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.
Damon Lindelof, the prolific showrunner, producer and film screenwriter behind cult series The Leftovers and Lost, is the latest high-profile speaker to join the line-up at Drama Summit West, which takes place in LA on May 19.
Lindelof will front a showrunner keynote Q&A at the event, discussing the third and final season of the critically acclaimed HBO series The Leftovers, his current work and his approach to the craft. The session will be chaired by The LA Times television and entertainment writer Libby Hill.
As well as TV work on Lost with JJ Abrams, Lindelof has also served as as a writer and producer on a number of science fiction films, including Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, World War Z, Star Trek, Star Trek Into Darkness and Tomorrowland.
Elsewhere at Drama Summit West, a high-profile showrunner panel forms part of the creative line-up featuring Marti Noxon (Sharp Objects, Unreal), Ilene Chaiken (Empire, The Handmaid’s Tale), Courtney Kemp (Power), Naren Shankar (The Expanse) and John Wirth (Hap & Leonard, Hell on Wheels). This panel sees the writer-producers discuss their evolving role and how they are creating, writing, developing and producing stories in new ways to meet audience and channel demands.
Delegates will also learn about the programming priorities for the top programming chiefs at AMC, Showtime, Starz and TNT at the event and how they are working with the international market, in a cable superpanel. The programming chiefs will also discuss challenges in the market and provide a sneak peak into some of 2017’s hottest new dramas, which they have commissioned, including Twin Peaks, American Gods, The Alienist and The Son.
Streaming giant Netflix also hosts a session at the event on its global coproduction and international originals strategy. This will be fronted by Elizabeth Bradley, VP of content, and Erik Barmack, VP of international originals, respectively. They will discuss how they are using Netflix multimillion-pound content budget to boost its library with original home-grown content in the 130-plus territories it now serves, as well as work with international partners on global coproductions.
British TV executive and former BBC drama chief Ben Stephenson will take part in a Next-Generation Producers panel, discussing his latest role as head of television at JJ Abrams’ Bad Robot. He is joined by The Night Manager producer The Ink Factory’s co-CEO Stephen Cornwell, American Crime Story producer Color Force’s senior VP television Nellie Reed and Anonymous Content’s Rosalie Swedlin, who’s latest projects include Caleb Carr adaptation The Alienist and The Wife, starring Glenn Close and Christian Slater.
The panel will discuss how some of the US’s hottest independent studios and seasoned producers are developing, producing and packaging next-generation drama, defining new models akin to the feature film world, finding new stories in a saturated market and working with creatives and writers.
A special focus on the Latin American market also forms part of the event. Execs from HBO Latin America, Globo, Fox Networks Latin America and Keshet Latin America will discuss the growing ambition for drama in the region, as well as the opportunities in this dynamic market.
Business sessions on coproduction and finance and the big questions in scripted TV also form part of the day with execs from BBC Worldwide, Lionsgate, Eone Entertainment, CAA, WME, Studiocanal TV, All3Media North America and Sonar Entertainment taking part.
The day will close with a networking cocktail party between 6pm and 9pm, organised in association with CAA.
Content chiefs at AMC, Netflix, Showtime, Starz and Bad Robot will speak at C21 Media’s Drama Summit West, which takes place in LA on Friday May 19, bringing together the global scripted business to facilitate new productions and partnerships.
The one-day summit, which occurs between the Upfronts and LA Screenings at The Ebell Theatre in Hollywood, will focus on ‘new drama, new models,’ bringing partners together around a creative conference, festival and networking agenda with a view to helping facilitate next-generation relationships.
AMC and Showtime president of original programming and development Joel Stillerman, Showtime president of programming Gary Levine and Starz president of programming Carmi Zlotnik are among a raft of top-tier US programming execs speaking at the event.
They will discuss the state of the US market and their respective 2017 slates, which include Loaded and The Son (AMC); Twin Peaks, Billions and Homeland (Showtime); and American Gods, The Girlfriend Experience and The Missing (Starz).
Netflix VP of content Elizabeth Bradley and VP of international originals Erik Barmack will host a joint session at the event, outlining their global coproduction and international originals strategies respectively. This in-depth session will provide unique insight into how the international business can work with the platform.
Entertainment One Television CEO John Morayniss joins a panel of industry leaders discussing the big questions ahead in US scripted television and creating premium scripted series, which include the forthcoming Sharp Objects starring Amy Adams for HBO; Ransom, from executive producer Frank Spotnitz for CBS/Corus/TF1/RTL; Foreign Bodies for E4; and Havana, starring Antonio Banderas for Starz, among many others.
Bad Robot head of television Ben Stephenson and HBO Latin America VP of original production Roberto Rios will also join panels at the event.
Marti Noxon, showrunner of Sharp Objects, and execs from from Lionsgate, The Ink Factory, Color Force and TV Globo will also speak at the event.
