Tag Archives: The Walking Dead

Comic Con’s top trailers

From the new season of Stranger Things to CBS’s long-awaited Star Trek: Discovery, DQ presents 10 of the hottest drama trailers to premiere at this year’s Comic Con event, which concluded in San Diego yesterday

Despite all the noise surrounding big-screen blockbusters such as Justice League, Thor: Ragnarok and Ready Player One, these days San Diego Comic Con is as much about television as it is about the movies.

This year’s event saw panels and special events surrounding shows such as The Walking Dead, Doctor Who, Game of Thrones and Westworld, delighting fans with behind-the-scenes gossip and clips of forthcoming adventures.

Lucky visitors were also able to catch a sneak peek at new series such as Stephen King adaptation Mr Mercedes, Syfy’s Ghost Wars and Star Trek: Discovery (pictured above), the CBS reboot of the hallowed sci-fi franchise.

Here DQ picks out 10 of the hottest new TV trailers to come out of the four-day event.

Krypton
The towering landscapes of Superman’s home planet are brought to life in US cable network Syfy’s first-look teaser for its upcoming Superman prequel, which is based on the characters created by DC Comics. The series will explore the Man of Steel’s lineage, focusing on the House of El. The series airs in 2018.

Marvel’s Inhumans
Family tensions run high in the latest Marvel offshoot to hit the small screen. The series follows the royal family of the Inhumans, a race of human beings altered by experiments carried out by an alien race known as the Kree, as they face a growing threat on their home planet and from their enemies on Earth. The series premieres on ABC on September 29, while the first two episodes will also be shown globally in IMAX theatres from the beginning of September.

American Horror Story: Cult
The teasers for American Horror Story never fail to be anything less than disturbing and unsettling, a tradition that continues with the first look at the seventh season of the FX anthology as row upon row of creepy clowns spell out their simple message: “Join us.” Creator Ryan Murphy took to Twitter to tease details of the latest instalment before Comic Con, revealing it would be known as Cult. Fans in San Diego then got to see some of the first clues to the series ahead of its launch launch on September 5.

The Gifted
San Diego was awash with volunteers ready and willing to lead the hunt for mutants in a stunt designed for Fox’s forthcoming X-Men series The Gifted. The series, which launches on October 2, tells the story of a suburban couple whose ordinary lives are rocked by the sudden discovery that their children possess mutant powers. The opening of this trailer leans on Carrie as the teenagers unwittingly destroy a high school while simultaneously discovering they aren’t exactly average, as their family is forced to go on the run to evade capture by the authorities.

Stranger Things
The Netflix series that became one of the television talking points of 2016 is back for a second season, and this new trailer shows poor Will Byers once again in the ‘Upside Down’ as he faces a monster considerably bigger than season one’s Demogorgon. The use of Michael Jackson’s Thriller with Vincent Price’s iconic spoken-word part adds to the 1980s nostalgia. Stranger Things returns on October 27.

Marvel’s The Defenders
After the lukewarm reaction to Iron Fist, Netflix aims to get its Marvel franchise back on track with The Defenders, which brings together Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist as they face off against an enemy – led by Sigourney Weaver – hellbent on destroying New York City. The Netflix series launches globally on August 18.

Star Trek: Discovery
Fans at Comic Con were given a first glimpse at this new trailer for the long-awaited series during a panel with the cast and creative team behind the show, which will premiere on CBS and CBS All Access on September 24, in Canada on Space and in 188 countries on Netflix. The new incarnation of the space franchise sets up a conflict between the Federation and the Klingons.

Westworld
With an astonishing 22 Emmy nominations, HBO’s robot-centric western has certainly been one of the biggest shows of the last 12 months – and the robots aren’t finished yet. Here’s a teaser for the upcoming second season, which will air in 2018.

The Walking Dead
Like one of the zombies that stalk AMC’s hit series, The Walking Dead shows no sign of stopping – though the war now looks set to take place between Rick’s crew and the Saviours, with both sides gearing up for battle. Season eight debuts in the US on October 22.

Game of Thrones
After an extended break, Game of Thrones is back on air and two episodes into its seven-part penultimate season. That doesn’t mean there’s any less excitement for new footage of this epic series, as this teaser reveals some of what’s in store as Jon, Cersei, Daenerys et al ramp up their fight for the Iron Throne.

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Kari on directing

From writing and directing feature films, Kari Skogland has become one of the most sought-after television directors in the US, with credits including Boardwalk Empire, The Walking Dead, The Americans, House of Cards, Vikings and The Handmaid’s Tale.

Speaking to DQ, Skogland reveals a passion for history that led to working on shows such as The Borgias and History miniseries Sons of Liberty.

With a penchant for action, stunts and explosions, she describes her desire for scale and scope when choosing her next project and her directing process when she joins or sets up a new show.

Skogland also shares her thoughts on the trend for feature directors moving to television.

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There will be blood

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.”

Mega-hit The Walking Dead is one the most violent and gory shows on TV

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 body count is always high on Game of Thrones, which is similarly uninhibited in its depictions of sex

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.

HBO’s Westworld features robot prostitutes

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
being gross.”

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].

Centring on a call girl, The Girlfriend Experience understandably features a high level of sexual content

“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.

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Rise of the celebrity showrunner

They were once just a name on the credits roll, but showrunners have gained celebrity status over the past decade and are now considered the major creative force behind every television drama.

This DQ show examines the showrunner’s rise to power and why it can be one of the most satisfying jobs in Hollywood.

In the first of a two-part programme, DQ hears from leading showrunners about the challenges of this all-consuming position.

Contributors include Shawn Ryan (The Shield), Terence Winter (Boardwalk Empire), Ilene Chaiken (Empire), Glen Mazzara (The Walking Dead), Clyde Phillips (Dexter), Eric Newman (Narcos), Terri Miller and Andrew Marlowe (Castle), Maggie Friedman and Corinne Brinkerhoff (No Tomorrow), Jon Bokenkamp (The Blacklist), Les Bohem (Shut Eye), Michelle Ashford (Masters of Sex), Graham Yost (Sneaky Pete), Howard Gordon (Homeland), Matt Miller (Lethal Weapon), Peter Lenkov (MacGyver), Oliver Goldstick (The Collection) and Carol Flint (Designated Survivor).

Part two will be available from Wednesday March 29.

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Chain reaction

Social media is having an increasing impact on the success or failure of television drama, as Stephen Arnell discovers.

For many broadcasters, the advent of social media has been a decidedly mixed blessing, especially in the world of TV drama.

A flurry of positive tweets can increase a new show’s profile – and viewership – but heavily negative reactions can have the effect of strangling it at birth.

Back in 2013, comedy writer Ben Elton’s comeback vehicle The Wright Way was effectively cancelled before the end of the first episode, such was the overwhelmingly poor social media response from critics and viewers alike.

BBC Comedy chief Shane Allen complained that instant social media criticism put paid to any chance of the show bedding in and improving, but those, as they say, are the breaks.

An apparently ‘bruised’ Elton (Blackadder, The Young Ones) returned to the fray with his Shakespeare comedy Upstart Crow (BBC2), so all’s well that ends well.

BBC1’s Jamaica Inn led to the so-called ‘Mumblegate’ inquiry

But with the exception of longer-running US dramas and soaps that are in production as the show is transmitted, there is little broadcasters can do after the event to combat social media flak until the next season.

The BBC in particular has come in for heavy criticism over recent years for what viewers perceive as ‘mumbling’ from actors and generally poor sound levels.

Back in 2014, BBC1’s two-part adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn made the front pages and caused a Twitter blowout due to ‘Mumblegate’ – viewers complaining in their droves about some of the actors’ unintelligible dialogue, particularly that of lead Sean Harris (Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation), and inferior sound quality.

Viewer numbers fell from 6.1 million for the first episode to 4.5 million for the second and the BBC swung into action with a Mumblegate inquiry, finding that “technical issues,” combined with overloud incidental music and Harris’s performance, rendered that drama a less than ideal experience for many viewers.

Some viewers complained of being unable to comprehend Tom Hardy’s dialogue in Taboo

Du Maurier’s son Christian ‘Kits’ Browning commented: “Thank God Sean Harris’ character gets killed. I blame the director and the sound man – and an actor who just mumbled. If anyone else feels the same way I just suggest you go and read the book. In the end I had to resort to subtitles.”

After this debacle, one would have thought the BBC would be alert to these kind of issues, but recent weeks have seen more Twitter meltdowns and tabloid headlines over mumbling – the culprits this time being serial murmurer Tom Hardy (Taboo, BBC1) and Sam Riley (SS-GB, BBC1).

Twitter reaction to the shows from viewers included: “I wish Tom Hardy would speak up a bit sometimes #Taboo,” “SS-GB – The subtitle department should have kept it up for all the dialogue. Head melted trying to understand this,” and “Why is Sam Riley playing Archer of the Yard with a voice like Patty and Selma?” – the latter referring the famously gravelly voiced Simpsons characters.

Taboo’s viewing figures decreased steadily over much of the show’s run, but it may be overstating the case to solely blame negative social media reaction for this.

Many fans were appalled when the The Walking Dead killed off two beloved characters in this scene

SS-GB (pictured top) has also seen a decline in viewing levels, with episode two falling by two million to record an audience of 3.9 million as complaints about Riley’s intonation continue.

