The executive producer of dramas including Peaky Blinders, Fortitude and Ripper Street chooses a mixture of British and US dramas – including one that has been stuck in her mind for the past 20 years.
A one-off drama in 1995, based on Jane Austen’s novel, it flipped a switch with period drama in that it was filmed in a very raw way. You could feel the countryside, the mud and the repression. It felt less reverential than any period drama I’d seen before. Amanda Roots was fantastic as lead character Anne Elliot. A lot of women’s lives are quiet, and Persuasion portrayed a quiet woman brilliantly. It’s also very romantic. It was revelatory to me; it spoke to me as a person but also felt fresh production-wise, and when you can do something fresh with a story that’s more than 200 years old, that’s exciting. I watch it yearly; it’s a beautiful piece of work.
I only recently watched this, so this is not a backwards glance. It’s a new discovery for me and it’s extraordinary. It’s the norm now, but the fact Granada [now part of ITV] made something of that scale and breadth and which cost zillions of pounds in the early 1980s seems extraordinary. To have done it about this family struggling with alcoholism, repressed homosexuality and their relationship with religion is remarkable. I’m not sure we could make it today. In this world of SVoD, you discover things you’ve never seen – we should all watch these amazing dramas and discover why we do it.
As an exploration of a construct of a person and human want, Mad Men is brilliant. Don Draper as a character is an amazing creation and against that backdrop, you’ve got Peggy and Joan being awesome females. Then you’ve got the restriction of the 1950s, so for me it’s the perfect exploration of masculinity and what that means to men and women. It’s just joyous and sexy.
Sex & the City
It’s perfect entertainment drama TV. I genuinely believe it made an impact on the world. People talk about television that makes noise, but Sex & the City made women embrace the importance of their female friendships and become more honest about their sexual selves. Despite the show appearing to be a comedy, for my generation it either reflected ourselves like never before or we became more like the characters. So while it’s dressed up as something frivolous, there’s a truth to it that really needed saying. It’s why Girls and The Handmaid’s Tale then made a splash – considering women are a massive part of the audience, it’s rare for stories to reflect the struggles of the world we’re in or the lives we lead.
ER (also pictured top) is the perfect long-running television series. I just lived and breathed it. It has that perfect mix of long-running serial and episodic story-of-the-week. There were key characters you knew were messy and imperfect but who worked really hard; but also episodic stories that ripped your heart out. It has that mix of tension and comedy, and you never knew what you were going to get in each episode. It managed to be formulaic without being formulaic. I genuinely don’t know how they did that. I kept on being surprising and I just loved it.
Our Friends in the North
I haven’t seen it for 20 years since it came out, but to this day there are scenes I can recall in my head. It was a brilliant exploration of humanity through characters’ lives and Daniel Craig, as Geordie, made me sob. The depiction of the messiness of people’s lives and the struggle between family and being your own person and work and passion and making money was nailed in an extraordinary way. If something sticks in your mind 20 years later without re-watching it, that’s got to be up there as one of the best.
After beginning her career on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Marti Noxon has written for some of the biggest shows on television, including Grey’s Anatomy, Mad Men and Glee. She also created Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce and co-created UnREAL.
Speaking to DQ, she looks back on her storied career and reveals how she picks her projects.
Noxon reveals why showrunners Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy), Joss Whedon (Buffy) and Matt Weiner (Mad Men) have had the most influence on her as a writer.
She also previews her next projects: HBO drama Sharp Objects and AMC series Dietland.
Where once flagging TV series would have been quickly axed, now they are getting more time to establish themselves. Are TV bosses getting sentimental or are other forces at play?
The scripted TV business has never really been known for its sentimentality. Year after year, decent shows have been brutally axed the moment they show any fragility in the ratings.
But recently this approach has been tempered by a slightly more tolerant attitude among commissioning editors. Increasingly, shows that a few years ago would have been cancelled in the middle of their first season are being allowed to bow out gracefully at the end of their run.
Similarly, series that might have been shelved after a season or two are being given extra runs – either to achieve narrative closure or to allow more time to try to pick up a sustainable audience.
This shift has come about for a few reasons, but is primarily the result of competition between channels and the increased clout of SVoD services.
“For me, it’s fundamentally about SVoD’s appetite for scripted content,” says Joel Denton, MD of international content and partnerships at A&E Networks. “The revenue from the SVoD window means networks don’t need to be so quick to close down shows. This can create a virtuous circle where the two platforms feed off each other in a way that builds shows. Something that starts life as a modest critical success may develop into a big hit.”
Clearly, some shows still disappoint and need to be dropped – examples being HBO’s much-hyped Vinyl and FX’s The Bastard Executioner. “But if you have a good instinct about a show then there’s a financial logic to sticking with it – even if it needs fixing in some way,” says Denton. “Cancel it after five episodes and you’re throwing US$30m to US$40m down the drain. Stick with it and you may be able to turn it into a franchise that has long-term value in both domestic and international markets.”
