They were once just a name on the credits roll, but showrunners have gained celebrity status over the past decade and are now considered the major creative force behind every television drama.
This DQ show examines the showrunner’s rise to power and why it can be one of the most satisfying jobs in Hollywood.
In the first of a two-part programme, DQ hears from leading showrunners about the challenges of this all-consuming position.
Contributors include Shawn Ryan (The Shield), Terence Winter (Boardwalk Empire), Ilene Chaiken (Empire), Glen Mazzara (The Walking Dead), Clyde Phillips (Dexter), Eric Newman (Narcos), Terri Miller and Andrew Marlowe (Castle), Maggie Friedman and Corinne Brinkerhoff (No Tomorrow), Jon Bokenkamp (The Blacklist), Les Bohem (Shut Eye), Michelle Ashford (Masters of Sex), Graham Yost (Sneaky Pete), Howard Gordon (Homeland), Matt Miller (Lethal Weapon), Peter Lenkov (MacGyver), Oliver Goldstick (The Collection) and Carol Flint (Designated Survivor).
Part two will be available from Wednesday March 29.
US star Kiefer Sutherland reveals why he elected to play the president in US drama Designated Survivor and what he learned from working on 24.
Best known for saving the day – and quite often the US president – in action drama 24, Kiefer Sutherland still finds himself spending plenty of time in the Oval Office.
Only now he plays the president as the star of ABC drama Designated Survivor. The political series sees Sutherland’s Tom Kirkman, the US secretary of housing and urban development, rapidly promoted to become the leader of the free world after an explosion during the State of the Union address claims the lives of the incumbent and all other members of the US cabinet.
The drama, from creator David Guggenheim and producer Mark Gordon, debuted last September to more than 10 million viewers and a week later, it was handed a full season order of 22 episodes for the 2016/17 season.
It also airs on CTV in Canada and around the world on Netflix following deals with distributor Entertainment One (eOne).
Sutherland has built his career across television and film, with big-screen credits including Stand By Me, The Lost Boys, A Few Good Men and A Time to Kill. So when he gave a keynote address at television industry event Mipcom, DQ was in the audience to hear more from the London-born Canadian actor.
Sutherland hadn’t planned on joining another network drama…
My experience on 24 was the greatest experience I’ve had as an actor. Having done a lot of smaller movies that no one ever saw, I remembered it was nice to have people watch what you do and enjoy it. So I was so grateful for that. Having said that, it was nine years, anywhere between 12 and 15 hours a day, five days a week, 10 months a year – it’s a lot of work, so when I did 24 I wasn’t aware of any of that.
When I agreed to do Designated Survivor, I was completely aware of that. So it was a big decision and when I first got the script, it was sent to me by Mark Gordon. We’ve been friends for 20 years and I was doing a film with Michelle Pfeiffer, a very small picture. I was getting into some music things, and taking on the responsibility of a television show was not in the forefront of my mind.
But his attitude changed when he read the pilot script…
I was going to give it what I call a cursory read – I was going to read it really quickly to gain enough information about the script to explain to Mark why I couldn’t do it. And I got to about page 25 and I went, “Fuck.” I knew I was potentially holding what I was going to be doing for 10 years if I was lucky, and I went back and re-read it. But the opposite thing happened – I got to the end almost praying it stayed as good as it was and David Guggenheim really wrote a script that spoke to me.
The actor could see similarities between Jack Bauer and Tom Kirkman…
It wasn’t until I actually started performing the character that I realised there was a real similarity to Jack Bauer I had not anticipated. Their skill set is very different. President Tom Kirkman probably doesn’t know how to load a gun, let alone shoot it. But the fact is both characters have a desire to serve and both characters are willing to take on a fight they know they can’t possibly win. That through line in both characters is something I obviously really relate to. I would like to aspire to be one of those people. It ended up being something that I knew if I chose not to do it for a lot of very reasonable reasons, I would really regret it. I do not regret the decision [to sign up] for a second.
Tom Kirkman was inspired by Franklin D Roosevelt, because Abraham Lincoln “would have been too obvious…”
One of the nice things about the character is he’s not even elected, he’s not even an elected member of the cabinet. He’s an architect who had very specific ideas about urban planning and affordable housing across the country and that’s how he became part of the cabinet. So he had no political aspirations. What is nice about this character is he can approach the country’s issues, domestic and abroad, with common sense and a sense of fairness and what he thinks is right or wrong, as opposed to a political agenda that’s been dictated by three years of campaigning. That is a really fresh point of view. Common sense is the foundation of the character, and when he becomes more political, that’s when he starts to make mistakes and that will be a constant thread in the character throughout the whole show.
As an exec producer of Designated Survivor, he sees himself as the show’s ambassador…
I was an exec producer on 24 as well and Joel Surnow [the creator of 24] taught me something: the writers had all the offices on the second floor of the stage where we shot, we never went up there and they never came down. As I’m experiencing on this show, that was very unique. I once asked Joel, “Why don’t you ever come down?” He said it was because he hired the people he wanted to do what they’re doing and he didn’t have to oversee everything because he hired the people that he really wanted to do it. It’s a really valuable lesson. Mark is the producer of this show; I work as an ambassador because of the amount of actors we do have coming in and out of the show. I try to make sure they’re comfortable if they’re having a problem with part of the script, I’ll try to work it out with them or direct them to who else to talk to. That’s really my role. I’m certainly not sitting in budget meetings or things like that.
The biggest problem on 24 was also the ‘star’ of the show…
When I first read this script [for Designated Survivor], as much as I was moved by the characters, I had learned a lot from 24 about what would potentially make the show great and what would not. 24’s real -ime aspect, which was in my opinion the real star of the show, was also a problem. We would paint ourselves into a corner in the storyline and it was almost every year, right around episode 14 or 15 and we’d have to do something wonky to get around it, but we’d make up for it in the last eight episodes. It was something we really had difficulty every year navigating and I think Howard Gordon would be the first to acknowledge that.
