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Writer-director Nikkhil Advani discusses the process of adapting Israeli drama Hatufim (Prisoners of War), which became Homeland in the US, for Indian audiences.

When it comes to successful US remakes of foreign-language dramas, there aren’t many bigger hits than Homeland.

Based on Hatufim, the Israeli series about three soldiers who return home after 17 years in captivity, the story was transplanted to Washington DC as CIA agent Carrie Matheson (Claire Danes) investigated whether returning prisoner of war Nicholas Brody (Damien Lewis) was planning a terrorist attack on American soil.

Currently in its sixth season, the series has been renewed by US premium cable network Showtime through to season eight, which co-creator Alex Gansa has reportedly said will be the series finale.

Hatufim has now spawned another remake, this time in India, following a deal with Hatufim distributor Keshet International. POW Bandi Yuddh Ke (Prisoners of War India) follows two Indian soldiers who were captured 17 years previously while on a mission with their unit during the Kargil conflict in Kashmir. They return home and must re-adjust to life with their families, while a secret investigation seeks to uncover the truth about their capture.

The series – produced by filmmaker Nikkhil Advani’s Emmay Entertainment and also distributed by Keshet International – debuted on India’s Star Plus in November 2016, with seasons one and two running to 110 episodes. It concluded last month.

Writer-director Advani, who oversaw the project, tells DQ how the drama arrived in India, the approach the writers took and the similarities and differences between POW Bandi Yuddh Ke and the original series on which it was based.

Nikkhil Advani

How was Prisoners of War brought to India?
Nikkhil Advani: Star Plus has been a pioneer and always sets the benchmark in bringing some of the most thought-provoking shows and progressive characters to the homes of Indian families. When I saw the show [Hatufim] I was totally blown away. Although it’s called Prisoners of War and it tells the story of prisoners that have returned from captivity, it also deals with the wives, the children, the people who have been living in limbo unable to move forward with their lives as they are waiting for closure and clarity about their lost loved ones. In a sense, the people left behind are also prisoners of the same war.

Moreover, it was the channel’s initiative to bring this show to its audience before they approached me to work on it. The story strikes a chord emotionally with every Indian, and with a platform like Star Plus, it was possible to ensure that the story reached the masses.

How was the story developed for the network Star Plus?
In terms of sparking the spirit of patriotism and keeping the audience on a razor’s edge, it’s not different from Hatufim. In every detail it is parallel to its contemporaries in international markets as these emotions transcend geographies.

What is starkly different [in the Indian version of Hatufim] is the characters and the relationship dynamics of Sartaj and Harleen, and Imaan and Nazneen. The role that the women play in these relationships and their spirit is representative of the strength of Indian woman. The personal conflicts and relationship dynamics have been created in line with the Indian ethos. The cultural unit of a family and their imprisonment is what makes you wonder, “Who is the real POW?” The emotions were kept so that it’s relatable to every Indian family and uniquely Indian.

The writing team took care to recreate the details of army life

How has the original Israeli version influenced the Indian version?
Hatufim is a legendary show in Israel, so the pressure of making it work and adapting it correctly to everyone’s satisfaction was paramount in my mind. The reaction that Gideon Raff [the creator of Hatufim] had when he saw the pilot episode gave me a lot of confidence.

Of course, we have a historical enmity with our neighbour Pakistan, which echoes the Israel-Lebanon/Palestine conflict. As a result, the adaptation became almost too easy to do. It’s the cultural differences and the role of the women that has been a challenge, but I think my writing team has managed to pull that off. Like I said earlier, the women and the children have also been prisoners of the same war.

What elements did you introduce to make the show more appealing for Indian viewers?
Human emotions and drama. The show is beautifully entwined between human drama and the spirit of patriotism. Television gives you a platform to explore the depths and complexities of human emotions and relationships. The journey of these characters and the emotional graph, given the thriller backdrop, will have high viewer involvement and have to be told with time.

The series is fast-paced and has a logical, finite ending and hence the story spans a period of five months only. A large-scale, high-octane family drama with a thriller backdrop, the story takes the viewers through the journey of the lives of the two couples, Harleen and Sartaj, and Nazneen and Imaan, and the aftermath of the return of the war heroes following 17 years in captivity.

The female characters are key to the POW Bandi Yuddh Ke story

How would you describe the writing process?
The writing team has been constantly working to compile details and create a real-life experience for actors as well as viewers. Right from the medals on the army uniforms to the coded and crisp language used by the agents, the costumes while at war, the hairstyles, the shoes and other props, all have been aligned accurately to allow the viewers to travel into the world of Kargil in every episode.

The cast went through various workshops and readings. The male actors had to train with guns and understand the nuances of fight sequences. Manish Chaudhuri, who plays a sceptic in the show and has worked with me on [movie] D-Day, helped the team prepare for their roles.

We carefully based the story in North India, showcasing the culture and viewpoint of the rural and urban in the locations. To retain the authenticity and flavour of real locations, we have shot across multiple cities including Delhi, Karnal, Mumbai and Patiala.

POW Bandi Yuddh Ke follows two Indian soldiers who were captured for 17 years

Who are the lead cast members and what do they bring to the series?
We have Purab Kohli playing Sartaj Singh, Satyadeep Misra playing Imaan Khan, Sandhya Mridul playing Nazneen Khan, Amrita Puri as Harleen Singh and Manish Choudhari as Vikram Singh – the lead roles in the show.

They bring their immense experience in theatre and movies, their attitude of getting into the skin of the character and their sincerity and hard work towards giving excellent performances. The two leading ladies, by the end of the show, were able to cry at the drop of a hat and their emotions towards the characters stayed with them even after the shoot was over.

These actors understood the milieu and the ‘zone’ and helped me to push the show to the next level as a director. Everyone we have cast has been applauded and received accolades for sterling performances in the films they have worked on.

Where was the series filmed and how were locations used in the script?
Delhi, Patiala, Karnal and Kamalistan Studio in Mumbai. All these cities are in India.

What were the biggest challenges during production?
The only challenge I had in mind was to do justice to Hatufim and my own series, POW Bandi Yuddh ke – to ensure the sentiment and essence of the show maintained the message that we wanted to take to every Indian.

What do you hope viewers take away from the series?
I want the audiences to be moved and identify with the emotions that the characters are going through, and at the same time be placed on a razor’s edge. I want the audience to be yearning for the next day, the next episode and for everyone associated with the show to hold their head high and say we did something special.

What are you working on next?
Emmay Entertainment is working on two other productions, the films Lucknow Central and Oonchaiyaan. Bazaar [a movie about the world of stock markets] will kick off this year.

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Rise of the celebrity showrunner

They were once just a name on the credits roll, but showrunners have gained celebrity status over the past decade and are now considered the major creative force behind every television drama.

This DQ show examines the showrunner’s rise to power and why it can be one of the most satisfying jobs in Hollywood.

In the first of a two-part programme, DQ hears from leading showrunners about the challenges of this all-consuming position.

Contributors include Shawn Ryan (The Shield), Terence Winter (Boardwalk Empire), Ilene Chaiken (Empire), Glen Mazzara (The Walking Dead), Clyde Phillips (Dexter), Eric Newman (Narcos), Terri Miller and Andrew Marlowe (Castle), Maggie Friedman and Corinne Brinkerhoff (No Tomorrow), Jon Bokenkamp (The Blacklist), Les Bohem (Shut Eye), Michelle Ashford (Masters of Sex), Graham Yost (Sneaky Pete), Howard Gordon (Homeland), Matt Miller (Lethal Weapon), Peter Lenkov (MacGyver), Oliver Goldstick (The Collection) and Carol Flint (Designated Survivor).

Part two will be available from Wednesday March 29.

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Missing accomplished

The Missing is an English-language show with a French cop at its centre
The Missing is an English-language show with a French cop at its centre

Season two of BBC1’s crime drama The Missing ended this week after eight gripping episodes. Not everyone enjoyed the complexity or darkness of the show but those who stuck it out were rewarded with superb acting, compelling storytelling and a set of fresh and interesting locations, ranging from Switzerland to Iraq.

The show’s achievement is made all the more remarkable by the fact it is an English-language show with a French cop as its moral compass.

The show kicked off in October with an audience of 7.8 million (seven-day consolidated data). From there it dropped to around 6.5-7 million per episode, which is still a strong performance.

For the most part it was also warmly received by critics, who felt it managed to successfully tie up its numerous loose ends. Speaking of the final episode, The Guardian said it was “fabulous” and that it “builds and builds in stomach-clenching tension.”

The Telegraph’s critic was a mid-season convert, saying: “It turns out my cynicism was unfounded. The fast-paced, powerful denouement satisfied both heart and head; loose ends from the drama’s dual timelines were tied up; every plot thread reached its resolution. This was fiendishly plotted, stylishly delivered TV.”

With a strong UK performance in the bag, The Missing 2 will now go into distribution courtesy of All3Media International. Already onboard is US premium pay TV platform Starz, which also aired season one. Given that the first season sold well around the world, it’s likely the new series will do well.

The show, which was created by Jack and Harry Williams, is also likely to feature prominently on the awards circuit, given the response to the first season. Although The Missing season one didn’t manage to bag any high-profile awards, it did show up on several shortlists, gaining a nomination for Best Miniseries or TV Film at the Golden Globes in 2015.

The big question now is whether there will be a third season of the show, which is an anthology series linked by the presence of the French cop referred to above (Julien Baptiste). The actor who plays him, Tcheky Karyo, is keen to reprise. But the Williams brothers have not yet committed. They are busy with other projects and will only return to The Missing if they feel they have the right idea. One possibility is to pick up the story from season one, which does have the potential to be brought back to life.