Noxon, whose other credits include UnREAL, Glee, Mad Men and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, will join a panel of writer-producers discussing the evolving entrepreneurial role of showrunner in the changing TV landscape. Sharp Objects, an adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s bestselling novel of the same name, is being directed by Jean-Marc Vallee (Dallas Buyers Club, Big Little Lies) and produced by eOne.
Stephen Cornwell, co-CEO of The Night Manager producer Ink Factory, and Nellie Reed, senior VP of Television at American Crime Story producer Color Force, also join a panel looking at how the industry’s hottest independent studios and seasoned producers are developing, producing and packaging next-generation drama.
Further speakers will be announced in the coming weeks.
This year will see the addition of a Drama Summit West Networking Lounge where delegates can reserve meeting tables to use throughout the day.
The 2016 event sold out, attracting more than 500 top-level executives.
Drama Summit West is the sister event to the International Drama Summit, part of C21’s Content London, which takes place in London in December. Recent speakers and contributors have included actor Tom Hardy, director Ridley Scott and writer Steve Knight (Taboo); showrunners Bryan Fuller (American Gods), Peter Morgan (The Crown), Tony Grisoni (Southcliffe, Red Riding) Jed Mercurio (Line of Duty) and Simon Mirren (Versailles); executives Joel Stillerman (AMC), Channing Dungey (ABC), Eric Schrier (FX), Sharon Tal Yuguado (Fox) and Morgan Wandell (Amazon); and leading global producers Jane Tranter, Jane Featherstone, Liza Marshall, Greg Brenman, Richard Brown, Gub Neal and Andrew Marcus.
Small-screen producers are going further than ever in their efforts to send shivers down viewers’ spines, with more horror now heading to TV than ever before. DQ finds out more from those at the forefront of this terrifying trend.
If you thought it was safe to climb out from behind your sofa, you might want to think again.
From The Outer Limits and Tales from the Crypt to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, True Blood and Being Human, horror has never been far from television screens.
Now a new breed of dramas are landing on the small screen with ambitions to leave viewers on the edge of their seats – or hiding behind them. But what’s behind this new wave of small-screen terror, and why do audiences keep coming back for more?
In the UK, horror can be found as far back as 1953 in the guise of The Quatermass Experiment, a BBC drama set in the near future against the backdrop of the British space programme. Told in six parts, the story followed the first manned flight into space – but when the rocket returns to Earth, two astronauts are missing and the third is behaving strangely. It then transpires an alien life form contaminated the mission, and scientists led by Professor Bernard Quatermass must stop the alien from destroying the planet.
A decade later in the US, shows such as The Twilight Zone and Boris Karloff’s Thriller brought terrifying stories to life during the early 1960s.
Dr Stacey Abbott, a reader in film and television studies at the University of Roehampton in London and author of TV Horror: Investigating the Dark Side of the Small Screen, says many early horror series were dressed up as science fiction: “While working in tropes of alien invasions, they were also about the horrors of things from outer space invading Earth and the fear the movement towards space exploration was creating. People thought it was very exciting but it was also a potential threat.
“In TV, horror often gets couched as science fiction because sci-fi seems more acceptable and the horror bits are buried. TV is hybrid – there’s no TV series that falls into just one genre category. It’s always drawing upon different genres, but horror often gets hidden beneath other genres to make it more acceptable.”
One modern example is The X-Files, which is returning for a 10th season on Fox in January 2016 after a 14-year absence. Creator Chris Carter’s interest lay in TV horror but he sold the show as science fiction and got it on the air, says Abbott. “Watch an episode like Home, which is about cannibalism and incest, and it’s really indebted to horror. It’s still considered one the scariest episodes,” she adds.
In the 1970s, the rise of cinematic horror led networks to look to the movies to fill late-night slots, while anthology series became commonplace in the 1980s, with examples such as Friday the 13th: The Series (which ran for three seasons from 1987) and Freddie’s Nightmare (two seasons from 1988). Both shows were spin-offs of big-screen movie franchises, and US network The CW is currently developing a reboot of the former.
Horror re-emerged again in the 1990s in the wake of Twin Peaks, David Lynch’s mystery drama that dipped its toes into the genre through its unsettling tone and supernatural elements.
“I would definitely count Twin Peaks as TV horror in many respects, and that impacts on shows like The X-Files, which impacts on Buffy. Something like Buffy is a good example of a show that presents itself as a teen drama but draws upon horror tropes and regularly parodies the genre,” says Abbott.
“Buffy was part of the first wave of modern horror series,” says Marti Noxon (UnREAL, Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce), who began her career on The WB network series and its spin-off, Angel. “There were other sci-fi and fantasy shows that were starting to get traction around that time and, of course, there’s a long history with things like The Twilight Zone.”
