Tag Archives: Legion

Noah’s art

With an eye for crafting unique worlds, Fargo and Legion creator Noah Hawley tells DQ why he is bringing movie methods to television.

As the stream of talent between cinema and television continues to flow in the small screen’s favour, Noah Hawley is bucking the trend.

The creator of US dramas Fargo and Legion admits that, as the TV industry evolves, he too is on a personal journey – from writer to filmmaker – as he increasingly departs from traditional TV production methods and adopts a more hands-on approach across writing, directing and editing that is more commonly associated
with movies.

This is undoubtedly down to the types of shows Hawley is making – dramas set in such unique and stylised worlds that their creators trust only themselves to bring them to life – at least until such time that their vision is in place firmly enough for others to follow.

Fargo, returning on April 19 for a third season on US cablenet FX, is based on the iconic Coen Brothers movie and demands certain sensibilities in writing and direction. Likewise, Legion is a mind-bending, dazzling and disorientating drama that looks and sounds like nothing else on TV.

Legion stars Downton Abbey actor Dan Stevens and Rachel Keller

Speaking about Legion, which has been renewed for a second season, Hawley (pictured top) admits he “likes it when it’s at its oddest – and by ‘odd’ I don’t mean deliberately unfathomable but where the structure of the story and the intricacy of the emotion of the characters can be woven together in a way that transcends the genre.”

Loosely connected to the X-Men universe and based on the Marvel comic books by Chris Claremont and Bill Sienkiewicz, the story follows David, a schizophrenic whose life inside a psychiatric hospital is turned upside down by the arrival of a new patient, after which he begins to confront the possibility that his visions and the voices in his head might actually be real.

Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey) stars as David, supported by Rachel Keller, Aubrey Plaza and Jean Smart. Legion is produced by FX Productions and Marvel Television and distributed by Fox Networks Group Content Distribution.

“It’s been an evolution,” Hawley says of the show, which launched on FX in February. “What attracted me originally was the subjective nature of the show and that David’s experience of reality was going to be our experience of reality. But it wasn’t until I practically sat down to write that it became more about the demon within, as opposed to fighting some government agency.”

The showrunner says it was his intention to make something unexpected and unpredictable, if only to keep savvy viewers hooked on the series as it unfolds, and describes Legion’s two-year development as a “down-the-rabbit-hole journey” that fostered a sense of creativity, inventiveness and imagination.

Stevens plays David, a troubled young man who discovers the voices in his head may be real

“So I would sit down with the script and say, ‘Well, I know where it starts and know where it ends and I know on a macro level what has to happen in this episode, but how are we getting there and what are the fun gimmicks and tricks and visual ideas?’ It is a very surreal show but I always wanted the trailer for next week’s episode to have some element to it that meant viewers would have to see it because it was so visual and interesting.”

In terms of researching the source material, Hawley treated the comics the same way as he used the original Coen Brothers film when he began working on the first season of Fargo, which debuted on FX in 2014.

“I watched it and thought about it,” he says, “but I don’t think I’ve watched it again since. You want to take the essence away from it, and it was a similar dynamic with Legion. It’s about trying to create something that feels familiar and yet completely unfamiliar at the
same time.”

Part of Hawley’s evolution is embedded in his attitude to writers rooms, which he describes as a “kind of bigger brain” that helps to map out storylines across episodes and seasons. But as the creative leader of his shows, he also finds that the time he spends in the room correlates to its success.

“The room is at its most successful when I’m in it,” he says. “On the first year of Fargo, I was in the room 100% of the time and I ended up with a 115-page outline that I stuck to religiously. For the second year, I was in there 60% of the time and it worked about 60%. This last year I was in there 40% and I’m re-breaking a lot of the story as I go.

