State of the Union, which premiered earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival, stars Rosamund Pike and Chris O’Dowd as a couple who meet in a pub immediately before their weekly marital therapy session.
Each episode pieces together how their lives were, what drew them together and what has started to pull them apart – exploring the complexities of marriage via writer Nick Hornby’s characteristic honesty and humour.
What makes this series stand out, however, is that it is a shortform drama consisting of 10-minute episodes, with the story playing out over 10 weekly instalments.
In this DQTV interview, Hornby (High Fidelity, About a Boy) reveals how some free time in his schedule led him to take up the challenge of writing a 10-minute drama. He also talks about finding the voices of his characters and bringing together stars Pike (Gone Girl) and O’Dowd (Bridesmaids) and director Stephen Frears (A Very English Scandal).
Hakan Kousetta and Jamie Laurenson from producer See-Saw Films also discuss the challenges of financing and producing shortform series.
State of the Union is produced by See-Saw Films for SundanceTV and is distributed by Endeavor Content.
Procedural series were once the bread and butter of US broadcast networks. But international buyers are finding them harder to come by amid the appetite for increasingly serialised storytelling. DQ examines the future of the story-of-the-week format.
For more than a decade, the Monte Carlo Television Festival has recognised the most watched television dramas in the world with its International Audience Award. Last year’s winner was NCIS, which drew 47.1 million viewers worldwide in the previous 12 months.
Since the gong was first handed out in 2006, NCIS has won three times, while CSI: Crime Scene Investigation has scooped the prize on seven occasions. The Mentalist and House also each have a win to their name.
Notice anything they have in common? They’re all US procedurals – story-of-the-week series that follow a team of crack sleuths as they bid to solve a different crime each week. Or in the case of 2009 winner House, an unlikely doctor and his unconventional medical approach, with new patients being admitted into his care in every episode.
The award is proof that US procedurals continue to be popular around the world, even if they’re not as loved as they once were at home. Because while international broadcasters have been crying out for a new influx of these traditional series, the format has been taking on a decidedly serialised evolution over the past few years. Such is the demand overseas that Germany’s RTL and TF1 in France went so far as to commission their own US procedural, hostage drama Gone, in partnership with NBCUniversal.
“I feel like they’re on life support,” Adam Pettle, showrunner of legal drama Burden of Truth, says of procedurals. “They still attract probably an older audience, while broadcasters are always trying to find a younger demographic, which is the Netflix generation where television is consumed in a very different way and people bulk-watch TV.”
Yet series such as Blue Bloods, Law & Order: SVU, NCIS (renewed for its upcoming 16th season) and its multiple spin-offs, and the ever-expanding Chicago franchise on NBC are just some of the episodic series still pulling in millions of viewers each week, not to mention the older series still drawing eyeballs in repeats and syndication.
Lloyd Segan, showrunner of detective procedural Private Eyes for Canada’s Global and ION TV in the US, describes case-of-the-week dramas as “comfort food” for viewers. “I can come home and put my feet up and watch a show where the characters are family,” he explains. “The storyline has a beginning, middle and end and I feel comfortable not having to worry about mythologies or binge-watching a series.”
With shooting on season three underway, Segan says Private Eyes – which sees Jason Priestley and Cindy Sampson team up as private investigators – is “completely procedural.” He continues: “The serialised aspects are the relationships between the main characters but the stories themselves are straight procedural. You could probably programme them in any order you wish. You don’t need a recap. The shows play to themselves. It’s a fantastic, delicious feast for audiences all over the world to enjoy.”
One showrunner who knows more about procedurals than most is Peter Lenkov, who is currently running CBS series MacGyver and Hawaii Five-0 (pictured top) and is also behind a pilot remake of Magnum PI for the same network.
“CBS still treads in that pool, they still do those kind of shows and they still do them successfully,” Lenkov says. “I know every season they still develop several traditional procedural series and they try to mix it up with how you get into those worlds and who those characters are.”
However, he adds that the network has been embracing greater serialisation in its case-of-the-week series, supporting character arcs and stories running across multiple episodes.
“That was frowned upon years ago, but is something that the studio and network really welcomes now,” Lenkov says. “My experience there over the last 10 to 15 years has been how much they have embraced serialised arcs within the traditional procedural format.”
