Based on 2005 hitman mockumentary The Magician, Mr Inbetween stars Scott Ryan as criminal-for-hire Ray Shoesmith: a father, ex-husband, boyfriend and best friend who must juggle his personal commitments with being a contract killer.
In this DQTV interview, Ryan and director Nash Edgerton talk about the long road to Mr Inbetween and their approach to making it like a feature film.
Speaking at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, they also talk about creating the character of Ray and how the story structure lends itself to television.
The six-episode season, written by Ryan and directed by Edgerton, also stars Damon Herriman, Justin Rosniak, Brooke Satchwell, Jackson Tozer, Nicholas Cassim, Chika Yasumura and Matt Nable.
The series debuted in the US on FX and on Foxtel in Australia in September and has been renewed for a second season to air next year.
Mr Inbetween was shot in Australia and produced by Blue-Tongue Films and Jungle Entertainment in association with FX Productions, Screen Australia and Create NSW. Ryan, Edgerton and Jason Burrows are executive producers and Michele Bennett is producer. The series is sold internationally by Fox Networks Group Content Distribution.
Click here to read DQ’s interview with director Edgerton.
Factual dramas are a staple of the scripted television landscape and can often be relied upon to bring in big ratings. DQ explores how these series are developed and brought to air, with contributions from the writers behind Waco and Kiri.
It’s a well-established fact that telling true stories through the lens of TV drama can work wonders in terms of ratings. Tanya Lopez, executive VP of movies, limited series and original movie acquisitions for A+E’s Lifetime and Lifetime Movie Network, says: “The right story can be a magnet for curious audiences. That feeling of ‘I can’t believe this happened’ is a real hook.” Beyond the initial thrill of recognising real-life events, Lopez says “viewers then really like to get into the detail of a story, to find out things they didn’t know or see a new point of view.”
One of the most recent true-life stories to roll off the Lifetime production line is Cocaine Grandmother, which stars Catherine Zeta-Jones as Griselda Blanco, a highly successful Miami-based drug lord who is reputed to have ordered 200 murders during her reign of terror in the 1970s and 1980s.
As a starting point for true-life projects, Lopez says she likes to have some IP to work with, such as a book or a documentary, but adds that Lifetime’s approach is not to take too much dramatic licence with its central characters. “The audience trusts us to tell the truth and we don’t want to deceive them. Where the dramatic licence does tend to come in is with the fourth or fifth lead characters where you might bundle a number of real-life figures into one composite. This can help to provide a frame of reference for the audience.”
In the case of 2017 real-life drama Flint, which investigated a toxic water scandal in the state of Michigan, “the story is told through the eyes of three women – two of whom are real-life characters that we had the rights to and a third who is a composite,” says Lopez. “That allowed us to draw attention to the issues affecting the people of Flint in the right way.”
Historically, factual dramas have tended to live in the world of feature-length biopics or miniseries. But if there has been a recent trend, it has been towards extended exposition over a number of episodes or, in some cases, seasons. FX proved this could work in 2016 with American Crime Story: The People vs OJ Simpson, a superbly cast series that won awards, achieved strong ratings in the US and sold in international distribution.
Based on Jeffrey Toobin’s book, The Run of His Life: The People v OJ Simpson, the tone of this Ryan Murphy-produced series was harder edged than the content on Lifetime. And for this reason it also attracted some criticism from those depicted in the series. In an interview with The New York Post, Mark Furhman, a police officer who comes out of the series in a bad light, said: “In a time when Americans read less and less and investigative journalism is on vacation, it is sad that this movie will be the historical word on this trial.” Other critics included relatives of the two murder victims, Ron Goldman and Nicole Brown, who complained about a lack of consultation.
These complaints highlight a potential challenge with fact-based drama, which is that there are inevitably going to be differing opinions about how events are portrayed. FX has run into a similar situation with its new Crime Story series: The Assassination of Gianni Versace (pictured top), which launched this winter.
As with the OJ project, there is a best-selling book at the heart of the project – Vulgar Favors by Maureen Orth. The book is generally recognised as well researched but has been dismissed by the Versace family as scurrilous. In a statement, the family said: “Since Versace did not authorise the book on which it is partly based nor has it taken part in the writing of the screenplay, this TV series should be considered as fiction.”
FX has stuck to its guns, saying it “stands by the meticulous reporting of Ms Orth.” And short of a legal challenge by the Versace family, it’s likely that the only practical outcome of the dispute will be more promotion for both channel and brand.
So what draws TV writers to these projects? The potential for ratings can’t be ignored, but just as often it seems rooted in indignation that a story has not been adequately reported or followed up on by authorities. Nicole Taylor’s award-winning Three Girls is a compelling insight into the lives of vulnerable teenage girls, while Jimmy McGovern’s work is often an expression of the injustice that those involved feel. Recently, McGovern wrote Reg for the BBC, in which Tim Roth played Reg Keys, the father of a murdered serviceman who stood against Tony Blair in the 2005 UK general election. McGovern also penned ITV’s Hillsborough, a dramatisation of the 1989 Hillsborough disaster in which 96 football supporters died. This film has been screened four times since it first aired in 1996 and also laid the foundations for a new ITV production called Anne, made by World Productions (Little Boy Blue).
Back in the US, Paramount Network has just aired Waco, a six-part miniseries about the 1993 Waco siege, a stand-off between US law enforcement agencies and a religious group called The Branch Davidians that were holed up in a Texas compound. After 51 days, the stand-off ended with 76 people being killed. According to the show’s writers, Drew and John Erick Dowdle, the trigger for this project was reading A Place Called Waco, an account of the siege by one of the few survivors, David Thibodeau. That, say the brothers, was the start of a painstaking research process that lasted four years and involved interviews with participants on both sides, as well as months of listening to transcripts and examining forensic reports.
The end result was that “we uncovered a different story to the one we’d been hearing for years,” says John Erick. “Waco is such a seminal moment in US history but there is so little about the people who were in the compound – how they got there and what they were like. They are presented as mindless cultists but a lot of them were discerning, educated people. We wanted to get beyond the image most people have of Waco, which is of tanks rolling in to break the siege.”
Waco tells the story from both sides, exploring the law enforcement failures and the personality of David Koresh, the charismatic leader of the Branch Davidians (played by Taylor Kitsch). While Koresh had his dark, disturbing side, he was a far more compelling character than the writers expected. “We went in expecting to find a crazy, malicious person, but he had a funny, light-hearted side that appealed to people,” says Drew. “For all his flaws, he was a gifted communicator and leader.”
A key challenge for the writers, however, was finding a way into the law enforcement side of the story. “Eventually we found it in the shape of FBI chief negotiator Gary Noesner, whose involvement allowed us to provide a compassionate two-sided version of events,” John Erick says. “Gary ran negotiations for the first part of the siege and was convinced that any attempt to take the compound by force would be doomed to fail. But ultimately he was overruled.”
‘Why now?’ is always a key question in the decision to tell a fact-based story. In Waco’s case, Drew says the brothers were drawn to the project because the issue of proportionate law enforcement remains critical. “If anything, Waco seems even more relevant now than when we started researching. The breakdown of truth we are witnessing makes Waco seem even more relevant, because it was a kind of Kafkaesque nightmare played out on the world stage.”
Of course, one of the problems with fact-based drama is that writers are inevitably limited by the parameters of their subject matter. For this reason, there is also a strong strand of work that takes a fictionalised approach to factual scenarios. UK writer Jack Thorne, for example, has produced a couple of compelling pieces in this vein – National Treasure, which tackled the high-profile issue of historic sex abuse allegations against celebrities, and Kiri, which delved into the raw and emotive world of interracial adoption and fostering.
“My starting point is to explore stories I don’t know the answers to,” Thorne explains. “The issue behind National Treasure felt very tricky to me – because the police felt they had to put people’s names in the spotlight to encourage potential victims to come forward. But this created a presumption of guilt.”
Kiri started with another unanswerable question, says Thorne, arising from the notion that black children should only be adopted by families of their own ethnicity. “But what do you do about the fact that there are more black children awaiting adoption than can be placed within black families?”
Thorne says he particularly likes “talking to experts who are passionate about what they do and have a sense of what is morally right.” Some of this clearly creeps into Kiri, in which Sarah Lancashire plays Miriam, a social worker hung out to dry by the system because a judgement call seemingly leads to a bad outcome. Flawed and impetuous she may be, but most viewers will come away from Kiri believing the world would be a better place if there were more Miriams to turn to.
Thorne shares some of the Dowdles’ concerns about the dissemination of information, observing how “Twitter is sending us all mad with what it is doing to the news agenda. What I really try to do with all my stuff is encourage a discussion afterwards. TV is great at generating debate, and I love that.”
The importance of fact-based drama has also been evident in Australia, where a string of high-profile biopics have played a key role in helping the domestic scripted sector bounce back.
Recent biopics have included dramas about INXS frontman Michael Hutchence and tycoons Kerry Packer, Gina Rinehart and Alan Bond, while on the way are FremantleMedia productions about movie stars Paul Hogan and Olivia Newton-John.
Interestingly, the Aussie thirst for biopics has thrown up a couple of other issues with factual drama – namely that good subjects can soon run out and the stories don’t necessarily travel well overseas. At a recent Screen Producers Australia event in Melbourne, Posie Graeme-Evans, who created McLeod’s Daughters, speculated about whether the industry had reached “peak ‘Famous Australian,’” adding: “Biopics based on the B-list… are not quite the same.”
And while biopics “play brilliantly at home” she continued, “time and sales have suggested that not all do quite so well in the overseas market.”
The television landscape is awash with series set in alternative – and not particularly bright – futures. Stephen Arnell casts his eye over the dystopian series on screen, and also finds sci-fi series with a more optimistic outlook.
All-conquering AI, robots that are more human than human, apps that can mimic any possible experience, egomaniacal billionaires searching for eternal life, a world wreathed in perpetual smog, unstoppable viruses, re-animated corpses, Nazi victors in the Second World War and the knock on the door from black-garbed members of the secret police.
One would think that in a world with Donald J Trump as US president, Brexit, North Korea, Russia, global warming, cyber warfare and other woes, viewers would be looking for escapist entertainment. But perhaps counter-intuitively, the vision of an even more dire future provides some comfort in the present.
Dystopian drama has become a major TV trend over recent years, and it’s showing no sign of stopping, although there are some signs of possible fatigue, with lacklustre audiences in the UK for SS-GB (BBC1, 2017), Channel 4’s Electric Dreams (2017-18) and the recent Hard Sun (BBC1, 2018).
All had very different themes. SS-GB envisioned a Nazi occupation of the UK, Electric Dreams is an anthology series based on the work of hard sci-fi author Philip K Dick and Hard Sun was a police thriller set in a pre-apocalypse London.
In terms of the BBC1 dramas, it could be said that the rather bleak material was better suited to sister channel BBC2, while the hit-and-miss nature of portmanteau series such as Electric Dreams are known to sometimes struggle to find audiences – with the obvious exception of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror (the former C4 show now at home on Netflix).
In the US, Syfy’s Incorporated (2016-17), a Matt Damon/Ben Affleck production set in a US ruled by corporations folded after one season, as did the channel’s exploitation Death Race homage Blood Drive (2017).
Are we approaching ‘peak dystopia?’ Not just yet. In fact, not by a long chalk.
It must be noted that anticipation was high for the second seasons of The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu) and Westworld (HBO), both of which premiered recently and have been well received. Viewers are now eagerly awaiting season three of The Man in the High Castle (Amazon Prime), while Black Mirror goes from strength to strength, with filming on season five beginning recently. And AMC’s future feudal Samurai-style society drama Into the Badlands returned in April for a third run.
Netflix’s Brazilian sci-fi series 3% deals with a world very much divided into the haves and have-nots; after favourable reactions to 2016’s debut run, the drama returned for season two on April 27.
On cable, dystopian series continue to thrive. The 100 (The CW) returned for a fifth season on April 24, The Colony came back for a third run on May 2 and Van Helsing (Syfy) had a third season order in December 2017.
Netflix’s Altered Carbon (pictured top) launched to mixed reviews this February – there was high praise for the set design and production values but it was also criticised by some as owing too much to Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner (1982) and for objectifying its female characters.
Weeks after Altered Carbon dropped, Netflix also released two dystopian movies – Duncan Jones’s generally slated Mute (which shared a similar visual palate to Altered Carbon) and Alex Garland (Ex Machina)’s well-reviewed Annihilation – which may have been overkill in such a short space of time.
Data from Parrot Analytics suggests the budget-busting Altered Carbon’s patchy performance could make a sophomore season unlikely.
This year will see new dystopian drama on our screens in addition to returning series. Last week, continuing its interest in the genre, Netflix dropped the Danish thriller The Rain, which is being touted by some as its answer to The Walking Dead, except with a distinct young-adult skew.
The show is set after a brutal virus wipes out most of the population, as two young siblings embark on a perilous search for safety.
The fact the virus is spread through precipitation has led some to draw somewhat unfortunate comparisons to Chubby Rain, the fictional ‘film within a film’ in the Steve Martin/Eddie Murphy comedy Bowfinger.
ABC’s The Crossing, meanwhile, debuted on April 2. The show centres on an influx of refugees in present-day Oregon, but with the twist that they are from a war-torn USA, 180 years in the future.
Starring Steve Zahn (War for the Planet of the Apes, Treme), The Crossing debuted with a modest 5.5 million viewers, with audiences declining for subsequent episodes.
On May 19, HBO will premiere its feature-length version of Fahrenheit 451, an adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s sci-fi classic that depicts a totalitarian society where books are outlawed and burned by ‘firemen.’
Fahrenheit 451 takes its title from the autoignition temperature of paper. The book was last adapted for the screen in 1966 by French auteur filmmaker Francois Truffaut and was his only English-language movie. HBO’s version boasts a stellar cast including Michael Shannon (The Shape of Water) and Michael B Jordan (Black Panther). Shannon has previously worked with Fahrenheit 451 director Ramin Bahrani on the award-winning foreclosure drama 99 Homes (2014).
On the horizon from Fremantle’s UFA Fiction (Deutschland 83) is Kelvin’s Book, from art-house film writer/director Michael Haneke (The Piano Teacher, Hidden). An English-language project, the 10×60′ series tells the story of a group of young people in the not-too-distant future who are “forced to make an emergency landing outside of their home and are confronted with the actual face of their home country for the first time.”
Next year sees the debut of Amazon Prime Video/Liberty Global’s London-set series The Feed, which “centres on the family of the man who invented an omnipresent technology called The Feed. Implanted into nearly everyone’s brain, The Feed enables people to share information, emotions and memories instantly. But when things start to go wrong and users become murderous, they struggle to control the monster they have unleashed.”
Guy Burnet, Nina Toussaint White, David Thewlis and Michelle Fairley will star in the psychological thriller, which will be distributed by All3Media International.
One new project that many spectators now believe may never make it to the screen is HBO’s Confederate, as creators David Benioff and DB Weiss (Game of Thrones) are now on board the Star Wars franchise – and the show’s concept of a continuing Southern slave-owning state has proved highly controversial in the current US political climate.
