’s Tohokushinsha Film Corp. Under the terms of the deal, TFC gets VoD and DVD rights in addition to television rights. ZDFE and TFC have a longstanding relationship that has already seen deals for the first three seasons of The Killing and the first two of Bron. The latter has been a hit worldwide, selling in its completed form to 140 countries and being adapted in the US and UK/France.

The Bridge
The latest deal for Nordic Noir hit the Bridge has been done in Japan

Continuing with our globetrotting, there are also reports that leading Argentinian broadcaster Telefe has signed a deal with Diego Maradona to make a drama about the iconic footballer’s life. There is certainly plenty of on-field and off-field action to fill a series – as Maradona noted in a modestly worded statement: “Every month of my life has enough for someone to write 100 chapters. Everything that I lived exceeds any fiction. I’m happy and excited that Telefe is developing this project for the world.”

Telefe contents and international business director Tomas Yankelevich added an equally measured summation: “This is an incredible challenge as a producer to think about turning into fiction the life of the best soccer player of all time, and probably the most famous person in the world. We think of an unprecedented super-production, and are looking for partners to join us. We expect to make a global show without borders.”

Notwithstanding the hype, Telefe is undoubtedly the right company to lead the project. Owned by Telefonica, it is one of the major producer/broadcasters in Latin America with activities that stretch across film and TV. Recent productions include Story of a Clan, Educating Nina and coproduction The Return of Lucas.

Diego Maradona
Diego Maradona playing for Argentina

In the US, meanwhile, there’s some interesting news for sci-fi fans. Roddenberry Entertainment, the company set up by Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry (who died in 1991), has created a project called Holoscape that has been optioned by Storyoscopic Films. Holoscape is set in the aftermath of World War III and the collapse of civilisation. Using a mysterious device from the war (the Holoscape), a group of survivors discovers they are part of a conspiracy that has shaped the destiny of humankind, but are given the chance to escape their present and save our future.

“Storyoscopic holds a unique place in the industry due to its strong ties to China and the international market,” said Trevor Roth, head of development for Roddenberry Entertainment. “That, along with its sense for strong properties and compelling stories, makes it a perfect collaborator for Holoscape.”

Also this week, US network Fox gave a put-pilot commitment to a Marvel action-adventure series that will tap into the latter’s rapidly-expanding X-Men universe. The pilot will focus on two ordinary parents who discover their children possess mutant powers. Matt Nix (Burn Notice) will write the script and executive produce alongside a bunch of X-Men and Marvel executives.

“Developing a Marvel property has been a top priority for the network, and we are so pleased with how Matt Nix has led us into this thrilling universe,” said Fox Entertainment president David Madden. “There’s comic book adventure, emotional and complicated relationships and a rich, existing mythology from which to draw. With the brilliant production crew behind this project, it has all the makings of a big, fun and exciting series.”

Other interesting deals this week include a Netflix order for a Chuck Lorre (The Big Bang Theory) comedy called Disjointed and a development deal between Endemol Shine Studios and acclaimed film maker Guy Ritchie, who will develop scripted series for the company. There are also reports that YouTube is talking to UK content creators about original content for its SVoD service YouTube Red.

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Lorre parks in hall of fame

Chuck Lorre
Chuck Lorre

Chuck Lorre, the creative force behind hit comedies such as The Big Bang Theory, Mom, Mike & Molly and Two and a Half Men, is to be inducted into the NAB Broadcasting Hall of Fame.

Commenting on the decision, NAB exec VP of Television Marcellus Alexander said: “An artist in the prime of his career, Chuck Lorre is a legendary television writer and producer. His biting wit and memorable characters have become a part of our culture and defined an era of scripted comedies for Warner Bros TV and CBS.”

Lorre began adult life as a songwriter, penning the Debbie Harry hit single French Kissin’ in the USA. His first writing gig was working on ABC’s hit comedy Roseanne. After this, he created a CBS show called Frannie’s Turn, which lasted just five episodes.

Franny's Turn
Lorre created Franny’s Turn

Although Frannie’s Turn didn’t work out, it was a good early indicator of the way Lorre likes to use comedy to tackle topical social issues. In this case, the story centred on a 50-something seamstress who decides to fight back against her domineering husband. His next project, ABC’s Grace Under Fire, focused on a single mother with three kids who had recently divorced her abusive husband. Later in his career, he would turn his attention to issues such as obesity (Mike & Molly) and sobriety (Mom) with notable success.

