Ricky Whittle is enjoying his time leading the cast of fantasy drama American Gods. He talks to DQ about filming the series, working with Neil Gaiman and why he’s excited for the upcoming third season.
At a time when Amazon Prime Video is pushing for more Good Omens, another series based on a book by Neil Gaiman is gearing up for its third season. But while Omens, which Gaiman penned with the late Sir Terry Pratchett, can be boiled down to the story of an angel and demon who form an unlikely partnership to halt Armageddon, American Gods is harder to define.
“That’s why I like it,” says Ricky Whittle, who takes the lead in the Starz fantasy drama as Shadow Moon. “You know, it’s not one thing, it’s not the other. It’s a unique show and that’s why it’s out there, because it’s not sitting in the pack. There are still love stories, there are still struggles for power. We’re still telling recognisable stories, but in a very different way. So along with the huge budget we spend on the best ensemble on TV, it’s a unique show that has to stand out because it is so different and very hard to describe.”
Based on Gaiman’s 2001 novel of the same name, the show revolves around Shadow Moon, who is released early from prison following the death of his wife Laura (Emily Browning). On his return home, he meets the enigmatic Mr Wednesday (Ian McShane), who offers him a job as his bodyguard and assistant. Shadow then becomes exposed to a hidden world of magic and is embroiled in a war between the Old Gods, who fear they are becoming irrelevant, and the New Gods such as Technology and Media.
The series launched in 2017, with a third season due to enter production this autumn. Whittle, whose credits include British soap Hollyoaks, the US remake of British mystery drama Mistresses and sci-fi show The 100, says he has never worked on a show so meticulous, with as few as two scenes being shot on some days on set.
“This is just a monster and you’re very aware of that,” he says, speaking at the Monte Carlo TV Festival. “Actors want to work on the show because they are given time to breathe; they’re allowed to just stay in the moment, which is great for an actor. Directors are told, ‘Whatever toys you want, have them. If you need cranes, camera lenses, whatever you want, it’s all yours, just finish by this time.’ So everyone wants to work on the show.”
That American Gods is broadcast around the world on Amazon Prime also adds to the appeal of working on it, as do the source material and its creator. “It’s already a product that everyone knows people are fans of, and a lot of our crew beg to be on the show because they were that passionate about the book,” the actor continues. “So it’s very weird, but you’ve got a whole crew and cast who are excited by what they’re doing because they were already fans.”
Gaiman, an executive producer on the series, is readily available to the cast when they want to discuss their characters, though his time became particularly precious while he was also showrunning Good Omens, a passion project that he wanted to make in Pratchett’s memory.
“He didn’t feel like he needed to answer to the fans. He didn’t need to answer to the studio or the network. He was like, ‘I don’t care if you like it. This is my gift for Terry.’ And that’s a beautiful place to be,” Whittle says of the author. “But it also meant he wasn’t able to be with us as much [on season two]. But we love him to death. He’s an incredibly humble guy. He’s very trusting, because he says, ‘They’re not really my characters anymore. They’re your characters; you know your character more than I do. I know where your characters going to go, but now the vehicle is yours. And if you choose to go a certain way, I trust you to do it.’ You can only be grateful for that kind of leadership.”
Making American Gods hasn’t been without its ups and downs, however, with four showrunners in three years. Michael Green and Bryan Fuller developed the novel for television alongside producer Fremantle, but they left the project after season one. They were replaced by Jesse Alexander, who stepped down from the position just seven months later, leaving director Chris Byrne and line producer Lisa Kussner to bring season two to its conclusion. Charles ‘Chic’ Eglee has now come on board to steer the series through season three.
Whittle dismisses reports of “turmoil” surrounding the show, pointing out that changes to the creative team “happen in every show.” He continues: “It’s what normally happens when the creators want to spend this much money and the business people are going, ‘Yeah, but we can probably do it for this,’ and then you have to try to meet in the middle. When you get people who don’t want to budge, something has to move, and unfortunately that’s why we lost Bryan and Michael.
“But it doesn’t affect us, because we’re responsible for our own characters. We know our characters. And if Bryan and Michael went through all three seasons, season three was going to be very different anyway. It’s a very different part of the book and it’s a very different experience [for me] now because Chic’s bringing me behind the camera working with him and then listening to the writing team. You really feel that intelligence, that experience, that creativity. It’s phenomenal and it’s gotten me crazy excited for season three.”
Brought up a Catholic and raised by nuns for a period of his childhood in Manchester, Whittle says that these days he simply believes in good people and bad people, destiny and that what is meant to be will be. “So I don’t worry about projects and auditions that don’t go well. I’m like, I was meant for something else,” he says. “Everything happens for a reason and now we’re here living the good life.”
With the story of American Gods only now nearing the mid-section of Gaiman’s book, it seems Whittle can look forward to enjoying that good life a little longer.
Emma Frost, co-showrunner of Starz drama The Spanish Princess, discusses finding the balance between historical truth and dramatic storytelling in a key scene from the series, which is produced by New Pictures and Playground and distributed by Lionsgate.
The Spanish Princess is the third instalment in the English historical series I’ve been doing for Starz, following The White Queen and The White Princess. It’s loosely based on two Philippa Gregory books, The Constant Princess and The King’s Curse, and is about Catherine of Aragon, who arrives from Spain to marry Prince Arthur.
There’s a scene in the third episode that we probably discussed more than any other in the whole show. It deals with the death and funeral of Arthur. As dramatists and producers, we know that anyone with a passing interest in history knows Arthur dies. So how do we write it? How do we produce it? How do we bring something fresh to it?
In terms of the filming, the scene is hugely ambitious in scale. We filmed it in Wells Cathedral in south-west England. Our wonderful director, Daina Reid, was very ambitious and had so many great ideas for this scene, but we had one day to film this huge funeral procession. It was a real military operation. The practical production challenges were immense.
There is a lot of historical record of Arthur’s funeral. When you have historical facts for any story, it presents unique challenges. You need historical advisors, but it’s one of the peculiarities of this show that we endlessly have to fight back against the truth, because our show is so much about power play and politics.
We can’t have a scene where characters are saying treasonous things within earshot of guards or clergymen who would be loyal to the king and would go off and immediately tell him. So one of the things we had to really police is well-meaning historical advisors who tell you to make all these people stand in one place because that’s where they were on the day, while Matthew [Graham, co-showrunner] and I endlessly have to go, ‘No, all those people out.’ It undermines the scene and the storytelling because this is a scene that cannot have eavesdroppers.
Spectacle isn’t story. It’s really easy to fall into a trap where you stop telling the story, forget about characters and suddenly just design a wedding or a funeral and spend a ton of money on it. There’s an endless challenge for us about how to combine spectacle with narrative and make sure every unfolding scene or sequence is driving deeply into character and story so it’s really earning it’s place either emotionally or narratively, and it isn’t the equivalent of a song and dance number where the story stops.
One of the things we discovered was that Sir Richard Pole, a nobleman who brought up Arthur for most of his childhood in Wales, rode a huge horse through the church, snapping Arthur’s staff across his knee and laying it on the coffin. When you read that, you think it’s amazing. But then we discovered Catherine rode to the cathedral on a donkey. This was about her own sense of humility. She wanted to be a woman of the people; she wanted to be on their level.
In the first version of that sequence, we had Catherine on a donkey and then the horse in the cathedral. But the horse is simply spectacle, whereas Catherine riding the donkey is all about character and story. So the decision was made to lose the horse. It would have been great but we all felt it was gilding the lily and would have been one of those things where historical truth gets in the way.
We also wanted to find the emotional centre of the scene. Everybody is grieving but we tell the story through the female characters, so the three women for whom this is most significant emotionally are Catherine, whose husband has just died and whose fate has been thrown into uncertainty; Lizzie, Arthur’s mother; and Margaret Beaufort, who is the political player and is now wondering what is to be done with Catherine – as Arthur’s death means Lizzie’s second son is now in line to sit on the throne as Henry VIII.
Our story is about Catherine and her entourage coming in and bringing their own culture with them. There’s a practice called keening – crying out to express grief – that cuts through many different faiths and cultures, and it’s so un-English and beautiful. So we focus the scene on the elements that felt pertinent to our characters so they weren’t just historical realities recreated.
Showrunners Emma Frost and Matthew Graham explore the early life of Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s first wife, in historical drama The Spanish Princess. They reveal how the future queen caused a stir in Tudor England and the drama’s parallels with Breaking Bad.
Hot on the heels of The White Queen and The White Princess, US premium cable network Starz is continuing its dynastic saga of Tudor England with eight-part drama The Spanish Princess.
Like both of its predecessors, this new series recalls history from the perspective of its female characters and is based on historical novels by author Philippa Gregory, this time The Constant Princess and The King’s Curse. But while the story ostensibly focuses on Catherine of Aragon’s arrival from Spain with dreams of becoming queen – an ambition she achieved by marrying the future Henry VIII – it stands apart from previous instalments through its perspective of an outsider causing a stir in the Royal Court, themes of immigration and its focus on people of colour living in 16th century London.
Under the leadership of co-showrunners Emma Frost and Matthew Graham, the series will reveal how Catherine left a Spain ruled by her fearsome mother, Isabella of Castile, and came to England, where she experienced a huge culture shock in a land that was comparatively old fashioned and male dominated.
“She really causes gigantic ripples in this old-fashioned, rather fusty male Tudor world,” Frost explains. “As history goes on to tell us, her daughter Mary [with Henry VIII] becomes the first queen in her own right, Mary I.”
But there’s another reason that Frost and Graham believe The Spanish Princess promises to be the most exciting chapter yet. Beginning their research during production of The White Princess, they were keen to understand the place of people of colour in 16th century London. Historical advisers suggested diverse characters would have been an anachronism for the period, which Frost admits “really pissed me off,” as she already knew that wasn’t true.
“What we discovered without breaking too much of a sweat is that Catherine of Aragon came to England with an incredibly diverse entourage of people, notably including an African Iberian lady-in-waiting called Catalina de Cardones, who we call Lina in the show,” reveals Frost, who was also the showrunner of The White Queen and The White Princess.
“This woman exists as a footnote in history but no one has ever bothered to dramatise her or acknowledge she was there. What we know is Lina married another African in London, Oviedo, and it was very unusual in this period for people of colour to marry each other. So this is a really extraordinary story of these two African people in early Tudor England marrying each other and being very much part of the world of the court. So there is a whole new massive piece of this story that is reappropriating history for people of colour as well as for women by telling this story of these two people who really did exist.”
Graham says The Spanish Princess also looks at issues of class and social mobility in a way the previous versions weren’t able to. “The White Queen and The White Princess were both very much about the Yorks and Lancasters and all of it was at that level. Now we can tell stories that take place in the taverns, the streets and the way their love story unfolds,” he says. “The other thing you get a chance to do is tell what could not be a more pertinent story about immigration. There was cultural wariness of people who came from a different country. Frankly, though, in Tudor London you were wary of people who came from Wales. It wasn’t the colour of the skin that was the issue, so that’s quite nice – here we are with two black people in the middle of Tudor England and we don’t tell a story about racism.”
Like The White Queen and The White Princess, every scene in The Spanish Princess is from one of the leading female characters’ points of view, with Catherine and Lina joined as the main protagonists by another Iberian lady-in-waiting, Rosa, and Maggie Pole, who also featured in The White Princess. Meanwhile, Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry VII, is still very much a key player and antagonist-in-chief, Frost says. “There are various very strong conflicting female points of view that interweave or fall in behind Catherine. She’s the main character but we always have these other incredible strong women in the show.”
Frost argues Catherine is much maligned by history, overshadowed by Henry VIII’s later wives, particularly those who lost their heads in the process. “She’s characterised as this unwanted old bag, but it’s a phenomenal story that’s very pertinent to the 21st century,” she adds.
Catherine’s arrival from Spain is used to great visual effect in the series, contrasting the bright sunshine and rich colours of her homeland against the dark, gloominess of England – a place of shadows and people whispering in corridors.
“She’s a breath of fresh air but she’s also not to be trusted. She brings her own culture,” Graham says of Catherine. Frost notes that the character’s arrival in the country allows the show to observe Tudor England from an outsider’s perspective, something not possible in the previous iterations.
