Tag Archives: Incorporated

Dystopian blues

The television landscape is awash with series set in alternative – and not particularly bright – futures. Stephen Arnell casts his eye over the dystopian series on screen, and also finds sci-fi series with a more optimistic outlook.

All-conquering AI, robots that are more human than human, apps that can mimic any possible experience, egomaniacal billionaires searching for eternal life, a world wreathed in perpetual smog, unstoppable viruses, re-animated corpses, Nazi victors in the Second World War and the knock on the door from black-garbed members of the secret police.

Sound familiar?

One would think that in a world with Donald J Trump as US president, Brexit, North Korea, Russia, global warming, cyber warfare and other woes, viewers would be looking for escapist entertainment. But perhaps counter-intuitively, the vision of an even more dire future provides some comfort in the present.

Dystopian drama has become a major TV trend over recent years, and it’s showing no sign of stopping, although there are some signs of possible fatigue, with lacklustre audiences in the UK for SS-GB (BBC1, 2017), Channel 4’s Electric Dreams (2017-18) and the recent Hard Sun (BBC1, 2018).

All had very different themes. SS-GB envisioned a Nazi occupation of the UK, Electric Dreams is an anthology series based on the work of hard sci-fi author Philip K Dick and Hard Sun was a police thriller set in a pre-apocalypse London.

Philip K Dick’s Electric Dreams didn’t perform as well as Channel 4 would have hoped

In terms of the BBC1 dramas, it could be said that the rather bleak material was better suited to sister channel BBC2, while the hit-and-miss nature of portmanteau series such as Electric Dreams are known to sometimes struggle to find audiences – with the obvious exception of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror (the former C4 show now at home on Netflix).

In the US, Syfy’s Incorporated (2016-17), a Matt Damon/Ben Affleck production set in a US ruled by corporations folded after one season, as did the channel’s exploitation Death Race homage Blood Drive (2017).

Are we approaching ‘peak dystopia?’ Not just yet. In fact, not by a long chalk.

It must be noted that anticipation was high for the second seasons of The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu) and Westworld (HBO), both of which premiered recently and have been well received. Viewers are now eagerly awaiting season three of The Man in the High Castle (Amazon Prime), while Black Mirror goes from strength to strength, with filming on season five beginning recently. And AMC’s future feudal Samurai-style society drama Into the Badlands returned in April for a third run.

Netflix’s Brazilian sci-fi series 3% deals with a world very much divided into the haves and have-nots; after favourable reactions to 2016’s debut run, the drama returned for season two on April 27.

On cable, dystopian series continue to thrive. The 100 (The CW) returned for a fifth season on April 24, The Colony came back for a third run on May 2 and Van Helsing (Syfy) had a third season order in December 2017.

Netflix’s The Rain focuses on a virus carried by precipitation

Netflix’s Altered Carbon (pictured top) launched to mixed reviews this February – there was high praise for the set design and production values but it was also criticised by some as owing too much to Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner (1982) and for objectifying its female characters.

Weeks after Altered Carbon dropped, Netflix also released two dystopian movies – Duncan Jones’s generally slated Mute (which shared a similar visual palate to Altered Carbon) and Alex Garland (Ex Machina)’s well-reviewed Annihilation – which may have been overkill in such a short space of time.

Data from Parrot Analytics suggests the budget-busting Altered Carbon’s patchy performance could make a sophomore season unlikely.

This year will see new dystopian drama on our screens in addition to returning series. Last week, continuing its interest in the genre, Netflix dropped the Danish thriller The Rain, which is being touted by some as its answer to The Walking Dead, except with a distinct young-adult skew.

The show is set after a brutal virus wipes out most of the population, as two young siblings embark on a perilous search for safety.

The fact the virus is spread through precipitation has led some to draw somewhat unfortunate comparisons to Chubby Rain, the fictional ‘film within a film’ in the Steve Martin/Eddie Murphy comedy Bowfinger.

Netflix Brazilian original 3% recently returned for a second season

ABC’s The Crossing, meanwhile, debuted on April 2. The show centres on an influx of refugees in present-day Oregon, but with the twist that they are from a war-torn USA, 180 years in the future.

