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.
The lazy summer month of August doesn’t seem like an obvious time for new scripted commissions ABC, Starz and National Geographicto be announced. But it’s actually pretty active in the US, thanks to the Television Critics’ Association (TCA) Summer Press Tour.
For a couple of weeks, network execs give the media a frank and detailed insight into some of their plans for the coming year.
ABC, for example, has given a straight-to-series order to Ten Days in the Valley, a 10-part drama series that plays out over a 10-day period. Produced by Skydance and created by Tassie Cameron (Rookie Blue), the series focuses on a television producer and single mother whose young daughter goes missing in the middle of the night. The show was originally set up with Demi Moore in mind but the lead will now be The Closer’s Kyra Sedgwick.
The show is reportedly part of ABC Entertainment president Channing Dungey’s ambition to re-introduce more procedural dramas into the network’s schedule. If that is the case, it will be welcomed by European buyers, who have been complaining about the lack of decent procedurals coming out of the US.
Premium pay TV channel Starz has also used the TCA tour to unveil plans for a number of shows, one of which we referenced in last week’s Writers Room column (Pussy Valley). Another greenlight announcement is a second season of The Girlfriend Experience, based on the film by Steven Soderbergh. The series will tell a new story with new characters, putting it firmly at the heart of the current trend for anthology drama.
Carmi Zlotnik, MD of Starz, said: “The first season of The Girlfriend Experience [GFE] allowed us to accommodate all viewing appetites with the traditional weekly episodic premiere schedule as well as a bingeing option for the entire 13 episodes. We’re excited to offer Starz subscribers a second season that will explore new GFEs, clients and relationships as we take viewers back into this world that questions the price of intimacy and its emotional consequences.”
Another player making a big scripted statement at the TCA tour was National Geographic Channel (NGC). Although best known for its factual content, NGC is boosting is scripted profile with a show based on a manuscript from the late Michael Crichton.
Crichton died in 2008 but he was such a remarkable creator of sci-fi adventure series (Jurassic Park being his seminal work) that the TV and publishing industry has continued to mine his creative archive for gems. In 2009, for example, a novel called Pirate Latitudes was released, followed by Micro in 2011.
Dragon’s Teeth will be released as a novel next year and is being developed for TV by Amblin Television, Sony Pictures Television and CrichtonSun. Set in the American West in 1878, it follows the intense rivalry between real-life palaeontologists Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh.
Carolyn Bernstein, exec VP and head of global scripted development and production at NGC, said the story was an “epic tale of science, adventure and exploration” that would be “the perfect project for the network.”
NGC has also ordered a miniseries called The Long Road Home, based on the novel by Martha Raddatz. Set up as an eight-hour production, the show tells the story of a US Army unit fighting for survival after being ambushed during the Iraq War.
Other US-originated dramas to hit the headlines this week include ICE, a drama for AT&T Audience Network that will “focus on the treacherous and colourful world of diamond traders in downtown Los Angeles.” A 10×60′ series from Entertainment One (eOne) and Antoine Fuqua’s Fuqua Films, ICE will be written by Robert Munic (Fighting, The Cleaner). International rights to the show will be managed by eOne.
Christopher Long, SVP of original content and production at AT&T, says: “ICE has truly been a labour of love for us as we have been cultivating and evolving this project with Antoine Fuqua for more than two years. With Antoine, our amazing team of writers, as well as eOne, we know that ICE will capture the attention of viewers who are looking for exciting new shows with compelling storylines to add to their line-up.”
HBO is also in the news this week with reports of two miniseries. The first is from Friends co-creator Marta Kauffman and has Nathalie Portman lined up to star. Called We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, it is based on Karen Joy Fowler’s novel about a university student who loses her twin sister during childhood.
The premium cable channel is also developing miniseries Black Flags with Bradley Cooper. This show is based on a book by Joby Warrick and explores the rise of ISIS. The Cooper connection is presumably an attempt to inject the project with an air of American Sniper.