Legion, like Hawley’s Fargo, has earned rave reviews

“With Legion, there was a sense that a writers room, by definition, is an outline-generating device, which is to say you get a group of people in a room and what they can all agree on is plot. ‘This happens and then this happens’ – it’s very linear, and that’s not what the show is. It wasn’t very helpful to me because it takes all the inventiveness out of the writing and because it’s not how you tell a subjective and surreal story where things aren’t necessarily meant to be linear.”

Subsequently, Hawley will do a pass on every script, “even if it’s not my name on it,” though he admits the first season of any show is always the hardest: “You talk to any showrunner and they will tell you that they end up doing 90% of the writing because you’re asking people to write something that exists only in your head, whereas they don’t really have a point of reference. The question of how a show works – how we do romance, how we do action – hasn’t been defined; it can’t be defined until it’s made, and it can’t be made until we make it. There is this catch-22 to it where you’re just grateful for the big brain to help you think things through and, ultimately, you need to make a season of it to show next year’s writers what it could be.”

That isn’t to say Hawley doesn’t like collaboration or delegation. “I can’t do it all myself,” he jokes. “Sam Esmail, who created Mr. Robot, directed every moment of the second season himself – but he doesn’t have a wife and kids! TV is a collaborative medium and, at a certain point, you have to direct the directors, instruct the editors and let everybody take their best swing at it.”

As well as writing, Hawley is now adding directing to his duties. Having helmed two episodes of Fargo so far – the second of season two and the opener of the forthcoming third run – he also directed the first episode of Legion, and admits he enjoys the added pressure of directing while also assuming every other role that comes with being a showrunner.

“It’s really 3D writing,” he says of directing. “Every element, every detail is important. And the scripts, if you read them, are very visual. They’re really a blueprint, which is my way of saying, ‘This is how the story unfolds and how the audience wants to see it, so let’s just film it that way.’

“Especially with Legion and the idea of world creation, I really needed to make one episode myself and then bring in the other directors and go, ‘This is what the show is.’ The minute you add a layer of removal and bring in somebody else who has maybe a complementary vision, but a different vision nonetheless, it becomes more of a dialogue.

“I’ve done pilots with other directors who did great but, at this point in my career, I want what I want and I’m trying to do something different and original. And the only way to really do that is to do it yourself.”

That’s why Hawley says he is now gravitating towards movies, with a pair of films lined up at Fox Searchlight. As a writer, he says he has had to become a director to make the shows he wants, allowing him to follow a path that naturally leads to the big screen.

“From the very first day on Fargo, I knew if I just wrote some clever scripts and sent somebody else to make the show, it wouldn’t feel right,” Hawley says. “So I had to become a director; I had to become a filmmaker. And with Legion it’s a very idiosyncratic and personal vision.”

He adds: “The older I get, the more the traditional TV dynamic doesn’t work for me. I just can’t let the script go out of the door without making it mine, or let an episode go without turning it into what I want. So in a perfect world, I would write them and direct them myself, which is why I’m gravitating towards making movies. My next thing will be season two of Legion, and hopefully I’m making a movie next spring. It’s all gone very well, so I’m excited.”


Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Ewan McGregor in the new season of Fargo

Finding Fargo’s voice

Since its debut on FX in 2014, Fargo has been a huge success story, winning critical acclaim, Emmy and Golden Globe awards and a legion of fans.

Now back for its third season, which is set in 2010, the story centres on Emmit Stussy and his younger brother Ray. While Emmit, the Parking Lot King of Minnesota, sees himself as an American success story, pot-bellied parole officer Ray is forever living in his brother’s shadow. But their sibling rivalry follows a path that begins with petty theft and leads to murder, mobsters and cut-throat competitive bridge.

If this were a traditional drama, creator Noah Hawley might feel pressure to live up to the standards of previous seasons, but he says the anthology format of Fargo relieves him of the weight of expectation.

“There’s pressure to a degree because of the success the show has had and I would really feel that pressure if we were coming back with the same characters each year,” he says of the drama, which is produced by MGM Television and FX Productions and distributed by MGM.

