The Murders, an eight-part Canadian police procedural, stars Jessica Lucas (Gotham, Cloverfield) as rookie homicide detective Kate Jameson on the hunt for a mysterious killer who uses music for destructive ends.
In this DQTV interview held at Canneseries, Lucas explains why she was drawn to play Jameson, who she describes as a strong, smart detective who is also deeply flawed.
She also reflects on taking the lead in a series that celebrates diversity, her dual role as an executive producer and actor, and why she felt empowered to bring her own ideas to the series.
The Murders is produced by Muse Entertainment for CityTV and distributed by APC Studios. NBCUniversal International Networks acquired the series for its channels across Europe and Africa.
Crime continues to be the dominant force in television drama. DQ speaks to a selection of leading writers and producers about the genre and finds out how their latest series are pushing the boundaries of traditional police stories.
Crime dramas continue to dominate the television landscape, whether viewers watch weekly episodes or binge the latest serialised boxset. Yet the genre has shifted a long way from the traditional crime procedurals best characterised by long-running US series like Law & Order and its many spin-offs.
“We’re constantly trying to reinvent it and find new ways to tell the same story,” says Steve Thompson, the showrunner of Vienna Blood. “Broadcasters are always asking for a new way to make a cop show, and going to Vienna in 1906 is a really new and fresh way to do it.”
Set before the dawn of forensic science, Vienna Blood is based on the novels by Frank Tallis. It sees Max Liebermann (Matthew Beard), a brilliant protégé of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, come into contact with Oskar Rheinhardt (Juergen Maurer), a detective struggling with an unusual and disturbing murder.
Endor Productions and MR Film are collaborating on three 90-minute films based on three of Tallis’s novels. They were commissioned by ORF in Austria and ZDF in Germany, with Red Arrow Studios International distributing.
“It has the same essential ingredients [of a crime drama] in that is has a great plot and great characters, which is really important, but this has a particular sheen that Vienna in 1906 gives it,” Thompson says. “It’s just a place you want to be. While some parts of it are very dark and terrifying, others are exhilarating to experience.”
More often than not, crime dramas are characterised by the person leading the investigation. In Vienna Blood, Liebermann is forging a new path in the use of psychology to solve crimes. In the case of Chilean drama Inspector Rojas: In Cold Blood, the titular investigator must come to terms with his complex past as he fights for justice and seeks inner peace through his police work.
The series, a Villano production for Mega, is based on real events from the 1990s and dramatises the disappearance of 12 young girls in the Alto Hospicio commune in northern Chile, triggering an investigation led by police captain César Rojas. It is distributed by DCD Rights.
Director and producer Juan Ignacio Sabatini says: “Rojas puts up a wall around himself to contain his inner demons but the wall begins to crumble just before he embarks on this journey. His need to find justice and to fight for justice is intrinsically linked with trying to solve his own issues. This inner strength is what makes him stand far above his colleagues.”
Sabatini believes “humans have always had a morbid interest in evil” – an interest that dramatically increases when a story is based on true events. But key to any successful crime series is the way the story is constructed to offer clues along the way. “Being able to give the audience a structured, yet broken, stream of information is crucial, as it means they are able to conjecture different scenarios as the case unfolds,” Sabatini adds.
Three investigators take centre stage in fellow Chilean series La Jauría (The Pack), but this eight-parter isn’t just a detective drama. Coproduced by Fabula and distributor Fremantle, in association with Kapow and public broadcaster TVN, it sees a specialist all-female police unit led by Elisa Murillo (Daniela Vega) tasked with solving the disappearance of a 17-year-old teenager involved in protests against a teacher suspected of sexually assaulting a student. A video of the missing girl being raped by a gang of men then goes viral, and the detectives soon learn there is more than one person behind the crime.
