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A stroll through Shondaland

Showrunner extraordinaire Shonda Rhimes walks back through her career, from her start in films to launching Grey’s Anatomy and bringing through new writers at her production label Shondaland.

With four series currently on air, it’s no wonder Shonda Rhimes is regarded as one of the most powerful women in television.

The showrunner is most famous for Grey’s Anatomy, the ABC medical drama now in its 13th season, while political thriller Scandal, starring Kerry Washington, recently returned to the same network for its sixth outing.

Through her production company Shondaland, Rhimes (pictured above) is also an executive producer on other ABC dramas such as How to Get Away With Murder, The Catch and the forthcoming series Still Star-Crossed (working title).

Her other credits include Grey’s spin-off Private Practice, which ran for six seasons to 2013, Gilded Lilys, Off the Map, The Princess Diaries 2 and Britney Spears film Crossroads.

Named Mipcom’s Personality of the Year 2016, Rhimes walks DQ back through her career, from her beginning as a film screenwriter to her current home in television, revealing how she works with actors and what she has learned running her own production company.

Halle Berry in Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, Rhimes’ first produced project

There wasn’t a time when she didn’t consider herself a storyteller…
I was always a storyteller. I don’t think there was a time I thought of myself as anything but. I really was making up stories into a tape recorder and trying to get my mum to type them up before I could write myself. That’s sort of how we spent our time as kids, my sister and I.

She started off with aspirations to work in film…
Back then, I got out of film school and, at that point in time, film really was what was happening. Television wasn’t as big. Sitcoms were big – it was the Seinfeld era – but dramas weren’t, so movies really did feel like where it was at. I thought I would write movies, so I started out doing that. I sold spec scripts and things but my first produced project was Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, which starred Halle Berry, for HBO.

But series such as 24 and Buffy the Vampire Slayer demonstrated the possibilities of television…
I started writing teen girl movies – Crossroads and The Princess Diaries 2. I enjoyed it, it was a living and it was great but there wasn’t a lot of character development going on in those movies. Things were more blockbustery. Then I had a baby – I adopted a baby – and I was at home a lot. What you realise when you’re at home that much is there’s a lot of television to be watched, and I started really watching it. I watched an entire season of 24 in 24 hours and I loved it. I thought, ‘Wow, this is where all the character development is happening, this is really interesting.’ I watched three seasons of Buffy in four days – babies never sleep,so you’re always awake and you’re watching. It was genius to me because that’s where you could really develop characters. I remember calling my agent saying I wanted to do TV. He sent me over to ABC Studios, which was then called Touchstone, and I had a meeting. They said, ‘You want to write TV, that sounds great, let’s try it out’ – and we tried it out.

Medical drama Grey’s Anatomy is now in its 13th season

Her first pilot didn’t get made – but her second was Grey’s Anatomy…
The first year I wrote a pilot about war correspondents. I wrote the script and I was really proud of it, it was a really great experience. It didn’t get made because it was about war correspondents and they were having a lot of fun, drinking and having a lot of sex while covering the war. We were at war so that did not feel very appropriate. The next year I remember asking very clearly what [then Disney president] Bob Iger wanted to see. They said he wanted a medical show – so I wrote a medical show about people who were very competitive and had a lot of sex and really enjoyed doing these things while doing surgery, and that was Grey’s Anatomy.

It was a big change going from movie writer to TV showrunner…
It’s a really interesting job. You go from being a movie writer where you’re at home in your pyjamas by yourself and you type one script a year – literally I would spend 300 days doing nothing, 40 days thinking, 15 days writing and one day celebrating the fact I’d written something – to suddenly you have to churn out a script every eight to nine days, you have 300 people working for you and you have to run a writers room and know what you’re doing. It was zero to 3,000 in an instant. And if you’re a very introverted person, if you’ve never held any other TV job before apart from possibly being an assistant, it’s pretty intense, so I learned a lot. I learned pretty much everything you could possibly learn as fast as possible.

