Set in 18th century Georgian London, Harlots is described as a powerful family drama offering a new take on the city’s most valuable commercial activity – sex.
The series follows Margaret Wells (Samantha Morton) and her daughters as she struggles to reconcile her roles as mother and brothel owner in the face of an attack from Lydia Quigley (Lesley Manville), a rival madam with a ruthless streak.
Season two, set to air this year, sees Liv Tyler join the cast as Lady Fitz while Margaret’s daughter, Charlotte (Jessica Brown Findlay), places herself in Quigley’s home and their toxic and deep-set rivalry is taken to a dangerous new level.
In this DQTV interview, Brown Findlay and executive producer Alison Carpenter recall the making of season one and preview the twists and turns that await viewers in season two of the series, which is entirely written, produced and directed by women.
They also discuss how authenticity was placed at the heart of the production, and give their views on the sexual harassment scandal currently sweeping through the film and television business.
Harlots is produced by Monumental Television for Hulu and distributed by ITV Studios Global Entertainment.
Television held its own at one of the most prestigious film festivals in the world as an array of talent and some stunning new shows landed in Germany for Berlinale’s fourth annual Drama Series Days. DQ was in town to find out more.
For those in the television industry, the chance to rub shoulders with A-list movie stars might once have seemed a pipe dream. But for anyone who attended the Berlin International Film Festival this week, that dream was very much a reality.
Now in its fourth year, Berlinale’s Drama Series Days has established itself as one of the premier television events around the world as the German capital rolls out the red carpet for stars of the big screen – and small.
To find yourself caught up in a maelstrom of photographers’ flash bulbs and screaming and cheering fans might not be an unusual event at a film festival. But to then peer over the barriers and find the stars of Australian drama Picnic at Hanging Rock posing for the cameras is proof that television is now assured of the same reverence as cinema. And for good reason. The talent the industry is able to attract is of a level never seen before in terms of movie stars signing up for longer-form storytelling. The productions themselves are also worthy of acclaim, with the word ‘cinematic’ a staple adjective regularly dished out to describe the scale of dramas now on screen.
Picnic at Hanging Rock, which will air on Foxtel in Australia later this year and is distributed by FremantleMedia, is a case in point. Game of Thrones alum Natalie Dormer turns in a standout performance as Hester Appleyard, the headmistress of a girls’ boarding school that faces tragedy when three pupils disappear during a picnic at the titular rock. The series also pops with colour and visual flair thanks to director Larysa Kondracki, making it stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Peter Weir’s celebrated 1975 film adaptation of Joan Lindsay’s novel, which also serves as the source of the television reimagining.
The six-part miniseries – there will be no sequel that goes beyond the book, delegates in Berlin were told – was one of seven screenings that took place as part of the Berlinale Series programme, highlighting some of the biggest new dramas from around the world.
Others included Israeli psychological thriller Sleeping Bears, written and directed by Keren Magalit (Yellow Peppers, The A Word), and Bad Banks. The latter is described as a six-part Machiavellian thriller set in the ruthless world of international finance and the stock market. Produced by Letterbox Filmproduktion and Iris Production for ZDF (Germany) and Arte (France), it has already been picked up by HBO Europe, Walter Presents UK, RTÉ in Ireland, Sundance TV Iberia and RTP in Portugal ahead of its debut next month.
Two new Scandinavian dramas were also selected. Heimebane (Home Ground) tackles gender issues as a female football coach becomes the first woman to take charge of a men’s team in the Norwegian premier league. Already commissioned for a second season by NRK, it stars Ane Dahl Torp and former footballer John Carew, well known to fans in Europe after playing for sides including Valencia and Aston Villa, as well as the Norway national team.
Meanwhile, amid talk of Scandi broadcasters losing interest in what the rest of the world calls Nordic noir, one show is set to push new boundaries at Danish net DR. Known for its original series including Forbrydelsen (The Killing), Borgen and Broen (The Bridge), DR’s forthcoming drama Liberty stands out as something totally different for the channel. It also marks a rare book adaptation to land on the network.
Based on Jakob Ejersbo’s novel, it follows a group of Scandinavian expats living and working in Tanzania, and explores themes of corruption, identity, morals and friendship. Hollywood actor Connie Nielsen joined fellow cast members including Carsten Bjørnlund plus creator Asger Leth and director Mikael Marcimain on the red carpet in Berlin.
The Berlinale official selection was completed by two new US series, showcasing the vast range of storytelling television now affords. The Looming Tower, debuting next month on US streamer Hulu and showcased in Berlin by European partner Amazon, is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Lawrence Wright. The story traces the rising threat of Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda in the late 1990s and how the rivalry between the FBI and CIA at that time may have set the path for tragedy on 9/11.
Stars Jeff Daniels, Ali Soufan, Peter Sarsgaard and showrunner Dan Futterman (pictured top) were in Germany to promote the show, which injects reality into a Homeland-style political thriller.
At the other end of the spectrum, meanwhile, is The Terror, AMC’s take on the true story of the crews of two British Royal Navy ships that attempt to discover the Northwest Passage in the mid-1800s. This isn’t just another historical drama, however. Faced with treacherous conditions, limited resources and a fear of the unknown, the crew members are pushed to the brink of extinction as they face all kinds of dangers, from both human and otherworldly sources.
The mix of horror and the supernatural, coupled with the eerie Arctic landscapes, certainly makes this show one to watch, with co-showrunners David Kajganich and Soo Hugh promising to reward viewers through the 10-part series, which features Jared Harris (Mad Men) and Tobias Menzies (Outlander) among the ensemble cast.
The strength of the drama on show this week in Berlin and the number of small-screen stars descending upon the city were proof of television’s strength at an event usually revered as one of the most prestigious film festivals on the international circuit. With more film talent on both sides of the camera now championing the opportunities offered by longform storytelling, and the chance to develop characters across more than a two-hour period, coupled with television’s new openness to genre and plot, expect to see television play an even greater role in at Berlinale in 2019.
Six-part drama Hard Sun is described as a pre-apocalyptic crime drama set in contemporary London.
While investigating the death of a computer hacker, partners and enemies Charlie Hicks and Elaine Renko inadvertently stumble upon proof that the world is facing certain destruction in five years.
Pursued by ruthless security service operatives, who are willing to kill them in order to keep them silent, they must protect themselves and those they love while ensuring a new breed of murderers, abusers, serial killers and cult leaders face justice.
In this DQTV video, writer/creator Neil Cross (Luther) and executive producer Kate Harwood discuss making the series, which centres on the relationship between two detectives who stand morally and ethically opposed to each other.
Stars Agyness Deyn (Renko), Jim Sturgess (Hicks) and Nikki Amuka-Bird (Grace) also reveal more about the conflicted and complex relationships between their characters and the appeal of starring in a show written by Cross, who also talks about his writing process.
Hard Sun is produced by Euston Films for BBC1 and Hulu and distributed by FremantleMedia International.
From Hulu’s The Path and the most recent season of FX’s American Horror Story to upcoming series Waco and Raven, TV dramas about cults have caught the zeitgeist. DQ takes a closer look at this trend.
Television dramas about cults have always been good business in the US, a country with a seemingly unique affinity for fringe religious groups – part of the reason for the colonisation of the Americas, from the Puritans at the very beginning to the Mormons and, later, Scientology.
Recent years have seen the trend increase, with more dramas and comedies using cults as a theme. Sociologists have conjectured that the uncertainties in the US over the past few years regarding security, race, the economy and the growth of secularism have all contributed to an interest in cults, which can provide the easily influenced with a sense of belonging and belief in a higher power.
Recently, the truly unhinged American Horror Story: Cult, which debuted on FX in July, even used the election of Donald J Trump as president for a backdrop to the world of cults.
Star Evan Peters (X-Men: Days of Future Past, X-Men: Apocalypse) plays the deranged, would-be galactic overlord Kai Anderson in the show, additionally essaying a quartet of notorious cult leaders, namely Jim Jones (Jonestown), Marshall Applewhite (Heaven’s Gate), Charles Manson (The Manson Family) and David Koresh (Waco).
Peters also portrays Andy Warhol and a particularly low-rent ‘version’ of Jesus Christ in the show.
Back in season one of American Horror Story (2011), episode two (Home Invasion) dealt with a Manson Family-style killing re-enacted in the present day.
In the world of SVoD, two shows use cults as themes: Hulu’s The Path (started 2016) and Netflix comedy Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (2015).
Now heading to its third season, Jessica Goldberg’s The Path revolves around the fictional cult of Meyerism, which, to some commentators, bears a resemblance to Scientology (denied by Goldberg) in its hierarchy and antipathy to apostates and non-believers, who are called Ignorant Systemites (IS) in the show.
A slow burn, The Path has a solid cast, including Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad), Hugh Dancy (Hannibal) and Michelle Monaghan (True Detective, Patriot’s Day). Season three drops in the US on January 7.
On a lighter note, Tina Fey and Robert Carlock’s Kimmy Schmidt deals with the titular character’s life in New York City after 15 years imprisonment in an Indiana bunker by cultist Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne, played by Jon Hamm (Mad Men, Baby Driver).
Played to critical acclaim by Ellie Kemper (The Office, Bridesmaids), the effervescent Schmidt’s efforts to build a new life in the big city has proved a hit with viewers and reviewers alike, with season four ordered for 2018.
As Spike TV rebrands as Paramount TV next year, January 24 will see the launch of their flagship drama Waco.
The star-laden miniseries recounts the true story of the infamous 1993 ATF/FBI siege of the Branch Davidian religious sect led by David Koresh, which resulted in 82 deaths after a 51-day siege ended with a deadly shoot-out and fire.
Taylor Kitsch (Friday Night Lights, True Detective) plays Koresh, with Melissa Benoist (Supergirl) as his wife Rachel, Michael Shannon (Broadwalk Empire, Midnight Special) as FBI Negotiator Gary Noesner, Andrea Riseborough (The Death of Stalin, National Treasure) as Judy Scheider-Koresh (apparently a ‘chattel-wife’ of Koresh) and John Leguizamo (Bloodline, John Wick I & II) as Robert Rodriquez, an FBI agent who infiltrated Koresh’s compound and warned against the raid.
Looking ahead, the 2018/19 television season will see the launch of Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan’s HBO limited series Raven, based on Tim Reiterman’s definitive 1982 book about the 1978 Jonestown mass suicide in Guyana, when charismatic cult leader Jim Jones arranged the murder of visiting investigative journalists and a US congressman, then proceeded to kill himself and more than 900 followers (including 276 children) with cyanide-laced Kool Aid.
This led to the phrase ‘Drinking the Kool Aid’ being used for people or groups who succumb to peer pressure and follow a doomed idea.
There is no word on casting yet, but Gilligan has an extensive repertory company of talented actors who he can no doubt call on for the show.
Jonestown has been the subject of numerous documentaries and some dramas (Jonestown, 2013 and Jonestown: Paradise Lost in 2007), most notably the 1980 CBS miniseries The Guyana Tragedy, when the late Powers Boothe provided an Emmy-winning performance as Jones, which will be a tough act to follow.
Such was the notoriety of the Jonestown Massacre that the events have been immortalised in song by popular groups, including rockers Manowar (Guyana – Cult of the Damned, 1999), new-wave combo The Vapors (Jimmy Jones, 1981) and probably, most surprisingly, smooth pop/soul merchants Hot Chocolate (Mindless Boogie, 1979).
On the flipside, Charles Manson claimed inspiration for his followers’ 1969 killing spree from the Beatles’ White Album, particularly the songs Piggies, Helter Skelter and Blackbird.
Recent years have also seen other series that have used cults or religious sects as subject matter, including NBC’s short-lived David Duchovny (The X-Files/Californication) series Aquarius (2015/16), in which he played FBI investigator Sam Hodiak in pursuit of Gethin Anthony (Game of Thrones)’s Charles Manson.
Serving multiple life sentences for murder, Manson died on November 19 this year.
Also worthy of mention is Kevin Williamson (Vampire Diaries, Dawson’s Creek)’s The Following (Fox, 2013-15, pictured top), with Kevin Bacon (I Love Dick, Black Mass) as a former FBI agent pitted against James Purefoy (Rome, Hap & Leonard) as his serial killer cult-leading adversary.
Incidentally, post-Weinstein scandal, Quentin Tarantino has now sold his Manson Family script to Sony for a possible 2019 cinema release.
HBO’s Big Love (2006-11) concerned itself with a polygamous family belonging to an extreme Mormon sect in Utah, with a cast including the late Bill Paxton (Training Day, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) as the husband of four wives and the recently deceased Harry Dean Stanton (Twin Peaks, The Avengers) as a self-proclaimed prophet and cult leader.
And then, of course, there’s the evil Tuttle Cult in the classic first season of True Detective.
We’ve seen cults make appearances in CSI (the Heaven’s Gate suicides forming the basis for the episode Shooting Stars in 2005) and Mad Men (Roger Sterling’s daughter Margaret joining a cult/commune in the final season).
In the UK, cults and extreme religious sects are less openly in evidence. With the exception of this year’s ISIS miniseries The State (Peter Kosminsky – Wolf Hall), you have to go all the way back to the 90s for dramas specifically about the subject.
In 1993, Jonathan Pryce (Taboo, Game of Thrones) starred as the real-life apocalyptic 19th century prophet John Wroe in four-parter Mr Wroe’s Virgins (BBC2), an early directing gig for Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire).
