Tag Archives: Jenji Kohan

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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Netflix nurtures writing talent

Orange is the New Black
Orange is the New Black is one of Netflix’s most recognisable titles

Earlier this week, SVoD platform Netflix announced the launch dates for a raft of scripted shows. Among them is season four of Orange is the New Black (OITNB), which will premiere on Friday June 17. With Netflix now in so many countries around the world, the series is likely to be one of the global TV highlights of the year.

Adapted from Piper Kerman’s memoir of the same name, this acutely observed comedy-drama tells the story of a 30-something PR executive who unexpectedly winds up in a women’s prison.

While no one really has a clue how the show does in terms of ratings, it is widely regarded as a success story for Netflix (based on fan adulation, critical acclaim and an 8.3 rating on IMDb).

The TV series is written by Jenji Kohan, whose career credits read like a millennial generation dinner-party discussion.

Jenji Kohan
Jenji Kohan

In the 1990s, she wrote a handful of episodes for The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Boston Common, Mad About You and Sex and the City – though her biggest gig at the time was Tracey Takes On. Lift off came during the last decade when she had a lengthy association with Gilmore Girls, a brief flirtation with Will & Grace and, most significantly, created dark comedy Weeds, which ran for eight seasons (102 episodes) on premium pay TV network Showtime.

Weeds told the story of Nancy Botwin, a widowed mother of two boys who begins selling marijuana to support her family after her husband dies suddenly of a heart attack. As creator, writer and executive producer of that show, Kohan firmly established her reputation as one of the US market’s most talented comedy drama writers.

OITNB plays in a similar space – an area Kohan is clearly drawn to. In a 2013 interview, she said: “I’m always looking for those places where you can slam really disparate people up against one another, and they have to deal with each other. There are very few crossroads anymore. We talk about this country as this big melting pot, but it’s a mosaic. There’s all these pieces, they’re next to each other but they’re not necessarily mixing. I’m looking for those spaces where people actually do mix – and prison just happens to be a terrific one.”

OITNB was an immediate hit when it launched in the US in July 2013, and also proved popular with European audiences. Its appeal was reflected during the 2014 award season, when the show was nominated for 12 Emmys and Kohan was named one of Time’s Most Influential People.

Weeds
Kohan previously met success with Weeds

The latter may seem a strange accolade for a TV writer, but there’s a general acknowledgement that the show moved the dial on how the LGBT community is portrayed on screen and perceived in wider society.

While OITNB remains her primary project, Kohan has an overall deal with Lionsgate TV (which backed her on both this show and Weeds). Under this arrangement she made a pilot called The Devil You Know for HBO.

Co-written by Kohan, Bruce Miller and Tracy Miller, the pilot was a provocative period drama set around the times of the Salem Witch Trials in 17th century New England. There’s not much in the public domain about the show but the lack of any additional news suggests it might not have got past the pilot stage – though there’s no confirmation of this. (Click here to see a video of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s James Marsden talking about his role in the programme.)

Among new Netflix drama titles that look interesting is Stranger Things, which premieres globally on July 15.

The Duffer twins
The Duffer twins, know for horror film Hidden, are showrunners on Stranger Things

In this eight-hour series, a young boy vanishes into thin air. As friends, family, and local police search for answers, they are drawn into a mystery involving top-secret experiments, terrifying supernatural forces and one very strange little girl. Set in 1980s Indiana, it stars movie icon Winona Ryder and is written by twin brothers Matt and Ross Duffer.

The Duffer twins are currently on a very rapid upwards trajectory. They first caught the industry’s attention in 2011 when, straight from college, they had numerous studios competing for their horror script Hidden. That was ultimately made into a movie by Warner Bros, released in September last year. In the meantime, they also became involved in M Night Shyamalan’s Wayward Pines, working on episodes five, six, nine and 10. With Stranger Things, the Duffer Brothers will also be directing and showrunning.

Another new Netflix title sure to attract a lot of attention is Baz Luhrmann’s music-driven drama The Get Down, which focuses on 1970s New York City: “broken down and beaten up, violent, cash strapped – dying.”

Guirgis
Stephen Adly Guirgis

According to Netflix, the six-parter is “a mythic saga of how New York at the brink of bankruptcy gave birth to hip-hop, punk and disco – told through the lives and music of the south Bronx kids who changed the city, and the world, forever.”

Luhrmann’s creative team includes Oscar-winning designer Catherine Martin, hip-hop historian and writer Nelson George and writer Stephen Adly Guirgis.

To date, Guirgis is best known as a playwright, having won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for drama for Between Riverside and Crazy. His involvement in this new project reflects a trend of stage writers moving to television.