Every season of Grey’s Anatomy is treated as a different show…
I always think of the fact that [lead character] Meredith Grey has been on a journey now for 13 seasons. It’s not the same show every year and even though there’s a procedural element every week, it is a character journey. I feel like I’ve been writing a novel for 13 years and Ellen Pompeo, who plays Meredith, and I have been locked together in this very interesting journey for a long time. I try to look at each season as if it’s a completely different show, not as if we’re going to tell the same story we told last season or we’re going to try to repeat the feeling we got the last season. Instead, we question where Meredith is now, how we make that story feel interesting and how we are going to tell it. On Grey’s, I know how each season is going to end. We start with that last episode in mind and try to get there.

Grey’s spin-off Private Practice

Life and death experiences are at the heart of any hospital drama…
On a bad day [in the medical profession], you actually kill someone. That is the point of the job and, on a good day, you save someone’s life. When you have a creative thought in that job, you are inventing a new medical procedure that’s going to change the way someone lives or dies, or breathes or moves. In our job, when I have a creative thought, it just changes the story. So there’s something really visceral about that job that I love. I also loved, especially in the beginning, the cut-throat nature of it for women. There really were about six women out of 20 for every medical class, which is what they say in the pilot. That was interesting to me, to be in a place where you were so overwhelmed by the men in the programme and thought to be less. That’s no longer true – there are a lot more women surgeons now – but at the time, that felt like a fascinating world to enter.

Private Practice was born when ABC wanted a Grey’s spin-off…
Private Practice came along because the president of the network at the time, Steve McPherson, said he wanted a spin-off – and I am nothing if not obliging. I’m a very straight-A student and I thought, ‘Well, OK, let’s make a spin-off.’ I started thinking about it and I really loved the character of Addison, who had come on to be just a guest star and ended up staying. It was something about that character and who she was and what she could be that felt interesting to me, and I wondered how we could make that into a show. What was great about Private Practice was it was very different to Grey’s. Grey’s was about these surgeons and how they felt about their patients. Private Practice was about the moral and ethical dilemmas of medicine, which is very different.

Rhimes initially didn’t want to take the meeting that led to Scandal…
When Scandal came about, I had two shows going at the time. I was exhausted and [Shondaland exec producer] Betsy Beers kept saying there was this woman I should meet – Washington fixer Judy Smith. I kept saying I’m not writing any more shows but that I would see her for 15 minutes. So Judy came in. She’d done everything from representing Monica Lewinsky to getting [Associate Justice of the Supreme Court] Clarence Thomas through his [confirmation] hearings. We sat down and started to talk. About four hours later, I looked up and thought, ‘I’m hungry.’ That’s the only reason I looked up. And I realised there was a show in there – there were hundreds of episodes in what this woman did for a living. It was fascinating. I was stuck because suddenly I had all these stories in my head and that was a show. It took about a year for me to write it and then I went away for four or five days and wrote the script, came back and turned it in. It’s been a lot of fun.

Scandal emerged from Rhimes’ conversation with Washington fixer Judy Smith

She has a particular role on Shondaland series that aren’t her own…
On How to Get Away With Murder and The Catch, when we’re not in the first season of a show, I haven’t created it and I’m not running it, my job is really just ‘dragon in a cage.’ I’m the dragon that Pete [Nowalk, showrunner] can release on HTGAWM when he feels like he needs some extra power behind him to talk to the studio or the network about something. In the first season of Grey’s, I used to call Mark Gordon, who is our non-writing exec producer, my dragon because he was the most powerful person on our show. So I say to Pete, ‘I’m your dragon.’ It’s the same thing for Allan Heinberg on The Catch, I try to do that for him as well. Creatively I’m there if he needs me but generally these are people who really know what they’re doing.

There’s a contract between Rhimes and her actors…
My contract with all the actors is that they have to say the words as they are written. We’re not going to discuss the text or the words, that’s just the way they are. However, while I’m not going to change the words, I’m also not going to go down to the stage to tell the actors how to say them or interpret them. What I love about that is you then get these performances back that inform whatever’s going to happen next.

The best part about Shondaland is finding new talent…
Stacey McKee, who was an assistant on the Grey’s pilot, is now the head writer. It’s wonderful to have people who you can bring up and give these opportunities to learn how to tell story the way Shondaland tells story, which is really through character and about character. I always say story is best told by determining the worst possible thing that could happen in this moment to the character, then making that happen and getting them out of it. That sort of storytelling you learn really well while working in Shondaland, so we hire our assistants and we know they have the potential to be writers and from there on up. That’s how we promote our writers, that’s how we train them.

