Flemish series Grenslanders (Floodland) sets a crime mystery against a unique backdrop as investigators from Belgium and the Netherlands join forces in this cross-border drama.
The mudflats of the River Scheldt, which flows along the border between Belgium and the Netherlands, provide a unique and eye-catching landscape that serves as the backdrop for Flemish thriller Grenslanders (Floodland).
It’s here that a small boat emerges from the mist, bobbing on the water, its cabin riddled with bullet holes and its walls dripping with blood. The next morning, a young girl is discovered wandering among the mud and grass, clearly injured and exhausted by an unknown ordeal.
When Dutch police inspector Tara Dessel (played by Jasmine Sendar) and Belgian psychologist Bert Dewulf (Koen De Bouw) are called in to investigate the mysterious boat and identify the girl, they confront the border communities where the people who live there may be hiding secrets of their own.
Produced by Eyeworks and Column Film for Belgium’s VRT and Avrotros in the Netherlands, the idea for the series came from co-creators Rik D’Hiet and Erik de Bruyn, who also wrote and directed the drama respectively.
De Bruyn had seen a show written by D’Hiet called Het Goddelijke Monster, a saga about a scandal-ridden family, and suggested they partner for a new project. The director was particularly keen to make a show that would appeal to Flemish audiences in both countries.
“We speak the same language but we live in different countries so we are a bit estranged from each other,” D’Hiet says, speaking after a screening of Floodland at the Serié Series television festival in France. “So we started imagining what kind of series that could be. Very soon we wanted to create a series set in this special region that is called the ‘Floodland.’ We started thinking what would happen in this kind of region where you have these huge mammoth tankers going to the cities inland and at the same time you have this very regional culture that was very peculiar.
“Then I came up with two images – the first was the image of a girl wandering around in the flat lands on the Belgian border, and this other image was of a small yacht floating around on the Scheldt River. Fom there, we started to imagine and create the story.”
Mylène Verdurmen, head of drama at Avrotros, was immediately enthusiastic about the concept and the idea of creating a cross-border Flemish series. “They pitched it to me through these two images and the characters,” she recalls. “They didn’t have a huge bible yet, just a small story, but the story was told through the characters already and it was this magical thing. You knew it was going to be a great idea.”
The creators took special care to find the right tone for the series, looking specifically at how the characters would look and react to each other. “They all have their specific language and we also wanted a slight irony to the series,” D’Hiet says. “It’s not too serious – it has to be suspenseful, you want drama because it’s a mystery, but it doesn’t have to be too dark. It’s not Scandinavian noir.
“We wanted to lure people into the story in a rather classical way. We have these two main characters, Tara and Bert, but when the story develops we focus more on the other characters as well. It’s really about a cast of strong characters who have their own peculiarities but also that can move you in a special way.”
Sendar auditioned for the role of Tara on the basis of a single scene. Then, when she was called back a couple of months later, she met de Bruyn and sought to find out more about the character.
“I asked him, ‘What’s her issue?’ because she has issues,” the actor says. “We started talking and it was interesting, so from then on I really got excited. I wanted the part because it sounded really cool. After three auditions, I heard I got the part, but then we had to find my partner and I really connected with Koen, who plays Bert. As an actor you imagine what it will look like and how everything would be. Then when you go to the edit, it’s even more than you can imagine so I’m happy I got to be a part of this.”
For Tara, particular attention was given to how the character would look, from her vintage car and leather jacket to her hair. “I was wearing a wig and it needs to be on tight if we’re going to have boat shots. I don’t want to be losing the wig,” she jokes. “So we had discussions about that and how we were going to do it. Also for me, it was really important that she wears natural hair, because you don’t see that very often.”
Elly Vervloet, head of international drama coproductions at VRT, says Floodland is typical of the character-driven series sought after by the public broadcaster, with both Tara and Bert dealing with personal issues beyond the case at hand. That the story also deals with the subject of human trafficking also means the drama holds contemporary relevance.
“We all know what the problems are and that criminal organisations arise as soon as there is a humane disaster taking place. That is important for us [to talk about],” she says.
Verdurmen describes working on Floodland as “one of the loves of my life,” noting how she teamed with D’Hiet and de Bruyn in the beginning before producers Chantal van der Horst of Column Film and Eyeworks’ Peter Bouckaert came on board. Then VRT joined the coproduction, with distributor Federation Entertainment picking up worldwide rights to the show.
Though Flemish drama budgets do not match those enjoyed by producers in France, Germany or Scandinavia, the cost of the eight-part series grew from an estimated €4m (US$4.4m) to more than €5m, owing to the challenges of shooting on location, travel and battling unhelpful weather conditions. It aired on Avrotros in August and VRT in September.
