After beginning her career on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Marti Noxon has written for some of the biggest shows on television, including Grey’s Anatomy, Mad Men and Glee. She also created Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce and co-created UnREAL.
Speaking to DQ, she looks back on her storied career and reveals how she picks her projects.
Noxon reveals why showrunners Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy), Joss Whedon (Buffy) and Matt Weiner (Mad Men) have had the most influence on her as a writer.
She also previews her next projects: HBO drama Sharp Objects and AMC series Dietland.
It’s not quite Games of Thrones, but adventure/romance/time-travel series Outlander is proving to be an ace in the pack for US pay TV channel Starz. The first episode of season two aired last Saturday and attracted an audience of 1.46 million (Nielsen’s live plus same-day ratings).
Not only is this a record for the show, it translates into a 50% increase on its season one finale. This suggests that a lot of people played catch-up on the series and have now been converted into hardcore same-day fans.
The show also set a Starz record for a season premiere, beating Power’s second-season opener by a fraction. All of these metrics bode well for Outlander, and suggest Starz may have managed to get its claws into a female audience, with a lot of its shows to date – the likes of Black Sails and Spartacus – having felt quite male-skewing.
Starz also launched its new Steven Soderbergh series, The Girlfriend Experience, on Sunday. Because it’s Hollywood director Soderbergh, the critics have taken this show very seriously, mostly coming out in favour (though The New Yorker reviewer Richard Bordy wasn’t a fan). Less clear-cut is the feedback from IMDb, where the show has scored a 7.4 rating, which suggests the audience is either ambivalent or polarised.
In terms of TV ratings, The Girlfriend Experience launched with back-to-back episodes – averaging around 350,000 viewers across the two. The numbers look stronger if you add up the various staggered showings of the new episodes, but it’s not an outright success – especially when you consider there’s a lot of raunchy content to lure viewers in. So we’ll need a few more weeks to see if the show can build.
Season two of AMC’s Fear The Walking Dead (FTWD) also launched last weekend. With an overall audience of 6.67 million, this is in a similar ballpark to the ratings it was achieving at the end of season one. True, FTWD saw a slide in the number of 18-49s watching the show, but it is so far ahead of AMC’s other series (with the exception of The Walking Dead) that it seems nitpicky to point that out.
It’s also in a league of its own compared with the rest of the US cable universe. Keep in mind that FTWD also has a Talking Dead chatshow brand extension, which brings in a further 2.36 million viewers just after it finishes. On the whole, AMC must be ecstatic about the show’s numbers.
The network has delivered some superb US-produced shows over the years (Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, Mad Men, The Walking Dead and Into the Badlands to name but a few). But it was notable that it didn’t do quite so well in ratings terms with the UK version of Humans (although this is also a good show). Against that backdrop, it will be interesting to see how the channel does when it airs the six-part adaptation of John Le Carre’s The Night Manager.
The Night Manager recently aired in the UK, where it was a resounding success for the BBC – achieving an audience of eight to nine million for every episode (Live+7 days: BARB). In terms of its AMC showing (which begins on April 19 at 22.00), one thing it has in its favour (compared to Humans, for example) is an internationally recognisable cast headed by Hugh Laurie and Tom Hiddleston.
If the show were on PBS (or maybe even A&E) it would be a dead cert to succeed. But whether the AMC audience will be as enthusiastic is an open question. Hopefully for British-based producers, it will be a big hit.
Meanwhile, US cable channel Bravo’s first foray into scripted TV was Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce, which recently completed its second season with an average of 660,000 viewers per episode – reasonable, but not amazing. Nevertheless, it’s clearly doing a good enough job for Bravo because the network has just announced that it wants three more seasons (a commitment that echoes Netflix’s recent backing for Orange is the New Black).
“With our first foray into scripted, Bravo’s viewers fell in love with Abby (the lead character) and her close-knit group of friends experiencing the joys and disappointments of juggling dating, careers, family and relationships,” said Frances Berwick, president of Lifestyle Networks at NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment. “We are all excited to see what’s next for Abby and her friends.”
One show that is, perhaps surprisingly, under pressure is ABC’s The Catch, which started airing on March 24. The latest series from the Shonda Rhimes stable (Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, How To Get Away With Murder), it was expected to fly out of the blocks. Instead, it debuted to a lacklustre 5.85 million viewers.
Now three episodes in, it is hovering just under the five million mark. It would be a major surprise if ABC bailed on a Shonda Rhimes show after just one season, but The Catch does need to start turning things round quite soon to keep the channel’s suits on board.
On the other side of the Atlantic, ITV has decided to ditch its fantasy adventure series Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands, thus rounding off a painful winter that also saw an unsuccessful outing for Jekyll & Hyde. The good news, however, is that spring has started off much more promisingly with strong ratings for ITV’s attempt at Nordic noir, Hans Rosenfeldt’s Marcella, and Sunday night treat The Durrells, which launched in the week ending April 3 with around 6.68 million viewers.