“The advantage I have is that it’s a completely different 10-hour movie. They’re always set in a different time period, and in many ways a different tone of voice, a different visual palette, and the tone shifts and the characters are different. So I’m able to focus on this movie, make this one the best it can be and you don’t even really have to think about what you did before because you’re just following this story to its natural end.”

Kirsten Dunst as Peggy Blumquist in Fargo’s second run

Playing both Emmit and Ray, Ewan McGregor follows in the footsteps of previous Hollywood actors to star in Fargo including Martin Freeman, Billy Bob Thornton, Kirsten Dunst and Patrick Wilson. He is joined on screen by Carrie Coon as police chief Gloria Bungle, Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Ray’s girlfriend Nikki Swango and David Thewlis as mysterious loner VM Vargos.

“There’s an interesting dynamic to working in [Fargo’s] tone of voice – the performances have to be grounded and real but there’s also something heightened about the movie you’re in,” Hawley explains. “Ewan is great at that. He’s a great dramatic actor but he’s also funny, he’s got great timing and great instincts. There’s a love story in it for one of his characters, which he’s hapless and charming at. So he’s checked every box.

“Practically, it’s not like these two brothers are on screen together for the whole show but when they are, there’s a combination of classic lopped off shots where you film one side of it, then you change the hair and make-up, sit him in the other chair and film the other side of it. There are some programmable camera dollies where you can repeat the same moves so you run it once with him in one role and once with him in the other role, but it’s not a gimmicky show like Legion. The point is more to create something that will feel like the rest of the movie. My hope is that part of the filmmaking becomes invisible.”

With the show set to debut in the US on April 19, there will be a tight post-production process in place as shooting doesn’t finish until the first week of May. Despite that, Hawley says he “couldn’t be happier” with season three. He adds: “It really feels special this year and with this cast. You have to hope as a filmmaker that your next film is better than your last and it feels really good to me. That’s all I’ll say!”

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Building Legion

A Clockwork Orange provided some of the inspiration behind the look of FX’s latest original series, Legion. Production designer Michael Wylie tells DQ how he created this unique world.

Stanley Kubrick’s dystopian film A Clockwork Orange, the 1970s and the brutalist architecture movement of the mid-20th century might not appear to have much in common, but blend them together for a television show and you might come close to creating something that looks like Legion.

Michael Wylie

The new drama from Fargo creator Noah Hawley, it is based on the Marvel Comics by Chris Claremont and Bill Sienkiewicz and is the first TV drama with a connection to the world of X-Men.

The story follows David, a schizophrenic whose strict daily routine inside a psychiatric hospital is upended by the arrival of a new patient, Syd, after which he begins to confront the possibility that the voices in his head and his visions might actually be real.

The cast is led by British actor Dan Stevens as David – the actor is unrecognisable from his stint as Matthew Crawley in Downton Abbey – with Rachel Keller (Syd), Aubrey Plaza (Lenny) and Jean Smart (Melanie Bird).

But while the show stands out for its take on mental illness and its comic book origins, it is the look and design that really demand attention.

From the retro costumes, the futuristic, space-age sets, psychedelic lighting and its disorientating soundtrack, Legion is a work of art.

Much of that success is down to the efforts of production designer Michael Wylie, who has previously worked on Grimm, Masters of Sex and another Marvel property, Agent Carter.

“We had a blast doing it because it’s just fun,” he tells DQ. “When you get to do weird stuff, it can either be really hard or really fun, and thankfully it was really fun!”

Rachel Keller and friend in Legion

Wylie interviewed for the job in November 2015 and just weeks later, in January 2016, he was in Vancouver preparing the pilot, in which almost everything on screen was built by Wylie and his team.

He recalls that first meeting, sitting down with exec producers Hawley, John Cameron and Lauren Shuler Donner. Hawley, who is meticulous in his preparation, had already compiled and printed a book of images that conveyed the feeling he wanted for the show, which is produced by FX Productions and Marvel Television and distributed by Fox Networks Group Content Distribution.

