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From Hulu’s The Path and the most recent season of FX’s American Horror Story to upcoming series Waco and Raven, TV dramas about cults have caught the zeitgeist. DQ takes a closer look at this trend.

Television dramas about cults have always been good business in the US, a country with a seemingly unique affinity for fringe religious groups – part of the reason for the colonisation of the Americas, from the Puritans at the very beginning to the Mormons and, later, Scientology.

Recent years have seen the trend increase, with more dramas and comedies using cults as a theme. Sociologists have conjectured that the uncertainties in the US over the past few years regarding security, race, the economy and the growth of secularism have all contributed to an interest in cults, which can provide the easily influenced with a sense of belonging and belief in a higher power.

Recently, the truly unhinged American Horror Story: Cult, which debuted on FX in July, even used the election of Donald J Trump as president for a backdrop to the world of cults.

Star Evan Peters (X-Men: Days of Future Past, X-Men: Apocalypse) plays the deranged, would-be galactic overlord Kai Anderson in the show, additionally essaying a quartet of notorious cult leaders, namely Jim Jones (Jonestown), Marshall Applewhite (Heaven’s Gate), Charles Manson (The Manson Family) and David Koresh (Waco).

Evan Peters in FX’s American Horror Story: Cult

Peters also portrays Andy Warhol and a particularly low-rent ‘version’ of Jesus Christ in the show.

Back in season one of American Horror Story (2011), episode two (Home Invasion) dealt with a Manson Family-style killing re-enacted in the present day.

In the world of SVoD, two shows use cults as themes: Hulu’s The Path (started 2016) and Netflix comedy Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (2015).

Now heading to its third season, Jessica Goldberg’s The Path revolves around the fictional cult of Meyerism, which, to some commentators, bears a resemblance to Scientology (denied by Goldberg) in its hierarchy and antipathy to apostates and non-believers, who are called Ignorant Systemites (IS) in the show.

A slow burn, The Path has a solid cast, including Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad), Hugh Dancy (Hannibal) and Michelle Monaghan (True Detective, Patriot’s Day). Season three drops in the US on January 7.

Taylor Kitsch as David Koresh in Waco

On a lighter note, Tina Fey and Robert Carlock’s Kimmy Schmidt deals with the titular character’s life in New York City after 15 years imprisonment in an Indiana bunker by cultist Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne, played by Jon Hamm (Mad Men, Baby Driver).

Played to critical acclaim by Ellie Kemper (The Office, Bridesmaids), the effervescent Schmidt’s efforts to build a new life in the big city has proved a hit with viewers and reviewers alike, with season four ordered for 2018.

As Spike TV rebrands as Paramount TV next year, January 24 will see the launch of their flagship drama Waco.

The star-laden miniseries recounts the true story of the infamous 1993 ATF/FBI siege of the Branch Davidian religious sect led by David Koresh, which resulted in 82 deaths after a 51-day siege ended with a deadly shoot-out and fire.

Taylor Kitsch (Friday Night Lights, True Detective) plays Koresh, with Melissa Benoist (Supergirl) as his wife Rachel, Michael Shannon (Broadwalk Empire, Midnight Special) as FBI Negotiator Gary Noesner, Andrea Riseborough (The Death of Stalin, National Treasure) as Judy Scheider-Koresh (apparently a ‘chattel-wife’ of Koresh) and John Leguizamo (Bloodline, John Wick I & II) as Robert Rodriquez, an FBI agent who infiltrated Koresh’s compound and warned against the raid.

Last year, CBS was also said to be developing a limited miniseries about the kidnapping and alleged brainwashing of heiress Patty Hearst by the cult-like Symbionese Liberation Army in the 70s.

Looking ahead, the 2018/19 television season will see the launch of Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan’s HBO limited series Raven, based on Tim Reiterman’s definitive 1982 book about the 1978 Jonestown mass suicide in Guyana, when charismatic cult leader Jim Jones arranged the murder of visiting investigative journalists and a US congressman, then proceeded to kill himself and more than 900 followers (including 276 children) with cyanide-laced Kool Aid.

This led to the phrase ‘Drinking the Kool Aid’ being used for people or groups who succumb to peer pressure and follow a doomed idea.