Created by Joss Whedon (The Avengers) and based on the 1992 movie of the same name, Buffy starred Sarah Michelle Gellar as the titular heroine, the latest in a long line of ‘slayers,’ who battled demons while navigating the pitfalls of high school. Noxon says Buffy’s cult status meant Whedon and his team were given a lot of room to write the show they wanted, without network interference: “It was pretty heady in terms of the experience I had working with Joss – he was a mentor and inspiration to me – but I didn’t know until the show was over that we were in this very privileged position, as we’d pretty much been making TV for ourselves.”
Buffy’s adventures always began as character stories first and foremost, Noxon explains, with horror built into the narrative. The show was also where she learned about ‘Trojan horses’ – the art of writing an exciting and entertaining scene that doubled as a metaphor for a life lesson or moral.
“All the Buffy writers would say the same thing – you start with character first, and the conversations in the room always started with the story we wanted to tell, and we built the horror story around that,” she explains. “We weren’t being very opaque about it – you could see most of the monsters were metaphors in vampire costumes. Joss taught me all about the Trojan horse – making something very entertaining and fun while speaking about something else. People don’t always know they’re eating their vegetables but they are.”
Like Buffy, many horror series on television take inspiration from the cinema. A&E’s Bates Motel (Psycho) and Damien (The Omen) and MTV’s Teen Wolf all have big-screen predecessors.
Another is Scream, MTV’s adaptation of the franchise from the late Wes Craven that spawned four films and threw new light on horror, in part because it played up to and parodied the stereotypes associated with the genre.
The series, which has been renewed for a second season to air next year, follows a group of teenagers whose world turns upside down when a viral video serves as the catalyst for a murder that opens up a window to their town’s troubled past.
Creator/executive producer Jill Blotevogel says that in the past networks would have shied away from a horror series like Scream, fearing it wouldn’t have drawn a big enough audience. But the success of shows including AMC’s The Walking Dead have proven that any show with “great drama and great characters” can bring people in.
“You have to forget that it’s Scream and that it’s a horror movie and instead think of it as a drama where you fall in love with these characters,” Blotevogel says. “That’s the joy of extending a horror property into a series, and a lot of the networks have found the horror series that defines them. You’ve got Bates Motel, iZombie (The CW), Hannibal (recently cancelled by NBC). These are series that aren’t just horror but signature horror. They all have their unique style, and MTV was really interested in doing something like that to make a big splash.”
Botevogel’s other credits include CBS drama Harper’s Island. She says that show – about a murder spree on an island where everyone is a suspect – gave her the experience she needed to write a series where many characters would meet a gruesome fate. “We had long conversations with our studio and network about how many people we could kill and when we could kill them, because they were pretty adamant they didn’t want it to be just random kills of a crossing guard or hotel maid or someone who doesn’t matter. They wanted it to be people we cared about,” she says. “It’s been a real push-pull, a real learning experience for everyone because it’s definitely a different kind of show.
But how did Scream approach how graphic it should be? “We didn’t want to take the gore level to something that’s just gross for the sake of being gross,” admits Blotevogel, who says the team wanted to create TV that would be talked about on social networks and around the water cooler.
“As always in the US, you have standards and practices. We have guidelines that say, ‘yes you can do this,’ or ‘make sure you cut away so it’s not too graphic.’ But as we saw in the pilot, we had a pretty graphic throat-slicing and it definitely made a lot of people scream.”
If Scream faced a balancing act over its graphic content, one new drama heading to US premium cable network Starz is facing no such uncertainty. When horror flick The Evil Dead was first released in 1983, it was banned in several countries, including the UK, over its violent content, helping it to become one of the first ‘video nasties.’
And its small-screen adaptation, Ash vs Evil Dead (pictured top), which launches this Halloween, will stay true to the gory spirit of the film franchise (the original spawned two sequels and a 2013 remake). Starz MD Carmi Zlotnik says: “The premium space enables us to do everything broadcast and cable networks cannot in terms of content and allows us to do horror in its truest form – uncut and unadulterated. ‘Barrels of blood’ would not do it justice, we had no problem with blood or gore.”
The story of a group of friends who awaken demonic forces while staying in an isolated cabin is executive produced by Sam Raimi, Rob Tapert, Bruce Campbell, the original filmmakers, and showrunner Craig DiGregorio. Campbell also reprises his role as main character Ash.
The project landed at Starz through its existing relationship with Tapert, who worked on Spartacus, and the script proved to have everything the network wanted – “horror, comedy, vast amounts of blood. We call it ‘splatstick,’” says Marta Fernandez, Starz senior VP of original programming.
“If it were on network television, it would be a completely different animal. It would be watered down. We go so far with blood and gore, which is the trademark of The Evil Dead, that we would have to step that back so far for a network drama.”