Oprah Winfrey’s OWN network, meanwhile, has given a season two commission to Queen Sugar, before the show’s first season has even begun.
Created by Ava DuVernay, the show is about a group of estranged siblings who are forced to work together to save their family’s struggling sugarcane farm in the Deep South.
“When we saw the first cut from Ava we knew right away that we wanted a second season,” said OWN president Erik Logan. “We think viewers are going to connect with the deeply layered characters and powerful story. We are proud to be a network that supports a filmmaker’s creative vision.” Season one launches in September with 13 episodes and the second run will have 16.
Finally, from the US, USA Network has awarded a seventh season to its legal drama series Suits. The news comes just three episodes into season six and is an indication of the importance of the show to the channel.
Suits continues to be USA’s top-rated show and is currently generating an audience of around 1.7 million, rising to three million when time-shifted viewing is factored in. Suits has arguably become more important in recent weeks given that season two of Mr Robot has slipped in the ratings. The critically acclaimed hacker show started season two with around one million viewers, down from the season one average of 1.39 million. Subsequently it has slipped to around the 700,000 mark, which is surprising given its recent high profile on the awards circuit.
Series that deal with real-life crimes are nothing new, but until recently they have mostly inhabited the factual/reality TV space. Currently, however, there is a growing trend towards true crimes as the subject of scripted series.
Netflix’s Making A Murderer was one of the triggers for this genre. Although it was a documentary series, its filmic style – combined with the way it unravelled over 10 episodes – had an immediate impact on the way producers looked at the potential of true crime. Then there was The People vs OJ Simpson: American Crime Story, an excellent FX drama that has picked up a number of Emmy nominations this year.
Choosing the right crime is clearly half the battle in making a series like this appeal to audiences. But then you also need a writer who knows how to skilfully balance fact with fiction, someone who is willing to do the necessary research – for the sake of accuracy – but also knows how to make the characters and storylines engaging and immersive over several episodes.
Last week, for example, we reported that Rene Balcer is going to write a Law & Order-branded true crime scripted series based around Lyle and Erik Menendez, the brothers convicted of murdering their parents in 1996. Balcer is an ideal example of the kind of writer who can handle this type of project, because he combines a forensic attention to detail with a storyteller’s verve.
This week, US network Investigation Discovery announced that it is also getting into the true crime game. Although it hasn’t yet named the subject, it has signed a development deal with author James Patterson – who will create a six-part series. Explaining why the channel has elected to work with Patterson, Henry Schleiff, group president for ID, American Heroes Channel and Destination America, said: “As the best-selling author around the world since 2001, there is no bigger name than James Patterson. He is the ultimate storyteller, and for a television network known for its own powerful storytelling, to have him as our ‘partner in crime’ is truly a match made in heaven for his readers and ID’s viewers.”
It’s not clear yet whether Patterson will actually pen the scripts, or simply provide the storyline to the ID show. However, there’s no question his name will add gravitas to the project, in the way the Law & Order franchise will do for the Menendez project.
The blurring of the line between fact and fiction – and the need for writers to be able to operate in this space – is also evident in the case of Harley & The Davidsons, another high-profile production doing the rounds. Discovery Channel has just released a trailer of the limited series, which tells the story of the founders of Harley Davidson Motorcycles at the start of the 20th Century. At time of writing the trailer had been viewed seven million times, more than any other Discovery programme trailer ever.
The show is being made by Raw Television, a company best know for its factual productions, and written by Evan Wright and Seth Fisher. Wright’s credits include Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle and FX’s The Bridge, while Fisher worked on National Geographic’s founding-fathers drama Saints and Strangers. Harley Davidson opened up its archives and family members provided historical details to help the production form characters and key events. However, producers had complete editorial independence, underlining the need for a compelling story to carry the show.