There is no word on casting yet, but Gilligan has an extensive repertory company of talented actors who he can no doubt call on for the show.

Jonestown has been the subject of numerous documentaries and some dramas (Jonestown, 2013 and Jonestown: Paradise Lost in 2007), most notably the 1980 CBS miniseries The Guyana Tragedy, when the late Powers Boothe provided an Emmy-winning performance as Jones, which will be a tough act to follow.

The Path stars Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul (left)

Back in January 2016, Jake Gyllenhaal was said to be developing an anthology series about cults with Jim Jones as the subject of season one, but little has been heard of the project since then.

Such was the notoriety of the Jonestown Massacre that the events have been immortalised in song by popular groups, including rockers Manowar (Guyana – Cult of the Damned, 1999), new-wave combo The Vapors (Jimmy Jones, 1981) and probably, most surprisingly, smooth pop/soul merchants Hot Chocolate (Mindless Boogie, 1979).

On the flipside, Charles Manson claimed inspiration for his followers’ 1969 killing spree from the Beatles’ White Album, particularly the songs Piggies, Helter Skelter and Blackbird.

Recent years have also seen other series that have used cults or religious sects as subject matter, including NBC’s short-lived David Duchovny (The X-Files/Californication) series Aquarius (2015/16), in which he played FBI investigator Sam Hodiak in pursuit of Gethin Anthony (Game of Thrones)’s Charles Manson.

Serving multiple life sentences for murder, Manson died on November 19 this year.

Also worthy of mention is Kevin Williamson (Vampire Diaries, Dawson’s Creek)’s The Following (Fox, 2013-15, pictured top), with Kevin Bacon (I Love Dick, Black Mass) as a former FBI agent pitted against James Purefoy (Rome, Hap & Leonard) as his serial killer cult-leading adversary.

Netflix sitcom Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

Incidentally, post-Weinstein scandal, Quentin Tarantino has now sold his Manson Family script to Sony for a possible 2019 cinema release.

HBO’s Big Love (2006-11) concerned itself with a polygamous family belonging to an extreme Mormon sect in Utah, with a cast including the late Bill Paxton (Training Day, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) as the husband of four wives and the recently deceased Harry Dean Stanton (Twin Peaks, The Avengers) as a self-proclaimed prophet and cult leader.

And then, of course, there’s the evil Tuttle Cult in the classic first season of True Detective.

We’ve seen cults make appearances in CSI (the Heaven’s Gate suicides forming the basis for the episode Shooting Stars in 2005) and Mad Men (Roger Sterling’s daughter Margaret joining a cult/commune in the final season).

In the UK, cults and extreme religious sects are less openly in evidence. With the exception of this year’s ISIS miniseries The State (Peter Kosminsky – Wolf Hall), you have to go all the way back to the 90s for dramas specifically about the subject.

In 1993, Jonathan Pryce (Taboo, Game of Thrones) starred as the real-life apocalyptic 19th century prophet John Wroe in four-parter Mr Wroe’s Virgins (BBC2), an early directing gig for Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire).

Two years later, BBC2 aired Signs & Wonders, a four-part drama where Jodhi May (Genius, Last of the Mohicans) is ensnared by a religious cult, prompting her mother, played by Prunella Scales (Fawlty Towers), to hire de-programmer James Earl Jones (Stars Wars) to rescue her. A strong cast was rounded out by David Warner (Ripper Street, Wallander) and Donald Pleasance (Halloween, The Great Escape).

Returning to the present day, with Waco, The Path, Kimmy Schmidt and Raven further down the road, viewers won’t be short of cult TV to watch in 2018.

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The opium of the TV drama business

TV drama, for all its dynamism, is guilty of numerous clichés. One that pops up repeatedly is the portrayal of religious folk as friendless nut jobs, murderous psychopaths or boring killjoys.

Harlan Coben’s The Five and Sally Wainwright’s Happy Valley both placed credulous Christians with a soft spot for mass murderers at the heart of their plotlines, while the arch-villain in Steven Knight’s Peaky Blinders is a Catholic priest (superbly played by Paddy Considine) who would have made the Spanish Inquisition squirm – though to be fair to Knight, he also deploys religion very skillfully in his story through the use of former Quaker Linda.