FX has recently ordered a pilot of Y: The Last Man, set in a world with only one surviving male – with strong production credentials from co-showrunners Michael Green (Logan, Bladerunner 2049, American Gods) and Aida Mashaka Croal (Turn, Luke Cage).
Israeli VoD service/cablenet HOT TV will debut Autonomies this year, which imagines the present-day country divided by a wall into two Jewish states – secular in Tel Aviv and ultra-orthodox in Jerusalem.
And to round off the dystopian shows in development, Amazon recently announced a series based on William Gibson’s The Peripheral, set in a bleak not-too-distant future (and beyond), with the Westworld team of Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan as showrunners.
Syfy’s 2015 miniseries adaptation of Arthur C Clarke’s Childhood’s End must take the prize for one of the most downbeat endings ever – concluding as it does in the total destruction of the Earth, after the planet’s mutated psychic children have been subsumed into an all-powerful alien ‘overmind.’
But lest we fall into total despair, it should be recognised that there are actually a few sci-fi TV dramas that depict a future that isn’t unrelentingly grim.
The Star Trek franchise is notable for showing an optimistic view of the times to come, with mankind becoming a force for good in the galaxy after (with notable exceptions such as Harry Mudd) curbing its greed and war-mongering.
Seth McFarlane’s affectionate Trek tribute The Orville (Fox) also has rosier take on the future, whileNetflix’s Lost in Space reboot has a not-entirely-pessimistic vision of humanity in the 21st century.
Hulu/Ch4’s upcoming Beau Willimon-scripted Martian colony drama The First (starring Sean Penn and Natasha McElhone) appears to promise a relatively upbeat approach, or at least one that’s not tipped totally in the direction of dystopian misery.
The long-running Stargate SG1 and its spin-offs portrayed a universe that was inhabited by at least a few alien species willing to befriend mankind rather than instantly vaporise Earth.
Meanwhile, Doctor Who (BBC1) generally takes a more upbeat road, as befits its family audience. Although end-of-the-world scenarios and alien domination feature frequently, the Doctor usually conveys a positive attitude, occasionally (in some incarnations) to the point of what some may deem mania.
As a host of scripted series find inspiration in the 1980s, DQ speaks to the creatives behind these shows to find out how they recreated the era – and why it remains so popular almost 30 years after the decade ended.
It’s hard to believe shoulder pads and neon clothing were once fashionable. But take a look at any number of television shows on air today and you might think time has stood still since the 1980s, such is the number of scripted series now set during the decade.
Spy thriller The Americans, tech series Halt & Catch Fire, various instalments of Shane Meadows miniseries This is England, Argentine gangster drama Historia de un Clan, British series Brief Encounters and Black Mirror’s Emmy-winning season three episode San Junipero (pictured above) have all fuelled this trend, in which series largely use the period as the backdrop for stories centring on historical, political or cultural events that took place during the decade. For others, such as short-lived Sex & the City prequel The Carrie Diaries, it suits the age and sensibilities of its fashion-conscious characters.
The show that has arguably done more than any to inspire nostalgic recollections of the 1980s is Netflix’s Stranger Things, in which co-creators Ross and Matt Duffer turned a paranormal murder mystery into a love letter to their childhood. Inspired by the works of Stephen King and Steven Spielberg, the show, which returns for a second season this autumn, is loved as much for the use of walkie-talkies and Dungeons & Dragons as it is for introducing viewers to a parallel dimension known as the Upside Down.
“Fortunately it’s not the 1780s,” remarks production designer Chris Trujillo, who was tasked with creating and dressing the fictional Indiana town of Hawkins, both at a studio lot and on location in and around Atlanta. “A lot of this stuff is very collectible and very available, so with a thorough internet search we were always able to find super-specific stuff. The challenge is being true to the 80s and making sure everything’s authentic, as opposed to just going to a prop house and renting a bunch of furniture that’s been on half-a-dozen shows. The more challenging items were the fantasy stuff, where you’re making it up for the Upside Down.”
But while Ghostbusters figures and He-Man bedsheets might be collectibles now, the fashion of the period was much more disposable, as costume designer Beth Morgan discovered when she joined another 1980s-set Netflix series, female wresting drama GLOW.
“It is a challenging period because it was a time when people didn’t save their clothes,” she says. “In the 50s, 60s and 70s, people didn’t have as many clothes. People took really good care of them, they saved stuff. The 80s was a lot more casual. A lot of T-shirts and jeans got ruined and were thrown out. There wasn’t as much care. So there’s a lot of stock out there but not good-quality stock.”
As well as its resurgence on television, 1980s style is also enjoying a renaissance in real life, and Morgan found unlikely competition for thrift-store garments in the guise of LA hipsters looking for authentic items to add to their own wardrobes. “If there are any other shows in town that are set in the 80s too, you’re racing to the costume houses to get the stuff you want,” she continues. “But we were always able to find the perfect piece for each actor for each scene. There’s a blouse for Ruth [played by Alison Brie] that’s my favourite thing, which we found on the floor of a rag house.
“The hard part for us was the Jazzercise class. We have so many workout looks in our show. The key was those 80s elastic belts that perfectly match the leotards – finding those was a real challenge. Finding the right clasp for a belt was really hard because there’s not a ton of them around. So it was a challenge but a fun one, and now we have so much stuff. Next season will be even more fun.”
In contrast, when Cold War family saga Weissensee launched in 2010, costume designer Monika Hinz was tasked with finding considerably less glamorous clothing. “In the beginning, it was very important for me to get away from the sepia look that is often used to create a historic atmosphere,” she says of the German drama, which airs locally on Das Erste. “The script dived into all kinds of classes – artists, military officers and generals – so my costumes served all of those different people. It was my concept to use lots of colours as it was the fashion in the late 70s to wear green, orange, brown and yellow. This helped a character like Julia Hausmann, played by Hannah Herzsprung, to look young, cheerful and sexy, ready to jump into life.”
Hinz’s biggest challenge, however, was finding the right material to dress prisoners depicted in the series. “The original clothes were a striking neon-blue synthetic material. They were given to the prisoners in purposely non-fitting sizes to make them feel bad because they had to hold their pants to stop them falling down. So I had to find cloth that was as authentic as possible. It’s a terrible colour for the camera, but the DOP and the director thought it was very important to do it that way. And I got them all tailored in a non-fitting size.”
When production designer Frank Godt joined the team behind Weissensee, which was created by writer Annette Hess and is distributed by Global Screen, his task was to recreate East Germany (DDR) right down to the smallest details. “We searched for furniture, wallpaper, props, cars, lorries, buildings, surfaces, shields and so on,” he recalls.
“Compared with the Western countries, the DDR was very conservative and simple – because of communism and socialism, of course – and that was also the case in the 1980s. Trabbies [East German Trabant cars], food, furniture and all other consumer goods were like this. The DDR was an isolated and closed country, totally cut off from the outside Western world. The wall looked like a bastion – it demonstrated fear and a prison feeling to the inhabitants every day and one felt scared all time.”
It’s for this reason that the show stands out from the more vibrant 80s-set dramas, adds Godt. “Life seemed colourless, grey and sad. Western people were constantly looking over to the DDR people and felt sorry for them. But the people behind the wall created their own colourful world and made the best of it. To visualise this incomprehensible contrast between the grey DDR and the colourful and cosmopolitan life in the West was the biggest challenge for the production design team.”
Fellow German drama Deutschland 83, meanwhile, demanded splashes of colour in every scene. As such, set designer Lars Lange sought to create a visual language for the show to avoid it looking like a documentary or “museum piece.”
“It was quite a challenge and an exciting task to grapple with the history of Germany during this very special time in the Cold War,” he explains. “It was also a challenge to interpret this through our sets and images for an audience that, in part, is acquainted with that time from personal experience, and, at the same time, for those who had nothing to do with it.”
To create the look of the show – whose sequel, Deutschland 86, is now in production for RTL and Amazon – Lange used historical research, eyewitness accounts and memories from his own youth. “Apart from the wall, soldiers, punks and shoulder pads, there were, alongside the half-crumbling backyards on both sides, also architectural highlights from the 50s, 60s and 70s, which shaped the cityscape.”
That visual language was strengthened by the costumes designed by Katrin Unterberger, who wanted the FremantleMedia International-distributed series to be “colourful and cool.”
“The creative heads had agreed a look to visually distinguish between East Germany and West Germany,” she recalls. “The East had to be in pastel colours, with floral patterns and hand-crafted stitching. The West, on the other hand, was fast-paced, so characters needed clear lines and bright colours without patterns. But in reality the styles were not as black and white.”
With 1980s fashion still popular, Unterberger was able to source original items in second-hand shops, though the large cast meant she had to find specific styles for lots of different people. That meant high heels, big hairstyles and colourful make-up.
One discovery particularly stood out: “I found a very nice patchwork T-shirt in the West, and in an East shop I found an almost identical piece,” she says. “[The latter] was made from different-coloured bed sheets, self-sewn and then decorated. This was a moving moment for me that spoke volumes politically. In the West, people could buy what they wanted but in the East, they had to use their imagination.”
US drama Snowfall, which airs on FX, has a vibrant and colourful style. The series, recently renewed for a second season, recreates LA in 1983 to follow the rise of the city’s crack cocaine epidemic.
“We did want to embrace the world as much as possible,” says showrunner Dave Andron, although he adds that he was keen to ensure the period in which the series is set did not overshadow the story. “For me, a lot of it was doing it in a way that felt authentic and organic and not distracting. And with costumes, it was always a fine line where you want it to feel 1980s but you don’t want there to be neon shoulder pads to the point where all you’re looking at is the clothes. It’s got to feel completely of the piece, with the world you’ve created, but not distracting all at once.”
So why is the trend for 1980s-set series so prevalent? One theory is that the commissioners and screenwriters now working in television grew up during that period and are dramatising their own experiences. However, Stranger Things’ Trujillo believes there’s a “general exhaustion” with technology, apps and selfies that means viewers are keen to return to a period where such trappings belonged in an episode of The Twilight Zone.
“There’s something really fun about these kids on an adventure,” he says. “No one’s going to call them on a cell phone. It harks back to a time when I was a kid and you could go out in the neighbourhood and have a real adventure. I feel like somehow that’s a bit lost and the idea of adventure is now virtual adventures. But when I was a kid, you imagined having a Stand By Me adventure instead of doing something weird on the internet. It’s a bit of a relief.”
From Hulu’s The Path and the most recent season of FX’s American Horror Story to upcoming series Waco and Raven, TV dramas about cults have caught the zeitgeist. DQ takes a closer look at this trend.
Television dramas about cults have always been good business in the US, a country with a seemingly unique affinity for fringe religious groups – part of the reason for the colonisation of the Americas, from the Puritans at the very beginning to the Mormons and, later, Scientology.
Recent years have seen the trend increase, with more dramas and comedies using cults as a theme. Sociologists have conjectured that the uncertainties in the US over the past few years regarding security, race, the economy and the growth of secularism have all contributed to an interest in cults, which can provide the easily influenced with a sense of belonging and belief in a higher power.
Recently, the truly unhinged American Horror Story: Cult, which debuted on FX in July, even used the election of Donald J Trump as president for a backdrop to the world of cults.
Star Evan Peters (X-Men: Days of Future Past, X-Men: Apocalypse) plays the deranged, would-be galactic overlord Kai Anderson in the show, additionally essaying a quartet of notorious cult leaders, namely Jim Jones (Jonestown), Marshall Applewhite (Heaven’s Gate), Charles Manson (The Manson Family) and David Koresh (Waco).
Peters also portrays Andy Warhol and a particularly low-rent ‘version’ of Jesus Christ in the show.
Back in season one of American Horror Story (2011), episode two (Home Invasion) dealt with a Manson Family-style killing re-enacted in the present day.
In the world of SVoD, two shows use cults as themes: Hulu’s The Path (started 2016) and Netflix comedy Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (2015).
Now heading to its third season, Jessica Goldberg’s The Path revolves around the fictional cult of Meyerism, which, to some commentators, bears a resemblance to Scientology (denied by Goldberg) in its hierarchy and antipathy to apostates and non-believers, who are called Ignorant Systemites (IS) in the show.
A slow burn, The Path has a solid cast, including Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad), Hugh Dancy (Hannibal) and Michelle Monaghan (True Detective, Patriot’s Day). Season three drops in the US on January 7.
On a lighter note, Tina Fey and Robert Carlock’s Kimmy Schmidt deals with the titular character’s life in New York City after 15 years imprisonment in an Indiana bunker by cultist Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne, played by Jon Hamm (Mad Men, Baby Driver).
Played to critical acclaim by Ellie Kemper (The Office, Bridesmaids), the effervescent Schmidt’s efforts to build a new life in the big city has proved a hit with viewers and reviewers alike, with season four ordered for 2018.
As Spike TV rebrands as Paramount TV next year, January 24 will see the launch of their flagship drama Waco.
The star-laden miniseries recounts the true story of the infamous 1993 ATF/FBI siege of the Branch Davidian religious sect led by David Koresh, which resulted in 82 deaths after a 51-day siege ended with a deadly shoot-out and fire.
Taylor Kitsch (Friday Night Lights, True Detective) plays Koresh, with Melissa Benoist (Supergirl) as his wife Rachel, Michael Shannon (Broadwalk Empire, Midnight Special) as FBI Negotiator Gary Noesner, Andrea Riseborough (The Death of Stalin, National Treasure) as Judy Scheider-Koresh (apparently a ‘chattel-wife’ of Koresh) and John Leguizamo (Bloodline, John Wick I & II) as Robert Rodriquez, an FBI agent who infiltrated Koresh’s compound and warned against the raid.
Looking ahead, the 2018/19 television season will see the launch of Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan’s HBO limited series Raven, based on Tim Reiterman’s definitive 1982 book about the 1978 Jonestown mass suicide in Guyana, when charismatic cult leader Jim Jones arranged the murder of visiting investigative journalists and a US congressman, then proceeded to kill himself and more than 900 followers (including 276 children) with cyanide-laced Kool Aid.
This led to the phrase ‘Drinking the Kool Aid’ being used for people or groups who succumb to peer pressure and follow a doomed idea.
There is no word on casting yet, but Gilligan has an extensive repertory company of talented actors who he can no doubt call on for the show.
Jonestown has been the subject of numerous documentaries and some dramas (Jonestown, 2013 and Jonestown: Paradise Lost in 2007), most notably the 1980 CBS miniseries The Guyana Tragedy, when the late Powers Boothe provided an Emmy-winning performance as Jones, which will be a tough act to follow.
Such was the notoriety of the Jonestown Massacre that the events have been immortalised in song by popular groups, including rockers Manowar (Guyana – Cult of the Damned, 1999), new-wave combo The Vapors (Jimmy Jones, 1981) and probably, most surprisingly, smooth pop/soul merchants Hot Chocolate (Mindless Boogie, 1979).
On the flipside, Charles Manson claimed inspiration for his followers’ 1969 killing spree from the Beatles’ White Album, particularly the songs Piggies, Helter Skelter and Blackbird.
Recent years have also seen other series that have used cults or religious sects as subject matter, including NBC’s short-lived David Duchovny (The X-Files/Californication) series Aquarius (2015/16), in which he played FBI investigator Sam Hodiak in pursuit of Gethin Anthony (Game of Thrones)’s Charles Manson.