However, he does have a few screenwriting credits to his name, including an episode of NYPD Blue from 2002 and a couple of short-lived dramas called Big Apple (CBS) and UC: Undercover (NBC). He is also an actor, having appeared in movies such as Birdman. A regular feature on Broadway, Guirgis’s intimate knowledge of New York is sure to be a big benefit to Luhrmann’s Netflix show.

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GLAAD shines spotlight on LGBT progress

Orange is the New Black 'boasts more LGBT regular and recurring characters than any other scripted programme'
Orange is the New Black ‘boasts more LGBT regular and recurring characters than any other scripted programme’

In the US, an organisation called GLAAD – formerly the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation – has spent the last 20 years tracking the number of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) characters on television.

Each year it uses the data generated to create a comprehensive report entitled Where We Are On TV. The 2015/2016 edition of the report came out this week and shows that the TV industry is moving in the right direction – but still has a lot of work to do.

As GLAAD CEO and president Sarah Kate Ellis points out, fair representation of the LGBT community on TV isn’t just about the number of LGBT characters in TV dramas, but also how they are portrayed: “As each of us lives at the intersection of many identities, it’s important that TV characters reflect the diversity of the LGBT community,” she says. “

It’s not enough to include LGBT characters; writers must craft those characters with thought and care. They must reject outdated stereotypes and avoid token characters that are burdened with representing an entire community through the view of one person.”

So this week we’re taking a look at which shows and writers are making the most headway towards LGBT equality.

jamal-lyon
Empire’s Jamal Lyon is played by Jussie Smollett

US broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, The CW, Fox, NBC)
GLAAD’s figures show that out of 881 regular characters on 118 primetime scripted series, 35 were LGBT. This is up from 32 characters last year. GLAAD counted an additional 35 recurring LGBT characters in the same pool of shows.

Gay men make up a slight majority, though lesbian representation is up 5% year-on-year to 33%. Perhaps surprisingly given the prominence of the transgender agenda, “there are currently no regular or recurring transgender characters expected on broadcast networks’ primetime scripted programming.”

The organisation singles out Fox hit Empire as one of the best performers in terms of its LGBT character credentials. With a writing team headed by Danny Strong and Ilene Chaiken, season two sees gay musician Jamal Lyon “taking on more of a business role as the head of the family music label, Empire,” says GLAAD. “Tianna, a bisexual artist signed to the label, was upped to a series regular this year. Several other gay, lesbian and bisexual characters will recur (during season two).”

There are also plaudits for Fox’s new show Rosewood, with a writing team headed by creator Todd Harthan: “While crime procedurals have long been a place where LGBT characters were most often included as villains or victims, this season introduces lesbian couple/pathology experts Pippy and TMI.”

GLAAD also singles out CBS sci-fi drama Person of Interest, created by Jonathan Nolan, for the burgeoning lesbian relationship between hacker Root and assassin Shaw. It also finds encouragement in the superhero genre, at least on TV – film is a disappointment by comparison.

“Arrow (developed by Greg Berlanti, Marc Guggenheim and Andrew Kreisberg for The CW) will resurrect bisexual heroine Sara Lance before moving her over to mid-season series DC’s Legends of Tomorrow as a lead character, the White Canary. Her former girlfriend Nyssa will continue to recur on Arrow, and the series will add the recurring gay character Curtis Holt. ABC’s Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D (showrunners Jed Whedon, Maurissa Tancharoen and Jeffrey Bell) will introduce recurring gay character Joey Gutierrez, who has the power to melt metal.”

Penny Dreadful has killed off its Angelique character
Penny Dreadful has killed off its Angelique character

US cable networks
The number of LGBT characters on scripted cable programmes continues to rise, says GLAAD, with 84 regular characters, up from 64 last year. This trend will presumably continue with the growing number of scripted shows being commissioned and the industry’s increasing awareness of the diversity debate.

Recurring characters were also on the rise, up to 58 from 41 previously. Echoing the situation in broadcast TV, gay men dominate, though in this universe lesbian representation dropped 3% to 22%. “Three characters are transgender,” says GLAAD. “Unfortunately one of these is the now-deceased Angelique on Showtime’s Penny Dreadful (created/written by John Logan).”

According to GLAAD, “the teen- and young adult-skewing ABC Family and premium channel Showtime are set to be the most LGBT-inclusive networks on cable, with each network boasting 18 regular or recurring characters (including all of the transgender characters counted on cable).

“The returning drama The Fosters, which follows a lesbian couple raising their biological, foster and adopted children, is ABC Family’s most inclusive show, with seven LGBT characters including trans teen Cole – played by transgender actor Tom Phelan.” The Fosters was created by Bradley Bredeweg and Peter Paige, who continue to be directly involved in the writing of the series.