“But we still had to chew every euro,” he says. “We were confronted with crazy things. When we were approaching May, there was a very rare bird who decided to breed in the area where we were shooting and all of a sudden we could not shoot there anymore. This was a location we had been specifically looking for because of the tides, so we had to scout other locations. We decided to shoot later on when the birds were gone. It was crazy stuff. It comes with the territory. And the weather was extreme.”
Sendar describes the six-month shoot as “challenging,” with production beginning amid freezing temperatures in January. “The entire crew had masks and gloves on. I was in this very cool vintage jacket,” she notes. “But during the summer, when it was 30 degrees, everyone was in shorts and I was still in the jacket and turtle neck jumper.”
With high-end drama budgets continue to rise, coproductions are becoming increasingly necessarily to balance the books and deliver cinematic visuals that can rival many big screen movies. As Bouckaert notes, however, building these relationships purely on financial terms is not a surefire recipe for success.
“Financing has to come in a natural way and this was the case for us from the very beginning,” he says. “We started together at a very early stage when there were no scripts yet. We had to think about what series this would be. There was a single vision and that’s so important. After three-and-a-half years of preparation, we still ran into things we hadn’t expected during shooting.”
While The Bridge and its various remakes have mastered the art of cross-border storytelling, Floodland stands out for its compelling lead characters and the unique environment in which its mystery plays out, holding more secrets that are waiting to be uncovered.
Belgian drama De Twaalf (The Twelve) follows a trial from the perspective of its jury members, who must decide the fate of a woman accused of murdering her daughter and her best friend.
As the trial proceeds, the drama follows how the the weight of the case affects the jurors’ personal lives.
In this DQTV interview, producer Peter Bouckaert and director Wouter Bouvijn discuss the unique perspective of the 10-part Flemish series and how the jurors’ own baggage influences their thoughts on the case.
They also reveal how the actors were involved in shaping their characters, and discuss why Belgian series are currently shining in the international spotlight.
The Twelve is produced by Eyeworks for VRT and distributed by Federation Entertainment.
It’s been seven years since Netflix first broke into original programming, transforming the way viewers watch drama forever. But how has the arrival of streaming platforms changed the way stories are told? In this special report, DQ explores storytelling in the digital age.
Times have changed. It’s been less than a decade since Netflix entered the original content business, first picking up Norwegian dramedy Lilyhammer for launch in 2012 and then releasing its first US series, House of Cards, the following year.
In that short space of time, the rise of streaming platforms around the world has changed the way we watch television, evolving the medium beyond all recognition. From families gathering around the box every evening to watch whatever the schedulers had planned, hundreds of series from across the globe are now available at the touch of a button – or the swipe of a finger across a tablet or smartphone.
Where once TV shows would be furiously debated and examined by friends and co-workers the day after transmission, water-cooler moments are now reserved for only the most buzz-worthy series. In many cases, it’s best not to talk about a series at all, lest you spoil it for someone who hasn’t caught up.
Yet while technology has dramatically changed the viewing experience for audiences, how have writers, producers and directors altered the way they tell stories on the small screen?
Some of the obvious changes to the way stories are now told have to do with structure and format. The traditional 60-minute running time, or 42 minutes for commercial networks, no longer applies as streamers do not have to fill a particular slot, allowing episodes the freedom to run to a time that suits the story. With shows like Homecoming on Amazon and Netflix’s Russian Doll, dramas are also embracing the half-hour model usually reserved for comedies.
With many VoD platforms being funded by subscriptions, the need to produce commercial-friendly series has also been removed, giving writers freedom to tell the stories they feel passionate about.
That opportunity to maintain their creative vision, without interference from coproducers, financiers, advertisers or other interested parties, might also explain why some high-profile showrunners have made the move to digital outlets. Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy), Ryan Murphy (American Horror Story) and Kenya Barris (Black-ish) have all signed deals with Netflix, while Neil Gaiman (Good Omens), Melanie Marnich (Big Love), Bryan Cogman (Game of Thrones), Sharon Horgan (Catastrophe) and Barry Jenkins (Moonlight) have joined Amazon Studios.
Traditional broadcasters are also embracing change, under the threat of completely losing pace with their digital rivals. It’s no wonder freedom of creativity is now something demanded by creators and afforded to them by networks, as it not only allows writers to do their best work but also ensures the vision behind a series remains intact. When hearing a pitch for a new show, Netflix executives want to know who the creative lead is, to ensure the same person is driving the programme from conception through production.
“I have had a lot of luck in general as a storyteller, because in all the series I have written I never had editors who change too many lines or are very aggressive in the edit,” says Lucia Puenzo, the showrunner and director of Chilean drama La Jauría (The Pack). “On the contrary: I have absolute freedom in my scripts because I have a group of producers who accompany me and who can give their opinion but will respect my position if I do not agree with what they think in relation to the script.”