While you might be able to get away with bigger scares in pay TV, that hasn’t stopped US networks jumping into horror. The X-Files is coming back to Fox; iZombie airs on The CW alongside The Vampire Diaries and its spin-off The Originals; and Dracula aired on NBC in partnership with the UK’s Sky Living in 2013.
A further example is Hannibal, another NBC entry that concluded its three-season run this summer. The series focuses on the relationship between forensic scientist Hannibal Lecter and FBI investigator Will Graham, played by Mads Mikkelsen and Hugh Dancy respectively.
Hannibal and fellow horror series Hemlock Grove (the third and final season launched on Netflix this month) were both produced by Gaumont International Television (GIT) – but former CEO Katie O’Connell Marsh, who stepped down from the company during its recent rebranding to Gaumont TV, says the company never set out intending for its first two commissions to sit so heavily in horror.
“I’m not personally into horror, but I am into really good character drama,” she says. “That’s how I look at them. Everyone comes to entertainment from their own viewpoint, and for me it’s really just great character and great exploration. There are things in Hannibal that were rough for even me to watch, but it’s beautifully rendered.”
Hannibal was picked up by NBC through writer Bryan Fuller’s links to the network, and O’Connell Marsh says there were no second thoughts about developing the series for a broadcast network, despite Lecter’s cannibalistic tendencies.
“I actually think NBC is such a great place for that. Because of the limitations, it makes the show in some ways more interesting and scarier,” she explains. “Sometimes what you imagine is behind the door is scarier than what’s actually there. In so many ways, the restraint of US broadcast television made the show that much more interesting. If we could have done whatever we wanted, maybe Hannibal wouldn’t have been as scary or provocative.
“Bryan has often said NBC’s standards and practices department were very supportive. It wasn’t like there was a battle every episode. They understood the show and what Bryan was trying to do. We skirted the line a lot of the time but they were really encouraging.”
O’Connell Marsh says Netflix has been equally supportive with Hemlock Grove, a show executive produced by horror aficionado Eli Roth, the man behind the ultra-gory Hostel movie franchise. Based on the book by Brian McGreevy, Hemlock Grove follows a murder mystery that revolves around the residents of a former Pennsylvania steel town that is home to a number of peculiar inhabitants – and killer creatures. “Horror isn’t the question, it’s the concept of a show,” she adds. “Underneath Hannibal is a bromance with murder and mystery. In Hemlock Grove, it’s the ultimate family drama. And the sustainability of a show is equal parts the vision and the story.”
One horror less concerned with blood and gore and more focused on the supernatural and psychological was British drama The Enfield Haunting. The three-part series, based on Guy Lyon Playfair’s non-fiction book This House is Haunted, tells the story of the phenomenon known as the Enfield Poltergeist, which supposedly terrorised a house in the north London borough in 1977. It starred Timothy Spall, Juliet Stevenson and Matthew MacFadyen and aired this year on Sky Living and A&E in the US.
“Sky was after something that would be properly scary and would move the genre on in some way,” says executive producer and Eleven Film co-founder Jamie Campbell. “Part of what appealed to Sky, and part of what the audience found appealing, was that it was based on a true story. Sky was very keen that we retained the integrity of the book and was keen for us to make it scary.”
However, Campbell believes there’s a limited appeal for horror on television: “Commissioners are apprehensive about horror because you eliminate a serious amount of the audience. But that’s quite exciting because the audience that does come to it, as Enfield showed, is committed and will invest in it.
“The sweet spot is finding something that will appeal to fans of horror but has enough going for it that people who aren’t necessarily fans of the genre will take a chance on it. And if it’s well made, they stick with it.”
Campbell also cites French supernatural drama Les Revenants (The Returned), which returned to Canal+ for a second season in September, as an original horror series that moved the genre forward. “(Producer) Haut et Court has great taste and you can see that in all aspects of the series,” he says. “What was really driving it was story, keeping you interested, and I suspect the genre came second to the story.”
Ultimately, Campbell says, there are two different ways of tackling horror. One is in keeping with the all-out path trodden by The Evil Dead, while the other is to take a more stylish approach – with Campbell again using Les Revenants as an example of the latter.
“There’s an audience that will come to horror if you do it in a slightly different way, pay more attention to story and make it a more rarefied experience but still revel in the genre. If you can do that, then it can be really interesting.”
But if any further proof were needed of horror’s current influence on TV schedules, US cable network AMC this summer launched its highly anticipated companion to zombie drama The Walking Dead, one of the biggest shows currently on air. Fear The Walking Dead complements the original by taking its fans back to the start – focusing on how LA fell to the ‘walkers.’
The show boasts many of the key creatives from The Walking Dead, including Robert Kirkman, Gale Anne Hurd, David Alpert and Greg Nicotero. Its premiere on AMC drew 10.1 million viewers, becoming the number-one series premiere in cable television history in terms of total viewers.