A classic case in point, says Denton, is AMC’s acclaimed 1960s drama Mad Men, which debuted in 2007 to the kind of ratings that would have got it cancelled on a lot of cable networks. When it ended seven seasons later, its contribution to AMC’s brand was immeasurable. And it continues to win fans around the world via Netflix, which underlined the value of supporting shows when it acquired the rights to the series in 2011 for US$90m.
Linked to all of the above is the growing fear of pulling out of a show before it has had a chance to really establish itself as a profitable franchise. “Because of the range of choice in the market, a show’s audience doesn’t necessarily find it straight away,” says Denton. “Shows like Longmire have been cancelled by networks and then brought back to life by SVoD platforms. So perhaps networks are more cautious about doing all the hard work and seeing Netflix [which resurrected Longmire after it was axed by A&E] or Amazon benefit.”
Stephen Cornwell, co-founder of The Ink Factory and producer of one of 2016’s hit dramas, The Night Manager, agrees SVoD is the key factor: “It may look like the broadcasters are changing, but these soft landings are the result of the new economic model introduced by the SVoD second window.”
This, however, is “reinforced by evolving expectations among audiences,” adds Cornwell. “In this post-broadcast world, viewers are attracted to limited series with clear conclusions. That’s why we have seen such a lot of interest in shows like The Night Manager, Fargo and The People v OJ Simpson: American Crime Story. When the audience is looking for narrative completion, commissioning editors need to ensure they are meeting their expectations.”
This may explain the growing tendency for broadcasters and platforms to announce their intentions for a show well in advance. Increasingly, says Cornwell, audiences are reluctant to invest time and emotion in a series if there is a risk it might be cancelled before the creative team has finished telling the story.
Cornwell also believes the trend towards soft landings may have something to do with a power shift in the relationship between channels/platforms and creative talent: “Our company is built around changes in the market that have put the creative at the centre of the process. The TV business is so noisy now that the calibre of creative talent is, more than ever, the key differentiator between productions. At the same time, audiences don’t care anymore if a series is two seasons, five seasons or an anthology series, as long as it’s great TV.”
One implication of this is that broadcasters need to be prepared to fully back a creative’s vision. It’s difficult, for example, to entice the likes of Cameron Crowe (Roadies), M Night Shyamalan (Wayward Pines), Steven Knight (Peaky Blinders) and John Logan (Penny Dreadful) into the TV business, only to shut down their shows before they’ve built momentum.
The tendency for broadcasters and platforms to prematurely announce their intentions for a show is not just something we are seeing with new series. It’s also become increasingly common for them to flag up the end of long-running, successful franchises such as Pretty Little Liars, Bates Motel, Person of Interest, Teen Wolf and Black Sails.
So what’s this about? If a network knows a show is going to come to an end next year, why not just get on and give it the chop? Christian Vesper, FremantleMedia’s executive VP and creative director of global drama, who last year left AMC-owned art house channel SundanceTV, recalls how the latter gave notice that Rectify would end after season four: “I don’t think any channel is going to recommission a show unless it makes financial sense, but I do think there is a respect for storytelling at play. I know that was very important to the producers and to us.”
There is also a PR value to this kind of early announcement, Vesper adds. For example, warning audiences that the end is nigh is a way of galvanising them into action. It gets social media buzzing with the news that a climax is on its way. In terms of career management, it also puts the talent back in the shop window, telling the rest of the industry approximately when they will next be available.
Maybe, on a subtle level, it also has an impact on a show’s prospects on the awards circuit. For example, it wasn’t until the final season of Mad Men that John Hamm finally won a Best Actor Emmy – despite having been nominated in every single season.
Cornwell’s point about the shifting balance of power can even be taken a stage further. Perhaps the current trend towards soft landings is not just broadcasters and platforms treating creatives with kid gloves. There may also be more situations where the decision about when to end or extend a show is not being driven by the network or platform – but by the creative partner. The Ink Factory, for example, could get the greenlight for a second season of The Night Manager tomorrow if it wanted — especially after stars Tom Hiddleston, Hugh Laurie and Olivia Colman won Golden Globes earlier this month — but Cornwell says the prodco would only go back to the show if it felt there was a good story to tell.
It’s this creative-led thinking that has also brought us anthology dramas such as American Horror Story and series like Penny Dreadful, whose creator John Logan was responsible for the decision end the show after three seasons. There’s also the emergence of prequels like Bates Motel and Black Sails, which – if the creatives have their way – need to finish at the point the source material begins.
Orphan Black (pictured top) is another show that underlines this point. At last year’s Comic-Con, the creators of the BBC America series explained why they had decided to end the show after five seasons. According to co-creator Graeme Manson, it was because they wanted to end it on their own terms: “We sort of had five seasons in mind, and the thing we didn’t want to do was get kind of soft around the middle. We think it’s better to cancel than to get cancelled, than to peter out.”