Puenzo has partnered with Oscar-winning producer Fabula (A Fantastic Woman) on the eight-part series, which follows a specialist police force investigating the suspected sexual assault of a student by her teacher. The TVN series is distributed by Fremantle.
“Our creative freedom began with the six months spent writing this series and continued into the shoot, with the choice of equipment, the cast and how to film,” Puenzo says. “In general, projects with less interference have more coherence. In series that are interfered with, almost as if they were an advertising client, they begin to lose a piece of their personality and become more pasteurised. That was not the case with La Jauría, which has a lot of personality that comes from being able to imagine it, from the beginning, with a lot of creative freedom.”
Hakan Lindhee, writer and director of Swedish political drama Den Inre Cirkeln (The Inner Circle), agrees that new platforms and viewing habits give creators the chance to dig much deeper into story. His series, produced by Fundament Film for Nordic streamer Viaplay and distributed by DRG, follows an ambitious politician who must balance the demands of his family with those of of his day job, while keeping numerous skeletons in his closet as he bids to become prime minister.
“You can really talk seriously to the audience,” Lindhee says of contemporary drama. “I think there is a great need for that. Many people with families, and those without, don’t really go to the cinema anymore but they have the same needs as always in history – to listen to interesting stories about life. Now TV drama has the same importance as good literature, and we always need good and interesting stories about life and how we live our lives.”
Audience is also front of mind for Warren Clarke, showrunner of Australian serial drama The Heights, who says the distance between creators and viewers is shrinking, allowing writers to jump straight into complex storylines without the need for extensive introductions and exposition.
“The curtain has been pulled back a bit on television being this mystical box in the living room, which gives you a shorthand with the audience,” he explains. “The connection is so strong, you can really cut through to the truth of things. As a storyteller, your goal is always connection. [The new landscape] helps you create great stories that connect to the audience because they’re aware of the format, and I enjoy that.
“The other advantage of this disruption of the medium is this idea of variety. It’s not necessarily that the rules have been thrown out of the window, but you can interrogate the rules and traditions of storytelling. Like anything, you have to know the rules to break them, and often you come back to your core principles. But it’s a very fulfilling time to ask big questions about how we tell stories.”
When it comes to the types of stories being told, the traditional shackles of procedural dramas have been thrown off. No longer do stories, in the main, have to live within the realms of cops, doctors and lawyers. With so much drama being produced around the world, broadcasters have had to become braver in the series they commission, backing more specific or niche stories and genres that might not have had a look-in previously.
In turn, series that might have been considered niche on a traditional, local broadcaster – Netflix’s horror series The Haunting of Hill House (pictured top) or sci-fi mystery The OA, for example – can become global sensations. A drama might only attract a small audience in one country, but multiply that by more than 190 territories and you quickly have a hit.
“It’s difficult sometimes to make niche programming in Australia because we have a smaller population, if you’re just looking at a traditional domestic broadcaster,” Clarke says. “Whereas you can make a show for a streaming service that is niche because you will find that niche all over the world. That’s really great for the people who are in that niche to begin with. And if you’re not, you can find that content and expand your horizons a little bit. We’re all asking questions and trying to find the answers – and I think most people are enjoying the ride. I certainly am.”
On the whole, writers don’t set out to make bingeable television. Whether series are episodic or serialised, scripts are always written in the hope that viewers will automatically want to see the next one. If they don’t, well, that’s a problem.
Even so, Clarke says everyone in television is aware their shows will likely end up on a streaming platform one day, where the end credits of each episode are accompanied by a clock counting down the seconds until the next instalment automatically begins.
“It’s in the back of your mind, even if you’re doing the most traditional commission ever. Somewhere, it’s going to end up on a platform, so there’s no doubt every show is influenced by that at the moment,” he says, adding that when it comes to storylines, the challenge is to stay ahead of the audience. “It’s nice to deal with a sophisticated television audience. There’s no cheating any more, that’s for sure. There’s more pressure because people really have an option to change the channel, the screen, the room. It does push you really to try to create great stuff.”
Diederick Santer, executive producer of British crime drama Grantchester, also believes dramas can now be more sophisticated. “You tend to worry less about doing endless repeats [of plot points] or states of play within an episode,” he notes.
Grantchester, the ITV drama from Kudos and Endemol Shine International, is procedural in its nature, pairing a local vicar with a detective to solve crimes in every episode. Yet like many case-of-the-week dramas produced today, there are overarching storylines that run through entire seasons. Santer says these serialised elements are important for viewers to see characters grow and to understand that actions in one episode will have consequences later on.
“What we realised in season one of Grantchester is if we’re letting characters send someone to prison every week and that happens six times, that would have a consequence in terms of how you felt,” he notes. “You have to see episodic TV more cumulatively, like the characters are real people.”