After other complaints about dialogue clarity in the dramas Happy Valley, Rillington Place and Poldark last year, BBC director general Tony Hall told his chiefs to sort out “audibility issues.”

And good luck to the BBC executive assigned to tell Tom Hardy to speak up.

That said, there are more positive ways for social media reaction to actually benefit shows – for instance in the groundswell of support that caused Amazon to pick up the BBC’s Ripper Street and Netflix to revive cult comedy hit Arrested Development.

The Good Wife’s showrunners changed a storyline in response to audience disapproval

Studies show that positive Twitter buzz can boost viewership, which is said to have aided shows including Empire (Fox) and Modern Family (ABC).

Live twitter conversations during dramas such as Game of Thrones, Lucifer, The Walking Dead and Vikings are known to increase engagement with dramas.

On the other hand, negative social media feedback was felt to be a contributory factor in the cancellation of ABC’s The Muppets revival last year. High opening ratings declined precipitously as viewers thought early episodes unfunny or mean-spirited. Despite a talked-up midseason revamp, audiences continued to fall.

The deaths of popular characters Glen (Steven Yen) and Abraham (Michael Cudlitz) at the beginning of season seven of The Walking Dead, meanwhile, saw adverse Twitter reaction, followed by a viewing decline for the following episodes. But now, after its mid-season break, the drama is taking on a much more redemptive tone, which looks to be reflected in a ratings bump.

Episode 10’s reunion of fan favourites Daryl (Norman Reedus) and Carol (Melissa McBride) saw an outpouring of emotion in social media.

Sherlock showrunner Stephen Moffat regularly responds to fan reaction

In hit legal drama The Good Wife (CBS), adverse reaction to character Kalinda’s storyline in the season four premiere saw showrunners Robert and Michelle King prematurely discontinue the arc.

Talking to TV Guide, Robert King said of the decision: “I do think the audience teaches the storyteller and this is a case of the audience teaching the storyteller.”

Viewers have also successfully changed show content in other instances, including Lena Dunham accepting criticism of her drama Girls’ all-white cast and adding a minority character to the HBO series in response.

Some writers are playful with social media, with Doctor Who and Sherlock showrunner Stephen Moffat actively responsive to fan reaction.

Doctor Who episode The Time of the Doctor included a plot device that gave the Time Lord another dozen ‘regenerations,’ resolving the problem, much discussed on fan sites, that the Doctor was permitted only 12 incarnations according to the original canons of the show.

Sherlock co-writer Mark Gatiss also included a continuing gag in the script for The Empty Hearse, teasing online speculation about how Holmes may have been able to fake his death at the end of the second season.

Social media is a double-edged sword for broadcasters, where the benefits of instant feedback in boosting some dramas are balanced by the premature deaths of others, which means there’s no real hiding place for either mediocre or just plain bad shows.

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David Alpert

David Alpert, president of Skybound Entertainment and the executive producer of The Walking Dead, Fear The Walking Dead and Outcast, reveals the storytelling traditions from his childhood that inspired his career in television.

I grew up with stories in the blood. My family would love to gather round for the holidays and tell stories at the dinner table, so thinking about storytelling not just as pure entertainment but as something I wanted to do happened to me at a pretty early age.

I remember watching miniseries such as Shogun, Shaka Zulu and Robotech that really blew me away with their scope of storytelling and exotic locations. It was sophisticated storytelling for children; it wasn’t episodic, so if I didn’t watch the previous episode, I would be really lost.

Alpert is an exec producer on AMC mega-hit The Walking Dead and companion series Fear The Walking Dead

The producers understood that children are capable of hearing and watching sophisticated storylines unfold over multiple episodes. I always loved everything from The Cosby Show and Family Ties to Saturday morning cartoons and after-school stuff like Transformers and GI Joe, but it was the above shows that really gave me a window into the type of storytelling that was possible.

I was always told to find my niche, find an area I know better than anybody else and to make myself valuable to people who make decisions and not to seek reward right away. That was the way in which I built my career. I knew comics – I’d sold them in high school – and I knew comic book creators, so with the emergence of movies like Men in Black, The Crow and even things like Ghost World, I started going to people looking to make those movies and TV shows and offering advice or consulting. Most people would hang up on me but some would take the call and, over time, they started calling me.

As I built up a management business, I started putting some other projects together that involved physical production. One such project, Bubblebots, never got made but it was based on a multi-platform approach to storytelling. It was designed for film, television, video games, comic books – and that process of working with different writers and artists in different mediums led to what we’re doing at Skybound today.

Horror drama Outcast airs on Cinemax

I’d met [The Walking Dead creator] Robert Kirkman at a convention in 2000 and we started working together. As we put together The Walking Dead, Robert said we should launch a company. That became Skybound and I laid out the Bubblebots gameplan as what we would do inside our business.

The Walking Dead was certainly my first real success. There was nothing like it on television; nobody had been doing serialised horror. And the show also had a very distinctive look and feel – it’s shot on film and has a grainy 16mm quality to it. Creatively, the thing that hooked me was the very concept: what happens when zombie movies end? We’re taking the 28 Days Later approach to say, ‘Hey, what happens after 29 days, 30 days, six months, six years?’ The interesting thing for me is if you build a compelling group of characters, you don’t want their story to end, so the story can take a long time to tell.

We’re really looking to tell stories in any medium we can, and have recently moved into VR. Gone, a thriller about two parents searching for their missing child, was a really interesting step in figuring out what an immersive narrative looks like. We’re so used to pointing the camera in one direction, but what happens when they turn around? I think we did a pretty good job of it and I can’t wait to do more VR.

If I could go back and tell my 12-year-old self what I’m doing now, I think my head would explode!

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The Walking Dead reopens violence debate

the-walking-dead-64
The Walking Dead’s latest episode has sparked a social media furore

Kevin Lygo, director of television at UK broadcaster ITV, used a Bafta event this week to call for more “happy, life-affirming drama.”

He’s not the first senior figure in the industry to make this plea. Last year at the C21 Drama Summit, StudioCanal’s Rola Bauer also argued that the industry was focusing too much of its creative energy on scripted series with a bleak worldview.

To some extent, the emphasis on dark storytelling can be explained by the audience’s continued fascination with crime drama. But in recent years it has been amplified by the emergence of horror, fantasy, superhero and hard-boiled period dramas as stalwarts of the scripted genre.

More than eve, graphic, emotionally upsetting violence has become a core constituent of TV drama – especially in pay TV and SVoD. And for now it seems to be proving popular with international audiences.

Take AMC’s zombie drama The Walking Dead, which returned to schedules at the weekend. Episode one of season seven, written by Scott M Gimple and directed by Greg Nicotero, was about as bleak as TV viewing can get, with arch-villain Negan beating one of the show’s best-loved characters to death with a baseball bat embedded with barbed wire.

The episode attracted a lot of criticism from people who felt the show had finally gone too far. But at time of writing it doesn’t look like The Walking Dead has suffered in terms of ratings. Around 17 million people watched the show on AMC in the US and a further 1.43 million watched it on Fox in the UK. The latter was Fox’s best-rated show in its 14-year history.

Nicotero’s explanation of the episode’s uncompromising brutality was as follows: “It’s graphic and it’s horrible. We wanted to push it a little bit. When we shot the season five premiere, we had everybody at the trough and we went down the line and you saw these guys being murdered and drained of blood. That was purely a mechanism just to show how bad the people in Terminus really were. With Negan, you only have to see that once or twice to know this guy means business.

“The haunting remnants of that episode are similar to how I felt when I read the comic book and I experienced that sense of loss and the futility of trying to step in. [Andrew Lincoln’s lead character] Rick Grimes is powerless to stop this and that’s something we’ve never seen on the show. I think the violence and brutality are a part of the helplessness. Seeing our hero completely crushed in front of us is more disturbing than the actual violence for me.”

The audience’s appetite for violence is also evident in numerous other shows, as outlined below. So the big question is, how much further can the TV industry go in this direction? Will viewers get fed up with violent drama and start demanding the upbeat shows Lygo would like to see? Or will writers and directors keep finding new ways to turn our stomachs?

gameofthronesGame of Thrones: The Walking Dead’s status as the most violent show on TV is challenged by David Benioff and DB Weiss’s adaptation of George RR Martin’s fantasy novel series. Rape, mutilation, torture and massacres have been regular themes through the HBO series. But while the more outrageous scenes have their critics, the audience has stayed supremely strong throughout. Echoing TWD’s most recent episode, arguably the most shocking scene was when Gregor Clegane crushed The Red Viper’s skull with his bare hands during a gruesome duel. There’s something about seeing a person’s head smashed in that is particularly disturbing – and it’s an increasingly common image.

hannibal1_2553735bHannibal: Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal makes the original Silence of the Lambs movie look like a spin-off of Shaun the Sheep. Of the many grotesque sequences in the NBC series, one of the most gut-wrenching is when serial killer and cannibal Hannibal Lecter gives Mason Verger the drug PCP and then tells him to peel off his own face with a piece of broken mirror. In a state of drug-induced euphoria, Mason complies, and afterwards feeds the pieces to his dogs, except for his nose, which he himself eats. And that’s only the beginning… Hannibal was cancelled after three seasons but attracted an extremely loyal audience throughout its run.