Lenkov also has experience on serialised series, having worked on the fourth season of Fox’s real-time thriller 24 in 2004/05. “What we realised when we did that show was, even before bingeing existed, a lot of people were bingeing episodes three or four at a time,” he recalls. “That’s something that really helped changed storytelling on TV.”
Best known for long-running ABC crime procedural Castle, husband-and-wife team Andrew W Marlowe and Terri Edda Miller will be back on the network this summer with Take Two. The series stars Rachel Bilson (The O.C.) as Sam, the former star of a hit cop series who is fresh out of rehab. Desperate to restart her career, she talks her way into shadowing rough-and-tumble private investigator Eddie (Eddie Cibrian) as part of research for a potential comeback role. She soon draws on her experience as a TV cop to help solve a high-profile case, leading them to team up for future cases.
Echoing Segan, Miller believes viewers love closed-ended stories because “sometimes you don’t have the time to watch a long serialised drama and you just want to come home and watch a story that has an ending to it. There’s also the aspect of beloved characters in those stories, and that doesn’t go out of fashion either.”
Take Two, like Castle before it, is described as a light-hearted procedural that allows its creators to place just as much focus on the characters’ relationship as the crimes they solve each week.
“Terri and I both come from features so the ability to close out a story in an episode feels very comfortable to us,” Marlowe says. “But we also like big, epic storytelling where you’re telling a novel over 15 episodes. We watch that as well. The nice thing about ‘peak TV’ is there’s room for them all. For us, it isn’t one pushing the other out of the market. It’s just an expanding international palette, to allow room for all sorts of storytelling.”
Different types of storytelling don’t just extend beyond the procedural, but also within the episodic format itself. “There are some procedurals that depend upon different mechanisms of storytelling,” Marlowe continues. “Something like CSI is much more interested in the forensic evidence than it is necessarily the character journey, whereas other procedurals are much more interested in focusing on the character journeys and what their approach to crime-solving is. Even in a procedural format, there are plenty of sub-genres there for the audience.”
Hakan Kousetta, chief operating officer for television at See-Saw Films (Top of the Lake), notes that there has been an increased focus on serialisation but says all of the main US broadcasters are still hunting for “that killer procedural.”
“It’s to do with shows having characters that are so strong that the audience connects and comes back to them week on week,” he says. “Also, these particular shows contain a puzzle at their heart, which audiences love to engage in solving. In procedurals you are rebooting a new story in the same world each week, with gradual character evolution, whereas in serialised drama you need to create both a world and a set of characters that transform from one episode to the next, while delivering complex plots that hold the series together and hopefully carry your audience through to a satisfying ending.”
Pettle admits the procedural is going through an evolution. “It does still exist but it’s on its way out,” he argues. “I don’t see a younger audience tuning into it. Maybe there’s just not enough story. It’s very linear and incredibly well crafted but I think we’re moving in a different direction. The Good Wife is a procedural format with legal cases of the week but they meld personal and procedural so effortlessly on that show.
“For me as a writer and showrunner, it’s very difficult to plug into something for eight months where you’re not digging deep and writing about real people and exploring the multiple dimensions of different characters. I don’t think I could run a show like NCIS. I wouldn’t be hired to do it. I wouldn’t stay emotionally engaged in it as a creator.”
Pettle, who is also a co-showrunner on The Detail, admits CBC would not have commissioned a serialised drama like Burden of Truth six years ago, at a time when there was more demand for traditional episodic TV. The series, which like Private Eyes and The Detail is distributed by Entertainment One, sees Kristin Kreuk play a lawyer who returns to her hometown and tackle a legal case with social issues at its core.
“There’s still that balance broadcasters want,” Pettle says. “I remember on Saving Hope, which I co-ran for two years and ran on my own for two years, from year to year when we went into CTV at the beginning of the season, it was always like, ‘We want it to be more procedural,’ or, ‘We want it to be more character-driven.’ One year they gave percentages – ‘It can be 40% procedural.’ What’s in fashion is always changing.”