Two years later, BBC2 aired Signs & Wonders, a four-part drama where Jodhi May (Genius, Last of the Mohicans) is ensnared by a religious cult, prompting her mother, played by Prunella Scales (Fawlty Towers), to hire de-programmer James Earl Jones (Stars Wars) to rescue her. A strong cast was rounded out by David Warner (Ripper Street, Wallander) and Donald Pleasance (Halloween, The Great Escape).
Returning to the present day, with Waco, The Path, Kimmy Schmidt and Raven further down the road, viewers won’t be short of cult TV to watch in 2018.
Luther creator Neil Cross begins the countdown to the end of the world in Hard Sun, starring Jim Sturgess and Agyness Deyn. DQ joins the cast and crew on set to find two detectives fighting crime as society threatens to descend into chaos.
Pushing through the market square, so many mothers sighing // News had just come over, we had five years left to cry in // News guy wept and told us, earth was really dying // Cried so much his face was wet, then I knew he was not lying.
The unrivalled legacy of the late David Bowie reaches far and wide, with musicians, filmmakers and fashion designers alike finding inspiration in his flamboyant use of make-up and costumes and his groundbreaking musical flair.
In television, Bowie’s music has been used as title tracks for Life on Mars, Ashes to Ashes and The Last Panthers, and is said to have inspired Fox network drama Lucifer. Now, his song Five Years – the opening track on his seminal 1972 album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars – serves as the loose inspiration behind the new series from Luther creator Neil Cross.
Described as a pre-apocalyptic crime drama set in contemporary London, Hard Sun follows detectives Robert Hicks and Elaine Renko as they discover the end of the world is nigh. With five years until annihilation, they face the prospect of maintaining justice as Armageddon looms. But how do you leave your family behind each morning and put your life at risk? And what criminal would fear a prison sentence in a world on the brink of extinction?
It’s a suitably sunny day when DQ joins the cast and crew on set during filming of scenes for the climactic sixth and final episode. The vast number of buildings and grounds that make up a former HSBC training site, located on the outskirts of north-west London, have provided many of the interior and exterior locations for the series.
A stairway and some double doors inside one building lead to the set of the police station. Here, a dimly lit observation room is filled with CCTV monitors while a central room is full of desks, with one wall covered with photographs of victims, crime scenes and evidence. The walls are painted metallic grey throughout as flashing lights from a bank of computer servers break the darkness.
It’s inside interrogation room FR7 that DQ meets executive producer Kate Harwood, MD of producer Euston Films. The sterile room contains a single steel desk with a recorder on the table. There are grey tile walls and a green lino floor, with CCTV cameras in every corner. Light shines through barred windows.
Hard Sun represents the first commission for Euston Films since Harwood rebooted the FremantleMedia label in 2014. The former head of drama for the BBC’s in-house production unit, she was at the channel when Cross first introduced tough-talking detective John Luther, brought to formidable life by Idris Elba.
BBC1 commissioned Hard Sun on the strength of one episode, so after getting the commission, Cross spent the next 18 months writing scripts. Brian Kirk (Game of Thrones, Penny Dreadful) joined as lead director, with Eve Stewart (The King’s Speech) as production designer and “rising star” Nick Rowlands (Ripper Street) as second-block director.
“It’s a crime show with a science-fiction premise,” Harwood says. “It’s as procedural as you can be when the cops are carrying around the secret that the world is going to end. So it’s part cop show, part sci-fi, part conspiracy thriller. But we’ve called it a pre-apocalyptic crime show set in contemporary London.”
Amid a lot of interest in the US, streaming service Hulu quickly boarded the series, while distributor FremantleMedia International beefed up its budget. Tax breaks have also been used to maximise the show’s finances.
On screen, Jim Sturgess and model-turned-actor Agyness Deyn (in her first TV role) play Hicks and Renko respectively, distrustful partners who seek to enforce the law and protect their families as destruction edges ever closer. Nicki Amuka-Bird plays an MI5 government official, a mysterious character who is part of the establishment and trying to suppress the information.
“Neil always says Hicks is the sun and Renko is the moon,” Harwood explains. “There’s a polarity about them. They circle each other. Sometimes they’re partners, sometimes they’re opposites. It’s a distrustful, must-trust relationship. That tension between them is absolutely essential. Hicks is explosive and external and bright and Renko is more watchful, more secretive, more held back and it’s a lovely duality between them. Agyness has never done TV. She seemed really excited by the material as soon as we met her. She’s like a duck to water and she’s so hard-working, focused and punctilious.”
Back on set and with the cameras rolling, Sturgess and Deyn find themselves in the lobby of a grand house, the air thick with smoke as an elaborate chandelier hangs above. One side room appears to be a surgery, with a lobotomy chair in the middle. Other rooms appear to be bedrooms, with TVs screening static fuzz in the gloom.
As Renko and Hicks, they enter the room from a dark corridor, torches raised to find a lady in a medical gown. Slowly, others emerge from the darkness to surround them in what promises to be an extremely creepy climax to the sixth episode.
“It starts off as a procedural show with Hicks and Renko investigating a particular crime – a man who’s apparently fallen off a balcony and is found dead in a tree,” explains producer Hugh Warren, who also reveals the Bowie link to the series. “But what unravels is that his stolen flash drive contains this Hard Sun dossier that, internationally, is being suppressed by government forces because they’ve learnt that an extinction-level event is coming. So by the end [of episode one], Hicks and Renko know there’s five years left for the planet and that’s the new world they’re in.”
Filming locations took in areas of London including Shepherd’s Bush, Shoreditch and Oxford Circus. Naturally, the logistics and cost of moving the production around the city caused headaches for Warren and his team. The scripts also called for numerous night shoots, which became increasingly difficult as the production, which began shooting at the end of January, entered spring and early summer.
“It’s also very action-heavy for British television so there are a lot of stunts, a lot of complicated stuff to shoot. The normal amount you would expect to shoot on an average day for a TV drama, we can’t achieve,” he admits. “We’re shooting for many more days per hour than you would expect. That’s a real challenge in terms of time because we’ve only got the actors for a finite period.”
But what will fans of Luther, which is returning to the BBC for a fifth season, make of Cross’s latest series? “I think it will surprise people,” says Warren, adding that celebrity cosmologist Brian Cox has been on hand to help the creator root his end of-the-world theory in fact.
“What it has in common with Luther is the darkness – there are some very dark stories in there but also real humanity. We’re telling a huge cosmic story about the end of the planet but what’s interesting is it comes down to really common human experiences. They’re very everyday stories set against this massive global catastrophe.”
Too good to turn down
Having only just appeared in a BBC drama – Stephen Poliakoff’s Close to the Enemy – Jim Sturgess wasn’t planning on signing up for another one. Instead, he was pondering a break from acting to focus on his music career. So it’s testament to Neil Cross’s script that the actor immediately signed up to play detective Robert Hicks in Hard Sun.
“I was almost cursing Neil for writing something so good,” Sturgess reveals, adding that he was attracted by the combination of “messed up, flawed characters” and the overall concept for the series.
“What’s great about this, and why I’m really excited about it, is it’s a pre-apocalyptic story that doesn’t need to rush,” he says, citing movies such as Armageddon that cram an extinction-level event into 120 minutes. “I hadn’t seen this before, where something’s looming but you can really spend time looking at what that’s going to do to individuals and society as a whole. TV works for a project like this because you can really take your time with it.”
Cross travelled from his New Zealand home for rehearsals alongside Sturgess, co-star Agyness Deyn and lead director Brian Kirk. It was there that the two leads cemented their partnership, both on and off screen.
“Our relationship on screen is incredibly intricate and at times complicated and strategic,” Sturgess says. “Off-screen It’s great to have a partner in crime on set who you really trust, has a very similar work ethic and cares about it as much as I do. She brings everything she has to it and we get on really well. We’re both pretty chilled out.”
Sturgess, whose film credits include 21 and Cloud Atlas, last year starred as a chef in AMC’s 2016 series Feed the Beast, an adaptation of Danish drama Bankerot. He’s also played criminals, drug addicts and a stoner musician, but has never played a detective before – “and I’ve never really wanted to,” he admits, “until I read this particular detective.”
“He’s not squeaky clean at all,” Sturgess adds. “He’s not James Bond. He makes some very tricky decisions that have a difficult impact on his life later on. But he considers himself to be a good family man, and that becomes an important part of the story because it’s his family he’s trying to save.”
Former NBC Entertainment president Warren Littlefield discusses the success of The Handmaid’s Tale and the lessons he learnt making the leap from broadcaster to producer.
With Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale (above) scoring 13 Primetime Emmy nominations and FX’s Fargo earning six, Warren Littlefield has a hand in two of the biggest shows on TV right now.
But it is with the The Handmaid’s Tale, a gritty adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s landmark 1985 novel, that the former NBC Entertainment president – who serves as an executive producer on both aforementioned series – has found a cultural phenomenon.
The 10-part drama, which airs on Hulu in the US, Channel 4 in the UK and Bravo in Canada, has found a dark mirror in current affairs. Across the US, protesters have taken to wearing red robes and white bonnets – the attire of the titular handmaids in Attwood’s dystopia – to raise awareness of hot-button political issues such as Planned Parenthood and abortion rights.
The show has a “grotesque timeliness” in the age of Trump, according to The New Yorker, and as the series finale wrapped in the UK at the end of July, “No television event has hit such a nerve,” proclaimed The Guardian.
The maelstrom of contemporary resonance is not lost on Littlefield. “Margaret’s work has been relevant since the time she published it and any time within the last 32 years would have been a perfectly good time to adapt her book,” he tells DQ. “We felt that relevancy rising, and then we were in the middle of production – deep in the middle of shooting the series – when Trump won the election. And that became a new level of ‘we better not fuck this up.’
“When the development process was going on, we were in a Barack Obama world, but clearly there was a sense that Brexit was a loud, loud alarm that went off,” he adds. “You could see it and you could feel it, throughout the globe, that rise of the right and the alt-right. We were a country that was becoming more and more divided.”
Though Hulu renewed the show for a second season in May, The Handmaid’s Tale began its journey to the small screen with MGM and exec producer Ilene Chaiken originally developing it for Showtime. When the US cablenet passed on the project, streaming service Hulu saw a chance and moved in.
“Hulu said, ‘We really like the idea of doing this as a series; our choice would be to start with another writer.’ Ilene had gone off and done Empire [on Fox] and they said, ‘Let’s do two scripts and begin again,’” Littlefield explains.
“That was acceptable to MGM, so Hulu and MGM interviewed a lot of writers. Ultimately, [showrunner] Bruce Miller came in and said, ‘OK, I know I’m not a woman, and if I were you I would hire a woman to develop this property. But, since I’m here in the room and you’ve granted me this meeting, this is my take on how I would do it.’ And they said, ‘Wow, he gets it.’”
WME, which represents both Littlefield and The Handmaid’s Tale star Elisabeth Moss, approached the exec to see if he was interested in coming aboard. At the time, Littlefield was exec producing FX’s anthology crime dramedy Fargo, which had just won him a Primetime Emmy.
“I read it and said, ‘This is incredible material,’” Littlefield recalls. “I was ramping up to do Fargo [season] three, so on a practical level this made no sense, but I just said to Lizzie [Moss], ‘I don’t know about you, but I can’t walk away from this opportunity.’”
While showrunner Miller was acute enough to realise that a show centred on female repression would take flack for not being helmed by a woman, he and Littlefield preempted some criticism by filling the crew with female talent, including most prominently in the writing and directing departments.
Of the hires, the biggest bet the team took was in hiring acclaimed cinematographer Reed Morano to direct the show’s first three episodes.
“She had very little directing experience,” Littlefield recalls. “She didn’t have an Oscar, she had never done a pilot. She was an award-winning DP, but had almost no experience as a director, and yet we felt that she was the right person, that she understood what to do with this material.
“If I were at a traditional network, a) they wouldn’t have done the show, but b) they never would have signed off on Reed Morano. And we hired her for the first hour and then I said, ‘I’m looking at the schedule, and I think she’s going to do all three. That’s what I want to do.’”
In many ways, making a dystopian SVoD drama is a step far removed from the 24-episode realm of broadcast sitcoms where Littlefield cut his teeth.
As a protégé of the late Brandon Tartikoff, he climbed the ranks, serving as senior and then exec VP at NBC Entertainment, before rising to the role of president – a post he held from 1993 to 1998. During that time, he oversaw a primetime line-up that included Friends, Seinfeld, Will & Grace, ER, Cheers and Frasier.
Nevertheless, he says lessons learned from his broadcast days are still applicable today.
“There was a philosophy that the late and wonderful [former NBC chairman and CEO] Grant Tinker helped instil in us, when we were young programmers and broadcasters, and that is: respect the audience,” Littlefield says. “We tried to aim high in my NBC years, and audiences rewarded us for that.
“That was a great lesson to learn as you’re growing up in the broadcast business. The world has changed, however. We’re in this age of peak TV – I think of it as platinum TV – where audiences reward you for outstanding work. The difference now is the quality; as much as I’m proud of what we put on the air when I was at the network, the level of quality that goes on the screen now is unlike anything that’s ever been done before.
“It doesn’t matter if an actor or director has an Oscar, they want to go where the most complex narratives, and the most complex, sophisticated characters can be found,” he adds. “And, for the most part, that’s television.”