Serving multiple life sentences for murder, Manson died on November 19 this year.
Also worthy of mention is Kevin Williamson (Vampire Diaries, Dawson’s Creek)’s The Following (Fox, 2013-15, pictured top), with Kevin Bacon (I Love Dick, Black Mass) as a former FBI agent pitted against James Purefoy (Rome, Hap & Leonard) as his serial killer cult-leading adversary.
Incidentally, post-Weinstein scandal, Quentin Tarantino has now sold his Manson Family script to Sony for a possible 2019 cinema release.
HBO’s Big Love (2006-11) concerned itself with a polygamous family belonging to an extreme Mormon sect in Utah, with a cast including the late Bill Paxton (Training Day, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) as the husband of four wives and the recently deceased Harry Dean Stanton (Twin Peaks, The Avengers) as a self-proclaimed prophet and cult leader.
And then, of course, there’s the evil Tuttle Cult in the classic first season of True Detective.
We’ve seen cults make appearances in CSI (the Heaven’s Gate suicides forming the basis for the episode Shooting Stars in 2005) and Mad Men (Roger Sterling’s daughter Margaret joining a cult/commune in the final season).
In the UK, cults and extreme religious sects are less openly in evidence. With the exception of this year’s ISIS miniseries The State (Peter Kosminsky – Wolf Hall), you have to go all the way back to the 90s for dramas specifically about the subject.
In 1993, Jonathan Pryce (Taboo, Game of Thrones) starred as the real-life apocalyptic 19th century prophet John Wroe in four-parter Mr Wroe’s Virgins (BBC2), an early directing gig for Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire).
Two years later, BBC2 aired Signs & Wonders, a four-part drama where Jodhi May (Genius, Last of the Mohicans) is ensnared by a religious cult, prompting her mother, played by Prunella Scales (Fawlty Towers), to hire de-programmer James Earl Jones (Stars Wars) to rescue her. A strong cast was rounded out by David Warner (Ripper Street, Wallander) and Donald Pleasance (Halloween, The Great Escape).
Returning to the present day, with Waco, The Path, Kimmy Schmidt and Raven further down the road, viewers won’t be short of cult TV to watch in 2018.
Former NBC Entertainment president Warren Littlefield discusses the success of The Handmaid’s Tale and the lessons he learnt making the leap from broadcaster to producer.
With Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale (above) scoring 13 Primetime Emmy nominations and FX’s Fargo earning six, Warren Littlefield has a hand in two of the biggest shows on TV right now.
But it is with the The Handmaid’s Tale, a gritty adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s landmark 1985 novel, that the former NBC Entertainment president – who serves as an executive producer on both aforementioned series – has found a cultural phenomenon.
The 10-part drama, which airs on Hulu in the US, Channel 4 in the UK and Bravo in Canada, has found a dark mirror in current affairs. Across the US, protesters have taken to wearing red robes and white bonnets – the attire of the titular handmaids in Attwood’s dystopia – to raise awareness of hot-button political issues such as Planned Parenthood and abortion rights.
The show has a “grotesque timeliness” in the age of Trump, according to The New Yorker, and as the series finale wrapped in the UK at the end of July, “No television event has hit such a nerve,” proclaimed The Guardian.
The maelstrom of contemporary resonance is not lost on Littlefield. “Margaret’s work has been relevant since the time she published it and any time within the last 32 years would have been a perfectly good time to adapt her book,” he tells DQ. “We felt that relevancy rising, and then we were in the middle of production – deep in the middle of shooting the series – when Trump won the election. And that became a new level of ‘we better not fuck this up.’
“When the development process was going on, we were in a Barack Obama world, but clearly there was a sense that Brexit was a loud, loud alarm that went off,” he adds. “You could see it and you could feel it, throughout the globe, that rise of the right and the alt-right. We were a country that was becoming more and more divided.”
Though Hulu renewed the show for a second season in May, The Handmaid’s Tale began its journey to the small screen with MGM and exec producer Ilene Chaiken originally developing it for Showtime. When the US cablenet passed on the project, streaming service Hulu saw a chance and moved in.
“Hulu said, ‘We really like the idea of doing this as a series; our choice would be to start with another writer.’ Ilene had gone off and done Empire [on Fox] and they said, ‘Let’s do two scripts and begin again,’” Littlefield explains.
“That was acceptable to MGM, so Hulu and MGM interviewed a lot of writers. Ultimately, [showrunner] Bruce Miller came in and said, ‘OK, I know I’m not a woman, and if I were you I would hire a woman to develop this property. But, since I’m here in the room and you’ve granted me this meeting, this is my take on how I would do it.’ And they said, ‘Wow, he gets it.’”
WME, which represents both Littlefield and The Handmaid’s Tale star Elisabeth Moss, approached the exec to see if he was interested in coming aboard. At the time, Littlefield was exec producing FX’s anthology crime dramedy Fargo, which had just won him a Primetime Emmy.
“I read it and said, ‘This is incredible material,’” Littlefield recalls. “I was ramping up to do Fargo [season] three, so on a practical level this made no sense, but I just said to Lizzie [Moss], ‘I don’t know about you, but I can’t walk away from this opportunity.’”
While showrunner Miller was acute enough to realise that a show centred on female repression would take flack for not being helmed by a woman, he and Littlefield preempted some criticism by filling the crew with female talent, including most prominently in the writing and directing departments.
Of the hires, the biggest bet the team took was in hiring acclaimed cinematographer Reed Morano to direct the show’s first three episodes.
“She had very little directing experience,” Littlefield recalls. “She didn’t have an Oscar, she had never done a pilot. She was an award-winning DP, but had almost no experience as a director, and yet we felt that she was the right person, that she understood what to do with this material.
“If I were at a traditional network, a) they wouldn’t have done the show, but b) they never would have signed off on Reed Morano. And we hired her for the first hour and then I said, ‘I’m looking at the schedule, and I think she’s going to do all three. That’s what I want to do.’”
In many ways, making a dystopian SVoD drama is a step far removed from the 24-episode realm of broadcast sitcoms where Littlefield cut his teeth.
As a protégé of the late Brandon Tartikoff, he climbed the ranks, serving as senior and then exec VP at NBC Entertainment, before rising to the role of president – a post he held from 1993 to 1998. During that time, he oversaw a primetime line-up that included Friends, Seinfeld, Will & Grace, ER, Cheers and Frasier.
Nevertheless, he says lessons learned from his broadcast days are still applicable today.
“There was a philosophy that the late and wonderful [former NBC chairman and CEO] Grant Tinker helped instil in us, when we were young programmers and broadcasters, and that is: respect the audience,” Littlefield says. “We tried to aim high in my NBC years, and audiences rewarded us for that.
“That was a great lesson to learn as you’re growing up in the broadcast business. The world has changed, however. We’re in this age of peak TV – I think of it as platinum TV – where audiences reward you for outstanding work. The difference now is the quality; as much as I’m proud of what we put on the air when I was at the network, the level of quality that goes on the screen now is unlike anything that’s ever been done before.
“It doesn’t matter if an actor or director has an Oscar, they want to go where the most complex narratives, and the most complex, sophisticated characters can be found,” he adds. “And, for the most part, that’s television.”
FX explores the crack cocaine epidemic that gripped LA in the 1980s in period drama Snowfall. DQ chats to showrunner Dave Andron about the series, which he describes as a “love letter” to the city.
A storm is coming – but from the opening frames of Snowfall, it’s hard to see from which direction. There’s not a cloud in the LA sky as the camera pans up and down a South Central street lined on both sides by perfect palm trees. A sprinkler is soaking one front lawn as an ice cream truck arrives to the excitement of children playing basketball outside their homes.
It’s here that viewers meet Franklin Saint, played by Damson Idris (pictured above), who chastises two kids for stealing ice creams and preaches to his mocking friends that crime “isn’t how America works.”
What he doesn’t know is that he and numerous other characters will be pulled onto a violent collision course with one another as, here in 1983, a crack cocaine epidemic takes hold of the city and ultimately has a radical impact on society and culture.
Facing Franklin, described as a young street entrepreneur on a quest for power, are Gustavo ‘El Oso’ Zapata (Sergio Peris-Mencheta), a Mexican wrestler caught up in a power struggle within a crime family; Teddy McDonald (Carter Hudson), a CIA operative running from a dark past who begins an off-book operation to fund right-wing militants the Nicaraguan Contras; and Lucia Villanueva (Emily Rios), the self-possessed daughter of a Mexican crime lord.
Created for US cable network FX by John Singleton, Eric Amadio and showrunner Dave Andron, Snowfall is executive produced by the trio alongside Thomas Schlamme, Michael London and Trevor Engelson. The FX Productions show is distributed by 20th Century Fox Television Distribution.
“I’d never seen anything before on TV that came in right before crack hit,” says Andron about the appeal of running the show, which debuts in the US on July 5. “Everything always starts when you’re in the war on drugs and there’s bars on the windows and South Central is a war zone. So I was very interested in exploring the moment right before crack hit, when it was just cocaine [on the streets] and South Central was this working-class neighbourhood that wasn’t the place everyone thinks of when they hear of Compton now. That I found fascinating.
“Then to be able to simultaneously touch on the CIA’s role and whatever part they played in the war on drugs, it just felt big. It has scope but it’s also really entertaining.”
Andron has a long relationship with FX, having written for western drama Justified until it ended in 2015. He later received a call from the network asking him if he would take a look at a script they liked but thought needed a rewrite. That script was the pilot of Snowfall, penned by Amadio and Simpleton, who had previously worked in movies but had no experience in television.
“So much of it was wonderful, it just needed some tweaks to get it to that final place,” Andron recalls. “They were thinking of it as a one-off, they both had done some movie stuff, but it needed to fit more into a format for a TV show.
“The world of Franklin had enough intrigue and drama and the character was set up. [The changes were] really about the CIA story – it needed to feel bigger, more global. Then we gave Teddy a little more mystery, a little backstory and made him somebody you were rooting for a little more. And it was the same for the Gustavo story. Weirdly, that actually needed to be simplified. It was a little over-complicated for the pilot. There were too many characters. And I just wanted there to be more of a sense of suspense and intrigue coming out of his storyline.”
Boyz n the Hood director Singleton’s experience growing up in South Central provided much of the authenticity the series demanded, while Snowfall also employed a CIA consultant and worked with a former member of a Latino gang. Their knowledge helped to flesh out the 10-episode season, which, like the pilot, was shaped by Andron based on Singleton and Amadio’s initial outlines.
“They had some broad-stroke ideas they wanted to get to but the CIA and Mexican-American storylines changed so much after I came in. Those things I had pretty specific ideas on,” the showrunner explains. “I put together a [writers] room and as a group we figured out where those ideas were going to go. John, having this real-world experience, had some notions of where he’d like to see certain things go [in Franklin’s story] but, frankly, once we all came together, it was a hive model. It was really a group effort to figure out the season.”
In his first showrunner role, Andron is quick to praise the show’s producing director, Thomas Schlamme (The West Wing), describing him more as a “co-showrunner” who was an “incredible, invaluable part of the process for me and somebody who I could completely rely on.”
Andron also drew upon the time he spent working with Justified creator and showrunner Graham Yost, who is a champion of hierarchy-free writers rooms that allow writers to speak freely regardless of their credits or experience.
“If you were in the room, you deserved to be there and your voice was as important as the next guy’s voice,” Andron says. “I was really proud of the room we put together and how diverse it was. I really wanted everybody to be in there pitching in what felt like a safe environment – somewhere to really empower people.
“Running a show, there are so many things to do so you have to hire people you believe in and trust and let them do good work. Across the board, we were fortunate to have hired really well, from people in the room to our production heads. You’ve got to guide the ship and have an overarching view of where you want to go, but you let people do what they came to do – and everyone brought it. It was a wonderful experience.”
Looking at the broader genre of “drug dramas,” Andron holds up HBO classic The Wire as the “gold standard,” but says his ambition was to make Snowfall more fun, with a unique visual style and a script that was full of energy “so it didn’t feel like you were watching a documentary.”
So in an effort to make the show stand out from the almost 500 other dramas that will air in the US this year, FX suggested directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah helm the pilot. They had worked together on Belgian feature Black, a Romeo & Juliet-style story between members of black and Moroccan gangs in Brussels.
“It was just incredible; it had such visual style, such life and it was so cool,” Andron enthuses of the 2015 movie. “The emotion was there as well. These guys had never worked in the US studio system but we got on the phone with them and they are the most gregarious, wonderful young guys. Having Tommy there, I knew he could guide them through the process of making this pilot so they ended up meshing wonderfully with everything we had hoped it could be. It was a wonderful experience working with them.”
Snowfall began filming last autumn and the production utilised real locations across LA, from Beverly Hills and the Valley to East LA and South Central – one of the reasons Andron calls Snowfall a “kind of love letter to LA.” Subsequently, he also found himself on set more than he had anticipated, taking time just to observe Schlamme working with the pilot’s directors and noting how the characters evolved through production, allowing him to tweak later episodes to reflect the actors and the buzz on set.
The showrunner’s ambition for the series, however, proved to be his biggest hurdle as he tried to juggle three complex, tangled storylines and multiple locations into an eight-day filming schedule for each episode.
“At one point we had a draft of the seventh episode where it was a really ambitious Franklin story and we tried to have the other two storylines be similar in scope, but we just looked at it and said, ‘My God, there’s no way to get all this in,’” Andron recalls. “So we decided that seven is just a very Franklin episode, without giving too much away. That’s not uncommon in TV, as you always want it to be as big and as ambitious as possible but the reality of what you can do in eight days is inescapable.”
On the journey of Snowfall’s characters, the showrunner adds: “What you’re watching are these four people who are all really ambitious but heading into something they don’t quite understand yet. Going forward, we want to see what happens when crack really lands. We do bring crack in, of course, a little later in the first season, and then it’s about watching the transformation. People talk about the moment crack arrived as being like a bomb dropped on South Central, and we’re really going to go for that moment. The plan is to make a show that feels like it needs four or five seasons to examine what happened when it landed, how it happened, why it was allowed to happen and how we’re still feeling the ramifications of it today.”
For a network currently at the top of its game, with Fargo, The Americans and American Crime Story also on the slate, FX could have its next big hit with Snowfall. Looking from the creative side of the television business, Andron has no doubts over why it has become arguably the most prolific cable network in the US in terms of drama.
“It’s the amount of leeway and respect they afford you as a creative,” he says, noting that FX offers feedback with no expectation that it might be acted upon. “They really do approach notes in this way of, ‘This is just our opinion, take it or leave it, but this is what we’ve experienced so you might want to consider this.’ As anybody knows, receiving a note in that way means you’re so much more apt to take it than from somebody who’s like, ‘You need to do this.’
“They have great instincts, and it starts with [FX Networks president] John Landgraf. He’s a wonderful collaborator, a brilliant guy and he’s got great taste, and that trickles down to the people he hires, who follow his lead in the way they approach things. I’ve been at FX for almost eight years now and I’d be very happy being there another eight years if they’d have me.”
Violence and sex have become common features of TV drama – but are these often graphic depictions key to the success of a show?