sons-of-anarchy-seasoSons of Anarchy: Kurt Sutter’s acclaimed biker gang drama was another painful piece of television to watch, though it didn’t stop the show becoming a runaway hit for FX. For some, the worst moment was when the villainous Damon Pope burned another man’s daughter alive and forced him to watch (season five). For others, it was the brutal murder of Opie Winston, who had his head bashed in with a lead pipe by a group of prisoners, egged on by a bunch of prison wardens (season five). Sutter returned to graphic violence in his next show The Bastard Executioner, though this one only lasted a season. Questioned by the press about the use of violence in this show, he said: “My mandate, as it was on Sons of Anarchy, is the same for this – the violence, as absurd as it could be on Sons, it always came from an organic place and it was never done in a vacuum. To every violent act, there were ramifications. That’s sort of my same mandate here. There are ways to portray that violence that don’t make it openly gratuitous, so I sort have the same mandate with this show.”

american-horror-story-hotelAmerican Horror Story: With a name like that, you’d feel shortchanged if Ryan Murphy’s AHS anthology series didn’t scare the bejesus out of you. But there are some especially excruciating images in this successful FX drama. In AHS: Hotel, one of the most disturbing scenes sees a drug addict check into a hotel room, whereupon he is raped by a creature covered in wax-like skin wearing a disturbing looking dildo. Murphy has attempted to explain the scene as a commentary on the hell of addiction. However, even with this story rationalisation it’s pretty warped stuff. Sexual brutalisation ranks alongside head-smashing as one of the TV industry’s preferred ways of horrifying its audience.

the-cast-of-vikingsVikings: Period dramas on TV used to be sedate stuff – carriages, elaborate hats, dancing and the occasional shiny cutlass. But series like Starz’s Spartacus and History’s Vikings have reinvented the genre. The latter, created by Michael Hirst, is a big hit for the A+E-owned channel. Not surprisingly, given the subject, Vikings has regular recourse to violence. One example was the slow-motion scene when lead character Ragnar Lothbrok ritually carved open his enemy Jarl Borg from behind. This style of death is called the Blood Eagle, because the victim’s lungs are pulled out through his back and laid across his shoulders like wings.

the-strainThe Strain: Created by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan, based on their own novels, this FX vampire drama has some truly grotesque moments. One of the most famous is when an infected worm forces its way into the eyeball of the hero’s wife. The image was so revolting that an ad campaign featuring the image had to be pulled after complaints. Just as gruesome was the sight of vampire elders feeding off a human prisoner in season two, a scene that also carried sado-masochistic overtones. The show will end after its fourth season, but it’s a meandering narrative rather than uncompromising violence that caused this.

daredevil-the-punisherDaredevil: Superhero series and movies have started to deploy more graphic violence in the pursuit of audience. The Netflix/Marvel show Daredevil (created by Drew Goddard, based on the Stan Lee/Bill Everett creation) is a case in point. Although it has received a lot of critical acclaim, the show doesn’t pull its punches when it comes to graphic violent imagery. Bad guy Kingpin (Vincent D’Onofrio) is especially disturbing, beating someone to death and decapitating him on his first appearance in the show. In season two, the violence is increased with the arrival of The Punisher (pictured). Time Magazine is critical of the way the show has gone, arguing that: “Daredevil just wants to dole out fun doses of extreme gore on the path to an endpoint on a business plan.”

boardwalk-empire-buscemiBoardwalk Empire: HBO’s acclaimed mobster series is another drama that attracted criticism for its portrayal of violence. Again, you can’t make a mobster movie without breaking heads, but there is a legitimate question over whether the portrayal of violence was a) accurate and b) necessary. Showrunner Terence Winter’s response to questions about violence was to say: “Murder is ugly, it looks like what it looks like.” Like many of his peers, Winter justifies the shows violence by saying it is used in context. “We’re not gratuitous,” he said in an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald. “We’ve never said, ‘We need a murder here or how can we make this scene more bloody?’” But “[One of the murders] is as graphic as it gets and I don’t know why we would want to sugarcoat that. I don’t want to make it look antiseptic or like a video game where they are no consequences.”

followingThe Following: Fox’s 2013 series stars James Purefoy as a brilliant, psychotic serial killer who communicates with other serial killers and activates a cult of believers following his every command. The show was created by Kevin Williamson, who built his reputation with movie franchises like Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer before turning his attention to TV. Gory in the extreme, the show was labelled “a showcase for gratuitous carnage and cruelty that might best be described as pornographic” by The Washington Times. Chasing Purefoy’s serial killer is a cop played by Kevin Bacon, who gave this assessment of the show: “We were trying to make a thriller that scares people and keeps them on the edge of their seats. It was brutal, but the people who watched it seemed to not have a problem.” The series lasted three seasons.

ozOz: HBO’s Oz is a reminder that violence isn’t new to our screens. Launched in 1997, the show was set in a maximum-security prison facility populated by the kind of people you hope never see parole. In 2001, The Guardian’s review of season four said: “The previous three seasons of Oz have featured poisoning, lynching, burning, shooting, beating, eye-gouging and crucifixion. The actors admit they find it tough-going sometimes. ‘I have difficulty watching some scenes,’ says [actor] Edie Falco. At times even writer Tom Fontana finds it all too much. He claims that he closed his eyes while penning some scenes because, ‘I didn’t want to see myself writing the words I had to produce.’” The Guardian’s conclusion, however, was that the ultra-violent show was “never gratuitous” and that its primary goal was to shine a light on “political cynicism and a morally bankrupt penal system.”

The US leads the way in terms of the depiction of violence on the small screen, but the rest of the world has been catching on. Series like Gomorrah (Italy), Braquo (France), Underbelly (Australia), Valley of the Wolves (Turkey), Epitafios (Argentina) and The Bridge (Sweden/Denmark) have all had some tough-to-watch moments. Ironically, given Lygo’s concerns, so have ITV’s recent dramas – notably Marcella and Paranoid. In the latter, the show opens with a graphic sequence in which a mother is stabbed to death in a playground in front of her child. The Radio Times ran an interesting comment piece on the message that dramas like this are sending out about to women about the threat of violence. However, the real message of today’s TV dramas is that nobody is safe to go out anymore…

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Watch all the best teasers and trailers from Comic-Con 2016

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.

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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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Walking Dead tramples cable competition

The Walking Dead continues to dominate the cable landscape
The Walking Dead continues to dominate the cable landscape with huge ratings on AMC

AMC’s The Walking Dead is back with a bang and Better Call Saul didn’t do badly either. This week we look at some of the other big US cable shows limbering up for launch. Also, HBO’s Vinyl renewed and ITV’s Beowulf on the brink.

This is an interesting time of year for US cable drama. On the one hand, you get a number of new launches. On the other, you get established series returning after their winter break.

AMC’s zombie phenomenon The Walking Dead (TWD), for example, returned on Valentine’s Day after a two-month pause with a storming 13.7 million same-day audience – the highest-rating cable show of the week by a mile. This was down slightly on the pre-Christmas finale episode but not enough to sound any alarms.

In fact, the franchise is so strong that the second highest-rating show of the week was Talking Dead, the fan chatshow that comes immediately after each episode. With 6.4 million viewers, this franchise extension attracts a bigger audience than virtually every drama on cable. To ram home the show’s dominance, the fifth highest-rating telecast of the week was a TWD marathon, which drew in just under five million viewers.

Cuba Gooding Jr as OJ Simpson
Cuba Gooding Jr as OJ Simpson

The only other drama to make it into the cable top 25 during this week was FX’s American Crime Story: The People V. OJ Simpson, which recorded a same-day audience of 3.33 million for episode three. This is down on the previous episode but not calamitously, suggesting the show will probably settle at around the three million mark. If this is the case then it will certainly end this season as FX’s top-rated show.

TWD’s outlandishly strong performance makes most other cable shows look feeble by comparison. But it’s important to readjust the lens before making a judgement. For example, season two of AMC’s Breaking Bad prequel Better Call Saul has just debuted with 2.57 million. While that may not be in the same league as TWD, it is a thoroughly respectable score that comes in at a similar level to the end of season one. The only AMC shows that outperform it are TWD, its companion series Fear The Walking Dead and the martial arts fantasy Into the Badlands.

The fact that this is a launch period for shows means there are always numerous pre-launch trailers on display to whet people’s appetites. FX, for example, has been airing promos for The Americans, a period espionage drama about two KGB agents deep undercover in the US during the 1980s.

The Americans' chances of a fifth season look slim
The Americans’ chances of a fifth season look slim

The Americans is now in season four and has been received well by pundits and hardcore cable viewers. But its audience is only borderline sustainable, having come in around the one million mark for series three. That’s down on the season two average of 1.34 million and also less than the 1.22 million average that led to a first-season cancellation for FX’s medieval adventure The Bastard Executioner. Without some kind of uplift for The Americans, it’s tough to see the show surviving for a fifth season – unless it racks up a few high-profile awards to justify its existence.

Another show that has been promoted heavily in recent weeks is History Channel’s Vikings, which returned for a fourth run yesterday. This is a key show for History, which increased the episode order from 10 for the first three seasons to 20 for this one on the back of strong ratings.