Hulu original series The Handmaid’s Tale brings Margaret Atwood’s eponymous 1985 novel to the small screen – and it could be the most timely and relevant drama of 2017.
When the inauguration of Donald Trump as US president prompted thousands of people across the US – and the world – to join women’s marches in January this year, it was notable that many were reminded of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale.
Signs reading “Make Margaret Atwood fiction again,” “The Handmaid’s Tale is not an instruction manual” and “No to the Republic of Gilead” all relayed fears that the rise of the political right in Washington could see America become a totalitarian state comparable to that imagined in Atwood’s 1985 novel – which also shot back up the bestseller lists.
The story is set in Gilead, formerly part of the US but now a republic ruled by religious fundamentalists who treat women as property of the state, against a backdrop of environmental disasters and plunging birthrates. The few remaining fertile women are designated as handmaids to the ruling class and forced into a life of sexual servitude in an attempt to boost the falling population.
Offred, the titular handmaid, must navigate between Commanders, their wives, domestic Marthas and her fellow handmaids, where anyone could be a spy for Gilead, and all with one goal – to survive and find the daughter who was taken from her.
Timely as it might seem now, US SVoD platform Hulu announced the 10-part adaptation of Atwood’s book nine months ago, with the series due to debut on April 26. Mad Men star Elisabeth Moss plays Offred, alongside Joseph Fiennes (the Commander), Yvonne Strahovski (Serena Joy), Alexis Bledel (Ofglen), Samira Wiley (Moira), Max Minghella (Nick) and OT Fagbenle (Luke).
Atwood is a consulting producer on the series, which is exec produced by showrunner Bruce Miller alongside Daniel Wilson, Fran Sears and Warren Littlefield. MGM Television produces and distributes.
Miller was writing the pilot script at the time of the US primaries in 2016 and immediately recognised how relevant the story was more than 30 years after it was published. “I don’t think people are worried that America is going to turn into Gilead,” he says of the protest signs. “Really it ties into the fact people feel like their government is beyond their control and the things that are happening are getting scary and there’s nothing they can do about it.
“People aren’t really attaching themselves to Gilead, they’re attaching themselves to the rebellious spirit under very difficult circumstances. There’s fear attached to it but strangely there’s a lot of optimism and inspiration.”
Miller became a fan of Atwood’s novel during his time at college and says the text inspired him to become a writer. He followed the movement of a potential TV adaptation for several years, to the point where he says Ilene Chaiken was writing a series for US premium cable network Showtime. But when Showtime passed and Hulu picked up the baton, Miller stepped in as showrunner while Chaiken focused on her Fox series Empire.
The pitfalls for any writer adapting a “sacred text” such as this may have been off-putting, but Miller’s own love for the story meant he was ideally placed to lead its transition to TV.
“People have paragraphs from this book tattooed on their body!” he says. “This is something people treasure quite a bit, so you have to be mindful of that – but you can’t be a slave to it. Luckily I was one of those people who thought it was a sacred text and I’m thrilled it came out as I had hoped, only better, which is kind of the dream.”
Atwood proved to be a key resource for Miller to lean on, particularly when it came to addressing changes he believed needed to be made for the screen. He says the biggest change was to give Gilead a more diverse population than that in the book, in which the state is strictly a “white world” where people of African-American origin are sent to reservations and Jews are deported to Israel.
“I struggled with that on a few levels,” Miller admits. “That doesn’t look like our world today and I was worried about that. And, honestly, what’s the difference between making a TV show about racists and a racist TV show? I couldn’t get my mind around that.
“We had a long discussion and my thinking was that in Gilead, fertility trumps everything. So whatever level of racism they had would have been subverted for the ultimate goal of having children. That’s why in the first episode, you see handmaids are all different shapes, sizes and colours.”
Another major change was reducing the ages of the Commander and his wife, Serena Joy – the couple who welcome Offred into their home as a handmaid. In the novel they are much older than Offred, but Miller was keen to make them younger to create a new relationship between the female characters. “The dynamic between Serena Joy and Offred is so central that I wanted to make them more direct competitors. What happens to Serena Joy’s identity when this person is in her house and sleeping with her husband? It was a difficult but mindful decision and was made to make sure I had an ongoing, interesting dynamic moving forward.”
In keeping with the novel, The Handmaid’s Tale jumps across multiple timelines, from the present day to Offred’s time at the Red Centre – a handmaid training camp run by ‘Aunts’ – and to a time pre-Gilead, when Offred (then known by her real name, June) is living with her husband Luke and their young daughter.
But the biggest challenge Miller faced during filming in Toronto was maintaining an attention to detail that would shame most period dramas. “I’m very detail-oriented and I don’t want anything to bug me while I’m watching because it knocks me out of the world. But this show was a whole other level of attention to detail,” he says. “If you see a Mercedes car, are we saying Gilead has trade relations with Germany? So what does Germany think about that? Or are we a pariah nation?
“All of a sudden, just by showing someone polishing a car, you’re opening up a political, global trade discussion about human rights. So you really have to pay attention to that on a comical scale.”
Miller also praises lead director Reed Morano, who was behind the camera for the first three episodes, as an “extraordinary talent” who worked tirelessly in pre-production to iron out exactly how she wanted to bring Gilead to life.
Morano was also a fan of the novel – “I’ve always been fascinated by stories of alternate realities, it just creeps me out a lot,” she admits – and won over Hulu and MGM with her sheer passion for the source material. “I read the pilot very early on and, although it has two storytelling devices that are typically red flags to me in flashbacks and voiceover, it’s a testament to Bruce’s writing, to Margaret Atwood and Ilene Chaiken that not only was I not deterred by it, I was inspired by the challenge of subverting expectations with devices that have been used so many times before.”
Stylistically, Morano used a combination of classic camera techniques to capture Gilead, mixing a symmetrical, composed design with a romantic, impressionistic look. She also opted for handheld coverage for Offred and Ofglen to give viewers a more intimate relationship with the handmaids.
Her episodes are also full of directorial flourishes, from overhead shots to slow-motion sequences and even the soundtrack, which uses songs such as Simple Minds’ Don’t You Forget About Me and Blondie’s Heart of Glass to maximum effect.
For the flashbacks, Morano was keen to create a contrast between Gilead and pre-Gilead. “I often wanted the flashbacks to be jarring, almost offensive,” she says. “Gilead is so sanitised, reserved and controlled. Then you get thrust into a messy, impressionistic flashback where Moira and June are listening to a loud, graphic song and smoking a joint at a party. If they only saw life in Gilead, it might be easier for the audience to separate themselves from it. But because we’re constantly reminding the audience what life was like before, which is what life is like right now [in reality], it makes the story more emotional and makes it feel like a much more accessible world.”
Colour was also a key consideration for Morano, working in partnership with director of photography Colin Watkinson, costume designer Ane Crabtree and production designer Julie Berghoff. Shades of red were picked out for the handmaids, blue for the wives and green for the domestic servants, known as Marthas. The striking appearance of the show was taken further with the production design, with one notable example being that Serena Joy’s room is nearly the same colour as her clothing, creating a look the director describes as “super weird.”
On set, Morano had hours of conversations with Fiennes and Strahovski about their characters, who have their own sets of problems in Gilead. “At the end of one scene in episode two, you briefly see the Commander in his office by himself and I just thought, ‘Man, it is lonely in Gilead for everyone,’” she says. “Everyone would expect Serena Joy to be the villain but she has all sides to her, which is what makes her so dynamic and her character so unexpected. There is a vulnerability to her that I always saw potential in revealing.”
However, it is star Moss who Morano describes as her “partner in crime.” When not on set together, the pair would constantly exchange messages about the next day’s shoot. “It was a luxury having such an intuitive partner in Lizzie, by my side every day, so we could challenge each other and brainstorm on how to take every scene to the next level,” Morano explains. “Not only being the lead but also a producer, she’s more invested than anybody. The level of dedication she’s put into this series is insane.”
Morano is now prepping her next movie, post-apocalyptic I Think We’re Alone Now, but says The Handmaid’s Tale also feels like a film because her level of involvement, from pre-production to the edit, meant she had a hand on her episodes at every level.
“Film and TV have very different processes but, in my experience, this was the closest it’s been creatively to being on a film,” she adds. “I got lucky enough to be there at the beginning and to be the one to come in and imagine the way the story is told and to create the visual language of the world. In TV, you don’t often get the opportunity to truly put yourself into a project, to put your stamp on it, so I was really grateful for the chance to do that.”
Co-creators Moira Buffini and Alison Newman reveal the journey they took to bring Harlots, a period drama about rival brothel owners, to the small screen.
An 18th century mansion on the outskirts of London proved to be the perfect location for a period drama that presents a new take on what Rudyard Kipling described as the world’s oldest trade – prostitution.
But Harlots, which was co-commissioned by UK broadcaster ITV and US streamer Hulu, is more than just a sex saga.
Set against the backdrop of 18th century Georgian London, the eight-part series follows Margaret Wells and her daughters as she juggles her roles as mother and brothel owner. When her business comes under attack from Lydia Quigley, a rival madam, she decides to fight back, even if it means putting her family at risk.
Harlots is based on an idea from head writer Moira Buffini and Alison Newman. Distributed by ITV Studios Global Entertainment, the drama is the first commission for Monumental Pictures.
“One of the things we always wanted to do with Harlots was to tell the story of these women from their point of view – it’s a story of survival,” Newman explains. “We often called it ‘misery porn,’ and while these women’s stories are awful, horrendous and difficult, especially to a modern audience, they did happen and we just wanted to truthfully tell the stories of the world.”
Buffini adds: “We have honoured their tenacity and courage and ability to survive, rather than dwelling on the ‘poor them’ aspect.”
Harlots had been in development, in some shape or form, for four years before finally getting the greenlight. Part of the delay was down to Buffini and Newman’s insistence on making the show they wanted to make and finding partners to support that vision. With US SVoD platform Hulu and ITV, they finally found the freedom to bring their ideas to life.
The pair first worked together on 2001 play Loveplay. Written by Buffini and starring actor Newman, it centred on transactions between men and women across the centuries. From that starting point, they both had ideas of how to take this story forward.
“One of the things about Harlots, which is why we love it so much, is that really this is one profession that never changes,” Buffini says. “Yes, we’re writing about Georgians but we’re absolutely writing about the modern world as well. That feeling really comes through.”
Their aim was to create a drama with a large female cast, telling a story from the female gaze. “Obviously this world is perfect for that,” Newman notes, “and we wanted a cast peopled with characters of all different backgrounds and ages and we’ve managed to do that, which is great.
“Once we really started looking into the world, we did a vast amount of research and discovered that an awful lot of Georgian London was built on vice. These women had disposable income so they put it into property and bricks. At that point, London was the capital of the world; it was a boom town, expanding massively, and the women who were successful in this trade were businesswomen.
“There is nudity,” she adds, “but if people are expecting some kind of cheap thrill, they’re not going to get it watching Harlots. Whatever you think it is, it probably isn’t that thing. If you think you’re going to get a political feminist diatribe, it isn’t that either.”
The main story – with rival brothel owners at its centre – evolved over much time and discussion, they admit, as the pair began storylining ideas before bringing fellow writers Cat Jones, Jane English and Debbie O’Malley, exec producer Alison Carpenter and script editor Katie Kelly into a writers room to thrash out individual episodes.
“I’ve never run a writers room before or even been in one, and it was brilliant,” says Buffini, who is best known for films such as Tamara Drew, Jane Eyre and Byzantium. “We just had such a laugh. It was really tricky, difficult and hard work but it was always a very creative atmosphere. Together, we worked from big sketches to tiny detail and we worked out all our storylines in that room. Then each individual writer went away and wrote their episodes and we all came together again to get them to the screen. What you realise about television when you start on the path of it is that it just becomes a bigger and bigger collaboration as you walk the path.”
Collaboration was a key part of the process for Newman and Buffini, with the latter admitting she is “not the kind of writer that is an omnipotent being.” In the early stages as the writing process continued apace, lead director Coky Giedroic did the bulk of casting. But as filming wore on, the creators found themselves becoming more involved in production, and say they found overseeing the editing process particularly rewarding.
Newman adds: “While we might not have been on set because we were storylining in the writers room, we signed off on everything from casting to design. And now that the episodes are in the edit, to be involved in shaping them is brilliant. It’s fascinating and really enjoyable.”
As befitting the flamboyant Georgians, Harlots was destined to be a big, noisy and colourful affair. “It’s not often you see the finished show and think, ‘That’s it,’ but with Harlots, I do think that,” Buffini reveals. “We’re both so proud of it. It’s the show we talked about years ago, but it’s better.”
The cast is led by Samantha Morton (pictured top), who stars as Margaret Wells opposite Lesley Manville (River) as Lydia Quigley. Jessica Brown Findlay (Downton Abbey) plays Charlotte, Margaret’s eldest daughter and the city’s most coveted courtesan who is coming to terms with her position in society and her family.
Buffini says the cast were “an absolute pleasure and a privilege to write for,” adding that each of them brought something surprising and different to their character.
“Lydia could have been such a villain but that’s not how Lesley played her,” she continues. “She’s very warm and funny, quite maternal and a horrendous villain. And what Samantha has brought to Margaret in such a subtle way is this sense of relationship between damage and resilience. It’s so beautifully observed and a real credit to Sam. Jess, she’s just absolutely amazing.