Rhimes acts as the ‘dragon in the cage’ for How to Get Away With Murder

Rhimes has trained herself to write anywhere…
I can write anywhere and I trained myself that way, simply because when you have small children and when you travel and when there are so many shows in so many different lots and locations, you really have to figure out a way to write anywhere. So basically my Pavlovian reflex is as long as I have headphones on and music in my ears, I can write wherever I am. I don’t have to be in a specific place, the headphones are what transport me.

But she often acts out her characters as she does so…
There was a time when I didn’t enjoy writing but I really enjoy the process now. I enjoy getting to go sit in the world of the hospital, I enjoy getting to be Meredith Grey for a while. I enjoy getting to be Fitz or Liv or any of those characters. It’s fun. My assistants will tell you I say all the dialogue aloud while I’m writing, very passionately, and I act it all out. I don’t hear it because I’m wearing headphones and there’s music playing, but I do it and Betsy [Beers] makes fun of me. It’s very important to me to make sure it feels alright and acts out well, and I think it’s a little bit of playacting. It’s a lot of fun for me.

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CBS in transgender breakthrough

Katherine Heigl, pictured in State of Affairs
Katherine Heigl, pictured in State of Affairs

CBS’s new legal drama Doubt will star Katherine Heigl. But it is the casting of transgender actress Laverne Cox in the show that is capturing the headlines.

US network CBS has given a series order to Doubt, a legal drama starring Katherine Heigl as a smart and successful defence lawyer who begins to get romantically involved with her client, who may or may not be guilty of a brutal murder.

The show is significant because it also includes transgender actress Laverne Cox (Orange is the New Black) in the cast. Assuming Cox’s role is one that doesn’t propagate the usual stereotypes that surround transgender acting talent, it will be a major breakthrough for the community, which usually finds it difficult to get meaningful roles outside niche cable channels and streaming services.

Doubt’s selection seems to have killed off another show’s chances of progressing to a full series – at least for now. Drew, which is a contemporary take on the Nancy Drew books, was in the running for a series commission from CBS until Doubt was chosen ahead of it. There is a chance it will pop up at another network, though, as CBS Studios is still shopping it around.

ABC's The Catch
The Catch has been given a second chance by ABC

Another interesting CBS story, as predicted by the US press, is that superhero series Supergirl is moving to The CW for its second season. In doing so, production will relocate to Vancouver from LA.

The move makes a lot of sense for a couple of reasons. Firstly, despite a very promising pilot episode, the show wasn’t really hitting the mark in the very exposed world of frontline network TV. Secondly, The CW (a 50/50 joint venture from CBS and Time Warner) already has a strong slate of superhero shows including Arrow, The Flash and Legends of Tomorrow, so it will be right at home.

The CBS announcements are part of a busy time of year for the US networks, which generally announce new series for their 2016/17 season in May. Another title in the news this week, for example, is NBC’s The Blacklist: Redemption, a spin-off from the well-established James Spader series The Blacklist.

NBC is a big fan of brand extensions, having also recently announced the launch of legal series Chicago Justice to go alongside scheduling stalwarts Chicago Fire, Chicago Med and Chicago PD.

Castle has reached it final season
Castle has reached it final season

A bolder move by NBC is the decision to take Eric Kripke and Shawn Ryan’s time travel series Timeless from pilot to series. Bizarrely, that means there are now three time travel shows coming through the US networks system, with ABC’s Time After Time and Fox’s Making History also greenlit as series (and remember, we’ve also just seen Hulu’s 11.22.63 air in the US).

Of course, for every new show there’s usually a cancellation to free up space in the schedule. This week’s unlucky victim on NBC is The Mysteries of Laura, axed after two moderate seasons. Other cancellations include ABC’s Castle, which is coming to an end after eight seasons on air. Create by Andrew W Marlowe, the show focused on a best-selling mystery novelist and an NYPD homicide detective who solved crimes together. When it started it secured an audience of nine to 10 million an episode, but as it comes to a close it is in the five to six million range.