For season three, the show was attracting around two million same-day viewers, jumping to 4.3 million for Live+3 days (one of the biggest uplifts to be found in scripted cable TV). The season-three premiere on Feb 19 last year attracted 4.6 million Live+3 viewers, so that is the kind of benchmark History will be looking for to ensure its increased investment is paying off. An added bonus is that the show also does well on History in Canada.

Vikings
Vikings returned to History Channel yesterday with a double-length season

Another key series being trailed now is BBC America’s Orphan Black, which returns to US screens on April 14 with a 10-episode run. Season three ratings of 440,000 don’t sound that high when put against the shows already mentioned, but BBC America is a smaller channel with more limited ratings expectations (The Last Kingdom, for example, was pulling in around 350,000 to 400,000 when it aired on the channel last year).

Another show that recently returned to US screens after an extended autumn/winter break was USA Network’s slick city lawyer drama Suits. In the past we’ve talked up the ratings performance of this show but there are now signs that it is finally flagging. While the first half of season five (aired during summer) was hitting similar audiences to season four (circa 2.1 to 2.3 million), the first four episodes since the show’s return have come in around 1.5 to 1.7 million. Suits is still USA Network’s top show but there will be some concern about the slide, especially given that the network committed to season six a while ago.

As we’ve said many times, the decision whether to renew a show in the pay TV space is about not just the headline ratings, but also the role the programme plays in pulling subscribers to a network and keeping them there.

Vinyl has already been given a second season on HBO
Martin Scorsese’s music industry drama Vinyl has already been given a second season on HBO

HBO, for example, has just renewed its new Martin Scorsese-directed music series Vinyl for a second season after just one episode of the first season. Clearly this isn’t anything to do with the ratings, which came in at a modest 760,000. Instead, HBO will be thinking about the value of having a high-concept Scorsese drama on its playlist – not just in the US but also on own-branded or partner services around the world, such as HBO Go Nordic and Sky Atlantic.

Meanwhile, UK newspapers are starting to report that ITV’s Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands is going to be axed at the end of its first season. With seven out of 12 episodes aired, the show is currently pulling in a below-par 1.5 million viewers. ITV is not commenting on the reports as yet but is unlikely to recommission such a big-budget show with this level of audience. A cancellation will, however, be a big blow to ITV, which has already pulled the plug on Jekyll and Hyde, another foray into the fantasy adventure space. Cable network Esquire will also be disappointed, having picked up the show in the hope it might develop into a long-running franchise.

Fantasy fans won’t be worried, however, because season six of HBO’s Game of Thrones is launching on April 24. It will also air on Sky Atlantic in the UK at the same time (02.00 local time). Despite this graveyard slot on a niche pay TV channel, chances are the new Game of Thrones series will still outrate Beowulf, which just goes to show the power of the big cable brands.

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‘Tis the season for renewals

Matt DIllon starred in the first season of Wayward Pines but will not feature in the second run
Matt DIllon starred in the first season of Wayward Pines but will not feature in the second run

This summer, critics couldn’t decide whether M Night Shyamalan and Chad Hodge’s 10-part mystery-thriller Wayward Pines qualified as a hit. But the show’s host network Fox has now answered that question by giving the production a second season.

Fox Broadcasting Company’s entertainment president David Madden said: “Wayward Pines was a huge hit for us. We were absolutely blown away by the mysterious and surprising world that Night and his team created, and the twisting-and-turning storytelling that drew viewers in from day one. Season two is going to take the suspense, the vision of the future and the haunting character drama to whole new levels.”

A same-day audience of three to four million wasn’t especially impressive. But Fox has crunched the numbers and come up with the following analysis: “Season one of Wayward Pines ranked as summer 2015’s number-one broadcast scripted series among adults 18-49, averaging a 2.2/8 in the key demo. The series – about a Secret Service agent on a mission to find two missing federal agents in a sleepy town, and the shocking results of his investigation – ranked among summer 2015’s top 10 broadcast programmes overall among adults 18-49. It earned a multiplatform average audience of 9.4 million, which represents a +145% increase versus its Live+Same Day audience – the largest multiplatform lift versus Live+Same Day ever for a Fox drama.”

According to Fox, the second season will pick up in the wake of season one, when a new arrival in Wayward Pines finds himself in the middle of a serious rebellion, as the residents battle over how to preserve the endangered human race. Season one stars Matt Dillon and Toby Jones will not return, so there will be a lot of interest in who gets cast as the new lead.

Showtime has extended Homeland into a sixth season
Showtime has extended Homeland into a sixth season as its fifth finishes strongly

This week has also seen renewals for Showtime’s Homeland and The Affair. This confirms our hunch that Homeland had done enough in season five to warrant a renewal, though the announcement has come later than expected.

Season five is finishing strongly, which appears to vindicate the decision to move central character Carrie (played by Claire Danes) to Berlin. Co-creator Alex Gansa has suggested that this could be the model going forward, with each season placing Carrie in a new geographic location.

There was also a renewal this week for NBC’s The Blacklist, which stars James Spader as a criminal mastermind working with the FBI. The drama, which will go into season four, averages a same-day of audience of around seven million. It’s also popular internationally, featuring on networks such as Sky Living and TF1 in France.

The timing of the announcement makes this an early renewal for the show, and creator Jon Bokencamp says he has known about The Blacklist’s return for a while. Speaking in a podcast interview this week, he commented: “We knew about that a while ago. It’s one of those things that’s hard to keep quiet. But yes, we’re renewed through to the fourth season. Hopefully we don’t tank that out – we’ve got a lot of story to tell.”

The Blacklist, starring James Spader, has been given an early renewal
The Blacklist, starring James Spader, has been given an early renewal on NBC

Back at Fox, one show that is certain to get a renewal is breakout hit Empire, which is now in the middle of its second run. However, the new season has been bumpy ride, akin to the ‘difficult second album’ syndrome. After opening to 16 million viewers (22.5 million when you add in the multiplatform/time-shifted figures), the music industry-based show dropped as low as 9.2 million (same-day rating) for episode nine. Episode 10 saw a bounceback (11.8 million) but the underlying critical narrative suggests the show has lost its way slightly.

The biggest complaint seems to be that this year’s plots and characters lack authenticity, with USA Today summing it up like this: “On social media, fans are griping about ever-more-outrageous storylines (‘cartoon garbage,’ sniffed one Twitter user), such as frantic efforts in (one) episode to find and dig up the body of Vernon, who was accidentally killed in last season’s finale, and park his decomposed corpse in a car to intimidate an attack-dog prosecutor. There’s pushback on the show’s heavy dose of celebrity cameos, from Chris Rock to Ludacris.”

Having said all this, Empire is still the strongest US network show by far. To put it in perspective, its rating among the all-important 18-49 demo far exceeds that of new shows such as Blindspot, Limitless and Quantico. So a renewal is as certain as anything can be in this life.

Empire is likely to return despite enduring the TV equivalent of 'difficult second album' syndrome
Empire is likely to return despite enduring the TV equivalent of a ‘difficult second album’

A likely beneficiary of its success is Rosewood, which airs straight after Empire. Having seen its ratings boosted as a result of Empire’s strong lead-in, it’s another show that is pretty much guaranteed a return.

Continuing on this topic, this week provided a superb example of the impact that a strong lead-in can have on a title’s ratings. Until recently, AMC’s Into the Badlands had been benefiting from airing directly after The Walking Dead. But with the latter now on a winter break, Badlands has seen its audience plummet. Same-day ratings for the first four episodes of the show go like this: 6.4 million, 4.8 million, 5.2 million, 2.4 million – the latter figure being the first week in which it didn’t have a boost from The Walking Dead.

This isn’t necessarily a problem for Badlands. It’s possible that, without TWD in the schedule, fans of the futuristic martial arts show have decided to record it and watch it another time (maybe earlier the next day). The real test of whether the show has managed to build a loyal audience will come with Live + 3 Day or Live + 7 Day ratings. That said, even at its new lower level, it’s still a strong shout for a renewal.

Moving away from renewals, this week saw the launch of a show that may soon be talked about as the latest Scandinavian hit.

Gasmamman: Scandinavia's next big hit?
Gasmamman: Scandinavia’s next big hit?

Gasmamman (Mother Goose) is being described as Sweden’s answer to Breaking Bad. The story follows a mother-of-three who takes over the family’s illegal marijuana business after her husband is shot in a drug deal gone wrong.

The Endemol Shine-produced show is currently airing on pay TV platform C-More and will shift to Kanal 5 in spring 2016.

In an interview with Reuters, lead actress Alexandra Rapaport said: “When we pitched this we talked about it being a kind of Erin Brockovich meets Breaking Bad. The Bridge and The Killing were big inspirations for us. But I think we also add some humour to it, which is why we compare it to Breaking Bad.”

The Reuters report says the show’s producers plan to make four seasons in total.

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The horror, the horror!

Bob Cranmer’s book The Demon of Brownsville Road is being adapted as Haunted
Bob Cranmer’s book is being adapted by Fox as Haunted
With shows like AMC’s The Walking Dead and FX’s American Horror Story performing so well, it’s no real surprise that everyone wants to climb aboard the horror show bandwagon.

FX sister channel Fox, for example, has already backed Scream Queens and is now planning another horror comedy series based on Bob Cranmer’s book The Demon of Brownsville Road. Called Haunted, the new show centres on a military agent who is partnered with her demonologist ex-boyfriend to help a family overcome a demonic infestation at their house. William Brent Bell (The Devil Inside) has been signed up to write the project.