Showrunner Dave Erickson says that, at its roots, the series is a family drama, wrapped in the familiar trappings of the horror genre. “In Fear, we start as a family drama and we bring in the tropes from the genre,” he explains. “There’s something about horror shows that are vessels. You can impress upon them any fear, anxiety, phobia – anything that haunts you, you can make part of that world. People typically like to be scared. The adrenaline rush – that’s what causes people to watch horror films.
“They also work psychologically. They reflect societal ills, anxieties that we carry with us every day and, ultimately, they’re somewhat cathartic. Specifically with the zombie genre, there’s something very primal in killing zombies. They’re basically people who have been dehumanised, and that makes it OK to take them down.”
As with other genres, horror is used as the dressing for stories about heroes and heroines, troubled families and bloodthirsty crimes. But whatever aspect these shows take, they are all united by their ambition to scare their audience. So why do people watch them?
“People just love to be scared,” says Scream’s Blotevogel, a self-confessed horror fan. “I think people are reassured about their own lives when they see awful things happening to other people because they can put it out there and say it’s just a TV show. Everybody loves to be scared. It’s just built into our DNA. I’m so glad the genre is having a renaissance on TV and I hope it continues.”
It’s been one of the surprise hit series of the year – but what is the secret of UnREAL’s success? Michael Pickard reports.
From Breaking Bad to Mad Men, True Detective to House of Cards, there is a seemingly endless conveyer belt of complex – and often flawed – male characters headlining TV dramas. But one new show has turned this trend on its head and placed the concept of imperfect female heroes, and antiheroes, firmly into the public consciousness.
UnREAL, which launched on US cable network Lifetime in June and has been picked up for a second season, is set against the backdrop of a reality dating TV show called Everlasting, where young producer Rachel Goldberg (Shiri Appleby, pictured above left) is pushed to manipulate the contestants to get the outrageous footage demanded by the programme’s executive producer Quinn King (Constance Zimmer, pictured above right).
Co-created by Marti Noxon and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, UnREAL was inspired by Sequin Raze, the short film made by Shapiro who worked for nine years as a producer of real-life dating series The Bachelor.
Noxon executive produces with Sally DeSipio and Robert M Sertner, while Shapiro serves as supervising producer and Stacy Rukeyser co-executive produces. The series is produced by A+E Studios and distributed by A+E Networks.
“It was unlike anything I’d ever seen,” says Appleby (Roswell, Girls) when asked about her attraction to the project. “The character of Rachel was a woman I’d never met – someone who had so much conflict and a really deep story. I was excited about the challenge of playing a woman who wasn’t going to be likeable and whose purpose on the show is not to serve a man. She’s on her own journey trying to find herself and find where she fits in this world. Each episode continued to interest me and engage me personally and professionally.”
The actress met with some reality show producers as part of her research for the role, and says it was “refreshing” to have the chance to play an unlikeable character.
“I’ve been lucky to work with a lot of female showrunners, including Lena Dunham (Girls), so working for Sarah and Marti was comfortable for me. What was awesome was that they were writing a show about women and allowing them to be ugly and complicated, and they weren’t concerned with making these characters likeable. That’s what was so refreshing. The response has been really gratifying.”
Zimmer (Entourage, House of Cards), who boarded the series after the pilot had already been shot, said she was initially concerned about appearing on a Lifetime drama but, after a two-hour meeting, she became convinced UnREAL would change the face of the network.
“It was a stretch for Lifetime but if any show was going to break it out, it was this one,” she says. “If this show were anywhere else, it might not have been as well received because it was so unexpected. People were hesitant – and are still hesitant – to watch a show on Lifetime, but now we’ve broken the mould. People were talking about UnREAL, and once you saw it, you couldn’t stop yourself. That was a huge compliment.”
Zimmer also admits to being a “little terrified” of playing Quinn, a no-nonsense TV producer who demands results from her team. But the challenge of the role also excited her: “With this kind of show, you have to go big or go home. You can’t do this inside reality show where no person is bad – everybody’s flawed and you have female antiheroes.
“We were embarking on a huge journey and to do it we all had to be scared to do certain things – and that’s what was so fun. Because we were all so committed to making it as dark as we could, it was challenging but lots of fun.”
Appleby and Zimmer say they were lucky to land on UnREAL together, but it wasn’t until the show was described by some critics as “the female Breaking Bad” that they realised what they were involved in.
“It just shows you there’s a lack of flawed female characters and that you don’t have to be perfect as women,” Zimmer says. “You can still have a voice if you’re not perfect. Nobody on this show was afraid to be ugly or sinister to have a voice.
“We just tapped into so many different emotions across the board. People were fascinated with the reality side of it, whether they had ever seen a reality show or not, and they were fascinated by these evil characters. That doesn’t happen very often. And because it has two women, it has this Breaking Bad quality, where Walter White was doing horrible things but you still liked him.