But Designated Survivor was designed to avoid those same challenges…
It was designed to never get caught in that position. This show works on three different prongs. So you have a terrorist attack and an FBI investigation into who did this attack and what would be the appropriate response – that’s the thriller aspect of the show. Then you have a family drama, of what happens to a family that is split up, or is moved into the White House overnight. What does that do to the dynamic of his marriage, how does it affect how he interacts and behaves with his children? That’s its own storyline. And there’s the political aspect – how do you stabilise the country after having its entire government wiped out? How do you rebuild the government and shore up the country on an international level?
Those are all things we’ll be dealing with throughout this first season. If at one point the political storyline is having difficulty, then all of a sudden the show can shift back to being a family drama for two episodes and giving a reason for the political thing to take over. It’s the same with the investigation. So the fact that three storylines are living within the show, all at the same time, gives the writers incredible flexibility to also react to what the audience is enjoying about the show. For those reasons, the show has a flexibility that I think is stronger than anything I’ve been a part of so far.
Sutherland wasn’t sure he wanted to do television before 24 changed his mind…
When I took 24, I wasn’t very clear on how it all worked. I remember thinking I didn’t really want to do a television show – and of course it ended up becoming the greatest experience I’ve had as an actor. I seem to land in certain situations. If I manage to get out of my own way, things can work out and 24 was the great lesson for that for me.
He now believes the small screen is the most exciting medium in entertainment…
When I started working, there were five studios in the US and all five studios were making 50 to 60 movies a year. Now there are barely three studios in the US and they’re making about 15 movies a year. And if you’re going to do one of those movies, there’s a pretty good chance you’re going to be wearing tights and a cape! So all of the movies I loved watching when I was a kid – whether it was The Godfather, Lawrence of Arabia, Serpico, The French Connection, Ordinary People, Terms of Endearment – those movies aren’t really getting made the way they were and that drama, that kind of storytelling has been absorbed by television, whether it’s 24, The Sopranos, The Wire, Sex and the City or Game of Thrones. The list is endless and the fact we’ve moved from three channels to four channels to 500 channels, content is king – and for the writers who want to tell real drama, television is where it is at right now.
As Donald Trump prepares to move into the White House, Stephen Arnell questions the future of political dramas under the new president.
It’s no understatement to say the election of Donald Trump (pictured above in The Apprentice) as the 45th president of the US has had reverberations around the world.
Although hardly on a scale with the anxieties related to areas of such importance as global security, the world economy and climate change, Trump’s elevation has caused an almost immediate effect on US political drama.
After being repeatedly being delayed before the November 8 election, Unstoppable – an episode of Law & Order: SVU starring Gary Cole (The West Wing, Veep, The Good Wife) as a Trump-like presidential candidate who faces damaging sexual allegations – may now have been scrapped for good, or at least been kicked down the road for the foreseeable future.
Is this a worrying sign of self-censorship on the part of broadcaster NBC, or the simple recognition that the network can’t afford to alienate those who elected Trump, despite Hilary Clinton winning the popular vote?
After all, Alec Baldwin’s parody of Trump on NBC’s Saturday Night Live (SNL) already earned a tweeted rebuke from the then candidate: “Watched Saturday Night Live hit job on me. Time to retire the boring and unfunny show. Alec Baldwin portrayal stinks. Media rigging election!”
This past weekend, the president-elect renewed his attacks on SNL and opened up a new front on the cast of the popular stage musical Hamilton.
So there appears to be a delicate balance for NBC and other network broadcasters in the US. Is it time to tread lightly?
Previous experiences under Republican presidents such as Richard Nixon and the Bushes have shown they or their surrogates have not been not afraid to push back against the media.
Nixon, of course, was a hater par excellence, whose notorious ‘enemies list’ included actors Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Jane Fonda, Tony Randall and Gregory Peck.
He frequently criticised the broadcast media, so it must have been with some satisfaction that ABC adapted Nixon henchman John Ehrlichman’s novel The Company as the scathing Washington: Behind Closed Doors in 1977.
A thinly veiled portrait of Nixon’s administration, the miniseries was notable for the magnificent performance of Jason Robards in the role of the paranoid, hard-drinking President Richard Monkton, which gained him a Primetime Emmy nomination.
Back in 1992, then-POTUS George Bush Snr said: “We are going to keep on trying to strengthen the American family, to make American families a lot more like the Waltons and a lot less like the Simpsons.”
This prompted The Simpsons’ writers to goad the elder Bush in several episodes.
George Bush Jr had his critics too, and for the first six years of his presidency liberals had the comfort blanket of Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing, where Martin Sheen’s President Bartlett (Bill Clinton without the scandals) presided over an idealised version of a Democratic presidency, in a world where even the occasional Republican was portrayed sympathetically, most notably Alan Alda as Senator Arnold Vinick.
At the pre-9/11 dawn of George W’s presidency in 2001, the South Park team of Trey Parker and Matt Stone created Comedy Central’s short-lived sitcom That’s My Bush, which gently lampooned the president, being more of a spoof of sitcom conventions than a biting satire.
Wisely, Bush Jr preferred to outsource his attacks on broadcasters to the likes of Fox News, rather than engage directly – with some success, as evidenced when CBS was forced to drop biopic The Reagans back in 2003.
Rather more seriously, prior to this month’s election, Trump was also firing shots across the bows of Amazon/Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos for perceived bias against him.
Bezos, who had heavily criticised Trump, has unsurprisingly become more conciliatory after the Apprentice star became president-elect, as evidenced by a recent tweet: “Congratulations to @realDonaldTrump. I for one give him my most open mind and wish him great success in his service to the country.”
Trump has also laid into the proposed AT&T/Warner merger, saying before the election that he would block the deal. He has accused Comcast-NBCUniversal of “trying to poison the mind of the American voter” and has stated that he would not have allowed the companies to combine if he had been in charge.
The election of such an overshadowing character as Trump has presented TV’s creative community with a host of dilemmas, both in terms of shows already on air and those in development.
Trump’s sheer outlandishness, unpredictability and cartoonish persona have seemingly rendered much, if not all, of current US political drama obsolete.
Recently, Robert De Niro likened the president-elect to the character of General Jack D Ripper from Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove. Needless to say, this was not a flattering comparison.
Some have seen echoes of other fictional characters in Trump, including Martin Sheen’s unhinged presidential candidate Greg Stillson in The Dead Zone (1983) and Barry Morse’s Reagan-esque president Johnny Cyclops in the UK comedy series Whoops Apocalypse (1982).