ABC Family, soon to be renamed Freeform, is also moving into horror for the first time with Dead of Summer, which is set in a doomed summer camp in the late 1980s. The network, which has given the show a straight-to-series order, is from Adam Horowitz, Edward Kitsis and Once Upon a Time writer Ian Goldberg.

Meanwhile, Syfy has advanced a horror project it first started talking about in the summer. Channel Zero is an anthology series developed by Nick Antosca (Hannibal). This week Syfy greenlit what is being described as two six-part seasons. The first is based on Candle Cove by Kris Straub, which originates from an online horror concept known as creepypasta. There is no news yet on the second batch of six, though the assumption is that it will centre on a different story.

Meanwhile, in the UK, broadcaster ITV has ordered a three-part horror miniseries called Him. Produced by Mainstreet Pictures and written by Paula Milne, the story focuses on a 17-year-old boy with a hidden supernatural power inherited from his grandfather.

In the realm of sci-fi, one of the week’s most interesting projects comes courtesy of The CW, which is working on Cry, a drama about a doctor who works out how to bring cryogenically preserved people back to life. In an interesting twist on the Frankenstein myth, he starts by unfreezing his own father – but there are, of course, unexpected consequences. The show is being made in partnership with Paulist Productions, a Catholic-oriented company that makes shows exploring moral dilemmas.

Original cult sci-fi series Lost in Space is set for a TV reboot
Cult 1960s sci-fi series Lost in Space is set for a TV reboot courtesy of Netflix

Bigger news for sci-fi geeks is that Netflix is planning a remake of cult classic Lost In Space, which ran for three seasons in the 1960s. Created by Irwin Allen, the original story centred on an ordinary family called the Robinsons that becomes marooned in space along with the reprehensible Dr Zachary Smith. The franchise, which started life in a comic book, was brought back in 1998 as a not-very-good movie starring Matt LeBlanc. However it is probably better suited to TV. The challenge for writers Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless will be getting the tone of the project right. While it will need to be more plausible than the original to satisfy sci-fi fans, it would probably be a mistake to take it too far from the family-adventure feel of the original.

In the UK, meanwhile, actor Ray Winstone is to star as visionary author HG Wells in a new drama for pay TV channel Sky Arts. Called The Nightmare Worlds of HG Wells, the Clerkenwell Films drama will be an anthology series consisting of four stories about madness, obsession, hallucinations and horror (there it is again). These are based on Wells’ stories and will be adapted by Graham Duff. The series was commissioned by Sky Arts director Phil Edgar-Jones, who says: “One of my earliest memories is seeing row upon row of blue-covered HG Wells books on my grandad’s bookcase and being fascinated by the strange and disturbing worlds inside them. The team at Clerkenwell has brought four fantastic Wells stories to life in a wonderfully realised, stunningly performed compendium.”

There’s also some buzz around medical series this week. After a strong opening on NBC for Chicago Med, CBS has now given an extended order to its own medical show, Code Black. Although the show has not rated well, it now has 18 episodes to prove its worth.

Medical show Code Black has had its run extended by CBS
Medical show Code Black has had its run extended by CBS to 18 episodes

In the UK, another ITV commission announced this week is The Good Karma Hospital. Set in Goa, India, this six-parter follows a team of UK and Indian medics as they cope with work, life and love at an over-worked, under-resourced hospital. ITV says: “Run by a gloriously eccentric Englishwoman, the Good Karma turns no-one away – locals, ex-pats and tourists are all welcome. With a stunning location, exotic medical cases and unforgettable characters, the series mixes the heartbreaking with the humorous, as the doctors, nurses and patients discover that the hospital is more than a rundown medical outpost – it’s a home.”

The show goes into production next year and is being produced by Tiger Aspect. It is created and written by Dan Sefton, whose credits include Death in Paradise. There’s some logic to this since Death In Paradise (about a British policeman in the Caribbean) is another show that uses the interaction of different cultures as a backdrop.

UK dramas that showcase the Indian sub-continent are in vogue at the moment. First came Channel 4’s Indian Summers (shot in Malaysia but set in India) and then ITV’s Jekyll & Hyde. Also in the mix have been the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel movies.

The Good Karma Hospital has been commissioned for ITV by director of drama Steve November and controller of drama Victoria Fea. November says: “Dan Sefton’s scripts are beautifully written and deal with themes we’ll all identify with – love, loss, relationships, family conflict, facing adversity and the importance of seizing the day. The Good Karma Hospital is a feel-good drama full of warmth and characters we will love.”

The Bastard Executioner has been axed by FX after one season
The Bastard Executioner has been axed by FX after one season

From Germany, news this week that ARD is producing a series based on the novels of Swiss author Martin Suter. Allmen, produced by UFA Fiction and Mia Film in the Czech Republic, is the story of a rich bon vivant who gets caught up in a murder after turning to crime to pay off his debts. Filming is taking place in Switzerland and the Czech Republic until mid-February next year.

Finally, there was bad news this week for showrunner Kurt Sutter whose medieval drama The Bastard Executioner has been axed after just one season by broadcaster FX. Having opened in September with an audience of four million, it fell away to 1.9 million by the end of its run. But this probably doesn’t signify the end of the sword and savagery genre. HBO’s Game of Thrones, Starz’s Outlander and History’s Vikings continue to do well while the BBC’s The Last Kingdom has also received decent reviews. Also coming up is ITV’s retelling of the Beowulf saga, which should provide us with another indicator of the genre’s popularity.

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AMC’s Badlands does the business

badlands
Martial arts drama Into the Badlands has started strongly on AMC

US cable channel AMC is in phenomenally good shape. Its flagship scripted series, The Walking Dead (TWD), continues to deliver massive ratings and has spawned a successful spin-off, Fear The Walking Dead. And now TWD has provided the launchpad for another strong performer – the martial arts fantasy series Into the Badlands.

Into the Badlands debuted on Sunday at 22.00, after the latest episode of TWD. Despite some reviews suggesting the opening episode spent too long on its setup, the show attracted a massive 6.4 million viewers and a 3.15 rating among 18- to 49-year-olds. That makes it one of the biggest new series of the autumn so far across both cable and broadcast TV, comparable to shows like Supergirl and Blindspot. Once time-shifted viewing is factored in, the series can expect to see another surge in its numbers.

Even if Into the Badlands experiences a drop-off in episode two, its premiere performance suggests it will still even out as one of the top-performing cable shows of the year. And the good news doesn’t end there for AMC. Still to look forward to is season two of Better Call Saul, which is due in February. The Breaking Bad prequel was a strong performer for the channel last year and there is no reason to suppose this will change as the show starts to tie in to the mythology of its critically acclaimed parent.

Having four massive hits in its schedule gives AMC the freedom to support other programmes that don’t rate so highly, which bodes well for the likes of Humans and Halt & Catch Fire.

The Walking Dead has paved the way for a multitude of undead-focused series
AMC’s mega hits like The Walking Dead allow it more freedom with its lower-rating shows
Returning to TWD for a moment, it’s interesting that the latest episode saw a 5% jump in 18-49s week on week. That rise can probably be explained by the fact that the episode focused heavily on Daryl Dixon (played by Norman Reedus). If the character is ever killed off, expect to see a huge spike in time-shifted viewing followed by a decline in the youth audience.

In today’s fragmented TV landscape, the numbers achieved by Into the Badlands are genuinely impressive – but pay TV channels don’t need to be getting ratings of this magnitude to be classified as a success. Just as important is what a show says about a channel’s brand. If it sends out the right message, it can help with the pickup or retention of subscribers. If you look at European pay TV platform Sky, for example, a lot of money has been spent on demonstrating that it is the home of quality content. Its relationship with HBO, recently extended, is a classic example of that – as is the company’s heavy investment in original drama.

Having said all this, drama is an expensive genre. So Sky has been looking for ways to deliver quality without breaking the bank in terms of its scripted content investments. One way it is doing this is by acquiring or making dramas that can play across all 21 million homes in its five core European markets: the UK, Ireland, Germany, Austria and Italy. At the same time, it is seeking to coproduce with PayTV providers in other markets – so the commercial risk is spread even more broadly.

Samantha Morton in The Last Panthers
Samantha Morton in The Last Panthers
Let’s say, for example, that Canal+ in France comes on board a drama – then suddenly your production is hitting an addressable market of around 28 million. If Sky’s distribution arm Sky Vision is then able to sell the show into other markets, the cost is further defrayed. Fortitude was a high-profile example of this. Although it only attracted around 700,000 viewers in the UK, the fact it was played out in numerous other markets made it a relatively easy decision for Sky to back a second series.

Slightly less certain is Sky’s new series The Last Panthers, a coproduction with Canal+ and US network SundanceTV. The show debuted in the UK last week and attracted just 228,000 viewers, 38% of which were 35- to 44-year-olds. That figure is ahead of the slot average – but it’s still quite low for an original. Sky will be hoping it picks up some momentum in the coming weeks.