Wylie had prepared something similar, and he was pleased to find that they had both picked out several of the same images.

A Clockwork Orange’s brutalist architecture directly inspired Wylie and Hawley

“Noah’s book was 20 pages of really cool imagery – a lot of 70s stuff, a lot of stills from A Clockwork Orange and there were a lot of interiors of brutalist buildings around the US and the really cool one in A Clockwork Orange,” Wylie recalls. “I had pulled a bunch of images I’d put on my iPad and I think we had four of the same exact pictures. It was a match made in heaven, I guess.”

Wylie had specifically avoided any of the comic book artwork or anything related to the established X-Men universe to ensure his own vision wasn’t contaminated by existing works. Instead, he took Hawley’s detailed pilot script and ran with it.

“It’s all in the script really,” he said of his starting point for the show. “It talks about an odd-looking psychiatric hospital and talks about brutalist buildings. But at that time, no-one knew Noah was shooting in Vancouver and the city has a ton of brutalist buildings.

“He just thought instead of trying to hide them, let’s try to embrace them. It’s kinda like you’re shooting LA for Boston and you run around trying to not shoot palm trees all day long. At the end of the day it would have been cheaper to film in Boston. So we decided to embrace it all.”

That the pilot’s 70s vibe – which largely comes from the colour and design of the psychiatric hospital and the characters’ clothing – has been such a talking point since its launch on FX in February was a surprise to Wylie, who admits the whole show has been designed to keep viewers off-balance, as though they are seeing events unfold through David’s eyes.

“We started to use a lot of colour that happened to give that feeling,” he explains. “There is a lot of yellow and it seems to be a hip colour, but the last time it was a hip colour was exactly in 1973. I think that’s why it feels kind of 70s, and I know some of the costumes are kind of 70s.

“That was all by design with Noah and [costume designer] Carol Case. They really wanted to confound the viewer as to where they are. Our ideal is to make the viewer feel as crazy as David feels. Things shouldn’t match and things shouldn’t be anything that a viewer could really look at as a point of reference. You always want the viewer to feel like they don’t know where they are; they shouldn’t recognise these rooms with big round windows, or that have giant goats in the middle of them. It’s all meant to keep the viewer on the back foot so they can have a subjective experience, just like David is.”

Dan Stevens moves away from his Downton image

In particular, the use of new technology was key to creating this environment. The whole appearance of the hospital set could be changed by manipulating the LED lighting on set, so every scene feels slightly different.

“It’s almost imperceptible how much you feel disorientated by a lot of things in the show, especially the soundtrack. You hear voices, there’s banging and there’s things to distract you that you would never normally do in a TV show,” Wylie notes. “You want to hear what the people are saying and you notice in the sound editing of the show, they just keep making loud noises. Normally a writer would be really precious about making sure you don’t do that so you can hear every word they’re saying, but I don’t think Noah wants you to hear every single word, or at least he wants you to be confused or hit your rewind button on your DVR a bunch of times.”

The hospital sets were also used to bewilder viewers. The pilot includes several long takes that follow characters around the facility, but in practice the set wasn’t that large. According to Wylie, “there’s some camera trickery there because the room is an octagon, so although the actors change direction, you feel as a viewer like they’re still walking in the same direction.

“We had limited space and limited time to build stuff so I worked really closely with Noah to achieve what he wanted. In the pilot there’s tons of overhead shots, so that’s a special kind of build and when you’re doing lots of overheads you really have to concentrate on the floors in places where normally you don’t care too much about. So during the [Bollywood-inspired] dance number in the day room at the psychiatric facility, that floor was specially made for the overhead shot of people dancing.”