In other news, UK broadcaster ITV has commissioned a four-part drama series to be written by Chris Lang and Matt Arlidge. Called Innocent, the show tells the story of a man who spends seven years in prison after being convicted of murdering his wife. When he is acquitted over a technicality, he sets about proving his innocence to his estranged family. Lang’s writing credits go all the way back to sketch comedy series Smith & Jones in the 1980s, though more recent credits include Unforgotten, Undeniable and The Tunnel. Arlidge counts Mistresses and Monarch of the Glen among his credits. The show was commissioned by ITV controller of drama Victoria Fea, who said: “Innocent is a contemporary relationship drama with a thriller pulse. Chris and Matt’s scripts have created an intense web of characters with interwoven lives – with a seemingly ordinary husband and father at its heart.”
Other projects revealed to be in the works this week include a superhero drama for Starz that has been created by Curtis ‘50 Cent’ Jackson. Jackson was also involved in the creation of Starz hit series Power, though the actual writing job on that is handled by Courtney Kemp Agboh. The new project, called Tomorrow Today, is about a military veteran who, after being falsely imprisoned, becomes the experiment of a mad doctor trying to create the perfect man.
Starz is also working with Lionsgate and Televisa USA on an adaptation of Mexican telenovela Teresa. Writer/producer Carlos Portugal will showrun the series, which follows an undocumented young Latina as she makes her way into the world of LA wealth. “Teresa will showcase a modern take on what it means to be Latina in America,” said Starz MD Carmi Zlotnik.
Portugal’s previous credits include Meet the Browns and East Los High. The latter is an Emmy-nominated Hulu series about a group of Latino teens in their final years at a fictional high school in East LA. Portugal and the producers of the show worked with various public health organisations to incorporate storylines that encouraged young Latinos to make healthy life choices.
Starz has also unveiled plans for a series called Pussy Valley, which looks at the lives of pole dancers working in a strip club in Mississippi. That might look like controversial territory, but Starz has put the project in the hands of playwright Katori Hall – whose numerous acclaimed theatre shows include The Mountaintop, about Martin Luther King Jr’s last night before his assassination.
Commenting, Zlotnik said Hall “has successfully created exciting and complex roles for black women in American theatre and we’re confident she’ll continue to do so with Pussy Valley.”
This week has also seen announcements about a brace of new shows centred on personal grooming. In the US, Eliot Laurence (Welcome to Me) is writing a series called Claws that is said to be in the vein of Desperate Housewives. It follows the lives of five Florida manicurists. In the UK, the BBC has ordered a drama from Poldark writer Debbie Horsfield called Age Before Beauty.
The new drama will follow the lives and loves of workers in a salon. It is the second time Horsfield has explored this area (after Cutting It in 2002). The show is being made by Mainstreet Pictures, the independent production company set up by Laura Mackie and Sally Haynes. Commenting on the series, Mackie said: “Debbie is writing at the top of her game and in Age Before Beauty she’s created a colourful and memorable set of characters and a story that examines our obsession with the ageing process in an emotional, entertaining and surprising way.”
As the dust settles on another action-packed San Diego Comic-Con, there is plenty to look forward to if the new footage previewed at the event is anything to go by.
From teasers for forthcoming new series to big reveals about new seasons of fan favourites, expectations were certainly heightened by what was showcased during four days of panels, screenings and guest appearances at the San Diego Convention Centre.
Here’s a rundown of the best videos unveiled at Comic-Con:
Starz unveiled the first trailer for American Gods, based on the novel by Neil Gaiman and due to air in 2017
BBC America also dropped the first footage of comic book adaptation Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency
Fox previewed a new trailer for its take on classic horror movie The Exorcist
Another new series Syfy’s Incorporated, which is set in a world controlled by corporations. It is produced by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon
The trailer for The Walking Dead season seven introduces King Ezekiel and his tiger (pictured at the top of this page)
But not to be outdone, spin-off Fear The Walking Dead gave fans a teaser of a new storyline that feature a cult that sacrifices its own members in the second half of season two
If that wasn’t enough blood, Starz also previewed season two of Ash vs Evil Dead as star Bruce Campbell announced Lee Majors was joining the cast
Fans saw the first glimpse of season four of Sherlock
Here’s the first footage from Prison Break, which is returning to Fox in 2016/17
ABC used Comic-Con to reveal that Aladdin and Jafar would be making their debuts in the first scene of sixth season of Once Upon a Time
But excitement for the sixth season trailer of MTV’s Teen Wolf was tempered with the announcement that the new run would also be its last
Of course, Comic-Con royalty status is reserved for the big comic book publishers, and this year was no exception in terms of their television crossovers.