This will be welcome news for Polly Hill, who has just quit as BBC controller of drama to become ITV’s new head of drama. Explaining her decision to jump ship at a time when the BBC has just racked up successes with Doctor Foster, Poldark, War & Peace and The Night Manager, Hill said: “After 11 years at the BBC I am proud to be leaving it at the top of its game. ITV has always played a vital part in the landscape of British drama and shows such as Cracker, Prime Suspect and Band of Gold had a huge influence on me and the drama I wanted to make.
“I am proud to be joining ITV and will lead the drama department into its next exciting chapter, making the very best popular drama, which will feel original, distinctive and authored. I can’t wait to start.”
Finally, one show to keep an eye on is the second season of The Tunnel (adapted from The Bridge), on Sky Atlantic, which debuted on April 12. The first season, which aired in 2013, settled down at around 500,000 to 600,000 viewers.
A three-year absence means the franchise will probably have lost some momentum, but early reports suggest The Tunnel is the channel’s biggest series launch of the year to date. We’ll check back in after a couple more episodes to see how the ratings performance of season two stacks up against the first outing.
NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment content boss Jeff Wachtel tells DQ that his channels are delving into new genres and production approaches as they seek to stand out from the crowd.
As the competition for viewers continues to heat up among US cable networks, broadcasters are facing a choice. Do they go back to their roots with the niche genre programming they once stood for, or do they break new boundaries in search of the dramatic storytelling that will make a buzz around the water cooler and on social media?
As chief content officer of NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment, Jeff Wachtel (pictured above) helps to develop new series for networks that are heading down both roads.
NBCU’s cable portfolio includes Syfy, USA Network and Bravo, among others, with USA perhaps the best example of a channel going beyond what people thought it could offer with a show that became the talk of the summer.
Home to Royal Pains, Graceland and Covert Affairs, USA made viewers sit up and take notice with Mr Robot, a thriller created by Sam Esmail about a young programmer who works as a cyber-security engineer by day and a vigilante hacker by night. Season two will air in 2016.
“Mr Robot is a great example of a successful network looking to regenerate and find things outside its perceived brand, not wanting to live in the past and creating a new future.” says Wachtel. “Most people were surprised Mr Robot was a show on USA. We were really happy about it and it has helped USA attract people who might not previously have come to the network, as now they see a network that’s trying new things.
“We were lucky that it’s been very successful, but even if it wasn’t, it would have been a great effort because it was from a brilliant writer/director, it was phenomenal material and it was really something worth trying. It’s a happy accident of success when an audience and critics come.”
USA sits in contrast to Syfy, with the latter rediscovering its roots in the science-fiction genre via series including Defiance and feature-film adaptation 12 Monkeys.
“Syfy is making a major play towards classic material and shows that reflect the best of the genre,” says Wachtel. “We just adapted Childhood’s End, Arthur C Clarke’s seminal work. It was written in 1953, the first time a work of fiction envisioned an alien invasion where space ships would be stationed over major metropolitan areas around the globe to take over the world.
“We also have a great show called 12 Monkeys – a reimagining of Terry Gilliam’s cool and trippy movie – and two smart young writers (Terry Matalas and Travis Fickett) figured out how to recreate that as an ongoing series.
“So on one side you have USA, which is stretching past what anybody thought of that blue-sky network, and on the other you have Syfy looking to reclaim its primacy as the number-one venue for that genre.”
Then there’s Bravo, the network known for reality fare such as its Real Housewives franchise, which has now stepped out into scripted drama for the first time with Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce. The series, based on the Girlfriends’ Guides books by Vicki Iovine and developed for television by Marti Noxon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, UnREAL), follows a self-help author who finds support in new friends and adventures as she goes through a divorce. Season two premiered on December 1.
“That’s a network that’s saying you know us for one thing, we are more expansive and we are going to reach out and do other stuff,” Wachtel says of Bravo. “That’s happening everywhere; networks are trying to establish themselves or show they can reach past the expected.”
Wachtel, who has a joint role as president of NBCU studio Universal Cable Productions, also identifies a trend that places the success of a long-running show ahead of its immediate impact on linear television. Instead of an instant advertising win, he says broadcasters are now looking at series that can sit in their library and continue to generate revenue long after they have left traditional television schedules.
“They’re also more flexible in the way they look at financing and we’re being a lot more creative in terms of windowing, coproductions and general financing,” he adds. “We’re also looking at whether it makes more sense creatively and financially to go straight to series on some projects because then we can offer it at a lower cost point. Even the word ‘network’ has changed. Twenty years ago it meant four places; now it means 40 or 50. As a supplier, one has a much wider field but each individual place has its own challenges.”