Wylie recalls that in the past, huge sets would have been constructed, lit with dozens of lights above removable ceiling panels. However, sets today are much more like real locations. “They have ceilings, floors and windows and a lot of times they get lit through the windows we provide,” he says.

The architecture of Legion lends much to the show’s 70s vibe

“The big challenge for the art department now is we’re designing a lot of lighting because they can be part of the set. Everything’s gotten a lot simpler.”

World building isn’t anything new for a production designer; indeed, every new series begins life as a couple of sketches or models. But few dramas are as all-encompassing as Legion.

“I did a show called Pushing Daisies [Bryan Fuller’s quirky comedy drama for ABC in 2007], where we created a whole world for them to inhabit,” Wylie recalls. “So I’ve done these kinds of things before. A couple of years ago I did another Marvel show called Agent Carter, where we did 1940s New York City. I get to do a lot of shows where we create a lot and we’re not just shooting on location or turning the camera on to something that’s already existing.”

And with the increasing popularity of sci-fi/fantasy dramas that require their sets to have an other-worldly quality, Wylie believes this trend is pushing production design further into the spotlight than ever before.

“If you get 10 or 12 hours to tell a story on TV as opposed to an hour and 45 minutes in a movie theatre, so you’ve got to make it great and make a splash,” he continues. “I always say people sometimes disregard art direction as background, but when you’re telling stories like this, you can’t disregard the background because it’s part of the story.

“I don’t think people tune into TV to see what they see in everyday life, they tune in to see something much different from their real lives. I’m a big fan of going over the top, even when it’s not called for!”

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Disney’s Marvel-lous investment

Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D has been airing on ABC since 2013

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.

Agent Carter ran for two seasons
Agent Carter ran for two seasons

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.

Daredevil has met critical acclaim
Daredevil has met critical acclaim

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.

Jessica Jones deals with topics that might be considered too difficult for Marvel's big-screen outings
Jessica Jones deals with topics that might be considered too difficult for Marvel’s big-screen outings

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.

Luke Cage is next off the Marvel TV production line
Luke Cage is next off the Marvel TV production line

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.

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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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Light at the end of The Tunnel?

Stephen Dillane and Clémence Poésy in The Tunnel
Stephen Dillane and Clémence Poésy in The Tunnel

Season two of Sky Atlantic’s The Tunnel finished on May 31, and although the official ratings aren’t yet in for the last couple of episodes, the show hasn’t done as well as its first season in late 2013.

While the first outing debuted with 803,000 viewers (live+7), the follow-up kicked off with 680,000. The first run settled down around the 500,000 mark, whereas the second season had been attracting around 300,000.

This reduced audience doesn’t necessarily mean the second season (Sabotage) is inferior to the first. There are several possible explanations for why it hasn’t achieved the same high standards.

One was the unfortunate timing of the show’s launch. Due to premiere around the time of the Belgium terrorist attacks, it was delayed by a week out of respect for the victims. This may have been enough to knock the edge off the show’s appeal.

Another is that the Scandinavian show on which The Tunnel is based, The Bridge, has become a big international hit in its own right. With BBC4 in the UK attracting an audience in excess of one million for the first three seasons of The Bridge, it’s possible that audiences have decided to bypass The Tunnel in deference to the original.

There’s also the time lag between the two seasons. Echoing the situation with The Returned in France, it’s possible that the lengthy gap between them has sapped the franchise of some of its momentum. By a similar token, people who missed season one may (rightly or wrongly) have shunned season two for fear of walking into a franchise in the middle of its story.

The Bridge, on which The Tunnel is based
The Bridge, on which The Tunnel is based

Then there’s the fact that Sky Atlantic ‘did a Netflix,’ releasing all eight episodes of the latest season in one go as a box set. To get a true reflection of the show’s performance, we really need to see how it did when those numbers are also factored in.

And finally there is the ongoing process of media fragmentation. Two or three years on from the launch of season one, there are new scripted channels and new platforms pulling audience away from Sky Atlantic.