The sheer volume of coverage of the US political scene may make viewers averse to watching a fictionalised version at the end of their working day.
This must be particularly dispiriting to new shows such as Graves (Epix) and Designated Survivor (ABC).
Graves, which began in October, stars Nick Nolte as a guilt-ridden former POTUS seeking to right the wrongs of his terms in office, reminiscent in some ways of the Starz comedy Blunt Talk (starring Patrick Stewart).
Peppered with political cameos from the likes of Barney Frank, Rudy Giuliani and Michael Steele, the show has earned only mediocre reviews, while the idea of a conscience-stricken president seems quaint in an age when Trump has publicly stated that he has never felt any need to ask God for forgiveness.
Designated Survivor’s premise of a low-ranking, soon-to-be-sacked cabinet member becoming commander-in-chief after virtually all branches of government are wiped out at the State of the Union address is a strong one, but audiences have tailed off since the show debuted on ABC, with live ratings falling from 10 million for episode one to 5.6 million for episode six.
Despite the star power of Kiefer Sutherland in the role of president Tom Kirkman, some clunky dialogue and a very conventional approach may be in part responsible for this decline, in addition to possible general fatigue with all things political in the US.
It will be interesting to see how established shows such as House of Cards (Netflix), Veep (HBO) and Madam Secretary (CBS) will cope with the Trump presidency. Do they up the ante to reflect the new political orthodoxy, or pivot, West Wing style, to an alternate reality?
It’s unlikely House of Cards can do much other than weave in some Trump-esque references before season five debuts early in 2017.
Producers and writers with new political dramas in production or development in the US such as HBO’s Capitol Hill (Washington graft) and TNT’s Civil (conflict after a hotly contested US election) are presumably in a state of some anxiety – what could possibly be more dramatic than real-life events?
All things considered, it’s probably safer to stick to reboots of familiar franchises such as MacGyver, Magnum PI and Lethal Weapon.
To mark Donald Trump’s shock victory over Hillary Clinton in the US presidential election, we look at the writers behind some of the country’s political TV drama series.
The West Wing: NBC’s inside view of the White House ran from 1999 to 2006, crossing over with the tail end of Bill Clinton’s time in office and most of George W Bush’s two terms. The show starred Martin Sheen as President Jed Bartlet and was created by Aaron Sorkin. It won three Golden Globes, 26 Emmys and was ranked at number 10 in The Writers Guild Of America’s 101 Best-Written Series list. Sorkin wrote or co-wrote 85 of the first 88 episodes and then side-shifted into movies, with films including Charlie Wilson’s War, The Social Network and Moneyball. He came back to TV with The Newsroom and then wrote the movie screenplay for Steve Jobs.
“Education is the silver bullet. Education is everything. We don’t need little changes. We need gigantic monumental changes.”
-Sam Seaborn (played by Rob Lowe)
Veep: The Boston Globe calls HBO’s Veep “a show for our time, a portrait of the narcissism, malignant self-interest, banality, media self-pleasuring and congressional paralysis that seem to afflict American politics more than ever.” The show was brilliantly created by Armando Iannucci, who also blessed the world with British political satire The Thick of It. It is set in the office of Selina Meyer, a fictional VP who subsequently becomes president, played superbly by Julia Louis-Dreyfus. The show has been nominated for Primetime Emmy Awards every year, winning a number of them in high-profile categories. The fifth season of Veep ended in June 2016 and a sixth has been ordered.
“If men got pregnant, you could get an abortion at an ATM.”
-Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus)
House of Cards: This acclaimed Netflix series is a US reimagining of a British series of the same name, which was written by Andrew Davies and Michael Dobbs (the author of the novel on which both are based). The first four seasons of the US version were written by Beau Willimon, who then handed over the reins to Melissa James Gibson and Frank Pugliese (who are writing season five). Originally a theatre writer, Willimon’s crossover into screenwriting came with the George Clooney movie Ides of March in 2011. There’s no news yet on Willimon’s plans after House of Cards.
“The road to power is paved with hypocrisy, and casualties.”
-Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey)
Scandal: This ABC drama, which debuted in 2012, sees Kerry Washington star as press aide Olivia Pope, a character reported to be based on George W Bush’s aide Judy Smith. Created by Shonda Rhimes, the show focuses on Pope’s crisis-management firm. A sixth season launches on January 19, 2017. Rhimes, of course, is a powerhouse who continues to enjoy success with series such as How To Get Away With Murder.
“You can’t change the choice you made. All you can do is not let it ruin you.”
-Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington)
Madam Secretary: This CBS series sees Tea Leoni play Dr Elizabeth McCord, a secretary of state trying to balance her job with her family life. Launched in 2014, it is now up to three seasons and is rating fairly well (eight to nine million per episode). The show was created by Barbara Hall, whose previous credits include Judging Amy, Joan of Arcadia and Homeland (which she co-executive produced). She has also written a bunch of novels over the years. Apparently, Hillary Clinton is a fan and binge-watches with hubby Bill.
“I’m fully prepared to live with the consequences of my actions. What I couldn’t live with were the consequences of my inactions.”
-Dr Elizabeth McCord (Tea Leoni)
Commander In Chief: This ABC show didn’t really take off but is worthy of a mention because it saw Geena Davis cast as the first female president of the US. Launched in 2005, it was created by Rod Lurie. However, he was replaced mid-run by Steven Bochco of NYPD Blue fame. This also didn’t work out, with Bochco replaced by Dee Johnson. Johnson wasn’t able to turn things round either – but it’s interesting to note she popped up as executive producer on The Good Wife and Boss, both of which feature below.
“So I say to the people of this nation: I am humbled by your greatness. I am humbled by the history being made here today, humbled by the notion that I am the first woman to hold this office. I’m humbled by the responsibilities that rest with me.”
-Mackenzie Allen (Geena Davis).
Designated Survivor: Kiefer Sutherland (24) stars as a low-ranking cabinet member who unexpectedly becomes US president after an attack wipes out the administration. The show is currently in season one and, after a strong start, is slipping in the ratings for ABC. Episode five attracted 5.9 million, compared to the 10 million who tuned in for launch. Distributed globally by Entertainment One International, the show was created by David Guggenheim (Safe House) and hails from The Mark Gordon Company (Grey’s Anatomy, Ray Donovan, Quantico, Criminal Minds).