“That’s a really exciting point of view shift because now the Tudor world is the ‘other’ to the world of our heroine,” she says. “That allows for all sorts of other conflicts. There’s also an incredibly exciting theme running through the show about faith, because the Inquisition is beginning in Spain under Isabella, Catherine’s mother, and several of her entourage are Muslim, so they have to deal with their feelings about what’s happening in Spain and what Catherine’s real allegiances are. There is a world where the Catholic faith is no longer the only gig in town for a lot of characters who have always peopled the show. So we’re able to explore lots of thorny issues around conflicting ideas about faith, God, forgiveness and redemption.”
Leading the drama as Catherine is Charlotte Hope (pictured top), who was cast following an international search across Europe and North America. Frost and Graham were looking for someone who could embody the strength and vulnerability of the princess. That Hope (Game of Thrones) looks eerily like Catherine was a bonus.
“Charlotte just looks like her,” says Frost. “She has this strength, this fragility, and she’s just grown into the role. It was very hard casting a lead because there are so many factors to consider, but she is the most talented, hard-working, wonderful actress. We just love her.”
Ruairi O’Connor plays Henry, with Stephanie Levi-John as Lina de Cardonnes, Aaron Cobham as Oviedo, Nadia Parkes as Rosa, Harriet Walter as Margaret Beaufort and Laura Carmichael (Downton Abbey) as Maggie Pole.
Graham was watching from the sidelines while his real-life partner Frost ran The White Princess, living and breathing Tudor England through her work. So when she suggested they do the next one together, he jumped at the opportunity to work alongside her and share the endless responsibilities of a showrunner – a role they had both previously performed separately. They say every TV show they both work on in future, they will do together.
Frost also welcomed the introduction of a male viewpoint behind the scenes. “Even though the show is told from the point of view of women, the male characters really matter, and trying to write a young Henry VIII – a complex, mercurial, intelligent, likeable, flawed and dangerous man – it’s been fantastic to have Matthew’s voice coming into that as well.
“Every single TV show we are working on now we do together, so we’re showrunning everything we do in TV. We break the stories together, we write the pilot together and then, moving forward, we write episodes separately and give each other notes. Then Matthew’s brilliant at all the bits in production that I’m hopeless at.”
Behind the camera, Birgitte Stærmose (Norskov) directs the first two episodes and Maya Zamodia is the DOP. Graham also got to try his hand at directing, picking up some battle sequences and palace-set scenes in Spain. Production designer Will Hughes-Jones (The Alienist) and costume designer Phoebe de Gaye (Killing Eve) return from The White Princess. Composer Samuel Sim is adding the music to the production, which Graham says won’t feel like “your grandmother’s period drama.”
“It’s got to have a buoyancy and momentum to it that feels fresh and cinematic and youthful,” he adds. “That’s one of the big things in production we’ve gone for.”
Frost picks up: “It’s a tremendously ambitious show. For the budget, what we’ve achieved is extraordinary. We’ve all had to be really inventive about how we cut our cloth and how we make the show.”
Distributed internationally by Lionsgate, the series is produced by New Pictures and Playground and is due to debut early next year. Frost and Graham, however, are already working on a second season of The Spanish Princess, which will continue the story of Catherine of Aragon – one Frost likens to Walter White’s journey from idealism into darkness in Breaking Bad.
“This doesn’t have the same darkness but it does arguably have more tragedy. Ultimately, it’s the story about the lie,” she adds, referring to Catherine’s claim that her marriage to Prince Arthur was not consummated before his death, thus leaving her free to wed Henry and become queen.
“Our whole exploration really is an exploration of that decision she makes and whether she’s lying or telling the truth and the consequences of those actions. It’s a really strong female story of a woman trying to define her place in the world. It’s very familiar [to modern audiences] in that regard.”
The supernatural and spy genres fuse together in The Rook, an adaptation of Daniel O’Malley’s novel about a shadowy London agency and a woman suffering total amnesia, set in a world where people have peculiar abilities. Executive producer Stephen Garrett reveals all.
With series such as Stranger Things, A Discovery of Witches and Chilling Adventures of Sabrina on screen, supernatural television dramas are a hot topic. But according to executive producer Stephen Garrett, nothing in the genre is quite like forthcoming Starz show The Rook.
Pairing the paranormal with the hallmarks of the spy genre, the eight-part series tells the story of a woman who wakes up in London with no memory of who she is and no way to explain the circle of dead bodies around her. When she discovers she’s a high-ranking official in the Checquy, Britain’s secret service for people with paranormal abilities, she’ll have to navigate the dangerous and complex world of the agency to uncover who wiped her memory and why she’s a target.
Produced by Lionsgate and Liberty Global, the series will air on Starz in the US in 2019, with Liberty Global subsequently rolling it out on its channels in Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean, including Virgin Media in the UK. Lionsgate is distributing worldwide.
Based on the book by Daniel O’Malley, the series has been three years in the making. US production giant Lionsgate had snared the rights to the novel and then approached Garrett (The Night Manager, Hunted) about overseeing the series, believing it made sense for a “very British story” to be led by a British producer. The story fuses one genre Garrett knows very well and another he was keen to dabble with. “Since Spooks, spy shows have been an important part of my life,” he notes. “This was a very compelling combination.”
British playwrights Sam Holcroft and Al Muriel were brought in to adapt O’Malley’s 2012 book. At that point, they had no screen credits, but they did possess a passion for spies and the supernatural, and had both already read the novel. “We don’t really have a strong tradition of supernatural in mainstream British TV and there are not that many writers who have a track record in it or much interest, so that was an omen,” Garrett says. “I brought them to Lionsgate and thought they would be put into touch, but Lionsgate loved them too.”
Since then, The Rook has become akin to a supernatural shapeshifter, changing form and structure several times – once when the drama was initially picked up by US streamer Hulu, and then again when Lionsgate subsequently placed the show at Starz, following its buyout of the premium cable channel. Two showrunners, Lisa Zwerling (Betrayal) and Karyn Usher (Bones) were then brought in to steer the series through production, a move that coincided with the departure of original executive producer Stephanie Meyer (Twilight).
Zwerling (Betrayal, FlashForward) and Usher (Bones, Prison Break) executive producer via their Carpool Entertainment production company, alongside Garrett under his Character 7 banner.
“The series was developed for Lionsgate and Hulu, but once Starz came on board, we came through a course correction that made the show more interesting,” Garrett explains. “You can go very high concept with supernatural and the danger with that is there’s less of an emotional connection with the central characters. With Starz, that sensibility was realigned to make this feel real.”
To that end, the superpowers featured in the series do not include flying, invisibility or anything that would usually be contained in the pages of a comic book or in a Marvel movie.
“The idea is that all superpowers we see have that origin in nature and the biological world,” Garrett continues, teasing that some may be able to run extremely fast or adopt the shocking qualities of an electric eel. “When you do that, they look like you and me. They’re ordinary and vulnerable and feel like human beings; you care about them. When the central character wakes up with her memory wiped, you imagine what it’s like to be that person. It’s moving and intense.”
The series stars Emma Greenwell (pictured top) as lead character Myfanwy Thomas, with the ensemble cast also including Adrian Lester (Trauma), Olivia Munn (The Newsroom) and Joely Richardson (Nip/Tuck). Munn plays Monica Reed, a bold American intelligence officer with subtle supernatural powers who becomes embroiled in the Checquy investigation into her lover’s death, while Richardson is Lady Farrier, the Checquy leader who is also Myfanwy’s mentor.
Lester is Conrad Grantchester, Farrier’s deputy, while Ronan Rafferty (Fantastic Beasts), Catherine Steadman (Downton Abbey) and Jon Fletcher (Genius) play the Gestalt siblings Robert, Eliza and twins Teddy and Alex, respectively.
With the production based at 3 Mills Studios in east London, the English capital city has also become one of the main characters in the series. Kari Skogland (The Handmaid’s Tale) directs the premiere.
“It’s recognisably London but what I like about this show and others I have done is that it’s an international eye on London,” Garrett says. “Kari knows London but she looks at it differently from the way we Londoners do. She’s reimagined London. You genuinely see it through a different lens.”
Garrett is no stranger to bringing books to the screen, having partnered with The Ink Factory on John le Carré adaptations The Night Manager and The Little Drummer Girl, which is coming to the BBC later this year. And while he concedes that the things that make a book popular are not always transferrable to the screen – meaning TV versions often have to be reimaginings rather than dedicated remakes – he says “we have kept much of” The Rook. “Some of my favourite characters are the four Gestalt siblings, who share a hive mind – four distinct individuals but they share one brain. If you make love to one of them, you make love to all of them. It’s possible you might see that acted out on screen,” he jokes.
“As often happens with beloved novels have been transplanted to the screen, [fans of the book will] recognise the world completely. I think they will love what we have done.”
For a supernatural series, however, it’s notable that Garrett admits to leaving a lot of his CGI budget unspent. This was a deliberate move, he says, as using in-camera effects or avoiding the need for them in the first place makes the drama “more interesting and distinctive.”
“It’s subtle,” he continues. “There’s stuff in-camera but a lot of it is to do with psychology and emotion. Hopefully it’s intelligent drama and allows viewers to join the dots. We’re not dependent on flashes and bangs. It’s a world viewers won’t have seen before.”
That’s just one of the reasons Garrett believes The Rook will stand out among the hundreds of other series that will air in the US next year, not to mention hundreds more around the world.
“If this were just a supernatural show or just a spy show, it would perhaps be fighting for a place in the world, but this fusion of very distinct genres in genuinely unusual,” the exec says. “We absolutely stand out from the crowd. In a world where we have more than 500 distinct dramas on US screens, we have got to be different. This makes it an extraordinary, exciting and challenging time to be a producer, writer or broadcaster.”
The need to stand out also means “ideas that could get you arrested five or seven years ago have suddenly become ideas that will define networks,” he adds. “I grew up with an era of TV that was essentially cop, doc and lawyer shows. If you try and make one of those now, you fall by the wayside because that’s not interesting enough on its own. Ideas that broadcasters feel will help position themselves against their rivals have got a chance of being heard.”
Based on the novel by Stephanie Danler, Sweetbitter tells the story of 22-year-old Tess who, shortly after arriving in New York City, lands a job at a celebrated downtown restaurant.
Swiftly introduced to the world of drugs, alcohol, love, lust, dive bars and fine dining, she learns to navigate the chaotically alluring yet punishing life she has stumbled upon in this coming-of-age comedy drama.
In this DQTV video, creator and executive producer Danler talks about the “endless” possibilities of adapting her own novel for television.
Members of the cast, including Purnell, Caitlin Fitzgerald (Simone), Paul Sparks (Howard) and Eden Epstein (Ari), also discuss the authenticity of the series, complicated female characters and the challenges of striking a unique tone with a half-hour comedy drama.
Sweetbitter is produced by Plan B Entertainment for Starz, which holds distribution rights to the six-part series.
Having turned her own novel Sweetbitter into a six-part drama for US premium cable network Starz, Stephanie Danler tells DQ about the adaptation process and why television today is following in the footsteps of Charles Dickens.
From the moment US cable network Starz revealed it was developing a six-part drama called Sweetbitter, it’s fair to say the production has been on the fast track to broadcast. That first announcement came in July 2017, three months before the series got the greenlight last October. Filming wrapped before Christmas and the show subsequently launched on air earlier this month.
Seeing the show’s debut marked the end of a whirlwind few months for Stephanie Danler, the author of the book on which the show is based and an executive producer on the series. She also wrote two of the six episodes, including the pilot, and has been heavily involved in its development alongside showrunner Stu Zicherman (The Americans, The Affair) and Brad Pitt’s production company Plan B Entertainment. Starz distributes the show, which is now also available in the UK and Germany, after Amazon added Starzplay to its Prime Video Channels line-up, alongside other series such as Vida and Boss.
It wasn’t the author’s original intention to shepherd the project into production but she admits her fingerprints are all over it, having worked with Zicherman to rewrite every script to ensure continuity.
“I originally thought I would take the money and go back to writing novels but it was an opportunity to transition into a screenwriter and producer and I thought I would be an idiot to turn down a free education in television making, especially from the calibre of people I was working with,” Danler tells DQ. “Who wouldn’t want to learn from Plan B or Stu Vickerman, or from the executives at Starz? I approached it as a free PhD.”
Sweetbitter follows 22-year-old Tess (played by British actor Ella Purnell) who, shortly after arriving in New York City, lands a job at a celebrated downtown restaurant. Swiftly introduced to the world of drugs, alcohol, love, lust, dive bars and fine dining, she learns to navigate the chaotically alluring yet punishing life she has stumbled upon.