Pettle’s The Detail co-showrunner Ley Lukins also believes serialised storytelling has come to the forefront thanks to the introduction of Netflix, Amazon and other streaming services. “But I do believe there’s still a heavy appetite for case-of-the-week, episodic dramas,” she says. “Grey’s Anatomy is a great example of a show that has both serialised and case-of-the-week content within it. And even with something like Law & Order would still draw an audience today. But to me, and from the conversations I’ve had with people, there’s more of an expectation these days that there is a serialised element to the case of the week. If you marry the professional and the personal well, you can serve both audiences quite well.”
In the case of The Detail, which is based on British crime drama Scott & Bailey, it was US broadcaster ION Television, rather than its Canadian network CTV, that sought more procedural elements in the series. “It’s not to say we didn’t have character and that character wasn’t a major part of it, but it was definitely their wish to have a more case-of-the-week type of series because it does well for them,” Lukins says.
Hybrids such as Blindspot and The Blacklist, which marry deep mythologies with new cases each week, were heavily influenced by serialised US cable dramas, the success of which led broadcast networks to “find their own language” and remain competitive, Marlowe notes.
“There were lots of interesting experiments out there to see what the audience would respond to,” he says. “But what sustains is good storytelling and good characters. If people are engaged in the storytelling and the characters, whether it’s serialised, closed-ended or a hybrid, the audience will show up for it.”
The resurgence of procedurals, coupled with television’s never-ending infatuation with recycling old hits, means shows such as Magnum PI and Cagney & Lacey have been piloted this development season. “What you see right now is a confluence of familiar formats that people know are tried and true but also bringing in the element of IP,” says Marlowe, who believes the biggest challenge facing creators is how to break through the noise. “Some recognisable IP certainly helps.”
Lenkov says he simply prefers the challenge of mapping out 22 stories a season. “I just like the puzzle aspect of building a plot each week,” he says. “I find that a lot of fun as a writer.”
But when they’re boiled down to their bare bones, procedural series are built on the simple concept of good versus evil, he adds. “If you look at the live numbers of a lot of CBS procedurals, they do really well. It shows you there’s an audience there that still likes that format. When eight million people tune in to watch a show live, that tells you a lot of people still like the genre. They still like the crime procedural. I think it’s alive and well.”
René Balcer, best known for Law & Order and, more recently, Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders, certainly believes there is still a place for procedural television. As for what such shows might look like in the future, that is less clear. “One can argue that the success of the just-the-facts procedurals of the 1950s, such as Dragnet, was a reaction to the subjective character-driven film noir detective films of the 1940s like The Big Sleep. Audiences liked them because they were new and different. Character-driven procedurals like Hill Street Blues were a reaction to the Dragnets and Adam-12s. And, like audiences, creative content-makers get bored with the status quo, so expect the pendulum to keep swinging.”
However, Mikko Alanne, showrunner of National Geographic’s The Long Road Home, begs to differ. “In broadcast, due to the weekly format, there will likely remain room for them, but I definitely feel audiences are increasingly gravitating toward more character-driven serialised stories,” he says.
With season two of Burden of Truth in development, Pettle says there will be another single case at the show’s heart, which will focus on sharing information and protecting people’s privacy. But, interestingly, he adds there will be more episodic elements.
“It will be a more high-octane season,” he says. “Season one was all in a small town and this season will be split between the city and a small town. There will be more stories – it will still centre around a serialised case but there will be more story and a faster pace.”
Lukins concludes: “I don’t believe procedurals will ever go out of style. In a lot of ways, in shows that might not be considered procedurals per se, there is a case-of-the-week element, it’s just maybe not a cop case or a medical case. But there’s a pattern to be found in anything. And so procedurals may change in terms of how they’re delivered but I do think the formula of the procedural is here to stay.”
As broadcasters around the world continue to seek procedurals for their schedules, it’s hard to argue with Lukin’s assertion. But with today’s showrunners preferring to delve into personality over plot, what shape they may take in future is less clear.
As Twin Peaks returns to television after a 26-year absence, DQ explores the wide-reaching impact the series had on the shows and creatives that came after it.
This Sunday, US premium pay TV channel Showtime will launch the return of Twin Peaks, the David Lynch and Mark Frost drama that first saw the light of day on ABC in 1990. No one knows what to expect, but if the new series is half as ingenious as the original, it will be worth adding to your watch list.