Overall, however, the Ben Richards-scripted show has probably done enough to justify a third season – particularly as the cost of production is shared with Canal+ in France and it can be aired across Sky’s services in Italy, Germany, Austria and Ireland.

While it can’t compete in ratings terms with Sky Atlantic shows such as Game of Thrones and Fortitude, it outperformed The Last Panthers and is comfortably ahead of most of the US acquisitions that have featured on the channel (Vinyl, Veep, Billions).

As we’ve observed before, there is so much scripted content on the international market these days that it’s incredibly hard for shows to make their mark – unless they are placed in BBC1 primetime or the AMC slot just after The Walking Dead. However, one show that has managed to make some noise this week is Entertainment One (eOne) TV’s polyamorous comedy You Me Her.

Created and written by showrunner John Scott Shepherd, the show is about a couple who hire a female sex worker to introduce a spark into their sex lives. All three then fall in love.

You Me Her has been given a second season
You Me Her has been given a second season

There’s very little public indication of how the first series did when it aired on DirecTV’s Audience Network in March, but the channel is obviously happy, having just greenlit two new seasons. “Our viewers have opened their hearts and minds to embrace the unique relationship between Jack, Emma and Izzy,” said Chris Long, senior VP of original content and production at AT&T (the company behind DirecTV). “Audiences strive for compelling storylines and intriguing characters, and we believe in the potential for this show to grow even more as we continue our journey with eOne.”

You Me Her is the second collaboration between DirecTV and eOne. The two companies previously partnered on Rogue, a police drama starring Thandie Newton.

Commenting on the alliance, John Morayniss, CEO of eOne Television, added: “You Me Her is a bold, provocative show that grabs your attention immediately. We’re delighted AT&T has signed on for another two seasons, which speaks to the strength of these dynamic characters and storytelling. We’re looking forward to seeing how this complicated, polyamorous relationship that John Scott Shepherd has brilliantly created will continue to unfold.”

One story that has attracted a lot of attention this week is Netflix’s decision to release some insight into how its viewers consume drama series. Although the SVoD platform didn’t actually go as far as releasing any numbers, it did provide some insights into the speed at which people binge shows.

In a nutshell, the Netflix research looked at the way audiences watch 100 shows across 190 countries (though keep in mind that some of these countries will have small subscriber bases, so what we’re primarily seeing is user behaviour in major subscriber territories like the US, Canada, UK and Scandinavia).

Netflix-binge-scaleNetflix then created a binge scale (see above), identifying the shows that get devoured most quickly. Its conclusion? “Series like Sense8, Orphan Black and The 100 grab you, assault your senses and make it hard to pull away. The classic elements of horror and thrillers go straight for the gut, pushing the placement of series like The Walking Dead, American Horror Story and The Fall towards the devour end of the scale. Likewise, comedies with a dramatic bent, like Orange is the New Black, Nurse Jackie and Grace and Frankie seem to tickle our fancy and make it easy to say ‘just one more.’”

By contrast, Netflix added: “It’s no surprise that complex narratives, like House of Cards and Bloodline, are indulged at an unhurried pace. Nor that viewers take care to appreciate the details of dramas set in bygone eras, like Peaky Blinders and Mad Men. Maybe less obvious are comedies like BoJack Horseman, Love and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. But the societal commentary that powers their densely layered comedy paired with characters as flawed as they are entertaining allows them to be savoured.”

You might be tempted to suggest that shows at the slower end of the scale are not being savoured and are instead struggling to hold viewer attention. However, with strong titles like House of Cards, Narcos and Daredevil in that position, it seems unlikely.

Possibly a point that doesn’t come out of the analysis is different binging speeds according to age. A teenager or young, single adult probably has more time (and inclination) to watch episodes back to back than an older adult (at least up to the age of 60). So that might skew Netflix’s binge-ometer.