Starring Steve Zahn (War for the Planet of the Apes, Treme), The Crossing debuted with a modest 5.5 million viewers, with audiences declining for subsequent episodes.

On May 19, HBO will premiere its feature-length version of Fahrenheit 451, an adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s sci-fi classic that depicts a totalitarian society where books are outlawed and burned by ‘firemen.’

Fahrenheit 451 takes its title from the autoignition temperature of paper. The book was last adapted for the screen in 1966 by French auteur filmmaker Francois Truffaut and was his only English-language movie. HBO’s version boasts a stellar cast including Michael Shannon (The Shape of Water) and Michael B Jordan (Black Panther). Shannon has previously worked with Fahrenheit 451 director Ramin Bahrani on the award-winning foreclosure drama 99 Homes (2014).

On the horizon from Fremantle’s UFA Fiction (Deutschland 83) is Kelvin’s Book, from art-house film writer/director Michael Haneke (The Piano Teacher, Hidden). An English-language project, the 10×60′ series tells the story of a group of young people in the not-too-distant future who are “forced to make an emergency landing outside of their home and are confronted with the actual face of their home country for the first time.”

Michael Shannon (left) and Michael B Jordan in Fahrenheit 451

Next year sees the debut of Amazon Prime Video/Liberty Global’s London-set series The Feed, which “centres on the family of the man who invented an omnipresent technology called The Feed. Implanted into nearly everyone’s brain, The Feed enables people to share information, emotions and memories instantly. But when things start to go wrong and users become murderous, they struggle to control the monster they have unleashed.”

Guy Burnet, Nina Toussaint White, David Thewlis and Michelle Fairley will star in the psychological thriller, which will be distributed by All3Media International.

One new project that many spectators now believe may never make it to the screen is HBO’s Confederate, as creators David Benioff and DB Weiss (Game of Thrones) are now on board the Star Wars franchise – and the show’s concept of a continuing Southern slave-owning state has proved highly controversial in the current US political climate.

FX has recently ordered a pilot of Y: The Last Man, set in a world with only one surviving male – with strong production credentials from co-showrunners Michael Green (Logan, Bladerunner 2049, American Gods) and Aida Mashaka Croal (Turn, Luke Cage).

Israeli VoD service/cablenet HOT TV will debut Autonomies this year, which imagines the present-day country divided by a wall into two Jewish states – secular in Tel Aviv and ultra-orthodox in Jerusalem.

And to round off the dystopian shows in development, Amazon recently announced a series based on William Gibson’s The Peripheral, set in a bleak not-too-distant future (and beyond), with the Westworld team of Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan as showrunners.

Seth McFarlane’s The Orville serves up more lighthearted sci-fi fare

Syfy’s 2015 miniseries adaptation of Arthur C Clarke’s Childhood’s End must take the prize for one of the most downbeat endings ever – concluding as it does in the total destruction of the Earth, after the planet’s mutated psychic children have been subsumed into an all-powerful alien ‘overmind.’

But lest we fall into total despair, it should be recognised that there are actually a few sci-fi TV dramas that depict a future that isn’t unrelentingly grim.

The Star Trek franchise is notable for showing an optimistic view of the times to come, with mankind becoming a force for good in the galaxy after (with notable exceptions such as Harry Mudd) curbing its greed and war-mongering.

Seth McFarlane’s affectionate Trek tribute The Orville (Fox) also has rosier take on the future, whileNetflix’s Lost in Space reboot has a not-entirely-pessimistic vision of humanity in the 21st century.

Hulu/Ch4’s upcoming Beau Willimon-scripted Martian colony drama The First (starring Sean Penn and Natasha McElhone) appears to promise a relatively upbeat approach, or at least one that’s not tipped totally in the direction of dystopian misery.

The long-running Stargate SG1 and its spin-offs portrayed a universe that was inhabited by at least a few alien species willing to befriend mankind rather than instantly vaporise Earth.

Meanwhile, Doctor Who (BBC1) generally takes a more upbeat road, as befits its family audience. Although end-of-the-world scenarios and alien domination feature frequently, the Doctor usually conveys a positive attitude, occasionally (in some incarnations) to the point of what some may deem mania.