“Maybe if it were two men, it might not have been so impactful but because it was two women running this world and abusing other women and themselves at the same time, it spoke to a lot of people about what we all do in our daily life to women.”
With the clamour among television networks around the world for an increasing amount of original drama and the dearth of a new breakout reality or entertainment format – the last big hit arguably being The Voice in 2011 – it is perhaps a sign of the times that reality TV is the subject of a drama.
But according to co-creator Noxon, a series that not just parodies reality television but also explores how it is made was long overdue.
“I wanted to show how these reality shows are really made and the damage they do, not just to those involved but to the people who watch it,” she explains. “This culture of bully television, where you watch to make fun of people or feel superior to them – it’s really corrosive; it’s ugly. I knew it was the perfect setting for a big soapy, juicy drama but also there was a real opportunity to comment on something that has been making me really angry for a long time.”
But has Noxon been on the receiving end of any criticism for the way UnREAL portrays reality television? “The only person who’s commented in any negative way is someone who’s on the show. Everybody else I know involved in reality has secretly said to me, ‘You nailed it, that’s what it’s like,’ and that is shocking to me,” she says. “We pushed the boundaries as far as we could and to have people say, ‘Yeah, that feels like my job,’ is pretty chilling actually.
“One of the things I learned through this experience is that I was like a lot of people watching reality television – I was judgemental, because I felt people on reality TV knew what they were signing up for. Now I know, from getting into how these shows are constructed, that nobody can know what they’re signing up for. They have no idea. Unless you’ve worked on a reality show, you think you can beat the system but you can’t.”
Zimmer agrees UnREAL has “touched a nerve” with some viewers who work in the industry portrayed on the show: “They’ve been unbelievably vocal about saying how much our show is what they deal with, and that was terrifying,” she says. “I was so scared when someone came up to me and said, ‘I know exactly who you’re playing.’”
With a second season of the show due to air on Lifetime in 2016, A+E Networks has already sold UnREAL into more than 100 territories, including TF1 in France and Antena 3 in Spain.
Joel Denton, the distributor’s MD of international content sales and partnerships, recognises the show’s departure from Lifetime’s regular programming, admitting it’s not the type of series you’d normally see on the female-targeted channel.
“It’s younger, edgier, dark and comedic,” he says. “It’s not the sort of thing you’d traditionally expect to see there. It’s really pushing boundaries and it’s great to see it was such a huge critical success.
“It’s poking fun at a lot of things that go on in television and that’s fairly universal. Ultimately, it’s a workplace drama and it’s the drama and characters that drive its success. There are a lot of hooks in terms of themes and ideas that are universal.”
With viewers around the world falling in love with UnREAL, many more networks can now be expected to make a date with this hit series.
As Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce heads to the UK, Michael Pickard speaks to its star and creator about sexual politics and new opportunities for strong female characters.
She’s best known for her long-running role in Fox medical drama House.
But with a string of credits on shows including The West Wing, Ally McBeal, Scandal, Castle and The Good Wife, Lisa Edelstein is now heading the cast of the first original drama to air on US cable network Bravo.
Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce stars Edelstein as a self-help book author who shocks the world when she reveals her seemingly perfect life has been a lie after separating from her husband. As a newly single woman in her 40s, she turns to her divorced friends to help her confront some unexpected and life-changing experiences.
Executive produced by Marti Noxon, the series is based on the best-selling Girlfriends’ Guide book series by Vicki Iovine – with episode titles such as Rule No 174: Never Trust Anyone Who Charges by the Hour. The show is produced by Universal Cable Productions and NBCUniversal International Television Distribution is handling worldwide sales.
The series was originally pitched to Showtime, but the premium cable network let it pass and Girlfriends’ Guide instead landed at Bravo, where it debuted in the US in December 2014. Edelstein is now back on set for season two, with production on 13 new episodes due to wrap in mid-November.
Speaking to DQ ahead of the show’s launch on Lifetime in the UK, Edelstein says the opportunity to play a woman her own age as the lead in a romantic comedy-drama was previously unheard of.
“It’s such a cool experience,” she says. “This show is a drama about funny people, that’s how we put it. It’s about people who themselves are funny but the story itself is very real and deep.
“I love the mistakes that she makes. I feel like I made a lot of those mistakes myself when I was much younger because I did the opposite of this character, I stayed single for a very long time and then got married in my 40s, and she’s single for the first time in her 40s. She’s making a lot of rookie mistakes.”
Girlfriends’ Guide is one of a number of series across US television now pushing strong female characters into leading roles. Another example is Lifetime’s UnReal, which was co-created by Noxon.
“I love it, it’s so fantastic,” says Edelstein of this trend. “The stories are so interesting and compelling and they just haven’t been told.