“Capitol’s been attacked. Congress, cabinet… Eagle is gone. Sir, you are now the president of the United States. “
-Mike Ritter (LaMonica Garrett)
The Good Wife: CBS’s hit show was a legal/political drama about a woman who returns to a career in law after her husband is involved in a political corruption scandal. Created by Robert and Michelle King, the show was a big awards winner, securing five Emmys during its run. The Kings also made political satire Braindead for CBS but the show was cancelled after one season.
“When the door you’ve been knocking at finally swings open, you don’t ask why. You run through.”
-Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski)
Jack & Bobby: This was a WB Network series that ran for one season in 2004/2005. The show’s interesting premise centred on two brothers – one of whom would grow up to be president from 2041 to 2049. So it was a way of looking at their formative years, encouraging the audience to guess which one would turn out to have presidential credentials. The show was created by Greg Berlanti, Vanessa Taylor, Stecen Cohen and Brad Metzler. Berlanti, of course, has gone on to have a number of DC Comics-based superhero hits with The CW network.
“Grace used to say Jack and Bobby were like two sides of a coin. Without Bobby, Jack might never have learned compassion. Without Jack, Bobby might never have gained strength.”
-Future Courtney McCallister (Brenda Wehle)
Boss: This Starz series starred Kelsey Grammer as a Chicago mayor struggling with dementia. Although it generated a good response from critics, low ratings meant it only lasted two seasons. Starz chief Chris Albrecht told The Hollywood Reporter that Boss “didn’t resonate enough with the two constituents that are important to us: our subscribers and our distributors.” The show was created by Farhad Safinia, an Iranian-American screenwriter whose other credits include the movie Apocalyto (written with Mel Gibson).
“Spectators stand on the sidelines shaking their heads, lacking the balls. You know what I mean? When Truman nuked Japan, when Lincoln sent boys out to kill their cousins… you think they gave a shit about their approval ratings? Fuck the spectators.”
-Tom Kane (Kelsey Grammer)
In one of the least surprising renewal stories of the year, UK broadcaster ITV has commissioned a second series of ratings hit Victoria from Mammoth Screen. Scripted by Daisy Goodwin, the show has had an excellent first season – even managing to hold off strong competition from the BBC’s returning hit Poldark.
Series one launched in late August and is currently averaging around 7.7 million viewers, which makes it ITV’s top-performing drama of the year so far. ITV director of television, Kevin Lygo said: “Mammoth Screen and Daisy Goodwin have brought the characters so vividly to life in this series and we’re thrilled with the reception for Victoria. We’re pleased to be able to confirm Jenna Coleman and Tom Hughes will return to continue the story on ITV.” Just as significantly, Goodwin will again be writing and executive producing the series.
Season one starts with the young Victoria’s coronation and explores how she becomes increasingly sure-footed in the fields of politics and diplomacy. It also looks at her close relationship with Lord Melbourne and burgeoning romance with Prince Albert, her eventual husband. As with series one, the new season will be a coproduction with PBS Masterpiece.
Goodwin added: “Even though she reigned in the 19th century, Victoria is a heroine for our times. In the next series she faces the very modern dilemma of how to juggle children with her husband and her job. As Victoria will discover, it’s hard to be a wife, a mother and ruler of the most powerful nation on earth.”
Mammoth Screen’s Damien Timmer, another executive producer on the show, said: “Following the audience response to Victoria, we are delighted that Jenna Coleman will be returning to her throne for a second series. The next few years of Victoria’s reign are packed full of extraordinary real-life events, with constitutional crises, scandals at court and personal challenges aplenty for the Queen and Prince Albert. God Save the Queen!”
Meanwhile, in the US, the trend towards TV drama series revivals seems to be picking up pace. After CBS launched MacGyver this week with a decent 10.9 million audience, there are now reports that ABC is lining up a spin-off series based on the 1980s classic Magnum PI, which starred Tom Selleck. Echoing another recent trend in US TV, the plan is for the show to have a female lead – with Magnum’s daughter moving to Hawaii to take over the business.
The reboot business is in full swing now with The X-Files, Gilmore Girls, 24 and Prison Break all having been revived, or coming up. The new Magnum will be written by John Rogers, whose TNT series Leverage ran for five seasons from 2008 to 2012. Rogers also created TNT’s hit scripted series The Librarians.
Still in the US, there’s good news for fans of Atlanta, the new comedy from Donald Glover that airs on FX. The network has just announced a second season. It has also revealed that it is returning Better Things, another comedy that has been performing well. “It’s really gratifying to launch two new comedies that have received overwhelming critical acclaim right out of the gate and that are emblematic of FX’s award-winning brand,” said Nick Grad and Eric Schrier, heads of original programming for FX Networks and FX Productions. “It is clear to us Atlanta and Better Things have struck a nerve with viewers.”
Atlanta follows two young, black cousins as they try to make it rich out of rap. International buyers will get to see what the fuss is about when Fox brings the show to the Mipcom market in Cannes next month as part of its slate. Better Things is co-created by Pamela Adlon and Louis C.K. Adlon plays Sam, a woman trying to raise her three daughters, while also attempting to hold down a career in Hollywood. Still with Fox’s international ambition, the distribution arm of Fox Networks Group is also heading to Mipcom with Ron Howard’s forthcoming space epic Mars. The six-part series, about a fictitious mission to colonise the red planet in 2033, will receive its world premiere in Cannes ahead of its debut on National Geographic later this year.
Also in the US, The CW is developing a new supernatural series called Stick Man with Cameron Prosandeh (Helix) and Tim Kring (Heroes). Stick Man is about an amateur documentarian who returns to her hometown to chronicle the events of her brother’s murder and the ensuing trial. While there, she discovers evidence linking her brother’s death to supernatural events.
There was also more evidence this week of Netflix’s considerable clout in the international rights market following news that it has secured international streaming rights (excluding North America) to ABC drama Designated Survivor, starring Kiefer Sutherland. The deal was done with rights holder Entertainment One (eOne). Last month, Netflix also secured the rights to CBS’s highly anticipated new iteration of Star Trek, which is coming some time in 2017.