This coming-of-age story is set against the rich and grimy backdrop of exclusive restaurants, conjuring a non-stop and high-adrenaline world evoking the possibility, beauty and fragility of being young and adrift.
Danler wrote the novel, which is largely based on her own experience, during her two years at graduate school. She moved to New York to become a writer but quickly fell in love with the restaurant industry, in a head-over-heels fashion similar to Tess in the series. Then after seven years working in the city, she went back to school and wrote Sweetbitter, which she says is based on characters and events from different restaurants where she worked, in locations as diverse as California, Colorado, Ohio and New York.
“I think that what I fell in love with was the tasting,” she says. “Before this education, I just consumed. I drank to drink and ate quickly and thoughtlessly. Once you start paying attention to what you eat and drink, it intensifies every experience in your life. It’s a really beautiful, sensual way to live.”
That intensity immediately comes across in the series, from the way the characters taste wine and her co-workers teach Ella how her palette works (creating the mantra “sweet, sour, salty, bitter”), to how the camera lovingly gazes at the cornucopia of dishes being served in the restaurant.
Danler had never considered her book being remade for television, however. “I didn’t watch TV, I’d never read a script. I really knew nothing about it,” she admits. “I had a lot of studying to do and I still do. I’m a good student and I like to understand the medium I’m working in. It was entirely new for me. The prose is so dense in Sweetbitter that if someone had even asked me, I would have said it was impossible to adapt it.”
The author is adamant that the series, and the book before it, was not intended to be an exposé of the restaurant industry and the sex, drugs and backstabbing that may go on behind the kitchen doors. “That’s not what it’s about. It’s never been about that,” she says. “It’s about this girl growing up to be a woman. It’s her first taste of being a person and she’s landed in the place that will shape her. So once I got involved [in the series], there was never anything gratuitous. Everything was essential to the storytelling. We weren’t manufacturing soap opera drama but letting the natural drama drive the story.”
With the first season comprising six half-hours of television, Danler found the sense of pacing to be most problematic when writing the pilot. In a novel, the author can skip over details with a single sentence, but viewers watching the TV show want to understand how Tess came to leave her Midwest home and arrive in New York. Subsequently, the entire first season takes place during Tess’s training period at the restaurant as she learns about the intricacies of the industry and the myriad characters that now surround her.
“The first season is really concerned with how you fit into this family, how you figure out how to live in New York and what it’s like to be lonely,” Danler says, comparing it to the prologue of a novel. “Television is really novelistic now. Our first season sets up a lot and it pays off a lot but we didn’t want to take our characters from zero to 60 in three hours. It felt really unnatural if, all of a sudden, she was doing a ton of drugs and was out drinking every night and really well established in this world. It feels impossible, actually.
“So we treated it like a prologue. I do think the great television dramas operate in a novelistic fashion, especially like a 19th century novel. The way Charles Dickens and Henry James serialised their novels so chapters came out every week is an apt comparison to what television is doing now.”
At the heart of the story is Tess, a wide-eyed ingénue trying to adjust to her new surroundings. “We’re finally in an age where you can see complex or unlikeable women on TV and not immediately change the channel, which wasn’t always the case,” says Danler, who describes the lead character as sincere – a quality she says is often missing from cable television. “It’s very much about dark, damaged characters or hyper self-aware characters who know what their flaws are. We are with a girl who hasn’t accumulated her damage yet and we’re watching that. But she’s really honest. It’s sometimes hard to write a character who believes what people say to her and doesn’t lie herself. It’s really rare and I think it makes her unique in the landscape.”
With the book based on her own experiences, Danler’s life has been fictionalised twice now, though the writer says she was keen that Tess become Purnell’s own creation – a cousin to the Tess in the original novel. “I didn’t realise how the actors were going to own those roles and how the characters would change completely based on what I was learning from the actors,” she notes. “That was really interesting but can be really scary.”
Ultimately, Danler’s goal is to create an ensemble drama where the focus shifts from Tess, Simone (Caitlin FitzGerald) and Jake (Tom Sturridge), who form a love triangle in season one, to other characters in the series, “from the dishwashers in the kitchen to a guest that comes in and spends $1,500 on a bottle of wine,” Danler adds. “So we’re back in the writers room for season two and we’re really excited.
“We still have some more story to cover in the book but we definitely have a ton of freedom in season two. We have 10 episodes so we do get to go off-book while still finishing this story about corruption and redemption. We still have more to tell about Tess but I know there’s a way to do it while exploring the restaurant as a whole.”
US premium cable network Starz backed Tanya Saracho’s story of two sisters returning to their old LA neighbourhood. The new showrunner hopes to repay its faith by using Vida to bring greater diversity in front of and behind the camera.
For all the discussion in the television industry about increasing diversity and greater representation of minority groups on screen, many would argue little has changed. So for writer Tanya Saracho, the time to talk is over. Together with backing from US premium cable network Starz, she’s walking the walk with her new half-hour drama Vida.
The series, based on a format by Richard Villegas Jr, focuses on two Mexican-American sisters – Emma (Mishel Prada) and Lyn (Melissa Barrera) – from the Eastside of LA who are forced to return to their old neighbourhood, where they are confronted by their past and the shocking truth about their mother’s identity.
But more than that, it is about putting Latinx (the gender-neutral term for Latinos) talent in front of and behind the camera to show a world that isn’t represented on screen.
“There’s been a lot of talk,” Saracho says candidly. “Since I got to Hollywood five years ago, there’s always been talk but Starz was the first to go, ‘Alright, you don’t have the experience to be a showrunner but we will hold your hand throughout, we have faith in you. Let’s tell these stories.’
“Then they let me staff a writers room where everybody is Latinx – from the assistants to every writer – and most are queer, I’m queer too. That’s important because brown queers hardly ever get their say in the media but Starz says ‘go’ and they put their money where their mouth is. Enough diversity panels, enough think pieces about diversity – do something about it with your dollars and actually take the risk. People need to stop the talk and walk the walk.”
Vida, which is produced by Big Beach TV and distributed by Lionsgate International, originated when Starz approached Saracho with an idea to base a series around ‘gentefication,’ which refers to the gentrification of Latinx neighbourhoods by young Latinx people, sometimes known as ‘Chipsters’ (Chicano hipsters).
“It’s such an interesting notion of us going back to our neighbourhoods and seeing how we affect them,” the showrunner says. “Starz also really wanted to concentrate on a millennial female narrative, which is what I like to dig into. I haven’t seen these narratives on TV and that’s what’s been missing from American television. In the US, we make up almost 20% of the population, and right now there are four Latinx/gay shows – four out of how many? 500? That’s not 20%. We take up much more space than that but we’re completely invisible when it comes to the media in that way. So getting to tell these complicated stories, it’s very exciting.”
Saracho – who has signed a three-year overall deal with Starz – says Vida will present “the messy version of who we are,” as opposed to the few Latinx shows on television that focus on narcos or “squeaky clean millennials,” such as Jane the Virgin. That it does so in a mix of two languages – English, Spanish, Spanglish and Espanglais (Spanish with a sprinkling of English) – is also remarkable.
“I am sharing this with the world, these messy girls who aren’t always likeable,” she says. “I don’t care about likeable, but hopefully they’re compelling and true to life. That is what I feel has been missing, these messy, real versions of us. It’s steeped in the struggle of them being themselves. Sometimes we either play certain stereotypes they have of us or we have to be squeaky clean. I get that and I love that too, but I also want to show us as we truly are. To get a chance to show some complicated, often ugly, compelling women, that’s really exciting.”
As a first-time showrunner, Saracho leaned on her experience running her own theatre company, Teatro Luna, when it came to fulfilling the myriad of roles the top job demands. The US$150,000 budgets paled in comparison to anything on offer in Hollywood, “but I had manage that money, I wrote the plays, I directed them, I was in them,” she says. “That was the best training for this. Now this is major bucks, like tons of money, but the fact that I was the end of the line regarding responsibility and the one that had to answer for all the choices, that was true with Teatro Luna and the risks were similar, just on a smaller scale.”
It’s not just Saracho’s showrunning style that has been influenced by the theatre, but her writing process as well. Saracho jokes that directors always complain that her TV scripts are actually one-act plays, with scenes running to seven pages rather than the standard one or two, and Vida is no different. She describes the pilot as particularly theatrical and “talky.” But getting a show on air is a huge landmark for the writer, who admits she struggled to adjust to television when she first began writing for shows such as Devious Maids, Looking and How to Get Away with Murder.
“It’s a different medium and I was having trouble with that early on. But now I really like this TV thing; two years ago I wouldn’t be telling you that. Looking was when I really fell in love with TV. I wrote a couple of episodes that got good reaction – brown queers have not seen themselves like that. Even if I have a play in a large theatre, only a few thousand people will see that; the reach something like one episode of Looking has is huge.
“I’m trying to affect culture. Right now in the US, they don’t think Mexicans are that great; we’re not so welcome right now. So I feel like this medium can affect perception later on. Sometimes they saay this medium can affect policies. I don’t know – it feels like it has a larger reach, and that’s really interesting to me as an immigrant who is not a citizen of the US.”
Saracho is already making gains. Vida features characters who are undocumented immigrants and DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) recipients, with the latter also being among the cast. “It’s the same thing with trans, we have a few trans actors but the story is never about them being trans,” she says. “It’s just that their presence is normalising. Maybe it’s a little too subtle, but you will be able to tell if you read the signs. I want to normalise because this is normal in our culture right now, particularly this sector of the culture I’m trying to portray, the little-bit queer part of the Eastside of LA, where we walk around in our neighbourhoods like normal.
“At the centre of it are these two girls who come back and realise their mother was married to a woman, and one of them is queer too. So right there, you have a lot of fabric – you can make a lot of dresses out of that.”
JK Simmons goes head to head with himself in spy drama Counterpart, launching on Starz this month. The actor, co-star Olivia Williams and creator Justin Marks talk about making the series, which blends sci-fi and espionage to create a high-octane thriller.
Few would dare cross some of the characters Hollywood actor JK Simmons has played in the past. There was the unforgiving restaurant boss in last year’s La La Land, cigar-smoking newspaper editor J Jonah Jameson in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy and ruthless music teacher Terence Fletcher in Whiplash, for which he won an Oscar in 2014.
In Starz’s upcoming spy-drama Counterpart, however, he goes up against himself as two worlds collide in Cold War Berlin. The actor leads a cast including Olivia Williams (The Sixth Sense) and Harry Lloyd (Game of Thrones, The Theory of Everything) as Howard Silk, a long-serving cog in the bureaucratic machinery of a Berlin-based United Nations spy agency.
When Howard discovers his organisation safeguards the secret of a crossing into a parallel dimension, he is thrust into a shadow world of intrigue, danger and double-crosses, where the only man he can trust is his near-identical counterpart from the parallel world.
“It’s a show with two universes; so much of our cast play two roles and some more surprisingly than others,” explains creator and writer Justin Marks (The Jungle Book). “We take from the tropes of the espionage genre, that classic British world, and apply it to this high-concept science fiction, almost metaphysical or existential, premise.”
Marks came up with the idea for the show while pondering his own background and what might have been had he not pursued a career in screenwriting. Starz has taken the unusual step of committing to two 10-episode seasons of the show, which was ordered straight-to-series and is being distributed by Sony Pictures Entertainment. Season one debuts in the US on January 21.
Simmons, who also executive produces the project, tells DQ that playing two versions of his character was a welcome challenge. “Like a lot of high-end television now, it’s kind of a hybrid between traditional TV- and movie-making,” he says. “It’s great to have new challenges, especially having been around for a while. It’s an ideal combination of knowing you have a complicated and layered character in a complicated and layered story, but not really knowing where it’s all going to end.”
Produced by Los Angeles-based Anonymous Content and Gilbert Films, with Fireglory Pictures in Berlin, Marks reveals that the fact Starz ordered two seasons up front allowed him and his team more freedom in terms of planning out the overall story arc. He’s hopeful the show will continue beyond the first 20 episodes, of course, for more of the same. “We’ve been able to really slow-burn our story and make it much bigger, so much so that some of the characters aren’t even revealed in the first episode,” he explains.
One of those who isn’t immediately introduced is Howard’s wife Emily Silk, played by English actor Williams. Despite not having any lines in the first script, what she read of it was enough to win her over for the duration. “I had absolutely nothing to do in the first episode,” she says, “but I thought the writing for all the other actors was incredible and hoped whoever was writing for them would be writing for me. It held the promise of infinite interest.”