“You don’t want to prescribe too much to an actor, especially actors of that calibre, because if you have written the script well enough, it will just be there in the action and in the dialogue. I like very sparse scripts that aren’t full of character description. Usually I allow myself one sentence to describe each character and then you leave it to the actors to find. That’s where a writer can really overstep the mark.”
By the end of season one, which launched on both ITV Encore and Hulu in March, every character has their story resolved, a move designed to ensure viewers aren’t left standing on a cliff edge awaiting a potential second season.
“Statistically there are not enough female stories by female creatives, but we forgot how unusual Harlots is,” Buffini adds, citing all-female directing and writing teams and its female-led cast. “We just got used to it being women producers, women directors, this big cast of actresses, but not forgetting our wonderful men.
“There are so many untold women’s stories. When you think of how many father-son stories you’ve seen and compare that with the number of mother-daughter stories you’ve seen, there just aren’t as many. There are lots of stories about brothers but there aren’t as many about sisters. As a dramatist, it’s amazing because it’s all uncharted territory and you can do anything. There’s so much more that is new and exciting about being in this world where a woman drives story.”
Now in its fourth season, East Los High broke new ground as it told the story of a group of students at high school. Producer Wise Entertainment shares seven facts about the half-hour series.
When it launched in 2013, East Los High broke new ground for its authentic storytelling and discussion of thought-provoking social issues.
Set against a backdrop of dance, romance and true-to-life characters, the half-hour series follows a group of teenagers navigating their final years at an East Lost Angeles high school.
A Hulu original drama, East Los High is now in its fourth season, starring Gabriel Chavarria, Danielle Vega, Carlito Olivero, Alexandra Rodriguez, Vannessa Vasquez, JD Pardo and Prince Royce.
It was created by Carlos Portugal and Kathleen Bedoya and is produced by Wise Entertainment. All four seasons have been picked up for distribution (excluding the US) by Dynamic Television.
Here, Hector Ceballos, manager of research and development at Wise Entertainment, gives DQ seven facts you should know about East Los High.
1. It’s high school like you’ve never seen it. A Hulu original series, East Los High revolves around the lives of a group of teens navigating their final years at an urban high school in East LA. The school’s dance crew, the Bomb Squad, takes centre stage as the series tackles real-life issues in meaningful ways that are gritty yet sympathetic. Romance, nail-biting competition and complex yet relatable characters bring high-stakes drama that keeps viewers hooked and coming back for more.
2. It’s making history. East Los High was the first English-language show with an all-Latino cast, creators and writers, and was born out of the recognition that Latino audiences in the US are underserved and fatigued by their stereotypical representation in film and television. East Los High is now also the longest running original series on Hulu, consistently ranking as one of the platform’s top shows. The Los Angeles Times recently called East Los High “a TV unicorn in the broadcast marketplace” and Variety called it a “revolutionary show.”
3. It was created out of the box. Wise Entertainment, the production company behind East Los High, uses research and meaningful partnerships with an advisory committee of more than 25 non-profits to inform the development and production of the show. Connecting to the community and “on the ground” experts helps to keep a finger on the pulse of what is most important to the show’s audience, while working in tandem to create meaningful characters and stories. In fact, thanks to focus groups with teens in East LA after the table read of the pilot episode, the show’s producers decided to cast Gabriel Chavarria in the role of heartthrob Jacob instead of bad-boy character Abraham.
4. It spawned a whole new hashtag. Shortly after the season one premiere, fans created the hashtag #ELHAddicts which immediately started trending. The series, which reached 153 countries, is the most social show on Hulu with a passionate and highly engaged community of fans that exceeds 4.5 million people across social networks weekly. The show also has a robust transmedia experience on www.eastloshigh.com, including more than 100 pieces of extra content.
5. It’s award-winning. For its nuanced portrayal of Latino teens and the issues they face, East Los High has received critical acclaim, including five Emmy nominations, a Cannes Lion Entertainment Award, recognition as Adweek’s Hottest Webseries, and two Sentinel for Health Awards for serial drama. It was also a semi-finalist nominee in the People’s Choice Awards for favourite premium drama series and won a National Hispanic Media Coalition Impact Award for outstanding online series, among many other honours.
6. It has catapulted careers. The show has served as a launching pad for new Latino talent in Hollywood like Gabriel Chavarria (Jacob), who will appear in the upcoming feature film War of the Planet of the Apes, Tracy Perez (Vanessa) who can now be seen on FX’s The Strain and Alicia Marie Sixtos (Maya), who just landed a regular role in TNT’s Monsters of God.
7. It has star power. Throughout the course of four seasons, the series has featured an impressive list of guest stars, including bachata superstar Prince Royce; Academy Award nominee Catalina Sandino Moreno; JD Pardo of Twilight: Breaking Dawn and NBC’s Revolution; Carlito Olivero from The X Factor; Christina Milian; Pia Mia; Perez Hilton; Stephen ‘Twitch’ Boss of So You Think You Can Dance fame; Orlando Jones and more.
European pay TV broadcaster Sky has been investing in original scripted content for a few years now, but the last 12 months have undoubtedly seen the company increase its ambition in German-speaking territories. This week, for example, it announced an order for eight-episode drama Eight Days.
Directed by Stefan Ruzowitzky (The Counterfeiters), the limited series focuses on the reaction to the news that an asteroid is hurtling toward Earth and is predicted to crash somewhere in Europe in eight days’ time. It follows a German family as they live through what they expect will be the last eight days of humanity.
Asteroids are a well-worn theme in the movies but Frank Jastfelder, director of drama production at Sky Deutschland, said this project was different: “We were excited about Eight Days because everyone asked themselves the same question: How would I react in such a situation? In response to this question, Eight Days delivers emotional, always surprising and highly dramatic answers – and steers clear of all the Hollywood clichés.”
Eight Days will begin production midway through next year, by which time Sky Deutschland will have aired another of its big drama investments, Babylon Berlin. Directed by Tom Tykwer, Hendrik Handloegten and Achim von Borries, this US$45m show is a coproduction between Sky Deutschland, ARD Degeto, X Filme and Beta Film. It follows Gereon Rath, a police inspector in 1929 Berlin, a hotbed of politics, art, extremism and drugs.
Two seasons (16 episodes in total) of Babylon Berlin have been set up so far, though there is potential for the franchise to run and run because it is based on a popular book series by Volker Kutscher. So far, Kutscher has written six Gereon Rath books but only the first forms the basis of the first two seasons of Babylon Berlin.
Another ambitious project in the works is Das Boot, a €25m (US$26m) coproduction between Sky Deutschland and German producer Bavaria Film adapted from Lothar-Günther Buchheim’s classic 1973 novel of the same name. Based on the wartime experiences of a German U-boat crew, this series will air in 2018 across all the Sky territories: Germany, Austria, the UK, Ireland and Italy.
Sky Deutschland’s investment in new drama is also being backed by the acquisition of international titles. Earlier in December, the company acquired all five seasons of FremantleMedia International’s hit prison drama Wentworth. The deal marks the first time Wentworth will be available to German-speaking viewers. Season one premiered on Sky Deutschland’s recently launched flagship channel Sky1 on December 7.
Elsewhere in the world of European TV drama, YLE Finland and Mediapro of Spain are joining forces to make a Nordic noir drama called The Paradise. The project is the first time that a Spanish production company has collaborated with a Finnish channel.
The Paradise is a thriller set among the Finnish community living on the Costa del Sol. Their peaceful existence is interrupted by a series of crimes that can only be solved by a joint collaboration between the Finnish and Spanish police forces.
The show is being developed by YLE head of drama Jarmo Lampela and Bordertown writer Matti Laine alongside Mediapro’s Ran Tellem and David Troncoso. Although it is the first Finnish/Spanish collaboration, it is part of a much broader trend towards Nordic partnerships with other European countries. The trend was really kicked off by German broadcasters, the first to spot the international appeal of Nordic drama. The Brits then got interested, first in Wallander and more recently Marcella.
A key breakthrough came last year when France TV came on board Icelandic thriller Trapped. Further French backing for Nordic drama has been evident in the cases of Midnight Sun and Bordertown, a YLE crime series coproduced with Federation Entertainment. That show was a hit on YLE1, with a record 1.1 million viewers and a renewal. That bodes well for The Paradise.
Also this week, The Mark Gordon Company and its parent company Entertainment One (eOne) have joined forces with Xavier Marchand’s newly established UK-based production outfit Moonriver Content.
Under the Moonriver banner, Marchand will acquire, develop and produce film and TV projects with a focus on UK and European stories and talent. The move is expected to increase the volume of UK and European projects coming to Mark Gordon and eOne for financing, coproducing and distributing.
Marchand said: “In partnership with Mark Gordon and his superb team, and with the backing of eOne, I look forward to building on existing relationships and fostering new ones in film and TV.”
On the distribution front, Eccho Rights has revealed that two new broadcasters have picked up hit Turkish drama Elif, which airs on Kanal 7 in its home market. Bangladeshi network Deepto TV and Georgian broadcaster Imedi TV take total sales for the show 16 territories including Chile, where it recently debuted on TVN. Produced by Green Yapim, the show’s third season aired in September – with a total run of 250 45-minute episodes.
Also this week, SVoD service Hulu picked up the US rights to UK drama National Treasure from All3Media International. Written by Jack Thorne, National Treasure follows a popular comedian, played by Robbie Coltrane, whose life is turned upside down when he is charged with sexual assaults alleged to have taken place 20 years ago. The four-parter first aired on Channel 4 in the UK and will debut as a Hulu original series on March 1 next year.
Finally, there are exciting reports for fans of cult CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother. According to Deadline, a spin-off entitled How I Met Your Father is now in the works with This Is Us co-executive producers Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger in charge. HIMYM ran for nine seasons between 2005 and 2014 racking up 208 episodes. The final episode included a controversial twist ending that didn’t go down well with a lot of fans. But it still attracted an audience of more than 13 million.
Over the years there have been scores of great science fiction-based series, ranging from Star Trek and The X-Files to Doctor Who and The Prisoner. But it’s interesting to note that very few of them have been based on sci-fi novels. It’s as though the soapy plots and larger-than-life characterisations of TV sci-fi have operated in a parallel universe to the best sci-fi literary works.
As with so many areas of TV, this distinction is now blurring because of the rise of the high-end SVoD/pay TV-style limited series. Books that could never have been adapted in the pre-Netflix era suddenly look ripe for reimagining.
This week, for example, cable channel Syfy revealed it was adapting Robert Heinlein’s classic 1961 novel Stranger in a Strange Land – widely regarded as one of the greatest of all sci-fi novels. The story of a human who comes to Earth in early adulthood after being born on Mars and raised by Martians, it will be produced by Paramount TV and Universal Cable Productions.
To celebrate the news of this ambitious project, we’re looking at classic sci-fi novels that have been adapted for television already or that are – like Heinlein’s novel – now in the works.
The Man in the High Castle: Amazon’s series is based on a 1962 alternative-history novel by the screen industry’s favourite sci-fi author, Philip K Dick. The first season launched in early 2015 and was an immediate hit for Amazon, generating an 8.0 rating on IMDb. The second run launches on December 16. Dick’s work also inspired the Minority Report movie and subsequent Fox TV series of the same name, though the show strayed a long way from the original concept and probably suffered as a result, quickly being axed. Also coming up is Electric Dreams: The World Of Philip K Dick, an anthology series that will be based on some of Dick’s works. Until recently, Dick’s work was mostly adapted for the movies.
The Day of the Triffids: John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids sits slightly outside the classic sci-fi canon – rather like Brave New World (Aldous Huxley), The Time Machine (HG Wells), War of the Worlds (also HG Wells) and Frankenstein (Mary Shelley). The story of a blind humanity battling killer plants has proved popular with TV producers. A small-screen version was originally created in 1981 and another was made in 2009. The latter version, which aired on the BBC in the UK, had a strong cast including Dougray Scott. It attracted a strong 6.1 million audience for episode one.
11.22.63: This 2011 time-travel story from Stephen King was adapted into a TV series by Hulu in 2015. It tells the story of a schoolteacher who goes back in time to try to prevent the assassination of president John F Kennedy. With James Franco in the lead role, the series proved popular – generating an 8.3 rating on IMDb and playing on Fox internationally. King’s epic novel series The Dark Tower is also being adapted by Sony as a feature film for release in 2017. There are reports that this will then be followed up a TV series set in the same fantasy world.
The Martian Chronicles: Ray Bradbury’s famous short-story collection was published in 1950. It has been adapted for most media, including a 1979 miniseries commissioned by NBC in the US and the BBC in the UK. Bradbury himself wasn’t a fan of the TV adaptation, which starred Rock Hudson, calling it “just boring.”
Childhood’s End: This is a 1953 sci-fi novel by Arthur C Clarke about a peaceful alien invasion by the mysterious ‘Overlords.’ Stanley Kubrick looked at doing a film adaptation as long ago as the 1960s but it wasn’t until 2015 that the novel was adapted for the screen. Instead of a movie, Syfy commissioned a four-hour TV miniseries, which you can still find sitting in pay TV platform box sets. The show didn’t get a particularly strong response – with its IMDb rating just 7.0. Part of its problem, according to critics, was that the adaptation came too late to really grab viewers. Although still quite fresh and original in its day, the novel’s alien invasion theme has now being played out in countless other TV projects.