By now it is a well-trodden line that television is the new novel, with serialised dramas telling one story in episodic chapters across eight or 10 hours. That in turn offers writers and actors the chance to dive deeper into characters, themes and situations that would otherwise have been glossed over in a 90-minute feature film – certainly one of the factors that has seen television draw on- and off-camera talent away from cinema.
“We joke that it’s a strange hybrid that sits between television and film,” director Claire McCarthy says of BBC and TVNZ drama The Luminaries, which is based on Eleanor Catton’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel. “It’s an epic tale. To be the director across six episodes is a unique, authored experience. I’ve been viewing it like a three or four-hour movie as opposed to TV, which is moving to such a dynamic stage. TV is so bold. You can challenge characters to do things with story, the way it’s being told, and I find it really rewarding being so involved in the process.”
The Luminaries, from Working Title Television, Southern Light Films and distributor Fremantle, is set in 19th century New Zealand and follows young adventurer Anna Wetherell as she begins a new life in a story of love, murder and revenge. “I think there’s something unique about this,” McCarthy continues. “Our characters wear their hearts on their sleeves and go on an emotional journey that only TV would allow us to do. There’s some really exciting things coming out on TV that are good benchmarks for us, such as Big Little Lies or Sharp Objects. People want an experience. They want all things cinema would get in the privacy of their own home.”
Yet for all the clamour for serialised dramas, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest viewers still like good old-fashioned procedural stories that contain a beginning, middle and end within the space of an hour, and where it doesn’t matter if viewers miss an episode or two because they can easily return to the characters and the world where the story takes place.
“I think of shows like Chicago Fire, or Chicago Med, where I can pop in and out whenever I want, and those shows are incredibly successful,” says Christina Jennings, CEO of Canadian producer Shaftesbury Films. “There’s a huge appetite for that more standalone content. There’s something about it that’s very schedule-friendly – you can watch it in the daytime, in primetime, access prime, late night, it doesn’t matter.
“On the other side, you have Netflix and Amazon bringing us these big-budget, high-concept, highly serialised dramas. These platforms have just created a new opportunity for a different type of content, and Netflix still wants the other type as well. It’s quite happy to take everything.”
Shaftesbury’s next project, Departure, is a six-part thriller commissioned by Canada’s Global and distributed by Red Arrow Studios International. Starring Archie Panjabi and Christopher Plummer, it follows the disappearance of a passenger plane over the Atlantic Ocean and the investigator (played by The Good Wife’s Panjabi) brought in to solve the mystery.
“I don’t know that content’s going to change,” muses Jennings. “The world retains a huge appetite for great content, great characters, great story. Whether that’s standalone or it’s highly serialised, it doesn’t matter. What we’re going to see is how broadcasters work together and how those partnerships are going to become stronger, in effect, to counter what’s going on with the big global guys. I think we’re going to see more of those broadcast partnerships in a big way.”
Similarly, writer Paul Marquess believes stories haven’t changed as much as the means by which television productions are funded and watched. “I remember being at a Fremantle conference 15 years ago and they were talking about how the internet was coming and how funding models were going to change,” he recalls. “We were in this room and about 250 drama producers from all around the world were asked how we would deal with the challenge. I remember saying that it wasn’t our problem, because it doesn’t matter whether you watch them on analogue television or they come by carrier pigeon, people love stories. I don’t think fundamentally that’s changed at all.”
Marquess does recognise the polarisation between serialised and episodic series, however, and says crime dramas have become increasingly illogical as they attempt to incorporate elements from other genres, like fantasy or the supernatural, and play with timelines. “I think my shows have to be logical,” he says. “You have to look at it at the end and think it all made sense.”
Marquess, whose credits include The Bill and improvised crime drama Suspects, is currently overseeing procedural London Kills for US streamer Acorn TV. Distributed by Germany’s ZDF Enterprises, the show follows a team of top detectives solving murders across the city.
Sarah-Louise Hawkins, a writer on the series alongside Marquess, admits that like many writers, she was initially worried about the explosion of content in recent years and the impact it would have on the industry. “It felt like just anyone could put anything up and you wonder if the good stuff will get lost in the crowd, but actually what’s happened is it’s gone the other way,” she says. “There’s so much almost homemade material that the stuff that has real thought and care put into it shines even more now. It’s more important than ever to tell well-crafted, well-thought-out stories.”
But with all the opportunities now for creatives working in television, surely there are some disadvantages to the content boom? Not so, according to Steve Thompson, whose writing credits include Sherlock. He is now the showrunner on Vienna Blood, a three-part crime drama produced by Endor Productions for ORF Austria and ZDF Germany, distributed by Red Arrow Studios International. Set in 1906 Vienna and based on the novels by Frank Tallis, the series sees a psychoanalyst team up with a detective to solve a series of grisly murders in a time before the advent of DNA or forensic science.