Among its film and television panels, DC Comics unveiled the third-season trailer for The CW’s The Flash, which introduces the comic’s Flashpoint storyline after Barry Allen goes back in time to prevent his mother’s murder
Fans inside the convention centre also saw footage from the fifth season of Arrow
The most recent entry into the DC Comics television landscape, Legends of Tomorrow, debuted its season-two trailer
Meanwhile, Batman prequel Gotham unveiled clues about its upcoming third season
It was Marvel, however, that stole the show and provided some of the biggest talking points from this year’s event.
The studio unveiled the first trailer for Legion, the new FX drama from Noah Hawley (Fargo) that is set in the X-Men universe
Marvel also debuted footage from its upcoming Netflix shows. First up is Luke Cage, which debuts online on September 30
Iron Fist follows, completing the line-up of superheroes to appear on the SVoD service in the wake of Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage
The studio also confirmed there will be a third season of Daredevil with this teaser
But also in 2017, the quartet will come together in miniseries The Defenders, as previewed in this teaser that plays against the soundtrack of Nirvana’s Come As You Are
Not to be forgotten, however, is a little show called Star Trek, which returns to television next year on CBS and CBS All Access in the US and Netflix around the world. And in the week the latest feature film in the franchise, Star Trek Beyond, hit cinemas, Trekkies got to see this test footage from Star Trek: Discovery, which will follow the crew of the USS Discovery.
As of this week, US premium cable network Starz has started airing original series on Sunday nights instead of Saturdays. The move appears to have been a good one, with the debut episode of Power’s third season setting a new viewing record.
The show, which tells the story of a charismatic club owner who leads a double life as the head of a powerful drug-dealing business, attracted 2.26 million viewers, significantly up on the 1.54 million who viewed the finale of the second run.
The previous record for a premiere episode on Starz was 1.46 million, for the second season opener of period adventure Outlander.
As soon as the rating news was in, Starz announced it had commissioned two more seasons of Power, which stars Omari Hardwick and was created by Courtney Kemp Agboh – with Curtis ’50 Cent’ Jackson also on board as an executive producer.
Commenting on the news, Starz CEO Chris Albrecht said: “In today’s content landscape, it is challenging for a series to stand out, but Courtney is a singular voice working in television today. In Curtis, we not only have an immense talent but an executive producer who brings a unique perspective, an authentic voice and passionate fan base that has helped propel the success of the series. The fans have let it be known loud and clear that they cannot get enough of [main characters] Ghost, Tommy, Tasha, Angela and Kanan.”
There was mixed news for Starz pirate drama Black Sails, however. The show, which is a prequel to Treasure Island, has been given the green light for a fourth season of 10 episodes – but that season will also be its last.
Black Sails co-creator and executive producer Jonathan E Steinberg said: “It’s a rare privilege in television to be given the kind of creative freedom we’ve enjoyed on this show over the last four years. While it was a difficult decision to make this season our last, we couldn’t imagine anything beyond it that would make for a better ending to the story nor a more natural handoff to Treasure Island.”
Overall, Black Sails will be remembered as a success for Starz, building on the work done by The Pillars of the Earth, Spartacus and Camelot. The show is the first Starz original series to have got as far as four seasons, averaging 3.6 million viewers per episode along the way. It has won two Emmys, achieved an 8.2 rating on IMDb and has been licensed to 130 countries, including a deal with A+E Networks in the UK.
So the question now is whether the network will go in search of another period adventure to fill the gap – or whether the recent Lionsgate deal will point it in a new direction.