The straight-to-series model has become more common in recent years as networks breaking into original drama bypass the traditional pilot process still largely enforced by the major broadcast networks. Wachtel’s own preference is for pilots, with recent examples including Mr Robot and Syfy’s Magicians – “a grown-up Harry Potter” that will debut on January 25, 2016.
“I like doing pilots. I think you learn a lot and there’s not the commercial pressure of satisfying an external audience – you’re really just trying to get it right,” Wachtel says. That’s not to say he hasn’t ever gone straight-to-series, citing Syfy’s forthcoming series Hunters as an example. It’s also due in 2016.
“Gale Anne Hurd (The Walking Dead) is the executive producer and Natalie Chaidez (12 Monkeys) is the writer. Syfy was looking at its resources and didn’t quite have the budget to order Hunters as a pilot and then as a series at their traditional licence fee. I sat with (Syfy president) Dave Howe and (executive VP of original content) Bill McGoldrick and said, ‘Do you love the show?’ They said, ‘Yes we love the show, we just don’t have the money in the budget to make it right now.’
“In the case of Hunters, it’s Homeland with aliens – it’s about a man whose wife goes missing; he doesn’t know if she’s dead, has abandoned him or is one of them. We asked ourselves, ‘If we do more of a psychological thriller with fewer big and expensive action sequences, is there a way to conceive this going straight to series with a lower price point?’”
It was a risk – but one Syfy was willing to take. “We’re figuring things out as we go along,” Wachtel adds. “We don’t have the grace period after a pilot where you concede some things, maybe cast some new people. We’re locked in and rolling, but it’s a great opportunity to do a series we would not have otherwise been able to do. It’s about being flexible.”
Another series in development under UCP’s new financing model is The Wilding, which will begin life as a two-hour backdoor-pilot for a potential season order on USA Network. Starring Jordana Spiro and executive produced by Tim Kring (Heroes), it follows a group of disparate people who realise they belong to a subset of people with supersensory abilities – Wildings.
Ultimately, networks are being forced to honour their existing audience while trying to attract new viewers. But being pushed out of your comfort zone is a good thing, Wachtel argues, because the alternative means becoming too formulaic.
“Mr Robot was a big risk,” he says. “It wasn’t the only pilot we were shooting and it wasn’t the only risk we’ve taken. The thing about the USA experience when I was head of programming and co-president is that we kept doing things we thought were pushing the boundaries for our network. I remember being criticised for doing Monk on the network that does Walker, Texas Ranger reruns.
“When we did Burn Notice, our central character was very edgy. It wasn’t like anything we’d done at that point. When we did Suits, I wondered whether we should enter this world of moral ambiguity. But it was fun and there was something winning about the characters and dialogue. We were surprised no one from outside thought it was risky; everyone said, ‘Here’s another hit show from USA.’ I wondered what we had to do to really shake things up. Mr Robot was absolutely a step outside the comfort zone and the network was very brave to take that step.”
The changing financial structure of US series means Wachtel is also keeping an eye on the international market. He says some of the first original series produced for US cable were made with the global market in mind – dramas including Psych, Royal Pains and Covert Affairs – and he now wants new partners to join him in the development process.
“The notion of coproduction has been complicated. There have been a few recent examples that worked very well, Hannibal being one, but more and more smart people are finding ways to do it,” he notes.
“It’s an openness to new ideas that you would never previously have considered. Who’d have done a show about the Salem witch trials or Vikings until recently? Right now, USA is shooting a big, wonderful pilot called Paradise Pictures, which is about 1940s Hollywood. We would never have thought to do that 10 years ago but the market is open enough right now that you can reach for those unexpected shows, and that also creates an opportunity to find new partners.”
As Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce heads to the UK, Michael Pickard speaks to its star and creator about sexual politics and new opportunities for strong female characters.
She’s best known for her long-running role in Fox medical drama House.
But with a string of credits on shows including The West Wing, Ally McBeal, Scandal, Castle and The Good Wife, Lisa Edelstein is now heading the cast of the first original drama to air on US cable network Bravo.
Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce stars Edelstein as a self-help book author who shocks the world when she reveals her seemingly perfect life has been a lie after separating from her husband. As a newly single woman in her 40s, she turns to her divorced friends to help her confront some unexpected and life-changing experiences.
Executive produced by Marti Noxon, the series is based on the best-selling Girlfriends’ Guide book series by Vicki Iovine – with episode titles such as Rule No 174: Never Trust Anyone Who Charges by the Hour. The show is produced by Universal Cable Productions and NBCUniversal International Television Distribution is handling worldwide sales.