Midnight Sun has been sold to pay broadcaster Sky Atlantic in the UK
Midnight Sun has been sold to pay broadcaster Sky Atlantic in the UK

In other Williams brothers news, there are reports this week that US premium pay TV channel Cinemax has jumped on board Rellik, a new limited series that the brothers are making for BBC1 in the UK. The title of the show is Killer spelled backwards, reflecting the fact that the new series will tell a serial killer’s story in reverse.

Another show in the headlines this week is the Franco-Swedish drama Midnight Sun, which has been sold to pay TV channel Sky Atlantic in the UK by StudioCanal. Created by Mårlind & Stein (Bron/Broen), the eight-part series is a thriller set in a small mining community in remote northern Sweden where a series of brutal murders conceal a secret conspiracy.

It has already aired on Canal+ in France, where it was the highest rated Création Originale series launch in three years. It also did well on Sweden’s SVT, where it attracted an audience of 1.8 million (39.7% share).

Commenting on the deal, Zai Bennett, director of programmes at Sky Entertainment UK and Ireland, said: “Midnight Sun is a brilliant addition to our line-up in 2017, with new award-winning drama airing exclusively on the channel every month. I’ve no doubt our customers will love this clever and thought-provoking thriller.”

Sky Atlantic is the latest in a long line of broadcasters to pick up the Canal+/SVT/Filmpool Nord copro from Atlantique Productions and Nice Drama. Already onboard are ZDF in Germany, SBS in Australia, HOT in Israel, NRK in Norway, DR in Denmark, RUV in Iceland, MTV3 in Finland, VRT in Belgium, and Lumière in Benelux. The show also received the Audience Award at SeriesMania.

The A Word looks at the impact of an autism diagnosis on a family
The A Word looks at the impact of an autism diagnosis on a family

Katrina Neylon, exec VP sales and marketing at StudioCanal, added: “Since its launch at Mipcom in October, Midnight Sun has gone from strength to strength on the international stage. Its high production values, alongside an absorbing and internationally relevant storyline, offer great appeal across multiple platforms.”

Also this week, DQ’s sister platform C21 is reporting that Amazon has picked up the US SVoD rights for critically acclaimed drama The A Word. The series, which looks at the impact on a family when their youngest child is diagnosed with autism, is based on an Israeli show called Yellow Peppers.

Distributed internationally by Keshet International (KI), the first season of the show was a surprise hit on BBC1 and a second season has been commissioned. In addition to Amazon, it will air on Sundance TV in the US, underlining a growing trend toward pay TV/SVoD rights sharing.

Commenting on the Amazon deal, Keren Shahar, chief operating officer at KI and president of distribution, said: “The fact that Amazon has acquired SVoD rights to both seasons of the series is a testament to its quality, appeal and performance to date.”

Masters of Sex has been axed by Showtime after four seasons of declining ratings
Masters of Sex has been axed by Showtime after four seasons of declining ratings

On the cancellation front, Showtime in the US has announced that Masters of Sex has been dropped after four seasons. The news is not that big a surprise. The show, which features Michael Sheen as William Masters, the real-life American gynaecologist who pioneered research into human sexuality, attracted an average of 453,000 for its final run.

This is down from the 595,000 who watched season three, the 800,000 who watched season two and the 1.07 million who followed the debut season in 2013. An IMDb score of eight reinforces the fact that the show never quite hit the heights of the other shows doing the rounds in pay TV/SVoD (Fargo, Stranger Things, Westworld, Game of Thrones etc).

The show also didn’t perform well when compared with other Showtime titles like Homeland, Shameless, Ray Donovan and Billions. Interestingly, another Showtime series, The Affair, has just come back for season three with pretty modest ratings — suggesting that it might also struggle to get a recommission at the end of this run. If this is the case, then it leaves Showtime very reliant on a small handful of moderately good scripted series.

Against this backdrop, a watershed moment for the channel will be the return of iconic drama Twin Peaks in 2017. Possibly it’s also time to listen to the fan chat and bring back Dexter, the serial killer drama that defined Showtime for so many seasons.

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Showtime plays the long game

Homeland
Homeland has been given a double renewal

US premium pay TV channel Showtime is one of the most loyal commissioning networks in the world, revealing a willingness over the past few years to let its scripted series run and run.

Looking back at Showtime’s classic titles, for example, serial killer drama Dexter ran for eight seasons before it finished in 2014. And even then it might have continued had lead actor Michael C Hall not wanted to pursue other acting opportunities.

Nurse Jackie and Californication also lasted seven seasons on Showtime – an impressive performance in our short-attention-span society.

Looking at current shows, top performer Shameless was granted a seventh season earlier this year. And this week Showtime announced that it had greenlit seventh and eighth seasons of Homeland, the espionage series derived from Israel’s Prisoners of War (Hatufim). That news comes despite the fact that the sixth season of Homeland doesn’t premiere until January 2017.

Homeland, starring Claire Danes, looked as though it might be running out of steam at the end of season four and heading into season five. But a strong recovery in the back half of season five reaffirmed its versatility and its importance to Showtime’s schedule. The show will now run until at least 2019.

Ray Donovan
Ray Donovan will get a fifth season

In parallel with the Homeland announcement, Showtime also announced that there will be a fifth season of Ray Donovan, which stars Liev Schreiber as a fixer for LA’s rich and famous. The show, which runs in batches of 12 episodes, is currently in the middle of season four and rating pretty consistently. With an average audience of around 1.2 million (same-day figure), it is currently the third best-performing drama in Showtime’s line-up.

Showtime’s other dramas aren’t as far advanced as these titles, but they all seem to be benefiting from similar support from the channel.

Billions, The Affair and Masters of Sex have all been renewed, while Penny Dreadful probably would have been if creator John Logan hadn’t decided to call it a day. Even House of Lies managed five seasons before cancellation, despite the fact its ratings were looking pretty limp by the end of season four.

Showtime’s willingness to back its dramas for extended runs will probably become an industry norm over the next few years. While it’s important to refresh schedules with new productions, the TV drama market is now so cluttered that established series with consistent audiences are worth their weight in gold.

The extent of the competitive challenge has been well documented by FX Networks president John Landgraf, who has used the last couple of Television Critics Association Summer Tours to unveil research into key trends in scripted TV. Last year, for example, he said the US industry was poised to have more than 400 original shows a year on air. This year, he revised that figure up to 500 originals a year.

John Landgraf
John Landgraf

In Landgraf’s view, this is too many to make economic sense, so he is expecting a crunch to come at some point. He backed up this view by saying that while the top 20% of scripted series average 10.5 million viewers, the bottom tier attracts a mere 380,000.

This brings us back around to Showtime and longevity. If you have a show that rates moderately well then it makes sense to keep it going as long as possible. Why cancel it and replace it with a new show that might end up in the uneconomic end of the spectrum? That would be like a supermarket deciding to eject Heinz and Persil from its shelves in favour of completely new brands.

The attraction of sustaining shows over several seasons is reinforced by the amount of money that SVoD players are now pumping into new content. With Netflix spending around US$6bn a year on content and Amazon aiming to triple the number of new shows it has on its platform, long-running scripted franchises become even more important –which is why we’re seeing more of a trend towards multi-season commissioning.

Of course, this doesn’t mean networks should stick with every series regardless of ratings. Some series simply aren’t very good and need to be killed off so others can bloom. But as far as possible, networks need to be launching series that can last. This is why we are seeing such a strong trend towards IP that is already known (film and TV reboots, books, comics) and the use of talent packages that audiences are likely to respond well to. Anthologies and series spin-offs reinforce this overall trend.

Mad Men
Mad Men comprised seven seasons

Showtime’s key rivals are not quite as advanced in the longevity stakes but they are moving a similar way. FX, for example, reached seven seasons with Sons of Anarchy and looks like it will hit a similar mark with American Horror Story. There is now also talk of a Sons of Anarchy prequel.

Starz, meanwhile, is putting its shoulder behind Power and Outlander. At AMC, The Walking Dead has hit the magic seven and Fear The Walking Dead may eventually go the same way. Mad Men reached seven seasons and so did Breaking Bad if you count in its spin-off Better Call Saul.

Netflix has commissioned as far as seven seasons of Orange is the New Black and USA Networks has taken its hit show Suits to seven seasons. HBO’s Game of Thrones will go at least as far as eight seasons and it would be a major surprise if the network gives up there (some kind of spin-off must surely be in the works).

Versailles will return to BBC2
Versailles will return to BBC2

Elsewhere in a quiet week for scripted series, BBC2 in the UK has acquired the second season of French period drama Versailles, which will air on the channel next year. The first series rated well on BBC2 and has sold extensively around the world. In the US, it is soon to air on Ovation while distributor Zodiak Rights has also licensed it into around 130 countries. In addition, SVoD platform Netflix picked up second-window streaming rights in the US.

Also in the news this month, Portuguese public broadcaster RTP is working with producer BeActive on a drama set in the world of electronic sports. Called The Players, the series follows a group of friends as they journey to the European championship finals of League of Legends, a popular online video game. BeActive claims it is the first scripted series to focus on the world of e-sports. That’s interesting given our column last week on the role of sport in scripted TV.

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Homeland’s Chip Johannessen: Stories from the writers room

US writer-producer Chip Johannessen shares his approach to writing series television based on his spells on The X-Files spin-off Millennium, Fox hit 24 and Showtime’s Homeland.

Millennium/The X-Files
Johannessen wrote and produced for Fox series Millennium (pictured left below), which followed an ex-FBI agent who could see into the minds of criminals, between 1996 and 1999, before penning one episode of The X-Files – season seven’s Orison. Both shows were created by Chris Carter.

Millennium (left) and The X-Files

Point of view was a total obsession of Chris Carter, the showrunner on The X-Files and Millennium. Things like subjective camera moves helped you get into the characters’ heads.

By far the most important thing was tightening the sightlines to the point where the actor was almost speaking into the camera. This helped you get into the psychological unease of the characters.