GLAAD praises ABC Family for upcoming series Shadowhunters (which has Ed Decter as showrunner) and Recovery Road, in which gay actor Daniel Franzese will play a gay man struggling to combat an addiction. There is also a positive report for AMC’s The Walking Dead, which has a gay couple and a lesbian in its extended pool of characters. “The new season will also introduce Paul ‘Jesus’ Monroe, a gay character from the comic books series that provides the show’s source material.”

Toby Stephens as Black Sails' Captain Flint
Toby Stephens as Black Sails’ Captain Flint

Other shows to get the GLAAD stamp of approval include Starz pirate drama Black Sails, where it is revealed that lead character James Flint has previously been involved with a man. Created by Jonathan E Steinberg and Robert Levine, the show also features a number of other bisexual characters.

USA Networks’ critically acclaimed new series Mr Robot, created by Sam Esmail, boasts “several LGBT characters,” says GLAAD, “including cybersecurity firm CEO Gideon, Evil Corp’s VP Tyrell, and hacker/activist Trenton.” It’s a similar case with BBC America’s Orphan Black (created by Graeme Manson and John Fawcett), which depicts a lesbian romance between Cosima and Shay, and FX’s American Horror Story: Hotel, in which Lady Gaga does her bit for the LGBT community by playing a character engaged in a same-sex relationship.

In terms of where the sector could do better, GLAAD wants to see “more racially diverse characters.” Of 142 regular and recurring LGBT characters analysed, 71% are white, which is a bit high for a country with the USA’s multiracial profile.

Jeffrey Tambor takes the lead in Amazon's Transparent
Jeffrey Tambor takes the lead in Amazon’s Transparent

Streaming content providers
This is the first year GLAAD has analysed Amazon, Hulu and Netflix. Due to the lack of defined seasons on such platforms, it looked at shows that premiered or are expected to premiere between June 1, 2015 and May 31, 2016. Across 23 series, GLAAD found “43 regular LGBT characters and an additional 16 recurring characters.” Lesbians had a higher representation than on broadcast and cable, while the transgender community is represented by four characters.

“Notably, two of these four characters are leads: Maura in Transparent and Nomi in Sense8,” says GLAAD. “Transparent show creator Jill Soloway also paid special attention to ensuring diversity both in front of and behind the camera by employing trans writers, crew members and several trans actors in recurring roles.”

Other LGBT-inclusive Amazon series include Mozart in the Jungle and Red Oaks, while Hulu’s most LGBT-inclusive series, interestingly, are imported British soaps Coronation Street and Hollyoaks. “The two series include 10 LGBT characters between them, with Hollyoaks, notably, including a gay character who is HIV-positive. Hulu also airs Australian series Neighbours in the US, which includes two gay characters.”

Kieron Richardson as Ste, one of a number of LGBT characters in Hollyoaks
Kieron Richardson as Ste, one of a number of LGBT characters in Hollyoaks

Hollyoaks works with the Terence Higgins Trust charity on its HIV storyline. The show’s executive producer Bryan Kirkwood says: “We have wanted to tell this story for a long time and while HIV can affect anyone, infection rates in young gay men remain too high and to ignore that is to do the gay audience a disservice. Hollyoaks is in a unique position to talk directly to millions of young viewers and if the safe-sex message is not coming through education, we can help with that on screen and through multiplatform support.”

According to GLAAD, Netflix series Orange is the New Black (created by Jenji Kohan) “boasts more LGBT regular and recurring characters than any other scripted programme.” Other LGBT-inclusive Netflix shows cited include Sense8, Grace and Frankie, Degrassi: The Next Class, The Fall, Bojack Horseman, House of Cards, Master of None, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and Wet Hot American Summer: “We’ll also be keeping an eye on upcoming series Jessica Jones,” says GLAAD.

Aside from the lack of racial diversity in LGBT portrayal, GLAAD noted that people with a disability are underserved. It also called for better representation of the HIV issue (keeping in mind the only HIV-positive character in the report is from a UK show).

GLAAD’s Ellis concludes: “We’ve witnessed tremendous progress, but there is still work to be done. We will continue to applaud networks and streaming services telling (LGBT) stories – and hold their feet to the fire when they don’t.”

Footnote: There isn’t anything like the GLAAD report internationally. But there are good examples of LGBT-inclusive shows. A classic case from the UK is the Russell T Davies 2015 trilogy Cucumber, Banana and Tofu. Also worth noting is the Norwegian drama Eyewitness, distributed internationally by DRG, and CBC’s Schitt’s Creek – a mainstream show that includes a pansexual character. Another standout example (mentioned briefly above) is Allan Cubitt’s The Fall, in which Gillian Anderson portrays bisexual detective Stella Gibson.

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