In one of the week’s more intriguing commissions, Verizon has greenlit a political comedy for its streaming service Go90. Executive produced by Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, the 6×30′ show is called Embeds. It explores five reporters covering the US presidential election and has been created by Scott Conroy and Peter Hamby. Go90also also recently commissioned a live-action series inspired by the Battlefield video game franchise.
Back in the UK, Scottish producer Synchronicity Films is developing a crime thriller based on Graeme Macrae Burnet novel His Bloody Project. The book, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, explores the sanity of a teenager convicted of a brutal triple murder in 1869 in a remote Scottish crofting community. Early discussions are underway with a major UK broadcaster, with screenwriters currently being considered.”
Claire Mundell, creative director at Synchronicity, said: “We are delighted to have discovered this wonderful novel on our own doorstep. It’s also great to work with an indie publisher [Saraband Imprint Contraband] that believes in backing undiscovered talent as much as we do.”
The autumn season has just started in the US – which means TV executives around the world will be watching with interest to see which new dramas live up to their pre-launch hype. This week, we look at some of the network shows that are buzzing.
Lethal Weapon: Movie reboots didn’t fare very well last year, with Rush Hour and Minority Report adaptations among those canned. But the buzz around Lethal Weapon has been pretty positive since the LA Screenings in May. Based on the iconic Mel Gibson/Danny Glover action franchise, the show centres on two cops with very different problems. The elder is returning to the job after a heart attack, while his new partner is reckless and borderline suicidal after the deaths of his wife and their unborn child. Clayne Crawford and Damon Wayans in the lead roles appear to have developed a good on-screen chemistry. The show premieres on Fox on Wednesday, September 21.
Designated Survivor: What’s not to like about a show that stars Kiefer Sutherland (24) as man who unexpectedly becomes president after an attack wipes out the US administration? Distributed globally by eOne International, this ABC show was created by David Guggenheim (Safe House) and hails from The Mark Gordon Company (Grey’s Anatomy, Ray Donovan, Quantico, Criminal Minds). Sutherland will be at Mipcom in Cannes next month to give a keynote speech, which should increase the show’s buzz on the international market. It premieres on Wednesday September 21.
This Is Us: A different kind of show to the above pair, This Is Us follows the stories of a group of people who share the same birthday. Critics have responded warmly to the opening episode and are comparing it to Parenthood, which ran for six seasons on NBC. Variety had some reservations about the show’s sustainability but still said: “This Is Us manages to both craft an intimate series of portraits and stitch them together. The result is an episode that allows the viewer to marvel at the beauty and mystery of life – at the surprising little grace notes of fate and commonality that bind us together – while getting to know the major characters and their difficulties.” The show was created by Dan Fogelman, whose credits include Tangled, Cars and Crazy, Stupid, Love. He also created the 2015 series Galavant. This Is Us is an NBC show that will premiere on Tuesday September 20.
Bull: CBS’s new line-up hasn’t attracted a particularly enthusiastic response from critics. But in a market starved of procedurals, Bull is a show to watch out for. It stars Michael Weatherly as a psychologist who runs a trial consulting firm and can read the minds of a jury and influence their verdict. Weatherly starred in NCIS for 13 years before switching to Bull, which means it will probably debut well. It is also regarded as a good fit for CBS. If it starts strongly, expect European buyers to be interested. The show debuts on Tuesday September 20.
Timeless: AdAge does a report each year with TV Guide listing the upcoming shows audiences are most excited by. It’s pretty accurate, with top-ranking shows generally getting picked up for a full season by networks. One that is showing up strongly this year is NBC’s Timeless, the latest in a flurry of time-travel shows. In this one, a criminal steals a time machine and tries to destroy America by altering past events like the Hindenburg disaster. A soldier, a history professor and a scientist try to stop him. Some critics have hammered the logic of the plot, but are predicting it will appeal to the same audience as Blindspot. There’s just a chance, though, that it will be this year’s Minority Report. Timeless will debut on NBC on Monday October 3.
The Pitch: Fox has led the way in on-screen diversity and The Pitch follows that pattern. It tells the story of pitcher Ginny Baker, who becomes the first woman to play in the major leagues (for the San Diego Padres). This column has previously discussed the problem of authenticity in sports dramas, but the good news here is that Major League Baseball has backed the show by allowing the use of its teams and logos in the story. Adweek said: “One of fall’s most ambitious pilots is also one of its best, with a compelling show that could appeal to both sports fans and viewers who like female-centric dramas. With Scandal delayed until midseason, this could resonate with fans of that show looking for an alternative on Thursdays at 21.00.” Interestingly, The Pitch was co-created by Dan Fogelman, who could find himself with two hits on his hands this year. It debuts on NBC on Thursday September 22.
Conviction: The highly regarded actor Hayley Atwell is back on TV after a couple of seasons as Marvel’s Agent Carter. Now she’s a brilliant but wayward lawyer who is given the job of running New York’s ‘conviction integrity unit,’ which investigates cases where innocent people may have ended up behind bars. Atwell may pull some Marvel fans over to this show, but it is generally regarded as a pretty safe procedural. If it rates well, however, it will be of interest to international buyers. The Conviction premieres on Monday October 3 on ABC.
Frequency: Inevitably, most of the pre-launch hype surrounds shows on the Big Four networks. But network number five, The CW, also has an interesting show on the way. Based on the 2000 movie, Frequency is another time-travel series in which a female cop discovers she is able to speak to her dead father via his old ham radio. Her attempts to save his life change the present in unforeseen ways. To fix the damage, she has to work with her father across time to solve a decades-old murder case. The AdAge/TV Guide survey rates this as a decent prospect. Premiere is Wednesday October 5.
Footnote: We decided to focus on the positives this week, but shows that already seem to have storm clouds overhead include ABC’s Notorious, CBS’s MacGyver and Fox’s The Exorcist. These seem the best tips for early cancellation at present.