But point of view is not just the shooting style, it gets baked into the script. Every scene has a point of view and every scene must take the past and drive it into the future. This is cause and effect – something happens, something else happens and because that happens, something else happens and so on.

Chip Johannessen
Chip Johannessen

Cause and effect is the glue that holds everything together. Without it, you have nothing – just a bunch of random crap happening. You would think you don’t have to say it, but the fact is cause and effect quickly goes out of the window if you’re not constantly reminded of it.

Stories are not robust, they’re fragile. If you have something that’s working, treasure it – because if you add one or two things that don’t belong, you go from having something that works to having something that doesn’t.

I do not believe in character scenes. When I’m told it’s a character scene, that’s a code for ‘nothing is going on here.’ In terms of driving the past into the future, that is not a good thing. When I hear that term, I get my scissors. This was the deal at The X-Files and Millennium: if a scene is not necessary, delete it; if a line is not necessary, delete it; and the scary part… if a word is not necessary, delete it.

Each scene was represented by a three-by-five card. At The X-Files and Millennium, if you did not believe in the alchemical properties of a perfectly lettered three-by-five card attached by push pin to a cork board, you would not survive in that shop. The stories were almost engineered and would appear to you from the board – you could see whether there were pieces not working well, if there was stuff you could get rid of. The cards can make non-writers into writers.


24
Johannessen was an executive producer of the action drama, which starred Kiefer Sutherland as CTU agent Jack Bauer, for season eight, which first aired on Fox in 2010. He was also a consulting producer for season seven (2009).

24-s8-ep1-1

The big innovation with 24 was, of course, the ‘real time’ element. Real time was in the air at that point. There had been a movie called Timecode that had split screens. We realised in The X-Files and Millennium there were advantages to it. A typical episode had four acts and by the top of act three you’d be breathless trying to get where you were going, and by four you’d be running in real time with a very tight timeline to the end.

What Joel Surnow did as writer of 24 was radical. He said: “Let’s take that energy and sustain it through every frame.” It means jump cuts and flashbacks are off the table. The only thing taking the past and driving it into the future is the life of the characters. If your sense of writing was two people come into a room to have a conversation, you were out in the cold; if your sense of writing was two people come into a room to talk about nothing, you were really out in the cold.

The other thing real time demands is that scenes start at the beginning and play out to the end. We have a sense of where the character is coming from, we have an entrance into the scene and then there’s usually an exit at the other side. In the middle, people have to deal with difficult situations in real time – they look very smart because they have a whole writers room behind them figuring out the smartest way to get through things.

This created an idea that a scene should only be about one thing, and that’s something we retained as we moved into Homeland.

We kept parts from The X-Files and Millennium and jettisoned others. The lighting was simplified and the horror story vocabulary was now gone, but we retained a strong sense of point of view. The producers and directors called it “human height” and everything was shot from there. We lost all the high and low angles unless it was actually somebody’s point of view, and that way we were very much in the action.

The one writerly conceit we did retain was cliffhangers. This is clearly a big thing in the binge-watching world. But we discovered early on that a good cliffhanger is not an action cliffhanger; it’s not putting a gun to somebody’s head where they’re going to die or get blown up. A good cliffhanger is something that upends your entire story, that changes everything. Something like: “The president is going to be assassinated.”

“Yes, Jack, that’s true – and you’re the one who’s going to do it.”


Homeland
Having worked with co-creators Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa on 24, Johannessen has executive produced all five seasons of Homeland. Season six is due to air later this year.

Homeland-s3-4

With Homeland, we had a much more naturalistic way of doing things. Instead of everything feeling staged, we wanted a feeling that the action was just captured, almost documentary style.

The language was more simple and natural. You could already see that happening in 24 because the language was simple and direct – Jack Bauer was an action hero and his language was often reduced to things like, “do it, do it now.” In Homeland we wanted to bring everything back down to earth.

To get the writer out of the script, we used reality as a trump card. We put a big emphasis on research. We did none, ever, at 24; we just made that shit up – it was a point of honour. We researched Homeland meticulously – ahead of every season, we take a trip to the CIA for three days and talk to a parade of spooks about what’s going on in the world. Ahead of the most recent season, they were all talking about Syria and Europe, so that’s where we ended up landing. We have technical consultants for everything – we try very hard to get it all right.

Even though the number of episodes is reduced compared with 24, where we felt like we were stumbling through and trying to survive, it still really exceeds one person’s ability to write that much material – particularly when you’re producing as well, which we all do at Homeland. This means we have multiple people in a serialised story, so we all have to be in the room together. If I’m writing episode three I have to know what happened in one and two, and have to know what to hand off to four and five.

We cling to the card system we inherited from The X-Files like a life preserver. The good thing is once we have the cards on the board we can hand those to anybody and they can go out and write a script. It’s not quite like a monkey could do it – that would depend on the monkey – but anybody who was there for the process is capable of writing the script.

So we’re asking writers to give up a lot. But if you serve the story, get rid of the noise, never do anything just because it’s cool and try to get rid of all the bad things we inherited from 40 years of bad broadcast TV, you get something very significant in return. You get a writing process generating pages that is so simple it is almost terrifying. All you do is close your eyes and you’re there with your characters and you let them speak.

But don’t let your actors drink coffee in scenes. They’ve already had enough.

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Trade secrets: DQ delves into BBC’s The Secret Agent

Toby Jones turns spy in thriller The Secret Agent, adapted from Joseph Conrad’s novel by screenwriter Tony Marchant.

Tony Marchant
Tony Marchant

Is 2016 the year of the spy? From the continuing international popularity of German hit Deutschland 83, break-out US series Quantico and BBC series London Spy to Emmy nominations for John le Carré adaptation The Night Manager and Cold War thriller The Americans, there’s no shortage of covert operations on the small screen.

Fans of espionage thrillers can also look forward to Epix’s first original drama Berlin Station, CBS’s MacGyver and Fox reboot 24: Legacy all airing this autumn, as well as the return of long-running Showtime series Homeland; and, looking further ahead, forthcoming series SS-GB and The Same Sky, both due in early 2017 in the UK and Germany respectively.

“In some ways it’s a coincidence there have been quite a few spy stories this year but they are just manifestations of the bigger genre thriller,” says television writer Tony Marchant. “Toby Jones once said the great attraction of spy dramas is we all feel we’re being watched these days. That’s maybe why they’re so popular.

“They’re also about identity and concealing identities and we’re all pretty conscious of that because when we’re online, we can be different things. Maybe it’s in tune with some idea of the fluidity of identity these days, who knows!”

Another new entry to the genre is Marchant’s latest project, The Secret Agent, which is currently airing in the UK on BBC1.

 

David Dawson as Vladimir and Toby Jones as Verloc
David Dawson as Vladimir and Toby Jones as Verloc

Based on the Joseph Conrad book of the same name, the aforementioned Jones stars as Verloc, whose seedy Soho shop is a front for his role as an agent working for the Russian Embassy, spying on a group of London anarchists.

Under pressure to create a bomb outrage that the Russians hope will lead the British government to crack down on violent extremists, Verloc drags his unsuspecting family into a tragic terror plot.

It was executive producer Simon Heath who suggested Marchant adapt Conrad’s book, which by coincidence the writer had been reading only weeks earlier.

“You’re just struck by its prescience and the fact that it’s not just about geopolitical manipulations,” Marchant says of the 1907 text. “At the heart of it is a domestic tragedy, which in the end is probably the best reason for me doing it. You have to get past Conrad’s scorn, and the tone of the book is beset with irony, but the one person he does care about in the book is Winnie [Verloc’s wife, played in the series by This Is England’s Vicky McClure], so it was important to make her absolutely the bedrock of the piece. Although most people think it’s about Verloc, in the end, once you’ve seen all three episodes or read the book, you realise the person to whom the biggest tragedy befalls is Winnie.”

Winnie is played by This Is England’s Vicky McClure
Winnie is played by This Is England’s Vicky McClure

Marchant is no stranger to adaptations. His previous television credits include Great Expectations, Crime & Punishment and Canterbury Tales.

The Secret Agent was a trickier proposition, he reveals, as he faced multiple points of view, a non-chronological storyline and important events that are reported by Conrad’s characters but not seen first-hand by readers of the book.

“The general rule with adaptations is you try to find something that personally appeals, that chimes with your own preoccupations and obsessions,” Marchant explains. “That should be your first response or impulse with an adaptation, but with the others I’ve done, they have been more structurally straightforward. The difficulty with Great Expectations is the familiarity of it, Crime & Punishment was difficult but again not structurally, it’s more about [the character] Raskolnikov than anything. This was difficult because it was a modernist novel. But also it wasn’t just the structure that was tricky, it was the tone as well, which is quite scornful of most of the characters.”

Stephen Graham as Verloc’s adversary Chief Inspector Heat
Stephen Graham as Verloc’s adversary Chief Inspector Heat

Marchant initially developed the three-part series with producer World Productions’ Heath and Priscilla Parish, with an emphasis to build a plot that continually drove its characters forward through the story. This meant creating further scenes not mentioned by Conrad, such as the professor sitting on a bus with a bomb, leading to an encounter with Stephen Graham’s Inspector Heat.

“With adaptations, you have to love the book and you have to have a healthy disrespect for it at the same time,” admits Marchant, who has also written series including Garrow’s Law, Public Enemies and Leaving. “You have to tell yourself there’s something missing or that something doesn’t work. But if you do decide to embrace it as a thriller, you must make sure the characterisation and the complexity of the characterisation isn’t being compromised.

“You don’t make it a vacuous hell-for-leather thriller; you’ve got to make it full of tension and jeopardy and intrigue. The novel is called The Secret Agent so I think you’re entitled to a bit of licence in terms of the genre.”