Violence and, to a lesser extent, sex have always been core constituents of TV drama. But both have become more visible on our screens in recent years. Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, Hannibal, Sons of Anarchy, Spartacus, Daredevil and American Horror Story are all examples of the new ultra-violent era of TV drama. And when it comes to sex, series like Westworld, Versailles, Orange is the New Black, The Girlfriend Experience and The Affair give a new meaning to the phrase ‘TV exposure.’
The key reason for this shift has been the growing influence of premium pay TV and SVoD services, which have created trigger factors that push producers and broadcasters towards more graphic and intense depictions of violence and sex.
The first such factor is an ‘anything goes’ attitude on channels that have little need to concern themselves over offending mainstream audiences or losing family-oriented advertisers. Big Light Productions founder Frank Spotnitz, whose credits include The X-Files and Medici: Masters of Florence, says: “The freedom to use graphic content is an advantage pay TV broadcasters know they have over more tightly regulated free-to-air channels. So it’s something they encourage producers to use if appropriate.”
This licence to shock is reinforced by the fact violence, in particular, seems to sell. Corporately, it’s evident in Disney’s contemporary offering, which encompasses everything from princesses to The Punisher. It can also be seen in the steady progress of US pay TV network Starz, which lagged a long way behind HBO and Showtime before it began upping its sex and violence quotient with shows like Spartacus, Power and Black Sails.
At an individual show level, franchises like AMC’s The Walking Dead, HBO’s Game of Thrones and FX’s American Horror Story (pictured top) also do well in terms of ratings. In this intensely competitive era, the performance of these series must seem like an open invitation for content creators to depict murder, mayhem and eroticism in ever more imaginative ways.
Both of these drivers towards sex and violence are energised further by the growing number of auteur writers and directors crossing over from film into TV. If you are HBO, for example, you don’t hire the world’s greatest gangster movie director, Martin Scorsese, to direct Boardwalk Empire and then ask him to tone down the violence.
“There’s no question the big TV series viewing experience has come to replace movies in a lot of ways,” says Patrick Vien, executive MD of international at A+E Networks. “So the kind of content people used to buy a ticket for, they now watch at home. Movies became very creative with violence and TV is doing the same.”
The impact of SVoD and pay TV services doesn’t stop with their own schedules, however. The graphic content they produce is so widely available across legal and illegal on-demand channels that it inevitably influences the work producers do for more mainstream platforms.
Frith Tiplady, co-MD of Tiger Aspect Drama – the company behind the BBC’s acclaimed 1920s gangster series Peaky Blinders – sums it up neatly: “For audiences, violence on free TV can look pretty tame when put up against shows like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. Obviously, there are broadcasting guidelines to stop metropolitan creatives getting carried away, but there is an inevitable pressure to try to increase excitement levels when making shows for more mainstream broadcasters.”
The result is some pretty strong stuff on free TV. In the UK, commercial broadcaster ITV attracted criticism for scheduling crime drama Paranoid so close to the 21.00 watershed. The series depicted a woman being knifed to death in a playground in front of her child. UK pubcaster the BBC, meanwhile, has been criticised for some of the more graphic shows it has aired, such as the sexually explicit Versailles (BBC2) and the visceral Tom Hardy drama Taboo (BBC1). The latter show includes a supernaturally instigated rape and a variety of gruesome deaths more typically found on pay TV.
Of course, if you listen to creators talking about graphic content, they don’t frame it in terms of the commercial benefits. Instead, they generally stress its significance as a storytelling device.
Quizzed about Sons of Anarchy and The Bastard Executioner, showrunner Kurt Sutter told a press event that “the violence, as absurd as it could be on Sons, always came from an organic place and it was never done in a vacuum. To every violent act, there were ramifications. There are ways to portray violence that don’t make it openly gratuitous.”
Tiplady points to how the violence in Peaky Blinders has its roots in character and situation: “These are men who have come back from the First World War with post-traumatic stress disorder. Their ferocity is linked to their experience. But even then they have a moral code.”
Skybound Entertainment’s David Alpert takes a similar line with his company’s zombie mega-hit The Walking Dead. “Violence is part of the landscape of this show, but we certainly don’t look to be gratuitous. I’m a fan of the genre, so I’m always interested in a new or innovative zombie kill, but we’re never aiming to be gross just for the sake of
The irony with The Walking Dead, of course, is that 90% of the violence – humans dispatching zombies – doesn’t draw any reaction. It’s only when humans kill humans that the social media airwaves turn blue: “The big talking point for us recently was the introduction of villain Negan, and the way he killed fan-favourite Glenn [graphically bludgeoning him to death with a baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire].
“Our take on this was that we needed an explosive and violent introduction for Negan to show our hero Rick Grimes being cowed. Rick being powerless was something fans hadn’t seen before, so we needed to make it seem believable.”
While A&E’s Vien agrees “TV needs to be more mindful than the movies about the depiction of violence,” he adds: “I don’t think these great shows are guilty of being gratuitous. What we’re seeing is a back and forth between creative expression and the market as viewers shift from the movies to big scripted. Would we be better off if we toned it down? Maybe. Will there be creative modifications? It’s hard to predict.”
Either way, this creative energy around violence raises a couple of big questions. First, is the heightened depiction of violence and sex really necessary to the success of a show, or is the appearance of success outlined above simply incidental? And second, is viewing such content bad for us as individuals and as a society?
On the first point, Big Light’s Spotnitz says: “Graphic content can certainly be a distraction from the storytelling. We were given licence with Medici to go quite far but in the end we didn’t feel the need, and came out with a great show.”
This doesn’t mean violence is never appropriate, Spotnitz adds, but it does mean writers and producers should interrogate its narrative purpose. Tiplady agrees, pointing out that women working on the Peaky Blinders production team had a clear voice when it came to determining the way Polly Shelby’s rape would be depicted in the show. Helen McCrory, who plays Polly, has also commented on the sequence, noting that it provided the foundation for an entire season’s worth of character exploration.
This may explain why sex scenes on TV often come entangled with conflict or tension. Rape, or the suggestion of it, has featured in Game of Thrones, Taboo and even the BBC’s Sunday night show Poldark. Elsewhere, sex is often portrayed in the context of prostitution (The Girlfriend Experience) or forbidden lust (see the incest subplot in Taboo). Of course, there are times when this kind of subject matter is of social significance. Some observers, for example, suggest Showtime drama series The Affair has taken the quality of debate about consensual sex to a new level.
On violence, Lisa Chatfield, head of scripted development at Pukeko Pictures, says writers and producers would do well to remember “the implication and suggestion of violence can often be more intriguing and suspenseful than its graphic depiction.” Violence is used sparingly yet still to powerful effect in The Missing season two, for example, in which the depravity of the villain lies in the fear of what he might do.
Circling back to the issue of commercial potential, it’s also worth noting that less graphic sex and violence can be beneficial when it comes to international distribution. A&E’s Vien warns against overstating this point, however, in case it drives the market towards mediocrity: “Different markets have different tastes – but you can finesse that in the editing room. I don’t think the right response to this is to try and come up with a generalised acceptable level of sex and violence. The creative process doesn’t work like that.”
On the broader social point, it’s easy to come across as humourless or puritanical when discussing TV violence. But there is academic and educational research that suggests a link between TV violence and the desensitisation of children. TV violence has also been linked to what academics call ‘mean world syndrome,’ namely the way negative depictions on TV can make people disproportionately suspicious and fearful of the world.
Like the drinks and fast-food sectors, the TV industry is quite good at swerving the debate about its responsibility for the world in which we live, but maybe it should pause to reflect.
With an eye for crafting unique worlds, Fargo and Legion creator Noah Hawley tells DQ why he is bringing movie methods to television.
As the stream of talent between cinema and television continues to flow in the small screen’s favour, Noah Hawley is bucking the trend.
The creator of US dramas Fargo and Legion admits that, as the TV industry evolves, he too is on a personal journey – from writer to filmmaker – as he increasingly departs from traditional TV production methods and adopts a more hands-on approach across writing, directing and editing that is more commonly associated
This is undoubtedly down to the types of shows Hawley is making – dramas set in such unique and stylised worlds that their creators trust only themselves to bring them to life – at least until such time that their vision is in place firmly enough for others to follow.
Fargo, returning on April 19 for a third season on US cablenet FX, is based on the iconic Coen Brothers movie and demands certain sensibilities in writing and direction. Likewise, Legion is a mind-bending, dazzling and disorientating drama that looks and sounds like nothing else on TV.
Speaking about Legion, which has been renewed for a second season, Hawley (pictured top) admits he “likes it when it’s at its oddest – and by ‘odd’ I don’t mean deliberately unfathomable but where the structure of the story and the intricacy of the emotion of the characters can be woven together in a way that transcends the genre.”
Loosely connected to the X-Men universe and based on the Marvel comic books by Chris Claremont and Bill Sienkiewicz, the story follows David, a schizophrenic whose life inside a psychiatric hospital is turned upside down by the arrival of a new patient, after which he begins to confront the possibility that his visions and the voices in his head might actually be real.
Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey) stars as David, supported by Rachel Keller, Aubrey Plaza and Jean Smart. Legion is produced by FX Productions and Marvel Television and distributed by Fox Networks Group Content Distribution.
“It’s been an evolution,” Hawley says of the show, which launched on FX in February. “What attracted me originally was the subjective nature of the show and that David’s experience of reality was going to be our experience of reality. But it wasn’t until I practically sat down to write that it became more about the demon within, as opposed to fighting some government agency.”
The showrunner says it was his intention to make something unexpected and unpredictable, if only to keep savvy viewers hooked on the series as it unfolds, and describes Legion’s two-year development as a “down-the-rabbit-hole journey” that fostered a sense of creativity, inventiveness and imagination.
“So I would sit down with the script and say, ‘Well, I know where it starts and know where it ends and I know on a macro level what has to happen in this episode, but how are we getting there and what are the fun gimmicks and tricks and visual ideas?’ It is a very surreal show but I always wanted the trailer for next week’s episode to have some element to it that meant viewers would have to see it because it was so visual and interesting.”
In terms of researching the source material, Hawley treated the comics the same way as he used the original Coen Brothers film when he began working on the first season of Fargo, which debuted on FX in 2014.
“I watched it and thought about it,” he says, “but I don’t think I’ve watched it again since. You want to take the essence away from it, and it was a similar dynamic with Legion. It’s about trying to create something that feels familiar and yet completely unfamiliar at the
Part of Hawley’s evolution is embedded in his attitude to writers rooms, which he describes as a “kind of bigger brain” that helps to map out storylines across episodes and seasons. But as the creative leader of his shows, he also finds that the time he spends in the room correlates to its success.
“The room is at its most successful when I’m in it,” he says. “On the first year of Fargo, I was in the room 100% of the time and I ended up with a 115-page outline that I stuck to religiously. For the second year, I was in there 60% of the time and it worked about 60%. This last year I was in there 40% and I’m re-breaking a lot of the story as I go.
“With Legion, there was a sense that a writers room, by definition, is an outline-generating device, which is to say you get a group of people in a room and what they can all agree on is plot. ‘This happens and then this happens’ – it’s very linear, and that’s not what the show is. It wasn’t very helpful to me because it takes all the inventiveness out of the writing and because it’s not how you tell a subjective and surreal story where things aren’t necessarily meant to be linear.”
Subsequently, Hawley will do a pass on every script, “even if it’s not my name on it,” though he admits the first season of any show is always the hardest: “You talk to any showrunner and they will tell you that they end up doing 90% of the writing because you’re asking people to write something that exists only in your head, whereas they don’t really have a point of reference. The question of how a show works – how we do romance, how we do action – hasn’t been defined; it can’t be defined until it’s made, and it can’t be made until we make it. There is this catch-22 to it where you’re just grateful for the big brain to help you think things through and, ultimately, you need to make a season of it to show next year’s writers what it could be.”
That isn’t to say Hawley doesn’t like collaboration or delegation. “I can’t do it all myself,” he jokes. “Sam Esmail, who created Mr. Robot, directed every moment of the second season himself – but he doesn’t have a wife and kids! TV is a collaborative medium and, at a certain point, you have to direct the directors, instruct the editors and let everybody take their best swing at it.”
As well as writing, Hawley is now adding directing to his duties. Having helmed two episodes of Fargo so far – the second of season two and the opener of the forthcoming third run – he also directed the first episode of Legion, and admits he enjoys the added pressure of directing while also assuming every other role that comes with being a showrunner.
“It’s really 3D writing,” he says of directing. “Every element, every detail is important. And the scripts, if you read them, are very visual. They’re really a blueprint, which is my way of saying, ‘This is how the story unfolds and how the audience wants to see it, so let’s just film it that way.’
“Especially with Legion and the idea of world creation, I really needed to make one episode myself and then bring in the other directors and go, ‘This is what the show is.’ The minute you add a layer of removal and bring in somebody else who has maybe a complementary vision, but a different vision nonetheless, it becomes more of a dialogue.
“I’ve done pilots with other directors who did great but, at this point in my career, I want what I want and I’m trying to do something different and original. And the only way to really do that is to do it yourself.”
That’s why Hawley says he is now gravitating towards movies, with a pair of films lined up at Fox Searchlight. As a writer, he says he has had to become a director to make the shows he wants, allowing him to follow a path that naturally leads to the big screen.
“From the very first day on Fargo, I knew if I just wrote some clever scripts and sent somebody else to make the show, it wouldn’t feel right,” Hawley says. “So I had to become a director; I had to become a filmmaker. And with Legion it’s a very idiosyncratic and personal vision.”
He adds: “The older I get, the more the traditional TV dynamic doesn’t work for me. I just can’t let the script go out of the door without making it mine, or let an episode go without turning it into what I want. So in a perfect world, I would write them and direct them myself, which is why I’m gravitating towards making movies. My next thing will be season two of Legion, and hopefully I’m making a movie next spring. It’s all gone very well, so I’m excited.”
Finding Fargo’s voice
Since its debut on FX in 2014, Fargo has been a huge success story, winning critical acclaim, Emmy and Golden Globe awards and a legion of fans.
Now back for its third season, which is set in 2010, the story centres on Emmit Stussy and his younger brother Ray. While Emmit, the Parking Lot King of Minnesota, sees himself as an American success story, pot-bellied parole officer Ray is forever living in his brother’s shadow. But their sibling rivalry follows a path that begins with petty theft and leads to murder, mobsters and cut-throat competitive bridge.
If this were a traditional drama, creator Noah Hawley might feel pressure to live up to the standards of previous seasons, but he says the anthology format of Fargo relieves him of the weight of expectation.
“There’s pressure to a degree because of the success the show has had and I would really feel that pressure if we were coming back with the same characters each year,” he says of the drama, which is produced by MGM Television and FX Productions and distributed by MGM.
“The advantage I have is that it’s a completely different 10-hour movie. They’re always set in a different time period, and in many ways a different tone of voice, a different visual palette, and the tone shifts and the characters are different. So I’m able to focus on this movie, make this one the best it can be and you don’t even really have to think about what you did before because you’re just following this story to its natural end.”