Next up for Thompson is Leonardo, a series commissioned by Italy’s Rai, Germany’s ZDF and France Télévisions to mark the 500th anniversary of the death of the Renaissance figure. “I’m sure there are some disadvantages but I don’t know what they are,” Thompson says of the changing nature of television drama. “At the moment, it feels as if the industry has exploded and the number of opportunities for me personally is increasing every day. This year I’m getting to work on Vienna Blood with the Austrians but as soon as I finish that, I’m making a show in Italy. Both of those shows are in the English language because [the producers] want to show them worldwide. So because their market is becoming more international, it means they want to employ a British writer. The opportunities are huge.
“Of course, there’s a huge weight of television and nobody can watch everything. But it’s a great time, it’s a golden time to be a television writer,” he continues. “When I was a kid, television was the poor relation of movies. The relationship’s been completely reversed. It’s a great time to be a television writer.”
Overtaken by the financial clout and global reach of streaming services, domestic broadcasters have largely been left in the wake of their digital rivals and are now struggling to catch up. The launch of new platforms such as BritBox – already available in the US and now due to arrive in the UK – is one way of trying to claw back viewers who now watch TV on their own schedule, while broadcast alliances of the type Jennings alluded to, such as the triumvirate behind Leonardo, mark an attempt by networks to pool their resources to finance high-end drama series that focus on universally appealing stories.
In Belgium, broadcasters have long been keen on unique and innovative stories, but it is only in the past couple of years that the country’s challenging, often thought-provoking series have come to global attention, having been picked up by streaming services such as Netflix or non-English-language platform Walter Presents.
“If you look back at the series we’ve made, our broadcasters have been making the kind of stuff that platforms are calling ‘edgy’ for quite some time, and it has not been discovered yet because it’s Flemish language,” explains Eyeworks Film producer Peter Bouckaert, who says Belgian creatives’ sophistication when it comes inventing new stories is thanks in part to the country’s funding system.
Scripted series need the support of the Flanders Audiovisual Fund’s Media Fund, which has a remit to support innovation and new talent. As Bouckaert explains, the fund is the first port of call for any new production, even before it is taken to a network commissioner.
“It’s a collaboration, which is actually built on questions such as, ‘Are we creating innovation? Are we bringing something new? Are we not repeating ourselves?’ Innovation is built into the financing system,” he says. “If you look at other territories where it’s just a commissioning editor deciding, decisions are built on risk-evasion. Do you stick with genres that are known or copy proven successes? People very quickly got used to new forms of storytelling, new genres or genres that were considered niche that are now not niche at all, and the use of different languages.”
Bouckaert’s latest series is De Twaalf (The Twelve), a character-driven crime mystery that follows a jury tasked with determining the fate of a woman facing a double murder charge. It is produced by Eyeworks for Één and distributed by Federation Entertainment.
Ultimately, the producer believes the biggest change in the new age of TV has not been the arrival of Netflix or the digitisation of television, but the broader fact that people can now watch whatever they like whenever they want. “That’s the driving force when we talk about innovation,” he argues. “It’s the driving force for public broadcasters, who are not stepping away from linear broadcasting but extending their broadcasting model towards binge-viewing, catch-up and other variations. Netflix is also turning more into a broadcaster because they’re choosing when they launch which series and at what pace – the full season at once or episode by episode. That’s what broadcasters have been doing all along.”
The danger, Bouckaert adds, is the risk that programme-makers could now be confronted with a show similar to their own from another country – one they might never have heard of before series became so accessible around the world. “All of a sudden, a small series in Portugal could be quite close to ours and could kill an original idea,” he says. “It’s not something we’ve come upon but it is a real possibility.”
Fuelled by the emergence of streaming platforms that put story first, worldwide audiences and huge financial might, there has never been a better time for those in the business to tell the stories they want to tell, in whatever shape or form they might take.
Maria Carmargo, the lead writer of Brazilian drama Harassment, about a group of women who stand up to the doctor who sexually abused them, sums up the changing nature of storytelling by suggesting that the challenge is always to find the best way to tell a story, regardless of where or how it will be watched.
“The formats, platforms and the behaviour of the audience all enter the equation, in addition to the story itself, its nature and internal demands,” she says. “Many questions are being asked, and questions are always a powerful fuel for dramaturgy.”
Flemish drama De Twaalf (The Twelve) presents a fresh twist on crime drama by exploring a court case from the viewpoint of the jury. DQ investigates the making of the series with producer Peter Bouckaert and co-writer Bert Van Dael.
The role of a jury in a criminal court is to determine the fate of the accused and whether they are guilty or innocent of the offences they have been accused of. But how the members of a jury collectively come to their decision – and how the case might affect their personal lives – is rarely explored, owing to differing rules around the world that can often mean jurors are forbidden from discussing the deliberation process and other parts of their experience.
Flemish drama De Twaalf (The Twelve) now aims to shed more light on the experience of those in court and examine how the issues they learn about might impact their own lives.