On the Edinburgh set, which doubled for 1886 London, that licence extended to the actors, who were welcome to speak to Marchant about the script or individual lines they wanted to tweak or, in Jones’s case, omit altogether.

“That’s all fine,” the writer says. “If you’re working with really good actors, you have to respect the fact that if they’re playing it, they’ve got a great instinct for what’s right and what doesn’t convince. So I did plenty of tweaking as we were shooting it.”

The-Secret-Agent-27
Ian Hart as the Professor and Stephen Graham

Above all, it was important for Marchant and director Charles McDougall that the cast, which also includes Vicky McClure, gave completely naturalistic performances and “were not all bonnet and bodice or caught up in the fetish of period dramas.”

He continues: “If you take an adaptation like this, the great thing about this is it’s so contemporary so we’re doing it in a really modern way. That goes for the performances as well. In the end, Charles explicitly told the actors to be as natural and contemporary as you can be without it being anachronistic.”

Marchant’s writing career began in the theatre, which he credits with giving him a sense of his own voice – an influence becoming less common with the increasing scarcity of one-offs and three-parters and the popularity of genre series.

“It’s very hard for writers coming into television wherever they come from, to feel like their voice is being heard and they’re not being co-opted into writing some sort of genre show,” Marchant argues. “But I think you’ve got people like Jez Butterworth [Edge of Tomorrow] who went straight from theatre into film. Equally, you’ve got Nick Payne [The Sense of an Ending] and Mike Bartlett [Doctor Foster] who are now writing TV. That’s been quite a common trajectory for writers.

“It’s a paradox that you get bolder, bigger storytelling but that doesn’t mean the author’s voice is more clearly heard. In some ways, it can be done at the expense of authorship. If you think of TV in the past year and what’s the most authored thing you’ve seen, for me it’s Toby Jones in Marvellous [written by Peter Bowker]. That just seemed to be utterly unique, personal and authored – something that bigger dramas could never be.”

There are exceptions, however, and proof that writers can be heard, though they are found in the US – an industry Marchant adds is more advanced than British television.

“The momentum is really in big shows but if people are going to invest amounts of money into certain kinds of dramas, they want to take fewer risks and it’s more likely a show is going to be in a genre than be singular or perverse,” he says. “There are exceptions – something like Mr Robot is a great show but you’d have to say US TV has evolved a bit more in how to be big and authored. You’d say they’re in a slightly more advanced place than us.”

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HBO, FX dominate Emmy noms

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?

Game of Thrones
HBO’s Game of Thrones picked up 23 nominations

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).

FX's The People vs OJ Simpson: American Crime Story
The People vs OJ Simpson: American Crime Story

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.

House of Cards
Netflix’s long-running House of Cards was nominated in 13 categories

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).

BBC1 hit The Night Manager was only a modest performer on AMC
BBC1 hit The Night Manager was only a modest performer on AMC

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 Americans has its first Outstanding Drama nom
The Americans has its first Outstanding Drama nom

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.

Bryan Cranston plays Lyndon B Johnson in HBO's All The Way
Bryan Cranston plays Lyndon B Johnson in HBO’s All The Way

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.

Fargo secured 18 nominations for FX
Fargo secured 18 nominations for FX

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.

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Scripted formats show writers’ double vision

Hardly a week goes by without some new development on the scripted format front. So here we explore 12 of the shows that have been adapted – successfully and unsuccessfully – for the US, and the writing teams behind them.

Where images have been included, the original series is on the left and its adaptation on the right.

Broadchurch-GracepointBroadchurch was a big hit for ITV in the UK when season one aired in 2013. It then sold around the world and was adapted by Fox in the US as Gracepoint, with the same lead actor (David Tennant). The UK version, which then had a moderately successful second season, was created and written by Chris Chibnall – who is now working on a third and final run before taking over on the BBC’s Doctor Who.

The 10-part US version was set up by Chibnall before being handed over to Anya Epstein and Dan Futterman, who wrote all of the remaining episodes except for number six (Jason Kim). Gracepoint was pretty well reviewed by critics and sold to other English-speaking markets. But it was not renewed after failing to secure a sizeable audience (average ratings were around 3.5 to four million).

Collision, created by UK writer Anthony Horowitz (Foyle’s War), attracted an audience of seven million when it aired on ITV in the UK during 2009. In November last year it was picked up by NBC as a 10-part series. Interestingly, Horowitz will be the showrunner for the US version, with CSI exec producer Carol Mendelsohn on board as partner. Mendelsohn is also exec producer of Game of Silence (see below), suggesting she is now regarded as a safe pair of hands for format adaptations after her many years working on CSI.

The original version of Collision comprised five episodes but Horowitz says he has no concerns about the project being extended because he believes the storyline will benefit from the extra episodes. Sometimes formats suffer from being stretched in this way.

Forbrydelsen-KillingForbrydelsen (The Killing) is a Danish series (DR/ZDF Enterprises) created by Soren Sveistrup. Active across three seasons, it became an international hit and made its star Sofie Gråbøl a household name. It was adapted by AMC in 2011 and has so far run to four seasons – despite being cancelled a couple of times along the way. It was saved by Netflix, which came on board as a partner for season three and then took over the show in its entirety for season four.

The US version was developed by Veena Sud, whose previous big credit was CBS procedural Cold Case. Sud shared writing duties with a large team, including the likes of Nic Pizzolatto (True Detective) and Jeremy Doner (Damages). She stayed with the show through season four, by which time writing duties were shared with Dan Nowak, Sean Whitesell, Nicole Yorkin and Dawn Prestwich (the latter two a writing team whose credits include Chicago Hope, FlashForward and The Education of Max Bickford).

Hatufim-HomelandHatufim, aka Prisoners of War, is perhaps the most celebrated example of a successful scripted format. Created in Israel by Gideon Raff, it was adapted as Homeland for Showtime in the US by Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa. Five seasons of the US show have aired so far, with a sixth ordered in December 2015.

As is common with US series, there is a big team involved in writing a show like Homeland. The latest season of 12 episodes involved 11 writers altogether. Key names include Chip Johannessen, who has been involved with the show since the start. A new name on the season six team sheet was David Fury, who has worked on an array of titles ranging from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Hannibal.

Janus is proof that US networks are looking further afield in search of great ideas. A crime story originated in Austria, it was picked up by ABC last autumn. Kevin O’Hare, who has written pilots for ABC and Syfy, is adapting the thriller and writing the pilot. The original version was written by Jacob Groll and Sarah Wassermair.

Prior to this seven-part serial, Groll was best known for documentary The Sound of Hollywood, while Wassermair’s credits include musicals for children’s theatre. However, the pair have also been working together on ORF’s popular crime series Soko Donau.

JanetheVirginJuana La Virgen is a Venezuelan telenovela that was adapted for The CW network in the US as Jane the Virgin. The original was created by Perla Farias and the US version by Jennie Snyder Urman, whose writing efforts are supported by a large team (the show has 22 episodes per season).

As evident from the titles above, a lot of adaptations don’t get further than the end of their first season. So the fact that this one has just been greenlit for a third run is a notable achievement. Although season two ratings are down compared with season one, the show has settled into a stable 0.9 to one million range.

Revenants-ReturnedLes Revenants was hailed as evidence that French TV drama had become a force to be reckoned with. A hit for Canal+ in 2012, the format was snapped up by A&E in the US – where it was remade as The Returned. The French version (based on a film) was created by Fabrice Gobert, who then wrote the screenplay for season one with Emmanuel Carrere and Fabien Adda (with writing credits also going to Camille Fontaine and Nathalie Saugeon).

A second season was aired at the end of 2015, with Audrey Fouche joining Gobert and Adda as a key writer (also credited on one episode was Coline Abert). Despite being led by showrunner Carlton Cuse alongside Raelle Tucker (True Blood), the US version failed to secure a second-season renewal following lacklustre ratings.

Øyevitne is a Norwegian crime thriller that is being adapted as Eyewitness for USA Network. In the US it has received a 10-episode, straight-to-series order. The US version comes from Shades of Blue creator Adi Hasak, who wrote it and will serve as showrunner. The original series creator is Jarl Emsell Larsen, who will executive produce the US version.

The series explores a grisly crime from the point of view of the eyewitnesses, two boys involved in a clandestine gay affair. While the Nordics have been getting a lot of attention in recent times, this is actually the first Norwegian scripted show to be adapted for the US.

Penoza-RedWidowPenoza is a popular Dutch drama created by Pieter Bart Korthuis and Diederik van Rooijen for KRO-NCRV. The show has run for four seasons (2010-2015), with a fifth, commissioned in February, set to air in September 2017. The format was acquired by ABC in the US in 2012 and ran for one season during 2013 with the name Red Widow.

The US version performed poorly and wasn’t renewed, dropping from 7.1 million at the start of its run to 3.47 million at the end. That was a rare blip for writer Melissa Rosenberg, whose credits include the entire Twilight saga of movies, Showtime’s Dexter and Netflix hit series Jessica Jones.

RakeRake is an Australian television series that centres on a brilliant but self-destructive lawyer. It was created by Peter Duncan, who then shared writing duties with Andrew Knight across the first three series. A fourth season will be broadcast this year on ABC Australia.

The show was adapted for Fox in the US in 2013, with Peter Duncan at the helm of a writing team of five. However, the show didn’t rate well and was moved around the schedule before being cancelled.

ShamelessShameless: Company Pictures produced Shameless for Channel 4 in the UK before it was picked up as a format by premium pay TV channel Showtime. The UK version was the brainchild of Paul Abbott, who also wrote a number of episodes. Other high-profile names involved included Danny Brocklehurst, who is now enjoying some success with Sky1’s The Five. Another prominent writer among many was Ed McCardie (Spotless).