The Handmaid’s Tale: Margaret Atwood’s troubling view of a future US society, where women are property of the state, was first published in 1985. It is now on the verge of being launched as a TV series by Hulu. Starring Elisabeth Moss and Joseph Fiennes, the show will debut on March 29 next year. Out of all the upcoming book adaptations doing the rounds, this has the feel of one that might work – because it is more about human interaction than sci-fi imagery like spaceships, aliens and extraterrestrial terrain (all of which can either distract from storytelling and characterisation or look like poor imitations of Star Wars).
The 100: The 100 is interesting because it’s an example of a TV sci-fi show based on a book series that is still in the process of being written (by Kass Morgan). The first book came in 2013 and the debut TV season appeared a year later on The CW. The fourth book comes out next month, while the fourth season of the show will air in 2017. The series is set three centuries after a nuclear apocalypse, with survivors living on a colony of spaceships in orbit around the Earth. One hundred teenagers are then sent down to investigate whether Earth is habitable. The last season of The 100 attracted a reasonable 1.3 million viewers.
The Expanse: Based on James SA Corey’s books series, The Expanse is a Syfy series that imagines a world in which Earth’s population has grown to 30 billion and humans have started to populate the solar system. The first season, which aired in 2015, started well (1.2 million) but faded (to 0.55 million). Nevertheless, Syfy commissioned a second run. Like The 100, this is a living book series. Corey’s first Expanse novel was published in 2011 and the sixth is due out next month.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Douglas Adams’ classic sci-fi comedy book series was first adapted as a radio series. The success of that adaptation soon led to a six-part TV version, which aired on BBC2 in the UK in 1981. There was also a later film version. Although the key reason for the franchise’s popularity was its wit, the science in the books was also pretty interesting.
With the success of epic series like Game of Thrones, Westworld and The Walking Dead, it’s no surprise that even the most ambitious sci-fi novels are now regarded as fair game by writers and producers.
Among the sci-fi novel-based TV projects in the works are Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars (with Spike), Dan Simmons’ Hyperion (with Syfy) and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. The latter, which is rightly regarded as one of the best novels of the 20th century irrespective of genre, is being adapted for Syfy by Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Television. The 1931 novel has also been turned into a film twice, while there are reports that Ridley Scott and Leonardo DiCaprio are planning a new movie version.
In 2014 it was also reported that Jonathan Nolan was going to adapt Isaac Asimov’s Foundation for HBO – an epic project if ever there was one. This story has since gone quiet, presumably because Nolan is involved in HBO’s current epic Westworld.
Other sci-fi novels that really ought to be on a to-do list for producers include Frank Herbert’s Dune, Ursula K Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, Philip Jose Farmer’s To Your Scattered Bodies Go, Iain Banks’ Culture and George Orwell’s 1984.
Note: This column has not attempted to cover fantasy classics like Game of Thrones, Outlander, American Gods, The Magicians and the Shannara series, all of which have been adapted for television.
The US TV industry’s growing willingness to showcase black talent and address black issues has led to some great drama in the last couple of years, with shows including Empire, Power, Roots, Atlanta and Queen Sugar.
Now HBO is adding to the oeuvre with a miniseries about the death of Emmett Till, a black teenager who was killed in Mississippi in 1955. His tragic death is generally regarded as a key trigger for the emergence of the civil rights movement in America.
The untitled miniseries comes with a very influential production team attached, namely Jay-Z, Will Smith, Casey Affleck and Aaron Kaplan. And as of this week, it also has a writer attached – namely Steven Caple Jr.
Unlike the illustrious production team, Caple Jr is a relative newcomer. His most recent credits include an online youth drama called Class (which he directed) and a feature film called The Land, which he wrote and directed.
It’s the latter that secured Caple Jr his HBO gig. Premiering at Sundance in January 2016, it tells the story of four teenage boys from Cleveland who want to be professional skateboarders. Along the way, they discover a huge stash of drugs, which they start selling. But before too long, they run into trouble with the gangsters who lost the drugs in the first place.
The film received mixed reviews but carries with it a youthfulness and energy that HBO and the producers presumably want to inject into Till’s story.
Caple Jr won’t go into the project unaided. His script will be based on the book Emmett Till: The Murder That Shocked The World And Propelled The Civil Rights Movement, by Devery Anderson.
In contrast to the issues of race and poverty that Caple Jr has explored so far in his career, Jess Brittain (Skins) has created a series for BBC3 in the UK that looks at the other end of the social spectrum. Called Clique, the drama centres on two best friends – Holly and Georgia – drawn into an elite clique of alpha girls led by lecturer Jude McDermid in their first few weeks at university.
Brittain, who is writing the show with Kirstie Swain and Milly Thomas, said Clique is a seductive, intense drama about friendship tested to extremes: “It is about the different ways ambition plays out in young women at university. It’s a heightened version of a certain type of uni experience, pulled from my time at uni, then ramped up a few notches into a psychological thriller. Clique goes to some pretty dark places but returns, always, to the key female friendships of our characters.”
Filming on Clique has begun in Edinburgh this week. Produced for BBC3 by Balloon Entertainment, the series will be distributed by All3Media International.
BBC Studios executive producer Christopher Aird said: “Clique is drama for a new generation of viewers and starring a new generation of brilliant young actors. Jess Brittain has created truly authentic characters and propelled them into a seductive and by turns shocking story.”
There was a lot of criticism when the BBC took the decision to make youth channel BBC3 an online-only service. The channel’s ratings have certainly been dented – but it is still managing to carve out a decent niche in youth-oriented drama, and as a nursery slope for emerging writers.
Previously in DQ, for example, we’ve talked about Marnie Dickens and her drama Thirteen.
And set to launch next month is the much-anticipated Class (nothing to do with Caple Jr’s web series). The series is spin-off from Doctor Who and has been written by acclaimed youth-fiction novelist Patrick Ness, whose titles include The Knife of Never Letting Go, Monsters of Men and A Monster Calls. .
In a short interview just released on YouTube, Ness said the appeal of Class, which is set in a school, was “being able to look at the Doctor Who universe from a different perspective,” adding: “What effect does [a visit from Doctor Who] have on the people left behind? I think Class will be funny, moving, exciting, scary, sexy and true to what teens feel like their lives are.”
Among the week’s other interesting stories, Hulu is turning the Top Cow comic franchise Postal into a TV series, with the production handled by Matt Tolmach Productions and Legendary TV. The show is being written by Seth Hoffman, co-executive producer of The Walking Dead.
Hoffman’s other scripted TV credits include Prison Break, Flash Forward and House. Originally created by Matt Hawkins and Bryan Hill, Postal is set in a town populated and run by fugitive criminals with a secret past.
Progress is also being made on Jimmy McGovern’s new drama Broken (working title), with Anna Friel, Paula Malcolmson, Aisling Loftus and Adrian Dunbar joining Sean Bean in the cast.
Bean stars as Father Michael Kerrigan, a Catholic priest presiding over a northern urban parish. Modern, maverick and reassuringly flawed, Father Michael must be confidante, counsellor and confessor to a congregation struggling to reconcile its beliefs with the challenges of daily life in contemporary Britain.
Friel, who also stars in ITV’s Marcella, said: “The Street [McGovern’s BBC1 drama] gave me one of my most rewarding roles and afterwards I promised myself that I would collaborate with Jimmy McGovern again. When the chance came up to work on Broken, I jumped at it. Sean is a great actor, it’s a brave and truthful script from Jimmy and I’m back up North.”
Echoing a growing trend in the TV business, US cable channel TNT has ordered a fifth season of its hit series The Last Ship before the fourth run has even begun.
Based on the William Brinkley novel, the summer series follows the aftermath of a global catastrophe that ravages the world’s population. Because of its location, the navy destroyer USS Nathan James avoids falling victim to the devastating tragedy. Now, however, Captain Tom Chandler (Eric Dane) and his crew must confront the reality of their new existence in a world where they may be among the few survivors.
According to TNT, the show is currently averaging around 7.1 million viewers per episode across multiple platforms and ranks as one of basic cable’s top 10 summer dramas among adults aged 18 to 49. Seasons four and five (2017/2018) will both have 10 episodes.
TNT executive VP of original programming Sarah Aubrey said: “The Last Ship has taken viewers on an exciting ride through three truly thrilling seasons. We look forward to watching the cast and production team ratchet up the drama, action and suspense even more over the next two seasons through summer 2018.”
The series is produced by Turner’s Studio T in association with Platinum Dunes, whose partners – blockbuster filmmaker Michael Bay, Brad Fuller and Andrew Form – serve as executive producers. Co-creators Hank Steinberg and Steven Kane are also executive producers, along with director Paul Holahan.
Less fortunate this week is ABC’s summer series Mistresses. The show, which has just completed its fourth season, will not be back for a fifth. Based on the British series of the same name from Ecosse, Mistresses revolves around the lives and loves of a group of sexy female friends.
Although the show was never a huge ratings performer for ABC, it has been a decent franchise, selling to broadcasters like TLC in the UK, RTÉ in Ireland and TVNZ in New Zealand. It was also subject of a Chilean remake called Infieles.
Still in the US, HBO is only three weeks away from the launch of its much-anticipated sci-fi reboot series Westworld (October 2). There has been a lot of industry speculation that the show might bomb after filming was temporarily shut down at the start of the year. The rumours at the time were that something must have gone wrong with the series to result in such an interruption.
Now, though, those close to the production are saying that the hold up was to ensure that Westworld has a strong enough foundation to become a long-running returnable franchise.
Actor James Marsden told Entertainment Weekly: “It wasn’t about getting the first 10 [episodes] done, it was about mapping out what the next five or six years are going to be. We wanted everything in line so that when the very last episode airs and we have our show finale, five or seven years down the line, we knew how it was going to end the first season. [The production team] could have rushed them and get spread too thin. They got them right, and when they were right, we went and shot them.”
HBO will certainly be hoping that Westworld can run and run – because it will soon be faced with the end of mega hit Game of Thrones.
Also in the US this week, there has been a sudden burst of development news. SVoD platform Hulu is developing a fantasy-adventure series based on the Throne of Glass book series by Sarah J Maas. Kira Snyder will write the adaptation, which comes from The Mark Gordon Company.
USA Network has ordered a pilot for a crime drama that stars Jessica Biel as a woman who commits an out-of-character act of horrific violence. Called The Sinner, this is based on a book by Petra Hammesfahr.
ABC, meanwhile, has commissioned a pilot called American Heritage – about two families forced to work together to run LA’s premiere real estate firm.
Elsewhere in the world of scripted TV, Nordic-based streaming service Viaplay and Swedish TV channel TV3, both part of Modern Times Group (MTG), have linked up with German distributor Beta Film on a new Nordic noir series called Hassel. The 10-part show is based on books by popular Swedish author Olov Svedelid, who died in 2008. It will be produced by Nice, another arm of the MTG empire.
The central character of the series is Roland Hassel (played by Ola Rapace), a police detective who is the protagonist of 29 books by Svedelid. So if the show is successful there is plenty of scope for it to come back.
Hassel will be the third Viaplay original series following Swedish Dicks and Occupied. It has been created by Henrik Jansson-Schweizer and Morgan Jensen, with scripts by Bjorn Paqualin and Charlotte Lesche. Shooting starts this year.
Over in Australia, Network Ten has commissioned an adaptation of Kenneth Cook’s classic 1961 novel Wake in Fright. The two-part show will tell the story of a young schoolteacher who becomes stranded in the small outback mining town of Bundanyabba.
It will be produced by Lingo Pictures in association with Endemol Shine Australia, with backing from Screen Australia and Screen NSW. It has previously been remade as a movie, released in 1971.
Network Ten head of drama Rick Maier said: “There are few Australian stories as original or compelling as Wake in Fright. Kenneth Cook’s novel, now re-imagined for a new generation, deals with the biggest themes. Provocative, morally complex and brilliantly realised, this story is guaranteed to stay with you long into the night and – possibly – for years to come.”
Finally, Endemol Shine-owned production company Fifty Fathoms (Fortitude, The A Word) is adapting Lisa McInerney’s debut novel The Glorious Heresies, with Entourage’s Julian Farino attached to direct and exec produce. McInerney will adapt the novel, which was first published in 2015 and looks at the lives of a collection of misfits living in modern-day Cork in Ireland. It won the Desmond Elliot Prize and the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.
Shortform web drama Blue made its name as one of the first digital series to find a following online. In the first part of DQ’s Digital Drama Season, Michael Pickard speaks to writer/director Rodrigo Garcia about the show’s birth on YouTube and its journey to ‘traditional’ TV.
In today’s television landscape, the rise of catch-up services and binge-watching means more and more content is being pushed online. One series, however, is swimming against the tide, having made the opposite journey from YouTube to so-called ‘traditional’ television.
Blue began life in 2013 on WIGS, one of dozens of channels set up as part of the YouTube Original Channel Initiative that invested US$100m in fresh programming for the video-sharing platform. Starring Julia Stiles (above) as the titular character, Blue follows a single mother trying to keep her double life as a call girl a secret from all around her, including her 13-year-old son.
The series was one of a number of scripted and documentary shortform projects launched on the female-targeted channel, which was set up by Rodrigo Garcia, Jake Avnet and John Avnet.
“Back then – and we’re talking before iPads came out, so it feels like the Middle Ages now – there was this idea that if you were doing something for the internet, there was really no need to try to do it with quality,” Garcia says about their desire to create a high-spec online drama.
