Tag Archives: J Michael Straczynski

Viewers fine with the end of the world

The Leftovers
Despite critical acclaim and a cult following, The Leftovers is far from certain for renewal on HBO

Anyone in the TV drama business will know just how hard it is to keep up with all the new scripted titles coming onto the global market. In my case, it took me until season four to find Breaking Bad and season three to start watching Downton Abbey – and even then I fell asleep during the first episode and didn’t start watching again for a few months.

I was a year late discovering Happy Valley and have yet to get past episode one of True Detective. And I’m a person who only watches drama, movies and Arsenal FC.

At C21 Media’s International Drama Summit last week, I learnt there is another show I have been missing out on – HBO’s The Leftovers.

Browsing through DQ’s pre-event coverage of the summit, I was struck by just how many TV executives singled it out as one of their top scripted series of the year. This echoes Variety TV critic Maureen Ryan, who recently said: “The best surprise of 2015 might be how good, actually, how great, The Leftovers has become.”

For those in the same boat as me, The Leftovers is based on a bestselling novel by Tom Perrotta. The series takes place three years after a global event called the ‘Sudden Departure,’ during which 140 million people (2% of the world’s population) inexplicably disappear. As a result, a number of religious cults spring up, the most prominent of which is called the Guilty Remnant.

Damon Lindelof
Damon Lindelof

Perrotta is also co-creator of the series, though a lot of the writing is done by Damon Lindelof, who is credited as a co-writer on every episode of the first two seasons except one. Prior to The Leftovers, Lindelof’s major TV credit was ABC’s iconic series Lost, which he co-created. Subsequently, he devoted more of his time to movies, writing the screenplays to Cowboys & Aliens, Prometheus, Star Trek Into Darkness, and Tomorrowland.

Season two of The Leftovers ended this week, and there has not yet been any word from HBO on whether it will be renewed. This is because, despite all the critical acclaim and a cult following, it hasn’t been rating very well.

Lindelof would like to do another season, but is realistic enough to realise that the show’s viewing figures might not allow that. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, he said: “Anybody who says to you that they don’t want more viewers is a much more confident individual than I am. I do subscribe to the idea that the more people watching the show, the better the show is. The more critical acclaim, the better the show is. I’m just not the person who’s like, ‘Hey, if I like it then f– all of y’all.’ Television in particular is a medium that is designed to go out to the masses, and I would like a lot of people (to watch my show).”

Another sci-fi writer in the news this week is J Michael Straczynski, creator of Babylon 5 and co-creator of Sense8. Straczynski has been handed the exciting role of adapting Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy of novels for US cable network Spike.

Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy is being adapted for Spike
Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy is being adapted for Spike

Robinson’s award-winning books, which were written between 1993 and 1996, tell the story of humanity’s colonisation of the red planet, starting with the early settlers. Adapted into 21 languages, the books have been acclaimed for their strong scientific foundation, which keeps the story rooted in some kind of reality.

Spike made its ambitions in scripted TV clear earlier this year when it aired Ancient Egypt miniseries Tut. But this is the first time in a decade it has greenlit a full series. With Straczynski at the helm as writer, executive producer and showrunner, it is the kind of project that could develop into an ongoing franchise.

“The heart and soul of Red Mars is about humanity,” said Spike executive VP of original series Sharon Levy. “This group of strangers must find a way to live together and survive under the most daunting conditions mankind has ever faced to become the first living generation of Martians. They will be each other’s greatest source of strength – and, if they can’t coexist, the reason for failure.”

Also on board is Skydance Television, whose president Marcy Ross added: “We are thrilled to join forces with Spike to bring Kim Stanley Robinson’s dynamic world of the Mars trilogy to television audiences for the first time ever, particularly in the brilliant creative voice of science-fiction legend J Michael Straczynski.”

Childhood's End
Childhood’s End hits screens next week

Author Robinson will be a consultant on the new series, which goes into production next summer for a January 2017 debut.