Abbott was involved in setting up the US version, which may explain why the show has been a success, with six seasons already being aired. Key names in terms of transitioning the show included John Wells (ER, The West Wing) and Nancy Pimental – both of whom are still heavily involved, alongside a team of five writers for the latest season. Interestingly, the last season of the UK version also used a team approach, with eight writers penning 14 episodes.

Suskunlar-GameofSilenceSuskunlar is a Turkish drama that first aired on Show TV in 2012 and was then sold in its completed form to 30 countries. It was written by Pinar Bulut, who has also written a number of projects with her husband Kerem Deren, including fellow international hit Ezel.

The show was picked up by NBC in the US and has just started airing under the title Game of Silence. The pilot for the US version was written by David Hudgins, whose credits include Everwood and Parenthood. The second episode was penned by Wendy West (The Blacklist and Dexter). Hudgins has expressed a desire to take the show on into a second season, but early ratings suggest that it will need to do better for that to happen. After attracting 6.4 million viewers for episode one, it dropped 39% to 3.9 million for episode two.

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‘Tis the season for renewals

Matt DIllon starred in the first season of Wayward Pines but will not feature in the second run
Matt DIllon starred in the first season of Wayward Pines but will not feature in the second run

This summer, critics couldn’t decide whether M Night Shyamalan and Chad Hodge’s 10-part mystery-thriller Wayward Pines qualified as a hit. But the show’s host network Fox has now answered that question by giving the production a second season.

Fox Broadcasting Company’s entertainment president David Madden said: “Wayward Pines was a huge hit for us. We were absolutely blown away by the mysterious and surprising world that Night and his team created, and the twisting-and-turning storytelling that drew viewers in from day one. Season two is going to take the suspense, the vision of the future and the haunting character drama to whole new levels.”

A same-day audience of three to four million wasn’t especially impressive. But Fox has crunched the numbers and come up with the following analysis: “Season one of Wayward Pines ranked as summer 2015’s number-one broadcast scripted series among adults 18-49, averaging a 2.2/8 in the key demo. The series – about a Secret Service agent on a mission to find two missing federal agents in a sleepy town, and the shocking results of his investigation – ranked among summer 2015’s top 10 broadcast programmes overall among adults 18-49. It earned a multiplatform average audience of 9.4 million, which represents a +145% increase versus its Live+Same Day audience – the largest multiplatform lift versus Live+Same Day ever for a Fox drama.”

According to Fox, the second season will pick up in the wake of season one, when a new arrival in Wayward Pines finds himself in the middle of a serious rebellion, as the residents battle over how to preserve the endangered human race. Season one stars Matt Dillon and Toby Jones will not return, so there will be a lot of interest in who gets cast as the new lead.

Showtime has extended Homeland into a sixth season
Showtime has extended Homeland into a sixth season as its fifth finishes strongly

This week has also seen renewals for Showtime’s Homeland and The Affair. This confirms our hunch that Homeland had done enough in season five to warrant a renewal, though the announcement has come later than expected.

Season five is finishing strongly, which appears to vindicate the decision to move central character Carrie (played by Claire Danes) to Berlin. Co-creator Alex Gansa has suggested that this could be the model going forward, with each season placing Carrie in a new geographic location.

There was also a renewal this week for NBC’s The Blacklist, which stars James Spader as a criminal mastermind working with the FBI. The drama, which will go into season four, averages a same-day of audience of around seven million. It’s also popular internationally, featuring on networks such as Sky Living and TF1 in France.

The timing of the announcement makes this an early renewal for the show, and creator Jon Bokencamp says he has known about The Blacklist’s return for a while. Speaking in a podcast interview this week, he commented: “We knew about that a while ago. It’s one of those things that’s hard to keep quiet. But yes, we’re renewed through to the fourth season. Hopefully we don’t tank that out – we’ve got a lot of story to tell.”

The Blacklist, starring James Spader, has been given an early renewal
The Blacklist, starring James Spader, has been given an early renewal on NBC

Back at Fox, one show that is certain to get a renewal is breakout hit Empire, which is now in the middle of its second run. However, the new season has been bumpy ride, akin to the ‘difficult second album’ syndrome. After opening to 16 million viewers (22.5 million when you add in the multiplatform/time-shifted figures), the music industry-based show dropped as low as 9.2 million (same-day rating) for episode nine. Episode 10 saw a bounceback (11.8 million) but the underlying critical narrative suggests the show has lost its way slightly.

The biggest complaint seems to be that this year’s plots and characters lack authenticity, with USA Today summing it up like this: “On social media, fans are griping about ever-more-outrageous storylines (‘cartoon garbage,’ sniffed one Twitter user), such as frantic efforts in (one) episode to find and dig up the body of Vernon, who was accidentally killed in last season’s finale, and park his decomposed corpse in a car to intimidate an attack-dog prosecutor. There’s pushback on the show’s heavy dose of celebrity cameos, from Chris Rock to Ludacris.”

Having said all this, Empire is still the strongest US network show by far. To put it in perspective, its rating among the all-important 18-49 demo far exceeds that of new shows such as Blindspot, Limitless and Quantico. So a renewal is as certain as anything can be in this life.

Empire is likely to return despite enduring the TV equivalent of 'difficult second album' syndrome
Empire is likely to return despite enduring the TV equivalent of a ‘difficult second album’

A likely beneficiary of its success is Rosewood, which airs straight after Empire. Having seen its ratings boosted as a result of Empire’s strong lead-in, it’s another show that is pretty much guaranteed a return.

Continuing on this topic, this week provided a superb example of the impact that a strong lead-in can have on a title’s ratings. Until recently, AMC’s Into the Badlands had been benefiting from airing directly after The Walking Dead. But with the latter now on a winter break, Badlands has seen its audience plummet. Same-day ratings for the first four episodes of the show go like this: 6.4 million, 4.8 million, 5.2 million, 2.4 million – the latter figure being the first week in which it didn’t have a boost from The Walking Dead.

This isn’t necessarily a problem for Badlands. It’s possible that, without TWD in the schedule, fans of the futuristic martial arts show have decided to record it and watch it another time (maybe earlier the next day). The real test of whether the show has managed to build a loyal audience will come with Live + 3 Day or Live + 7 Day ratings. That said, even at its new lower level, it’s still a strong shout for a renewal.

Moving away from renewals, this week saw the launch of a show that may soon be talked about as the latest Scandinavian hit.

Gasmamman: Scandinavia's next big hit?
Gasmamman: Scandinavia’s next big hit?

Gasmamman (Mother Goose) is being described as Sweden’s answer to Breaking Bad. The story follows a mother-of-three who takes over the family’s illegal marijuana business after her husband is shot in a drug deal gone wrong.

The Endemol Shine-produced show is currently airing on pay TV platform C-More and will shift to Kanal 5 in spring 2016.

In an interview with Reuters, lead actress Alexandra Rapaport said: “When we pitched this we talked about it being a kind of Erin Brockovich meets Breaking Bad. The Bridge and The Killing were big inspirations for us. But I think we also add some humour to it, which is why we compare it to Breaking Bad.”

The Reuters report says the show’s producers plan to make four seasons in total.

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HBO renews Israeli interest

Adapted from Israel's BeTipul, In Treatment ran for seasons on HBO
Adapted from Israel’s BeTipul, In Treatment ran for 106 episodes on HBO

The US adaptation of Israeli dramas has been one of the headline stories in the international TV market over the last few years. But with the success of Showtime’s Homeland (based on Keshet series Hatufim), it’s easy to forget that US premium pay TV channel HBO was one of the pioneers of the US-Israeli partnership.

Way back in 2008, HBO started airing In Treatment, a local adaptation of HOT’s psychological drama BeTipul. The show went on to run for 106 episodes over three seasons, which is actually more than the original Israeli version managed (80 episodes).

HBO now appears to have revived its interest in Israeli shows. Earlier this year, it started developing Wish, based on Beit Ha’Mishalot (House of Wishes). And this week Israeli newspaper Haaretz reports that HBO has also picked up the rights to HOT’s Neveilot, a miniseries about two former soldiers who go on a rogue mission. The US version, to be written by Branden Jacobs Jenkin under the title of Eagles, will centre on Vietnam War veterans.

While broadcasters around the world have picked up a variety of Israeli dramas, military and espionage stories still seem to be most in-demand shows to emerge from the country. This year has also seen Fox International Channels pick up Keshet’s False Flag, with plans to air both the original and an English-language version.

Gangs of Wasseypur
Bollywood movie Gangs of Wasseypur is coming to Netflix as a series

Elsewhere, Netflix has announced that it is to air a Bollywood movie called Gangs of Wasseypur on its US service. The film, which comes in two parts, will be re-edited as an eight-part series for the SVoD platform. Directed by Anurag Kashyap, Wasseypur is an epic tale that focuses on the coal mafia in India’s Bihar state.

Netflix has also picked up 20 additional Indian titles from digital rights management company Film Karavan, including Fandry, Amal, Loins of Punjab, Kshay, Suleimaani Keeda and Piku.

All this activity is a precursor to Netflix’s planned launch in India next year. Speaking recently about the company’s plans in the region, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said the streamer was planning to produce some original Bollywood content ahead of the India launch.

Still at Netflix, there have been rumours recently that the platform might not be going ahead with one of its planned Marvel series, Iron Fist. However, this has been knocked back by Marvel chief creative officer Joe Quesada, who told gaming platform IGN: “Iron Fist is being worked on. That’s all I can say.”

Is Tremors being reimagined for television?
Is Tremors being reimagined for television?

In other news, there are reports that actor Kevin Bacon has been signed up to star in a TV reboot of the 1990s movie Tremors, which has developed a cult status over the years. There are also strong suggestions that the companies behind German drama Deutschland 83 (RTL, FremantleMedia and SundanceTV) are plotting a follow-up series, probably called Deutschland 86.