There are probably a couple of explanations for The Last Panthers’ debut falling so short compared with Fortitude. The first is that it didn’t have the same kind of cast clout as Fortitude, which made it less promotable. True, it features Samantha Morton and there was a fleeting glimpse of John Hurt. But this is nothing compared with Fortitude, which boasted Michael Gambon, Stanley Tucci, Sofie Grabol and Christopher Eccleston (briefly). Second, the opening episode was not easy to get to grips with, switching language and location frequently and not making it obvious who the audience should root for. While UK audiences are more comfortable these days with subtitles, The Last Panthers probably makes them work a bit too hard.

Chicago Med, one of NBC's trilogy of Chicago drama series
Chicago Med, one of NBC’s trilogy of Chicago drama series from Dick Wolf
The UK critics are split on the show. For The Guardian, The Last Panthers is “bold, smart and seductive,” but for the Telegraph it’s “turgid” and “lacks tension.” The Independent gets it about right when it says: “If you can cope with the violence, the underlit filming, the dialogue in French with subtitles and the unremittingly depressing scenes then The Last Panthers is a fine thriller, with a touch of The French Connection about it.” SBS Australia seems happy enough, acquiring the show this week.

While an important element of the current ‘golden age’ of drama is the freedom to pursue interesting creative ideas like Badlands and Panthers, it’s also worth noting that NBC’s big success at the moment is a trilogy of procedurals that are all based in Chicago. If you look at the channel’s top five dramas at the moment, three of them are Chicago PD, Chicago Fire and Chicago Med, which launched this week with a same day audience of 8.6 million.

Fire was the first to appear and has recently been renewed for season five. PD came next and has just been renewed for a fourth run. Med is only one episode old but already looks like it will get a renewal. Apart from the procedural formula, the common denominator among the three is that they come from the stable of Dick Wolf, creator of the Law & Order franchise. Aged 68, Wolf continues to be one of the masters of mainstream drama and has an awards cabinet to prove it.

The forthcoming Christmas special will be the very final episode of Downton Abbey
The forthcoming Christmas special will be the very final episode of Downton Abbey
Finally, we can’t sign off without observing that Downton Abbey is over, except for the upcoming Christmas Special. The final episode of the final season scored a consolidated audience of 11 million viewers for ITV. There’s no question that Carnival Films’ drama, superbly scripted by Julian Fellowes, has been one of the most memorable British TV dramas ever made. While the show was perhaps starting to become a little repetitive, it continued to make hugely entertaining Sunday night viewing.

The fact Downton Abbey is now ending is a clear loss for ITV, particularly when the show has so many unresolved storylines. In fact, the broadcaster would be mad to let all of that stored up audience affection just fizzle out. No US network would allow the show to die at this stage in its life cycle. And in any other business you’d be castigated for giving up on such a strong brand.

While it’s possible that Julian Fellowes and some of the cast are keen to move on, ITV should at the very least explore whether there is spin-off potential – maybe a series focusing on the London lives of some of the younger cast. Lady Edith, Thomas the footman and a handful of others could provide the spine of a new show.

In the meantime, take a look at this video if you want to see the cast of Downton behaving badly.

 

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TV’s zombie obsession

BBC3's In the Flesh ran for two seasons
BBC3’s In the Flesh ran for two seasons

AMC’s cult zombie drama The Walking Dead (TWD) continues to generate massive ratings. Three episodes into season six, its audience is holding up well compared with season five figures.

The first episode attracted more than 20 million viewers once the time-shifted audience was included in the total. Episode three, which may or may not have seen the death of a popular central character, is likely to hit a similar mark once all the data is in.

The fate of the character in question (Glenn) also had a big impact on The Talking Dead, a recap show that is aired immediately after each episode. Around six million viewers tuned in to that, underlining the nature of the TWD phenomenon.

Of course, the success of TWD also encouraged AMC to launch a companion series entitled Fear The Walking Dead. While it’s fair to say that FTWD hasn’t yet hit the same creative heights as TWD, its initial run of six episodes (which ended on October 4) still managed to attract a massive 11.2 million viewers (Live+3 day ratings, averaged across the run).

This makes it the highest-rated first season in cable TV history. An added bonus for fans suffering zombie withdrawal is the 16-part web series FTWD: Flight 462, currently available on AMC.com.

The remarkable thing about the success of AMC’s franchise is the way it has spawned so many series about the undead. While they don’t all approach the subject matter in the same way, there’s no question that they have been legitimised by the success of TWD.

The Walking Dead has paved the way for a multitude of undead-focused series
The Walking Dead has paved the way for a multitude of undead-focused series

In the US, for example, we have seen ABC’s Resurrection, which lasted for two seasons, and The CW’s iZombie, which is currently partway through its second season and rating reasonably well (around 1.3-1.5 million viewers).

Less well known around the world is Syfy’s Z Nation, which is also in its second season. The show’s ratings of around 850,000-900,000 are nowhere near as impressive as those of TWD but it does have its fans. Graeme Virtue of The Guardian newspaper called Z Nation a “brazen Walking Dead rip-off” but still included it on a list of five great US TV shows unavailable in Britain. Since Virtue’s article, the show has now become available in the UK on Pick TV.

Not to be overlooked, of course, is Starz’ upcoming launch of Ash vs Evil Dead (based on the classic Evil Dead franchise). With series one premiering on Halloween, the network has shown its faith in the saga by ordering a second season.

Unveiling the news this week, Starz MD Carmi Zlotnik said: “One season isn’t enough to satisfy the fans’ two decade-long appetite for more (lead character) Ash. The early fan and press support, along with international broadcaster demand, has made it clear that the adventures of Ash Williams can’t end with season one.”

Ash vs Evil Dead has already been given a second season
Ash vs Evil Dead has already been given a second season

Starz has signed global licensing deals for Ash Vs Evil Dead with broadcasters and digital platforms in more than 100 countries and will allow the show to premiere simultaneously with the US. Partners include Amedia (Russia/CIS), C More (Scandinavia), Fox Latin America, Sky TV (New Zealand), Stan (Australia), Starz Play Arabia (MENA) and Super Channel (Canada).

Also in the news this week is Australian series Glitch, which has been given a second series by ABC. This isn’t a TWD-style zombie series but it fits in with the general undead theme very well. Produced by Matchbox, it tells the story of six people who inexplicably return from the dead, alive and in good health. The initial run of six episodes aired in July and attracted 350,000-500,000 viewers.

Undead aficionados will, of course, see comparisons between Glitch and the French series Les Revenants (aka The Returned), which also focused on ordinary folk returning from the dead. Les Revenants was adapted for the US market where it had an unsuccessful one-season run. But in France (and around the world) the first season of the original series has been a big hit. Airing on Canal+ in France, the show attracted around 1.5 million viewers across eight episodes.

After a three year hiatus, season two of Les Revenants finally went to air this autumn. While it has been picked up internationally by many of the networks that aired season one, season two hasn’t done as well as season one for Canal+, with some critics blaming the three-year gap for the audience’s lukewarm reaction.

Australia's Glitch is similar in theme to Les Revenants/The Returned
Australia’s Glitch is similar in theme to Les Revenants/The Returned

Although final series numbers aren’t in, the debut episode of season two only attracted 610,000 viewers. Even when you’ve factored in time-shifted viewing, that’s a long way short of what Canal+ would have been expecting.

The Brits also had a critically acclaimed zombie drama on BBC3 called In the Flesh, which ran for two seasons before it was axed. Stretching the definition a little, you could also include upcoming ITV drama The Frankenstein Chronicles (a reworking of Mary Shelley’s horror masterpiece) in this zombie/undead genre.

Zombie dramas don’t work for every market – Turkey, for example, isn’t big on supernatural scripted shows. But even Korea has dipped its toe in the water with MBC’s two-parter I’m Alive, which aired in 2011.

Interestingly, the word ‘zombie’ probably comes from West Africa and first emerged in its current form in Haitian folklore, where zombies are dead bodies reanimated by magic. That said, there is no strong culture of zombies in Latin American television, though they do pop up in movies.

With TWD still going strong and Ash vs Evil Dead launching this weekend, there’s no sign that the undead are returning to their graves just yet. In fact, there are reports that NBC also wants in on the act. In 2013, the network resurrected an old idea called Babylon Fields and pushed it forward as a pilot. There hasn’t been much news on the show since 2014, but keep your eyes peeled.

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Dave Erickson: Giving new life to Dead franchise

After several near-misses, Fear The Walking Dead showrunner Dave Erickson tells Michael Pickard why this was the right time to join the world of the ‘walkers.’

For Dave Erickson, it seemed the opportunity might never arise. Having almost joined the writing team of The Walking Dead on several occasions, the timing was never quite right.

But when AMC announced a companion series to its hit zombie drama, Erickson finally landed his chance – as showrunner, no less – and is now steering a show that shattered cable records when it launched in August.

“I wrote a pilot based on a treatment by (The Walking Dead creator) Robert Kirkman five years ago. I didn’t know Robert or his work, but I started reading his comics,” Erickson tells DQ. “Shortly after, The Walking Dead launched on AMC and I danced around working for him on that show a couple of times but never actually did.

Dave Erickson (right) alongside FTWD exec producer Gale Anne Hurd
Dave Erickson (right) alongside FTWD exec producer Gale Anne Hurd

“I was always working. It coincided with my time working for Kurt Sutter on Sons of Anarchy. There was always an overlap; there was never a window of time that I could have done a season of The Walking Dead without it conflicting with Sons.

