Inspired by the life of Isaac Wright Jr, ABC legal drama For Life follows prisoner Aaron Wallace (Nicholas Pinnock), who becomes a lawyer litigating cases for other inmates while fighting to overturn his own life sentence for a crime he didn’t commit.
In this DQTV interview, executive producers Curtis ‘50 Cent’ Jackson and Doug Robinson talk about their journey to bring Wright Jr’s story to the small screen and why they decided to take it to a broadcast network instead of creating a “gritty” series more suited to a cable channel.
Jackson also explains why he compares the series to US hip-hop group Run-DMC and how his own TV and film career mirrors his musical success.
For Life is coproduced by Sony Pictures Television, ABC Studios, Doug Robinson Productions and G-Unit Film & Television for ABC.
US streaming platform Crackle delves into the world of cop gangs with 10-part drama The Oath. Showrunner Joe Halpin reveals how the show is informed by his own career in the LAPD and how he made the move from police officer to TV writer.
The jump from undercover cop to television writer might seem improbable, but that’s the one made by Joe Halpin. After 17 years in law enforcement, he worked his way from low-budget features to television and is now showrunner of the latest original series to land on US streamer Crackle.
The Oath centres on police gangs and sheds light on the corrupt and secretive societies that do whatever they must to protect each other from enemies on the outside and within their own ranks.
The 10-part series opens as a group of corrupt cops known as The Ravens are arrested by the FBI, which is targeting the multiple cop gangs in the police department. Led by Steve Hammond (Ryan Kwanten), the Ravens are pressured to inform on the other gangs and forced by Agent Aria Price (Elisabeth Röhm) to take on undercover agent Damon Byrd (Arlen Escarpeta) and sell him as one of their own.
With the threat of prison hanging over their heads, Steve must ensure his fellow Ravens – his adopted brother Cole (Cory Hardrict), his partner Pete Ramos (JJ Soria) and Karen Beach (Katrina Law) – stay in line as they operate under the shadow of the Feds while keeping the deal a secret from the other Ravens, including their imprisoned former leader, Tom Hammond (Sean Bean), father of Steve and Cole.
The series is executive produced by Curtis ’50 Cent’ Jackson and his G-Unit Film & Television label, along with Todd Hoffman and Dennis Kim of Storied Media Group, Anne Clements and Halpin. Sony Pictures Television holds distribution rights.
Halpin, who is the creator, writer and showrunner of the Oath, is emphatic when he explains how the plotlines are informed by something he experienced, witnessed or was privy to during his career as a cop. “I just thought it would be a great area for storytelling, and what better way to have a conversation about a problem within the department than create a show that reveals something most people don’t know about?” he says.
British-born Halpin moved to the US with his family when he was 12. He spent 17 years in law enforcement, starting in the LA County Sheriff’s department where he worked in jails holding members of notorious LA gangs including the Bloods and the Crips. After spending time as a training officer and field officer, he moved into narcotics, working on undercover operations. He later carried out undercover and surveillance work for the FBI and the DEA.
Halpin later became in demand for celebrity bodyguard work and was shadowing Steven Seagal during a trip to Poland when he first began to consider the possibility of using his experiences as a cop to become a writer. A year later, he sold a script that was turned into a feature.
“It wasn’t anything I was looking to do but once I sat down and started doing it, I became obsessed with it and doing it well,” Halpin recalls. “There are a lot of people in this business who are glorified tech advisors, who never quite learn to write but they’re kept around because they’re great in the [writers] room and great at story. But I wanted to make sure I wasn’t one of those people. I eventually got out of low-end features and got into television because I realised that’s where the real writers and real experienced storytellers were nowadays.”
He has since earned credits on shows such as True Justice, Hawaii Five-0, Secrets & Lies and Ice. And now his experience working for the LAPD has directly influenced The Oath, with The Ravens based on a police gang he was a member of, The Reapers. “I eventually went on to lead that gang and during that time I was being investigated and followed by both LAPD and the DA [district attorney]’s office,” he reveals. “So when I eventually got out and got into writing, I thought that world was a great place and a rich world for storytelling.”
The story behind The Oath is something Halpin says he has been pitching since he found his way into the television business, though he admits he wasn’t ready to make the show until now. “I wasn’t prepared, I wasn’t really good enough or experienced enough up until this point,” he says. But after Halpin forged a relationship with Crackle, the project moved very quickly. The writers room only opened in January last year but the full series will roll out on March 8.