Deutschland 83 has received good reviews from critics and has been licensed to many international territories. It is not rating especially well in its domestic market, where the debut episode brought in around 3.2 million viewers on RTL. But it’s possible that the show’s international success will be enough to justify a series renewal. Those attending the C21 Drama Summit in London this week will have the opportunity to quiz one of the show’s screenwriters, Anna Winger.

In the US, Disney Channel has just announced that there will be a third season of its coming-of-age sitcom Girls Meets World, created by Michael Jacobs and April Kelly. Echoing the gender-switching trend noted in a previous column, this show is actually a sequel to an earlier sitcom called Boy Meets World, which ran on ABC from 1993 to 2000. Aside from the US, it has aired on a number of Disney Channels around the world, including in the UK and Australia.

This has been an unusual autumn season in the US for various reasons. The reluctance to cancel shows, changing attitudes to audience measurement, the rise of anthology series, the growing number of film-to-TV reboots and a trend towards online previews are a few cases in point. To this list we can now add the fact that December is set to have a whole new competitive edge.

The Shannara Chronicles hits screens at the beginning of next year
The Shannara Chronicles hits screens at the beginning of next year

Traditionally, December has been quite a soft month in TV terms, with US channels preferring holiday specials and reruns to launching new series. But this year it looks like there could be a break with Christmas tradition.

NBC, for example, is showcasing its new Eva Longoria comedy Telenovela, while A&E is launching new episodes of Unforgettable. Bravo is opening up season two of Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce, while Syfy has both Childhood’s End and The Expanse coming into its schedule.

And if all that isn’t enough, Amazon is also planning on offering all 10 episodes of Transparent’s second season starting from December 11.

One interesting show that is waiting until after the holiday season has ended is MTV’s The Shannara Chronicles. Due to premiere on January 5, it is a lavish fantasy series based on the books by Terry Brooks.

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Home and dry?

Homeland, starring Claire Danes, is currently in its fifth season
Homeland, starring Claire Danes, is currently in its fifth season on Showtime

This time last year (November 10, 2014 to be exact), US premium pay TV network Showtime greenlit a fifth season of Homeland, the political thriller adapted from Israeli series Hatufim (Prisoners of War).

That season is currently five episodes into a planned run of 12. So the big question this week is whether Showtime will commission a sixth season – or if it will decide instead to call an end to the show.

Homeland, which stars Claire Danes, has been a big hit for the channel, in terms of both audience ratings and critical acclaim. But there are signs it is starting to flag. After reaching audiences of around two million during seasons two and three, the beginnings of a decline were evident in season four, which averaged around 1.6 million over the course of the season.

For the current season, the average is 1.4 million – with one episode dropping as low as 1.1 million. Something similar is happening in the UK, where the show is currently airing on Channel 4. Here, the first three episodes of the new season have recorded ratings of 2.2 million, 1.6 million and 900,000 respectively (according to BARB figures).

Nevertheless, it would be a brave call to close down the show at this stage. Despite the slide in ratings, season five has been getting good reviews from critics. And the ratings, while low by Homeland’s standards, are still pretty good compared with other Showtime dramas. Only Shameless does better than Homeland, while titles such as The Affair and Masters of Sex lag far behind.

Homeland is an adaptation of Hatufim (Prisoners of War)
Homeland is an adaptation of Israeli drama Hatufim (Prisoners of War)

Ratings are important to Showtime, but not in the same way they are for an ad-funded network. Just as significant is what a show says to the subscriber base about the channel’s creative ambition.

For this reason, social media and focus groups will play into the decision about Homeland. Is there, for example, a hardcore audience that will howl with rage if the show is cancelled? Or is there a feeling that it’s time to move on? How do fans feel about the show’s change in direction, with the central character now working for a security firm in Berlin as opposed to working as a CIA employee (as she did in seasons one to four)?

A lot will depend, also, on what Danes wants to do next, and whether showrunners Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa feel there is more life in the formula. It’s also worth keeping in mind that espionage shows are hot right now, so it might be counterintuitive to shut down Homeland at the precise moment that broadcasters around the world are looking for this content.

On balance, it would be a surprise if the show ended now. Showtime’s track record indicates it is happy to go up to seven or eight seasons if it thinks a series is worthy of support (see Dexter, Nurse Jackie and Californication).

One interesting thing to look out for, though, is whether Showtime sticks to last year’s timing and announces a new season of Homeland next week. If it doesn’t, social media tongues will start wagging – though this doesn’t necessarily mean a cancellation is on the way. Showtime may decide to hold back on a firm decision for another month to see how the back end of the current run shapes up in the ratings.

Some viewers were taken aback by the level of violence and horror in ITV's Jekyll and Hyde
Some viewers were taken aback by the level of violence and horror in ITV’s Jekyll and Hyde

Elsewhere, an interesting story is developing in the UK around commercial broadcaster ITV’s fantasy drama Jekyll and Hyde. The show, written by Charlie Higson, is a reimagination of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel. It places the central character, Robert Jekyll, at the heart of a battle between a secret government organisation and a league of monsters called Tenebrae.

ITV commissioned the series for early evenings on Sunday in the hope of catching a young audience (echoing the approach that the BBC takes on Saturdays with Doctor Who). But Jekyll and Hyde has received a large number of complaints (800 at last count) from people who say it shouldn’t be aired before the 21.00 watershed because of the levels of violence and horror.

ITV has said it has no intention of moving the show, so the issue is now being considered by UK media regulator Ofcom, which said: “We are opening an investigation into whether the programme complied with our rules on appropriate scheduling and violent content before the watershed.”

Ironically, the 10-part drama might not suffer too badly if it is required to move to a later slot. Ratings from the first episode show that 66% of the audience was aged over 45, suggesting it could transition to post-watershed quite easily (though of course that would leave ITV with a teatime slot to fill).

Violence aside, the show is a well-acted, entertaining romp that doesn’t stretch the intellect of its viewers too much. A debut audience of 3.4 million was better than the slot average of 2.7 million but not spectacular. It’s going to take four or five episodes to find out whether the audience is willing to embrace Higson’s escapade.

There’s just a chance that the ratings will slide to such an extent that the show is not renewed, in which case ITV can avoid the embarrassment of having to relocate it in its schedule.

Early reviews for Into the Badlands have been mixed
Early reviews for AMC’s new series Into the Badlands have been mixed

Returning to the US, another new show about to hit the screens is AMC’s martial arts drama Into the Badlands, starring Daniel Wu. AMC looks a bit over-reliant on its Walking Dead franchise right now, so it will be hoping to create another hit series before we all finally get bored with zombies.

The first pre-transmission reviews of the show make this one difficult to call. While there is general agreement that the fight scenes are superbly choreographed and executed, there’s a split on whether the narrative and the characters stand up to scrutiny.

Slant Magazine was generally negative, concluding that “the series feels narratively uncertain, stuck between the simple pleasures of genre staples and the sadly unfulfilled aspiration toward a more imaginative, substantive work of stylised fantasy”.

Deadline is more upbeat, commenting that Into the Badlands is “a journey well worth taking” with a story “intriguingly based on the 16th century tale Journey to the West.”

Here’s the trailer to help you form your own opinion, but be warned – it wouldn’t be appropriate for ITV teatime viewing.

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Israel’s international impact

Fauda – 'so popular that its actors can’t walk down the street'
Fauda – ‘so popular that its actors can’t walk down the street’

Israeli scripted series first had a significant impact on the global stage towards the end of the last decade, when Hot Broadcasting’s BeTipul was reinvented for the US market as In Treatment. Launched on HBO in 2008, the US version of the show ran for three series (106 episodes) and focused on the personal and professional life of a psychologist played by Gabriel Byrne.

The next Israeli scripted show to break into the US was Ramzor, a 30-something comedy from Keshet that was remade as Traffic Light for Fox. This show only ran for one season, in 2011, but provided further conformation that Israeli was a country worth scouting.

The big breakthrough came later that year when the Keshet show Hatufim, which tells the story of two Israeli soldiers who are released after 17 years in captivity, was reinvented as Homeland for Showtime. In English, ‘hatufim’ means ‘abductees,’ though the Israeli show is generally referred to internationally as Prisoners of War (except in the US). Homeland has just entered production on a fifth series and is regarded as one of the standout scripted series of the last five years, mentioned in the same breadth as Mad Men, Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead.

Echoing the situation with high-profile Latin American telenovelas like Ugly Betty and Nordic Noir series like The Bridge, the success of Homeland in the US has turned the Homeland/Prisoners of War franchise into an industry in its own right. Both versions are available to the international market as completed shows. And Prisoners of War is also available as a format, having already sold to Russia, Colombia, Mexico, Turkey and South Korea.

Homeland is the US version of Keshet's Hatufim
Homeland is the US version of Keshet’s Hatufim

Homeland injected a new level of intensity into the search for adaptable Israeli shows. For example, in the case of Bnei Aruba, CBS in the US struck a deal that allowed it to develop a US version of the show in parallel with the creation of an Israeli version for Channel 10. Called Hostages, the US version actually aired three weeks before the original. Like with Homeland, this also helped kickstart international interest in the original Hebrew show, which sold to BBC4 and Canal+.

Of course, not all Israeli series have been hits in the US. Espionage drama Ta Gordin (The Gordin Cell), which aired on Yes, was a hit on home soil but didn’t make it to the end of the first season when NBC remade it as Allegiance. Launched Stateside in February 2015, it was axed five episodes later due to low ratings. But even this result wasn’t a total negative for the show – because it gave it international exposure. Korean company IMTV, for example, elected to produce a version for its highly competitive market.

When Israelis are asked to analyse why their shows have generated so much interest, they cite three main factors. First, they explain, Israeli audiences are highly critical and get bored easily – which means there is a high turnover of original stories and a constant quest for fresh insight. Second, Israel is a small country operating on tight budgets. So if a show can work in this environment, it will have no problem once it secures a bigger budget. And finally, there is an authenticity and honesty to Israeli scripted shows that comes from living on the front line.