As the creator of AMC shows Breaking Bad and its prequel Better Call Saul, and with writing and producing credits on The X-Files, Vince Gilligan’s place in the TV hall of fame is as secure as anybody’s. But he also has a couple of strikeouts to his name: X-Files spin-off The Lone Gunmen lasted a single season on Fox, while CBS’s Battle Creek shut down last year after just 13 episodes.
Maybe he is best suited to the morally ambiguous world of cable TV – which would be good news given that his next project is for HBO. Called Raven, the limited series will explore infamous cult leader Jim Jones and the Jonestown Massacre in Guyana in 1978. It is based on a book called Raven: The Untold Story of Jim Jones by Tim Reiterman, a journalist who survived the tragedy.
Gilligan, who will work alongside Breaking Bad director Michelle McLaren, won’t have any shortage of source material. Aside from the book, the Jonestown massacre has been the subject of a film and a couple of high-profile documentaries. He will need to write quickly, however, because A&E is also reported to be developing a drama about Jones as part of a series exploring US cults.
At the other end of the spectrum in terms of subject matter, venerable TV producer Dick Wolf is working with former One Direction band member Zayn Malik on a new series for NBC. Also involving Universal TV, Unigram and First Access Entertainment, it follows the formation of a successful boy band, exploring both the excitement and the pressure that comes with global fame.
The series, called Boys, is being written by Sherri Cooper Landsman and Jennifer Levin. Landsman and Levin have worked together on a number of shows including Brothers & Sisters, Unforgettable and, most recently, Beauty and the Beast. The latter, which launched in 2012 on CBS, ends tomorrow after four seasons on air – which makes the new show very timely.
“It’s exciting to be diving into this project with such passionate and prolific producers,” said Jennifer Salke, president of NBC Entertainment. “Zayn brings an authentic point of view to this world where kids are catapulted into fame at a dizzying speed. On top of our excitement around the ideas being discussed, we have a lot of respect for the project’s musical and digital ambitions.”
Still in the US, basketball superstar LeBron James’s production company Springhill Entertainment has sold a sports drama pilot to NBC. The as-yet-untitled show is about a brilliant doctor who specialises in treating the world’s greatest sports stars, with renowned orthopaedic/sports surgeon Dr James Andrews on board as an executive consultant. The script will be written by Matt O’Neill, whose main credit is the feature film Bait & Switch. O’Neill will work alongside Nicolas Falacci and Cheryl Heuton (Numb3rs) with the three all expected to be involved if the show progresses to series. For more on dramas with sporting subject matter, go here.
In mainland Europe, meanwhile, France 2 and ProSieben have been announced as the broadcast partners for Les Rivières Pourpres (Crimson Rivers), a new TV series from Luc Besson’s EuropaCorp and Maze Pictures. Based on a crime novel by Jean-Christophe Grange, the story has already had some success as a movie series starring Jean Reno (2000 and 2004). It follows two detectives investigating a series of gruesome murders.
Grange is involved in the writing of the series and will work alongside Franck Ollivier. Among his many credits, Ollivier helped adapt Besson’s Taxi film franchise into Taxi Brooklyn for NBC and was also part of the writing team that created Jo, an English-language French police procedural series created by Rene Balcer.
Although Ollivier has experience working on series with a French-English axis, Crimson Rivers will be produced in French. Explaining why, EuropaCorp’s Thomas Anargyros told Variety: “A few years ago, we would have made this series in English, but we now feel confident enough to shoot it in French. Our partners have also gained more confidence in our ability to produce world-class content with French talent.”
Ollivier’s credits run all the way back to 1995 and include Zodiaque, Le Maitre du Zodiaque and Interpol. Aside from Crimson Rivers, recent work includes Instinct and La Vengeance Aux Yeux Clairs. In the latter, which debuted last week on TF1, a woman returns to the French Riviera 10 years after the murders of her mother and brother, with a new identity and a desire for justice. The show picked up 6.3 million viewers across its first two episodes.
In other news, producer/distributor Entertainment One (eOne) has unveiled a strong slate of drama for next month’s Mipcom market, including Kiefer Sutherland thriller Designated Survivor, legal drama Conviction, hostage drama Ransom and crime series Cardinal.
We’ve discussed the first three in previous columns, but Cardinal is perhaps less well known. Adapted from Giles Blunt’s novel Forty Words for Sorrow, the first of six books in the John Cardinal Mysteries series, the story is based around the murder of a 13-year-old whose body is discovered in a mineshaft.
The drama is produced by Sienna Films and eOne in association with Bell Media’s CTV, with the financial participation of the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corporation, the Canada Media Fund and the Cogeco Program Development Fund, and with the assistance of the Ontario Film and Television Tax Credit and the Canadian Film or Video Production Tax Credit. So it’s Canadian!
The series has been adapted by Aubrey Nealon, who also serves as executive producer and showrunner. Nealon has a rock-solid set of writing credits that encompasses series such as Flashpoint, Rookie Blue, Saving Hope and Orphan Black. Anyone interested in his work on Orphan Black should look at this BBC blog.
These days, when a network cancels a scripted show, there is often a call from the creators, the acting talent and the hardcore fanbase for someone else to step in and save it.
Usually, this plea falls on deaf ears, but there have been a few instances of shows saved from extinction by third-party channels and platforms. Among the best examples are Ripper Street, The Mindy Project and Longmire, all of which were saved by the intervention of SVoD platforms (Amazon, Hulu and Netflix respectively).
To this list of last-minute rescues we must now add country-and-western scripted series Nashville, produced by Lionsgate TV, ABC Studios and Opry Entertainment. The show aired for four seasons on ABC before being cancelled last month.
However, weeks of frenetic wheeler-dealing by Lionsgate TV group president Sandra Stern has resulted in the greenlight for a fifth season, which will air on Viacom-owned country-and-western channel CMT and Hulu (which will stream episodes of Nashville the day after they appear on CMT).
“CMT heard the fans,” said CMT president Brian Philips. “The wave of love and appreciation they have unleashed for Nashville has been overwhelming. Nashville is a perfect addition to our line-up. We see our fans and ourselves in this show and we will treasure it like no other network. Nashville belongs on CMT.”
Equally effusive was Craig Erwich, senior VP and head of content at Hulu. “Nashville has long been a fan favourite show on Hulu and we are so proud to continue to make new episodes available for fans to stream the day after they air. We look forward to bringing more episodes of this series to its passionate and devoted audience.”