During the 1990s, Lorre’s credits included CBS’s Cybill (another divorced single mother; four seasons) and ABC’s Dharma and Greg (about a couple who marry after their first date despite being complete opposites; five seasons).

Then came Lorre’s first monster hit, Two and a Half Men, created with Lee Aronsohn. This show, produced through Warner Bros TV, ran on CBS from 2003 to 2015 and managed to survive a massive fallout with lead actor Charlie Sheen in 2011, with Ashton Kutcher subsequently taking the central role. Still a staple on pay TV networks around the world, Two and a Half Men’s final episode managed to pull in an audience of 13.5 million for CBS.

Ashton Kutcher (right) replaced Charlie Sheen on Two and a Half Men
Ashton Kutcher (right) replaced Charlie Sheen on Two and a Half Men

Working under an overall deal with Warner Bros TV, Lorre’s career has gone from strength to strength ever since. In 2007, he launched The Big Bang Theory – also on CBS. The story of two physics geeks with no social skills, the show’s first season averaged an audience of around 9.7 million. Support for the show grew year after year until it hit the 20 million mark in season six. Although the ratings for the current season (nine) have dropped back to the 15-16 million mark, The Big Bang Theory is still the number-one US entertainment series among total viewers and adults aged 18 to 49.

Lorre also executive produces Mike & Molly, which is coming to an end this year after six seasons on CBS, and is into his third season on CBS’s Mom, which he created with Eddie Gorodetsky and Gemma Baker. After a particularly strong series two (which averaged around 11.8 million viewers), the show is currently drawing audiences of eight to eight-and-half million.

Mike & Molly
Mike & Molly will conclude with its sixth season on CBS later this year

With Mike & Molly ending and The Big Bang Theory unlikely to last too much longer, the big question is what will the 63-year-old Lorre do next? Well, the latest reports suggest he is working with David Javerbaum on a multi-camera comedy about a group of potheads who run a legal marijuana dispensary in Colorado.

If anyone else had tried to pitch that idea, it probably would have been vetoed straightaway. But in Lorre’s hands it might just work. Chances are, however, it could be a bit too risky for CBS – so it might turn up on one of the subscription VoD platforms, Netflix or Amazon.

As an interesting footnote, Lorre post a series of short anecdotes and observations online which he calls his Vanity Cards (see chucklorre.com). In one, he talks amusingly about why he changed his name from Levine to Lorre. “The reason I changed my name was simple. My mother, never a fan of my father’s family, had an unfortunate habit of using Levine as a stinging insult. When displeased with me, she would often say/shriek, ‘You know what you are? You’re a Levine! A no good, rotten Levine!’” he explains.

The Big Bang Theory
The Big Bang Theory, Lorre’s biggest hit

“So, for as far back as I can remember, every time I heard my last name I would experience acute feelings of low self-esteem. My first wife suggested I change my name to remedy the situation. In fact, it was she who came up with the name Lorre, complete with the fancy spelling. I thought it sounded great. Chuck Lorre. Finally a name that did not make me squirm. It didn’t occur to me that in England my new name translated into Chuck Truck.

“But most interestingly, I had forgotten that when I was around eight years old my father’s business began to fail, forcing my mother to find work in a clothing store called… Lorie’s. Pretty creepy, huh? Did I abandon my father’s name only to unconsciously name myself after a place associated with my mother’s abandonment of me? Or, even creepier, did my ex-wife somehow know all this and propose the name Lorre just to screw with me? Hmmm… I was a no good, rotten husband so I certainly had it coming.”

In other news, Viacom-owned cable channel Spike is teaming up with sister network Paramount to develop a drama called Pendergast. Based on novels by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, the show follows an eccentric FBI special agent solving crimes in New York City. Pendergast is being developed with Universal Cable Productions and written by John McLaughlin, who is also executive producing alongside Gale Anne Hurd (The Walking Dead).

WGN America's Outsiders
WGN America’s Outsiders

McLaughlin’s credits range across film and TV, though he is best known for movies Black Swan and Hitchcock. Some years back he was also part of the writing team that adapted Paul Abbot’s Touching Evil for the US market.