The question, of course, is whether they can keep up the momentum. So what is coming down the line that might catch the attention of the international market? Well, one new title that has already caught the attention of the US market is Beit HaMishalot, a Channel 1 series about a psychiatrist who makes clients’ wishes come true. Presumably buoyed by its success with In Treatment, HBO is remaking the show as House of Wishes.

Keshet, meanwhile, has secured international interest in Pilpelim Zehubim, a poignant but humorous story about a family that learns to adapt after discovering their five-year-old son is autistic. Critically acclaimed in Israel, the show is now being remade in the UK under the title The A Word. The six-part drama series will air on BBC1 and will be coproduced by Fifty Fathoms Productions, Tiger Aspect Productions and Keshet’s UK arm.

HBO's In Treatment, adapted from Israel's BeTipul
HBO’s In Treatment, adapted from Israel’s BeTipul

Brazil is also riding the Israeli wave. In November 2014, cable channel TNT Brazil announced plans to remake Allenby. Based on a novel by Gadi Taub and originally produced for Channel 10 in 2012, this series is a sex industry crime drama that follows the story of a nightclub on Tel Aviv’s Allenby Street and one of the strippers working there. Explaining why TNT picked up the show, Rogério Gallo, movies and series VP for Turner International Brazil, said: “The similarities between Allenby Street in Israel and Rua Augusta (in Sao Paulo, Brazil) are magnificent; both are a part of each city’s history and the centre of a sizzling nightlife. These are great ingredients for a remarkable television show.”

The Israeli press has also started to get excited by Fauda, a new show from co-creators Avi Issacharoff and Lior Raz that has only recently finished airing. Broadcast by cable platform Yes, Fauda (Arabic for ‘chaos’) is a typically Israeli no-holds-barred series about a group of undercover operatives trying to capture a notorious Hamas terrorist. Commenting on the show, The Times of Israel said: “It’s been just three months since Fauda brought the chaos of the West Bank to Yes viewers, but the show has become so popular that its actors can’t walk down the street without being stopped by fans.”

The series stands out because it makes a genuine effort to be even-handed about the Israel/Palestine conflict, casting Arabic actors and creating storylines that deal with the pain of being on the receiving end of Israel’s military might. With a second series on the way and US interest, the Times of Israel said Fauda “has been lauded for its realism, its extensive use of Arabic and the empathy viewers are forced to have for the Hamas characters.”

We’ll finish this week’s column by crossing the border into Egypt, which, like the rest of the Muslim world, is about to embark on Ramadan (from June 18). For those unfamiliar with Muslim culture, Ramadan is an important holy period that is marked out by fasting during daylight. Ramadan is also important in TV terms, because countries like Egypt spend large sums of money producing TV dramas to entertain people during Ramadan.

Allenby is being remade in Brazil
Allenby is being remade in Brazil

One show that catches the eye this year is Haret al-Yahood (The Jewish Quarter). Set in 1952 to 1956, it tells the story of Ali, an Egyptian army officer, and Laila, a Jewish woman, who fall in love. Their romance is played out against the backdrop of rising Egyptian nationalism and tensions over the creation of Israel.

Speaking to local Egyptian media outlet Al-Masry Al-Youm, series writer Medhat al-Adl, a respected figure within the Egyptian creative community, said he wanted to depict a cosmopolitan Egypt in which all religions and languages coexist. “(The series) talks about how Egypt once coexisted with all religions and embraced people from all over the world because it was a cosmopolitan country. Egypt was great then. The Jews were of Egypt’s fabric. They were Egyptians. They were traders who lived with Muslims and they contributed to the Egyptian economy. The stereotypical portrayal of Jews in Egyptian films is that they are penny-pinchers (but) they were the best merchants of Egypt.”

Here’s hoping that Fauda and Haret al-Yahood both prove successful, because they are an antidote to the kind of extremism and bigotry that characterises 21st century politics and media.

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The UnREAL deal

UnREAL is a hit with the critics but its debut attracted disappointing ratings
Marti Noxon’s UnREAL is a hit with the critics but its debut attracted disappointing ratings

A+E Studios’ reality TV satire UnREAL launched on Lifetime in the US this week, and has attracted positive plaudits from critics. Time Magazine called it “dark, deft and empathetic,” while the Hollywood Reporter said the show “moves along at an engaging, entertaining pace.”

The LA Times, meanwhile, suggested UnREAL might help Lifetime shift perceptions about the kind of shows it airs: “Built on a pair of strong, nuanced, cliché-free performances by Shiri Appleby and Constance Zimmer this is a Lifetime series that transcends the words ‘Lifetime series.’”

Created by Marti Noxon (Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce) and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro – whose short film Sequin Raze inspired the series – UnREAL is about the seedy goings on at a hit dating show that is loosely based on The Bachelorette. It follows a young producer called Rachel (Appleby) who is willing to do anything to please her executive producer boss (Zimmer). Her main job is to manipulate contestants in order to get outrageous footage for the show, which she constantly feels guilty about.

Noxon, the senior partner in the creative team behind UnREAL, is a TV industry veteran who first came to prominence on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for which she wrote or co-wrote 22 episodes. Since then she has written and produced for a number of projects. Looking specifically at writing credits, Noxon has penned episodes of Grey’s Anatomy, Mad Men and Glee, as well as serving as head writer on the first season of Private Practice.

The last couple of years have been particularly fruitful for Noxon. In 2013, it was announced she would write a reboot of Tomb Raider for MGM and GK Films. Then, just ahead of the debut of UnREAL on Lifetime, she launched Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce for cable channel Bravo. Centred on a self-help author whose private life doesn’t measure up to her public persona, the show was the channel’s first foray into original scripted production. Noxon wrote five of the 13 episodes, including the first and last. With a decent ratings performance and positive reviews, Girlfriends’ Guide has been renewed for a second season.

Grace and Frankie, from Marta Kauffman, will return for a second season
Grace and Frankie, from Marta Kauffman, will return for a second season

Noxon’s skill, it seems, is her ability to create storylines based around authentic female characters who attempt to juggle career progression, family, romance and friendship. In particular, she is able to run through the full emotional range, from humour to heartache. Commenting on Noxon’s early episodes of the Bravo show, the Chicago Sun-Times said they reveal a “nuanced, poignant tale, punctuated by some genuinely funny scenes.”

Having said all this, the initial audience figures for episode one of UnREAL were not good, with the show failing to pick up the ratings baton from Devious Maids, which led the programme in on its launch night.

Given the positive reaction from critics, this suggests two possibilities – first that audiences are not comfortable having the fantasy of ‘reality TV’ shattered (like meat-eaters who would rather not visit the abattoir); or, second, that the show is not a good fit for Lifetime (think back to that comment from the LA Times in the opening paragraph).

We’ll need to wait a few more episodes to develop an accurate picture of the show’s performance. But if it carries on in the same way, Lifetime will have to make a decision about whether it cut its losses or if renewing UnREAL will send out a message to audiences about where the channel actually wants to be in terms of brand profile. Internationally, the show might work well for channels that have a tougher, more satirical edge than we associate with Lifetime. Either way, UnREAL is likely to enhance Noxon’s status.

Sticking with talented female writers/producers, Marta Kauffman has been in the news this week. Kauffman will forever be known as the co-creator of Friends, arguably the most successful sitcom ever. But she has been consistently busy since that show ended way back in 2004. Her most recent project is Grace and Frankie, a sitcom for Netflix that was renewed late last month.

A US version of Doc Martin is in the works
Electus and Marta Kauffman are working on a US version of Doc Martin

This week it was announced that Kauffman is teaming up with Ben Silverman’s producer/distributor Electus to make a US version of Doc Martin, a British comedy drama about a successful London surgeon who moves to a sleepy village in Cornwall. Doc Martin is something of a phenomenon, having been remade in territories such as France, Germany and Spain and sold as a completed series worldwide. With Kauffman and Silverman on board, it now stands a real chance of cracking the US too – though the sedate UK version will probably need to be injected with amphetamines to appeal to US cable channels.

Commenting, Silverman said: “Doc Martin has charmed viewers worldwide with its excellent concept and unique style of comedy, and we’re proud to be working with Marta Kauffman. She and her team are brilliant partners.”

In one of this week’s high-profile scripted stories, Showtime’s hit series Homeland has just started production on series five. The new set of 12 episodes will be filmed in and around Berlin – making Homeland “the first American TV series to shoot entirely in Germany,” according to Showtime and Fox21 Television Studios.

Echoing our comments about Mad Men in an earlier Writers Room, it’s fascinating to see just how many people are involved in making big US dramas work. Typically, Homeland is credited to Howard Gordon and Gideon Raff, the US and Israeli executives who successfully transformed Israeli series Prisoners of War into the long-running US show. But if you look at the executive producer line-up for season five, it also includes Alex Gansa, Alexander Cary, Chip Johannessen, Meredith Stiehm, Patrick Harbinson, Lesli Linka Glatter, Avi Nir and Ran Telem.

Gansa, who previously worked on The X-Files and Dawson’s Creek, is actually a co-creator of the show alongside Gordon and Raff, and has handled a number of key episodes throughout its life. Cary, Johannessen and Stiehm have also been writing on the show since the beginning, which presumably gives the production the kind of stable creative spine that ensures longevity.

Meredith Stiehm is part of the big team behind Showtime hit Homeland
Meredith Stiehm is part of the big team behind Showtime hit Homeland

Continuing this week’s bias towards successful female writers, it’s interesting to note how Stiehm has built her career in a broadly similar way to Noxon and Kauffman, mixing writing jobs with series creator/showrunner roles. After breaking into the business on classic series like Northern Exposure and Beverly Hills 90210, she went on to create Cold Case, which ran for seven seasons on CBS. After Cold Case, she came on board Homeland but still found time to adapt Nordic drama The Bridge for FX.