“These three policewomen are flesh and blood women trying to deal with their personal lives, as well as with the crimes they investigate,” showrunner Lucia Puenzo says. “What interested me the most is these women are faced with very sinister and very dark worlds, at the same time as, in their personal lives, they are faced with the universe of child tenderness, parenting, being in a couple, or solitude in the case of Daniela’s character.”
Those familiar with the 2006 German psychological crime thriller Perfume: The Story of a Murderer might remember the story of a killer with a unique sense of smell. That feature film has now been followed by a series, called Parfum (Perfume), commissioned by broadcaster ZDF in collaboration with Netflix, which carries the series outside Germany.
The story, based on the movie and the original novel by Patrick Süskind, follows a criminal profiler who begins to investigate the past lives of five school friends when they become linked to a murder. In a meta twist, it transpires they read Süskind’s novel at boarding school together and it inspires them to experiment with smells. The profiler then reads the book and watches the film to learn about the possible motives behind the crime.
“Perfume is unlike other crime series in that it combines a thrilling modern crime story, deep psychodrama and a seemingly esoteric topic such as the mystical power of smell,” says Oliver Berben, from producer Constantin Film. “It is also unusually original in terms of its visual and narrative style: beautiful but bleak, psychological but also extravagant, fantastical and hyper-realistic at the same time. We tried to create something without using existing patterns or paragons, with its very own look and feel.”
Dutch drama The Twelve offers a fresh perspective within the crime genre, putting viewers alongside the jury members who must determine the fate of a woman accused of a double murder.
Produced by Eyeworks for Eén and distributed by Federation Entertainment, the Flemish-language series introduces the members of the jury, alongside the accused and the victims’ families, exploring the case through the evidence presented during the trial and how the jurors’ personal lives affect, and become affected by, the proceedings.
“What really struck us – and became the main idea of the series – was when a woman told us she had a really dominant, jealous husband and then when she was on a jury, she started to see traits of her husband in the defendant. She was thinking that if she stayed with her husband, she might find herself in the same position [the victim of a crime perpetrated by her husband],” says Bert Van Dael, who wrote the series with Sanne Nuyens. “It was interesting for us to see how your private life may affect your judgement.”
Series producer Peter Bouckaert says that while most crime series follow trained professionals doing their job, this 10-parter sees people picked at random to decide another person’s fate. “When you’re watching a really good crime story through the eyes of the professionals, you are doing a bit of police work yourself,” he explains. “In this case, it’s truly a one-on-one experience with our main characters. People watching the series are put into the same position as them, and we think that’s unique.”
Spanish drama Hierro mixes crime and politics when a body is discovered in the sea, off the coast of a secluded island in the Canaries. The story focuses on a judge, who has recently arrived on the island, and a local businessman suspected of the crime. It is produced by Protocabo and Atlantique Productions for Movistar+ and Arte France. Banijay Rights is the distributor.
“We conceived the series as ‘southern noir,’ set in a place of luminous landscapes and passionate characters, full of humour and intensity, reflecting the reality of Spanish life,” explains executive producer Alfonso Blanco. “Crime drama is in constant evolution. It has changed over the past few years, in the same way as other genres, but what may be different now is its accessibility. Nowadays, an audience can watch the same series at practically the same time all over the world.”
For this reason, crime stories must also have universal topics and themes, whatever their setting or their approach to the genre. “The mechanics of a crime thriller can be followed in almost any country,” Blanco continues. “Add to this the fact that the duration of a miniseries allows for greater evolution of characters, helping to create a frame in which to develop different stories and characters. The genre also permits a sociological approach to different realities; therefore, the variety of stories is infinite.”
Supposedly old-fashioned crime procedurals haven’t completely disappeared, however. Broadcasters around the world, particularly in Europe, are still keen on closed-ended, episodic series that viewers can enjoy without the commitment demanded by a serialised drama.
“Generally these days, the detective is dead, reincarnated or wearing an interesting hat. Everything has to be really quirky – and lots of those shows I love. But there isn’t a show like this,” Paul Marquess says of his Acorn TV series London Kills. “It does what it says on the tin.”