There are three reasons for TV’s reliance on this trope. The first is the growing belief in secular societies that anyone who sincerely adheres to a monotheistic creationist stance is naïve at best, delusional at worst. This Richard Dawkins-inspired view of the world is then used to create caricature believers.

The second is that the image of a badass in a dog collar still seems to enthrall writers and audiences. Sometimes, this is because it addresses the duplicity of evil masquerading as good. At other times, it is because it can act as the catalyst for a story about divine retribution.

And the third is that ordinary believers – the kind who help in soup kitchens and save starving people – don’t make great TV. When not being used to cause mayhem or spout evangelical inanities, people of faith are anal, oppositional forces to main characters in TV drama who are typically much more morally ambivalent.

Whatever the creative rationale for the TV industry’s portrayal of contemporary religion, it continues to have a big influence on content – as we can see from the following scripted series. And to be fair to the TV sector, it doesn’t always do a bad job.

Preacher-smallPreacher: This new 10-part AMC production is based on a comic book series by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon. Adapted for TV by Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen and Sam Caitlin, it tells the story of a small-town preacher who becomes possessed by an alien entity. He then sets off on a mission to find God, accompanied by an Irish vampire. This is an example of the badass preacher trope that stretches all the way back to Clint Eastwood in Pale Rider.

greenleafsmallGreenleaf: Launching on June 21, Greenleaf is an Oprah Winfrey-backed production for the Oprah Winfrey Network. It follows the unscrupulous world of the Greenleaf family, which runs a Memphis megachurch with predominantly African-American members. The series was created by Craig Wright, who is known for his work on series like Six Feet Under and Lost. Wright has a Masters in Divinity from the United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cites, so it will be interesting to see how he handles this subject matter. Oprah is already fending off critics of the show’s controversial subject matter, which is expected to cover dubious tax arrangements, marital infidelity, sexual abuse cover-ups and the extraordinary wealth of some megachurch ministers. In a recent interview, she said: “I am not going to do anything that disrespects the church. I am sitting where I am today because of the black church.”

hand-of-god-amazon-smallHand of God: An Amazon series starring Ron Perlman, Hand of God is the story of a corrupt judge who suffers a breakdown and believes God is compelling him onto a path of vigilante justice. Created by Ben Watkins, it received a second season order in December 2015 despite modest reviews and feedback. This one is a kind of hybrid delusional/kick-ass Christian setup.

midwinterMidwinter of the Spirit: Based on the books by Phil Rickman, Midwinter of the Spirit is a three-part drama that first aired on ITV Encore. Adapted by Stephen Volk, it’s actually not a bad portrayal of a Christian central character. It tells the story of a divorced female priest who works as an exorcist while struggling to bring up her increasingly rebellious teenage daughter. Anna Maxwell Martin does a nice job as the protagonist.

Seth-Gilliam-the-walking-dead-lgsmallThe Walking Dead: Such a good series for so many reasons, The Walking Dead (created by Robert Kirkman, with Scott M Gimple the showrunner) has explored the notion of faith very well in the shape of Father Gabriel Stokes, who has managed to retain his faith despite the unfortunate emergence of a zombie apocalypse. His human failings are apparent in the early series but are not really used as a way of attacking the notion of faith-based philosophies. He finds a way to develop human strength without relinquishing his faith.

Adam-PricesmallRides Upon the Storm: From Borgen creator Adam Price (pictured), this promises to be an insightful exploration of faith in modern society. Centred on a Protestant priest, “it’s a show that uses personal faith as the motivation of the action,” says Price. “I’ve always been interested in and puzzled by religion. It has had such a terrifying impact on the politics of the world in the last 15 years that I wanted to make a show that tries to understand it. I’ve always found that things that puzzle you can serve as the topic of compelling stories. For me, it is about satisfying curiosity.”

the-path-aaron-paul-image_1531.0.0The Path: A Hulu series starring Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad), The Path follows a man who is part of a cult that follows a fictional religion called Meyerism. It focuses on his crisis of faith and the cult’s increasingly paranoid relationship with its members and the world. The recently renewed show is written by a team headed by Jessica Goldberg, who also created it.