Described as a character-driven crime mystery, the 10-part series revolves around the jury for a murder trial, with respected headmistress Frida Palmers standing accused of a double killing. It follows several members of the jury – and others linked to the trial – as they face a difficult decision deciding her fate, while their own lives become affected by what they hear in court.
Commissioned by Belgian broadcaster Één and produced by Eyeworks Film, The Twelve comes from writers Bert Van Dael and Sanne Nuyens. The director is Wouter Bouvijn.
Development on the show began four years ago when Van Dael and Nuyens met producer Peter Bouckaert to discuss their idea for a crime drama centring on a jury. Having previously worked together on supernatural crime drama Hotel Beau Séjour, about a criminal investigation, they were keen to delve into the lives of jurors and discover how it feels to be an ordinary person who suddenly finds someone else’s fate in their hands.
The main perspective of the series then emerged when they began interviewing real-life jurors about their experiences. “What really struck us was when a woman told us she had a really dominant, jealous husband and, while on the jury, she started to see traits of her husband in the defendant. She was thinking that if she stayed with her husband, she might end up in the same position [as the victim in the case],” Van Dael says. “It was interesting for us to see how your private life may or may not affect your judgement. So we wanted to develop the private lives of these characters and see how they would judge a defendant.”
Though jurors are meant to remain impartial at all times, Bouckaert says the idea that their views will always be coloured by their own lives and experiences is key to the drama.
“We’re following people who were, by fate, selected for this trial. They go through a very intense experience together and get to know each other after being perfect strangers. The fact they are isolated in a bubble for three weeks makes them reflect on what’s happening in their own life, and that’s actually the core of the series,” he says.
“The series is a combination of a slice of quite universal characters coping with different things in life that are very recognisable for a lot of people, and a detective murder-mystery story. Through the eyes of the jury members, you hear all the testimonials, which constantly make you change your mind and make you doubt a lot of things. The combination of those two elements is what makes The Twelve stand out.”
After a year of intense research, Van Dael and Nuyens spent two years writing the scripts, which are based on a blend of research and their own personal experiences, leading to a mix of people from all walks of society coming together to sit on the jury. The characters are all introduced in episode one, while viewers will find out more about them across the whole series and eventually learn how their personal lives influence their behaviour within the deliberation room.
The writers also worked hard to balance the evidence, with prosecutors portraying the accused as a monster and her defence team pushing a different side to the story.
“In post-production, we always do an in-house test screening for some of our colleagues who have been working on other projects and don’t have the same knowledge of it, to see if they know what it’s about and everything’s clear,” Bouckaert explains. “So we did this test screening and, by the final episodes, everyone who had seen it was as divided as the jury.
“We do offer satisfaction in a quite original way in the last episode – not by presenting a white rabbit out of a hat. You see how the jury comes to a decision and how group dynamics work, and you understand why the decision is the only right decision. We also show what really happened.
“But, for us, it’s not about whether the jury makes the right decision. It’s about how 12 people who don’t know each other make the best possible judgement, which is a bit influenced by what happens in their personal lives.”
One early decision the writers had to make was whether they should tell the stories of all 12 jury members. They soon opted to focus on six, but found that trying to force the story into a predetermined format – looking at one juror each week, for example – wouldn’t work.
“At the end, we had a sense of what made The Twelve unique, but it was something we had to gradually discover for ourselves,” Van Dael explains. “It must feel natural, believable, emotional and also recognisable to people. Those were important words for us. In the editing process and in shooting, it was something we had to find. You didn’t always know why something didn’t work, but your gut instinct would say why it didn’t and we had to work around it.”
With the scripts in place, filming went like clockwork thanks to a strict schedule. “We couldn’t afford to not stick to the plan,” Bouckaert says. Keeping a balance between moving the court case forward while also learning something about a jury member was key to the production and was also an important consideration during the editing process. “It meant we didn’t stick to a fixed structure for each episode that we could repeat,” the producer continues. “Instead, it follows the flow of the characters and the crime story in a very natural way, keeping the balance between the different storylines and the complexities of the shoot, and those two elements came together in the editing process.”
During filming in the Belgian city of Ghent, the cast were left in the dark as to how the story would conclude and what verdict the jury would reach. To achieve that, the courtroom scenes weren’t recorded until the last two months of the six-month-long shoot, meaning all the deliberations came at the end, mirroring a real-life trial.
“That was a really good decision because, during filming, the actors really became their parts. So in the deliberation room, they were already their characters,” Van Dael recalls. “It was funny to see how they would argue over whether Frida did it or not, and they had all these clues. They disagreed and nobody knew the ending.”
While there are no current plans for a second season – The Twelve launches later this year in Belgium, with Federation Entertainment handling worldwide distribution – Bouckaert says a follow-up would most likely introduce new characters and a fresh murder case for them to deliberate over.