“But we thought, ‘Why can’t something be done that’s scripted and well produced, even if it’s in small instalments?’ The idea was to produce content that could eventually become part of a library and have a longer life and a longer way to jump from platform to platform.”
Garcia also wanted to shake up the general consensus that people didn’t watch drama online, so began work on a story that would be spread across 12 seven-minute episodes during its first season. A bulked up second season of 26 episodes followed.
Then when YouTube lifted its exclusive distribution deal, both seasons were picked up by Fox Broadcasting for its US SVoD service Hulu, which cut the short episodes together to make hour-long instalments. A third season, consisting of four 40- to 60-minute episodes, also debuted on Hulu in 2015.
Last year, FremantleMedia International picked up distribution rights and the series travelled to Lifetime in the UK. Then, earlier this year, the show was also acquired by Lifetime Movie Channel in the US, debuting last month under the new title Blue: A Secret Life.
Taking this online series to television hadn’t always been the plan, however. “It was always part of this YouTube channel,” Garcia explains. “Fox came in as a partner but it was always destined to be on that platform. Once the series did well, it had limited lives on Hulu and other platforms. Fremantle started distributing it around the world in a longer form, it aired on Lifetime UK and we re-edited it for Lifetime US.
“When we were writing season two and season three, we were still writing them in seven-minute instalments but we were always thinking, ‘Let’s keep in mind that they might come together, six might make a 42-minute broadcast hour.’ We were writing both for our platform and a potential future where the instalments could come together in one-hour episodes.”
Initially, writing seven-minute episodes – each with its own, beginning, middle and end – proved to be a tough proposition, especially with the possibility that further down the line they might fit neatly together into a standard hour of television. But from the outset, Garcia and his writing partner Karen Graci treated every seven minutes as if it were a regular episode.
“The fact it was seven minutes did not encourage us to treat it as a lark, to try to make it a funny moment in Blue’s life,” Garcia reveals. “We treated each episode like a longer episode, meaning it had an introduction, a twist, a turn, a reveal. There were cliffhangers at the end, even within the seven-minute form. That was a challenge.
“From the content point of view, being online gave us complete freedom. I didn’t want it to be like an NC17-rated series. I was very conscious and sensitive to the fact the lead was a woman and she had a secret life as an escort, which I really did not want to be exploitative. Obviously I have Julia as a terrific filter there. She would never do anything that seemed to exploit or degrade the character. But we had complete creative freedom – much, much more than we would have had on any other platform.”
However, the very nature of shortform online drama three years ago meant Garcia and his producing partners at Ingenious Media had a budget to match their limited running time.
“YouTube gave every channel its own budget and, within that, as long as we delivered the hours of content, they knew they could count on the quality we were hoping for,” he says. “A downside was our budgets were really tiny. We did literally hundreds of episodes, not just of Blue but the others, so there’s a lot of stuff that amortised with production. Each one of our seven minutes was somewhere in the $30-60,000 range, depending on the episode. But, you know, it’s tough.”
Key to the success of Blue, both online and later on television, was casting Stiles (10 Things I Hate About You, the Jason Bourne franchise) in the central role, alongside fellow cast members including Uriah Shelton, Sarah Paulson, Eric Stoltz, Kathleen Quinlan, James Morrison and Carla Gallo.
“When we did our first season for WIGS, it was a very good time because everyone knew the web was here to stay,” Garcia recalls. “Everyone was quite open to experimenting on it. Our initial group of Blue episodes was 12 seven-minute episodes, and Julia was always someone I wanted to work with. She was very open to it. Back then, it was a short commitment. She liked the material – of course, that has to always come first – and she was willing to say, ‘OK, let’s do something that’s quality for the internet and let’s see where it goes.’”
Unlike broadcast television shows that sign actors up to long-term contracts, Blue’s shortform nature meant it presented a friendly commitment to Stiles and her co-stars.
Garcia continues: “Julia was happy with the results [of season one] so she came on board [season two] and, in fact, she wrote and directed another series for our channel, called Paloma. It was all very much based on interest and availability, and you’re always encouraged by a good reception. The series was very well reviewed and it attracted a lot of attention just for its production values and the performances, so that encouraged her to stay.
“It was a time when people were willing to experiment. If you’re making a digital series now, actors will be asking if it’s on Netflix or Amazon. The budgets have become bigger. Julia, like all good actors, is always going to be interested in good material. It was great moment to be experimenting.”
Now the experiment is over and online platforms boasting shows such as Transparent and Orange is the New Black have turned the entire TV industry upside down as broadcasters scramble to catch up with their digital competitors.
But Garcia sees Blue’s transformation into a ‘traditional’ TV programme as an added bonus stemming from the show’s success in an era when quality content will always find an audience.
“A few years ago, if someone said there would be a quality series on Amazon, you would have found it laughable,” he admits. “Now, after Transparent, Bosch and The Man in the High Castle, I would never underestimate any platform. Great work can be done anywhere. It’s great to travel from platform to platform; it’s great to start online and end up on Netflix or HBO, but that’s just a sign of the quality of the work. Content will always win out – if the content is good, people will see it.”
But can fans now look to a fourth season of Blue, either on television or on WIGS’s dedicated website? “We’re not quite sure yet what shape it’s going to take,” reveals Garcia. “We’re very pleased it’s doing so well on the Lifetime Movie Channel. It’s gone through many incarnations so we’re waiting to see what’s next.
“Obviously I’m happy Blue’s had such a long life. It keeps on giving. We had very good actors on it and we did a lot with very little money, so I’m just happy it’s still going. It’s had a longer life than a lot of stuff made a lot more expensively. And, as always, Julia’s work is really excellent, so I’m always happy about that.”
Disney’s acquisition of Marvel Entertainment gave it some obvious assets such as The Avengers and Iron Man. But the real genius of the partnership is the way Disney has managed to mine Marvel’s wider universe, which extends to 5,000 characters.
The success of the deal is especially evident in the movie business, where the Avengers franchise has performed beyond all expectations under Disney’s stewardship.
No less impressive has been the way Disney has developed hit movies out of thin air – examples being Guardians of the Galaxy and Big Hero 6. The company also benefits financially from the success of franchises like Spider-Man, X-Men and Fantastic Four, which, although Marvel-created, are controlled in the film sector by Sony (Spider-Man) and Fox (the latter two). Add all the above together and the total Marvel box office take since Disney took over easily tops US$10bn.
Disney being Disney, the deal was never just about film, of course. With the world’s best IP exploitation infrastructure already in place, the company has also managed to squeeze value out of its Marvel assets across video games, theme parks, TV and more.
As with film, Disney is using TV to unleash an ever-expanding array of characters onto the market. However, there are a few notable differences in approach. One is that TV seems to be a more tolerant environment for female superheroes, making it easier to set up shows with women as central characters rather than sidekicks. The same is true in terms of diversity, with TV more inclined to showcase non-white and LGBT characters.
Another is that TV can take more risks with character selections and stories. Marvel characters that could never support a movie franchise are more than capable of attracting one million-plus viewers on cable TV in the US.
There’s also more of a narrative drama feel to Marvel on TV. In part this is because TV can’t compete with the movies in terms of special effects. But it’s also because TV needs to develop characters fully to sustain them over several seasons.
Disney’s biggest Marvel TV excursion to date is Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, which was launched to huge fanfare in 2013 on Disney’s flagship free-to-air channel ABC. Created by Joss Whedon, the show is based around an ensemble cast of characters, some of which have appeared in the modern Marvel movie franchise and others from the comic book canon. Testament to the strength of the Marvel universe is that the central character in the show (Phil Coulson, played by Clark Gregg) was killed off in one of the films but has now bounced back to lead the show for (a minimum) four seasons.
The show started very strongly – trading on the Marvel name – but has settled into a kind of solid mid-table performance, averaging around 3.4 million viewers for its 2015 third season. Despite this, it has a value to Disney that goes beyond the headline audience. One is that it does well among younger viewers. Another is that it has sold to around 135 countries worldwide. And finally it has also proved useful for Disney in terms of trying out new TV ideas.
For example, it provided the platform for ABC to launch Marvel’s Agent Carter, a spin-off from the Avengers franchise that lasted two seasons. It also spawned a spin-off called Marvel’s Most Wanted, which featured the characters Lance Hunter and Bobbi Morse from S.H.IE.L.D. Although this didn’t get further than pilot phase, it’s an indication of how Disney can work its Marvel assets through ABC.
It’s not just ABC that’s benefiting from Disney’s acquisition of Marvel. In April, Disney-owned cable channel Freeform (formerly ABC Family) announced it had greenlit a straight-to-series order for Cloak and Dagger. Based on Marvel comic book characters, the show will tell the story of an interracial superhero couple – underlining the freedom that TV allows to break down barriers.
There are also important relationships beyond the bounds of the Disney empire. The most significant to date is Disney’s multi-series pact with Netflix, which has had a storming start. The first show from the partnership was Daredevil (2015), a critically acclaimed series that has just been renewed for a third season.
This was followed by Jessica Jones, another well-received show that has recently been renewed for a second season. Starring Krysten Ritter (Breaking Bad), Jessica Jones completely encapsulates the points made above – namely a female lead and tough storylines that deal with topics such as rape, assault and PTSD.
Coming up next are series based around Marvel characters Luke Cage and Iron Fist. Then, in true Marvel fashion, Daredevil, Jessica Jones and the latter two will be bundled together for a series called The Defenders. Given that Marvel’s comic book iteration of The Defenders also includes Doctor Strange, there’s also a neat cross-over with the forthcoming Doctor Strange movie starring Benedict Cumberbatch.
On top of all this, Netflix is working with Marvel on a series based around its anti-hero The Punisher – a decision perhaps made easier by the massive success of the Deadpool movie, which also has an anti-hero at its core.
Alongside its in-house activities and the Netflix partnership, Disney’s Marvel TV division, which is headed by Jeph Loeb, is also building up a warmer relationship with Fox and FX. In past years, the two companies have not got on that well because Fox controls the movie rights to X-Men and Fantastic Four and has no intention of relinquishing them back into the Marvel fold.
However, this summer it was announced that Marvel and Fox are collaborating on as as-yet-untitled X-Men-themed series starring two parents who discover their children possess mutant powers. They are then forced to go on the run from a hostile government and join up with a group of mutants in order to survive.
In parallel, Marvel and FX are working on an eight-part series called Legion, another X-Men spin-off. Written by Noah Hawley (Fargo), this show follows a schizophrenic who has been in and out of psychiatric hospitals for years. But after an encounter with a fellow patient, he realises the voices and visions is his head may be real. Significantly for this show, it has also been picked up by Fox’s international channels, meaning approximately 125 countries, including the UK, will air it day-and-date with the US.
For Disney, the possibilities of the Marvel universe don’t end here. US streaming service Hulu, for example, is planning a series based on the Marvel comic book Runaways, about six diverse teenagers who can barely stand each other but must unite against a common foe – their parents. And there are also reports that Disney XD is planning an animated spin-off based on Guardians of the Galaxy.
All in all, then, that looks like US$4bn well spent.
UK television has a long tradition of using quirky or unusual locations as backdrops for drama series. Bergerac (Jersey), Morse (Oxford) and Doc Martin (Cornwall) are just a few examples of the way place can almost become a character.
Historically, one of the logistical limitations on this kind of show has been the lack of production infrastructure available in some of the UK’s less-travelled locations.
But the last few years have seen increased ambition in terms of where producers are willing to base their stories. Broadchurch, for example, is one of the few non-Thomas Hardy dramas to have based itself in Dorset – introducing ITV viewers to the spectacular Jurassic Coast.
With a couple of exceptions (such as Morse), quirky locations used to be employed as the backdrop to gentle comedies (Last of the Summer Wine, Monarch of the Glen, Ballykissangel) or soft-hearted crime series (Hamish Macbean), with the occasional foray into the unknown by period drama that demanded it (anything based on works by Hardy, Lawrence, Eliot, Gaskell, Laurie Lee…).
Broadchurch, however, brought hardcore murder and mayhem to under-exploited locations and reminded us that universal stories can be built around hyperlocal experiences. This idea has subsequently been picked up by other producers.
So now we have seen crime stories like Hinterland (set in Aberystwyth, Wales), Happy Valley (Yorkshire), The Fall (Northern Ireland) and Safe House (the Lake District) gracing our screens. Perhaps we can also see the influence of Nordic Noir here, with the notion that location can somehow reflect the inner workings of the soul.
Other shows to have stepped into the (relatively speaking) unknown include Poldark (Cornwall) and Midwinter of the Spirit (Herefordshire), so that now we are at a point where pretty much anywhere in the UK is a possible starting point for a story.
This point is underlined by two new drama developments this week, which will showcase opposite ends of the England-Scotland spectrum. ITV, for example, has commissioned a six-part murder mystery based in the area around Scotland’s Loch Ness. Produced by ITV Studios and supported by Creative Scotland’s Production Growth Fund, the show will focus on the hunt for a serial killer in a setting made famous by the mythical Loch Ness Monster.
Some 750 miles south, meanwhile, All3Media-owned indie producer Studio Lambert has optioned a police officer’s memoir, The Life of a Scilly Sergeant. Based on the experiences of Scilly Islands-based police sergeant Colin Taylor, the aim is for a primetime, returnable series. On paper, it has echoes of Hamish Macbeth.