At a time when there is so much great drama on TV, it’s easy to lose sight of the show’s creative significance. The crime drama gripped millions of viewers as Kyle MacLachlan’s FBI agent Dale Cooper investigated the shocking murder of homecoming queen Laura Palmer (played by Sheryl Lee).
But most writers, producers and critics acknowledge that Twin Peaks paved the way for some of the industry’s most iconic scripted series.
Chris Carter’s The X-Files, which launched on Fox in 1993, is often cited as an early beneficiary of the Twin Peaks revolution. While the show had more procedural rigour than its predecessor, David Duchovny’s portrayal of FBI agent Fox Mulder owes much to MacLachlan’s Agent Cooper. In tone, pacing, geography, humour and supernatural suspense, the creative connection is clear.
Frank Spotnitz, founder of indie producer Big Light Productions, worked on The X-Files for a number of seasons as a writer and showrunner. He recalls that “a lot of us in the writers room were fans of Twin Peaks and the way it took television drama to a new place. It was one of those shows that just seemed impossible at the time. This was an era when the only things on network TV were shows about cops and doctors and lawyers. But then along came this clever, compelling, original series.
“It really was the show that changed what TV meant. It was so cinematic at a time when television drama was rigid. It was mysterious, sexy, chilling and atmospheric. The message it passed on to the rest of us was to have a sense of ambition. If you’re going to make TV, make sure it is as good as it can possibly be.”
Less immediately obvious is the impact Twin Peaks had on HBO’s landmark gangster series The Sopranos. But the creator of the latter, David Chase, has never been slow to acknowledge his creative debt to the rule-bending nature of Twin Peaks.
The impact of Twin Peaks is also evident in shows such as Lost, Bates Motel, Veronica Mars, Northern Exposure and Wayward Pines. But its impact didn’t stop at the US border. Both the pace of the show and its visual grammar were forerunners of Nordic noir – 10 years before the Scandinavians made their mark. For many, Danish hit Forbrydelsen (The Killing), with its meticulous attention to a single case, is a direct DNA descendant of Twin Peaks. So too is atmospheric French supernatural thriller Les Revenants (The Returned).
Twin Peaks’ use of language has also had a defining impact on high-end drama. How many times do we now see shows digress from the central narrative arc or wrong-foot audience with non sequiturs – just as Lynch and Frost did repeatedly with Twin Peaks?
And while there is always a danger of ‘over-attributing’ a work of art’s impact, there are many who see Twin Peaks’ focus on the horrors that exist beneath the surface of small-town life as the prototype for subsequent scripted series.
Broadchurch, Haven, Fortitude, Les Revenants, The Valley, The Kettering Incident and Trapped are just a few examples of recent scripted shows located in similar locked-in communities.
Showrunner Carlton Cuse admits the drama had a huge influence on his career: “It shaped the way Damon Lindelof and I approached Lost, and also my approach to Bates Motel.”
In terms of specifics, he says: “It was intensely visual at a time when most drama relied on dialogue. There was this visually arresting use of negative space – you’d find yourself watching traffic signals as they turned red to green. It was moody and lyrical, like something you’d get from European cinema. And at the same time there was an intentional ambiguity that forced the audience to puzzle out what was going on – not just watch. You had to pay close attention to make sense of things.”
As a seasoned TV professional, Cuse also has the utmost admiration for the fact the show even got made: “There are so many gatekeepers in TV that it was a profound achievement to convince network executives to let it get through in the way it did. It broke so many rules, and in doing so, emboldened Damon and I to break the rules with Lost. It challenged conventions and made a future in TV an attractive option.”
While it’s possible to see overt evidence of Twin Peaks’ impact in a show like Bates Motel, part of the point made by Cuse is that Lynch and Frost encouraged showrunners to interrogate process. So even where a show doesn’t immediately look the same as Twin Peaks, there can be a connection.
Rob Thomas, showrunner on critically acclaimed Veronica Mars and The CW’s ratings hit iZombie, is another who recalls the show-stopping impact of Twin Peaks: “It was the first show I remember going out of my way for. I used to drive to my buddy’s house 40 miles away across Texas to watch with a group of eight friends. We were just obsessed with the show and would record it on VHS so we could spend the next week picking over the clues. For me it was a bit like The Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks. In a world of prog rock, someone let this crazy album happen. And it was like that with Twin Peaks.”