Humanity’s battle for survival is a big theme in TV drama at present, which is probably the result of various background factors such as the unstable geopolitical environment, the fear of pandemics, the rapid rise of AI, the growing refugee crisis and the failure of countries to get to grips with climate change.

As well as the shows named above, we’ve seen Neil Cross secure a commission for Hard Sun while Syfy  is just about to air Matthew Graham’s adaptation of Arthur C Clarke’s Childhood’s End (December 14-16).

Writer Regina Moriarty is also in the process of adapting Jane Rogers novel The Testament of Jessie Lamb as a three-parter. Developed with Carnival Films, Rogers’ novel imagines a near-future world in which a virus is killing pregnant mothers. Scientists fight to save the unborn children by placing the mothers in a chemically induced coma, but a breakthrough in immunising frozen embryos could hold the key to the human race’s survival.

James Patterson
James Patterson

The keen-eyed among you will have noted that three of the above projects are based on novels. Another novel adaptation breaking to the surface this week is Now You See Her, a legal drama based on a book by James Patterson. Ordered by CBS, the TV version will be written by Siobhan Byrne O’Connor, whose writing credits include Blue Bloods, Law & Order, Third Watch and Monk. Blue Bloods, also on CBS, has been running for six seasons.

Patterson is a popular source among TV networks. CBS thriller series Zoo is also based on his work, while there has been talk of USA Network adapting his Women’s Murder Club novels. Like movie-to-TV adaptations and TV series reboots, novel adaptations act as a comfort blanket for broadcasters that are nervous about the high-cost and risk attached in wholly original production.

As a footnote to this, it’s interesting to note that Syfy’s decision to greenlight Red Mars follows the breakout success of feature film The Martian, starring Matt Damon. The two projects are unrelated but there’s clearly some security to be had in backing subject matter than has already won itself an audience.

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Sense8-tional success

Sense8's writers believe the show deals with subjects previously untouched by sci-fi
Sense8’s writers believe the show deals with subjects previously untouched by sci-fi

Netflix has been in the news a lot this week. There has, for example, been furious speculation about the future of Sense8, a 12-part sci-fi drama that quickly established itself as a hit series for the subscription VoD platform.

Launched on June 5, it has attracted audiences and acclaim in key markets such as the US, France and Germany. With positive reviews on both Netflix itself and IMDb, it has also quickly become a target for the non-Netflix pirate audience.

The story of eight strangers from different parts of the world who suddenly become emotionally and mentally linked, Sense8 was created and written by Andy and Lana Wachowski and J Michael Straczynski. It attempts to deal with subjects that the writers believe sci-fi shows avoid or don’t do justice to, such as politics, identity, sexuality, gender and religion.

Straczynski had an opportunity to discuss the show at this week’s meeting of the Television Critics Association in California. Speaking on a panel, Straczynski made it clear the Sense8 team will continue the show if they get the greenlight from Netflix.

“We’re still awaiting word,” he said. “We’re cautiously optimistic, but it’s Netflix’s call. The way the Wachowskis and I tend to work, we are long-thinking people. We look down the road and say to ourselves, ‘Where is this going to go?’

“Season one is like an origin story, while season two has some particular arc and we figure it out from there. But to spoil that here would not be best for the surprise at the end.”

One thing that stands out in the show is its graphic content. Explaining its inclusion, Straczynski said: “We wanted to do a show for adults and grown-ups. There’s a tendency for science fiction to be seen as something other than for adults. It tends to be about the device, the gadget, the mission and not about the journey.”

Straczynski has a long and varied track record in TV writing, which goes all the way back to He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, of which he wrote nine episodes. After stints on The New Twilight Zone, Murder She Wrote and Walker Texas Ranger, his big breakthrough project was sci-fi series Babylon 5, which ran for five seasons. Straczynski wrote 92 episodes out of a total 110 for the 23rd century-set space opera, before going on to create a spin-off called Crusade and another series called Jeremiah.