Having appeared in countless US TV procedurals in addition to his Hollywood blockbuster roles, Simmons believes Counterpart’s storyline offers endless possibilities. Speaking while dressed from head to toe in black, Simmons’ outfit is perfect for a man lodged between two existences in search of his true identity. “The big difference is obviously, with a feature film, you know where you’re going with a beginning, middle and end. With Counterpart, all possibilities are open, and in this case times two,” the actor muses.
“Justin and I talked about the overall arc of where the first 10 episodes were going and I had a slight sense of a beginning, middle and end, but you’re really only getting one episode at a time, as opposed to a lot of US shows I’ve done where only the names of the bad guy might change each week. The infinite possibilities of it branching out keep it interesting.”
While Simmons is something of a TV veteran, Marks takes to the medium for the first time with Counterpart. So why the transition? “The choice to move into television comes down to the opportunity to tell a story and the chance to work with great actors who want to do longform,” he explains. “It’s been really different to the feature-writing experience where you’re a little more of a mercenary – you’re coming in and out of films and committing what you can. In this case, the show really is a piece of me and an exploration of a lot of ideas that have been in my head for a long time.”
Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game) helmed the first episode of Counterpart’s upcoming first season before a rotating stable of three other directors took on three episodes each. Filming took place in LA and Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport, and Marks reveals that shooting in Germany felt so authentic that he’ll be doubling the amount of time spent in the city for season two.
“There are plenty of cliffhangers; every episode expands our world a little further,” he says. “We’re talking about two universes that were once identical and are now peeling off and becoming more competitive with one another.”
Williams adds: “On each side of the universe, the characters have exponentially made billions of slightly different choices” – and now it’s up to them to deal with the outcomes.
Despite Counterpart being a sci-fi series, the creative team were keen to ensure the tech and special effects side of things didn’t get in the way of characters and story. The portal bridging both worlds appears simply as a doorway for that reason.
“You could apply a lot of theories to what may or may not be happening in the show,” Marks says. “In the end, what we’re really competing against as a culture is other versions of ourselves who share the same ambitions, hopes and regrets, and there’s a tragedy to that.”
It’s a story of both hope and regret, concludes Simmons – and seeing him scale the depths of his two characters this winter is sure to make for unmissable viewing.
Hayley Atwell stars in Oscar winner Kenneth Lonergan’s adaptation of the beloved EM Forster novel Howards End, a coproduction for BBC1 and Starz. DQ visits the sumptuous set to find a period drama moving with modern times.
There is a stunning stately home overlooking a lake, an ornately decorated marquee and a beautiful bride in a wedding dress. This is the lavish setting for a key scene in a new BBC- and Starz-financed production of the seminal EM Forster novel Howards End. The only problem is the intermittent rain that is stopping filming every half-an-hour. But, as anyone who has ever filmed in England knows, that’s unavoidable.
“Poor Evie, getting married in the rain!” laughs Hayley Atwell, who plays the book’s central character, Margaret Schlegel, as she snuggles up in a warm coat on set (it may be April but it’s cold as well as wet). The scene being filmed at the West Wycombe Estate in the Chiltern Hills – when Evie Wilcox marries Percy Cahill – is key to the story as the worlds of the three families featured in the book come crashing together. No one comes out unscathed.
Howards End was made into a hugely successful Oscar-winning film 25 years ago with Emma Thompson, Helena Bonham Carter and Anthony Hopkins, but the time is ripe to make a new adaptation, says Sir Colin Callender, whose Playground prodco has made the four-part miniseries in association with City Entertainment and KippSter Entertainment. It is distributed internationally by Lionsgate.
“The story is about two smart, free-thinking women who are trying to make their own way in the world,” he says of the series, which debuts this Sunday in the UK. “If you think about what is going in the world, particularly here in the UK and in America – the way women’s roles and their relationships with men are being discussed – then you see just how of the moment the story remains.”
The drama looks at three families occupying different levels of the Edwardian middle class. There are the Schlegels, Margaret and Helen (played by Philippa Coulthard), orphaned sisters who live in an intellectual world of money, loosely based on the Bloomsbury Set, a real-life group of intellectuals. While on holiday in Germany, they meet Henry Wilcox and his wife Ruth, played by Matthew Macfadyen and Julia Ormond, who are wealthy capitalists.
At the start of the story, Helen is staying with the Wilcoxes at their house, Howards End, when she falls in love with their younger son Paul (Jonah Hauer-King). But Paul is penniless and meant to be heading to Africa to work for his father; the romance is hurriedly finished before it even really begins, leaving Helen heartbroken.
Back in London, the Schlegels meet struggling clerk Leonard Bast, played by Joseph Quinn, at a classical music concert. He is entranced by their intellectual world of chatter and music and wants to be part of it, but the economics of his situation make it impossible. Meanwhile, the Wilcox family come back into their lives when they take a luxury flat opposite the Schlegel home.
The screenplay has been written by Kenneth Lonergan. The American has an Oscar and a Bafta under his belt for last year’s movie Manchester by the Sea, which he both wrote and directed, but this marks his first television adaptation. “I looked at the book and had lots of questions. And every time I asked a question, Colin and the BBC seemed to get more excited,” laughs Lonergan. “It was an interesting challenge for me to adapt something where the characters have such a rich internal life but also where the story is focused on the challenges and the different strata of society.”
He adds that while most of the dialogue in his scripts came directly from the book – around two thirds of it – the rest was made up based on his experience of watching other period dramas “…and Monty Python.”
The producers and director Hettie Macdonald were determined that while Howards End would have all the same production values of other BBC costume dramas, it should have a modern feel.
It certainly looks the part, introducing us to a world that was changing, where horse-drawn carriages were being shunted off the road by motor cars. The series was filmed partly on a stage in Twickenham, south-west London, and partly on location. Finding Wickham Place, the home of the Schlegels, proved particularly difficult. Many of the streets the producers like were unavailable due to building work, so exteriors were shot in Islington, north London, and interiors were built on the stage.
Just as challenging was finding the production’s Howards End, the mystical house that belongs to Mrs Wilcox and starts and ends the story. Forster based the story on his own childhood home, Rooksnest, a country house near Stevenage that once belonged to a farming family called Howard. The house used in the show is a private home in Godalming, Surrey, which has rarely been used for filming before but, like Rooksnest, was constructed around a Tudor building.
While every effort went into making Howards End look right for the era, it also feels surprisingly contemporary. “I think there was a temptation for all of the actors to start acting all period drama,” says Quinn. “Once you are wearing the costumes, you feel you need to act differently, but Hettie was really adamant that we didn’t do that; she even joked on set that she was going to have a ‘period acting bell’ if anyone went ‘too period.’ The story is funny and sad and very relatable. They are people just like us; they just lived in a different time.”
Atwell says she was immediately attracted to doing the project, particularly once she knew Lonergan was involved. “I had seen Manchester by the Sea just a few days before being offered the job and the idea of him adapting this story was very exciting,” she reveals. “He hasn’t given it a sense of reverence and he has written it in such a clever way. There are so many layers to it, and so much symbolism; themes in it that we try to tap into and hit upon. But it’s also very funny. There are pages and pages of dialogue where five or six actors are overlapping. What is funny is the truth of playing people who are not listening to each other, they are just overlapping. It is very quick-witted.”
The actor started in period drama, with starring roles in Brideshead Revisited and The Duchess, but for the last few years has been best known as Marvel hero Agent Peggy Carter. Atwell first portrayed Carter in 2011 movie Captain America: The First Avenger, before going on to star in spin-off Agent Carter for two seasons on ABC. She admits she revelled in playing a character who was a little deeper than your average superhero.
“I have been doing Captain America [the movies and associated series] seven or eight years now and it is full of people who I really love, but I am classically trained and I found this source material a lot more interesting, a lot more fulfilling,” Atwell says. “You can have conversations with our director and the other actors about what is in these scenes, what is the most interesting thing to play. You can analyse what is really happening because it is all really subtle. When you have to do a lot of exposition to drive the plot along, it can be tiring and a bit boring, with all due respect. When you have a job like this, there is so much to it. It was exciting creating such a rich inner world rather than just turning up and looking good and pointing a gun.
“Margaret is the heroine of the story. There is a line at the start of the book, ‘only connect,’ which is kind of the message of the story. The thing that drives her is a desire to connect people, which, given the context of the time, was quite unusual for a woman in her position and class. She’s just wonderful.”
Courtney Kemp started her TV career on The Bernie Mac Show and has since gone on to write for series including Eli Stone and The Good Wife.
She is now showrunner of Starz original drama Power, having steered the series through all four seasons. A fifth is due to air in 2018.
In this DQ TV video, she reveals the writing process behind the show, the importance of themes in each season and how she likes to work with actors on the show.
Kemp also looks back at her origins as a TV writer, getting her break after writing a spec script for The Bernie Mac Show. She also discusses the showrunners who have influenced her career – including Robert and Michelle King (The Good Wife) and Greg Berlanti (Eli Stone) – and considers the changing role of the showrunner in today’s crowded television landscape.
Violence and sex have become common features of TV drama – but are these often graphic depictions key to the success of a show?
Violence and, to a lesser extent, sex have always been core constituents of TV drama. But both have become more visible on our screens in recent years. Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, Hannibal, Sons of Anarchy, Spartacus, Daredevil and American Horror Story are all examples of the new ultra-violent era of TV drama. And when it comes to sex, series like Westworld, Versailles, Orange is the New Black, The Girlfriend Experience and The Affair give a new meaning to the phrase ‘TV exposure.’
The key reason for this shift has been the growing influence of premium pay TV and SVoD services, which have created trigger factors that push producers and broadcasters towards more graphic and intense depictions of violence and sex.
The first such factor is an ‘anything goes’ attitude on channels that have little need to concern themselves over offending mainstream audiences or losing family-oriented advertisers. Big Light Productions founder Frank Spotnitz, whose credits include The X-Files and Medici: Masters of Florence, says: “The freedom to use graphic content is an advantage pay TV broadcasters know they have over more tightly regulated free-to-air channels. So it’s something they encourage producers to use if appropriate.”
This licence to shock is reinforced by the fact violence, in particular, seems to sell. Corporately, it’s evident in Disney’s contemporary offering, which encompasses everything from princesses to The Punisher. It can also be seen in the steady progress of US pay TV network Starz, which lagged a long way behind HBO and Showtime before it began upping its sex and violence quotient with shows like Spartacus, Power and Black Sails.
At an individual show level, franchises like AMC’s The Walking Dead, HBO’s Game of Thrones and FX’s American Horror Story (pictured top) also do well in terms of ratings. In this intensely competitive era, the performance of these series must seem like an open invitation for content creators to depict murder, mayhem and eroticism in ever more imaginative ways.
Both of these drivers towards sex and violence are energised further by the growing number of auteur writers and directors crossing over from film into TV. If you are HBO, for example, you don’t hire the world’s greatest gangster movie director, Martin Scorsese, to direct Boardwalk Empire and then ask him to tone down the violence.
“There’s no question the big TV series viewing experience has come to replace movies in a lot of ways,” says Patrick Vien, executive MD of international at A+E Networks. “So the kind of content people used to buy a ticket for, they now watch at home. Movies became very creative with violence and TV is doing the same.”
The impact of SVoD and pay TV services doesn’t stop with their own schedules, however. The graphic content they produce is so widely available across legal and illegal on-demand channels that it inevitably influences the work producers do for more mainstream platforms.
Frith Tiplady, co-MD of Tiger Aspect Drama – the company behind the BBC’s acclaimed 1920s gangster series Peaky Blinders – sums it up neatly: “For audiences, violence on free TV can look pretty tame when put up against shows like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. Obviously, there are broadcasting guidelines to stop metropolitan creatives getting carried away, but there is an inevitable pressure to try to increase excitement levels when making shows for more mainstream broadcasters.”
The result is some pretty strong stuff on free TV. In the UK, commercial broadcaster ITV attracted criticism for scheduling crime drama Paranoid so close to the 21.00 watershed. The series depicted a woman being knifed to death in a playground in front of her child. UK pubcaster the BBC, meanwhile, has been criticised for some of the more graphic shows it has aired, such as the sexually explicit Versailles (BBC2) and the visceral Tom Hardy drama Taboo (BBC1). The latter show includes a supernaturally instigated rape and a variety of gruesome deaths more typically found on pay TV.