In the room, Halpin and his team of writers laid the track for each character – their physical and emotional story arcs – before breaking down each episode to ensure it was well paced throughout the season. The biggest challenge, however, was to maintain the tension across 10 episodes. “It’s like holding a piece of string tightly,” Halpin explains. “If you make a mistake in the structure of not maintaining that tension then you can lose the audience and it becomes ineffectual storytelling. So I really focus on making sure the pacing and the structure is very strong in each episode.”
Under the stewardship of directors Jeff T Thomas and Luis Prieto, much of the series was shot with handheld cameras, granting Halpin’s wish that The Oath feel extremely voyeuristic, inviting the audience into the story.
Filming took place in San Juan, Puerto Rico, which provided a vivid backdrop for the series, ostensibly set in an unspecified southern US city. Production was far from straightforward, however, as the cast and creative team were twice flown off the island to avoid two incoming category five hurricanes.
“That was obviously difficult, not because of the difficulty or the interruption but because the crew became like family so there was a lot of survivor’s guilt for myself and the actors to get on a plane and leave,” the showrunner says. “But we stayed in touch on WhatsApp and we were talking to them as the hurricane was hitting, making sure everyone was OK.”
He admits he was a little wary about the location when Crackle first suggested San Juan, having imagined The Oath being filmed in the South Central district of LA where he himself walked the streets. “But then when I visited and I saw the areas and the professionalism of the crew they were using out there, I realised it would enhance the show, it would make storytelling that much better and more vivid,” he says. “It’s almost like someone took a crayon to South Central – it has that same danger in the air but it’s colourful.
“Where I see familiar things like the streets of LA, New York or Vancouver where you film a lot, I kind of tune out when they’re driving in a car. But when I watch shows like Narcos, where I see different colour schemes and different architecture, it interests me more and I thought it would be great for our show because it looks like its set in the southern United States but you just don’t know where, and we did that on purpose because we didn’t want to paint any single police department with the brush of corruption. It enhanced the storytelling and made it a more dynamic exciting world.”
As a showrunner, Halpin says he “thrives during chaos,” which makes him perfect for a hugely demanding role that constantly demands he stays focused on the job while putting out numerous fires along the way. The secret to success, he suggests, is being able to trust and delegate to those around him, taking his lead from showrunners he admires such as Rick Eid (now overseeing Chicago PD) and Peter Leskov (Hawaii Five-0, MacGyver).
“What I’ve learned is the biggest sin a showrunner can commit is to not make a decision,” Halpin notes. “Whether people like it or don’t like it, you’re expected to make a decision and I equate it to asking someone back in the 1800s to go out to sea with you. You’re out there and there’s no sign of land and the food’s getting short. If you don’t know where you’re going, they’re going to cut your throat, throw you overboard and go back where they came from. If you’re going to lead people, you have to have a very clear vision and know where you’re going. If anything, it reinforced that people around me expect me to be prepared and to know where I’m going and to always be that way whenever I’m running a show.”
He’s now planning multiple season of The Oath, which he says could live on beyond the current cast of characters by sticking to its central theme of cop gang culture.
“It’s definitely set so we go deeper down the rabbit hole in season two, three, four and five,” Halpin adds. “Like any great serialised show, there’s a very good chance we’ll lose a few of the players along the way and we’ll acquire new players, but that world and that core group we’ll probably stay with for at least four or five seasons.”
Series that deal with real-life crimes are nothing new, but until recently they have mostly inhabited the factual/reality TV space. Currently, however, there is a growing trend towards true crimes as the subject of scripted series.
Netflix’s Making A Murderer was one of the triggers for this genre. Although it was a documentary series, its filmic style – combined with the way it unravelled over 10 episodes – had an immediate impact on the way producers looked at the potential of true crime. Then there was The People vs OJ Simpson: American Crime Story, an excellent FX drama that has picked up a number of Emmy nominations this year.
Choosing the right crime is clearly half the battle in making a series like this appeal to audiences. But then you also need a writer who knows how to skilfully balance fact with fiction, someone who is willing to do the necessary research – for the sake of accuracy – but also knows how to make the characters and storylines engaging and immersive over several episodes.
Last week, for example, we reported that Rene Balcer is going to write a Law & Order-branded true crime scripted series based around Lyle and Erik Menendez, the brothers convicted of murdering their parents in 1996. Balcer is an ideal example of the kind of writer who can handle this type of project, because he combines a forensic attention to detail with a storyteller’s verve.