“I would never imagine this opportunity at this point in my life when I started. I didn’t see an opportunity like this until a year before I got this job but now it’s just part of the world. It’s because there are so many more outlets now that they have to break through. You can’t do the same thing as another network. Everyone’s more competitive and the result is better quality shows, better quality scripts, and things that would never have seen the light of day because they are too edgy or different now get a chance and get to shine.”
Edelstein adds that she had no qualms about joining Bravo’s first original drama, describing it as “the network’s baby.”
“It still has enough of the glamorous aspects that people are used to seeing on Bravo, but then the stories themselves are a lot truer when you’re in a scripted drama than when you’re in a reality show,” she explains. “People relate in a much stronger way. They’re not just laughing and pointing at people like they do when they watch reality shows; they get to go inside a story and relate it to their own experience. That’s something Bravo was really itching to do and they’re an incredible network to be on because they’re so excited about this move that they’re very supportive. It’s been a wonderful experience.”
Following a career that included working on shows such as Mad Men, Grey’s Anatomy and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Girlfriends’ Guide marks Noxon’s first show where she is billed as the creator. She says a big part of Girlfriends’ Guide is appealing to a specific audience – working women.
“Television has changed so much,” she says. “There’s so much more opportunity now. When you’re working at networks, there are layers and layers of bureaucracy but so much of that is simplified in cable. I’m also able to write stuff that’s much more specific.
“We’re not about trying to reach as many people as possible, we’re trying to reach certain people. We’re able to identify the audience we’re trying to reach and be as frank as real as possible. Girlfriends’ Guide is funny but it also really reflects the world that me and a lot of people I know are living in today. It’s really great to be able to be honest and put it all out there.”
Noxon says she never considered writing a show particularly for women, but just about her experiences and those of her friends: “The idea of the show came from two places: myself and other friends who had all been through divorces so we all had lots of stories, and Vicki’s story was also so compelling. She made her money writing advice books for women. While she was on a book tour, her marriage broke up while she was out there pretending she had this family she could hold up as an example of how to do things right. For me, that was the best kicking off place for a show.
“There’s a lot of stuff that happened to me – in episode three, Abby (Edelstein) gets her fingers stuck in a window and she’s alone in the house and that happened to me. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, I’m really divorced because there’s no one here to help me.’ Lots of things are based on things that really happened and we continue to do that. Going back out in the world as a single woman in your 40s is no picnic.”
Those experiences are also where much of the humour in Girlfriends’ Guide originates. “The comedy comes from real situations. We don’t write jokes,” Noxon explains. “It’s about people who happen to be funny in funny situations. They can comment and editorialise on their own experiences as people do in life. Sometimes the worse things get, you have to find a way to laugh about it, so I think it’s a good fit for me. I don’t like forced humour but I love it when it feels organic to what you’re writing about.”
Inspired by Iovine’s self-help books, Noxon says she was interested in exploring sexual politics and how the dynamics are changing between men and women, both at home and at work.
“If you talk to women across the world, a lot of women have to work full-time or all the time to help support their families but what’s new in more and more cases, women are earning the same or more than their husbands and that shift is really having an impact, at least on relationships in the circles I run in,” she says. “That to me was interesting – how do we navigate this new world where often its women initiating divorce more than men. Part of that has to be we’re financially able to support ourselves whereas previously the impetus to stay was for financial security.”
But if you think this show is just for women, you might want to think again. Both Noxon and Edelstein say Bravo noted a high number of male viewers tuning into the first season.
“Because it’s called Girlfriends’ Guide, a lot of men got tricked into watching it by their female partners or friends and then ended up becoming just as engaged in the story in the story as the women are,” Edelstein adds. “But men are by no means the bad guys. It’s a complicated story.”
A+E Studios’ reality TV satire UnREAL launched on Lifetime in the US this week, and has attracted positive plaudits from critics. Time Magazine called it “dark, deft and empathetic,” while the Hollywood Reporter said the show “moves along at an engaging, entertaining pace.”
The LA Times, meanwhile, suggested UnREAL might help Lifetime shift perceptions about the kind of shows it airs: “Built on a pair of strong, nuanced, cliché-free performances by Shiri Appleby and Constance Zimmer this is a Lifetime series that transcends the words ‘Lifetime series.’”
Created by Marti Noxon (Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce) and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro – whose short film Sequin Raze inspired the series – UnREAL is about the seedy goings on at a hit dating show that is loosely based on The Bachelorette. It follows a young producer called Rachel (Appleby) who is willing to do anything to please her executive producer boss (Zimmer). Her main job is to manipulate contestants in order to get outrageous footage for the show, which she constantly feels guilty about.