Of course, if you listen to creators talking about graphic content, they don’t frame it in terms of the commercial benefits. Instead, they generally stress its significance as a storytelling device.
Quizzed about Sons of Anarchy and The Bastard Executioner, showrunner Kurt Sutter told a press event that “the violence, as absurd as it could be on Sons, always came from an organic place and it was never done in a vacuum. To every violent act, there were ramifications. There are ways to portray violence that don’t make it openly gratuitous.”
Tiplady points to how the violence in Peaky Blinders has its roots in character and situation: “These are men who have come back from the First World War with post-traumatic stress disorder. Their ferocity is linked to their experience. But even then they have a moral code.”
Skybound Entertainment’s David Alpert takes a similar line with his company’s zombie mega-hit The Walking Dead. “Violence is part of the landscape of this show, but we certainly don’t look to be gratuitous. I’m a fan of the genre, so I’m always interested in a new or innovative zombie kill, but we’re never aiming to be gross just for the sake of
The irony with The Walking Dead, of course, is that 90% of the violence – humans dispatching zombies – doesn’t draw any reaction. It’s only when humans kill humans that the social media airwaves turn blue: “The big talking point for us recently was the introduction of villain Negan, and the way he killed fan-favourite Glenn [graphically bludgeoning him to death with a baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire].
“Our take on this was that we needed an explosive and violent introduction for Negan to show our hero Rick Grimes being cowed. Rick being powerless was something fans hadn’t seen before, so we needed to make it seem believable.”
While A&E’s Vien agrees “TV needs to be more mindful than the movies about the depiction of violence,” he adds: “I don’t think these great shows are guilty of being gratuitous. What we’re seeing is a back and forth between creative expression and the market as viewers shift from the movies to big scripted. Would we be better off if we toned it down? Maybe. Will there be creative modifications? It’s hard to predict.”
Either way, this creative energy around violence raises a couple of big questions. First, is the heightened depiction of violence and sex really necessary to the success of a show, or is the appearance of success outlined above simply incidental? And second, is viewing such content bad for us as individuals and as a society?
On the first point, Big Light’s Spotnitz says: “Graphic content can certainly be a distraction from the storytelling. We were given licence with Medici to go quite far but in the end we didn’t feel the need, and came out with a great show.”
This doesn’t mean violence is never appropriate, Spotnitz adds, but it does mean writers and producers should interrogate its narrative purpose. Tiplady agrees, pointing out that women working on the Peaky Blinders production team had a clear voice when it came to determining the way Polly Shelby’s rape would be depicted in the show. Helen McCrory, who plays Polly, has also commented on the sequence, noting that it provided the foundation for an entire season’s worth of character exploration.
This may explain why sex scenes on TV often come entangled with conflict or tension. Rape, or the suggestion of it, has featured in Game of Thrones, Taboo and even the BBC’s Sunday night show Poldark. Elsewhere, sex is often portrayed in the context of prostitution (The Girlfriend Experience) or forbidden lust (see the incest subplot in Taboo). Of course, there are times when this kind of subject matter is of social significance. Some observers, for example, suggest Showtime drama series The Affair has taken the quality of debate about consensual sex to a new level.
On violence, Lisa Chatfield, head of scripted development at Pukeko Pictures, says writers and producers would do well to remember “the implication and suggestion of violence can often be more intriguing and suspenseful than its graphic depiction.” Violence is used sparingly yet still to powerful effect in The Missing season two, for example, in which the depravity of the villain lies in the fear of what he might do.
Circling back to the issue of commercial potential, it’s also worth noting that less graphic sex and violence can be beneficial when it comes to international distribution. A&E’s Vien warns against overstating this point, however, in case it drives the market towards mediocrity: “Different markets have different tastes – but you can finesse that in the editing room. I don’t think the right response to this is to try and come up with a generalised acceptable level of sex and violence. The creative process doesn’t work like that.”
On the broader social point, it’s easy to come across as humourless or puritanical when discussing TV violence. But there is academic and educational research that suggests a link between TV violence and the desensitisation of children. TV violence has also been linked to what academics call ‘mean world syndrome,’ namely the way negative depictions on TV can make people disproportionately suspicious and fearful of the world.
Like the drinks and fast-food sectors, the TV industry is quite good at swerving the debate about its responsibility for the world in which we live, but maybe it should pause to reflect.
Showrunner Emma Frost takes DQ into the court of The White Princess, a historical drama she describes as a period version of The West Wing.
As far as sequels go, The White Princess is slightly unusual. A follow-up to 2013’s The White Queen, the series again finds its inspiration in Philippa Gregory’s series of novels that comprise The Cousins’ War, set against the backdrop of the War of the Roses in 15th century England.
There are also some of the same characters – but that’s largely where the similarities end. A brand new cast appears on screen, while the BBC dropped out of the US/UK partnership behind The White Queen, leaving US premium cable network Starz to go it alone. There’s also a new production designer and costume designer, giving the series an altogether different style and look.
That proved to be a breath of fresh air for Emma Frost, a British writer who has found her natural calling within the US showrunner system that gives writers the responsibility of producing their own work.
“Doing it under the American system meant I was the showrunner and had the creative control that comes with that,” Frost explains. “I was very proud of The White Queen but there were certain things we felt we could do better so we’ve worked very hard to have a coherent creative vision for The White Princess. It looks quite different, it’s more sophisticated. It has a great deal more psychological depth within the characters than The White Queen, which was much more about the history and the sequence of events. With this one, we’ve gone deeper into character, psychology and motivation. In some ways, it’s like a period version of The West Wing – it’s very political.”
The story sees war-ravaged England ostensibly united by the marriage of Princess Elizabeth of York (Lizzie) and King Henry VII, but their personal and political rift threatens to tear the kingdom apart once again. When rumours circulate that Lizzie’s long-lost brother Prince Richard is alive and planning to take the throne, she is forced into an impossible choice between her new husband and the boy who could be the rightful King.
Produced by Company Pictures and Playground, The White Princess is executive produced by Frost alongside director Jamie Payne and Colin Callender, Scott Huff and Michele Buck. Starz distributes the series worldwide.
Frost wrote a detailed series bible and episode outline, laying out her vision for the show. She subsequently penned four episodes and co-wrote a further two, ensuring her vision and voice remained in place across the eight-episode run.
But the development of The White Princess was complicated somewhat by the show’s origins, being based on a book that is itself based on historical events.
“The book is always the guide,” Frost explains. “I go back to history as well and there are certain historical facts Philippa didn’t use that I chose to. For example, the first thing Henry does when he comes to the throne is he backdates his reign [to make him king before his victory over Richard III in the Battle of Bosworth].
“That was considered an absolutely shocking outrage and blasphemy because it was believed that God was on the battlefield and God determined there and then who he would side with and who would be his next anointed king. So to suggest you thought you were the king before God decided was a real insult to God.
“To me, that was an incredibly explosive and dramatically exciting thing that really happened in history so I put that in the show, whereas it’s not in the novel. There aren’t many things I’ve actually invented. The only things I did invent came out of a necessity to follow a character or narrative arc that we set running in the first season. There are a couple of moments but, for the most part, everything is in history or from
Frost describes history as “a litany of things men did,” which means there is subsequently little focus on women. The White Princess, she says, reappropriates history from a female point of view, with a cast of powerful women all fighting for their own survival.
“What’s interesting for me is it’s an entirely female-driven show that also has incredibly high stakes,” the showrunner says. “If you create a contemporary show that’s entirely female-driven, it can be tough to find those high stakes, but this is a narrative about birth, death, war, betrayal and murder.
“The stakes could not be higher so it’s a fantastic opportunity to write these vivid, bold characters who are fighting for something they believe in and they need. It’s a joy, I have to say. We got to the final episode and myself and one of the other writers said, ‘Shall we just keep going? Shall we write some more?’”
Leading the charge on screen is Jodie Comer, who stars as Lizzie opposite Jacob Collins-Levy as Henry. She is joined by Michelle Fairley (Lady Margaret Beaufort), and Essie Davis (Dowager Queen Elizabeth Woodville), while Suki Waterhouse appears as Cecily of York.
Comer caught Frost’s attention with star turns in BBC dramas Doctor Foster and Thirteen. And after seeing her during the first day of auditions, Frost quickly told the actor not to take up any other jobs.
“It’s been a really incredible show for me because every cast member is perfect, they are so good together and they inhabit the same world as well,” Frost says. “Sometimes you cherry pick the individuals that you want and when you get them together, they seem to inhabit different realities in terms of the tone of their performance and the way they resonate on screen. We’ve been really lucky with The White Princess in that everybody feels like they’re of the same world and the same tone and they work really well together.”
Filming locations were largely picked close to the production’s base at Bottle Yard Studios in Bristol, taking in sites across south west England such as Gloucester and Wells cathedrals – but also as far away as Arundel Castle on the south coast.
Frost admits each stage of production is “a mountain to climb,” from balancing the scripts between the source novel and history to keeping the drama relevant for modern audiences.
“It’s an incredible juggling act,” she notes. “I was very keen to find out if people of colour existed at this time because you never see any non-white faces in any of the movies or TV shows that have been made so far of this period. I drove my script editing team completely insane, researching any books they could find that might give us an insight into what the reality was.
“We found these two incredible books and learned unexpectedly there were actually quite a lot of people of colour, particularly in the cities – London, Plymouth, Bristol, all of the big port cities – so that was a really exciting discovery when we realised we could actually bring in a much more diverse cast.”
The White Princess, which debuted on Starz earlier this month, completes the story that began in The White Queen. A decision is yet to be made on a third instalment.
But why do historical and period dramas continue to fascinate the world over? “It’s a very glamorous, inaccessible world people can peer into through drama,” adds Frost, who is now working on feature film Zelda with Ron Howard and Jennifer Lawrence. “Royals were the celebrities of their day. Henry and Lizzie are the equivalent of Posh and Becks, aren’t they? They are these glamorous, unattainable, powerful people. It’s glamour and escapism for the audience, but these stories also have incredible stakes.”
Based on the book by Neil Gaiman, American Gods follows the story of a war brewing between old and new gods, with the traditional deities of mythological roots from around the world steadily losing believers to an upstart pantheon of gods reflecting modern society’s love of money, technology, media, celebrity and drugs.
Its protagonist, Shadow Moon, is an ex-con who becomes bodyguard and travelling partner to Mr Wednesday, a conman but in reality one of the older gods, on a cross-country mission to gather the latter’s forces in preparation to battle the new deities.
Bryan Fuller, who is the co-showrunner alongside Michael Green, tells DQ why the novel was “ripe” for a television adaptation and how Gaiman’s story portrays the immigrant experience, as well as describing the writing process behind the series and discussing working with stars Ricky Whittle and Ian McShane.
American Gods is produced by FremantleMedia North America for Starz, and is distributed by FremantleMedia International.
For more about American Gods, read DQ’s feature here.
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.
At the world premiere of Starz drama American Gods, showrunners Bryan Fuller and Michael Green spoke of the challenges of telling ‘immigrant stories’ in the current political climate. Adam Benzine reports.
US network Starz previewed its forthcoming fantasy drama American Gods to a rapturous audience at the South by Southwest (SXSW) festival on Saturday, followed by a forthright Q&A with the show’s creators.
The series, based on author Neil Gaiman’s Hugo Award-winning novel of the same name, focuses on a conflict across America between a variety of ‘old gods’ – including Odin, Loki and Bilquis – and new deities, such as the personifications of media, technology and celebrity.
Mixing the violence of past Starz series such as Spartacus with a broad palette of surreal and dreamlike imagery, as well as an often-humorous script, the pilot also features a bizarre sex scene that is sure to be one of the water-cooler moments of the year. The first episode focuses on recently released convict Shadow Moon (The 100 star Ricky Whittle), who crosses paths with the mysterious Mr Wednesday (Deadwood star Ian McShane).
Speaking after the premiere, showrunner Bryan Fuller said the tone of the show changed notably following November’s election of Donald Trump as US president.
“It’s definitely a different show than we set out to make, because the political climate in America, well, shat its pants,” Fuller told the crowd at SXSW in Austin, Texas. “We are now telling immigrant stories in a climate that vilifies immigrants.
“As Americans, we are under a radical political climate that tends to lean cruel as opposed to compassionate. So we are excited to tell compassionate immigration stories, not only as a statement but as part of the ongoing narrative of our series.”