“But (Kirkman) and I stayed in touch, and when he came up with the idea to do the new series, he called to see if I was available – and I was.”

That new series, Fear The Walking Dead (FTWD), launched on AMC to record ratings for a series launch in terms of both total viewers (10.13 million) and adults aged 18-49 (6.3 million).

The story follows the struggles of one family living in LA at the dawn of the zombie apocalypse.

With its six-episode first season drawing to a close in October, the show has already been renewed for a 15-episode season to air in 2016. Season six of The Walking Dead also begins in October.

Signing up for FTWD, Erickson says he was aware of the popularity of the original series – which is regularly described as the biggest show on TV and draws ratings that dwarf those of many network shows. But it wasn’t until he appeared at San Diego Comic-Con this summer that the magnitude of its fandom became clear.

“I’m a bit of a luddite, I don’t track the ratings, but I knew how big The Walking Dead was,” he explains. “However, I didn’t get caught up in it until Comic-Con. It was my first one, and it was an interesting awakening getting up close and personal with the fanbase.

Erickson says there are no plans at present for the two Walking Dead shows to synchronise timelines
Erickson says there are no plans at present for the two Walking Dead shows to synchronise timelines

“What was interesting to me (about FTWD) was the way Robert looked back at the comics and the original show and saw elements he hadn’t fully explored. He saw opportunities for more narrative. Because the original series begins with Rick (Andrew Lincoln) waking up from a coma, there’s a big chunk of story readers and the audience never got to see. There’s the opportunity to see the fall of a major city and the building blocks of the apocalypse, but he was also interested in exploring specific thematics.

“He was very interested in the theme of violence. The Walking Dead goes from zero to apocalypse very quickly. Robert’s point in our show is that killing is hard – and because the walkers (The Walking Dead universe’s term for zombies) are ‘fresher,’ they seem human.

“So it’s a physical challenge to stop a walker but it also takes an emotional toll. There’s psychological trauma that goes with that, and Robert felt that was something he hadn’t had the opportunity to do in the original.”

Erickson was also able to bring his own ideas to the show, most notably the struggles of the central family. “The idea of a blended family and resentful children of divorce was something I wanted to explore,” he says. “The great irony for me is that, fundamentally, it’s a family drama. It’s a story of two parents trying to rein in this dysfunctional family and bring them under one roof and the only way that happens is because of the onset of the zombie apocalypse.”

As well as Sons of Anarchy, the FX crime drama that ended after seven seasons last December, the showrunner’s credits include another AMC series, Low Winter Sun, and Netflix original series Marco Polo.

He cites Sons creator Kurt Sutter as one of his showrunning role models, alongside Low Winter Sun’s Chris Mundy.

Speaking about creating the first season of FTWD, he says: “We had more lead time because Robert and I had written a pilot. We’d also done a fairly comprehensive season arc so we had a very specific line for the first six episodes.

FTWD achieved the most successful series premiere in US cable history
FTWD achieved the most successful series premiere in US cable history

“When the writers room was assembled, we were working off this document, but the great thing about bringing the room together and getting fresh eyes on your material is you realise sometimes there are other options and the choices you made may not be the best ones. It’s pretty much the same set-up as we had for Sons of Anarchy. Marco Polo was the same too. The room comes together and it’s about talking through characters and trying to figure out how they respond to whatever obstacle or conflict you throw at them.”

Going into season two, does Erickson have a map for the rest of the series? “I have arcs in mind, I have scenes in mind,” he says. “I have moments for specific characters and places I want to land. It’s just a question as things evolve whether they will be included in season four or season seven, for example. I need some kind of end point for an episode and a season. It doesn’t mean that won’t change as you get deeper into the story, but I like to have mile markers.”

Despite FTWD and The Walking Dead being set in the same zombie-ravaged universe, Erickson says the two are fundamentally different shows and that there are no plans to synchronise their timelines any time soon.

“It’s not a priority right now. It’s about letting our show and our characters evolve and seeing how that defines the chronology,” he explains. “We have the same DNA; the show lives under the same mythological umbrella as The Walking Dead and the comic. The walkers are infected, they have similar rules, they die the same way and they come back the same way. But it’s become its own thing.

“It does have a different base – it’s slower at the beginning because I’m taking time to develop the family. We have time to examine the family dynamic – whereas in the original show, they went ‘full zombie’ very quickly and the family drama element was always at par or catching up with the apocalypse itself.

“We’re able to examine smaller stories on this larger apocalyptic stage. It’s very much a smaller story set against this larger backdrop, as opposed to the larger backdrop being established first and trying to play on that. It’s definitely apocalyptic – we depict the fall of civilisation – but I think we found a way to do that through a very specific filter and a very specific lens.”

On the back of its record-breaking debut, FTWD has proved an able companion for The Walking Dead. With web series Fear The Walking Dead: Flight 462 set to launch alongside its season one finale, fans are certain to get their fill of zombies before season two returns next year.

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Bringing the ratings picture into focus

Empire's season two debut brought in 16.2 million viewers
Empire’s season two debut brought in an unassailable 16.2 million viewers

Now that we are deep into September, new dramas, and new seasons of established series, are being launched on a pretty regular basis. It is, however, becoming increasingly difficult to identify winners and losers on the basis of their opening ratings.

As we’ve noted previously in this column, so many people are now time-shifting dramas, or watching them on non-traditional platforms, that it can take three or four weeks for the dust to settle and consistent viewing patterns to establish themselves.

The fragmentation of viewing audiences partially explains why so many dramas in the past week or two have opened with comparatively low ratings. In the UK, new series of Downton Abbey and Doctor Who both underperformed on opening night, while in the US the majority of new and returning shows delivered unspectacular ratings.

Fox's pathology drama Rosewood
Fox’s pathology drama Rosewood

 

Gotham, NCIS: LA, Castle, Minority Report and Scream Queens were all at the low-to-moderate end of expectations (although host network Fox is pretty confident that Gotham will recover once time-shifted viewing is factored in).

There are exceptions, of course. Some shows are so hot that people just aren’t willing to delay their viewing enjoyment. The stand-out example of this is Fox’s Empire, which attracted 16.2 million viewers and a 6.7 rating among adults 18-49 for its season two premiere. That figure is the show’s second-best rating ever and confirms Empire’s status as the network show to beat. To put it in context, the only entertainment series on US TV to have drawn a higher 18-49 rating for an episode this year is AMC’s The Walking Dead, which returns to the airwaves on October 11.

US network TNT is cancelling Proof
US network TNT is cancelling Proof

Empire is such a strong performer that it was used by Fox as the lead in for a new pathology-based drama called Rosewood, starring Morris Chestnut. Rosewood did pretty well as a result but the early critical reviews of the show suggest that it will take more than a scheduling favour from Empire to sustain it. Remember, this is the age of ultimate choice where nothing will make an audience watch a show if they aren’t convinced.

From Fox’s perspective, the beauty of Empire is the way its audience grew so strongly in the first season. Having started with just under 10 million viewers for episode one, it rose to 13-14 million by the middle of the first season. By the end, it had leapt to 17.62 million.

The lesson is that you don’t have to hit extraordinary heights with the first episode. But you do need two things: firstly, a big enough launch platform to generate momentum and, secondly, a strong enough story to gather new fans as you progress.

Blindspot could struggle to retain its early audience
Blindspot could struggle to retain its early audience

So which of this year’s new shows stand a chance of replicating Empire’s success? NBC’s Blindspot has had an encouraging start. After a good early buzz over summer, it launched with 10.6 million viewers and a 3.1 rating among 18-49s. Given everything we’ve previously said about alternative viewing patterns, that’s a pretty good performance. If there is a challenge for Blindspot it will be to sustain the strength of its opening premise: a naked woman is found in a bag in Times Square, her memory gone but her body tattooed with clues to future crimes. This is exactly the kind of show that will either deliver on its promise or lose steam after three or four episodes if viewers tire of the central premise.

CBS’s Limitless also rated quite well (9.8 million viewers at 10pm, a 1.8 rating). Based on the movie of the same name, it was helped by the fact that it featured Bradley Cooper, the star of the film. An IMDb rating of 8.5 suggests that the show’s early adopters quite like the show, so it will be interesting to see how it fares once Cooper is no longer involved in the story. For those not familiar with Limitless, it centres on a drug that enables users to unlock 100% of their brain functionality. In the CBS TV series, this is employed as the basis of an FBI procedural storytelling format.

Limitless benefited from Hollywood star Bradley Cooper's presence
Limitless benefited from Hollywood star Bradley Cooper’s presence

The dynamics around new dramas are usually volatile, because it’s not always clear what factors will motivate viewers to tune in. But things are generally more predictable for established franchises such as Downton Abbey, which returned to ITV in the UK on Sunday September 20 at 21.00.

After the loyalty demonstrated by the audience over the past five years, the show would probably have expected to see pretty strong ratings as Downton-starved fans rushed to enjoy what will be the last season ever. Instead, season six of Downton Abbey delivered its lowest overnight audience ever: 7.6 million. This is well down on last year’s opening episode, which brought in 8.4 million. The last time Downton dropped this low was for its first ever episode in 2010 (7.7 million).