Playing both Emmit and Ray, Ewan McGregor follows in the footsteps of previous Hollywood actors to star in Fargo including Martin Freeman, Billy Bob Thornton, Kirsten Dunst and Patrick Wilson. He is joined on screen by Carrie Coon as police chief Gloria Bungle, Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Ray’s girlfriend Nikki Swango and David Thewlis as mysterious loner VM Vargos.
“There’s an interesting dynamic to working in [Fargo’s] tone of voice – the performances have to be grounded and real but there’s also something heightened about the movie you’re in,” Hawley explains. “Ewan is great at that. He’s a great dramatic actor but he’s also funny, he’s got great timing and great instincts. There’s a love story in it for one of his characters, which he’s hapless and charming at. So he’s checked every box.
“Practically, it’s not like these two brothers are on screen together for the whole show but when they are, there’s a combination of classic lopped off shots where you film one side of it, then you change the hair and make-up, sit him in the other chair and film the other side of it. There are some programmable camera dollies where you can repeat the same moves so you run it once with him in one role and once with him in the other role, but it’s not a gimmicky show like Legion. The point is more to create something that will feel like the rest of the movie. My hope is that part of the filmmaking becomes invisible.”
With the show set to debut in the US on April 19, there will be a tight post-production process in place as shooting doesn’t finish until the first week of May. Despite that, Hawley says he “couldn’t be happier” with season three. He adds: “It really feels special this year and with this cast. You have to hope as a filmmaker that your next film is better than your last and it feels really good to me. That’s all I’ll say!”
Best known for seminal Danish crime drama Forbrydelsen (The Killing), director Kristoffer Nyholm tells DQ why Tom Hardy-led thriller Taboo is like nothing ever seen on TV before.
Ever since Forbrydelsen (The Killing) became a worldwide sensation, Kristoffer Nyholm has become synonymous with the Danish crime drama. The director led the first two seasons of the series, shaping its dark, moody atmosphere and shining a new light on its Copenhagen setting.
But while directors are often household names in cinema, television continues to be considered a writers’ medium. It’s rare for a director to helm every episode of a small-screen series, with all the credit placed at the feet of the writer or showrunner whose fingerprints are indelibly inked across hours of storytelling.
Thanks to the iconic standing of The Killing, however, Nyholm can be considered among those directors whose names stand out from the crowd – and it’s the increasing importance of the role of director in television that he believes has led to the current slate of groundbreaking, ambitious drama being produced around the world.
“In the film business the main focus has always been on the director, and scriptwriting comes in second. So it’s important that a lot of new wonderful television series are bringing focus to the writer,” he explains. “But in order to develop the language of television, the director is an important part of that process because those scripts can be interpreted and filmed in many different ways.
“There’s a tendency now for fewer long-running series and more limited series, which means they can become more cinematic, and that’s clearly where good directors come in and become part of the development process. We’re in a place where there’s a hybrid between television and films – we’re only at the beginning of that process and it’s very exciting. But it’s very important that, at an early point, directors can be a part of a process where drama is created because the collaboration between writers and directors is underdeveloped and there is so much more to gain.”
Collaboration between the creative team was key on Nyholm’s latest television project, Taboo, an eight-part series starring Tom Hardy that debuts on BBC1 on January 7. It launches stateside on cable channel FX on January 10.
Set in 1814, the story follows James Keziah Delaney (Hardy), a man who has been to the ends of the earth and comes back irrevocably changed. Believed to be long dead, he returns home to London from Africa to inherit what is left of his father’s shipping empire and rebuild a life for himself.
But his father’s legacy is a poisoned chalice and, with enemies lurking in every dark corner, James must navigate increasingly complex territories to avoid his own death sentence. Encircled by conspiracy, murder and betrayal, a dark family mystery unfolds in a combustible tale of love and treachery.
Hardy is also an executive producer along with writer Steven Knight, Ridley Scott, Kate Crowe and Dean Baker. Scott Free London and Hardy Son & Baker produce for BBC1 and US cable network FX, with Sonar Entertainment distributing the series worldwide outside the UK.
Nyholm first met with Hardy and the producers last summer and says he was inspired to join the series by the actor, for whom Taboo is a passion project co-created with his father Chips Hardy and Knight.
“I loved the first two scripts,” Nyholm says, “and Tom told me about his motivation for the series – he wanted to make a story about looking at historic London as a barbaric place at a time some consider to be the cradle of the modern world we know today.
“In a way, it’s a coming-of-age story – a fusion of understanding your own life and understanding the world you’re born into, and that idea to connect those psychological, emotional depths in a character, together with his awareness of the political system, was really exciting and a new way of making a drama.
“Tom put words to this main character and then said, ‘We don’t know exactly where we’re going but, if you want to go on this ride, we would really love to have you with us.’ That was very exciting – and he said if it breaks down, I hope we can say we tried. I thought this artistic, brave commitment was something that I felt strongly for and that Tom had really thought about this. It was a very inspiring meeting that set off the whole thing.”
Nyholm joined the project at such an early stage that the series was yet to be cast or crewed. But that allowed him to become an integral part of the creative team, helping to bring Hardy’s vision to life around the central character he would play himself.
“He takes a very big responsibility,” the director says of the Hollywood star. “Like a Renaissance man, he cares about all the elements and he’s very open in the process. He’s also a very kind person, a gentleman, so that was a big inspiration. Part of the story came from him so he was like having an extra page of the script.”
A tattoo-covered Hardy dominates the screen every time he appears – in fact, he’s rarely out of shot – while the captivating sets bring the hustle and bustle of 19th century London to life. Helming the first four episodes, Nyholm worked closely with director of photography Mark Patten to bring an unconventional shooting style to the production, one that let the actors do their job as the cameras recorded them unobtrusively.
“We kept things open in many ways so when we came into a new set, we didn’t just go and do the classical setups – big picture, two cross-angled close-ups and maybe a little travelling. Instead, we made it a priority to stay in a certain angle to capture a mood or, if there was something very characteristic in a scene like a big fireplace, we’d say every shot will have the fireplace in the picture. This is the magnet of the scene and we’ll go around that. Sometimes people would walk out of picture and we’d just leave them there.
“Steven wrote some really wonderful scripts – but he’s not loyal to one genre in one episode, he would go from one to another. So when you think this is really a high-paced drama, suddenly it’s very different, it’s a man on an expedition searching for something, and now it’s a love story. He would switch moods very often, which means we would also be very open to the scenes and try to not fit them into a system.”
With only very quick rehearsals for each scene – “I don’t like to empty the bottle” – the director prefers to shoot just three or four takes before moving on. “There’s a truth in the acting and you want to protect that,” he explains. “It’s a very subtle thing but that’s the main part of my work, that’s what I love doing. They don’t have to act exactly how I want them to act, because they’re the actors. They have a feeling for what they want to do but I have to respond as a person watching and, for me, it’s like watching something truthful for the first time and it has to work for me as well. I love actors – it would be strange not to, but it’s a sacred moment when they do their work and I feel privileged to be close to that process.”
Nyholm might call himself an actor’s director, choosing to use his time on set with his cast – which also includes Michael Kelly, Jonathan Pryce, Oona Chaplin, Franka Potente, Stephen Graham and Tom Hollander – instead of fretting over “the small things that aren’t important.” And as a result, there wasn’t a day on set when he wasn’t happy with what they had produced, despite some other challenges.
“There were some days that were more tough than others, of course, because we also work physically, under the influence of weather and sometimes things that technically were more difficult. We had to do a lot of work with limited time and with a lot of locations, so there was a lot of moving around and setups in places we hadn’t been before. We had a crew that very quickly found a way of moving into a spot and knowing what was important and what was not important – that was a big thing.”
Nyholm is currently in pre-production for his next project, feature film Keepers, but admits he now feels at home working across Europe, particularly in England. Other credits include Inspector Morse prequel Endeavour and European crime drama Jo.
“When I work in England, I feel at home and it’s close to Denmark,” he adds. “The big thing is the world is becoming smaller and working as I do today would have been much more difficult 15 years ago. My world has become much bigger and I really enjoy being in England. Hopefully I’ll do more.”
The Hollywood Foreign Press Association has revealed the nominations for its annual Golden Globe film and TV awards – the next edition of which will be held in February 2017.
Some TV shows on the shortlists seem to have become permanent fixtures, notably Game of Thrones, Transparent and Veep. But there will also be stiff competition from a range of excellent new shows.
A key contender in the Best Television Series – Drama category is HBO’s Westworld, which also picked up nominations in two other categories. Created by husband-and-wife team Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, the show has just finished its first season with an average of 1.8 million (same-day viewing). However, the most encouraging thing about the show is that its audience has been rising since episode five, with the finale achieving the show’s best ratings to date (2.2 million). All of which bodes well for the second, which is likely to air in 2018.
Also in the running is Netflix’s royal epic The Crown, which we discussed last week. Written by Peter Morgan, the show is up for Best Television Series – Drama as well as two acting gongs. It’s 10 years since Morgan received an Oscar nomination for The Queen, so perhaps now would be a fitting time for him to win a top award for his royal endeavours. With an IMDb score of 9.0 and superb reviews, it’s another incredibly strong contender.
Arguably the surprise package of the year has been another Netflix show, Stranger Things, which also finished its first season with an IMDb score of 9. Up for awards in two categories (including Best TV Drama), the show follows the disappearance of a young boy at the same time as the appearance of a girl with telekinetic powers.
The show was created by the Duffer Brothers, who featured in this DQ feature on 1980s-inspired TV. Commenting on the Netflix relationship, Ross Duffer said: “They have been incredibly supportive of our vision from the very beginning, and they’ve placed so much trust in us. We also just love Netflix as a platform, because it allows people to watch the show at their own pace. This story is not necessarily intended to be watched over eight weeks. The hope is that people will get hooked and the crescendo will feel even more impactful when it’s watched over a relatively short period of time. We want the audience to feel like they’re watching an epic summer movie.”
The Best TV Drama category is rounded out by the much feted Game of Thrones (David Benioff and DB Weiss) and This Is Us, the only one of the five shows that airs on a free-to-air network in the US (NBC). The latter has been one of the strongest-performing new shows of the 2016/2017 season and is very likely to be renewed for a second season.
It was created by Dan Fogelman, whose credits include Tangled, Cars and Crazy, Stupid, Love. Fogelman also wrote Fox’s new drama Pitch and is waiting to see if that show has done well enough to secure a renewal.
Battling it out for Best Television Limited Series or Motion Picture Made for Television are American Crime, The Dresser, The Night Manager, The Night Of and The People v OJ Simpson: American Crime Story.
ABC’s American Crime, recently commissioned for a third season, is the creation of John Ridley, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of 12 Years a Slave. It is pretty well regarded by critics but is unlikely to come out ahead of some of the other shows in this category.
FX’s American Crime Story: The People v OJ Simpson, winner of five Emmys, is probably the one to beat. Created by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, it has been nominated in three categories at this year’s Globes.
That said, the Golden Globes isn’t shy of choosing outsiders – as it did last year when it gave Mr Robot, Mozart in the Jungle and Wolf Hall the top drama awards. Wolf Hall’s success in this category last year provides encouragement for the British nominees – The Night Manager, written by David Farr based on the John Le Carre novel; and The Dresser, the latest adaptation of Ronald Harwood’s acclaimed 1980 play of the same name (written for screen and adapted by Richard Eyre).
However, both of them will have to go some way to beat HBO’s The Night Of, created by Richard Price and Steven Zaillian. Of course, if The Night Of does win it will owe a debt to the Brits, because it is based on Peter Moffat’s excellent series Criminal Justice (BBC, 2008/2009).
As referenced above, Mozart in the Jungle was the surprise winner of Best Television Series – Musical or Comedy category at last year’s Golden Globes. So it’s hard to predict which show will come out on top this time out. Mozart, created by Alex Timbers, Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman and Paul Weitz, is in the running again, as are Jill Soloway’s Transparent and Armando Iannucci’s Veep, both of which are strong contenders.
This is, however, a category where the Globes could make a positive statement in favour of diversity, with both Atlanta and Black-ish on its shortlist.
Donald Glover’s Atlanta has been a success for FX this year, generating an 8.7 rating on IMDb and bedding in with a respectable 880,000 average audience for season one. ABC’s Black-ish is now in season three and hovers around the five million mark. Created by Kenya Barris, the show has been a solid performer but would be a surprising winner.
The five dramas that received nominations in Best Performance by an Actor in a Television Series – Drama were Mr Robot, Better Call Saul, The Americans, Ray Donovan and Goliath. In other words, a completely different line-up to the overall best drama category. This contrasts with Best Performance by an Actor in a Television Series – Musical or Comedy, where the only divergence from the overall category was a nomination for Graves instead of Veep. This is explained by the fact that the heartbeat of Veep is Julia Louis-Dreyfus, nominated in the actress category. If there’s a conclusion to be drawn out here, it’s that there is generally closer alignment between creator and cast in comedy series.
In terms of shows that have been overlooked this year, the Globes didn’t pay much attention to Fox’s Empire and Netflix’s much-feted Orange is the New Black. The mood also seems to have moved away from Shondaland dramas for the time being.
In fact, viewed from the perspective of writers, it’s been a pretty poor year for women, with Lisa Joy and Jill Soloway the only two high-profile female figures to be involved in the headline categories. It’s a reminder that supporting diversity has many dimensions.
Series like The People v OJ Simpson: American Crime Story have proved there is a healthy market for well-told dramas based on real events. So it’s interesting to see that Discovery Channel is coming to market soon with Manifesto, a highly anticipated series that looks at the story of Ted Kaczynski, aka the Unabomber.
This week, Discovery announced that actor Sam Worthington (Avatar, Hacksaw Ridge) will star in the show as FBI Agent Jim ‘Fitz’ Fitzgerald, whose innovative new approach to intelligence gathering ultimately led to the capture of the Unabomber. Kaczynski himself will be played by British actor Paul Bettany.
The show, which is produced by Lionsgate and Trigger Street Productions, is being written by Andrew Sodroski, a former Harvard graduate. It has taken Sodroski a while to get a break in the TV business, but finally things look like they’re coming good. Aside from Manifesto, he is also working on a project for Amazon Studios entitled Holland, Michigan. This comedy-thriller centres on a schoolteacher who, suspecting that her husband is cheating on her, enlists the help of a fellow teacher she fancies.
Fact-based drama is a good fit for Discovery and is an area where it has already enjoyed significant success in. In September, it aired Harley & the Davidsons, which delivered 4.4 million viewers and became the most-watched single-network cable miniseries in three-and-a-half years. Echoing the OJ Simpson series, which aired on FX, Discovery wants Manifesto to be the first in an anthology series of dramas that focus on infamous criminal masterminds.
Another upcoming dramas attracting attention right now is actor Tom Hardy’s Taboo, which will air on BBC1 in the UK and FX in the US. A historical period drama, it follows an adventurer who returns to the UK from Africa to avenge the death of his father. Hardy created the idea with his father Chips Hardy and Steven Knight.
Knight, of course, has built up a loyal fanbase through his acclaimed gangster series Peaky Blinders. The new show, which focuses on the activities of the East India Company, will provide him with the same kind of complex political web that has made Peaky Blinders such an enjoyable romp.
Commenting on the show, he said that the East India Company will be depicted as a mix of “the CIA, NSA and the biggest, baddest multi-national corporation on Earth.”