He added that when the team approached Gaiman’s book, as showrunners, “our first task was to make the show we wanted to see as an audience member – we needed to put on screen what was in our heads when we read the book.
“One of the things that was exciting for us in casting the show was that so much of the book is based in other cultures and other ethnicities,” he explained. “It gave us the opportunity to not be colour-blind but to be very colour-focused.”
Fellow showrunner Michael Green, meanwhile, added that Gaiman’s book “is very joyful, it celebrates a lot of things that we really love about America.”
However, the team worked to significantly expand several of the female roles featured in the book, since the novel “can be a bit of a sausage party.”
“We knew going in we needed to have many more female characters,” he explained, noting that Emily Browning (Laura Moon) and Yetide Badaki (Bilquis) were among the actors whose storylines had been significantly expanded.
At the preview ahead of the drama’s April 30 debut on Starz, the showrunners were joined by a large portion of the pilot’s cast, including Whittle, McShane, Browning, Badaki, Pablo Schreiber, Betty Gilpin, Crispin Glover and Bruce Langley (top image).
Offering his take on the pilot, the typically outspoken McShane told the crowd: “I thought it was fucking amazing,” to laughter. “That’s the first frame I’ve ever seen of it; I’d never seen any of the show before… I was riveted, I’ve seen nothing like it.
“I just had a fucking good time. It’s not a bad opening episode, y’know?”
Events such as Comic-Con and social media have unleashed a new breed of super-fan – but how are TV shows utilising this new audience, and what influence do they have on the shows they love?
Most TV dramas have audiences – but some have fans.
You know the type. They attend Comic-Con in fancy dress – like the Walking Dead fan in Dortmund pictured above – and have limited-edition action figures of the cast at home, still in the original packaging. Or they organise weekend-long pyjama parties to binge-watch entire box sets for the 20th time.
It would be easy to write off fans as the TV industry’s eccentric relatives. But the reality is broadcasters, platforms and producers pay them a lot of attention.
“Fandom is central to our brand strategy,” says Carmi Zlotnik, MD of US premium cablenet Starz. “The phrase ‘For All Fankind’ is our battle cry. Igniting white-hot passion for shows is what drives our subscriber business.”
For Starz, the question of fan power first arises if the network is developing IP that has a pre-existing fanbase, Zlotnik adds. “Take something like Outlander, which we developed from Diana Gabaldon’s novels. That came with a 20-year publishing history and an audience of 25 million. Or American Gods, which we are adapting from bestselling author Neil Gaiman’s iconic novel. Part of the appeal in both cases is that you have a hard core of fans that can evangelise on behalf of your show. But the challenge is making sure they get behind your interpretation. You have to be able to honour their passion while recognising that the needs of the book and the show may be different.”
Pivotal to this is having an author that is enthusiastic about discussing the show’s direction with the original fanbase, says Zlotnik, explaining why particular narrative, locations or casting decisions have been made.
This is particularly important when the TV series needs to diverge from the source material – something fans find much easier to swallow if the author is on board.
As Gabaldon has said: “I tell people the book is the book and the show is the show, and you’re going to enjoy both of them immensely – but not if you sit in front of the show with the book in your hand going, ‘Wait, wait, you left that out!’”
For the author to take this position, it’s crucial they have a great working relationship with the showrunner, adds Zlotnik. “We’re fortunate that Diana and [showrunner] Ronald D Moore are in lockstep on Outlander and that there is a close connection between Neil and [co-showrunner] Bryan Fuller and Michael Green on American Gods.”
One important proviso to all of the above is to ensure the existence of a fanbase doesn’t become the sole determinant of whether a show gets made, says Chris Parnell, executive VP of US drama development and programming for Sony Pictures Television (SPT). “We have created shows with pre-existing fanbases such as Outlander, Preacher and Powers,” he says, “but everything still has to come down to the idea. A rabid, under-served fan base is a good selling tool when talking to a broadcaster, and it provides a platform for getting season one moving. But you have to evaluate whether the story you’re looking at will make a good television series.”
Of course, not all shows are based on existing IP so here the responsibility lies even more squarely on the shoulders of the showrunner and cast. “With Power, we were fortunate to have Curtis ‘50 Cent’ Jackson on board as an executive producer,” says Starz’ Zlotnik. “He attracted a lot of interest before launch. But showrunner Courtney Kemp Agboh has since done a great job of keeping up a dialogue with fans.”
Fan management takes on a different complexion once the show is on air. By this point, the pre-existing fanbase has been joined by viewers with no existing creative baggage. With an end product to view, the relationship with fans increasingly pivots around what they are saying on social media.
“A big difference compared with 10 years ago is that you can get an immediate sense of what the audience thinks,” says Tiger Aspect joint MD of drama Frith Tiplady, whose recent credits include Ripper Street, Peaky Blinders and My Mad Fat Diary. “That’s fantastic when you consider that the only feedback we used to get was from commissioners or critics, who might have their own reasons for disliking your show.”
A key question, then, is what to do with this fan commentary. Should it, for example, influence the creative team’s decisions about the show? “Mostly we’re dealing with shows where the entire series is in the can before the audience sees it, so the question is whether you take what they say into account for subsequent seasons,” says Tiplady. “Generally, I’d say the writer has a story to tell and they know what it is, so you don’t want them to be swayed too much by fans. But if there is a character the audience loves then there may be room to expand their role – or not kill them off – in season two.”
While writers and producers need to be cautious about paying too much attention to specific fan opinions, there is clearly a growing belief that engaging with fans around the outskirts of a show is a worthwhile exercise.
This is manifested in various ways, such as the rapidly growing number of after-show chat series (The Talking Dead, After the Thrones), attendance at events like Comic-Con and the use of social media forums.
“AMC’s The Walking Dead and Shonda Rhimes’ ABC dramas have been pioneers in using social media,” says Jenna Santoianni, senior VP of TV series at prodco Sonar Entertainment. “As far as possible, you always need to be looking at what fan activities you can get involved in to raise the profile of your show. When MTV launched The Shannara Chronicles [produced by Sonar] last year, for example, one of the show’s stars, Austin Butler, took over MTV’s Snapchat to promote the show. He also live-tweeted to the east and west coasts of the US.”
Sonar has worked closely with Terry Brooks – the author of the books on which The Shannara Chronicles is based – ensuring he is central to the decision-making process. “Six or seven months ahead of the launch, we screened a trailer at Comic-Con,” Santoianni says. “That was aimed at Terry’s loyal fans, the people who would be evangelists for the show and get the word out.”
Naturally, shows that play to the younger end of the millennial spread tend to have a high profile on social media. Freeform’s Pretty Little Liars is often cited as the best example of this, having amassed more than 100 million show-related tweets since it launched in 2010, as well as strong figures for Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and Pinterest engagement. In part, this is down to the fan demographic, but there is also the fact that the show’s stars themselves are hardcore social media users.
In terms of harnessing that interest, Freeform has spent a lot of time analysing fan conversations and then using that as the basis for marketing the show. This strategy seems to have paid off, with Pretty Little Liars coming to an end next year after seven seasons.
That isn’t because of ratings weakness, either. The series is Freeform’s top-rating show and is likely to end on a high having pre-warned the audience it is ending – via social media.
Stephen Stohn, executive producer of iconic teen series Degrassi: Next Class, has been living and breathing the Degrassi franchise for decades. His wife, Linda Schuyler, created it, and Stohn says fan dialogue was always central to their philosophy: “We didn’t just want to create TV, we wanted to create engagement and that is part of the reason why the show has had such longevity. Long before social media really took off as a mainstream phenomenon, we launched a walled-garden website which allowed users to log in as Degrassi students.”
Changing media usage has left that model behind, but Stohn believes the principles underlying the show have kept it relevant: “We always look to create a conversation with fans, and I think that’s especially relevant now that Next Class is streaming on Netflix. Deeper engagement with audiences means they are more likely to subscribe — or, at the very least, that they are less likely to churn out of the service.”
However, Stohn stresses that, from a producer’s perspective, fan engagement is not fundamentally driven by business objectives. “We do it because we’re passionate about telling stories that connect with our audience,” he insists. “We get some incredibly moving feedback from our fans about how the show has echoed aspects of their lives. Our writers are very active on social media, which is what drives Degrassi’s authenticity.”
While there’s logic to all of the above, does this mean fan power can bring shows back from the dead? Over the years, hardcore fans have done everything from funding billboards in support of axed shows to organising demonstrations at network offices. Banana crates, Tabasco sauce and Mars Bars have all been sent to executives in zany attempts to save threatened shows.
These days, however, “it seems as though every time there is a series cancellation, someone launches a campaign to bring it back,” says Tiger Aspect’s Tiplady. “But we’re actually among the fortunate few to have had a scripted show brought back, when Ripper Street was renewed.”
Originally a BBC show, Ripper Street was cancelled after season two but was then revived for a third season following a new financial package that saw Amazon come on board as a partner.
“There’s no question that we were energised by the fan campaign to bring Ripper Street back, but it was a mix of factors that made it happen,” Tiplady admits. “I think timing came into it. Amazon needed strong scripted content at that time and we were ready to go. The BBC didn’t want to cancel the show – it was a question of financing – so when a solution was found, they were happy about it.”
This seems to be a pattern. While fan campaigns can generate positive PR, there also needs to be a clear business benefit and a sense of a tactical opportunity. In the US, for example, ABC cancelled Nashville after four seasons, only for the show to be picked up for a fifth season by Viacom-owned country music-themed channel CMT.
At the time, CMT president Brian Philips said: “CMT heard the fans. The wave of love and appreciation they have unleashed for Nashville has been overwhelming. We see our fans and ourselves in this show and we will treasure it like no other network. It belongs on CMT.”
While all of this is probably true, the decision was also underpinned by some compelling commercial factors. First, the show was attracting 6.7 million viewers in Live+7 ratings – not enough for ABC but plenty for a cable channel like CMT to work with. Second, it was uniquely ‘on brand’ for CMT. Third, cable channels are desperate for scripted shows, so the prospect of a ready-made franchise would have been very appealing. And, finally, Hulu participated in the deal, echoing the BBC/Amazon partnership that brought back Ripper Street.
If the notion of fans resurrecting scripted shows is slightly over-romanticised, another area where fan power has so far proved limited is crowdfunding via platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo. While we’ve seen films and animation series secure multimillion-dollar sums to support production, there are no high-profile examples on the scripted TV front – yet.
However, it’s reasonable to suggest that long-running fan support for a classic show is an indicator that it might be ripe for a reboot. And there’s certainly a suspicion that negative fan feedback can kill a show off.
This was the view of Rhett Reese, co-creator of Zombieland, a TV spin-off of the iconic 2009 movie that was piloted for Amazon in 2013. “I’ll never understand the vehement hate the pilot received from die-hard fans,” he said at the time. “You guys successfully hated it out of existence.”
Overall, there’s no question that fan behaviour needs to be a part of producer, broadcaster and streamer thinking. Indeed, we’re reaching a point in the evolution of TV where the intensity of fan love can be a better measure of a show’s future potential than its season one ratings.
Commenting on this contention, SPT’s Parnell says: “There’s so much competition that people don’t necessarily get to see a show when it is launched. So it may be that big ratings in season one are not the only indicator of a show’s future prospects. We’ve seen series like Bloodline [Netflix] and Underground [WGN America] build fup momentum off the back of strong fan interest.”
This would, again, chime with the view from the commissioning side. Speaking at last year’s Edinburgh International TV Festival, Amazon Studios head Roy Price concluded: “The key to standing out is the show has to have a voice that people care about, that people love and that is really distinctive. The returns on ordinary are rapidly declining. It’s got to be neat, it’s got to be amazing, it’s got to be worth talking about.”
Showrunners Bryan Fuller and Michael Green and executive producer Craig Cegielski tell Toni Sekinah about the “alchemy” of adapting Neil Gaiman’s seminal novel American Gods and the amazing on-screen chemistry between its lead actors.
It took just a few days of shooting for executive producer Craig Cegielski and co-showrunner Michael Green to realise they were working on something phenomenal in American Gods.
The confirmation came courtesy of the first scene between the two lead characters, with Ricky Whittle’s protagonist Shadow Moon (pictured left above) meeting his soon-to-be mentor-guru Mr Wednesday (Ian McShane) on a plane. The set was fizzing with chemistry.