Supergirl is moving from CBS to The CW
Supergirl is moving from CBS to The CW

ABC has also cancelled Nashville, Agent Carter and The Muppets. One other show it might have cancelled on the basis of its season one ratings was Shonda Rhimes’ The Catch, but instead it has decided to give the show a second chance in 2016/17.

This isn’t a massive surprise given Rhimes’ fabulous contribution to the network – but it has to go down as a bit of a risk. ABC’s faith in Rhimes has, however, been further underlined with the decision to order another new series called Still Star-Crossed, described as a sequel to Romeo & Juliet. Interestingly, ABC also had the option of going forward with a Shondaland comedy called Toast, but decided to call it quits on that one after a pilot.

Another project in the news this week is Paradime. This one is interesting because it has been optioned from a novel that hasn’t even got to publication yet, showing just how competitive the market for book rights has become. The novel, by Alan Glynn, is a psychological thriller about a man who returns to New York after a spell in Afghanistan and becomes obsessed with a businessman.

French thriller The Disappearance (Disparue)
French thriller The Disappearance (Disparue)

The show is being developed by ITV and One-Two Punch Productions, with Glenn Gordon Caron (Medium) onboard to write and direct the series. The appeal of the project is partly down to Glynn’s track record. His previous novel, The Dark Fields, was turned into the movie Limitless in 2011 and then a TV series.

Meanwhile, in Europe, the latest French thriller to be causing a stir is The Disappearance (Disparue), which has been compared to UK hits like Broadchurch and The Missing.

The show has been rating well on France 2, with an audience in excess of five million, and has now been picked up for broadcast by BBC4 in the UK. The Disappearance, written by Marie Deshaires and Catherine Touzet, is set in Lyon and tells the story of a 17-year-old girl who goes missing. As the police investigate the disappearance, a number of people close to the girl’s family are discovered to have secrets of their own that they wish to keep concealed.

Newen's Candice Renoir went to NPO2 in the Netherlands
Newen’s Candice Renoir went to NPO2 in the Netherlands

Although Disparue is a French scripted series, it actually owes a fair amount to other parts of Europe. It is, for example, based on a Spanish series called Desaparecida that first aired in 2007/08. And it was directed by Franco-Swedish filmmaker Charlotte Brändström, who has worked on Scandinavian crime series like Wallander, thus adding a bit of Nordic Noir to the show’s DNA.

Still in France, Newen Distribution has sold its detective series Candice Renoir to Dutch public broadcaster NPO2. The show, which is one of the top-rated dramas on France 2, has previously been sold to ZDFneo in Germany, CBC in Canada, RTP2 in Portugal, Kanal 11 in Estonia and Fox Crime Italy, among other broadcasters.

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End of season report card

How To Get Away With Murder has finished its second run but lost a lot of viewers
How To Get Away With Murder has finished its second run but lost a lot of viewers

At ABC, the story of 2015/16 is that established titles continued to thrive but new ones didn’t really catch on. The highest rating shows (in this order, based on 18-49 viewing) were Modern Family, Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, The Goldbergs, The Middle and How To Get Away With Murder. Of these, the newest is HTGAWM, which has just ended its second season. Grey’s Anatomy, by contrast, has just completed its 12th season.

This year’s figures show the importance of producer Shonda Rhimes to the network, since three of these titles come from her stable. But they also suggest that ABC cannot be complacent on this front.

HTGAWM has seen its audience fall from around 14 million when it launched two years ago to five million at the end of the current run. That suggests it will need to start turning things around to survive beyond season three. Similarly, Rhimes’ latest show The Catch has failed to deliver for ABC, ranking 17th among all scripted titles at time of writing, but ABC saw enough promise to renew it for a second season nonetheless.

Quantico did enough to secure a renewal but has seen its audience decline
Quantico did enough to secure a renewal but has seen its audience decline

Of the new shows that came into the ABC schedule last autumn, the one that made the most noise was Quantico. The show started well and secured a renewal but has seen its audience slide across the season. Most worryingly for ABC there was no last-episode uplift – a common trait with dramas as audiences tune in to see how things resolve. This doesn’t augur well for the second season, which will kick off without much momentum. The biggest flops of the year were Wicked City and Of Kings & Prophets (which should make networks shy of biblical stories for a while).