Knight and Hardy Snr are credited as writers on the series – as is Emily Ballou, an Australian-American poet, novelist and screenwriter. Among Ballou’s high-profile TV credits are Channel 4’s Humans, ITV’s Scott & Bailey and The Slap from ABC in Australia.
Over the past couple of days, the Australian screen industry has gathered to announce the winners in the sixth Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts (AACTA) Awards. On the scripted TV front, recipients in a range of categories have included Rake, No Activity, The Beautiful Lie, Cleverman, Secret City, Down Under, Molly, Mary: The Making of a Princess, The Kettering Incident, Wentworth and Wolf Creek.
There’s a lot of great drama in that list but it’s interesting to note that the award for Best Screenplay in Television went to Sarah Scheller and Alison Bell for ABC’s Comedy Showroom – The Letdown. To win the award they had to beat competition from The Beautiful Lie, The Kettering Incident and Upper Middle Bogan.
The Letdown tells the story of a struggling new mum (played by Bell) and the mother’s group she thinks she doesn’t need. Originally shot as a one-off as part of the Comedy Showroom strand of pilots, the show’s strong performance means it is set to reappear next year as a full series. The Letdown is Bell’s first writing credit, although she is well established as an actress. Scheller also has a bit of an acting track record and was a writer on the comedy No Activity.
Good news for Marvel fans this week following the news that Netflix has ordered a second season of its series Luke Cage. This follows previous second-season orders for other Netflix/Marvel collaborations Daredevil and Jessica Jones.
Luke Cage was created for TV by Cheo Hodari Coker, who also leads a 12-strong writing room. A former music journalist with an intimate knowledge of the rap scene, Coker’s other TV credits include Southland, NCIS, Ray Donovan and Almost Human. He also wrote the screenplay for the 2009 biographical film Notorious.
With Luke Cage one of the few black male characters in the superhero comic book business, Coker’s track record has made him the perfect choice to bring Cage to life.
In a recent interview, he said: “The show is what I call ‘inclusively black.’ It’s an unadulterated hip-hop show. But it’s done in such a way that anyone from outside the culture – not just hip-hop culture, outside of geek culture – it can play against anything on television.” For more on Coker, click here.
C21’s Content London event last week included a wide array of top screenwriters in its line-up. One of the speakers was Tony Grisoni, whose numerous TV credits include acclaimed series Red Riding, The Unloved and Southcliffe.
During the event, Grisoni discussed a new drama he is working on with producer Andrea Calderwood. Called In the Wolf’s Mouth, it is set against the 1943 Allied liberation of Sicily, with UK broadcaster Channel 4 paying for script development. The story is based on a novel by Adam Foulds published a couple of years ago.
Although C4 is paying for script development, Grisoni and Calderwood were also at Series Mania in Paris this year pitching the project in the hope of attracting international coproduction partners.
Fox will go to Mipcom in Cannes next week with a spring in its step thanks to Lethal Weapon, its TV reboot of the classic movie franchise.
Now three episodes into its first season, Lethal Weapon is one of the US fall season’s top-performing shows. It’s currently pulling in 7.3 million same-day viewers, a figure that rises to 11.5 million after a week’s catch-up viewing is added in.
The network has responded to the show’s strong start by giving it an additional five episodes, taking the total for season one to 18. This is less than the traditional 22-episode US network model, but Fox is still describing it as a full-season order – something that may reflect a wider trend towards shorter-run scripted series.
Commenting on the award of the extra episodes, announced this week, Fox Entertainment president David Madden said: “Lethal Weapon delivers an explosive and wildly entertaining core relationship between two cops, with dynamic performances by Damon Wayans and Clayne Crawford, surrounded by cinematic action, endearing humour and true heart. It has proven to be a self-starter and solid companion to Empire.” (Lethal Weapon directly follows Fox hit series Empire in the schedule.)
Another movie reboot that has got off to a strong start is HBO’s Westworld. Blessed with a talented cast, a strong creative team and cult name recognition, the first episode attracted 3.3 million for the first showing via cable and streaming. The second episode dipped to 2.7 million, but some of this decline has been put down to competition from the second US presidential debate.
Strong ratings in the US were mirrored in the UK, where Sky Atlantic reported a record-breaking performance for the show’s first episode.
A statement from Sky said: “After being watched by an overnight audience of 458,000 on Tuesday October 4, more than 1.38 million viewers have taken advantage of catching up on the show flexibly over the following seven days [i.e. 1.84 million total].”
HBO will be encouraged by the fact the show has attracted a strong 9.2 rating on IMDb. However, it is early days for a series that is thought to have cost US$100m to produce. HBO would like Westworld to build the same kind of momentum as Game of Thrones, but it is built on a much sparser mythological foundation. For this reason, it is difficult to prejudge how much traction the show will gain with the audience. The true potential of the franchise should become clearer around episode six or seven.
Another US series that merits a mention is FX’s long-running American Horror Story anthology franchise, which this year is sub-titled My Roanoke Nightmare. Four episodes in, the show is averaging 3.58 million viewers. The figures are on a slight downward curve but they are similar to last year’s series Hotel, suggesting the show has a pretty robust core audience.
This year’s series takes the Roanoke Colony in North Carolina as its storytelling starting point. During the 1590s, the colonists vanished. Moving to the present, a couple’s new home near the settlement is full of paranormal activity. The cast includes Kathy Bates, Sarah Paulson and Cuba Gooding Jr, with a special guest appearance from Lady Gaga (who also appeared in Hotel).
Away from the US, Zodiak Rights is reporting strong sales for Public Enemy, the Belgian drama that won the inaugural MipDrama Screenings Buyers’ Coup de Coeur Award in April.
Produced by Belgium’s Entre Chien et Loup and Playtime Films for RTBF Belgium, the 10-part drama centres on the story of Guy Béranger, a dangerous child murderer at the end of his prison sentence. His release on parole to the custody of the monks at Vielsart Abbey leads to an outcry from the nearby small village and to the rest of the country. Then when a young girl disappears on the outskirts of the Abbey, the entire village is in uproar.
The French-language show was a ratings hit for RTBF Belgium, securing an audience share of more than 25%. Now Zodiak has sold it to Sky Atlantic in the UK and Germany; free-to-air broadcaster TF1 in France; Movistar Series Xtra and Movistar VOD in Spain; and Ale Kino Channel (Canal+ Group) in Poland. It will also air on Scandinavian broadcaster C More’s linear and premium SVoD services in Sweden, Norway, Finland and Denmark.
Producer François Touwaide of Entre Chien et Loup said: “Public Enemy is the result of a great initiative launched by Wallonia Brussels Federation and RTBF in 2013 to develop Belgian talent across TV series. After a significant success in Belgium, we are happy with the international response to the show and the great job done by the Zodiak Rights team. Zodiak Rights believed in the show from the beginning and has been a great support.”
Caroline Torrance, head of scripted at Zodiak Rights, added: “The demand for innovative, globally relevant drama that works across platforms continues to be very strong and we expect these deals to be the first of many for this compelling series.” The sales also underline the promotional value of the new MipDrama award.
Still on the subject of distribution, SVoD platform Netflix has acquired global rights to Syfy space drama The Expanse. Season one will be available to Netflix members outside North America and New Zealand from November 3, with a second run due in 2017.
The Expanse is set 200 years in the future, after humanity has colonised the solar system. It follows a tough detective and a rogue ship’s captain who stumble across a huge conspiracy while looking for a missing woman.
The first series aired on Syfy in 2015 and didn’t rate especially well, starting at 1.19 million and dropping to 0.55 million. The show is a good indication, however, of the new economic model that exists in the Netflix era, where modest ratings on a US host channel don’t necessarily result in automatic cancellation because of the opportunity to secure a secondary revenue stream from an SVoD partner.
More generally, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings warned this week that the chance of the SVoD service entering China “doesn’t look good.” The company has been plotting an entry into China for a couple of years but seems to be suffering the same barriers to entry as other US brands. “Disney, which is very good in China, had their movie service shut down. Apple, which is very good in China, had their movie service closed down. It doesn’t look good,” he said at the New Yorker TechFest conference last week.
After a promising debut for This Is Us, NBC has given the new drama an additional five episodes, taking the total number of instalments for the first season to 18. The decision was made on the eve of the show’s second episode.
Citing Live+5-day data, NBC said the show’s premiere attracted 14.3 million viewers. It also set records on NBC’s digital platform.
Commenting on the decision to extend the show from its initial 13-episode order, NBC’s Jennifer Salke said: “It’s a rare moment in this business when a show so instantly delivers both critical acclaim and hit ratings, but This Is Us is just such an achievement. Creator Dan Fogelman, along with co-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa and the producers, cast and crew, has delivered the kind of heart and depth that resonates with every segment of the audience and we’re proud to extend it.”
This Is Us is also making waves in the international market, with Channel 4 in the UK picking up the show last week. Jay Hunt, Channel 4’s chief creative officer, said: “This Is Us is unmissably life affirming with a warmth that has drawn critical acclaim and bumper ratings. It’s a great addition to our slate of acquired shows – from Deutschland 83 to Fargo.”
Fogelman’s other new series, Pitch, hasn’t had such a bright start, however. The story of the first-ever female Major League Baseball pitcher, the show was one of Fox’s weaker performers last week, bringing in 4.2 million viewers.
It has had a decent amount of critical approval, which means it will almost certainly complete its initial 13-episode run, but it will need to win over audiences quickly to secure an extended run or second season.
Among the other new US series to have hit the air, CBS reboot MacGyver has had a strong start, securing an audience of around 10.9 million for its first episode. This is the best performance by a Friday-night scripted series on the network since Hawaii Five-0 in 2014.
With the show’s debut clearly benefiting from in-built name awareness, it will be interesting to see if it manages to hold on to that number through episodes two and three. If it does, it means the revival is an inspired move. If it drops away quickly, it will resemble ABC’s experience with The Muppets last year – namely a strong start followed by rapid loss of audience interest.
The fate of MacGyver may have some influence on whether the big four US networks continue to look at reviving classic series. Others currently in the works are The Rockford Files and LA Law, and success for MacGyver will certainly mean more.
By contrast to MacGyver, ABC’s Notorious has started very badly and looks like a prime candidate for early cancellation. Fox’s reboot of The Exorcist, with 2.9 million viewers, has also started slowly but may find its niche in international distribution because of its name recognition and supernatural subject matter.
Still in the US, FX has revealed that season four of its vampire virus series The Strain will be the last. The Strain’s writer and showrunner is Carlton Cuse, who is also coming to the end of A&E’s Bates Motel.
There had been talk of The Strain operating to a five-season story arc, but four seasons is probably enough to play the concept out. Strong in season one, the pace and direction of the narrative started to falter in season two – something that has been reflected in the ratings.
The downward path of the ratings tells the story. While season one averaged 2.2 million, season two came in at 1.34 million (this season also suffered from an awkward piece of recasting). Now in season three, the show is averaging 1.1 million but the latest episode attracted just 880,000 – the sign of a franchise coming to the end of its life.
Elsewhere, it has been a busy week for Australian drama. On the domestic front, Nine Network has commissioned a second season of Doctor Doctor, a local comedy drama about a formerly high-flying surgeon who is forced to work as a GP in the small country town where he grew up. The series, which sounds similar to DRG’s hit format Doc Martin, was only two episodes into the first season when Nine announced the recommission.
The show’s synopsis says: “When he is knocked off his pedestal and on to the Impaired Registrants Programme, prodigal Sydney surgeon and party boy Hugh Knight must return to his home in rural Whyhope where he might learn to swallow his pride and mend his ways – or not.”
Meanwhile, US-based SVoD platform Acorn has acquired two Australian series from distributor DCD Rights. The first is Deep Water, a four-part series inspired by a crime wave targeting gay people in Sydney’s coastal communities in the 1980s and 90s. The show is a Blackfella Films production for SBS Broadcasting Australia, Screen Australia and Screen New South Wales.
Acorn TV has also picked up the second season of political thriller The Code, which is produced by Playmaker Media for Australian public broadcaster ABC. Both series have also been acquired by BBC4 in the UK, a channel that is often used as a barometer of whether a show has international sales potential.
Finally, some desperately sad news this week with the untimely death of Gary Glasberg, executive producer/showrunner of NCIS and creator/executive producer of NCIS: New Orleans. Glasberg, just 50 years old, died suddenly in his sleep on September 28.
A well-liked figure, Glasberg joined NCIS in 2009 and helped confirm its status as one of the biggest drama hits in the world – a huge ratings success in the US and widely distributed internationally.
His previous credits included The Mentalist, Crossing Jordan and Bones.
“Today is an overwhelmingly sad day for NCIS, CBS and anyone who was blessed to spend time with Gary Glasberg,” said CBS president of entertainment Glenn Geller. “We have lost a cherished friend, gifted creative voice, respected leader and, most memorably, someone whose warmth and kindness was felt by all around him. Our heartfelt thoughts and sympathies go out to his wife, Mimi, his two sons and all his family and friends.”
CBS TV Studios president David Stapf added: “He brought kindness, integrity and class to everything he did. His remarkable talent as a writer and producer was only matched by his ability to connect with people.”
The 2016 Primetime Emmys didn’t spring too many surprises when its winners were unveiled at the weekend. One of the top performers on the night was HBO’s magnificent Game of Thrones (GoT), which was named Best Drama for the second year running.
Aside from being one of US cable TV’s most-watched series ever, it has now broken the record for the highest number of Emmys won by any fictional series (38, beating Frasier’s 37).
GoT’s two showrunners, David Benioff and DB Weiss, also picked up Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series for the season six’s Battle of the Bastards. This follows their win in 2015 for the exceptional Mother’s Mercy episode.
The big irony surrounding GoT, of course, is that there is such a schism between the progress of the TV series and the progress of the books it is based on. The novels’ author George RR Martin is, much to the consternation of his fans, taking an eternity to finish his magnum opus.
But the end of the show is now just two seasons away and there is no question that Martin will still be tapping away at his keyboard when Benioff and Weiss’s TV adaptation concludes in 2018 with season eight.
For those of us who fell in love with GoT as a written work, that creates a conundrum regarding the story’s closure.
HBO also has a conundrum, which is what to do when its most popular show by far ends. It seems so unlikely that HBO would let such an important franchise slip through its fingers that everyone remotely interested in GoT is speculating on whether there is scope for a prequel.
When this subject came up after the latest batch of Emmy wins, Martin kept that possibility open – with a proviso. “I do have thousands of pages of fake history of everything that led up to Game of Thrones, so there’s a lot of material there and I’m writing more,” he said, before adding: “At the moment we still have this show to finish and I still have two books to finish, so that’s all speculation.”
If there is a prequel, however, it seems Benioff and Weiss have already decided they won’t be involved. In response to questions about the idea, Benioff said: “You might want to ask George about that. It’s a great world that George created. I think it’s a very rich world, and I’m sure there will be other series set in Westeros but, for us, this is it.”