A by-product of such scenarios, then, is that the broadcasters and platforms have a pretty good idea of when a show is going to end. This means it becomes easier to turn the conclusion of a series into some kind of cultural event. The fact that it may be ending sooner than they might have liked is not such a problem given the longevity of scripted series in the new on-demand world. Better to have three perfect seasons repeating for a decade than seven with a short shelf life.
Speaking from a producer’s perspective, Tiger Aspect joint MD of drama Frith Tiplady says her company has enjoyed being given visibility of the future of its shows: “The BBC commissioned seasons four and five of Peaky Blinders together, and we were given advanced warning that Ripper Street [Amazon/BBC] would finish after season five. That’s brilliant for us because it means we can finish telling stories the way we want. It also shows a respect for the audience and the auteurs involved.”
None of the above is to suggest we are witnessing the end of the sudden axe – especially from commercial networks, which remain notoriously quick to remove deadwood from their schedules.
While the business models associated with SVoD platforms, premium cable channels and public broadcasters tend to favour soft landings, ad-funded networks have less room for manoeuvre. ITV in the UK would probably have liked to have spent more time fixing Beowulf and Jekyll & Hyde, but below-par ratings made that impossible. There’s also the possibility we may soon start to see a contraction in the scripted business that results in more cancellations. For now, however, here’s to happy endings.
Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner took a trip down memory lane at the Toronto International Film Festival, reflecting on risks, rewards and studio politics over the period drama’s seven seasons. Adam Benzine reports.
Not taking risks is what will sink a show in the long run.
That was the key takeaway from Mad Men creator Matt Weiner (pictured above), reflecting on his AMC show’s seven-season arc during an intimate Q&A at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).
Mixing things up from the usual in-conversation format, Weiner was interviewed by TIFF programmer Mike Lerner as Mad Men’s season one finale, “The Wheel,” played behind them in the background, making for a session that was part live audio commentary, part masterclass.
Looking back on the show’s success, relative to its challenging beginnings, “I feel frequent tings of vindication about huge risks we took that paid off,” Weiner said.
“The vehemence with which people told me that this was a dumb idea, it’ll never work, or would say, ‘I love it, but no-one will ever watch this,’” he recalled, adding that studio execs have always underestimated the intelligence of their audience.
“There’s always some fictitious viewer that they think that they’re smarter than. But I found through watching other people that I admire – David [Chase], Francis Ford Coppola – that not taking a risk is what sinks you.”
Weiner described Mad Men’s first season finale – a highly acclaimed episode best remembered for lead character Don Draper’s pitch for the Kodak Carousel slide projector – as being his “first paid directing gig” for TV.
He came to the show having served as a writer and exec producer on The Sopranos and having had some success with a small independent feature film, 1996’s What Do You Do All Day. After being passed on by HBO, Showtime and FX, Mad Men landed a 13-episode order in 2006 from AMC, which at the time had never produced an original drama series.
However, while many showrunners direct the pilot episodes of their shows, in a bid to set the tone for future episodes, AMC felt that a more experienced director was needed for Mad Men’s pilot.
“They did not let me do the pilot – they didn’t think that my little $12,000 movie was enough, and I didn’t fight them,” Weiner said. “I was so inexperienced. But they gave me [final say over] casting, and casting is everything.”
He added that he benefited for seeing other directors helm the first season’s first dozen episodes, before taking on the finale himself.
Elsewhere during the talk, he discussed personal failure, network politics and anger from fans, particularly after a storyline that saw Draper marrying a women he barely knew.
“I had people yelling at me, ‘you ruined the show! Why would he do that?’” he laughed, before defending the need to subvert expectations to keep a series fresh. “You’ve got to change the show.”
He also said that the series was not supposed to be fondly nostalgic of the 1950s and 1960s. “Critics didn’t get it – they said, ‘oh, it’s a nostalgia thing,’” Weiner offered. “But the purpose of the whole thing was to say, this wasn’t the good old days. They never ended; stop pretending that they did.”
Finally, he discussed the uncertainty he faced going into the final episode of the show’s first season, not knowing if it would return. He had to work to create a finale that could end the series on a satisfactory note, in case it got cancelled, but be open enough to continue for a second season, were it to be renewed.
“This could’ve been the last shot of Mad Men,” he said, staring up at the big screen as the final seconds of the episode played out. “I assumed it was.”
With digital powerhouses such as Netflix fundamentally changing the TV distribution landscape, how are the world’s development executives reacting to the new environment, and what does the future hold for drama production, commissioning and funding?
It’s no secret that television’s traditional distribution model has been thoroughly shaken up by Netflix and Amazon during the past three years.
As a result, broadcasters, from ABC in the US to ZDF in Germany, are in the process of trying to reinvent themselves digitally, primarily by launching their own on-demand platforms in an attempt to future-proof their brands.