Elsewhere, it has been a good week for Outsiders, which became the most viewed original series in WGN America’s history. The first episode generated 3.9 million viewers in Live +3 ratings, and gathered a total of 5.5 million viewers during its premiere week.

The 13×60’ show, set in the Appalachian hills, represents something of a breakthrough moment for creator Peter Mattei. “We felt that Outsiders was exceptional,” says Matt Cherniss, president and general manager of WGN America and Tribune Studios, “but there is no greater validation than this kind of viewer response. We’re grateful for the stellar cast and creative team, Peter Mattei, Peter Tolan and Paul Giamatti, and our producing partners at Sony Pictures Television, and we thank the fans, who inspire us to deliver one-of-a-kind storytelling.”

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Laughing all the way to the bank

modern-family
Modern Family is currently on its seventh run 

The US churns out a lot of appalling sitcoms. But just occasionally it produces half-hour comedies that are pure genius.

Friends (1994-2004) is the most famous example of this. But there’s no question that Friends is matched by ABC’s Modern Family, which is now in its seventh season.

Created by Christopher Lloyd and Steven Levitan, Modern Family is a mockumentary-style comedy that follows the lives of Jay Pritchett and his extended family, which divides into three units. In the first unit are Jay, his Colombian second wife Gloria, his stepson and infant son. The second includes his daughter Claire, her husband Phil and their three children. Finally there is his son Mitchell, his partner Cameron and their adopted child.

The show won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Comedy Series five years in a row before finally being knocked off its perch this year by Veep. In ratings terms it delivers consistently high audiences, averaging around 12 million viewers throughout each season once time-shifting is considered.

There is a slight sense that critics are getting bored with the Modern Family formula, but this has yet to translate into a mass exodus by fans. The show is currently five episodes into its current run and continues to do a good job for ABC, despite being up against last year’s breakout drama Empire and long-running series Criminal Minds.

blackish
Black-ish is given a helping hand by airing immediately after Modern Family

It also provides a good leg-up for one of ABC’s newer comedies Black-ish (now in season two), which airs immediately after it on Wednesday evenings.

With around 150 episodes, Modern Family has also become incredibly valuable as a syndication and distribution property. More than Friends, it also lends itself to adaptation, with local versions of the show made or planned in Chile, Greece, Iran and India.

Modern Family stands out for its ability to both attract audiences and appeal to critics. Compare it with NBC’s Parks and Recreation, for example. That show, starring Amy Poehler, came to an end in February 2015 after seven seasons. While Parks and Rec was well crafted, funny and positively reviewed, its ratings for the last four seasons came in at around the four million mark, which is not particularly good.

NBC is to be congratulated for sticking with it for so long, however, and also with its creator Michael Schur. This summer, the network announced that Schur had been signed up to created a 13-part comedy called The Good Place.

There are also reports that NBC is backing a second comedy from Schur and Matt Hubbard (30 Rock) about a happily married interracial couple whose lives change when they move closer to the wife’s family.

The Big Bang theory cast are big earners
The Big Bang theory cast are big earners

So what else comes close to Modern Family? The most obvious comparison is CBS megahit The Big Bang Theory (TBBT), now in its ninth season.

Created by Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady, the show centres on a pair of university physics geeks sharing an apartment and their circle of friends. TBBT’s first season attracted a fairly modest 9.7 million viewers, but by season six the show was hitting the 20 million mark.

This year there seems to be some slackening in the ratings and a growing sense that the formula has run its course. But with the show already renewed through season 10, it isn’t going anywhere just yet.

After then, however, who knows? The lead actors are now on salaries resembling those of Friends cast. So if ratings continue to slide then CBS may decide it is an opportune time to call a halt to the show.

Successful but not spectacular is how best to describe ABC’s The Middle, about a working-class family in Indiana coping with the day-to-day problems of existence. Now in its seventh season, the show has a rock-solid audience of around 8-8.5 million. It has also racked up enough episodes to become a valuable syndication and distribution asset.

The Middle pulls in around 8.5 million viewers
The Middle pulls in around 8.5 million viewers

Not to be overlooked either is Fox’s contribution in the form of animated comedy, with The Simpsons, Bob’s Burgers and Family Guy all doing good business (The Simpsons is now up to 578 episodes over 27 seasons).