The series, distributed by ZDF Enterprises, follows a team of top detectives solving murders in London and represents a throwback to the episodic storytelling model that has been overshadowed by the current trend for bingeable series, with one story told over multiple episodes.
“It’s not wildly quirky. All the detectives are actually alive. There is, I hope, a very compelling serial story kicking along underneath it but what that really does is inform the relationship between the characters in an interesting way. That’s what it’s there for. Ultimately, I hope it reflects my fascination with the real versions of what these people do – and we all love a good murder mystery. It doesn’t have to be dressed up in Agatha Christie clothes. There isn’t, to my mind, an equivalent UK ‘murder of the week’ being shot at the moment.”
Meanwhile, Canadian series The Murders presents a unique concept for a procedural crime drama by using music and sound related to the theme of each episode. For example, episode one uses Long Black Veil – a ‘murder ballad’ originally written in 1959 and covered by artists such as Johnny Cash and Mick Jagger – as a key hook for the story.
It’s part of a five-season plan to explore a different sense each year that showrunner Damon Vignale has designed for the series, which stars Jessica Lucas (Gotham) as a rookie homicide detective who searches for redemption after her negligence led to the death of a fellow officer. It is produced by Muse Entertainment for CityTV and distributed by About Premium Content.
“Music colours the world of the show and hopefully makes it a little different and stand out,” Vignale says. “But in terms of crime drama, people want a compelling story. They’re going to come back week after week for your characters but they have to be playing in this world.”
Vignale starts with the plot and then looks to see how its themes can be related to the characters. “Those things are at the forefront for me. Then, of course, you want really great twists and misdirects, you want to surprise people,” he continues. “I try to push a show as much as I can.”
There is no doubt crime drama remains the number one attraction for television viewers, but the fragmentation of the industry and the number of networks and streaming platforms commissioning original drama mean there are increasing opportunities to tell stories with a diverse range of topics, settings, characters and styles – none more so than in the crime genre.
“But what’s important is that the result is authentic and captures the audience it is aimed at,” Perfume’s Berben concludes. “Taking risks is not just an opportunity but, to a certain degree, a necessity.”
Canadian police procedural The Murders puts music front and centre as a detective tries to make amends for the mistake that led to a colleague’s death. DQ speaks to showrunner Damon Vignale.
Since it was first released by Lefty Frizzell in 1959, country ballad Long Black Veil has been covered by performers including Johnny Cash, Nick Cave, Bruce Springsteen and Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger.
Sixty years later, it is now set for another outing in Canadian crime drama The Murders. But the song doesn’t simply provide the soundtrack to the opening episode – it plays a pivotal role in the plot.
In fact, Long Black Veil was the origin point for the whole series, owing to the fact it is described as a ‘murder ballad,’ a song that describes a killing. In this case, the lyrics tell a story from the point of view of an executed man falsely accused of murder. He refuses to give an alibi due to the fact that, on the night of the killing, he was sleeping with his best friend’s wife and would rather die than admit the truth.
“Something about it just led to me thinking, ‘Wouldn’t it be interesting if there was a serial killer who was marrying music to his crimes?’” says showrunner, creator and executive producer Damon Vignale. “So the first episode essentially opens with that exact storyline. We have a character who’s accused of murder, he’s brought into the police station and his alibi proves false. As they investigate, they realise he was with his best friend’s wife. So he’s cleared but he ends up dead and they find a song on his cellphone that was texted to him, and it’s Long Black Veil.”
That became the launchpad for music to play a key role in each episode, with a different song used each time to tie into the theme of that particular story. And it certainly makes for a different type of crime drama.