San Diego Comic-Con got underway on Thursday and runs through until Sunday. A hugely important date in the entertainment industry calendar, it is an opportunity for film and TV producers to build buzz around their projects by connecting directly with hardcore fans.
Historically regarded as a gathering for geeks, it is now an unmissable event for anyone interested or working in the sci-fi, fantasy, superhero, horror and adventure genres.
At time of writing, the headlines definitely belonged to Star Trek Beyond, the latest movie in the iconic sci-fi franchise. Not only did it put on a spectacular show in San Diego, but Paramount Studios has approved plans for another film.
In parallel, there’s also a huge amount of interest in the new Star Trek TV series, which launches on CBS’s subscription streaming service CBS All Access in the US in January. This week CBS revealed that it has now licensed the show (and the extensive Star Trek back catalogue) to SVoD giant Netflix for the international market.
Netflix will be able to stream the show just one day after it has debuted on CBS All Access.
Coming off the back of this summer’s movie launch, there’s no question the TV series will be one of the highlights of 2017. “Star Trek is already a worldwide phenomenon and this international partnership will provide fans around the world, who have been craving a new series for more than a decade, the opportunity to see every episode virtually at the same time as viewers in the US,” said Armando Nunez, president and CEO of CBS Global Distribution Group. “The new Star Trek will definitely be hailing on all frequencies throughout the planet.”
Netflix is also at Comic-Con to promote its partnership with Marvel and gave fans a brief introduction to Luke Cage, the central character of a new superhero series coming on September 30. Luke Cage joins existing Netflix Marvel series Daredevil and Jessica Jones.
Earlier this week, in our Greenlight column, we looked at the success of Australian prison drama Wentworth on the international market. Now there is more good news for the show following reports that Australia’s Foxtel has ordered a fifth season for its SoHo channel. FremantleMedia Australia will start production on 12 episodes in Melbourne next month.
Foxtel head of drama Penny Win said: “Wentworth has gone from strength to strength over the past four seasons. It is a ratings blockbuster and fan favourite for Foxtel audiences. It was a very easy decision to commission a further season of this brilliantly constructed and crafted programme. There is a lot in store both for the women behind bars and those on the outside.”
There was also good news for Scandinavian drama Jordskott this week, with DQ sister title C21 reporting that it is to be adapted into English by Amazon for its Prime Video service. That news came just after Sony Pictures Television took a stake in Palladium Fiction, the Swedish production company behind the original show.
A 10-part thriller with supernatural overtones, Jordskott debuted on SVT in February 2015 and was then picked up for distribution by ITV Studios Global Entertainment (ITVSGE). ITVSGE sold the show around the world, including to ITV Encore in the UK, and Palladium is now in development on a second season with SVT.
Another show creating a buzz on the international market this week is ITV’s new six-part murder mystery Loch Ness, also distributed by ITVSGE. Despite the fact it has only just started filming in Scotland, it has been picked up by NBCUniversal International Networks for broadcast on its 13th Street pay TV channel in France, Spain, Germany and Poland in 2017.
One possible explanation for the early pick-up is that Loch Ness stars Scottish actor Laura Fraser – a familiar face to many viewers thanks to her excellent turn as the neurotic Lydia in Breaking Bad. The show is written by Stephen Brady (Fortitude) and executive produced by ITV Studios creative director and executive producer Tim Haines (Beowulf).
Loch Ness was commissioned by ITV controller of drama Victoria Fea and head of drama series Jane Hudson, with support from Creative Scotland’s Production Growth Fund. Fea commented: “Loch Ness is a gripping, tightly plotted drama that focuses on how a serial killer terrifies a local community. Stephen Brady’s compelling scripts utilise the wilderness of Loch Ness perfectly.”
Haines added: “Serial killers are monsters that lie beneath the surface of normal happy communities. Where better to hunt for one than in a place that has thrived off its own monster myth for centuries – Loch Ness.”