More good news for the UK’s South West is that the BBC has ordered a third season of Poldark – before the second run hits the air.
The first eight-part season centred on 18th century war veteran Ross Poldark (Aidan Turner) returning to Cornwall to try to build up his family’s mining business in the face of stiff opposition from entrenched local business interests. The show is based on a series of classic novels by Winston Graham and was previously adapted in the 1970s. The new version, a major hit for the BBC, is written by Debbie Horsfield and produced by Mammoth Screen.
In the US, meanwhile, Turner Broadcasting’s cable channels TNT and TBS have renewed three of their drama series. TNT has renewed Animal Kingdom for a second season while TBS has ordered a second run of Wrecked and a third of Angie Tribeca.
Wrecked, which is billed as a comedy version of ABC’s cult series Lost, is currently halfway through its first season with an audience in the 1.2-1.3 million range. Animal Kingdom attracts a similar-size audience for TNT, which is currently undergoing a bit of a creative overhaul.
TNT shows that are ending or have been cancelled include Rizzoli & Isles, Proof, Falling Skies, Agent X, Public Morals and Legends. The channel’s top performer aside from Rizzoli & Isles is Major Crimes, which has been running for five seasons. There is no indication yet whether it will be renewed or dropped as part of the channel’s wider schedule revamp.
Still in the US, video streaming platform Hulu is continuing its ambitious push into drama with The Warriors, an adaptation of Sol Yurick’s novel that was previously turned into a cult movie in 1979. The story follows a period in history when New York was being torn apart by gang warfare.
It will be adapted by the Russo Brothers, who have found fame with their recent work on Marvel franchises like Captain America. They will work with writer Frank Baldwin on the series, with Paramount TV as producer.
The project is the latest in a long line of movie reboots, though projects in the US cable and SVoD space seem to be faring better than those relaunched for US network TV. The latest network reboot to get the axe is ABC’s Uncle Buck, after just one season. Surely the big four must be getting the picture by now.
On the acquisitions front, shows making their mark this week include Beta Film’s three-part German-language drama NSU German History X, which has been picked up by Netflix for use in the US, Canada, the UK, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand.
Netflix has also unveiled a multi-year agreement with The CW to stream all past seasons of the US network’s shows in the US. Titles include Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Jane the Virgin, The Flash, Arrow, Supergirl, The Vampire Diaries, The 100, iZombie, The Originals and Reign.
Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s chief creative officer, said: “This is a great step forward with a valued network partner to give fans exactly what they want, when and how they want it.”
Elsewhere, UK multi-channel operator UKTV has picked up Sony Pictures Television miniseries The Red Tent, which originally aired on cable channel Lifetime in the US. A four-parter based on the novel by Anita Diamant, The Red Tent tells the tale of Dinah, the daughter of Leah and Jacob, from the Old Testament book of Genesis in the Bible.
Alexandra Finlay, UKTV’s head of acquisitions and coproductions, said: “The Red Tent is a perfect addition to (UKTV channel) Drama’s growing slate of shows, featuring an epic story with a fantastic ensemble cast.”
Cleverman, the futuristic drama from Goalpost Pictures in Australia and Pukeko Pictures New Zealand, has been greenlit for a second six-part season just as the first launched on ABC down under and SundanceTV in the US.
Starring Hunter Page-Lochard, Iain Glen and Ryan Corr, the drama tells the story of two Indigenous brothers as they struggle to survive in a dystopian landscape where people exploit and segregate a hairy human-like species with special powers.
The show was originally commissioned by ABC TV Australia with the assistance of Screen Australia, Screen NSW and the New Zealand Screen Production Grant. Subsequently, Red Arrow International came on board as a distributor and SundanceTV joined up as a coproducer.
Sally Riley, head of scripted production at ABC TV, said: “It’s rare that you get the green light for a second season of a show before the first season has even gone to air, so for me it’s a testament to the quality and audience appeal of Cleverman. It is also a testament to the unflinching support the show has from our funding partners Screen Australia and Screen NSW here in Oz, and our international partners Red Arrow and SundanceTV.”
Joel Stillerman, president of original programming and development for AMC and SundanceTV, added: “The world that (show creator) Ryan Griffen and the rest of the team behind Cleverman have created is a perfect blend of timeless mythology seen through the prism of a near-future lens. This is a series that sophisticated genre fans will no doubt fall in love with.”
Red Arrow International MD Henrik Pabst said: “Cleverman has already generated a huge amount of interest with international broadcasters, and the great news about season two will continue to build on this success.”
Channels that have already signed up for the show include online streamer BBC3 in the UK.
Cleverman was one of a number of high-profile renewal stories this week. In a piece of good news for the Scottish production business, US premium cable channel Starz announced there will be two new seasons of its period/time-travel epic Outlander, adapted by Ronald D Moore from Diana Gabaldon’s books.
Seasons three and four will be based on the third and fourth books in the series: Voyager and Drums of Autumn.
“Outlander is like nothing seen before on television,” said Starz CEO Chris Albrecht. “From its depiction of a truly powerful female lead character, to the devastating decimation of the Highlander way of life, to what is a rarely seen, genuine and timeless love story, it is a show that not only transports the viewer but inspires the passion and admiration of its fans.”
The show has been a solid performer for Starz, attracting an average of 1.1 million viewers (overnight figures) for its current second run. “The audience has rewarded Outlander with their praise and loyalty, and we know we will deliver the best seasons yet in the years ahead,” said Jamie Erlicht and Zack Van Amburg, presidents of US programming and production at Sony Pictures Television – the company that produces the show for Starz. “Starz has been an incredible partner and has helped shape this into one of the most iconic premiere series on the air today.”
As discussed in our last column, an early renewal was also given to Lifetime’s UnREAL this week. The same is true for Amazon’s acclaimed comedy drama Transparent, created by Jill Soloway. With season three yet to air, the show has already been given a season four commitment.
“As the quality of television rises to new heights, Transparent continues to stand out for its depth of character, compassionate storytelling and its infinite creative risk-taking,” said Joe Lewis, head of half hour television at Amazon Studios. “We’re grateful that customers have responded so enthusiastically and we’re excited to bring another chapter.”
Amazon has also been in the news for unveiling a slate of new shows for its Prime Video service in Japan. The line-up, presented by Amazon Japan president Jasper Cheung, Amazon Studios chief Roy Price and Amazon Japan content head James Farrell, includes 12 Japanese-made titles, some of which are scripted. Price said Japan is a high priority, adding: “Of our 40 new original global contents, 20 are Japanese originals.”
Among the new dramas on the slate are Baby Steps, a teen rom-com series based on a popular girls’ comic about a would-be tennis star who takes up the game to impress a pretty classmate. Others include Businessmen vs Aliens, a sci-fi comedy scripted and directed by Yuichi Fukuda; and Magi, a historical drama about four Japanese youths who journeyed to the Vatican nearly four centuries ago – and returned home to find Christianity banned. Also in the pipeline for Amazon Japan are new adaptations of popular superhero franchises Kamen Rider and Ultraman.
In terms of movie-to-TV adaptations, cable channel TV Land is reportedly planning a reboot of The First Wives Club, a popular 1996 feature film starring Diane Keaton, Bette Midler and Goldie Hawn.
Set in present-day San Francisco, the new version will revolve around three women – friends and classmates in the ’90s – who reconnect after their close friend from college dies in a freak accident. When they discover that they are all at a romantic crossroads, they band together to tackle divorce, relationships and life’s other annoying challenges. As an idea, it doesn’t sound that bad – though you have to ask how much extra value is generated by connecting the idea to the 1990s movie, rather than just presenting it as an original concept.
Elsewhere, Hulu has picked up HBO Europe’s Romanian crime drama Umbre for streaming in the US. Produced entirely in Romania by Multi Media Est, the story follows a taxi driver who doubles as a collector for a major local mobster and whose life is threatened when he accidentally kills someone. DQ sister publication C21 reports that show is based on Small Time Gangster, an Australian show produced by Sydney-based prodco Boilermaker Burberry and distributed by UK-based DRG.
Finally, Netflix has greenlit a new comedy from Jenji Kohan (creator of Orange Is The New Black). Entitled G.L.O.W., the new series tells the story of a 1980s female wrestling league.
Stephen Arnell casts his eye over the television landscape and finds there are plenty of science-fiction and fantasy series in the works to keep genre fans happy.
At the same time as a tide of comic book and graphic novel TV adaptations have hit the screen, there has been a less trumpeted but increasingly visible trend in series based on ‘hard’ science fiction and ‘serious’ fantasy.
With the recent announcement of Bryan Cranston’s new Philip K Dick anthology series Electric Dreams (produced by Sony Pictures Television for Channel 4), there seems to be an unmistakable head of steam behind adaptations of ‘hard’ sci-fi – coming hot on the heels of Amazon’s critically lauded The Man in the High Castle (also based on a Philip K Dick novel) and Syfy’s miniseries version of Arthur C Clarke’s downbeat Childhood’s End.
This resurgence of more serious-minded sci-fi is demonstrated in the UK, with Channel 4 leading the way with the AMC coproduction Humans and the less viewed, but well-regarded, Utopia.
The alternate-history Axis victory premise of Amazon’s High Castle will be mirrored by BBC1’s upcoming SS-GB, which itself harks back to 1978’s BBC2 production An Englishman’s Castle, which starred Kenneth More as a TV soap writer in Nazi-occupied Britain.
Broadcasters and OTT providers have discovered a new vein to mine, as evidenced by a slew of shows being developed or in production, including HBO’s series version of Michael Crichton’s Westworld (pictured top), best known to older readers from the 1973 movie starring Yul Brynner, James Brolin and Richard Benjamin.
The successful movie was followed by the sequel Futureworld (1976) and short-lived 1980 series Beyond Westworld (CBS), both unfortunately following the law of diminishing returns.
Despite reported production problems, 2016’s Westworld’s stellar cast (including Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris and Thandie Newton) and strong proposition should guarantee high initial sampling when it debuts this autumn.
Westworld creator Jonathan Nolan (co-writer with his brother Christopher of The Prestige, Interstellar, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises) is also apparently developing a series version of Isaac Asimov’s classic Foundation trilogy (also for HBO), which is surely a prospect that will have sci-fi fans salivating.
Back in 2009, Sony reportedly tried to crack the novels with director Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, White House Down) attached, but when the project stalled, HBO stepped in to acquire the rights.
Along with JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and Frank Herbert’s Dune, Foundation was regarded as ‘unfilmable’ due to its epic scope but, following Game of Thrones’ success, epic is something HBO can confidently handle.
Other sci-fi classics reportedly in development include Stephen Spielberg’s Amblin’s take on dystopian Aldous Huxley novel Brave New World and Dan Simmons’ Hyperion, produced by aficionado Bradley Cooper.
Both have been ordered by Syfy, which is also teaming with Battlestar Galactica writer/exec producer David Eick for the series version of Frederik Pohl’s 1977 Hugo and Nebula award-winning Gateway.
On the SVoD front, Hulu has given a straight-to-series order for a 10-part adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, a feminist story set in a grim US of the future, ruled by a Ted Cruz-style totalitarian Christian theocracy, starring Elizabeth Moss (Mad Men, Top of the Lake).
A movie of the novel was released in 1990, boasting an all-star cast that included Robert Duvall, Faye Dunaway and Downton Abbey’s Elizabeth McGovern, but the film suffered from script problems and was generally felt to be an interesting failure.
Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan, Noah) is said to be developing a TV series with HBO based on Atwood’s post-apocalyptic novel trilogy Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood and MaddAddam, set in a world where most of humanity has been wiped out by a pandemic and the survivors fight to find a reason to continue.
Back in 2011, there was talk of a remake of Ray Bradbury’s 1980 movie The Martian Chronicles (starring Rock Hudson), but this appears to have been abandoned. The revival of interest in the genre may see it resurrected, though.
US cable channel Spike has commissioned Kim Stanley Robinson’s hard sci-fi classic Red Mars for a 10-episode series debuting in January 2017. Dealing with the human colonisation of the Red Planet, the series features Vince Geradis (Game of Thrones) as exec producer.
And speaking of Mars, the daddy of all sci-fi stories – HG Wells’ War of the Worlds – is currently being developed by ITV-owned Mammoth Screen for an ostensibly authentic period version of the classic novel, scripted by Peter Harness (Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, City of Vice, Doctor Who).
Neil Marshall (Game of Thrones, Dog Soldiers, The Descent) is on board to direct, while reports earlier this year of Poldark star Aidan Turner taking the lead role of the narrator have since been denied.
HG Wells features as the protagonist of ABC’s Time After Time (based on Nicholas Meyers’ 1979 movie), which involves the author travelling from Victorian England to the present day. Kevin Williamson (The Vampire Diaries, The Following, Dawson’s Creek) is showrunner for the series.
Although Robert A Heinlein’s Starship Troopers was successfully transferred to the cinema screen by Paul Verhoeven in 1997, it remains doubtful whether a TV version of his most famous work, the controversial 1961 novel Stranger in a Strange Land (once promoted as “the most famous sci-fi novel ever written”) will ever see the light of day.
In terms of the serious fantasy genre, the BBC’s upcoming version of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy should benefit from having writer Jack Thorne (The Last Panthers, Skins, The Fades) guiding the show, which will hopefully avoid the pitfalls of 2007’s movie adaptation The Golden Compass and maintain more of an adult tone.