This week, US network Investigation Discovery announced that it is also getting into the true crime game. Although it hasn’t yet named the subject, it has signed a development deal with author James Patterson – who will create a six-part series. Explaining why the channel has elected to work with Patterson, Henry Schleiff, group president for ID, American Heroes Channel and Destination America, said: “As the best-selling author around the world since 2001, there is no bigger name than James Patterson. He is the ultimate storyteller, and for a television network known for its own powerful storytelling, to have him as our ‘partner in crime’ is truly a match made in heaven for his readers and ID’s viewers.”
It’s not clear yet whether Patterson will actually pen the scripts, or simply provide the storyline to the ID show. However, there’s no question his name will add gravitas to the project, in the way the Law & Order franchise will do for the Menendez project.
The blurring of the line between fact and fiction – and the need for writers to be able to operate in this space – is also evident in the case of Harley & The Davidsons, another high-profile production doing the rounds. Discovery Channel has just released a trailer of the limited series, which tells the story of the founders of Harley Davidson Motorcycles at the start of the 20th Century. At time of writing the trailer had been viewed seven million times, more than any other Discovery programme trailer ever.
The show is being made by Raw Television, a company best know for its factual productions, and written by Evan Wright and Seth Fisher. Wright’s credits include Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle and FX’s The Bridge, while Fisher worked on National Geographic’s founding-fathers drama Saints and Strangers. Harley Davidson opened up its archives and family members provided historical details to help the production form characters and key events. However, producers had complete editorial independence, underlining the need for a compelling story to carry the show.
In other news, UK broadcaster ITV has commissioned a four-part drama series to be written by Chris Lang and Matt Arlidge. Called Innocent, the show tells the story of a man who spends seven years in prison after being convicted of murdering his wife. When he is acquitted over a technicality, he sets about proving his innocence to his estranged family. Lang’s writing credits go all the way back to sketch comedy series Smith & Jones in the 1980s, though more recent credits include Unforgotten, Undeniable and The Tunnel. Arlidge counts Mistresses and Monarch of the Glen among his credits. The show was commissioned by ITV controller of drama Victoria Fea, who said: “Innocent is a contemporary relationship drama with a thriller pulse. Chris and Matt’s scripts have created an intense web of characters with interwoven lives – with a seemingly ordinary husband and father at its heart.”
Other projects revealed to be in the works this week include a superhero drama for Starz that has been created by Curtis ‘50 Cent’ Jackson. Jackson was also involved in the creation of Starz hit series Power, though the actual writing job on that is handled by Courtney Kemp Agboh. The new project, called Tomorrow Today, is about a military veteran who, after being falsely imprisoned, becomes the experiment of a mad doctor trying to create the perfect man.
Starz is also working with Lionsgate and Televisa USA on an adaptation of Mexican telenovela Teresa. Writer/producer Carlos Portugal will showrun the series, which follows an undocumented young Latina as she makes her way into the world of LA wealth. “Teresa will showcase a modern take on what it means to be Latina in America,” said Starz MD Carmi Zlotnik.
Portugal’s previous credits include Meet the Browns and East Los High. The latter is an Emmy-nominated Hulu series about a group of Latino teens in their final years at a fictional high school in East LA. Portugal and the producers of the show worked with various public health organisations to incorporate storylines that encouraged young Latinos to make healthy life choices.
Starz has also unveiled plans for a series called Pussy Valley, which looks at the lives of pole dancers working in a strip club in Mississippi. That might look like controversial territory, but Starz has put the project in the hands of playwright Katori Hall – whose numerous acclaimed theatre shows include The Mountaintop, about Martin Luther King Jr’s last night before his assassination.
Commenting, Zlotnik said Hall “has successfully created exciting and complex roles for black women in American theatre and we’re confident she’ll continue to do so with Pussy Valley.”
This week has also seen announcements about a brace of new shows centred on personal grooming. In the US, Eliot Laurence (Welcome to Me) is writing a series called Claws that is said to be in the vein of Desperate Housewives. It follows the lives of five Florida manicurists. In the UK, the BBC has ordered a drama from Poldark writer Debbie Horsfield called Age Before Beauty.
The new drama will follow the lives and loves of workers in a salon. It is the second time Horsfield has explored this area (after Cutting It in 2002). The show is being made by Mainstreet Pictures, the independent production company set up by Laura Mackie and Sally Haynes. Commenting on the series, Mackie said: “Debbie is writing at the top of her game and in Age Before Beauty she’s created a colourful and memorable set of characters and a story that examines our obsession with the ageing process in an emotional, entertaining and surprising way.”