Noxon, the senior partner in the creative team behind UnREAL, is a TV industry veteran who first came to prominence on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for which she wrote or co-wrote 22 episodes. Since then she has written and produced for a number of projects. Looking specifically at writing credits, Noxon has penned episodes of Grey’s Anatomy, Mad Men and Glee, as well as serving as head writer on the first season of Private Practice.
The last couple of years have been particularly fruitful for Noxon. In 2013, it was announced she would write a reboot of Tomb Raider for MGM and GK Films. Then, just ahead of the debut of UnREAL on Lifetime, she launched Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce for cable channel Bravo. Centred on a self-help author whose private life doesn’t measure up to her public persona, the show was the channel’s first foray into original scripted production. Noxon wrote five of the 13 episodes, including the first and last. With a decent ratings performance and positive reviews, Girlfriends’ Guide has been renewed for a second season.
Noxon’s skill, it seems, is her ability to create storylines based around authentic female characters who attempt to juggle career progression, family, romance and friendship. In particular, she is able to run through the full emotional range, from humour to heartache. Commenting on Noxon’s early episodes of the Bravo show, the Chicago Sun-Times said they reveal a “nuanced, poignant tale, punctuated by some genuinely funny scenes.”
Having said all this, the initial audience figures for episode one of UnREAL were not good, with the show failing to pick up the ratings baton from Devious Maids, which led the programme in on its launch night.
Given the positive reaction from critics, this suggests two possibilities – first that audiences are not comfortable having the fantasy of ‘reality TV’ shattered (like meat-eaters who would rather not visit the abattoir); or, second, that the show is not a good fit for Lifetime (think back to that comment from the LA Times in the opening paragraph).
We’ll need to wait a few more episodes to develop an accurate picture of the show’s performance. But if it carries on in the same way, Lifetime will have to make a decision about whether it cut its losses or if renewing UnREAL will send out a message to audiences about where the channel actually wants to be in terms of brand profile. Internationally, the show might work well for channels that have a tougher, more satirical edge than we associate with Lifetime. Either way, UnREAL is likely to enhance Noxon’s status.
Sticking with talented female writers/producers, Marta Kauffman has been in the news this week. Kauffman will forever be known as the co-creator of Friends, arguably the most successful sitcom ever. But she has been consistently busy since that show ended way back in 2004. Her most recent project is Grace and Frankie, a sitcom for Netflix that was renewed late last month.
This week it was announced that Kauffman is teaming up with Ben Silverman’s producer/distributor Electus to make a US version of Doc Martin, a British comedy drama about a successful London surgeon who moves to a sleepy village in Cornwall. Doc Martin is something of a phenomenon, having been remade in territories such as France, Germany and Spain and sold as a completed series worldwide. With Kauffman and Silverman on board, it now stands a real chance of cracking the US too – though the sedate UK version will probably need to be injected with amphetamines to appeal to US cable channels.
Commenting, Silverman said: “Doc Martin has charmed viewers worldwide with its excellent concept and unique style of comedy, and we’re proud to be working with Marta Kauffman. She and her team are brilliant partners.”
In one of this week’s high-profile scripted stories, Showtime’s hit series Homeland has just started production on series five. The new set of 12 episodes will be filmed in and around Berlin – making Homeland “the first American TV series to shoot entirely in Germany,” according to Showtime and Fox21 Television Studios.
Echoing our comments about Mad Men in an earlier Writers Room, it’s fascinating to see just how many people are involved in making big US dramas work. Typically, Homeland is credited to Howard Gordon and Gideon Raff, the US and Israeli executives who successfully transformed Israeli series Prisoners of War into the long-running US show. But if you look at the executive producer line-up for season five, it also includes Alex Gansa, Alexander Cary, Chip Johannessen, Meredith Stiehm, Patrick Harbinson, Lesli Linka Glatter, Avi Nir and Ran Telem.
Gansa, who previously worked on The X-Files and Dawson’s Creek, is actually a co-creator of the show alongside Gordon and Raff, and has handled a number of key episodes throughout its life. Cary, Johannessen and Stiehm have also been writing on the show since the beginning, which presumably gives the production the kind of stable creative spine that ensures longevity.
Continuing this week’s bias towards successful female writers, it’s interesting to note how Stiehm has built her career in a broadly similar way to Noxon and Kauffman, mixing writing jobs with series creator/showrunner roles. After breaking into the business on classic series like Northern Exposure and Beverly Hills 90210, she went on to create Cold Case, which ran for seven seasons on CBS. After Cold Case, she came on board Homeland but still found time to adapt Nordic drama The Bridge for FX.
Stiehm was also linked to Cocaine Cowboys, a project originally developed by Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay for HBO. In the endlessly shifting world of US TV, however, that project ended up being piloted for TNT and written by Michelle Ashford, the creator/executive producer of Showtime’s Masters of Sex and a writer on HBO’s 2010 miniseries The Pacific. The latest word on Cocaine Cowboys is that it is undergoing creative surgery.