exorcist-tv-seriesThe Exorcist: A TV adaptation of the iconic movie, The Exorcist was picked up as a series by Fox on May 10. The pilot, written by Jeremy Slater, was described as “a serialised psychological thriller following two very different men tackling one family’s case of horrifying demonic possession, and confronting the face of true evil.” If this is anything like the film then the priests won’t come out of this too badly, subject to the usual human frailties.

leftoverssmallThe Leftovers: HBO’s acclaimed series is widely acknowledged to be a serious exploration of religion. Based on the book by Tom Perrotta, it explores what happens when 2% of the world’s population suddenly disappears. Christopher Eccleston excels as a minister who tries to reconcile the event with his own belief system. Not surprisingly, various cults arise in the aftermath of the event including a sinister group called The Guilty Remnant. Perrotta created the TV series alongside Damon Lindelof.

vikings-ragnar-rollosmallVikings: What is Vikings doing in here, you may ask? Well, there is a general unease among Christians about the way they are portrayed in Michael Hirst’s History channel series. The complaint is well summarised by the Catholic Herald, which explores the way in which audiences seem to prefer bad behaviour to moral rectitude. Somewhere in here there is a more general point about crisis of confidence in all institutions.

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Networks and streamers look for laughs

The 2014 movie Dear White People
The 2014 movie Dear White People

This week there has been a lot of movement on the scripted comedy front. Netflix, for example, has given a series order to Dear White People, a 10-part adaptation of Justin Simien’s 2014 movie of the same name.

Due to air on the US streamer in 2017, it tells the story of a group of students of colour at a fictional Ivy League university dominated by white students. Like the film, the series will be produced for Netflix by Lionsgate.

Commenting on the deal, Chris Selak, executive VP of television at Lionsgate Television, said: “We’re proud to expand our partnership with our friends at Netflix on a comedy that tackles racial themes with a combination of intelligence, honesty, irreverence and wit. Our original film with Roadside Attractions catapulted Dear White People into the national conversation about race, and Justin and the rest of the creative team have an opportunity to expand this world and bring its timely and universal themes to a global television audience.”

Another comedy in the news this week is E4’s Foreign Bodies, which follows a motley gang of travellers on a three-month trip around Asia. The show, which is being produced by indie company Eleven and is backed by eOne, was first unveiled by E4 in January. But this week it was announced that US cable channel TNT is coming on board as a partner.

“Foreign Bodies is a terrific opportunity for TNT to work with eOne, Eleven and E4 on a series that will appeal to young adults not only in the US and the UK but also around the globe,” said Sarah Aubrey, exec VP of original programming for TNT. “It’s also a great chance to bring (the show’s creator) Tom Basden’s voice to our stateside viewers.”

The Mindy Project is getting a second season on Hulu, its fifth run overall
The Mindy Project is getting a second season on Hulu, its fifth run overall

Hulu, meanwhile, has announced that there will be a new season of The Mindy Project. The show aired on Fox in the US for three seasons before moving to Hulu for season four. The new run will take the total number of series to five (and the total number of episodes over 100).

A number of critics have been watching season four closely since it launched in September to see how the show has changed under new management. The general conclusion has been ‘not much’ – although the Hulu episodes are two to three minutes longer. This has led some observers to suggest that The Mindy Project has benefited as a result, because it can dwell a little longer on comic scenarios or character development.

Hulu’s announcement about Mindy was part of its Upfronts, which also included some news about its drama slate. It has, for example, ordered a pilot set in prehistoric times called Dawn. Created by Hank Steinberg (The Last Ship, Without a Trace) and Ken Nolan (Transformers 5, Black Hawk Down), the show centres on a tribe of Neanderthals and their battle for survival after meeting a group of Homo Sapiens.

The company also announced there will be a second season of The Path, which centres on a religious cult.