“It’s been a long ride. We have put a lot of effort and preparation into this series in the development and also in the shooting and post-production,” the producer adds. “There are a lot of characters and it’s a complex series to make. But we think we’ve managed to find a perfect balance between the very recognisable and universal personal stories of the jury members and the crime mystery. It’s what makes the show unique.”
Crime continues to be the dominant force in television drama. DQ speaks to a selection of leading writers and producers about the genre and finds out how their latest series are pushing the boundaries of traditional police stories.
Crime dramas continue to dominate the television landscape, whether viewers watch weekly episodes or binge the latest serialised boxset. Yet the genre has shifted a long way from the traditional crime procedurals best characterised by long-running US series like Law & Order and its many spin-offs.
“We’re constantly trying to reinvent it and find new ways to tell the same story,” says Steve Thompson, the showrunner of Vienna Blood. “Broadcasters are always asking for a new way to make a cop show, and going to Vienna in 1906 is a really new and fresh way to do it.”
Set before the dawn of forensic science, Vienna Blood is based on the novels by Frank Tallis. It sees Max Liebermann (Matthew Beard), a brilliant protégé of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, come into contact with Oskar Rheinhardt (Juergen Maurer), a detective struggling with an unusual and disturbing murder.
Endor Productions and MR Film are collaborating on three 90-minute films based on three of Tallis’s novels. They were commissioned by ORF in Austria and ZDF in Germany, with Red Arrow Studios International distributing.
“It has the same essential ingredients [of a crime drama] in that is has a great plot and great characters, which is really important, but this has a particular sheen that Vienna in 1906 gives it,” Thompson says. “It’s just a place you want to be. While some parts of it are very dark and terrifying, others are exhilarating to experience.”
More often than not, crime dramas are characterised by the person leading the investigation. In Vienna Blood, Liebermann is forging a new path in the use of psychology to solve crimes. In the case of Chilean drama Inspector Rojas: In Cold Blood, the titular investigator must come to terms with his complex past as he fights for justice and seeks inner peace through his police work.
The series, a Villano production for Mega, is based on real events from the 1990s and dramatises the disappearance of 12 young girls in the Alto Hospicio commune in northern Chile, triggering an investigation led by police captain César Rojas. It is distributed by DCD Rights.
Director and producer Juan Ignacio Sabatini says: “Rojas puts up a wall around himself to contain his inner demons but the wall begins to crumble just before he embarks on this journey. His need to find justice and to fight for justice is intrinsically linked with trying to solve his own issues. This inner strength is what makes him stand far above his colleagues.”
Sabatini believes “humans have always had a morbid interest in evil” – an interest that dramatically increases when a story is based on true events. But key to any successful crime series is the way the story is constructed to offer clues along the way. “Being able to give the audience a structured, yet broken, stream of information is crucial, as it means they are able to conjecture different scenarios as the case unfolds,” Sabatini adds.
Three investigators take centre stage in fellow Chilean series La Jauría (The Pack), but this eight-parter isn’t just a detective drama. Coproduced by Fabula and distributor Fremantle, in association with Kapow and public broadcaster TVN, it sees a specialist all-female police unit led by Elisa Murillo (Daniela Vega) tasked with solving the disappearance of a 17-year-old teenager involved in protests against a teacher suspected of sexually assaulting a student. A video of the missing girl being raped by a gang of men then goes viral, and the detectives soon learn there is more than one person behind the crime.
“These three policewomen are flesh and blood women trying to deal with their personal lives, as well as with the crimes they investigate,” showrunner Lucia Puenzo says. “What interested me the most is these women are faced with very sinister and very dark worlds, at the same time as, in their personal lives, they are faced with the universe of child tenderness, parenting, being in a couple, or solitude in the case of Daniela’s character.”
Those familiar with the 2006 German psychological crime thriller Perfume: The Story of a Murderer might remember the story of a killer with a unique sense of smell. That feature film has now been followed by a series, called Parfum (Perfume), commissioned by broadcaster ZDF in collaboration with Netflix, which carries the series outside Germany.
The story, based on the movie and the original novel by Patrick Süskind, follows a criminal profiler who begins to investigate the past lives of five school friends when they become linked to a murder. In a meta twist, it transpires they read Süskind’s novel at boarding school together and it inspires them to experiment with smells. The profiler then reads the book and watches the film to learn about the possible motives behind the crime.
“Perfume is unlike other crime series in that it combines a thrilling modern crime story, deep psychodrama and a seemingly esoteric topic such as the mystical power of smell,” says Oliver Berben, from producer Constantin Film. “It is also unusually original in terms of its visual and narrative style: beautiful but bleak, psychological but also extravagant, fantastical and hyper-realistic at the same time. We tried to create something without using existing patterns or paragons, with its very own look and feel.”