More granular insights are probably required to make use of Netflix’s data. But there may be a lesson for more traditional channels about the way they deliver their content to audiences. If channels want to make a big impact quickly, then perhaps they need to buy or commission shows that lend themselves to super-fast binging. But if they want to encourage audiences to come back to them week after week, then there may be a role for shows where audiences are happy to wait for the next episode.

Nashville
Nashville could be revived on CMT

In terms of shows destined to be big international hits, FX Productions and Marvel Television’s X-Men spin-off series Legion looks well-positioned to make its mark. An eight-part series from Noah Hawley (Fargo), the show will debut on FX in early 2017 after being produced in Vancouver this summer.

As the result of a new deal signed this week, it will also have a day-and-date premiere on Fox channels in 125 countries.

Legion follows David Haller who, diagnosed as schizophrenic, has been in and out of psychiatric hospitals for years. But after a strange encounter with a fellow patient, he is confronted with the possibility that the voices he hears and the visions he sees might just be real.

Finally, there may be a reprieve for country-and-western scripted series Nashville, cancelled after four seasons by ABC. Producer Lionsgate has been looking for a new home for the show and there are reports that CMT may be willing to pick up the tab.

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Audiences superserved with hero shows

Supergirl, starring Melissa Benoist, premiers on October 26
Supergirl, starring Melissa Benoist, premieres on October 26

Superhero TV series are nothing new. Over the years we’ve seen small-screen versions of Batman, The Hulk, Wonderwoman and Superman (in both Smallville and Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman), not to mention an endless array of animated series based on DC Comics or Marvel properties.

In fact, those of us around at the time will recall that ABC’s Lois & Clark was a genuine TV phenomenon, capable of attracting audiences of around 18-20 million at its peak in the mid-1990s – though the show’s ratings fell off a cliff in season four and it was rapidly cancelled.

But right now the industry is in overdrive. Not content with their domination of the feature-film arena, the supers have expanded their influence across both mainstream TV and the subscription VoD market.

The show everyone is talking about right now is Supergirl, a Warner Bros-produced series that will debut on CBS in the US on October 26. The story of Superman’s cousin, it imagines the central character as a 24-year-old woman called Kara (played by Glee’s Melissa Benoist) who is trying to come to terms with her superpowers while also trying to find herself as a woman. In terms of pacing and characterisation, it feels like a superhero version of The Devil Wears Prada, with Kara alternating between saving planes from disaster and agonising over her wardrobe.

Supergirl comes from Greg Berlanti, who is also behind The CW superhero shows The Flash...
Supergirl comes from Greg Berlanti, who is also behind The CW superhero shows The Flash…

Deadline has given the show the thumbs up, calling it a “bounding, deceptively breezy and eminently watchable addition to both the superhero universe and primetime.”

But an early IMDb score of 6.2 (presumably based on the trailer and some access to the pilot) suggests the jury is out. What’s hard to tell at this stage is whether the show will appeal to both the superhero and the romcom audience – or neither of them.

It’s also questionable whether the show will do much for empowered female leads. IGN’s assessment (based on the trailer) is that: “It’s really disappointing that the property is being treated with the flowery touch we often see in romantic comedies aimed at a female audience. It’s disheartening when the material has a segment showing the hero struggling to find something to wear for a date.”

...and Arrow
…and Arrow

Having said all this, Supergirl has Greg Berlanti behind it, which is a good thing from a slick storytelling point of view. Berlanti also created The Flash and Arrow for The CW Network, both of which are top performers for the channel. And there’s no question that Supergirl has a warmth and wit that make it easy on the eye.

One person impressed by the series’ potential is Adam MacDonald, director of UK-based pay TV channel Sky 1, who has just picked it up for his network. He says: “We’ve already seen in the success of The Flash and Arrow that comic-book characters are a big hit with our customers, and with this fresh, fast-paced new series we’re giving them another sure-fire superhero smash.”