Of course, this means HBO actually has two challenges – how to keep the spirit of GoT alive and how to hold on to Benioff and Weiss. Maybe it’s time for a Lord of the Rings reboot…
Another writer to go home with an Emmy last weekend was DV DeVincentis for Marcia, Marcia, Marcia – an episode of FX’s excellent series The People vs OJ Simpson: American Crime Story (Outstanding Writing for a Limited Series, Movie or Dramatic Special). All told, The People vs OJ won nine Emmys from 22 nominations, making it the top performer on the night.
DeVincentis wrote three of the show’s 10 episodes and was part of a writing team led by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. Echoing an increasingly common theme in the TV business, his previous credits are mostly movies (but with some extended career gaps).
He co-wrote the John Cusack film Grosse Pointe Blank in 1997 and then penned the Nick Hornby adaptation High Fidelity (also starring Cusack) in 2000. Short-lived TV series Dead Last (2001) and movie Lay the Favourite (2012) followed. The latter, which didn’t review well, reunited him with director Stephen Frears, with whom he worked on High Fidelity. Now he’s in the TV big league, but there is no news yet on his next scripted project.
The winner of Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series was Netflix’s Master of None, written by Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang. This makes it a good year for SVoD comedy, with Amazon’s Mozart in the Jungle picking up a Golden Globe in early 2016.
While Ansari, the star of the show, is by far the better known of the two, Yang put himself firmly in the spotlight this week with an Emmy acceptance speech that pleaded for more diversity – but immediately managed to stir up a controversy on the subject.
He said: “There’s 17 million Asian Americans, and 17 million Italian Americans. They have The Godfather, Goodfellas, Rocky and The Sopranos. We’ve got Long Duk Dong [a character from Sixteen Candles regarded as a racist stereotype by the Asian community]. So we have a long way to go. But I know we can get there, I believe in us, it’s just gonna take a lot of hard work. Asian parents out there, if you can do me a favour: just a couple of you, get your kids cameras instead of violins, we’ll all be good.”
While Yang’s intentions can’t be faulted, the sensitivity of the diversity issue was underlined when his comments received a disapproving response from The National Italian American Foundation, which said it was “disturbed by the very public degradation of Italian American history. Mr Yang listed what he considered to be notable representations of Italian Americans in the entertainment industry citing Goodfellas, The Godfather, and The Sopranos. Mr Yang’s comments, while meant to point out the under-representation of Asian Americans in film, ended up including a reckless disregard for Italian Americans by citing films that portray Italian Americans as violent, dim-witted, and involved with organised crime – all three – and insensitive stereotypes that in no way reflect the lives of everyday Italian Americans.”
Away from the Emmys, Channel 4 in the UK and NBCUniversal-owned comedy streaming channel Seeso have announced there will be a second season of Flowers, a dark dysfunctional dramedy that stars Olivia Colman (Broadchurch) and Julian Barratt (The Mighty Boosh). Produced by Kudos and distributed by Endemol Shine International, the show was created by Will Sharpe.
Sharpe is best-known as an actor (Casualty, Sherlock, Dirk Gently), with Flowers his first significant breakthrough on the writing front. Commenting on the re-commission, he said: “Channel 4, Kudos, Seeso and [executive producer] Naomi de Pear have all been such supportive partners on this show and I’m very excited about working with them on another series of Flowers.”
C4 deputy head of comedy Nerys Evans added: “Covering complex issues like fidelity, mental health, sexuality and fraying family bonds, Will Sharpe’s hilariously awkward and heart-breaking show offers another unmissable look at the Flowers’ messed up world. Will’s scripts and the show’s perfect cast are so brilliant at making you wail with laughter one minute, and well up the next.”
Also this month, French production group Newen and the distribution and production arm of Keshet Media Group, Keshet International (KI), unveiled a drama development initiative for French and Israeli writers of high-end drama series. The two companies are calling for professional writers to submit proposals and projects in either English or Hebrew for unique one-hour or half-hour drama series with appeal for European audiences.
The initiative is being led by Atar Dekel, head of global scripted coproductions and Nelly Feld, KI sales director for Europe, on behalf of KI, and Sandra Ouaiss, Newen head of coproductions.
Dekel said: “Within KI’s aim to grow its global drama coproductions, we are excited to be partnering up with a company as prestigious as Newen. This is a unique opportunity for the creative communities in both France and Israel to take their local stories to the international stage. There is a keen appetite in the global market for Israeli and French scripted content and we hope this collaboration will instigate several high-end international coproductions.”
The submission period began on September 6 and ends on October 31 this year. Each candidate may submit a maximum of two projects via the KI or Newen websites (where full terms and conditions are available). The firms have committed to selecting at least one and up to three projects that they will co-develop and coproduce if appropriate. The finalists will be announced in January 2017 and given the opportunity to work with an experienced European showrunner.
For the past week, the British media has had a lot of fun hyping up the ratings war between ITV’s new drama Victoria and the BBC’s returning series Poldark (both of which, ironically, are produced by ITV-owned production company Mammoth Screen). But the truth is both sides can be pretty happy with their performances.
Victoria, produced by Mammoth for ITV and PBS in the US, debuted at 21.00 on Sunday August 28 with 5.7 million viewers. Keen to build on its momentum, ITV then scheduled the second episodes of the eight-parter on the following night, a bank holiday in the UK. This episode attracted 5.2 million, suggesting the show had done a good job of retaining the audience’s interest.
The direct clash between the two shows came the following week, when they were scheduled against each other at 21.00 on Sunday September 4. In this slot, Victoria secured 4.8 million viewers and then picked up a further 400,000 in a second showing an hour later on ITV+1. Poldark, meanwhile, attracted 5.1 million viewers to what was the first episode of its second series.
Different media outlets have interpreted these figures in different ways. For some, it has been an opportunity to attack Poldark by saying a) it was beaten by Victoria (with its amalgamated 5.2 million figure) and b) this year’s Poldark launch was weaker than last year’s, which attracted 6.9 million. However, neither of these interpretations should take away from the fact that it was a good opening for Poldark. The only meaningful comparison between the two will come after 14 to 28 days when we begin to get a sense of time-shifted viewing. By then, we’ll also have a clearer idea of whether Victoria can sustain its ratings.
Good news for both broadcasters is that the critics have praised the two shows. Both have scored 8.4 on IMDb, putting them at the upper end of audience approval ratings.
Looking to the long-term, the Victoria vs Poldark battle is likely to become a pretty permanent feature on the UK drama scene. Neither broadcaster wants to give up the 21.00 Sunday-night slot to the other but both have plans to run and run with their respective series. Poldark has already been commissioned for a third season and could easily run for five or six. ITV is also envisaging a similar life span for Victoria.
Congratulations are of course due to Mammoth Screen for pulling off a remarkable feat. And to ITV, which gets to distribute both shows to the international market (it has just licensed Victoria to ITV Choice in Asia and the Middle East). It’s also still something of a novelty for female screenwriters to run primetime dramas – so it’s a positive sign that these shows are penned by Daisy Goodwin (Victoria) and Debbie Horsfield (Poldark).
Another show in the news this week is The Young Pope – a Sky, HBO and Canal+ co-production that sees Jude Law play a feisty young American Pope. The ten-part series has been hyped up a lot in recent months by its distributor FremantleMedia International (FMI) –and it looks like it could turn out to be the hit the company has been hoping for. The first two episodes were screened at the Venice Film Festival and received glowing reviews from the media. The Telegraph was especially enthusiastic, reporting that: “The first, feature-length episode is like the skin-prickling opening to a game of chess played across a board of gold and marble – with each piece, from king to pawn, gliding enigmatically into place for the coming battle”. Law, says the Telegraph, is a “force of nature.”
FMI has also reported strong interest among buyers. Broadcasters that have already picked the show up include MNET (Pan-Africa), HBO (Pan-CEE), BETV in Belgium, OTE TV in Greece, 365 in Iceland, Sky in New Zealand and Hot in Israel. Nordic SVoD platform C More, which belongs to Sweden’s TV4 Group, has also acquired the series. As part of the latter deal, The Young Pope will also air on TV4’s free-to-air channel in Sweden. As for the partners in the show, Sky Atlantic will air it across its territories from October 27.
One of the most-talked about programmes of the last couple of years has been Netflix’s Pablo Escobar drama series Narcos – a double winner at the 2015 C21 International Drama Awards. This week, Netflix announced it had renewed the show for third and fourth seasons. It’s lucky that the creators called the show Narcos rather than Escobar – because the new series will follow the Medellin cartel after the death of the Colombian drug lord in 1993.
As we’ve noted on several occasions, Netflix doesn’t release audience figures – so it’s difficult to know how well the Spanish-language show does on the platform. However, a deal between Netflix and Univision means the show is also due to air on the US Hispanic network in the near future, so it should soon be possible to get a perspective on its appeal. Interestingly, Netflix and Univision are also partnering a series called El Chapo, which is based on the life of Mexican drug lord Joaquin Guzmán. In the US, this series will air on UniMás in 2017 before appearing on Netflix. Outside the US, the show will make its debut on the streamer.
It’s been evident in recent times that there is a strong audience in the US for scripted series that place black actors at the centre of the story (Empire and Power being a couple of the most recent successes). There’s more evidence of this from a couple of newly launched shows. The first is Queen Sugar, which has just debuted on OWN. Following the same pattern as fellow OWN drama Greenleaf, the Tuesday and Wednesday roll-out of Queen Sugar drew a healthy 2.42 million viewers. With The Haves and the Have Nots also doing well on OWN, the channel’s drama output is currently firing on all cylinders.
More good news for the black creative community has been the early response to Community star and rapper Donald Glover’s comedy Atlanta, which has just launched on FX. Set in the world of local hip hop, the show has been warmly received by critics and secured a promising 1.1 million viewers in its 22.00 slot. With an 8.9 rating on IMDB, Atlanta could shape up as one of the year’s surprise critical hits, though there was some grumbling among audiences that it was scheduled directly against the launch of Queen Sugar.
Disney’s acquisition of Marvel Entertainment gave it some obvious assets such as The Avengers and Iron Man. But the real genius of the partnership is the way Disney has managed to mine Marvel’s wider universe, which extends to 5,000 characters.
The success of the deal is especially evident in the movie business, where the Avengers franchise has performed beyond all expectations under Disney’s stewardship.
No less impressive has been the way Disney has developed hit movies out of thin air – examples being Guardians of the Galaxy and Big Hero 6. The company also benefits financially from the success of franchises like Spider-Man, X-Men and Fantastic Four, which, although Marvel-created, are controlled in the film sector by Sony (Spider-Man) and Fox (the latter two). Add all the above together and the total Marvel box office take since Disney took over easily tops US$10bn.
Disney being Disney, the deal was never just about film, of course. With the world’s best IP exploitation infrastructure already in place, the company has also managed to squeeze value out of its Marvel assets across video games, theme parks, TV and more.
As with film, Disney is using TV to unleash an ever-expanding array of characters onto the market. However, there are a few notable differences in approach. One is that TV seems to be a more tolerant environment for female superheroes, making it easier to set up shows with women as central characters rather than sidekicks. The same is true in terms of diversity, with TV more inclined to showcase non-white and LGBT characters.
Another is that TV can take more risks with character selections and stories. Marvel characters that could never support a movie franchise are more than capable of attracting one million-plus viewers on cable TV in the US.
There’s also more of a narrative drama feel to Marvel on TV. In part this is because TV can’t compete with the movies in terms of special effects. But it’s also because TV needs to develop characters fully to sustain them over several seasons.
Disney’s biggest Marvel TV excursion to date is Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, which was launched to huge fanfare in 2013 on Disney’s flagship free-to-air channel ABC. Created by Joss Whedon, the show is based around an ensemble cast of characters, some of which have appeared in the modern Marvel movie franchise and others from the comic book canon. Testament to the strength of the Marvel universe is that the central character in the show (Phil Coulson, played by Clark Gregg) was killed off in one of the films but has now bounced back to lead the show for (a minimum) four seasons.
The show started very strongly – trading on the Marvel name – but has settled into a kind of solid mid-table performance, averaging around 3.4 million viewers for its 2015 third season. Despite this, it has a value to Disney that goes beyond the headline audience. One is that it does well among younger viewers. Another is that it has sold to around 135 countries worldwide. And finally it has also proved useful for Disney in terms of trying out new TV ideas.
For example, it provided the platform for ABC to launch Marvel’s Agent Carter, a spin-off from the Avengers franchise that lasted two seasons. It also spawned a spin-off called Marvel’s Most Wanted, which featured the characters Lance Hunter and Bobbi Morse from S.H.IE.L.D. Although this didn’t get further than pilot phase, it’s an indication of how Disney can work its Marvel assets through ABC.
It’s not just ABC that’s benefiting from Disney’s acquisition of Marvel. In April, Disney-owned cable channel Freeform (formerly ABC Family) announced it had greenlit a straight-to-series order for Cloak and Dagger. Based on Marvel comic book characters, the show will tell the story of an interracial superhero couple – underlining the freedom that TV allows to break down barriers.
There are also important relationships beyond the bounds of the Disney empire. The most significant to date is Disney’s multi-series pact with Netflix, which has had a storming start. The first show from the partnership was Daredevil (2015), a critically acclaimed series that has just been renewed for a third season.
This was followed by Jessica Jones, another well-received show that has recently been renewed for a second season. Starring Krysten Ritter (Breaking Bad), Jessica Jones completely encapsulates the points made above – namely a female lead and tough storylines that deal with topics such as rape, assault and PTSD.
Coming up next are series based around Marvel characters Luke Cage and Iron Fist. Then, in true Marvel fashion, Daredevil, Jessica Jones and the latter two will be bundled together for a series called The Defenders. Given that Marvel’s comic book iteration of The Defenders also includes Doctor Strange, there’s also a neat cross-over with the forthcoming Doctor Strange movie starring Benedict Cumberbatch.
On top of all this, Netflix is working with Marvel on a series based around its anti-hero The Punisher – a decision perhaps made easier by the massive success of the Deadpool movie, which also has an anti-hero at its core.
Alongside its in-house activities and the Netflix partnership, Disney’s Marvel TV division, which is headed by Jeph Loeb, is also building up a warmer relationship with Fox and FX. In past years, the two companies have not got on that well because Fox controls the movie rights to X-Men and Fantastic Four and has no intention of relinquishing them back into the Marvel fold.
However, this summer it was announced that Marvel and Fox are collaborating on as as-yet-untitled X-Men-themed series starring two parents who discover their children possess mutant powers. They are then forced to go on the run from a hostile government and join up with a group of mutants in order to survive.
In parallel, Marvel and FX are working on an eight-part series called Legion, another X-Men spin-off. Written by Noah Hawley (Fargo), this show follows a schizophrenic who has been in and out of psychiatric hospitals for years. But after an encounter with a fellow patient, he realises the voices and visions is his head may be real. Significantly for this show, it has also been picked up by Fox’s international channels, meaning approximately 125 countries, including the UK, will air it day-and-date with the US.
For Disney, the possibilities of the Marvel universe don’t end here. US streaming service Hulu, for example, is planning a series based on the Marvel comic book Runaways, about six diverse teenagers who can barely stand each other but must unite against a common foe – their parents. And there are also reports that Disney XD is planning an animated spin-off based on Guardians of the Galaxy.
All in all, then, that looks like US$4bn well spent.
Games of Thrones and The People vs OJ Simpson picked up a lot of Emmy nominations this week – but can they convert them into awards?