It would follow that the development slates of traditional production outfits require a similar level of transformation – but the question of whether content itself needs to change in line with consumption habits is a contentious one.
As the well-worn mantra of the television exec goes, despite all the noise around digital, great drama is still all about storytelling. And loud, addictive and exclusive must-see shows, alongside a large library of classics, are the key to building and retaining audiences.
Therefore, it’s the MO of every development exec to have a slate that boasts the kind of show that’s going to have people watching episode after episode, gorging well into the small hours and then telling their friends about it the next day.
“Everyone is chasing big, noisy event programming. There are variations, but everyone is kind of after that same thing,” says Adam Fratto, exec VP of development at the US arm of New Zealand’s Pukeko Pictures.
Fratto, whose drama credits include Haven and The Dead Zone, was hired by Pukeko in 2012 to develop and pitch scripted projects to US cable channels, which are seemingly falling over each other to commission drama projects.
Most drama is expensive, however, and Fratto says Pukeko’s approach is to target partnerships that are both creatively and financially logical in order to make as ambitious projects as possible. New Zealand has several international copro treaties, making Pukeko a potentially lucrative partner when it comes to budgets. Recent productions filmed and set there include Top of the Lake, a copro between BBC2 in the UK, BBC’s UKTV in Australia and New Zealand and SundanceTV in the US.
“We know exactly what we want to do. We look at Game of Thrones and say ‘Well, shit, you shot that in six countries and you could have shot it in one.’ That sweet spot of epic, world-building fantasy and sci-fi is exactly what we should be doing, and that’s what we’re focusing on,” Fratto says. “We’ve just been greenlit on a copro treaty with Australia and we’d really like to find one with the UK, as we think there are a lot of complementary opportunities. As an international company, we don’t feel we have to be particularly US-focused – we’re taking a very broad view.”
Sci-fi also happens to be on the to-do list of UK-based Death in Paradise producer Red Planet Pictures, which was founded in 2005 by Life on Mars scribe Tony Jordan and prides itself on being completely writer-led. The firm recently produced The Passing Bells (2×90’) for the BBC’s flagship channel, which aired the epic drama in November last year to mark the centenary of the First World War.
“We’re a truly writer-led company, so we want to nurture new talent under Tony’s wing and mentor them through that process,” says Simon Winstone, executive producer at Red Planet. “There are always things we wish we had. Tony and I share a desire to do a big sci-fi show, and it’s probably the time for it. Tony is quite militant in not taking briefs from people. We take the view that when you know what people are looking for, they’re rarely ever going to commission that. They always tend to commission something different.”
Others, meanwhile, are choosing to take inspiration from the international drama community, pitching successful local formats to US broadcasters looking to manage the level of risk around their next commission.
Take UK-based New Media Vision (NMV), which was set up by former US studio exec Todd Lituchy six years ago as a consultancy firm and has steadily branched into production and distribution. In 2013 it sold the popular Spanish format The Mysteries of Laura to NBC, which placed Will & Grace star Debra Messing in the lead role as a detective who solves murder cases while dealing with her two sons and an ex-husband.
“For us, it’s about finding great underlying material, where somebody has already built the world. We’re the opposite of a writer-driven company; we’re an execution company,” says Lituchy. “Our scripted development side has two halves. On one side, we work with production companies around the globe to identify IP that has a chance of successfully capturing a global audience. On the other, we’re working with new writers in both the US and the UK on ideas that we feel are really strong. We work with them to develop scripts and shoot pilot presentations, and then we take it to an audience. We’re not working to a specific channel brief, but on content that we think will resonate with viewers.”
The exec says he sees digital as a huge opportunity because, as a producer and a distributor, it means there are more buyers for his company’s content. “Even though it’s more competition for traditional linear channels, I don’t see them going away in the near future,” Lituchy adds, being careful not to rock the boat too much.
Pukeko’s Fratto concurs that digital distribution is presenting more “opportunities” to producers. However, he takes a more apocalyptic view when it comes to the future of linear broadcasters. The frenzy of drama commissions around the world is potentially unsustainable and could result in the demise of some channels, as the current drama marketplace faces the danger of becoming “saturated,” he believes.
“People in my neighbourhood are talking about a bubble. When I first started in scripted dramatic television, there were six legitimate buyers in the US – I think there are 42 now. But the number of eyeballs has not increased sevenfold.”
Fratto points to the recent closure of Microsoft’s short-lived Xbox Entertainment Studios (XES) as evidence that the “bubble” could be set to burst: “We had a very big miniseries project set up with XES. We closed the deal and the next week it was gone. I’m not saying that’s going to continue to happen, but it may. The fact is, we all have to think about whether the marketplace can sustain all these entities programming huge, expensive drama.”