Michelle Monaghan and Aaron Paul in The Path
Michelle Monaghan and Aaron Paul in The Path

Among other major scripted stories this week is the news that FX in the US has ordered Feud – another anthology drama series from Ryan Murphy. The eight-episode show, which also involves Fox 21 Television Studios and Brad Pitt’s prodco Plan B Entertainment, will star Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange. Based on a script by Jaff Coihen and Michael Zam, it explores the rivalry between iconic US actors Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.

This week also saw National Geographic in the US move forward with Killing Reagan, a TV adaptation of Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard’s book of the same name. Playing Reagan, the actor who became US president, will be Tim Matheson (The West Wing). His wife Nancy will be played by Cynthia Nixon (Sex in the City). The script for the adaptation is from Eric Simonson, a documentarian who is also a member of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company.

The Killing franchise has been a remarkable success for Nat Geo in recent years. Killing Lincoln, Killing Kennedy and Killing Jesus, which were also based on books by O’Reilly and Dugard, were the most watched shows in the channel’s history. Kennedy and Jesus were also Emmy-nominated. The new show is different from the other Killing productions in that it deals with an unsuccessful assassination attempt (by John Hinckley in 1981). The other three stories famously ended with the deaths of their protagonists.

The chaotic scene in the immediate aftermath of the attempted assassination of Ronal Reagan
The chaotic scene in the immediate aftermath of the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan

There are also a couple of stories this week about planned book adaptations. Sonar Entertainment is developing a show about the contraceptive pill based on a book by Jonathan Eig. Called The Birth of the Pill, the show centres on the four people who were involved with the development of the birth control during a period of sweeping social change and rapid scientific advances. Eig has previously written three non-fiction books, two based around baseball players and one about the plot to capture gangster Al Capone. The TV adaptation is being written by Audrey Wells, who has penned a number of popular movies including The Game Plan, Shall We Dance and Under the Tuscan Sun.

In the UK, meanwhile, there are reports that production firm Rooks Nest is developing Joseph O’Neill’s acclaimed novel Netherland for TV. The project is Rooks Nest’s first move into TV drama after success with recent movies such as The Witch and Obvious Child. Netherland is set in post-9/11 New York and London and centres on Hans, a Dutch expat working on Wall Street who rediscovers his love of cricket when he joins the Staten Island cricket team. However, he soon falls under the spell of the team’s charismatic Trinidadian coach Chuck Ramkissoon.

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Tour guide

Jeremy Renner will likely appear in Knightfall (photo by Gage Skidmore)
Jeremy Renner will likely appear in Knightfall (photo by Gage Skidmore)

The Television Critics Association’s Winter Press Tour, taking place this year between January 5 and 19, is a star-studded event during which broadcasters, producers, writers and actors talk about new programme launches, imminent cancellations, casting announcements and ideas for turning around underperforming shows. As such, it is one of the key dates in the scripted TV industry’s annual calendar.

A+E Networks-owned History is one of numerous networks to have unveiled new shows during the tour. The pick of the bunch is a 10-part series about the Knights Templar, the elite warriors of the Crusades. Knightfall is being produced by The Combine – the prodco from Jeremy Renner (The Avengers) and Don Handfield – alongside Midnight Radio and A+E Studios. It is expected that Renner will guest star in the show, with additional cast and production details to be announced.

The show was unveiled by Paul Buccieri, president of A&E and History, who said: “We are thrilled to partner with Jeremy Renner, The Combine, Midnight Radio and A+E Studios to tell the intriguing story of the Knights Templar, which has been shrouded in mystery until now. Premium scripted content continues to be a growing part of the History portfolio, with an eye towards quality historical fact-based storytelling, and Knightfall is the perfect fit for our brand.”

Six will follow a team of soldiers
Six will follow a team of elite soldiers tasked with taking out a Taliban leader

The channel also announced an eight-episode order for military action-drama Six, from A+E Studios and The Weinstein Company. Written by William Broyles (Castaway, Apollo 13, Jarhead) and David Broyles, a military special operations veteran, Six follows Navy SEAL Team Six, whose 2014 mission to eliminate a Taliban leader in Afghanistan goes awry when they uncover a US citizen working with the terrorists.

“The backdrop surrounding this elite team of American soldiers – from their lives at home to the bravery they display serving our country – provides an amazing canvas for stories that deserve to be told,” said Buccieri.