The 2016 Emmy Award nominees were announced this week. All told, nearly 50 scripted series (excluding comedies) picked up at least one nomination, although only a handful are likely to convert those nominations into awards when the winners are announced on September 16 at the Microsoft Theater in LA.
A few years ago, winning an Emmy would have been seen as a nice endorsement of a show but little more. These days, however, it has taken on added significance for a couple of reasons.
The first is that the quality of TV drama has risen so rapidly. Winning an Emmy now really is an impressive achievement, and in some categories is not really that different to winning an Oscar. The second is that it is increasingly difficult to gauge the success of a show purely on the basis of its ratings (in the case of SVoD shows, there are no ratings).
So racking up Emmys is a way of alerting the industry to the quality of a show, something that probably converts into business at Mipcom, the first major programming market to follow the Emmy ceremony.
So which shows caught the eye in this year’s nominations? Well, it’s no real surprise to see HBO’s Game of Thrones is out in front with 23 nominations. Such is the quality and ambition of the show that the only thing likely to stop it winning awards this year is that it secured a record-breaking 12 Emmys last year, from 24 nominations.
Awards judges, sometimes deliberately, sometimes subconsciously, have a tendency to steer away from previous winners to make sure that everyone gets a fair share of acclaim.
At this stage, the biggest threat to HBO’s hit series comes from the FX camp, with The People vs OJ Simpson: American Crime Story securing 22 nominations and Fargo securing 18.
Netflix’s House of Cards secured 13 nominations but the biggest snub of the year went to the subscription VoD platform’s other flagship show Orange Is The New Black, with just one nomination.
The Night Manager was a huge hit on BBC1 in the UK but a modest performer on AMC in the US. However, the Emmys have rectified that situation slightly by granting the show 12 nominations.
After these shows, there is a huddle of titles securing multiple nominations, including Downton Abbey (10); All The Way and American Horror Story: Hotel (both eight); Better Call Saul and Roots (both seven); Mr Robot, Penny Dreadful and Sherlock: The Abominable Bride (all six); The Americans and Ray Donovan (both five); American Crime, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, The Good Wife, Homeland, The Knick and The Man in the High Castle (all four); and Empire, Gotham, Luther, Masters of Sex, Narcos and Vikings (all three).
Of course, some categories are more prestigious than others. So it’s interesting to note that USA Network’s Mr Robot made its way on to both the Outstanding Drama series category and the Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series category (Sam Esmail).
The same is true for The Americans, which has been nominated for Emmys before but not usually in the most prestigious categories. Perhaps this is a sign that 2016 is the show’s year to come out on top. Worth noting also is that it is another FX series – evidence of a cable channel firing on all cylinders creatively.
The Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series category throws up another couple of interesting points. One is that it has included Marti Noxon and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro’s UnREAL, which airs on Lifetime.
This is quite an achievement given that the show didn’t really feature anywhere else in the Emmys list. The other is that two of the nominations are for writers of shows that are ending: Julian Fellowes’ Downton Abbey and Robert and Michelle King’s The Good Wife. That might be enough to swing votes their way.
The Outstanding Limited Series category is a face-off between American Crime, Fargo, The Night Manager, The People vs OJ Simpson and Roots. Once again we can see a decent level of diversity here both in front of and behind the camera. American Crime’s inclusion is a welcome nod for an ABC series that has been welcomed by critics but not done too well in the ratings.
As is evident from the above listings, the only serious non-US competition for Emmys comes from the Brits. The Night Manager and Downton Abbey are the UK’s frontrunners to win Emmys, but there were also decent showings from Penny Dreadful, Luther and Sherlock: The Abominable Bride.
With War & Peace picking up a music nomination, the BBC secured a total of 22, which is more than most. It’s also worth noting that Showtime’s US adaptation of Shameless picked up two comedy nominations.
Looking more broadly at the scripted comedy categories, there were three top performers: HBO’s Veep with 17 noms, HBO’s Silicon Valley with 11 and Amazon’s Transparent with 10. Overall, the Emmys were pretty good for the major SVoD platforms, with established shows like House of Cards and Transparent the strongest performers.
Despite Man In The High Castle attracting four, it looks like Amazon came out just behind Netflix, which secured a smattering of nominations for its Marvel-based shows, Narcos, Bloodline and Sense8.
Cable channel AMC picked up a total of five nominations related to its Walking Dead universe and will take pleasure in the success of The Night Manager (which it aired) – but overall the network can expect a quiet year at the Emmys.
Other shows to score at least one flavour of Emmy nomination included 11.22.63, Bates Motel, Black Sails, Horace & Pete, Minority Report, Outlander and Vinyl.
The Oscars would do well to take note of the fact that the Lead Actor in a Limited Series category includes three black actors out of six, though on this occasion Idris Elba, Cuba Gooding Jr and the superb Courtney B Vance may find that Bryan Cranston’s impressive performance in HBO’s Lyndon B Johnson biopic All The Way proves hard for the Emmy judges to overlook. Black actress Kerry Washington also impressed in Confirmation and Viola Davis (How To Get Away With Murder) and Taraji P Henson (Empire) achieved nominations for Lead Actress in a Drama.
The BBC has ordered two more series of Steven Knight’s gangster series Peaky Blinders, which is set in 1920s Birmingham in the UK. The show is currently four episodes into season three, which means it will now run for at least five seasons – though Knight has expressed a desire to keep going long after that.
Like the first three seasons, the new commissions will both consist of six hour-long episodes, which means a total of 30 hours of TV.
Caryn Mandabach, executive producer of the show for Caryn Mandabach Productions, said: “It’s a fantastic vote of confidence in the show and Steven Knight’s writing that the BBC has ordered two more series following the first episode’s overnight figures. We’re proud of, and grateful for, the BBC’s support of the show.”
Will Gould, who also works on the show as an exec producer for Tiger Aspect, added: “Peaky has become a global hit. Steve’s vision resonates with audiences the world over, and what a privilege it is that we get to make more.”
Knight, who will continue to write all episodes, said: “I am thrilled at the response to the third season. The prospect of writing season four and five is truly exciting. This is a real passion project for me, and I look forward to telling more stories of the Shelby family.”
To be completely frank, the audience for season three of Peaky Blinders hasn’t been massive. It opened with 2.95 million (BARB) for episode one and then dropped to 2.43 million for episode two. So it’s not in the same league as BBC2’s Line of Duty (circa five million) or Channel 4’s Humans, which hit six million last June.
A possible reason for the modest audience is the show’s graphic violence, which won’t be to everyone’s taste. Another is the esoteric nature of the season three plot, which revolves around the fallout from the Russian Revolution (angry White Russian exiles and so on).
But judging Peaky Blinders solely on the basis of its ratings would be a bit like castigating a Man Booker Prize winner for not muscling JK Rowling off the fiction best-seller list. The fact is that Peaky Blinders is superb – comparable to the best scripted series coming out of the UK, US, Nordics, Spain, Israel and elsewhere.
IMDb ratings back this up. The first episode of season three, which was slightly meandering, only managed 8.8. But the show really kicked into gear after that, with its IMDb rating jumping to a very impressive 9.5 by episode four. Critics are also pretty unanimous in their approval, with the Daily Express going so far as to call Knight’s show “this generation’s Godfather.”
The beauty of Knight’s formula is the way he plays different interest groups off against each other, blurring the line between criminality and legality, gangsters and establishment. The result of his complex plotting is that central character Tom Shelby is constantly saved from what looks like certain death by individuals or organisations that suddenly find they have a use for him.
Alongside the sophistication of Knight’s writing, the show is beautifully directed (by Tim Mielants in season three) and, of course, superbly acted. Cillian Murphy, as Tommy Shelby, is delivering a performance that, by this week’s episode four, is similar to the standards set by Bryan Cranston as Walter White in Breaking Bad. And Paul Anderson, as his brother Arthur, grows in stature with every season.
Murphy’s comment on the new commission is that: “Tommy Shelby is one of the most intense, challenging characters I’ve had the opportunity to play. I’m particularly grateful that Steven’s original, dynamic writing and the longform series allow me to explore Tommy in depth. I look forward to Tommy’s evolution over the next two chapters.”
Peaky Blinders’ graphic violence (Tarantino-like in its intensity at times) inevitably limits the kind of channels/slots where it can air. But as Gould says, the show has established a solid fanbase around the world. Netflix in the US, for example, will offer season three from May 31. And Arte in France has also aired the show. Peaky is distributed by Endemol Shine International, which will be pleased that it can now go to the global market with 30 episodes.
Another quality show in the news this week is FX’s Cold War spy drama The Americans, which has also been given a new two-season order. The difference with this one, however, is that these two seasons will be the last, with The Americans ending in 2018 after six seasons. Season five will have 13 episodes and season six will have 10, bringing the total volume to a very respectable 75.
“Through its first four seasons, critics have lauded The Americans as one of the best shows on television and, remarkably, a series that keeps getting better every year,” said FX original programming president Eric Schrier.
“All credit for that achievement goes to everyone who has worked on the show, and especially co-showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields, (executive producer) Graham Yost, our brilliant stars Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys, Noah Emmerich, Allison Wright, Holly Taylor and Annet Mahendru, and the ensemble cast for their incomparable performances. We have no doubt that this two-season order will allow Joe and Joel to tell this story to its perfect conclusion.”
Again, the show isn’t what you’d call a ratings hit. Season four is currently averaging around 930,000, which is down a little on season three. And it rates lower than a number of other FX shows, including The Bastard Executioner, which was cancelled after one season despite having a higher audience and better 18-49 demo.
Nevertheless, The Americans is a good show for FX because it attracts critical acclaim and gets a fair share of award wins and nominations – all useful for a cable subscription service. It has also had a decent life internationally, airing on Network Ten Australia, FX Canada, RTE Ireland and ITV/ITV Encore in the UK.
For Weisberg and Fields, there is no particular downside to the show ending, because they have also signed a new overall deal with FX Productions to develop their next scripted series.
Meanwhile, AMC’s latest new show, Preacher, has got off to a good start, with episode one securing an audience of 2.38 million. This puts it at number four on the channel behind The Walking Dead, Fear The Walking Dead and Into the Badlands.
Preacher was helped by being scheduled after FTWD – so episode two will be an important benchmark for the show. But it could shed a significant amount of viewers and still be regarded as a hit by AMC.
By contrast, six-part espionage drama The Night Manager has just ended its run on AMC with a modest 790,000 average audience. It picked up slightly for the last episode but made nowhere near the impact it had on British television. This is a bit of a surprise considering that lead actor Hugh Laurie has a good profile in the US with his long-running lead role in House. However, it may indicate that the show wasn’t right for AMC.
One programme that has had an abject first season is CBS’s movie adaptation Rush Hour. Just eight episodes in, the show is delivering around four million viewers and has already been cancelled.
This week there has been a lot of movement on the scripted comedy front. Netflix, for example, has given a series order to Dear White People, a 10-part adaptation of Justin Simien’s 2014 movie of the same name.
Due to air on the US streamer in 2017, it tells the story of a group of students of colour at a fictional Ivy League university dominated by white students. Like the film, the series will be produced for Netflix by Lionsgate.
Commenting on the deal, Chris Selak, executive VP of television at Lionsgate Television, said: “We’re proud to expand our partnership with our friends at Netflix on a comedy that tackles racial themes with a combination of intelligence, honesty, irreverence and wit. Our original film with Roadside Attractions catapulted Dear White People into the national conversation about race, and Justin and the rest of the creative team have an opportunity to expand this world and bring its timely and universal themes to a global television audience.”
Another comedy in the news this week is E4’s Foreign Bodies, which follows a motley gang of travellers on a three-month trip around Asia. The show, which is being produced by indie company Eleven and is backed by eOne, was first unveiled by E4 in January. But this week it was announced that US cable channel TNT is coming on board as a partner.
“Foreign Bodies is a terrific opportunity for TNT to work with eOne, Eleven and E4 on a series that will appeal to young adults not only in the US and the UK but also around the globe,” said Sarah Aubrey, exec VP of original programming for TNT. “It’s also a great chance to bring (the show’s creator) Tom Basden’s voice to our stateside viewers.”
Hulu, meanwhile, has announced that there will be a new season of The Mindy Project. The show aired on Fox in the US for three seasons before moving to Hulu for season four. The new run will take the total number of series to five (and the total number of episodes over 100).
A number of critics have been watching season four closely since it launched in September to see how the show has changed under new management. The general conclusion has been ‘not much’ – although the Hulu episodes are two to three minutes longer. This has led some observers to suggest that The Mindy Project has benefited as a result, because it can dwell a little longer on comic scenarios or character development.
Hulu’s announcement about Mindy was part of its Upfronts, which also included some news about its drama slate. It has, for example, ordered a pilot set in prehistoric times called Dawn. Created by Hank Steinberg (The Last Ship, Without a Trace) and Ken Nolan (Transformers 5, Black Hawk Down), the show centres on a tribe of Neanderthals and their battle for survival after meeting a group of Homo Sapiens.
The company also announced there will be a second season of The Path, which centres on a religious cult.
Among other major scripted stories this week is the news that FX in the US has ordered Feud – another anthology drama series from Ryan Murphy. The eight-episode show, which also involves Fox 21 Television Studios and Brad Pitt’s prodco Plan B Entertainment, will star Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange. Based on a script by Jaff Coihen and Michael Zam, it explores the rivalry between iconic US actors Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.
This week also saw National Geographic in the US move forward with Killing Reagan, a TV adaptation of Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard’s book of the same name. Playing Reagan, the actor who became US president, will be Tim Matheson (The West Wing). His wife Nancy will be played by Cynthia Nixon (Sex in the City). The script for the adaptation is from Eric Simonson, a documentarian who is also a member of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company.
The Killing franchise has been a remarkable success for Nat Geo in recent years. Killing Lincoln, Killing Kennedy and Killing Jesus, which were also based on books by O’Reilly and Dugard, were the most watched shows in the channel’s history. Kennedy and Jesus were also Emmy-nominated. The new show is different from the other Killing productions in that it deals with an unsuccessful assassination attempt (by John Hinckley in 1981). The other three stories famously ended with the deaths of their protagonists.
There are also a couple of stories this week about planned book adaptations. Sonar Entertainment is developing a show about the contraceptive pill based on a book by Jonathan Eig. Called The Birth of the Pill, the show centres on the four people who were involved with the development of the birth control during a period of sweeping social change and rapid scientific advances. Eig has previously written three non-fiction books, two based around baseball players and one about the plot to capture gangster Al Capone. The TV adaptation is being written by Audrey Wells, who has penned a number of popular movies including The Game Plan, Shall We Dance and Under the Tuscan Sun.
In the UK, meanwhile, there are reports that production firm Rooks Nest is developing Joseph O’Neill’s acclaimed novel Netherland for TV. The project is Rooks Nest’s first move into TV drama after success with recent movies such as The Witch and Obvious Child. Netherland is set in post-9/11 New York and London and centres on Hans, a Dutch expat working on Wall Street who rediscovers his love of cricket when he joins the Staten Island cricket team. However, he soon falls under the spell of the team’s charismatic Trinidadian coach Chuck Ramkissoon.