Indeed, it’s hard to imagine every broadcaster and digital player being able to go toe to toe with Netflix in the future, given that one of the SVoD platform’s latest pieces of original programming, the 10-episode historical epic Marco Polo (pictured top), cost a reported US$90m to make.
“Everyone’s still going to want to consume content that they’re excited about. And it’s probably going to become more challenging to reach them and make money. But there will be money to be made, you just have to surf that tide,” Fratto adds. “A lot of broadcasters around the world, particularly in the US, are probably going to go out of business once things become unbundled from cable and decoupled from your TV set.”
Lituchy, meanwhile, can see the UK market going the same way as the US, with more and more channels using original content as a way to differentiate themselves from their competitors. “Ten years ago in the UK, you had four buyers. Now you’ve got UKTV, Comedy Central and Netflix commissioning UK content. I would expect more channels to move into original programming as well,” he says.
“Everything is in quite a healthy state,” believes Red Planet’s Winstone, who is quite happy to concentrate on continuing to produce primetime for the BBC and other UK channels, rather than chase the affections of the new kids on the block.
“ITV is commissioning more, Sky is commissioning more. Drama is doing well on Channel 4. At the moment it feels like drama is rewarding those channels. We’re in a good place. We have a brilliant relationship with the BBC.
“Ultimately, we love the idea of millions of people watching and talking about the show the next day. Digital is not our focus. We’re big fans of traditional viewing – we haven’t created anything yet that needs to work on digital. We want to make shows that go out at 21.00.”
For the moment, the programming strategies of Netflix, Amazon and Hulu all appear to be more a case of throwing premium content at a wall and seeing what sticks, rather than focusing on one style or genre in particular.
It’s hard to know whether they’re looking for cable-style, niche programming like Mad Men, or broadcast shows with wider appeal such as How to Get Away With Murder. Ask them and they’d probably say both.
In the case of the US remake of The Mysteries of Laura, which Lituchy now exec produces for NBC, NMV originally thought it would go on to become a cable show, but eventually decided to take it only to broadcast networks.
“We actually pitched it to ABC, CBS and NBC. Those were the three networks we decided it would fit well, and all of them made offers,” Lituchy says. “It’s not the kind of show a Netflix would be interested in buying. We’re going for a very large audience, not a smaller audience that would want to shell out money to watch the next episode. But we do have other formats on which we would be more than happy to partner with Netflix.”
Grand-scale international coproductions are only going to become more common in the future as broadcasters look to commission their own tent-pole shows to compete with big spenders such as Netflix. And, for small companies like NMV – which at the time of writing comprises a team of five people – they’re a way to get involved in more ambitious projects.
“For us, international coproductions are great,” Lituchy says. “We’re a small company, so the BBC might not give us £500,000 (US$782,000) per episode to produce a show. But if we partner up with other companies either in the UK or internationally, we’re more likely to get that funding.”
And, for Pukeko Pictures, which isn’t able to rely on its local broadcasters to get projects fully funded, international coproductions are a vital part of the business model. “We’re exploring coproductions with studios and producers from other countries, with a particular eye on where we can take advantage of the recently heightened incentive schemes. What we do have to offer, under a treaty coproduction, is 40% incentive out of New Zealand,” Fratto says.
Death in Paradise, which returned for a fourth season on BBC1 earlier this year and will come back for a fifth, has flourished precisely because of its international partners, according to Winstone – who adds that people initially thought Red Planet was “insane” to attempt a coproduction with France Télévisions.
“The English-French thing has made it a much, much better show. But, like anything, it’s something you have to manage. One of the things (exec producer) Tony Jordan has been brilliant at is steering a course and making sure there’s a vision. At times you have to be robust, know what the show is and hold on to the heart of it,” Winstone adds.
“TV is a collaborative process. You have to let people have their voice, particularly if they are putting money in. Make sure you listen to them when they’re making a good point – and when they’re not, try and explain why they’re wrong, in a very nice way.”
A good sense of diplomacy, it seems, looks set to be the one thing that any producer wanting to make next-generation drama will require in spades. But how the new digital distribution paradigm will change the game further is yet to be seen.
Sara Johnson is executive producer and head of coproductions, scripted, at Keshet International UK. Opting to give DQ a whopping 10 shows instead of the usual six, Sara adds Keshet titles Prisoners of War and The A Word to her ‘nostalgic’ list of top dramas.
My list is nostalgic, dominated by series from the beginning of my career and others that have, in recent years, managed to persuade me to come back repeatedly after my habitual ‘one-episode watch.’
Cracker unnerved me, opening my eyes to the possibilities of a returning series drama and how it could grab me week by week, stretching across my timeline as an English student considering a career in TV drama and a producer’s secretary who was newly on her way. Growing up in a BBC household, this was ITV showing all it had to offer and it opened my eyes to how to portray darkness without causing people to look away.