The Weinstein Company co-founder Harvey Weinstein added: “The idea originally came to me when I read about Boko Haram kidnapping schoolchildren in Africa. It brought on the idea of creating a series about the world of SEAL Team Six because the story felt as poignant and timely as ever. We brought in Bill (Broyles), whom I have long admired, along with David to write the pilot. They took my idea and developed a brilliant script for the project and added authenticity to the world in a way that only first-hand experience could possibly bring.”

Interestingly, Weinstein said the show will be set up as a kind of anthology drama – echoing a recent trend. “Each year will feature a different theatre of war – the first starting in Africa,” he explained.

Philipp Meyer's The Son is being adapted for TV
Philipp Meyer’s The Son is being adapted for TV

There was also news of a greenlight at AMC, the US cablenet behind The Walking Dead and Into the Badlands. Reports coming out of the tour suggest AMC has ordered a 10-part series from Sonar Entertainment called The Son, based on the acclaimed oil industry-focused book of the same name by Philipp Meyer.

The series, which will involve Meyer as a co-writer, is about America’s birth as a superpower, told through the rise and fall of one Texan oil empire. It will be interesting to see how the show fares after ABC’s lack of success with Blood & Oil, another drama set within the US oil industry.

Elsewhere, there has been a lot of talk about Turner’s plans to refresh its cable networks TBS and TNT by shaking up their scripted content. At TCA, it was revealed that TNT is teaming up with M Night Shyamalan (Wayward Pines) to reboot HBO horror anthology series Tales from the Crypt. In the new TNT version, Shyamalan will curate a two-hour block made up of both long and short stories of suspense and horror.

“This is a new genre for us in our series efforts and a great chance to partner with M Night Shyamalan, whose blockbuster hit The Visit reminded movie audiences and critics this past summer that he truly is a master of horror,” said Sarah Aubrey, exec VP of original programming for TNT.

Shyamalan added: “To be part of such a beloved brand like Tales from the Crypt, something I grew up watching, and to also have the chance to push the boundaries of genre television as a whole, is an inspiring opportunity that I can’t wait to dive into.”

Tales from the Crypt is being revived under the auspices of M Night Shyamalan
Tales from the Crypt is being revived under the auspices of M Night Shyamalan

Meanwhile, with the massive success of the Fast and the Furious movie franchise, it was only a matter of time before one of US networks hit upon the idea of a TV drama based around cars. This week, it was revealed that Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson (who stars in the Fast franchise) is working with Fox on a new show called Boost Unit.

Described as “Fast and the Furious meets Rescue Me,” it will be written by Jonny Umansky and Zach Hyatt.

Over at ABC, there was official confirmation of another Marvel-based show in the shape of Marvel’s Most Wanted, a spin-off from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

On the streaming front, there was news from Hulu, which has ordered two 10-episode seasons of Chance, a psychological thriller in which Hugh Laurie will play a medical expert.

Set in San Francisco, the show follows forensic neuropsychiatrist Eldon Chance (Laurie) as he gets sucked into a violent and dangerous world of mistaken identity, police corruption and mental illness. For Laurie, it’s another opportunity to play a medical expert following the global success of Fox series House (2004-2012).

The Royals
The Royals has been given a third run

Hulu’s upcoming slate of originals also includes 11.22.63, a time-travel drama about the Kennedy assassination from Stephen King and JJ Abrams; The Path, starring Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul; and Shut Eye, which will explore “the underground world of LA storefront psychics and the crime syndicate that runs them.”

In terms of renewals, E! has ordered a third season of original scripted series The Royals, which stars Elizabeth Hurley as a fictional queen. A coproduction between Lionsgate and Universal Cable Productions, the show is now getting up to the volume of episodes that appeals to international and SVoD buyers.

In terms of shows that are coming to an end, SundanceTV has revealed that Rectify will finish after its upcoming fourth season. TNT, meanwhile, will call time on Rizzoli & Isles after its 13-episode seventh season, which will air this summer.

JJ Abrams also used the TCA tour to speculate that the fifth season of CBS crime/sci-fi series Person of Interest (which he executive produces) will be the last, though he would “love it to continue.”

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