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Watch all the best teasers and trailers from Comic-Con 2016

As the dust settles on another action-packed San Diego Comic-Con, there is plenty to look forward to if the new footage previewed at the event is anything to go by.

From teasers for forthcoming new series to big reveals about new seasons of fan favourites, expectations were certainly heightened by what was showcased during four days of panels, screenings and guest appearances at the San Diego Convention Centre.

Here’s a rundown of the best videos unveiled at Comic-Con:

Starz unveiled the first trailer for American Gods, based on the novel by Neil Gaiman and due to air in 2017

BBC America also dropped the first footage of comic book adaptation Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency

Fox previewed a new trailer for its take on classic horror movie The Exorcist

Another new series Syfy’s Incorporated, which is set in a world controlled by corporations. It is produced by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon

The trailer for The Walking Dead season seven introduces King Ezekiel and his tiger (pictured at the top of this page)

But not to be outdone, spin-off Fear The Walking Dead gave fans a teaser of a new storyline that feature a cult that sacrifices its own members in the second half of season two

If that wasn’t enough blood, Starz also previewed season two of Ash vs Evil Dead as star Bruce Campbell announced Lee Majors was joining the cast

Fans saw the first glimpse of season four of Sherlock

Here’s the first footage from Prison Break, which is returning to Fox in 2016/17

ABC used Comic-Con to reveal that Aladdin and Jafar would be making their debuts in the first scene of sixth season of Once Upon a Time

But excitement for the sixth season trailer of MTV’s Teen Wolf was tempered with the announcement that the new run would also be its last

Of course, Comic-Con royalty status is reserved for the big comic book publishers, and this year was no exception in terms of their television crossovers.

Among its film and television panels, DC Comics unveiled the third-season trailer for The CW’s The Flash, which introduces the comic’s Flashpoint storyline after Barry Allen goes back in time to prevent his mother’s murder

Fans inside the convention centre also saw footage from the fifth season of Arrow

The most recent entry into the DC Comics television landscape, Legends of Tomorrow, debuted its season-two trailer

Meanwhile, Batman prequel Gotham unveiled clues about its upcoming third season

It was Marvel, however, that stole the show and provided some of the biggest talking points from this year’s event.

The studio unveiled the first trailer for Legion, the new FX drama from Noah Hawley (Fargo) that is set in the X-Men universe

Marvel also debuted footage from its upcoming Netflix shows. First up is Luke Cage, which debuts online on September 30

Iron Fist follows, completing the line-up of superheroes to appear on the SVoD service in the wake of Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage

The studio also confirmed there will be a third season of Daredevil with this teaser

But also in 2017, the quartet will come together in miniseries The Defenders, as previewed in this teaser that plays against the soundtrack of Nirvana’s Come As You Are

Not to be forgotten, however, is a little show called Star Trek, which returns to television next year on CBS and CBS All Access in the US and Netflix around the world. And in the week the latest feature film in the franchise, Star Trek Beyond, hit cinemas, Trekkies got to see this test footage from Star Trek: Discovery, which will follow the crew of the USS Discovery.

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Kohan to serve to three more years in prison

Orange is the New Black has been given an unprecedented three-season order
Orange is the New Black has been given an unprecedented three-season order

By now, the TV industry is used to SVoD giant Netflix breaking the rules. But even by Netflix’s standards, the decision to order three additional seasons of Lionsgate’s Orange is the New Black (OITNB) in one go is a surprise. It must take some special kind of data algorithm to be able to judge a show that far into the future.

Season four of the Jenji Kohan-created comedy drama about an eclectic group of female prison inmates hasn’t even been released yet (it launches in June), but this week’s announcement means OITNB will now have a minimum of seven seasons.

Commenting on the decision, Cindy Holland, VP of original content at Netflix, said: “Jenji and her team have produced a phenomenal and impactful series that is funny and dramatic, outrageous and heartfelt. Audiences around the world have come to love the ladies and men of OITNB, and we are eager to see where three more seasons will take them.”