Scheduling and advertising will be important for the series, as the excellent Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell suffered from misleading promotion, which gave the impression of a Harry Potter-style fantasy – and aired on the wrong channel, BBC1, when BBC2 would have been far more appropriate.
Fantasy legend Neil Gaiman has certainly been a busy lad, with no less than four TV adaptations of his writings in the works, as well as his mooted big-screen version of Gormenghast, which was last seen as a BBC2 series in 2000.
Actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Looper) was due to direct a movie version of Gaiman’s Sandman, but that recently hit the buffers.
First up is American Gods for Starz in the US, which has an impressive cast including Ian McShane, Peter Stormare, Jonathan Tucker and Crispin Glover.
Sean Harris (Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, Jamaica Inn, The Borgias) has since left the production to be replaced by Pablo Schreiber (Orange is the New Black, The Wire) in the role of troubled Leprechaun Mad Sweeney, with Bryan Fuller (Hannibal, Pushing Daisies) as showrunner.
Gaiman’s Anansi Boys, which occupies the same fictional universe as American Gods, was optioned by BBC1 in the UK back in 2014, while his anthology Likely Stories has been commissioned by Sky Arts in the UK, featuring a cast that numbers Johnny Vegas (Benidorm, Ideal) and industry veteran Kenneth Cranham (Rome, War & Peace, Layer Cake), with a score by Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker.
Directors Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard helmed and co-wrote the critically acclaimed 2,000 Days On Earth, a portrait of Aussie Renaissance Man Nick Cave.
Good Omens, Gaiman’s end-of-the-world collaboration with the late Terry Pratchett, is also being considered by the BBC for a miniseries, while Lucifer, the Fox show based on Gaiman’s character from Sandman, has recently been renewed for a second season.
Other fantasy projects with adult themes on the horizon include NBC’s Midnight, Texas (due to be transmitted this autumn), based on the novels by Charlaine Harris (True Blood), and the BBC’s The City and The City – Tony Grisoni (Red Riding, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Southcliffe) developing China Mieville’s cult novel about the cities Beszel and Ul Quoma, which occupy the same point in space and time.
And last, but by no means least, Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, said to be the highest-selling serious fantasy novels since The Lord of the Rings, are rumoured to be under consideration by Sony for either AMC, Netflix or Amazon.
TV drama, for all its dynamism, is guilty of numerous clichés. One that pops up repeatedly is the portrayal of religious folk as friendless nut jobs, murderous psychopaths or boring killjoys.
Harlan Coben’s The Five and Sally Wainwright’s Happy Valley both placed credulous Christians with a soft spot for mass murderers at the heart of their plotlines, while the arch-villain in Steven Knight’s Peaky Blinders is a Catholic priest (superbly played by Paddy Considine) who would have made the Spanish Inquisition squirm – though to be fair to Knight, he also deploys religion very skillfully in his story through the use of former Quaker Linda.
There are three reasons for TV’s reliance on this trope. The first is the growing belief in secular societies that anyone who sincerely adheres to a monotheistic creationist stance is naïve at best, delusional at worst. This Richard Dawkins-inspired view of the world is then used to create caricature believers.
The second is that the image of a badass in a dog collar still seems to enthrall writers and audiences. Sometimes, this is because it addresses the duplicity of evil masquerading as good. At other times, it is because it can act as the catalyst for a story about divine retribution.
And the third is that ordinary believers – the kind who help in soup kitchens and save starving people – don’t make great TV. When not being used to cause mayhem or spout evangelical inanities, people of faith are anal, oppositional forces to main characters in TV drama who are typically much more morally ambivalent.
Whatever the creative rationale for the TV industry’s portrayal of contemporary religion, it continues to have a big influence on content – as we can see from the following scripted series. And to be fair to the TV sector, it doesn’t always do a bad job.
Preacher: This new 10-part AMC production is based on a comic book series by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon. Adapted for TV by Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen and Sam Caitlin, it tells the story of a small-town preacher who becomes possessed by an alien entity. He then sets off on a mission to find God, accompanied by an Irish vampire. This is an example of the badass preacher trope that stretches all the way back to Clint Eastwood in Pale Rider.
Greenleaf: Launching on June 21, Greenleaf is an Oprah Winfrey-backed production for the Oprah Winfrey Network. It follows the unscrupulous world of the Greenleaf family, which runs a Memphis megachurch with predominantly African-American members. The series was created by Craig Wright, who is known for his work on series like Six Feet Under and Lost. Wright has a Masters in Divinity from the United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cites, so it will be interesting to see how he handles this subject matter. Oprah is already fending off critics of the show’s controversial subject matter, which is expected to cover dubious tax arrangements, marital infidelity, sexual abuse cover-ups and the extraordinary wealth of some megachurch ministers. In a recent interview, she said: “I am not going to do anything that disrespects the church. I am sitting where I am today because of the black church.”
Hand of God: An Amazon series starring Ron Perlman, Hand of God is the story of a corrupt judge who suffers a breakdown and believes God is compelling him onto a path of vigilante justice. Created by Ben Watkins, it received a second season order in December 2015 despite modest reviews and feedback. This one is a kind of hybrid delusional/kick-ass Christian setup.
Midwinter of the Spirit: Based on the books by Phil Rickman, Midwinter of the Spirit is a three-part drama that first aired on ITV Encore. Adapted by Stephen Volk, it’s actually not a bad portrayal of a Christian central character. It tells the story of a divorced female priest who works as an exorcist while struggling to bring up her increasingly rebellious teenage daughter. Anna Maxwell Martin does a nice job as the protagonist.
The Walking Dead: Such a good series for so many reasons, The Walking Dead (created by Robert Kirkman, with Scott M Gimple the showrunner) has explored the notion of faith very well in the shape of Father Gabriel Stokes, who has managed to retain his faith despite the unfortunate emergence of a zombie apocalypse. His human failings are apparent in the early series but are not really used as a way of attacking the notion of faith-based philosophies. He finds a way to develop human strength without relinquishing his faith.
Rides Upon the Storm: From Borgen creator Adam Price (pictured), this promises to be an insightful exploration of faith in modern society. Centred on a Protestant priest, “it’s a show that uses personal faith as the motivation of the action,” says Price. “I’ve always been interested in and puzzled by religion. It has had such a terrifying impact on the politics of the world in the last 15 years that I wanted to make a show that tries to understand it. I’ve always found that things that puzzle you can serve as the topic of compelling stories. For me, it is about satisfying curiosity.”
The Path: A Hulu series starring Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad), The Path follows a man who is part of a cult that follows a fictional religion called Meyerism. It focuses on his crisis of faith and the cult’s increasingly paranoid relationship with its members and the world. The recently renewed show is written by a team headed by Jessica Goldberg, who also created it.
The Exorcist: A TV adaptation of the iconic movie, The Exorcist was picked up as a series by Fox on May 10. The pilot, written by Jeremy Slater, was described as “a serialised psychological thriller following two very different men tackling one family’s case of horrifying demonic possession, and confronting the face of true evil.” If this is anything like the film then the priests won’t come out of this too badly, subject to the usual human frailties.
The Leftovers: HBO’s acclaimed series is widely acknowledged to be a serious exploration of religion. Based on the book by Tom Perrotta, it explores what happens when 2% of the world’s population suddenly disappears. Christopher Eccleston excels as a minister who tries to reconcile the event with his own belief system. Not surprisingly, various cults arise in the aftermath of the event including a sinister group called The Guilty Remnant. Perrotta created the TV series alongside Damon Lindelof.
Vikings: What is Vikings doing in here, you may ask? Well, there is a general unease among Christians about the way they are portrayed in Michael Hirst’s History channel series. The complaint is well summarised by the Catholic Herald, which explores the way in which audiences seem to prefer bad behaviour to moral rectitude. Somewhere in here there is a more general point about crisis of confidence in all institutions.
The BBC last week renewed its commitment to Steven Knight’s acclaimed 1920s gangster series Peaky Blinders with a two-season order.
But that was actually just one of a number of scripted announcements from the UK public broadcaster. There was also a renewal for The A Word, based on an Israeli format from Keshet, and a raft of new series and single drama announcements.
The most high profile of the new productions is Us, an adaptation of David Nicholls’ most recent novel of the same name. The book will be adapted by Nick Payne and produced by Drama Republic.
As for the single dramas, Tony Jordan is writing a show about Barbara Windsor, the Cockney actress who came to fame in the Carry On films and then became a regular fixture on EastEnders. Entitled Babs, the drama will be produced by BBC Studios in association with Red Planet Pictures.
Windsor said: “Although it’s been spoken about in the past to do my life story, it wasn’t until two years ago, when I was approached by the brilliant writer Tony Jordan and the BBC, that I knew this was the right time, and undoubtedly the only person I felt knew me well enough to tell my story. Tony knows the real me and what makes me tick, and I was particularly taken by the way he wants to tell my tale, which is not in the way people will expect. Tony certainly has captured the moments of my life that have made me who I am today. I am honoured and excited that Tony and the BBC have commissioned this.”
Jordan added: “The opportunity to tell the story of the amazing Barbara Windsor was too good to miss. I think people will be surprised there’s a lot more to her than just the Carry On Films and EastEnders. She was starring in movies and was a star of the theatre long before any of those things came along. In the Sixties, she was nominated for a Bafta for her work in the film Sparrows Can’t Sing, and a Tony award after appearing on Broadway. There’s a reason that, as a nation, we’ve all taken Barbara to our hearts. I think it is because she’s always been one of us, never forgetting where she came from – that combination of someone in the business with the highest level of professionalism, but without the airs and graces to go with it. She’s a national treasure and one of the most remarkable women I’ve met.”
For BBC2, there will be an adaptation of Sathnam Sanghera’s memoir The Boy with the Topknot, produced by Parti Productions and Kudos. Set in Wolverhampton, the series tells the humorous, touching and emotional story of a second-generation Indian growing up in Britain, exploring how he juggles his family, love life and career.
Sanghera commented: “I’m delighted that The Boy with the Topknot is being adapted for screen. Delighted and a little trepidatious. The latter because the book is a personal exposition of my childhood and family, and delighted because it’s a story I want people to know about and understand. I feel confident the BBC and Parti, along with Kudos, will handle the themes explored in the book with great warmth and sensitivity, because ultimately my family’s story is one of hope.”
Charlotte Moore, the BBC’s acting director of TV, said: “Following BBC Drama’s tremendous start to the year, it is clear audiences are looking for greater ambition and high quality. So I’m announcing a mix of contemporary, provocative pieces and surprising stories, with three new titles and two returning series.”
On the streaming front, Amazon is set to launch two new pilots on June 17. The first, which has been discussed since late last year, is The Last Tycoon, based on F Scott Fitzgerald’s last unfinished novel. Starring Matt Bomer, the show will be available in multiple markets including the US, UK, Germany, Austria and Japan (it was previously a movie starring Robert De Niro in 1976). The other new pilot is The Interestings, based on the book by Meg Wolitzer. This one stars Lauren Ambrose and tells the story of a group of summer-camp friends over the course of their lives.
Hulu, meanwhile, has teamed up with ITV in the UK on a new series called Harlots, which is set in the world of the 18th century London sex trade. The eight-parter, produced by Monumental Pictures, will air on ITV Encore in the UK and stars Samantha Morton as a woman struggling to reconcile her roles as a mother and a brothel owner.
Harlots is written by Moira Buffini, based on an original idea by her and Alison Newman. “In 1760s London, there were brothels on every corner run by women who were both enterprising and tenacious,” said Monumental co-founder Alison Owen. “History has largely ignored them, but their stories are outrageous, brutal, humorous and real.”
The show is the latest in a line of originations involving ITV Encore, others including The Frankenstein Chronicles, Midwinter of the Spirit and Houdini & Doyle. The show will be distributed outside the US and UK by ITV Studios Global Entertainment.
Other streaming news this week included the announcement that the European Commission may impose a 20% local-content quota on streaming services like Amazon and Netflix. The move is aimed at preserving cultural diversity and supporting European production. On the face of it, this is good news for European producers, though it has the potential to increase the streamers’ content costs.
Netflix, which has recently started investing in original European content, is unhappy about the move, saying it would distort the streaming market and adversely impact on its personalised recommendation service. It added: “Rigid numerical quotas risk suffocating the market for on-demand audiovisual services. An obligation to carry content to meet a numerical quota may cause new players to struggle to achieve a sustainable business model. The focus should be on incentivising the production of European content and not imposing quotas.”
In Asia, Fox Networks Group Asia has signed a deal with Linmon Pictures to broadcast Chinese romantic drama series To Be a Better Man to viewers across the region. The show will air on general entertainment service Star Chinese Channel the same day as in China.
The 42-part series follows the story of a tough Chinese chef working at a three-star Michelin restaurant in the US. After his best friend is killed in a car accident, he returns to China with his remains and gets embroiled in various problems. To Be a Better Man was written by Li Xiao and directed by Zhang Xiao Bo.
Finally, there was more bad news this week for US movie spin-off projects. After Rush Hour and Damien were shut down last week, Limitless has become the latest casualty. This CBS show, spun off from the Bradley Cooper movie of the same name, started well but faded badly in the second half of its run.
Next autumn in the US will see the launch of new spin-offs from Training Day, Lethal Weapon, The Exorcist, Time After Time and Frequency. Presumably if this batch fares as badly as the class of 2015/2016 then the networks will need to have a rethink.