The series was originally pitched to Showtime, but the premium cable network let it pass and Girlfriends’ Guide instead landed at Bravo, where it debuted in the US in December 2014. Edelstein is now back on set for season two, with production on 13 new episodes due to wrap in mid-November.
Speaking to DQ ahead of the show’s launch on Lifetime in the UK, Edelstein says the opportunity to play a woman her own age as the lead in a romantic comedy-drama was previously unheard of.
“It’s such a cool experience,” she says. “This show is a drama about funny people, that’s how we put it. It’s about people who themselves are funny but the story itself is very real and deep.
“I love the mistakes that she makes. I feel like I made a lot of those mistakes myself when I was much younger because I did the opposite of this character, I stayed single for a very long time and then got married in my 40s, and she’s single for the first time in her 40s. She’s making a lot of rookie mistakes.”
Girlfriends’ Guide is one of a number of series across US television now pushing strong female characters into leading roles. Another example is Lifetime’s UnReal, which was co-created by Noxon.
“I love it, it’s so fantastic,” says Edelstein of this trend. “The stories are so interesting and compelling and they just haven’t been told.
“I would never imagine this opportunity at this point in my life when I started. I didn’t see an opportunity like this until a year before I got this job but now it’s just part of the world. It’s because there are so many more outlets now that they have to break through. You can’t do the same thing as another network. Everyone’s more competitive and the result is better quality shows, better quality scripts, and things that would never have seen the light of day because they are too edgy or different now get a chance and get to shine.”
Edelstein adds that she had no qualms about joining Bravo’s first original drama, describing it as “the network’s baby.”
“It still has enough of the glamorous aspects that people are used to seeing on Bravo, but then the stories themselves are a lot truer when you’re in a scripted drama than when you’re in a reality show,” she explains. “People relate in a much stronger way. They’re not just laughing and pointing at people like they do when they watch reality shows; they get to go inside a story and relate it to their own experience. That’s something Bravo was really itching to do and they’re an incredible network to be on because they’re so excited about this move that they’re very supportive. It’s been a wonderful experience.”
Following a career that included working on shows such as Mad Men, Grey’s Anatomy and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Girlfriends’ Guide marks Noxon’s first show where she is billed as the creator. She says a big part of Girlfriends’ Guide is appealing to a specific audience – working women.
“Television has changed so much,” she says. “There’s so much more opportunity now. When you’re working at networks, there are layers and layers of bureaucracy but so much of that is simplified in cable. I’m also able to write stuff that’s much more specific.
“We’re not about trying to reach as many people as possible, we’re trying to reach certain people. We’re able to identify the audience we’re trying to reach and be as frank as real as possible. Girlfriends’ Guide is funny but it also really reflects the world that me and a lot of people I know are living in today. It’s really great to be able to be honest and put it all out there.”
Noxon says she never considered writing a show particularly for women, but just about her experiences and those of her friends: “The idea of the show came from two places: myself and other friends who had all been through divorces so we all had lots of stories, and Vicki’s story was also so compelling. She made her money writing advice books for women. While she was on a book tour, her marriage broke up while she was out there pretending she had this family she could hold up as an example of how to do things right. For me, that was the best kicking off place for a show.
“There’s a lot of stuff that happened to me – in episode three, Abby (Edelstein) gets her fingers stuck in a window and she’s alone in the house and that happened to me. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, I’m really divorced because there’s no one here to help me.’ Lots of things are based on things that really happened and we continue to do that. Going back out in the world as a single woman in your 40s is no picnic.”
Those experiences are also where much of the humour in Girlfriends’ Guide originates. “The comedy comes from real situations. We don’t write jokes,” Noxon explains. “It’s about people who happen to be funny in funny situations. They can comment and editorialise on their own experiences as people do in life. Sometimes the worse things get, you have to find a way to laugh about it, so I think it’s a good fit for me. I don’t like forced humour but I love it when it feels organic to what you’re writing about.”
Inspired by Iovine’s self-help books, Noxon says she was interested in exploring sexual politics and how the dynamics are changing between men and women, both at home and at work.
“If you talk to women across the world, a lot of women have to work full-time or all the time to help support their families but what’s new in more and more cases, women are earning the same or more than their husbands and that shift is really having an impact, at least on relationships in the circles I run in,” she says. “That to me was interesting – how do we navigate this new world where often its women initiating divorce more than men. Part of that has to be we’re financially able to support ourselves whereas previously the impetus to stay was for financial security.”
But if you think this show is just for women, you might want to think again. Both Noxon and Edelstein say Bravo noted a high number of male viewers tuning into the first season.
“Because it’s called Girlfriends’ Guide, a lot of men got tricked into watching it by their female partners or friends and then ended up becoming just as engaged in the story in the story as the women are,” Edelstein adds. “But men are by no means the bad guys. It’s a complicated story.”