It made Cegielski want to be a part of the characters’ crew, while for Green it confirmed his inkling that the two actors would work very well together. “I felt like we not only had a show with a core relationship in it, but a show that would be honoured, and one that I as a fan would continue watching for many, many years to come,”
This TV adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s legendary fantasy novel, coming to US premium cablenet Starz next year, has been a long time in the making, with the book first being published in 2001.
The plot sets up a war brewing between old and new gods: the traditional gods of biblical and mythological roots from around the world are steadily losing believers to an upstart pantheon of gods reflecting society’s modern love of money, technology, media, celebrity and drugs. Thrust into the centre is ex-con Shadow Moon, who becomes a bodyguard and travelling partner to Mr Wednesday, a conman who is secretly one of the older gods, on a cross-country mission to gather his forces in preparation to battle the new deities.
The book has won awards and become a cultural phenomenon, leading HBO to first express an interest in an adaptation in 2011. But script issues meant this didn’t work out and the network dropped the idea in late 2013.
Then when former Playtone exec Stephanie Berk, who had been developing the project for HBO, moved to producer FremantleMedia North America (FMNA), she reached out again
to Gaiman, inviting him to discuss resurrecting the project.
“Neil sat with us and we talked through everything. He believed in Fremantle and our promise to make the show,” says FMNA’s Cegielski. “We found a good network partner. We found good showrunners to participate. We were true to our word.”
That network partner was Starz, which began dabbling in the horror genre with the launch of Ash vs Evil Dead last year. “Starz has been an incredible partner. They view American Gods as one of their tentpoles for the network and they have done everything to support that,” says Cegielski.
Key to the success of the process thus far has been the fact that everyone working on the series is an aficionado of the novel. “We all know the book, we all love Neil’s writing, we love the poetry of what he does and we’re sitting back as fans saying, ‘We’d like to see this’ or, ‘We’d like to do that,’” Cegielski adds.
Part of that group is Green’s co-showrunner Bryan Fuller. The pair have been on the lookout for another project on which to partner ever since working together on NBC’s Heroes. “We bonded very quickly on Heroes. We were talking for years about working together somehow again and American Gods came up,” says Fuller.
Green recalls not being able to agree to the idea loudly or quickly enough, with both creatives being “incredibly passionate” fans of the book who were excited about the “incredible toy box” Gaiman had provided them with.
“It gives us a fresh opportunity to tell different kinds of stories in a television landscape and talk about things that are really relevant to and will resonate with large members of the audience,” Fuller says. “These things are the subjects of faith, belief and where you put your energies in the world.”
And with Gaiman as an executive producer – as well as writing some scripts – the showrunners are able to make sure every decision they make is in keeping with the author’s vision. “Neil has been incredibly supportive and collaborative throughout this process and the thing Michael and I want to be very careful of is that we are making an American Gods that Neil can be proud of,” says Fuller, conceding: “It’s a tricky alchemy, an adaptation.”
Green adds: “We talk to Neil about an intention for an extended role or for a new character before we put pen to paper and get the benefit of his additions to our additions. It is an incredibly joyful experience.”
One of those extended roles has been given to Bilquis, the goddess of love, who only appears in one chapter of the book but is in all 10 episodes of the first season. Green continues: “Neil will read the scripts when they come in and talk to us about them and every time he’s been appreciative, helpful and additive.”
Gaiman himself has also expanded characters for the visual narrative. According to Green, the author introduced a character called Vulcan, “a god he’s always had an imagination for,” who’ll be found travelling in the southern states of the US.
Beyond the script, recent advances in technology have played a huge part in allowing Fuller and Green to tell the story the way they wanted and realise their vision for Gaiman’s words on screen. “A show like this could not have been made 15 years ago because the technology wasn’t really available,” says Cegielski.
Green adds: “We were fortunate that technology has caught up with Neil’s imagination in terms of presenting it visually. When the book first came out, there were a lot of things suggested that could not have been accomplished on screen.”
Examples include a visual effect called ‘god flesh.’ Fuller explains: “The instances where we meet gods or are exposed to them for the first time, we have a camera rig that we shoot the actors with and are able to re-skin them in a wide variety of ways that is tantamount to motion capture.”
Green adds that this allowed them to create several different layers of reality. “We can meet a character who is actually a god, having a very mundane terrestrial experience and then we can pick and choose our moments to show what they truly are underneath it all,” he says.
Cegielski goes further: “It gives us an opportunity to provide a view behind the curtain of what gods look like in their godly state.”
While Fuller says technology has been a “friend” to production, he also notes that around 60% of the filming took place on location. Green says making the magic in the show feel like it could exist in the real world was key, “so the more you can be in the actual world, the better.”
This led them to such locations as Oklahoma. “We spent a lot of time driving on the open road in a Cadillac and those are some of the most fun and beautiful times,” Green says. With the book depicting numerous road trips, the creative crew were constantly seeking new spaces and locations, something Green adds was akin to filming an hour-long movie for each episode.
But what of the show’s leading man? Whittle, best known to UK viewers for his five-year portrayal of Calvin Valentine in teen soap Hollyoaks, will be familiar stateside thanks to his role in post-apocalyptic drama The 100. And now he’s proving his chops among the Hollywood heavyweights that pepper the rest of the American Gods cast.
Noting that the actor brings joy and gratitude to the process, Fuller describes Whittle as a “whirling ball of hugs and smiles – exactly what you want in a lead on a show.”
Green also praises Whittle’s efforts in beefing up for the part of Shadow: “He has undergone a really difficult physical transformation for this. Shadow is much physically larger and more menacing so he had to put on 36lbs, eating meat stew and rice for breakfast for the last six months.
With a stellar cast – including The X-Files’ Gillian Anderson, who previously worked with director David Slade and Fuller on Hannibal – location filming and technological wizardry, Fremantle is pulling out all the stops with this big-budget production.
Cegielski says: “You can’t under-deliver this. Every person who comes on board to work on the show is trying to elevate the material in every aspect because the fans deserve that kind of treatment.”
The executive producer adds that he has been working closely with Fuller and Green on set, as Fremantle has always been a “boots on the ground studio. We want to make sure the people we work with feel like we’re partners, as opposed to suits.”
While season one of American Gods covers approximately one-third of the book, the creative team believe the show could last for seven seasons – surely music to the ears of international distributor FremantleMedia International, which has sold the show to Amazon Prime in Germany, Austria, the UK and Japan. “The novel offers us somewhat of an unlimited opportunity to tell the story,” says Cegielski. “American Gods is best served as a television series and Michael and Bryan are doing an incredible job navigating that.”
An integral part of the team is director Slade, who Green and Fuller brought in because of his strong visual style, narrative sense and his ability to bring the best out of actors. Together, they thought carefully about how to represent the old and supernatural worlds.
Fuller describes the visual style as “grounded magic and sometimes untethered magic,” while Cegielski says there is a balance between “a very grounded, visually aggressive palate and whimsical, funny and irreverent elements.”
It is also a case of two showrunners being better than one with Fuller and Green, with the latter believing the collaboration means the show has become more ambitious than it would have been under a single showrunner.
Fuller says: “The fun challenge of this show is to make people believe the world has more in it than they could ever have imagined and is full of wonderful, supernatural elements.”
Perhaps by the time American Gods launches in early 2017, this creative trio will leave viewers feeling like they’re walking on hallowed ground.
Season two of BBC1’s crime drama The Missing ended this week after eight gripping episodes. Not everyone enjoyed the complexity or darkness of the show but those who stuck it out were rewarded with superb acting, compelling storytelling and a set of fresh and interesting locations, ranging from Switzerland to Iraq.
The show’s achievement is made all the more remarkable by the fact it is an English-language show with a French cop as its moral compass.
The show kicked off in October with an audience of 7.8 million (seven-day consolidated data). From there it dropped to around 6.5-7 million per episode, which is still a strong performance.
For the most part it was also warmly received by critics, who felt it managed to successfully tie up its numerous loose ends. Speaking of the final episode, The Guardian said it was “fabulous” and that it “builds and builds in stomach-clenching tension.”
The Telegraph’s critic was a mid-season convert, saying: “It turns out my cynicism was unfounded. The fast-paced, powerful denouement satisfied both heart and head; loose ends from the drama’s dual timelines were tied up; every plot thread reached its resolution. This was fiendishly plotted, stylishly delivered TV.”
With a strong UK performance in the bag, The Missing 2 will now go into distribution courtesy of All3Media International. Already onboard is US premium pay TV platform Starz, which also aired season one. Given that the first season sold well around the world, it’s likely the new series will do well.
The show, which was created by Jack and Harry Williams, is also likely to feature prominently on the awards circuit, given the response to the first season. Although The Missing season one didn’t manage to bag any high-profile awards, it did show up on several shortlists, gaining a nomination for Best Miniseries or TV Film at the Golden Globes in 2015.
The big question now is whether there will be a third season of the show, which is an anthology series linked by the presence of the French cop referred to above (Julien Baptiste). The actor who plays him, Tcheky Karyo, is keen to reprise. But the Williams brothers have not yet committed. They are busy with other projects and will only return to The Missing if they feel they have the right idea. One possibility is to pick up the story from season one, which does have the potential to be brought back to life.
In other Williams brothers news, there are reports this week that US premium pay TV channel Cinemax has jumped on board Rellik, a new limited series that the brothers are making for BBC1 in the UK. The title of the show is Killer spelled backwards, reflecting the fact that the new series will tell a serial killer’s story in reverse.
Another show in the headlines this week is the Franco-Swedish drama Midnight Sun, which has been sold to pay TV channel Sky Atlantic in the UK by StudioCanal. Created by Mårlind & Stein (Bron/Broen), the eight-part series is a thriller set in a small mining community in remote northern Sweden where a series of brutal murders conceal a secret conspiracy.
It has already aired on Canal+ in France, where it was the highest rated Création Originale series launch in three years. It also did well on Sweden’s SVT, where it attracted an audience of 1.8 million (39.7% share).
Commenting on the deal, Zai Bennett, director of programmes at Sky Entertainment UK and Ireland, said: “Midnight Sun is a brilliant addition to our line-up in 2017, with new award-winning drama airing exclusively on the channel every month. I’ve no doubt our customers will love this clever and thought-provoking thriller.”
Sky Atlantic is the latest in a long line of broadcasters to pick up the Canal+/SVT/Filmpool Nord copro from Atlantique Productions and Nice Drama. Already onboard are ZDF in Germany, SBS in Australia, HOT in Israel, NRK in Norway, DR in Denmark, RUV in Iceland, MTV3 in Finland, VRT in Belgium, and Lumière in Benelux. The show also received the Audience Award at SeriesMania.
Katrina Neylon, exec VP sales and marketing at StudioCanal, added: “Since its launch at Mipcom in October, Midnight Sun has gone from strength to strength on the international stage. Its high production values, alongside an absorbing and internationally relevant storyline, offer great appeal across multiple platforms.”
Also this week, DQ’s sister platform C21 is reporting that Amazon has picked up the US SVoD rights for critically acclaimed drama The A Word. The series, which looks at the impact on a family when their youngest child is diagnosed with autism, is based on an Israeli show called Yellow Peppers.
Distributed internationally by Keshet International (KI), the first season of the show was a surprise hit on BBC1 and a second season has been commissioned. In addition to Amazon, it will air on Sundance TV in the US, underlining a growing trend toward pay TV/SVoD rights sharing.
Commenting on the Amazon deal, Keren Shahar, chief operating officer at KI and president of distribution, said: “The fact that Amazon has acquired SVoD rights to both seasons of the series is a testament to its quality, appeal and performance to date.”
On the cancellation front, Showtime in the US has announced that Masters of Sex has been dropped after four seasons. The news is not that big a surprise. The show, which features Michael Sheen as William Masters, the real-life American gynaecologist who pioneered research into human sexuality, attracted an average of 453,000 for its final run.
This is down from the 595,000 who watched season three, the 800,000 who watched season two and the 1.07 million who followed the debut season in 2013. An IMDb score of eight reinforces the fact that the show never quite hit the heights of the other shows doing the rounds in pay TV/SVoD (Fargo, Stranger Things, Westworld, Game of Thrones etc).
The show also didn’t perform well when compared with other Showtime titles like Homeland, Shameless, Ray Donovan and Billions. Interestingly, another Showtime series, The Affair, has just come back for season three with pretty modest ratings — suggesting that it might also struggle to get a recommission at the end of this run. If this is the case, then it leaves Showtime very reliant on a small handful of moderately good scripted series.