“CMT and Hulu are the perfect combination for Nashville and we want to thank the incredible fans for their unwavering support – #Nashies, you helped make this possible,” added Kevin Beggs, chairman of the Lionsgate Television Group. “We also want to extend our appreciation to the state of Tennessee, city of Nashville, and Ryman Hospitality for their unending support.”
While the resurrection of the show has very much been presented as a victory for fan power, there’s also a strong business case for all involved.
CMT, for example, will be drooling at the show’s audience. In a press statement, the partners on season five said: “The recently wrapped fourth season of Nashville attracted more than eight million weekly viewers across all platforms and ranks as one of television’s most DVR’d series. The series is particularly strong with women 18-34. Out of more than 180 broadcast dramas since fall 2012, Nashville ranks in the top 20.”
While it’s highly unlikely that all of the ABC fanbase will follow the show to CMT, Nashville is almost certain to deliver CMT an audience that is at the upper end of its usual anticipated viewing range.
For Hulu, the risk of getting involved is minimal because it already shows Nashville and will have a good idea of the kind of audience it can expect to attract. As for Lionsgate, the deal is about much more than just the US TV market. The series airs in 82 international territories, making it a significant asset in the distribution arena.
There is also the small matter of music spin-offs. Since its launch, the show has inspired 10 soundtracks, which have collectively sold more than one million album units and more than five million single-track downloads. As an added bonus, it has been nominated for Emmy, Golden Globe and Critics Choice awards.
The question is, will we see more deals like this? Well, it seems pretty likely. With more and more cable and SVoD channels in the market for scripted content, it stands to reason that they will be attracted to franchises that have built up brand awareness.
Another story that kind of underlines this point is the news that Netflix has replaced BBC America as the US coproducer of season two of The Last Kingdom, a historical drama that also involves BBC2. For Netflix, the beauty of this deal is that it has some tangible evidence of the show’s appeal in the US (the first season aired on BBC America). Armed with that knowledge, it has secured rights to the show in the US, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Germany, Japan, Spain and Portugal. It will also add season one of the Carnival Films-produced show to its US portfolio later this year.
Aside from these deals, this week has more of an acquisition than a production feel to it. In the UK, for example, Amazon Prime Video has acquired two French dramas – spy thriller The Bureau and political drama Baron Noir from StudioCanal. The Bureau follows agents who assume false identities as they seek out and identify targets and sources, while Baron Noir centres on a French politician seeking revenge against his political enemies.
StudioCanal has also sold a package of shows to SBS Australia, including The Five, Section Zéro and Baron Noir. Previously, SBS acquired Spotless and The Last Panthers from StudioCanal. Commenting, Marshall Heald, director of TV and online content at SBS Australia, said: “Gritty crime thrillers like The Five, political dramas like Baron Noir and dark sci-fi series like Section Zéro bring something fresh and exciting to our world drama slate.”
Back in the UK, UKTV-owned channel Alibi has acquired crime series Crossing Lines from StudioCanal. It has also picked up US medical crime drama Rosewood from 20th Century Fox Television.
In Canada, meanwhile, Bell Media streaming service CraveTV has acquired exclusive SVoD rights to a slate of new US broadcast dramas. Among these are the Kiefer Sutherland political thriller Designated Survivor, legal drama Notorious, film adaptation Training Day and romantic drama Time After Time. Also in Canada, specialty channel Vision TV has acquired the first season of comedy drama Agatha Raisin, which just aired on Sky1 UK.
BBC2 in the UK is having a great year in terms of its drama output. The first part of 2016 saw a solid performance for US acquisition American Crime Story: The People vs OJ Simpson, while tomorrow sees the much-anticipated return of Peaky Blinders for season three.
Sandwiched between the two was the third season of Line of Duty, which has proven to be a huge hit for the channel. So successful, in fact, there are reports that season four, which is scheduled to air in 2017, will move to flagship channel BBC1.
As the dust settles on Line of Duty’s ratings, various claims are being made, but probably the most eye-catching is that the series is BBC2’s most successful drama in 15 years. With an average audience of just under five million per episode (live+7 day ratings), it even managed to outperform Wolf Hall, which was a strong performer in 2015 with an average audience of 4.4 million.
Line of Duty focuses on the activities of an anti-corruption unit led by superintendent Ted Hastings (played by Adrian Dunbar). It is the latest masterpiece from Jed Mercurio, widely acknowledged as one of the top talents working in British TV.
Mercurio actually started out as a doctor before breaking into the business with acclaimed medical drama Cardiac Arrest in the mid-1990s. Since then he has had pretty consistent success as a TV writer while also carving out a decent career as a novelist. Indeed, his second TV series was an adaptation of his first novel, Bodies.
He has proven particularly adept at creating procedurals with a twist. Aside from Cardiac Arrest, Bodies and Line of Duty, for example, he also created Critical, a medical drama for Sky1 set in a fictional trauma centre.
He has also tried his hand at a number of other sub-genres of the scripted TV business. The Grimleys (1999-2001), for example, was a comedy drama, while Frankenstein (2007) was a modern-day re-imagination of Mary Shelley’s iconic gothic novel. He also set up Left Bank’s long-running action-adventure series Strike Back (2010) and adapted DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover for BBC1 last year.
Within the UK system, Mercurio is unusual in that he is more akin to a US showrunner than a European writer/auteur. Typically, he will write and produce his shows – sometimes directing as well. As a consequence of this level of control, Mercurio is well placed to ensure his creative vision hits the screen.
Mercurio recently gave a very insightful interview to Den of Geek in which he distinguished his work from procedurals that delve into the private lives of their protagonists. “Part of me isn’t that interested as a person and a viewer in people’s personal lives. I’m more interested in what people do in the workplace and what goals they set themselves. I guess that’s why I write a lot of precinct drama. (There’s often) an expectation, or pressure sometimes even, to feel that the way to succeed with drama is to see all sides of a character by going into their personal lives, even if you’ve got nothing to say.”
It’s interesting to note that Line of Duty’s ratings have been building across the first three seasons, giving it the feel of a show that slipped under the radar but is now attracting new swathes of fans. All of which augurs well for season four, regardless of the channel it airs on.