With a third season of her show Power confirmed and the ink still drying on her overall deal with Starz, Courtney Kemp Agboh tells DQ about her transformation from ‘failed’ comedy writer into one of drama’s big hitters.
For someone who started her television career writing for The Bernie Mac Show, Courtney Kemp Agboh (pictured above) is under no illusions about her power to make people laugh.
“I failed miserably,” she admits. “I was not funny. Comedy is not my thing. I sucked. I was terrible. I’m just not funny.”
But comedy’s loss has become television drama’s gain: the showrunner is currently winning critical and popular acclaim with hard-hitting Starz series Power.
The debut episode of Power’s second season in June broke viewing records for the US premium cable network by attracting the largest ever audience for a Starz original drama season premiere episode (1.43 million). It also became the most watched episode ever for a Starz original drama across its opening weekend (3.62 million).
The impressive ratings opened a remarkable week for Agboh, who signed an exclusive overall deal with Starz just days after the network commissioned a 10-part third season of Power for 2016.
And there was more good news to come. Season two’s finale, which aired on August 15, set a Starz record for an episode premiere, drawing 2.39 million viewers (Live+3). This was also up 51% compared with the first run’s finale (1.59 million) and up 17% on the season two average (2.03 million)
Set between the glamorous New York club scene and the city’s brutal drug trade, Power tells the story of James ‘Ghost’ St Patrick (played by Omari Hardwick), who must juggle his life as a club boss with that as a major player in one of the city’s biggest illegal drug networks.
Kemp Agboh, who created the series, is an executive producer alongside Mark Canton, Randall Emmett and rapper Curtis ‘50 Cent’ Jackson. The show is produced by CBS Television Studios, Jackson’s G-Unit Film and Television, Kemp Agboh’s Mawuli Productions and Canton’s Atmosphere Television.
Kemp Agboh was first exposed to the television industry while working as a journalist. An article she wrote for GQ, titled How to Date a Black Woman, caught the attention of two comedy producers, but the project didn’t move any further. Undeterred, and now with a taste for the business, she wrote a script on-spec for The Bernie Mac Show, landing a writing job on the series in 2005.
“I was very fortunate,” she says. “I moved to LA with no car, no apartment and no job, but I had a husband who had a job in New York and an agent. I was very fortunate because I was able to go to interviews and meetings, and I got a job as a writer.
“I did all my assistant stuff and coffee-getting when I was working in magazines – I had that Devil Wears Prada experience – and because of that I had no attitude. I had been broken down in journalism. It really helped. Then I got in at Bernie Mac and failed miserably.”
With her comedy career put swiftly behind her, Kemp Agboh penned another spec script, this time for CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, which led to her joining the writing staff of In Justice, a short-lived police procedural run by married duo Robert and Michelle King. Credits followed on Fox drama Justice and ABC comedy-drama Eli Stone, among others, before Kemp Agboh was reunited with the Kings on CBS smash hit The Good Wife in 2011.
“That whole time I branded myself as a legal writer,” Kemp Agboh says. “I wrote legal drama for the most part. That helped me to continue to work. I worked every year and kept getting jobs. I was on The Good Wife for three seasons, and there I learned a lot about how to run a show.
“But I was always an action person, I was always someone who liked writing murders and death. The Good Wife isn’t an exceptionally violent show, so all this stuff was just busting out of me.”
It was when fellow Power exec producer Canton spoke to Jackson about doing a “hardcore, hard-hitting, music-driven show” that Kemp Agboh’s name was suggested, and after meeting Canton, she came up with the idea for the series.
She explains: “The main character became a mixture of 50 Cent’s upbringing – South Jamaica, dealing, and getting out of that life – and my father, who was not a criminal, but was a self-made man. He grew up with no money and made himself into this big advertising executive. It was a combo-platter of the two things.”
Kemp Agboh recalls pitching the series to Starz: “It was me and 50 and a ton of people, but I was the only one talking so it was quite scary. I don’t read a pitch; I only go in with cards with a few keywords on them. It’s a performance. You get passionate and excited about it and tell them the story. At the second meeting, 50 brought music so as I was pitching he was playing tracks from the show.”