Stiehm was also linked to Cocaine Cowboys, a project originally developed by Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay for HBO. In the endlessly shifting world of US TV, however, that project ended up being piloted for TNT and written by Michelle Ashford, the creator/executive producer of Showtime’s Masters of Sex and a writer on HBO’s 2010 miniseries The Pacific. The latest word on Cocaine Cowboys is that it is undergoing creative surgery.

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Hostage to fortune

Having presided over eight seasons of 24, Howard Gordon moved to Homeland and then Tyrant as war blazed across the Middle East. As the second season of the latter is prepped, Gordon talks to DQ about the pressure of creating ‘real world’ drama.

When Jack Bauer disappeared at the end of 24’s eighth series back in 2010, it was as limp an anti-climax as TV history has delivered. Barely a handful of viewers watched him go, which would have seemed staggering a couple of years before.

After debuting in 2001 as an aesthetically daring, beautifully constructed and genre redefining instant classic, the show gradually shifted from mere TV series to an avatar for an entire political belief system. There are few TV characters as profoundly controversial as Jack Bauer – perhaps Alf Garnet, although Bauer was better dressed… maybe Ali G or Borat… but even these would struggle to have their resurrection greeted with headlines as furious as: “Why We Don’t Need More 24 – The Torture Happy Jack Bauer Should Stay Retired.”

Howard Gordon
Howard Gordon

Howard Gordon – although not the show’s creator – was effectively showrunner for most of Jack’s life. Once the CTU closed down, his colleague Joel Surnow stepped back a little, pushing out The Kennedys and working on the 24 movie. Gordon – not so much. His next project was Homeland, if possible a little more timely, a little more controversial and a little more unsettling than 24. Based on Israeli series Hatufim – by Gideon Raft – the first two series toyed with extreme versions of Stockholm
Syndrome as former US hostage Nicholas Brody – played by Damian Lewis – came home from captivity.

These days, of course, US hostage executions fill primetime news as the forces of the Islamic State sweep back and forth across Iraq and Syria. With an eye that’s becoming literally uncanny, Howard Gordon is there again – his new show Tyrant deals with the death of a middle eastern dictator so closely modeled on Saddam or Assad that his national flag in the pilot looks a lot like the Iraqi flag.

“Well it’s not literally the Iraqi flag, it’s a variation,” Howard explains carefully. “In fact you’ll see between the pilot and the subsequent episodes that we revised the flag, to underscore the difference. People were trying to second guess, is this Syria? Is this Iraq? Setting a show in the real Middle East but in a fictional country is a unique challenge because now, for better or worse, we’re all fairly familiar with the map. So doing that without making it something like Moon over Parador or something limply satirical is difficult. A fictional country is almost by definition a comic creation.”

And Tyrant is definitely not a comedy. The show follows Bassam Al-Fayeed, the youngest son of a brutal dictator. Bassam has been living in the US and working as a doctor for almost 20 years – an echo of colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s son Safi who studied at the LSE in London. Bassam heads home for a family wedding and stumbles into a terrifying political crisis when his father is killed in the middle of an Arab Spring revolution. Bassam is tempted to flee – but fears his brutal and unstable older brother Jamal will unleash a bloody conflict so stays to help soothe him into a peaceful transition of power. Which, needless to say, goes badly.

“It’s really the hubris of American Colonialism,” Gordon explains. “And Barry is the personification of that world. Let’s just say The Godfather is probably the most obvious influence here. Barry stays behind to help his brother run the family business and then comes to realise that his brother’s not capable of doing that. Betraying his brother is the only possible next step, so that becomes the trajectory of the show.”

Homeland
Hit drama Homeland

It’s the second collaboration between Howard and Homeland creator Raff. Gordon was filming the second series of Homeland in Israel when Raff approached him with the idea. “It was intriguing because I’m obviously fascinated by this part of the world,” he explains. “History is being made in the Middle East, and its changing by the day. So it felt like a way to open a door on that side of the world that wasn’t a terrorist based thriller but more of a family saga and a political drama.”

Given that point – that history is being written – it seems surprising so few scriptwriters are following him in to the region. “I guess it’s for the same reason the US government wants so desperately to stay away,” he gives a short laugh. “Ask President Obama right now – it’s a hornets nest. The ground is completely unstable. It is a thicket of competing tribal and religious and cultural rules standing between modernity and antiquity so it’s very challenging narratively to take such a complicated landscape. People certainly wouldn’t put a Muslim in the lead unless they were fighting terrorists.”

There may, of course, be other reasons. During one interview, Damian Lewis recalled how hair raising it could be shooting Homeland on the ground in Palestinian towns. Gordon laughs when that’s mentioned. “Take the challenges of shooting what’s halfway around the world with the time differences, language differences and the cultural differences then add things you can’t prepare for,” he grins. “We were in a Palestinian town called Bartar filming on this very long street that we hadn’t locked down. We thought the shops and street vendors had been paid to make up for whatever lost income the shooting had caused, but apparently they weren’t. So fights broke out in the street and then it swelled and turned toward the crew and we did a quick retreat, with Clare Danes jumping into a van as we left. I think somebody may have started the rumour that we were with the CIA…”

And yet he’s back – shooting Tyrant initially in Israel before the current conflict forced them over to Istanbul. “It’s hard to get the colours and the architecture and the faces anywhere else, and that’s what makes it feel real,” he explains. “We don’t want to make it feel like a back lot. But yes just when you think it couldn’t get any more difficult it finds a way to get more difficult.”

This interest in current affairs linked drama hasn’t always defined him. His CV shows a career swerve so sharp there are practically tyre marks on the paper – born in Queens, New York, he moved to LA to write for television and cut his teeth on private eye drama Spenser: For Hire.

From there, he focused on fantasy – Beauty and the Beast, The X Files and the Buffy spin-off Angel. So why did he switch from the surreal to the very real? “Sometimes the turns aren’t necessarily by design, but by circumstance,” he says wryly. “I had written a pilot for Fox called Ball and Chain, a husband-and-wife superhero show based on a comic book. Joel Surnow and Robert Cochran created 24 and that wound up getting on the air instead of my comic book. I was asked to go on the show with Joe and Bob… and this was all before 9/11 so we were shooting a show which, I suspect, would have been a good show but which suddenly became so culturally resonant because of 9/11. Certainly 9/11 influenced what we did creatively with the show from that moment.”

24
Kiefer Sutherland as Jack Bauer in 24

For the next decade, effectively, he channelled the evolving story of US involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan into touchstones for the series – and they also became the lens through which the series was viewed. Gordon is more or less a liberal and his co-writer Joel Surnow is a noted Republican. As 24 became a cultural totem it was fought over as fiercely as the notion of what America should be. Storylines that seemed to condone torture came in for heavy criticism and Gordon’s liberal shoulders had to carry much of that weight.

“People presumed things that weren’t necessarily true,” he insists. “Joel’s politics and my politics really seldom became narrative markers. There might be a scene or two Joel wrote where someone from the American Civil Liberators Union might have felt they were treated unkindly. Yes, we’d argue behind the scenes. On the writing staff there were people to the right of Joel and people to the left of me and we’d spend hours arguing politics but I can’t say the show ever descended to some kind of propaganda.”

All the same, the accusations almost sent him packing. Jack Bauer came to represent something unsavoury and he found it exhausting to keep pouring creative love into the show. After Homeland he thought he was at the end of his rope on that sort of material and briefly returned to fantasy with Awake, a brutally short-lived, high-concept cop show for NBC about an LAPD officer existing in two parallel realities after a car crash. In one, his wife survives; in the other, his son lives, and he uses details from each to solve crimes in both. The show was cancelled in May 2012 after 11 episodes.

“Awake was my own personal hubris,” he admits. “I knew that it was a very challenging concept. In hindsight it may have been better served as a cable show. I think it was a gimmick that rendered both worlds inert rather than made both worlds feel more engaged.”

You also get the sense that he’s passed through the looking glass and would struggle to immerse himself as thoroughly in an entirely unreal fictional world. Right now he’s considering season two of Tyrant – which hasn’t been picked up yet, after a mixed reception in the US over the summer – but he’s doodling some ideas and how can he not look at ISIS?

“It’s an incredible sequence of events and if we do go back we can’t ignore them,” he explains. “The trick is of course to find a way to take these real world events and weave them into your story and in a way it’s not reckless I would say. That’s the challenge.”

That it’s tricky doesn’t need underlining. At the height of 24’s popularity, Joel Surnow tried to capitalise on his reputation for current events TV by launching a right-wing version of the Daily Show, the ½ Hour News Hour, for Fox News. When it failed – and failed quickly – there was talk of Hollywood’s liberal bias.

“I think Hollywood is a more liberally inclined culture,” Gordon says carefully. “Which isn’t hard when you look at where people come from. But I think artists everywhere – in all countries – tend to be liberal. They’re the ones who question authority, are probably temperamentally slightly outcast themselves and attach themselves to the underdogs and the underclass. You could say the same thing about people on Wall Street being conservative and wanting to conserve all the money that they’ve made.”

All the same, he’s still friends with Joel. He executive produced Jack Bauer’s recent resurrection in 24: Live Another Day although he wasn’t in the writers room. “Now that the dust has settled on 24 both of us recognise how much we learned from each other. It’s the most fun I’ve had in my career,” he gives a quiet smile. Which begs the question – if liberals and republicans can work together in the steam cooker of serial TV drama is there anything we can learn that would help the embattled US Congress collaborate somehow?

He pauses, thoughtfully. “Well, I don’t know about that,” he says in the end. “Things are getting so nasty in Washington. But I guess the stakes are real. At the end of the day we’re still just running a television show…”

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