Our Friends In the North inspired me. Back in 1996, as a reader at the drama series department at the BBC, this show empowered me to pursue my ambition of being a script editor. I still remember how obsessed I was by the characters and how the names involved in its making became a beacon for me going forwards.
Cardiac Arrest gripped me. I loved the darkness and how very different this was from Casualty or any other medical series I had watched or worked on. I also liked that it wasn’t softened for our TV screens.
This Life hooked me. My friends and I would watch it religiously, with the characters and their lives echoing our own yet pushing boundaries that we would never dare to. I stayed with these characters across the series and felt both bereft and relieved when the last episode finally came.
Queer As Folk shocked me. I needed TV drama to do that for me at that time, and I loved how it showed my native Manchester in ways I’d never seen it before, throwing away the rule book on who and what could be seen on screen, and how it could be shown.
Pride and Prejudice romanced me, taking one of my favourite books that I had studied for both my GCSEs and my A-levels and bringing it to life on screen. Unlike many other programmes I was watching at the time, I could share this with my mum and aunties, and we all got to disappear into the world of Jane Austen together.
ER was a series I followed weekly for its entire run. It took over from the Hill St Blues and St Elsewhere favourites of my childhood and continued my love of American TV drama formats. I watched it as a student, a secretary, a script editor, a commissioner and an exec producer; as a single woman, a married one and a mum. It crossed over my life and had George Clooney in it. Perfect TV.
Mad Men is another show of which I’ve seen every episode and one of the first series, post kids, that became addictive viewing that my husband and I could enjoy together. It is still an appointment-to-view for us, even though other shows have found their way into our together TV time. The style and single vision behind the series carry us through some of the weaker episodes and seasons.
Sherlock delighted me because it found me slightly jaded, languishing in development hell. It made me smile, think and enjoy TV drama all over again. Stylish and modern but with traditional and expert storytelling, it caught a nerve and grabbed its audience with verve and confidence.
Hatufim (Prisoners of War)/The A Word (pictured) continue to inspire me. Both telling stories from another country, with nuances, characters and stories that belong to their own time and place, but also with huge global appeal, crossing borders and opening eyes. These series are impossible to choose between and are the reason I came to work in my current job. Written and directed by two very different genius talents, I could watch them again and again.
Wall-Street-lawyer-turned-showrunner Jonathan Lisco on how he aims to make the second season of AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire a hit by giving the slow-paced character drama space to breathe.
To work in television, you must watch a lot of television, right? Wrong. Well, that’s what Jonathan Lisco says. He enjoyed True Detective and is trying to catch up on Mad Men, but admits he’s way behind on some of his favourite series.
With the seventh and final season of Mad Men due to conclude on cable network AMC on May 17, Lisco may now have to wait for the box set to find out what happens to Don Draper after his own series, Halt and Catch Fire, won a second season order last August. It will air at the end of this month, also on AMC.
Halt and Catch Fire opens in Dallas in 1983, and depicts a fictionalised view of the personal computer revolution as three people come together to reverse-engineer the first IBM PC.
Lisco was brought onto the series as showrunner after signing an overall deal with the cable channel in July 2013.
But he confesses that, after meeting co-creators Chris Rogers and Chris Cantwell, he wasn’t initially blown away by its premise.
“I wasn’t sure if it was going to work and I wasn’t sure I was the person to run it,” he says. “On its face, the show was about the cloning of the PC and that’s not something that immediately blows your hair back dramatically.
“But once I realised the show was not just about the cut-throat computer business of the early 1980s and convinced myself it was about people at war with themselves as they searched for something bigger in the world – about these geniuses or frauds who feel that there was something more out there that they can’t quite wrap their minds around – it seemed to me to not only be great fodder for storytelling but also very relevant to people today.”
Like Mad Men, which is set in a 1960s New York advertising agency, Halt and Catch Fire places huge emphasis on character development – something Lisco says could only be done at AMC.
“AMC will tolerate and encourage a slower burn than a lot of other places,” he says. “That means if you want to have moments where characters don’t speak, you can do it. You can choose those moments, earn them, and make it happen on screen.
“I feel sometimes like those are the moments that live most with audiences, those moments of intermittent vulnerability where you’re getting a window into that character. That’s a hard thing to do when you’re keeping the plot going at breakneck speed.”
Season one of Halt and Catch Fire often received critical acclaim, though viewing figures failed to reflect its promise. The series launch drew 1.19 million last June and dropped to 570,000 by the end of its 10-episode run at the beginning of August. Despite this, AMC saw enough potential in the series to bring it back for another season.
“It would be completely disingenuous for me to say that the network and us wouldn’t love to have artistic success alongside also being a ratings juggernaut,” says Lisco. “That’s a home run and we’d all love that. On the other hand, AMC picked up this show even when it was not a ratings juggernaut. It was widely viewed as high quality; it had a passionate core audience and they felt that it was good storytelling, and that there was more potential to come.