Kohan, who has signed up to be OITNB’s showrunner for the new seasons, added: “Three more years! Not quite a political term, but still plenty of time to do some interesting things. In some cultures, ‘May you lead an interesting life,’ is a curse, but I don’t live in those cultures. Here’s to keeping it interesting. Thanks Netflix! Both thanks and you’re welcome Lionsgate! And kudos to the stellar cast and crew and writers and producers and editors and musicians and mixers and shleppers with whom I have the honour of crafting this show. Three more years! Three more years!”

And there was more eulogising from Lionsgate Television Group chairman Kevin Beggs – who was so excited he upgraded the current age of drama from gold to platinum. “We’re proud to continue our long-standing relationships with Netflix and the incredibly talented Jenji Kohan and delighted that one of the most acclaimed shows on television will continue on Netflix for three more seasons. Jenji’s brilliant creative vision and a truly amazing cast have catapulted OITNB to the forefront of the platinum age of television, and we’re pleased that fans around the world will be rewarded with another three seasons.”

Jenji Kohan
Jenji Kohan

It’s not unheard of for broadcasters to commission two seasons of a scripted show at once, but three is a remarkable show of support – and not without risks. For a start, Kohan could simply run out of steam over the course of the next four years. Or the security of so many episodes could reduce the urgency and hunger that comes with needing a renewal. Or the audience could start to lose interest – either because they’ve seen enough or because something even better comes along.

So the question is – why do it? Why not just stick with the more usual pattern of commission, transmission, ratings, renewal? Well, it can’t be to do with subscribers, because people don’t make decisions based around such long-term programme planning. So it must be the fear of losing either Kohan or the show to a rival.

If it’s the former, then perhaps it’s a reflection of the fact that showrunners trusted by networks/platforms are in short supply. At conference after conference, producers tell stories of how they have to wait for years for A-list showrunners to become free. The obvious solution would be to improve access for new writers, but this reckons without the fear factor that still underpins so much network decision-making. It’s ironic that, at the very same time we talk about industry innovation and creativity, there is so much money being spent on film-to-TV adaptations and reboots.

If it’s the latter, then maybe Netflix is reacting to the news that Lionsgate may be about to merge with Starz. If that deal goes ahead as planned, it’s not inconceivable that Lionsgate would choose to sell future series of OITNB on Starz. So maybe this is a way of Netflix pre-empting that eventuality. Whatever the thinking, it will be interesting to see if other companies start to make similar commitments. If they do, then this will truly go down as the golden age for scripted TV writers – the gold bullion age.

A second season of Colony has been confirmed just four episodes into its debut run
A second season of Colony has been confirmed just four episodes into its debut run

There is another possible factor involved in Netflix’s decision – which is that networks increasingly want to signal to the audience that they should stick with a show, because it is going to be around for a long time. The beauty of Game of Thrones or Outlander, for example, is that you know it is worthwhile investing emotional capital in the stories. There’s nothing worse than watching a show that gets axed just as you are getting into it.

We’re seeing this more and more with networks that commission season two of a show when season one has only just begun. This week, for example, USA Network greenlit a second run its alien invasion drama Colony after just four episodes of its debut season. It made a similar move with Mr Robot (and, for the record, commissioned season six of hit series Suits very early).

On the face of it, this early commissioning trend runs counter to the risk-aversion referred to above. But the reality is that scripted TV will never be entirely without risk. So it’s better to back a project in a meaningful way than spend tens of millions of dollars on something that the audience doesn’t bother to turn up for.

Another interesting story doing the rounds is that YouTube is about to launch its first exclusive series, Scare PewDiePie, starring the phenomenonally popular YouTube gaming star. Produced in partnership with Disney’s Maker Studios, the series will be part of the video-sharing site’s new subscription-based service YouTube Red.

Felix Arvid Ulf Kjellberg, better known as PewDiePie, is one of YouTube's biggest stars
Felix Arvid Ulf Kjellberg, better known as PewDiePie, is one of YouTube’s biggest stars

Scare PewDiePie is a reality show – which begs the question why we’re highlighting it in a column about scripted TV. Well, the significant point is that YouTube is getting into origination backed by subscriptions. So it won’t be long before we see YouTube stars appearing in scripted series and movies on the new YouTube Red service. In fact, YouTube already has a deal in place to stream films from Dreamworks Animations’ AwesomenessTV on its platform.