In the US, this is a critical time of year for the scripted business as the major networks decide which pilots to take forward to series. Most announcements will trickle through in the next few weeks, though a few new shows have already been given the go-ahead.
One of these is ABC’s Designated Survivor, which will star Kiefer Sutherland (24) and is being written by David Guggenheim (Safe House, Bad Boys 3). Another is Taken, a spin-off from the hit movie franchise. The TV version, for NBC, will be penned by Alex Cary (credits include Homeland, Lie To Me).
Not yet greenlit but looking good is Fox’s Lethal Weapon, another reboot of a movie franchise. This one is being scripted by Matt Miller, whose writing credits include ABC’s short-lived Forever.
Also, this week, DQ’s sister site C21 Media reports that long-running CBS drama The Good Wife is being adapted for the South Korean market by broadcaster TVN. The show, created by Robert and Michelle King, comes to the end of its seventh and final season in the US this week. All told, that means TVN will have 155 episodes to work with.
The Korean version of the show will be produced by Jung-Hyo Lee (I Need Romance, Heartless City) and written by Han Sang-Woon. Like the CBS original, it will centre on the complicated relationships of people in the legal system working against a backdrop of scandal and corruption.
Interestingly, this is not the first adaptation Han Sang-Woon has worked on. Last year, he wrote Spy for KBS2, based on Israeli drama The Gordin Cell. Previously, he wrote the movie My Ordinary Love Story. Commenting on the production, TVN parent company CJ E&M told C21: “For the Korean version of The Good Wife, we focused on the casting and were successful in casting Korea’s biggest actress, Jeon Do-Yeon – who has won many awards in her career, including best actress at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival – in the lead role, marking her return to television after 11 years.”
Finally, continuing the writers-as-brands theme we discussed in last week’s column, Amazon is about to air ITV period drama Doctor Thorne in the US (May 20). When it does, it will call the series Julian Fellowes Presents Doctor Thorne, another indicator of the marketing leverage that leading writers increasingly possess.
It’s very much in vogue to talk about the quality of scripted series coming out of HBO, Showtime, AMC, FX, Netflix and Amazon. But this week let’s raise a glass to Starz, which has picked up Golden Globe nominations for two dramas: Outlander and Flesh and Bone.
When Starz made its first meaningful move into original production with Spartacus: Blood and Sand, it didn’t look like it would be a contender for industry gongs. But under the leadership of Chris Albrecht and Carmi Zlotnik, the US channel has really raised its game – delivering shows like Power, Black Sails and, coming in 2016, The Girlfriend Experience – as well as the above-mentioned series.
Outlander, based on the novels by Diana Gabaldon, is produced by Sony Pictures Television and Left Bank Pictures and was developed for TV by Ronald D Moore. Moore also heads a writing team that, in season one, included five credited writers (Moore, Toni Graphia, Ira Steven Behr, Anne Kenney and Matthew B Roberts).
Moore, who wrote the opening two episodes of season one, is still just 51. But his extensive writing credits include Star Trek: The Next Generation, Battlestar Galactica and Syfy series Helix. He was also reported to be working on a TV reboot of movie A Knight’s Tale for ABC.
Flesh and Bone, meanwhile, is an eight-part miniseries about the dysfunctional but glamorous world of ballet. Created by Moira Walley-Beckett, it started airing on Starz on November 8 and is currently five episodes through its one and only season. Walley-Beckett’s career to date has seen her win a Primetime Emmy for her work as a writer on AMC’s Breaking Bad. She was also a writer-producer on ABC’s short-lived period series Pan Am.
Elsewhere, fans of Fox thriller 24 will be delighted to hear that the show’s star Kiefer Sutherland is to headline a new ABC series entitled Designated Survivor. The drama, which has been ordered straight-to-series, focuses on a junior US cabinet member who is unexpectedly appointed president after a huge attack kills everyone above him in the line of succession. The production company behind the show is Mark Gordon Co Studios (Quantico) and the writer will be David Guggenheim.
Guggenheim’s major credits to date are movies – most notably the Denzel Washington/Ryan Reynolds thriller Safe House. He is also working on a sequel to Safe House and a new instalment in the cult Bad Boys franchise. The drama is ABC’s first new scripted series for the 2016/17 and follows on from a decent showing for Quantico.
If this is the golden age of TV drama, then one has to ask why so many old movies and TV series are being revived. Still, it’s good news for writers. The latest beneficiary is Javier Grillo-Marxuach, a former Lost writer (seasons one and two) who was been signed up to write a reboot of NBC’s cult series Xena: Warrior Princess.
The chances of Xena getting into production seem pretty good for a couple of reasons. Firstly, because of the current trend towards action-adventure shows with female leads. Secondly, because the show is popular internationally, suggesting a successful reboot could be a money-spinner for NBC’s distribution division.
Another show to secure a nomination at this year’s Golden Globes is Fox’s ratings hit Empire. Unsurprisingly, Fox has asked the show’s co-creator Lee Daniels to come up with a follow-up series. Daniels, who is currently casting the pilot, is co-writing the new series with Tom Donaghy.
Although the programme doesn’t yet have a title, it will follow the fortunes of a girl group hoping to make it in the music business. Donaghy started his career as a playwright but, like many of his peers, is now active in TV. Credits before now include The Whole Truth, Without a Trace and The Mentalist.
Another project in the news this month is Lookout Point’s Parisian fashion drama The Collection. Set in the aftermath of the Second World War, the eight-hour show has been picked up by Amazon and will be written by Oliver Goldstick. Goldstick’s credits include Desperate Housewives, Ugly Betty and, notably, Pretty Little Liars (PLL), for which he has written 30 episodes. He also co-created the short-lived PLL spin-off Ravenswood with I Marlene King and Joseph Dougherty.
One project in search of a writer is AMC’s new adaptation of Joe Hill horror novel NOS4A2. The story centres a young woman with an uncanny talent for finding lost things – a gift that is gradually destroying her mind. She encounters Charlie Manx, who abducts children in his 1938 Rolls-Royce Wraith and sucks their souls to keep himself young. The licence plate on the Rolls (NOS4A2) gives you a clue as to what kind of character he is.