To give this some context, The Flash generates around 500,000 to 600,000 viewers for Sky1, which is well ahead of the channel’s slot average of 320,000.

Interestingly, Supergirl’s first episode in the US will be up against Fox’s Gotham, another Warner Bros TV show. The gothic procedural takes place in the Batman universe and focuses mostly on the activities of police chief Commissioner Gordon. Now in season two, Gotham seemed to be wobbling at the start of its new run but its figures look much better once time-shifted viewing is factored in. It is currently attracting just over seven million viewers when you factor in all platforms (Fox, Fox NOW and Hulu) across the first three days of viewing.

Gotham has done well on both Fox in the US and the UK's Channel 5
Gotham has done well on both Fox in the US and the UK’s Channel 5

The show has also been doing well for Viacom-owned Channel 5 in the UK. After drawing in just under two million for the first episode of the new season, Gotham has settled in at around the 1.35 million mark (not including time-shifted viewing) on C5. This is a pretty good performance for the channel compared with key rivals Channel 4 and BBC2.

Other superhero-related shows on the market right now include ABC’s solid but unspectacular Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Now in its third season, the series is currently attracting an audience of 3.7 million per episode (same-day figure), which is down on its season premiere of 4.9 million. Nevertheless, orthodox thinking is that the show is a certainty to be renewed.

A leading authority on this is Zap2it’s TVbytheNumbers, which explains why: “It’s a near-ironclad rule of broadcast TV that if a show will end its third season with 66 episodes (give or take one or two) and it’s produced by the sister studio of the network where it airs, then it will be renewed for a fourth season. Media conglomerates make more money selling 88 episodes of a show into syndication than they do with 66 episodes, thus the incentive to keep rolling into a fourth year.”

Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D looks likely to get a fourth run
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D looks likely to get a fourth run

Then there is NBC’s Heroes Reborn, an unusual show in that it isn’t part of the DC or Marvel stables. A reboot of Heroes, which ran for four seasons between 2006 and 2010, Reborn is currently in its first season and is doing OK. Four episodes in, it has seen its same-day ratings slide from 6.6 million to 4.4 million, but with time-shifted viewing adding around 40% to the total, the show seems fairly well set for renewal. That would be welcome news for Global Canada and Seven Australia, which were among the first international channels to acquire it.

A number of superhero shows are also being generated as the result of a pact between Netflix and Marvel – the first of which was Daredevil, whose second season is coming soon. As Netflix doesn’t release viewing statistics, we have to content ourselves with the fact that this show has an 8.9 rating on IMDb and has generally been well received by critics.

Next up from the Netflix-Marvel deal is Jessica Jones, a 13-part series that will be made available in one go on November 20. This is a show that might do more for the cause of female empowerment than CBS’s Supergirl. After Jessica Jones will come series based around existing Marvel characters such as Luke Cage, Iron Fist and – if you believe the latest Hollywood rumour – Moon Knight.

Forthcoming series Jessica Jones stars Breaking Bad's Krysten Ritter
Forthcoming series Jessica Jones stars Breaking Bad’s Krysten Ritter

You’d think by now that Disney-owned Marvel would be running out of characters and worlds to work with. But FX and Fox are also planning two new series based on Marvel’s X-Men franchise.

For the first, Marvel is joining forces with Fargo showrunner Noah Hawley and FX to produce Legion, a story that has already been produced as a movie. Based on Marvel comic characters, it follows an army of angels who have waged a war on mankind.

Meanwhile, Marvel TV and Fox are developing Hellfire, based on the Marvel comics group The Hellfire Club. Patrick McKay and John D Payne (Star Trek 3) will write the script for the project.

The big question, of course, is when will the super trend run out of steam as a TV staple? It’s fair to say the performance of Supergirl will affect the answer to that. CBS will be hoping Melissa Benoist’s character will generate as much of a cult following as the formidable Teri Hatcher in Lois & Clark.

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