The Simpsons doesn’t look like it will ever be cancelled (it will take a brave exec to do this), but if we take the view that Modern Family and TBBT are both in the autumn of their lives, what else is coming through that might build up similar momentum?

One show moving in the right direction is CBS’s Mom. Another Chuck Lorre comedy, it focuses on Christy (Anna Faris), a single mother who, after dealing with alcoholism and drug abuse, restarts her life in California, working as a waitress and attending AA meetings. Like many good comedies, Mom started out with fairly good ratings (season one hit 8.3 million) but really took off once word of mouth kicked in (season two drew 11.79 million). Season three, which starts on November 5, will provide an indication of whether the show has stamina for the long haul.

Also building an audience, albeit from a slightly lower base, is ABC’s The Goldbergs. Created by Adam Goldberg, the show is set in 1980s Pennsylvania and is loosely based on the showrunner’s own childhood, during which he videotaped events.

goldbergs
The Goldbergs, airing on ABC, has seen ratings improve since its first season

The show’s brashness has divided critics (it’s not as sedate as The Wonder Years, for example) but with season two (8.3 million) building on season one’s ratings (6.2 million), there were high hopes coming into season three. So far The Goldbergs is holding up well and looks like a dead cert to come back for a fourth run. For all that, though, it doesn’t yet have the feeling that it can develop into a modern classic.

As yet, there are no comedies in the class of 2015/16 that are obvious hits in the making. But one of the more encouraging entrants to the market is CBS’s Life in Pieces, which looks like the channel’s attempt to come up with its own Modern Family.

The show, which has settled in with audiences in the 8-9 million mark, revolves around four branches of the Short family tree and their awkward, funny, and touching milestones. Very likely to get a renewal, it benefits from being aired after TBBT and having the likes of James Brolin and Dianne Wiest among its cast.

Also looking good is ABC’s Dr Ken, which is rating well despite not being that popular with critics. The show, which has just been given a full season order by ABC, stars comedian Ken Jeong (The Hangover) and is loosely based on his experience working as a doctor before making it in Hollywood.

Dr Ken stars The Hangover actor Ken Jeong
Dr Ken stars The Hangover actor Ken Jeong

As we’ve seen with The Goldbergs (and Louis CK’s successful sitcom Louie), blurring the lines between reality and fiction is becoming a big theme in US comedy (see also Real Rob and The Real O’Neals) and is an extension of the mockumentary trend.

Of course, it would be wrong to suggest the big four networks are the only ones capable of delivering great comedy. While those channels are undoubtedly best placed to secure large audiences, the US cable market can also be relied upon to deliver some superb comedy. A case in point is HBO’s Veep, the show that broken Modern Family’s run of five wins at the Primetime Emmys.

Veep recently finished its fourth season and typically secures ratings of around one million. However, its value to HBO is more about its ability to reinforce the brand’s profile and attract subscribers – a job it does very well.

Commenting on the latest run, TV critic Tim Goodman of The Hollywood reporter said: “Veep entered its fourth season, firmly established as one of TV’s best comedies, and then did what seems impossible – it delivered its most thoroughly assured, hilarious and brilliantly written and acted episodes.”

Julia Louis-Dreyfuss in Veep
Julia Louis-Dreyfus in Veep

In May, HBO announced a fifth series of Veep, renewing another of its acclaimed sitcoms Silicon Valley at the same time.

Another show that is attracting plaudits is Tina Fey and Robert Carlock’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, which was released on Netflix in March.

The series follows 29-year-old Kimmy (Ellie Kemper) as she adjusts to life in New York City, having being rescued from a doomsday cult in Indiana where she was held for 15 years. The subject matter is more edgy than you’d see on network TV but is typical of the more complex themes that pay TV and streaming services can touch on (another example being Amazon’s acclaimed Transparent).

One other show worth keeping an eye out for is You, Me and the Apocalypse, a joint production between Sky1 in the UK and NBC in the US. The story of an eclectic group of people forced to survive together as a comet heads for Earth has already started airing on Sky1 and is doing pretty well. It will be interesting to see how it performs when it reaches NBC, a more mainstream outlet. If it does well for both partners, it might open the door for a few more transatlantic ventures.

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