Dutch drama The Twelve offers a fresh perspective within the crime genre, putting viewers alongside the jury members who must determine the fate of a woman accused of a double murder.
Produced by Eyeworks for Eén and distributed by Federation Entertainment, the Flemish-language series introduces the members of the jury, alongside the accused and the victims’ families, exploring the case through the evidence presented during the trial and how the jurors’ personal lives affect, and become affected by, the proceedings.
“What really struck us – and became the main idea of the series – was when a woman told us she had a really dominant, jealous husband and then when she was on a jury, she started to see traits of her husband in the defendant. She was thinking that if she stayed with her husband, she might find herself in the same position [the victim of a crime perpetrated by her husband],” says Bert Van Dael, who wrote the series with Sanne Nuyens. “It was interesting for us to see how your private life may affect your judgement.”
Series producer Peter Bouckaert says that while most crime series follow trained professionals doing their job, this 10-parter sees people picked at random to decide another person’s fate. “When you’re watching a really good crime story through the eyes of the professionals, you are doing a bit of police work yourself,” he explains. “In this case, it’s truly a one-on-one experience with our main characters. People watching the series are put into the same position as them, and we think that’s unique.”
Spanish drama Hierro mixes crime and politics when a body is discovered in the sea, off the coast of a secluded island in the Canaries. The story focuses on a judge, who has recently arrived on the island, and a local businessman suspected of the crime. It is produced by Protocabo and Atlantique Productions for Movistar+ and Arte France. Banijay Rights is the distributor.
“We conceived the series as ‘southern noir,’ set in a place of luminous landscapes and passionate characters, full of humour and intensity, reflecting the reality of Spanish life,” explains executive producer Alfonso Blanco. “Crime drama is in constant evolution. It has changed over the past few years, in the same way as other genres, but what may be different now is its accessibility. Nowadays, an audience can watch the same series at practically the same time all over the world.”
For this reason, crime stories must also have universal topics and themes, whatever their setting or their approach to the genre. “The mechanics of a crime thriller can be followed in almost any country,” Blanco continues. “Add to this the fact that the duration of a miniseries allows for greater evolution of characters, helping to create a frame in which to develop different stories and characters. The genre also permits a sociological approach to different realities; therefore, the variety of stories is infinite.”
Supposedly old-fashioned crime procedurals haven’t completely disappeared, however. Broadcasters around the world, particularly in Europe, are still keen on closed-ended, episodic series that viewers can enjoy without the commitment demanded by a serialised drama.
“Generally these days, the detective is dead, reincarnated or wearing an interesting hat. Everything has to be really quirky – and lots of those shows I love. But there isn’t a show like this,” Paul Marquess says of his Acorn TV series London Kills. “It does what it says on the tin.”
The series, distributed by ZDF Enterprises, follows a team of top detectives solving murders in London and represents a throwback to the episodic storytelling model that has been overshadowed by the current trend for bingeable series, with one story told over multiple episodes.
“It’s not wildly quirky. All the detectives are actually alive. There is, I hope, a very compelling serial story kicking along underneath it but what that really does is inform the relationship between the characters in an interesting way. That’s what it’s there for. Ultimately, I hope it reflects my fascination with the real versions of what these people do – and we all love a good murder mystery. It doesn’t have to be dressed up in Agatha Christie clothes. There isn’t, to my mind, an equivalent UK ‘murder of the week’ being shot at the moment.”
Meanwhile, Canadian series The Murders presents a unique concept for a procedural crime drama by using music and sound related to the theme of each episode. For example, episode one uses Long Black Veil – a ‘murder ballad’ originally written in 1959 and covered by artists such as Johnny Cash and Mick Jagger – as a key hook for the story.
It’s part of a five-season plan to explore a different sense each year that showrunner Damon Vignale has designed for the series, which stars Jessica Lucas (Gotham) as a rookie homicide detective who searches for redemption after her negligence led to the death of a fellow officer. It is produced by Muse Entertainment for CityTV and distributed by About Premium Content.
“Music colours the world of the show and hopefully makes it a little different and stand out,” Vignale says. “But in terms of crime drama, people want a compelling story. They’re going to come back week after week for your characters but they have to be playing in this world.”
Vignale starts with the plot and then looks to see how its themes can be related to the characters. “Those things are at the forefront for me. Then, of course, you want really great twists and misdirects, you want to surprise people,” he continues. “I try to push a show as much as I can.”
There is no doubt crime drama remains the number one attraction for television viewers, but the fragmentation of the industry and the number of networks and streaming platforms commissioning original drama mean there are increasing opportunities to tell stories with a diverse range of topics, settings, characters and styles – none more so than in the crime genre.
“But what’s important is that the result is authentic and captures the audience it is aimed at,” Perfume’s Berben concludes. “Taking risks is not just an opportunity but, to a certain degree, a necessity.”