Over at NBC, the top six (18-49s) were Blindspot, Chicago Fire, Chicago Med, Law & Order: SVU, Chicago PD and Superstore. Four of these are from Dick Wolf, NBC’s equivalent of ABC’s Rhimes.

Wolf’s success aside, Blindspot is undoubtedly NBC’s big success story this year. While it didn’t achieve the highest absolute ratings on the channel, it did come out number one among 18-49s. True, ratings for the back half of the series are some way down on the show’s strong debut — but they have stayed pretty consistent.

The Blacklist looks set to put in a strong fourth season
The Blacklist looks set for a strong fourth season

The Blacklist didn’t make the top six but it would have been if we were looking at total viewers. The show, starring James Spader, is now a scheduling stalwart having finished three seasons and can be relied on to have a solid fourth season too. Grimm only ranked as the 14th best show but still secured a sixth-season renewal.

Of the network’s other new shows, Jennifer Lopez vehicle Shades of Blue had a decent first year, with its audience stabilising and starting to rise in the second half of the season. Disappointments included Game of Silence, The Player and Truth Be Told.

The ratings on CBS are significantly higher than those on ABC and NBC, when viewed in totality. The top six in the 2015/16 season were The Big Bang Theory, NCIS (both juggernauts), Life in Pieces, Criminal Minds, Scorpion and NCIS: New Orleans, although it’s worth noting that numbers seven to 10 (Mom, Supergirl, 2 Broke Girls and Mike & Molly) would have fared well on the other networks.

Stability has been key to CBS’s success, with The Big Bang Theory, NCIS and Criminal Minds all extremely long-running series. The latter two have also spawned successful spin-offs in the shape of NCIS: New Orleans, NCIS: LA and Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders.

Criminal Minds remains one of CBS's leading shows
Criminal Minds remains one of CBS’s leading shows

In terms of new shows, the big success of the year has been the new comedy Life in Pieces. It benefited from being scheduled after The Big Bang Theory — but even so its performance has been excellent. So it’s no surprising that, at time of writing, it has just been renewed for a second season by CBS.

Another show that tends to go under the radar internationally but is doing a great job for CBS is Scorpion, which just completed season two. The show, which is about a group of computer experts who tackle high-tech threats to the US, hasn’t received especially good reviews. But its ratings are as good as most dramas on the US networks, which explains why it has also been renewed.

CBS’s new dramas have been more problematic. Limitless started off well but has drifted badly in the second half of its first season. Within the next few days it could find itself axed, a situation that would have been unthinkable back in the autumn. Also struggling is another movie spin-off, Rush Hour, which is right at the bottom end of the CBS ratings this season.

Limitless was unable to maintain its momentum on CBS
Limitless was unable to maintain its momentum

Supergirl also ran out of steam in the second half of its debut run, but has been renewed for a second season as part of a deal that sees the show move to The CW, where it will probably fit in nicely alongside top-rating shows like The Flash and Arrow.

And then there is Fox, whose top six scripted shows in terms of 18-49s are Empire, The X-Files, The Simpsons, Family Guy, Lucifer and Gotham. The success of Empire has been well documented while the revival of The X-Files proved to be a good idea. Lucifer is one one of the top performing new series although, like many of its contemporaries, it saw a significant decline in its later episodes. However, it still managed to secure itself a renewal from Fox.

Also worth mentioning is Rosewood. Although the show doesn’t make the top six in terms of 18-49 ratings, its headline audience of 4.88 million means it is actually the third highest show in terms of total viewers. Echoing Life in Pieces, the show was boosted by airing after Empire but it has held up pretty well. After a mid-season slump it is bouncing back and has secured a renewal.

Empire has remained an established hit for Fox
Empire has remained an established hit for Fox

So now we move into Upfronts season, the time of the year when the networks announce new programmes.

The volume of renewals means there aren’t many berths available for new shows. But the networks should keep one thing in mind: with series like Empire, Rosewood, Lucifer, Blindspot, The Goldbergs, Life in Pieces and Scorpion doing well, maybe they should focus more on original ideas than movie-to-TV extensions, which aren’t doing especially well.

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