From here, it’s not a great imaginative leap to suppose that YouTube Red will start to enter the more mainstream scripted business alongside Netflix, Amazon and the big pay TV brands.

Other greenlights this week include a 13-part order from Syfy for Incorporated, created by David and Alex Pastor and executive produced by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck.

There’s also been a second-season order for NBC’s Shades of Blue, which stars Jennifer Lopez as a corrupt NYPD detective turned FBI informant. NBC Entertainment president Jennifer Salke said: “We want to thank Jennifer, who is the hardest-working woman we know, for her incredible efforts as both the star and producer of this show, as well as our other amazing producers and cast for all their tireless work in creating one of the most compelling dramas on television today. We’re so excited to find out where this story will lead and have them raise the stakes even higher in (season two).”

Jennifer Lopez in Shades of Blue
Jennifer Lopez in Shades of Blue

Last week, we talked about how ABC in the US had backed two legal show pilots. Well, rival CBS has decided to focus more on medical shows. Two new pilots announced include Bunker Hill and Sensory, about a neurologist who has ‘mirror-touch synesthesia,’ a condition that causes someone to experience other people’s sensations. Already airing on CBS is medical drama Code Black, a moderately successful series set in an LA emergency room.

Elsewhere, Endemol Shine-owned production outfit Bandit Television is making a show about the notorious Rillington Place murders for BBC1. Based around the actions of 1940s serial killer John Christie, the story was previously the subject of an acclaimed 1971 film starring Richard Attenborough and John Hurt.

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The age of ‘sigh’-fi?

Big names including Bradley Cooper and Todd Phillips are on board the adaptation of Dan Simmons’ Hyperion
Big names including Bradley Cooper and Todd Phillips are on board the TV adaptation of Dan Simmons’ Hyperion

Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead, Spaced) recently lamented the number of sci-fi and superhero sagas that are appearing on television and in the movies. Speaking to The Radio Times, he said: “Obviously I’m a self-confessed fan of science fiction and genre cinema. But part of me looks at society as it is now and thinks we’ve been infantilised by our own taste. We’re all consuming very childish things – comic books, superheroes… Adults are watching this stuff, and taking it seriously.”

He has a point – particularly when you look at the factory-farm exploitation of the DC and Marvel mythologies by Warner Bros and Disney. But there is a flip side to sci-fi and fantasy – which is that it provides creatives with new ways to address important themes about the way humanity conducts itself. The best projects, many of which start in book form, are superb treatises on power, war, gender, immigration, the environment, medical ethics and the advance of AI. So many of the challenges and opportunities we are living through now were first identified and debated by the farsighted sci-fi writers of the last century.

US sci-fi channel Syfy has broadcast its fair share of tripe down the years, but more recently it has really been getting to grips with what the genre can offer at its best. This week, for example, it announced that it is teaming up with Bradley Cooper (American Sniper), Graham King (The Departed, Argo) and Todd Phillips (The Hangover, Old School) to develop Dan Simmons’ Hugo Award-winning best-selling novel Hyperion as an event series. As if that isn’t enough top talent to be getting on with, the screenplay will be written by Itamar Moses, best known for Boardwalk Empire.

Power creator Courtney Kemp Agboh
Power creator Courtney Kemp Agboh

Set on the eve of Armageddon with the galaxy at war, Hyperion is the story of seven pilgrims who set forth on a voyage to seek the answers to the unsolved riddles of their lives. A complex and intelligent work that employs a similar narrative structure to The Canterbury Tales, it’s a million miles from the kind of projects Pegg is concerned about. Commenting on the project, Syfy and Chiller president Dave Howe said: “Epitomising the gold standard of science-fiction story-telling, Hyperion tackles smart, provocative themes that help define Syfy’s development vision.”