“So, with that in mind, they renewed it for another season. But it’s absolutely true they don’t necessarily need the kind of ratings the broadcast networks are looking for.”
With the show’s second run soon to hit TV screens, Lisco says season two offered him and his team of writers a chance to take the programme forward after establishing the characters last summer.
“In Halt and Catch Fire, the concrete plot is very important to us, but it’s much more important that the show functions on an infra-red emotional level so, before people even know it, they start to love and hate our main characters, while becoming addicted to them. That’s what we’re striving for, and while we feel like we accomplished a lot of that in season one, we’d just laid the pipe. We’d just established the world and these characters and all their wonderful facets, and I think there is an extraordinary amount of terrain to cover with them still.
“We kept a very open mind with this season, because sometimes in the room, the characters start speaking to us instead of us constructing them, and that’s when the magic really happens.”
A former lawyer, Lisco quit Wall Street after six months. “I looked ahead of me, saw all the partners at the firm, and I didn’t want to be any of them,” he says bluntly. “I felt daily like my soul was out of its socket.”
Waiting on tables in New York, he found he would often be serving the people he had been having conference calls with in his previous job. But after writing a play, he was introduced to executives at Robert de Niro’s Tribeca Film, where he sold a movie pitch.
Lisco landed his first TV job when he joined the writing staff of NYPD Blue. Co-creator Steven Bochco had read his play and offered him a job, despite the new recruit admitting he had never seen ABC’s long-running police series.
He then worked on The District, another cop drama, this time on CBS and set in Washington, DC, on which he rose through the ranks and began spending time in the editing suite.
Lisco joined Jack & Bobby, a one-season show on The WB Network about two brothers, one of whom would later become president of the United Sates, before signing a deal with 20th Century Fox that led to two projects for the Fox Network – a legal pilot called Damages and his own series, K-Ville, which focused on policing in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It ran for one season, but production shut down during the 2007/08 Writers Guild of America strike and it was later cancelled.
Lisco then joined TNT’s critically acclaimed cop show Southland as an executive producer for three seasons, before landing the showrunner post on Halt and Catch Fire.
“When it’s at its most exciting, there’s nothing quite like it,” says Lisco of the TV business. “The best moments come when you’re on set and you’ve written a scene that’s exactly the way you’ve seen it in your head.”
After AMC confirmed Halt and Catch Fire’s second season, Lisco rallied his staff and reopened the writing room at the end of last September.
“Everyone runs the room differently but the way I run it is to get in there and go deep, not on story but on character,” Lisco explains. “We talk on an emotional level and on a character level for a month before we actually start plotting out stories.
“Story points come up and we slap them on a card and put them on a whiteboard. Anyone who walks in there thinks we’ve all lost our minds, but what we’re really trying to understand is the vulnerability and humanity of the characters we’re creating – because if that rings false, if that doesn’t feel grounded and authentic, then whatever story we tell will ring false.”
After setting out character development, Lisco and his staff get into the first couple of episodes, but he says this only happens up to a certain stage, when individual writers are asked to go away and come up with a ‘beat sheet’ – 15 or 20 points that could make it into an episode. That will then be discussed before they’re asked to go away again and create an outline for an episode.
“It’s a very collegiate, collaborative effort but I also allow and empower the writers to be real writers and bring stuff to their colleagues in the room to be workshopped,” Lisco explains. “For me, that’s the best of both worlds because people wind up feeling a lot of ownership over what’s going on.”
Lisco also served as showrunner on Southland, TNT’s police drama set on the streets of Los Angeles that came to the end of its five season run in April 2013. Season one aired on NBC.
Having undertaken this role on two vastly different series, not only in style but also in plot, Lisco is building his experience in what he describes as “probably one of the best jobs in the world.” He’s not alone, though, with Breaking Bad’s Mark Johnson and Melissa Bernstein executive producing the show alongside him, Rogers, Cantwell and producer Jeff Freilick.
“It’s a shock to some writers, going from sitting by yourself in your underwear trying to crank out stories until the wee hours jacked up on coffee, to a point when suddenly you’re expected to be the head writer, a leader, and asked to oversee this hydra called a television show,” Lisco says of becoming a showrunner.
“For people who can do right brain and left brain simultaneously, it’s probably one of the best jobs in the world because you can be a chief novelist at the same time as being one of the managers.
“When I go in to showrun something, if I feel like my vision is going to be a daily battle against the vision of the creator or creators, I just don’t take the job. This is not my first rodeo so I’ve learnt that this is a disaster waiting to happen and there’s no point getting involved with it.
“Being the lead on the 100-headed monster called a television show, sometimes someone’s got to make the hard decision, and that will be me. But generally I try to manage by consensus as opposed to dictatorially because I feel like I can with these guys, because we are very like-minded in what we’re trying to achieve.”