Interestingly Thomas says the show taught him lessons in both how to make TV and how not to make it. “I wouldn’t take anything away from the show. It had an amazing sense of style and inventiveness that I hadn’t seen in TV before. The offbeat dialogue contributed to a really singular voice. But I remember really thinking about it a lot when I was making Veronica Mars, because it seemed to me that parts of Twin Peaks weren’t mapped out in advance. There’s always a certain amount that you make up as you go along in a 22-episode show, but I was determined to have a clear idea of where I was going.”
Jane Campion’s mesmerising Top of the Lake is another critically acclaimed show that has been compared to Twin Peaks – in part because of its lyrical, atmospheric qualities but also because it is an example of a cinema auteur embracing TV.
Hakan Kousetta, COO of See-Saw Films, the company behind Top of the Lake, recalls watching Twin Peaks avidly when it first aired: “I was about 20 and couldn’t believe what I was watching. I loved the amazing characterisation, slow-burn narrative, ethereal music [composed by Angelo Badalamenti] and the mystical, moody atmosphere. It played with every assumption about what a television drama series should be.”
For Kousetta, the importance of the show is not just the list of genetic traits that have been handed down to today’s generation of drama producers, but the central role it gave to auteurs: “With Top of the Lake, we were at the forefront of the recent wave of feature film talent coming over to TV,” he says. “But, of course, David Lynch and Twin Peaks were way ahead of anybody. I think its real importance is that it bridged the gap between film and television – because that is one of the factors that is making today’s TV drama so interesting.”
As UK-based Kousetta’s comments illustrate, Twin Peaks’ popularity spread worldwide. In New Zealand, Lisa Chatfield, head of scripted development at prodco Pukeko Pictures, recalls seeing the show when she was a college student.
“I think all of us bought into its filmic qualities,” she explains. “It was a dark, visually arresting piece of television that was unlike anything we’d seen before. Looking back, the thing that probably stands out most for me is the extraordinary casting. The show wasn’t filled with beautiful or gorgeous people. It prioritised quirky, interesting and weird talent, and that is something I see in drama casting today.”
Chatfield, whose company is a coproducer on Australian fantasy series Cleverman, also makes the point that Twin Peaks was an early example of world-building in TV, something that now informs so many series from Game of Thrones to The Walking Dead.
That this emphasis on a coherent mythology was intentional is evident from a 2014 Variety interview in which Mark Frost said: “I felt in Twin Peaks we were more or less filming a novel – drilling down to a level of detail you weren’t used to seeing in network storytelling. Over the years, many people have credited us with inspiring them to think differently in how to tell stories.”
Hopefully, a new generation of talent will feel equally inspired after the return of Twin Peaks.
The return of Twin Peaks: What do we know?
So what do we know about the new Twin Peaks? Well, not much, since those involved are sworn to secrecy.
The new project is 18 hours long, the cast is broadly the same – Kyle MacLachlan returns as Dale Cooper – and the action takes place 25 years after the occurrences of the original two seasons. This time lag is, reportedly, significant to the plot.
But just days ahead of the premiere, on Sunday May 21, little remains known about the story, although episode descriptions could provide some clues.
Meanwhile, the returning cast are continuing to remain steadfastly tightlipped about what is in store for viewers, with little being revealed ahead of its launch.
Speaking at the Television Critics Association’s winter press tour in January, David Lynch gave little away during a surprise appearance. But when quizzed on what viewers should expect, he said: “I see it as a film. And a film in parts is what people will experience. This word ‘expect’ is a magical word. People expect things, and their expectations are hopefully met when they see the thing.”
As to whether the show might go beyond its initial 18-episode run, Lynch said: “Before I said I wasn’t going to revisit it, and I did. You never say no. But right now there’s no plan for more.”
There is a possible hint of a warning in comments made by Showtime president David Nevins, who told Deadline Hollywood the new season “rewards close watching” and is “the pure-heroin version of David Lynch.” That sounds like it will appeal to Lynch junkies, but it may prove a little too challenging for most viewers.