The trajectory for the Wachowskis has been quite different. After the success of their Matrix movie franchise, the brother/sister team has had a couple of feature film disappointments in the shape of Jupiter Ascending and Cloud Atlas. So the success of Sense8 has led some observers to ask whether their offbeat approach might be better suited to longform TV series. The answer to that seems to be that they’ll work across both formats.

Infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar, the focus of forthcoming Netflix show Narcos
Infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar, the focus of forthcoming Netflix show Narcos

One interesting theme that emerges from Sense8 is the issue of transgender identity. Lana Wachowski is a transgender woman and there is also a central transgender character in the show, Nomi – played by trans actress Jamie Clayton.

Clayton, who was on the TCA panel, praised the way the Wachowskis and Straczynski devised her character. She said: “There has never been a trans character in a movie or on a show before that didn’t revolve around his or her transition. Nomi is the first… no one cares because, at the end of the day, we shouldn’t care that she’s trans.”

Alongside all the Sense8 speculation, the pre-launch publicity for Narcos, another Netflix series, also kicked off at the TCA event. Produced for Netflix by Gaumont International Television, Narcos is a 10-part series that explores the 1980s drug war between the US administration and Colombian cartel kingpin Pablo Escobar. It will begin streaming on Netflix on Friday August 28.

Narcos was created by Chris Brancato, Eric Newman, Carlo Bernard and Jose Padilha, who initially intended it to be a film but found that the wealth of material favoured a TV series.

Explaining the project, Padilha said: “The series follows how (Escobar) became powerful, his political ambitions and bigger-than-life stories. Cocaine was cheap to produce, highly addictive and had incredible profit margins. No one knew what they had until it hit America.”

Newman’s involvement in the project is another good indication of the huge film-to-TV swing the industry is witnessing. After making his name as a producer of films such as Children of Men, The Thing, In Time and Robocop, his last two projects have been the TV series Hemlock Grove and Narcos. Padilha, who is from Brazil originally, counts Elite Squad among his recent credits.

Comedy-drama Lilyhammer led the way in binge viewing
Comedy-drama Lilyhammer led the way in binge viewing

Also this week, Netflix confirmed that the third season of Norwegian-American series Lilyhammer will be its last. The show, which centres on a US gangster trying to start a new life in Norway, was a landmark moment in scripted business.

It was one of the first shows that really put Netflix on the map and also kick-started a trend towards shows that are comfortable hopping between different languages. The star and co-writer of the show is Steven Van Zandt, who seemed disappointed by the cancellation.

He wrote on Twitter: “#Lilyhammer RIP. Not my decision. Let’s just say for now the business got too complicated. Very proud of our 24 shows. New ideas on the way.”

While Lilyhammer (which was also a breakout hit for Norwegian broadcaster NRK) is often thought of as being Van Zandt’s creation, the original idea was actually conceived by the husband-and-wife team of Anne Bjørnstad and Eilif Skodvin, who pitched it to Van Zandt while he was in Bergen producing a rock band. After a further meeting in New York a deal was done.

Among other Netflix announcements this week was the news that the streamer has greenlit a Spanish-language series that will air in 2016.

“Netflix is committed to the creation of high-quality, Spanish-language original series for Mexico, US, Latin America and the world,” said chief content officer Ted Sarandos. “We are thrilled to be working with one of Latin America’s biggest and most talented stars Kate del Castillo on Ingobernable.”

Kate del Castillo will star in Ingobernable
Kate del Castillo will star in Ingobernable

In Ingobernable, del Castillo will play Irene Urzua, the wife of Mexico’s president. A woman with a strong personality, conviction and clear ideas, Urzua is capable of “creating a president, leaving a president and killing a president,” said Netflix in a press statement.

The 20-part series will be produced in Mexico by Argos and directed by Jose Luis Garcia Agraz and Pedro Pablo Ibarra. No details were provided on who is writing the show.

Netflix is also due to premiere Gaz Alazraki and Mike Lam’s Spanish-language series Club de Cuervos on August 7.

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