Power launched in 2014, but despite the show now heading towards a third season, Kemp Agboh says she never anticipated its success. “I try to live my life one day at a time, so the whole process for me has been going in to pitch the show, they say yes; writing the pilot, they say yes; they want a second script… it’s just been piece by piece. As each episode was airing and the audience was growing, I was just trying to be present for its success at each moment and really trying to interact with the fans. I’m thrilled with the response, but I can’t say it’s what I expected. I had no expectation of it.”
What she did expect, however, was the stark difference between writing for a broadcast network such as CBS and a premium cable channel – the former reliant on advertisers and the latter free to flex its creative muscles with added sex and violence. Kemp Agboh says: “In the Power pilot, we start in a beautiful way. There are shots of the city, you see Ghost getting dressed, everything’s gorgeous and wonderful. Then within nine minutes you’re downstairs in the basement and someone’s getting shot in the forehead. That’s the kind of show it is.
“I wanted to show the audience that it’s never going to be what you expect. You are never going to be safe in this show – you can never relax. I’m always going to be pulling the carpet out from under you. I was trying to make a point about storytelling and what we can do on cable that you can’t do in broadcast, and how just because I came from that world, it doesn’t mean it’s the only writing I can do.
“Broadcast is way harder, and anyone who tells you different, I don’t know what they’re talking about. Twenty-two episodes with no real sex and no real violence – forget it. I have to do 10 episodes and I can go anywhere.”
Power marks the first time Kemp Agboh has brought a show to television, but it isn’t her first spell in charge of a writers room. That milestone came during her final year on The Good Wife, when she was able to apply the lessons she had learnt from mentors including the Kings, Jeff Melvoin (In Justice) and Greg Berlanti (Eli Stone).
“What I took from them was that there can be no sexism and no hierarchy in the room, and that the best idea can come from anybody. Those are my rules. I don’t care how many years you’ve been doing this, your idea could suck and a person who just walked into the room to deliver lunch could have the greatest idea of all.
“One of the things I stress is that I don’t pay writers to sit there. I don’t pay for their chair, I pay for their ideas, so I want them. I don’t care how bad they are, they don’t have to be edited. Say whatever. There’s no reprisal for a bad idea. When I interview people for writing jobs, I stress to them if there are areas they don’t like to discuss, such as sex, this is the wrong job for them, because we go there. I want people to have a good time at work.”
Together with Fox’s breakout drama Empire, Power is also notable for having a diverse cast, led by Hardwick, Jackson, Lela Loren, Naturi Naughton, Joseph Sikora and Sinqua Walls.
But Kemp Agboh says the show simply aims to reflect the modern world. “The world looks like Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder; the world does not look like Friends,” she explains. “And when people put shows on TV now where everyone is white, it looks funny. That’s not what the world is. That’s not what America is. Nowhere is it all one thing, and if you’re going to make TV that’s going to be successful now, it needs to represent what the world really looks like.
“At one point we talked about doing Power in LA, but LA is way more segregated than New York and I didn’t want to do that. I wanted New York to be represented in all of its diversity. People are realising they can make a lot of money by making TV shows that look like what the world really is. At the end of the day, it’s not about black, brown, white, yellow, red. It’s about green. So as long as these shows do well, there will be more of them.”
But while racial diversity may be improving, Kemp Agboh believes it is still difficult for female writers to breakthrough as showrunners. “I believe it’s harder. I have had fewer experiences where I was the only person of colour in the room and more experiences creatively where I was the only woman,” she reveals. “People ask about race and showrunning, but what I think we actually need to pay attention to is women as showrunners.
“Most of the people I’ve worked with coming up the ranks have been men with stay-at-home wives. Most of the high-level writers I’ve met have been men whose wives don’t work, and the idea of trying to run a show and be a mummy – it’s so complicated and challenging because it really is giving birth to two things.
“I’ve decided I’m not going to have any more children because Power is my second child. I can’t do everything. Some people can do more than that, but I think there’s absolutely a trend. The world is full of women, so women have good perspectives on things and can write really well. People are now saying that if Shonda Rhimes can make so many billions of dollars for a network, maybe I can take a shot on this other chick and she might be good too. And that is absolutely happening.”
With Power set for a third run next year, Kemp Agboh is in no doubt that television will continue to tell great stories – at the expense of cinema. “We’re at a really great point in television drama, as there are more places to put content,” she says. “But I would also say it’s because the movie business got so weird. They stopped making middle-of-the-road movies. It’s all about blockbusters now and these very tiny indies. There’s nothing in the middle, so those stories that might have been told as features 20 years ago aren’t being told that way now. Right now, television is where those great stories are being told.”