Solving the crimes is rookie homicide detective Kate Jameson, played by Jessica Lucas. Set in Vancouver, the episodic case-of-the-week drama follows Jameson as she searches for redemption in her investigative work after her negligence causes a tragedy. In the pilot episode, Jameson partners with Detective Mike Huntley (Lochlyn Munro) as they navigate the case of a mysterious serial killer who uses music for destructive ends. The first episode also introduces a serialised story that will run across the eight-part season.
The series is produced by Muse Entertainment for Canada’s Citytv and distributed by About Premium Content. NBCUniversal International Networks has already pre-bought the series for its channels across Europe and Africa.
The Murders opens with Kate, the daughter of a homicide detective and an ex-lawyer who is now running for mayor. Justice runs in her blood. So when she leaves a gun in her car and it ends up being used in the murder of her partner, events spiral out of control.
“I just thought it would be really interesting to have a character who is all about being the best cop she can be and right out of the gate there’s this big stumbling block that could ruin her career,” Vignale says. “How does she navigate that and what guilt does she carry with that throughout the series? She does carry this feeling of responsibility, this failure that she’s responsible for her partner’s death, and is constantly trying to find retribution in her cases.”
The show also explores Kate’s familial background. Vignale says she was written as a biracial character – her mother is caucasian, her father is black – because that’s the showrunner’s own background. “There’s often a dialogue about black and white but I rarely hear stuff talked about in the grey area, where you’re not white, you’re not black, you’re just living your life. I thought it would be interesting to explore that in this character,” he continues. “We don’t go heavily into it but we certainly don’t shy away from it.”
In casting Kate, the production team sought out Lucas, who Vignale says was ready to step into a lead role after stints on Gotham and Gracepoint. “There’s a list of actors who are at that place in their career where they’re ready to take the lead of a show and we felt pretty strongly that Jessica was at that place where she can carry a show. You don’t know until you get in there and start working and looking at the edits, and she is strong. I’m really pleased. She really is the face of the show and carries it. I’m really excited for people to see it.”
The Murders marks the first time Vignale has taken up the showrunner role, having watched and learned from others including Simon Barry (Ghost Wars, Continuum), Dennis Heaton (Motive) and Bruce Smith (19-2). While juggling duties in the writers room, on set and in the edit, he sees the biggest part of the job as setting the tone in terms of both the story and in production.
In the writers room, “we really start on plot,” Vignale says. “Once we have that, we start to look at what themes we can use that relate to our characters. So that our characters and this plot are now working together. Those things are at the forefront for me. Then of course, you want really great twists and misdirects, you want to surprise people, and we do try to put our investigators in a bit of danger. Then the crime drama gets across into that thriller aspect, which I think is exciting and I try to push into a show as much as I can.
“A lot of the time it’s just about inspiring the best in the work and in people, which can be a challenging endeavour,” he continues. “Simon told me there’s going to be a lot of noise, and what you have to decide is what you’re going to listen to and what you’re not. What he suggested is you focus on your writers, directors, actors, editors and the music. You focus on those things because when you watch the show, they all have to do with what you see and hear. So put all your attention there and just hire great people and let them to do what they do.”
That being said, as a showrunner, “you really are thrown into the middle of a circus,” Vignale admits. “There are jugglers and people on the high wire. It really does feel like that, and you’re trying to make it all work and flow so the audience has a good time.
“There’s always a challenge around budget. A cop show costs money and, to make it real, you need cars, police, a corner van. You need all the stuff that goes with that. It’s a balance so when you watch the show it feels big but, at the same time, you’re driving the story through it so it’s achievable in production.”
Ahead of The Murders’ launch on Citytv today, Vignale is already developing scripts for a potential second season. Should he get the green light, he already has a plan in place for a five-season run, with each season exploring themes around one of the five senses. If season one is about sound, season two would look at touch and so on.
In a television landscape where crime dramas still dominate and hunger for episodic procedurals has been overshadowed by trends for binge-watching and serialised storylines, The Murders and its musically themed plots will likely have viewers singing for more.