Known as a dedicated movie channel, AMC broke the mould when it began commissioning its own scripted series. Mad Men debuted in 2007, a year before Breaking Bad, the lauded drama about a cancer-stricken chemistry teacher who becomes a crystal meth kingpin.
The success of that move into original programming did not go unnoticed, with an increasing demand for dramas among cable and digital platforms, not to mention the ongoing fight among the broadcast networks for viewers each autumn.
Lisco describes the fall-out from this demand as a “double-edged sword,” drawing parallels between an increasing number of outlets for scripted series and falling labour prices.
“On the one hand, while there are more outlets for content, there is downward pressure on prices and staff numbers in general are getting smaller,” he says.
“It depends on where you are in the business. If you are in the pantheon of showrunners and you have a certain kind of reputation, there will probably always be a place for you, but it’s hard to say. The business is changing so radically every day of the week that riding the rollercoaster is just part of the fun.”
Once upon a time, US cable channel A&E was a lovely place where gentle folk went to watch costume dramas and murder mysteries. But in recent years the channel has turned to the dark side. After offering its viewers psychos (Bates Motel) and zombies (The Returned), the channel has now announced plans for a series based around iconic 1970s antichrist movie The Omen.
Called Damien, the series was originally lined up for A&E’s sister channel Lifetime. But last week parent company A+E Networks decided A&E’s asylum would be a better home. At the same time, it revealed that the size of the series order was being bumped up to 10 episodes, having originally been planned as six.
The series is being written by Glen Mazzara, who is best known for being showrunner on series three of AMC’s The Walking Dead. Prior to that, he worked on Nash Bridges and The Shield.
Mazzara’s time on The Walking Dead didn’t end well. Despite the show achieving huge ratings during his watch, a difference of opinion about the programme’s direction saw Mazzara depart after just one series. So Damien is a big opportunity for him to really make his mark, building an ongoing scripted franchise from scratch. He is doing so via his own production company, 44 Strong Productions, which he launched after leaving The Walking Dead. Also involved is Ross Fineman, who developed the series concept with Mazzara.
The fact A&E has entrusted Mazzara with a 10-part series shows just how highly prized the alumni of hit series are. Reinforcing this point, US cable channel E! has just greenlit a project from Jonathan Abrahams, a writer who won a Primetime Emmy for his work on series four of Mad Men. Called The Arrangement, the new project tells the story of a young actress who is offered a part in a major movie on the condition that she has a relationship with the project’s male lead.
Mad Men, of course, comes to an end on May 17 after seven critically acclaimed seasons on AMC. Presumably, this means a wave of top script-writing talent will now be unleashed on the market. All told, eight people have been credited as writers on the final season, including the show’s creator Matthew Weiner.
Weiner has not given any indication what he plans to do after Mad Men. But he is undoubtedly going to be one of the most in-demand writers/showrunners in the US. If there is a career challenge for him, perhaps, it is to see if he can couple his creative talent to a higher-rating project. While other AMC shows such as The Walking Dead and Better Call Saul have delivered impressive ratings, Mad Men bumps along at around the two million mark.
Two other names closely associated with Mad Men are Andre and Maria Jacquemetton, who wrote numerous episodes before leaving at the end of season six. The husband/wife team was briefly attached to Zodiak Media’s lavish period drama Versailles, but ultimately their version was passed over in favour of a treatment by David Wolstencroft and Simon Mirren. As yet, there is no news of what the Jacquemettons are planning next.
An ongoing theme in the scripted TV world is the number of actors and directors coming over from film – and it seems writers are also tempted to make a similar move. A good example of this is Jeb Stuart, whose movie credits include late-night kebab and lager companion flicks Die Hard and The Fugitive.
Stuart has recently finished writing The Liberator for A+E’s History Channel, a miniseries based on the Second World War heroics of Colonel Felix ‘Shotgun’ Sparks, who fought his way up through Europe before liberating the Dachau concentration camp. History is obviously happy with Stuart’s work – he’s now writing a Vietnam drama for the channel. Called The Boys of ’67, the show is based on a book by historian Andrew Wiest and will tell its story from the point of view of an infantry division. It’s tempting to think Stuart might go on to round out a trilogy with an Iraq epic next.
While the US continues to be the world’s most dynamic drama market, Canada has built an excellent business on the back of demand for North American-style scripted shows. Canuck writers have benefited from this, with numerous shows created north of the border travelling into the US and other international markets. One Canadian writer in the news this week is Aaron Martin, whose credits include teen drama DeGrassi: The Next Generation. Martin is now writing a series called Slasher for NBCUniversal’s US horror channel Chiller and for Super Channel in Canada.
The show, which is being produced in Canada by Shaftesbury, is about a young woman who returns to the town where she was born, only to find herself embroiled in a series of horrifying copycat murders based on the gruesome killings of her parents. Sounds like a show that would also work on the new-look A&E…