Against this backdrop, a watershed moment for the channel will be the return of iconic drama Twin Peaks in 2017. Possibly it’s also time to listen to the fan chat and bring back Dexter, the serial killer drama that defined Showtime for so many seasons.
It’s been a busy end to August in terms of commissions and acquisitions. In the UK, the BBC has been especially active, taking advantage of the Edinburgh International Television Festival (EITF) as a platform for announcing or discussing new developments.
One of its most high-profile announcements is a deal with Agatha Christie Productions that will see seven Agatha Christie novels adapted for TV over the next four years. This follows an earlier announcement that it would be making The Witness for the Prosecution, with a cast led by Toby Jones, Andrea Riseborough, Kim Cattrall, David Haig, Billy Howle and Monica Dolan.
The first of the novels to be adapted under the seven-book deal will be Ordeal by Innocence. Other titles so far confirmed include Death Comes as the End and The ABC Murders, which focuses a race against time to stop a serial killer who is on the loose in 1930s Britain.
Commenting on the deal, Charlotte Moore, director of BBC Content, said: “These new commissions continue BBC1’s special relationship as the home of Agatha Christie in the UK. Our combined creative ambition to reinvent Christie’s novels for a modern audience promises to bring event television of the highest quality to a new generation enjoyed by fans old and new.”
The decision to plan so far ahead came after the success of And Then There Were None for BBC1 in 2015. That adaptation was written by Sarah Phelps, who is also working on the next two Christie projects. Further writers will be announced in due course.
Hilary Strong, CEO of Agatha Christie Ltd, said: “And Then There Were None was a highlight of the 2015 BBC1 Christmas schedule, and we are truly delighted to be building on the success of that show, first with The Witness for the Prosecution, and then with adaptations of seven more iconic Agatha Christie titles. What Sarah Phelps brought to And Then There Were None was a new way of interpreting Christie for a modern audience, and Agatha Christie Ltd is thrilled to be bringing this psychologically rich, visceral and contemporary sensibility to more classic Christie titles for a new generation of fans.”
The Witness for the Prosecution is a Mammoth Screen and Agatha Christie Productions’ drama for BBC1, in association with A+E Networks and RLJ Entertainment’s development arm, Acorn Media Enterprises. RLJE’s streaming service, Acorn TV, is the US coproduction partner and will premiere the adaptation in the US. A+E Networks holds rest-of-world distribution rights to The Witness for the Prosecution, and will launch it at the Mipcom market in October.
Alongside the Christie announcement, the BBC’s Moore used the EITF to unveil a range of other dramas. These include an adaptation of Malorie Blackman’s acclaimed young-adult novel Noughts and Crosses and a new six-part drama from Jed Mercurio (Line of Duty) entitled Bodyguard.
There is also an Edinburgh-set drama called Trust Me, written by Dan Sefton, and a new series from Abi Morgan called The Split. This one examines the fast-paced circuit of high-powered female divorce lawyers, through the lens of three sisters – Hannah, Nina and the youngest, Rose.
Moore’s announcements for BBC1 were built upon by BBC2 controller Patrick Holland, who also announced plans for new scripted series at the festival. “I want BBC2 to be the place where the best creative talents can make their most original and exciting work, where authorship flourishes,” he commented.
Holland’s headline drama announcement was MotherFatherSon, from author and screenwriter Tom Rob Smith (Child 44). This is an eight-part thriller that “sits at the intersections of police, politics and the press,” according to the BBC. “It is as much a family saga as it is a savage, unflinching study of power and how even the mightiest of empires can be in peril when a family turns on each other.”
Holland also greenlit The Luminaries, a six-part drama from Working Title Television based on the novel by Eleanor Catton. A 19th-century tale of adventure, set on the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island in the boom years of the 1860s gold rush, The Luminaries is a story of love, murder and revenge, as men and women travelled the world to make their fortunes.
Catton, who will adapt her own novel for television, won the 2013 Man Booker Prize for The Luminaries. She said: “Learning to write for television has been a bit like learning a new musical instrument: the melody is more or less the same, but absolutely everything else is different. I’m having enormous fun, learning every day, and I’m just so excited to see the world of the novel created in the flesh.”
Filming on the six-parter will begin in 2017, taking place in and around New Zealand.
While the BBC dominated the drama announcements at the EITF, ITV also used the event to reveal that there will be a second season of crime drama Marcella, written by The Bridge creator Hans Rosenfeldt and starring Anna Friel. Produced by Buccaneer Media, the first season of the show was a top-rated drama on ITV, achieving an average of 6.8 million viewers across its run.
Commenting on the recommission, Rosenfeldt said: “I was delighted at the reaction to the first season and am thrilled to be revisiting Marcella for ITV. In the second season, the audience will get the opportunity to spend more time in her world, exploring some of the characters and getting to know them better.”
Other interesting stories as the industry gears up for autumn include the news that Amazon has acquired Australian drama The Kettering Incident from BBC Worldwide for its Prime Video service. The show was co-created by writer Victoria Madden and producer Vincent Sheehan was shot entirely in Tasmania. The eight-episode series tells the story of a doctor who returns to her hometown years after the disappearance of one of her friends.
In mainland Europe, Telecinco Spain has ordered a local version of hit Turkish series The End. Produced originally by Ay Yapim, the new version will be called El Accidente and will be the third local version of the show in Europe after remakes in Russia and the Netherlands.
The show, which was also piloted in the US, tells the story of a woman investigating her husband’s death in a plane crash, only to discover that he wasn’t on the flight. It is distributed by Eccho Rights, which has also sold the original to 50 countries.
In the US, premium pay TV channel Starz has renewed Survivor’s Remorse for a fourth season. The show has had a particularly strong third season having been paired in the schedule with Starz hit series Power. Across all platforms, it now draws around 2.9 million viewers per episode.
“We are thrilled to renew Survivor’s Remorse for a fourth season,” said Starz MD Carmi Zlotnik. “Critics have consistently called it one of the smartest and funniest comedies on TV, and we are delighted to see audiences embracing the characters and the storyline with that same enthusiasm. Mike O’Malley and his tremendously talented team of writers and actors boldly tackle today’s most pressing issues, from race, class, sex and politics to love and loss, but with such a deft touch that nothing ever feels heavy-handed.”
In other news, ProSiebenSat.1-owned Studio71 is producing a live-action series inspired by the Battlefield video game franchise that will launch on Verizon’s Go90 platform. Rush: Inspired by Battlefield will stream on the mobile service from September 20.
The Battlefield franchise, developed by EA Dice and published by Electronic Arts, has amassed more than 60 million players since launching in 2002. “Gaming is one of the most popular forms of entertainment today and there is a huge appetite for content inspired by video games,” said Studio 71 president Dan Weinstein.
This summer, TV schedules around the world have been dominated by sports events such as Euro 2016, Test Cricket and Formula1 and now the Rio Olympics. But for some reason, our collective love of sport has rarely translated into a memorable scripted TV series.
Shows that have tried and failed to capture the essence of sport include FX boxing drama Lights Out, which lasted for a single season in 2011, and ESPN’s Playmakers – a series that managed to attract the ire of the NFL during its 11-episode lifespan (2003).
Faring better, USA Networks’ Necessary Roughness lasted three seasons, while NBC’s Friday Night Lights managed five. But neither really scored heavily in terms of TV audience interest. The Game, a comedy drama that launched on The CW and then transferred to BET, is one of the few successes in this space, running for eight seasons before its 2015 cancellation.
The situation hasn’t been that different outside the US, with examples of sports-themed dramas few and far between. In the UK, Footballers’ Wives was a modest success between 2002 and 2006, while Australia produced an entertaining cricket series called Bodyline in 1984. But, overall, sport is massively under-represented in drama when you consider its wider appeal.
In contrast to TV, the film industry has delivered a steady stream of pretty good sports-themed movies. There are, for example, several stories in which the central character succeeds against the odds – a line of attack that has given us both comedies (Cool Runnings, Eddie the Eagle) and dramas (The Blindside, The Natural, Tin Cup).
There are also plenty of films set against interesting periods in the history of sport (Chariots of Fire, Ali, Invictus, Eight Men Out, Rush). When you also factor in Jerry Maguire, The Mean Machine, The Bad News Bears, Foxcatcher and Million Dollar Arm, it’s not a bad track record compared to TV.
So what’s the difference? Well, one factor seems to be that the pacing of movies is more like that of live sport. Executed well, the twists and turns of a 90- or 100-minute film are not that different to a good football, basketball or baseball game. Both have an adrenaline-boosting immediacy that appeals to audiences. Sitting in a movie theatre also resembles sitting in a sports arena much more closely than the typical home-viewing experience.
Another factor is the issue of authenticity. One thing that causes problems for any film or TV series focusing on contemporary sport is that we know the protagonists are not real, because we see the real versions doing amazing things all the time. Even with the benefit of fast-cut editing, actors struggle to replicate the magic of true athletes.
Similarly, the fans that sports stories are aimed at generally have deep-rooted loyalties to real teams. As a fan of Arsenal FC, I have no interest in dramas that attempt to portray fictionalised football teams (though I get that there are legal and branding issues that make the use of real talent and clubs a challenging area).
The same reality gap must also be an issue for fans of other football teams or of NFL, NBA and MLB clubs. This is why, when TV does get interested in sport, it is currently more inclined to aim for behind-the-scenes sports documentaries (though a potential problem here is that the subjects of such stories often have editorial control, leading to sanitised shows).
The movies have tended to avoid the authenticity issue by dealing with historical subject matter (so we have a less acute sense of who the protagonist is) or stories about ‘triers’ as opposed to ‘winners.’ But historically, when they have tried to tackle hardcore sports subjects head on, they have had an advantage over TV – access to A-list talent.
If, for example, you are going to portray Muhammad Ali then it’s not so hard to accept Will Smith in that role because he has a star status that suits the subject. Similarly, it wasn’t too difficult to imagine Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo as Olympic gold medal-winning wrestlers in 2014’s hit movie Foxcatcher.
Having said all this, there has been a shift in the way we perceive TV recently. While a TV drama might still struggle to replicate the immediacy and adrenaline of the movie experience, it can now attract A-list talent. Perhaps that’s why we are finally seeing a decent sport-themed series in the shape of HBO’s Ballers.
True, Ballers is not securing massive audiences – but it is one of HBO’s top-rating shows and has just been commissioned for a third season. For anyone not familiar with the show, it stars Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson – who has all the necessary attributes to front a sports-themed series (sporting background, big-screen image). He plays a former NFL superstar who now acts as an adviser to young talent coming to terms with their new lifestyles.
Subject-wise, the show is smart. It doesn’t focus on the games themselves, which would be an editorial mistake. Instead it tries to explore the lifestyle of those involved in the world of NFL. It does, however, reference teams like the Miami Dolphins – rather than alienating the audience with fictitious alternatives.
Other sports-themed shows that are holding their own on TV including Starz basketball drama Survivor’s Remorse, which benefits in the authenticity stakes from the fact that LeBron James, basketball’s biggest star, is an executive producer. Also doing pretty well is Kingdom, which operates against the backdrop of the mixed martial arts world. Aired by AT&T’s Audience Network, it was recently renewed for a third season. Here again you can see reasons why this show might work. One is that it stars Nick Jonas, a music industry heartthrob who has successfully reinvented himself as a charismatic screen presence. The other is that MMA isn’t NFL or Premier League soccer.
In other words, the authenticity bar isn’t quite so high for the audience, which can enjoy the drama without having to worry too much about the sport itself. Besides, it’s easier to film the tightly cropped world of one-on-one combat than a major team-based sports event (where we are used to 60-plus cameras covering every aspect of the live action).
The TV industry’s shift towards limited series should also, in theory, make it easy to pull off a sports-based story. Not many would justify a returning series model. But there are some great period stories that could be told over six or eight episodes – rather than as a feature film. One series that perhaps shows the way is Rivals Forever, a German drama for ARD about the Dassler Brothers, who founded the rival Puma and Adidas sporting brands.
As the film industry has demonstrated, there is great subject matter in sport that could form the basis of a limited series. Andy Samberg and Murray Miller, for example, are making a sports doping mockumentary for HBO. But this is surely a subject that would make also brilliant TV drama. Imagine an The People vs OJ Simpson: American Crime Story-style approach to the life of disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong. Or a Billions-style drama exploring recent allegations of systematic state-sponsored doping by Russia.
Possibly, with the demand for scripted series showing no sign of letting up, now is the time for drama producers and writers to revisit their relationship with sport-based storytelling.