Syfy isn’t completely free of the shackles of comic book tyranny (it recently greenlit David Goyer’s Superman prequel Krypton, for example), but there’s no questioning the channel’s ambition. Aside from Hyperion, recently announced projects include The Magicians, based on Lev Grossman’s best-selling books; a futuristic detective series called The Expanse; Childhood’s End, based on an Arthur C. Clarke’s 1953 classic about a peaceful alien invasion; and Brave New World, a series from Amblin Television based on Aldous Huxley’s superb novel. For Howe, the latter is another example of the way the channel is heading: “Brave New World is precisely the groundbreaking programming that is becoming the hallmark of Syfy. It is one of the most influential genre classics of all time. Its provocative vision of a future gone awry remains as powerful and as timeless as ever.”

The inclusion of Bradley Cooper in its roster of talent is, of course, a coup for Syfy. But it’s not the only example of Syfy’s ability to attract A-listers. In April, it greenlit Incorporated, a futuristic espionage thriller from Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s Pearl Street Productions, CBS TV Studios and Universal Cable Productions.

Curtis '50 Cent' Jackson (right) exec produces and has a role in Power
Curtis ’50 Cent’ Jackson (right) exec produces and has a role in Power

Set in a future where companies have unlimited power, Incorporated tells the story of executive Ben Larson, forced to change his identity in order to infiltrate a cut-throat corporate world and save the woman he loves. In the process, he will take on the entire system – with deadly consequences. Syfy says the dystopian future of the show – created by David and Alex Pastor (Selfless, The Last Days) – reflects contemporary trends: the growing influence of corporations and private interests in Washington, the slow but steady dismantling of the public sector, and the accumulation of an amazing amount of wealth by an ever-shrinking minority. “It is an electrifying example of what science fiction does best,” says Howe, “holding a mirror to present realities and projecting forward to a recognisable future in which we face the impact and consequences of our actions.” And there won’t be a cape in sight.

Back in the here and now, Starz has just greenlit a third series of Power, the New York-based drama from Courtney Kemp Agboh that came with Curtis ‘50 Cent’ Jackson on board as an executive producer. Power is a crime drama set in two different worlds: the glamorous New York club scene and its brutal drug trade. With its predominantly black cast, it has been a revelation for Starz. The first episode of the second series, which aired on June 6, logged 1.43 million Live+SD viewers, the most ever for a Starz Original series season premiere. More than 3.62 million Live+SD viewers watched the episode over the initial weekend.

Episodes will return for a fifth run
Episodes will return for a fifth run

Kemp Agboh, who created the show, has much to celebrate this week. In addition to record ratings and a third season pick-up for Power, Starz has just signed her to an overall deal. Commenting, Starz MD Carmi Zlotnik said: “Courtney is a highly regarded showrunner whose creative vision brings viewers into the two worlds of Power. We are extremely pleased to continue our relationship with Courtney in the coming years.”

There was also good news for Matt LeBlanc this week, following Showtime’s decision to order a fifth season of Episodes, a scripted comedy starring the former Friends actor as a fictionalised version of himself. After a relatively low-key launch in 2011, the Hat Trick Productions show has emerged as one of best comedies of the last few years. Now up to 43 episodes in total, it has also sold well internationally for distributor Hat Trick International.

Finally, it seems Nordic, French and Israeli drama producers might have a new competitor. At the New Europe Market in Dubrovnik, FremantleMedia and Jadran Film Zagreb announced a strategic partnership to bring the literary works of one of Croatia’s most popular writers, Marija Jurić Zagorka, to global audiences.

Croatian author Marija Jurić Zagorka
Croatian author Marija Jurić Zagorka

Zagorka, who died in 1957, is one of the most read writers in Central and Eastern Europe, although her novels have never been translated into English. The partnership kicks off with a joint production of one of Zagorka’s most famous works: The Witch of Grich (Grička vještica), which has sold more than 10 million copies in Eastern Europe.

Set in the second half of the 18th century, it tells the story of a young countess called Nera, whose popularity among men causes envy among her female peers. When Nera tries to save a group of poor women from a witch-hunt, her rivals see this as an opportunity to accuse her of witchcraft. FremantleMedia and Jadran Film are also looking at developing titles such as Kneginja iz Petrinjske ulice, Gordana and Jadranka.

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