Low, of course, is a slightly unfair word to use. Downton still beat all its rivals and also massively out-performed ITV’s slot average (35.5% share against 21.3%). Still, it does raise the question where did the Downton fans go? There are a few possibilities.

Downton Abbey delivered its lowest overnight audience ever
Downton Abbey delivered its lowest overnight audience ever

Firstly, there is the time-shifting point. This opening episode was an extended 90-minute special, so audiences may have decided to bank the show rather than stay up late on Sunday night. Secondly, the promotional build-up to the series may have missed its mark – there was a lot of early PR buzz but my household still managed to miss it, despite being fans. So maybe ITV failed to get its new-series signposting right. Thirdly, the audience may have been put off by the fact that this has already been set up as the final season. While that may seem like a way of generating excitement, it can also have an enervating effect as audiences wonder whether it’s worth tuning in. And finally, writer Julian Fellowes may have judged the show’s sell-by date just right. Perhaps the audience is getting a little weary of Downton’s cosseted worldview and its lack of zombies.

OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network’s The Have and the Have Nots
OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network’s The Have and the Have Nots

As outlined at the start of this piece, September is when most shows start. But a few are also coming to a close after a summer run. One show that emerged from this period in good shape is OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network’s The Have and the Have Nots. The show, which follows the dynamic between the rich and powerful Cryer family and the hired help who work in their Savannah mansion, is created, written, directed and executive produced by Tyler Perry. The season three finale attracted 3.7 million viewers, making it the most watched telecast in the network’s history. It was then followed by another Tyler Perry show, If Loving You is Wrong, which picked up a healthy 2.9 million viewers. Both shows were also among the top cable performers among women.

Elsewhere, US cable network TNT has announced that it is cancelling Proof, in which a female surgeon is challenged to explore whether there could be an afterlife. Over the course of the show, she transforms from being a sceptic to a reluctant believer.

The first season of the show rated reasonably well but its audience skewed towards older demographics. This was probably the killer blow, given that TNT/TBS’s recently appointed president Kevin Reilly has talked about “sharpening the point of view and being even more adventurous in our programming choices.” Speaking at the channel’s Upfronts in May, he said: “As we expand our portfolio, viewers should expect some very daring shows, some of which will not appeal to all of our current viewers but will be a lightning rod to attract new viewers.”

Finally, Doctor Who’s ratings make for interesting reading. In the UK, the show’s new season opened with just 4.6 million viewers on BBC1, down from 6.8 million for episode one last year. But in the US, the same episode did extremely well for BBC America, delivering double-digit growth from season eight across all key demos in live-plus-same-day ratings. The premiere episode ranks as Doctor Who’s biggest season premiere ever in the adult 18-49 demo, which nearly doubled the season eight average. The debut also saw increased social engagement and reigned as the most social drama of the week leading up to the premiere.

Doctor Who's season debut rated well in the US
Doctor Who’s season debut rated well in the US

 

The US airing delivered two million total viewers, 1.1 million of which were adults 18-49. “Doctor Who is unlike anything else on television, a storied franchise that is as fresh and contemporary as ever, with brilliant writing and superb performances,” said Sarah Barnett, president of BBC America. “New and returning Doctor Who fans tuned into the live premiere in record numbers.”

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Spin it to win it: The rising popularity of spin-off series

As AMC prepares to launch Fear The Walking Dead, Michael Pickard looks at the trend towards producing spin-offs of popular shows and examines why such series are so popular with television networks.

In the increasingly congested world of television drama, it takes a brave commissioner to back a slate of original series for fear they might crash and burn without ever breaking into the public consciousness.

So what better way to offer new programming and give viewers more of what they like than to build on an existing hit series?

Reboots, re-imaginings, prequels, sequels and companion series are nothing new, of course.

Andrew Lincoln in the sixth season of the original The Walking Dead
Andrew Lincoln in the sixth season of the original The Walking Dead

Among the biggest successes was The Bionic Woman, a follow-up to 1970s series The Six Million Dollar Man, while Star Trek: The Original Series led to countless continuations, including The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager and Enterprise.

Stargate SG-1 led to Infinity, Atlantis and Universe; Doctor Who branched off with Torchwood; and, more recently, The Vampire Diaries spawned The Originals, Pretty Little Liars moved to Ravenswood and Once Upon a Time led to Once Upon a Time in Wonderland.

In Britain, the success of time-travelling police drama Life on Mars led to hard-hitting detective Gene Hunt getting his own series in follow-up Ashes to Ashes, while Inspector Morse was followed by sequel Lewis and prequel Endeavour.

Perhaps the most famous examples of spin-offs are the long-running procedural series that have been reworked for multiple locations across the US. CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, set in Las Vegas, was spun off for New York and Miami, and also led to cyber-crime series CSI: Cyber.

JAG led to NCIS, which itself has had spin-offs NCIS: Los Angeles, failed pilot Red and New Orleans.

Meanwhile, another long-running series, Law & Order, led to Special Victims Unit, Criminal Intent, Trial by Jury and Los Angeles, and has been adapted in the UK and Russia.

Elsewhere, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was followed by Angel, and Chicago Fire is now part of an NBC franchise created by Law & Order’s Dick Wolf that includes Chicago PD and Chicago Med.

The list goes on – and it’s about to get even longer.

Fear the Walking Dead (FTWD, pictured top), which launches on US cable network AMC on August 23, is a “companion series” to the hugely successful zombie drama The Walking Dead, which is now entering its sixth season on the same channel.

Could Empire, which airs on Fox, be the next show to get a spin-off?
Could Empire, which airs on Fox, be the next show to get a spin-off?

Ahead of the spin-off’s launch, The Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman shared his hopes for the new series in an open letter, in which he hinted that Fear will stand alone from its parent show.

“Here we go again,” he begins. “I don’t say that with the exhausted tone one might expect coming from someone embarking on a companion show while also working on the sixth season of the original. Truth be told, I would have to fill this space with exclamation points to accurately represent just how excited I am about Fear the Walking Dead. It’s so cool for me to be expanding The Walking Dead universe in such exciting and new ways.”

Kirkman, who created the comic book on which The Walking Dead is based, says the original series has always been about the characters – and the spin-off series gives him and the writing team the chance to introduce a new band of survivors in their post-outbreak world.

“These people have their own experiences and reasons to survive,” he explains. “They’re complicated, real characters who will not be dealing with the undead the same way. They’ll learn new things, they’ll find new tools, they’ll learn faster or slower. But what we end up with is a very, very different show… set in a world we love exploring as much as we’d all never want to live there.”

At a recent Television Critics Association panel to discuss the series, FTWD showrunner Dave Erickson separated the two shows further by stating that, unlike those in the original, characters the new series won’t use the term ‘walkers’ to describe the zombies.

Executive producer Dave Alpert added: “The show (The Walking Dead) in season six is different from what’s happening in season one and there were so many questions about what happened in season one that we thought it was a ripe area that wouldn’t tread on the mothership. We look at Fear as unique enough to stand on its own with characters you’d be invested in.”

With the trend for spin-offs showing no sign of slowing down, surely expanding what’s arguably the biggest show on television has to be a safe bet.

AMC certainly believes there are more stories to tell in the Walking Dead world, with FTWD already building on its six-part first season with a 15-episode second run in the works.

Another show that could get a companion series is music drama Empire. Creator Lee Daniels teased the idea when discussing the Fox series, which is preparing for its season two launch, as it is already known that he’s developing another drama about an all-girl band called Star.

Spin-off series offer fans the chance to enjoy more of their favourite television series by expanding the world in which they’re set, so long as they contain engaging characters and unique stories. They can also lead to ‘event’ crossover episodes – as is the case with Arrow and The Flash on The CW.

But if variety is the spice of life, TV networks might be wise to ensure they don’t rely on diluting their most popular franchises for fear of fulfilling the law of diminishing returns.

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AMC finds more life in Dead franchise

Unlike The Walking Dead, Fear the Walking Dead will also premiere on AMC’s international channel AMC Global
Unlike The Walking Dead, Fear the Walking Dead will also premiere on AMC’s international channel AMC Global

There are only three weeks to go until the launch of Fear the Walking Dead, US cable channel AMC’s LA-based spin-off of its hit zombie drama series The Walking Dead.

Earlier this year, AMC said it had greenlit two series of the new show. This week it added some detail, saying that there will be 15 episodes in the second run, which is scheduled to air during 2016.

Fear The Walking Dead, which launches on August 23, has a special significance for AMC because, unlike The Walking Dead, it will also premiere on AMC’s international channel AMC Global, which is available in 125 countries after a rapid international roll-out over the last year.

The Walking Dead started to gain momentum as a franchise before AMC had an international channel to air it on. So internationally most of the branding benefits of the show have gone to Fox channels, which have the international rights.

This time, however, AMC wants to make sure it is the primary beneficiary. To make the most of its relationship with Fear The Walking Dead, it also plans to air the show simultaneously around the world, a move that will drive its social media stats sky-high.

AMC has also announced the launch date for its hotly anticipated martial arts series Into the Badlands. Scheduled to premiere on November 15, this show will also be available internationally on AMC Global. It’s too early to say if Into the Badlands can have the same kind of impact as The Walking Dead, but it is the most ambitious martial arts project to have hit TV screens for some time.

Into the Badlands is coming to AMC in November
Into the Badlands is coming to AMC in November

“Martial arts is not only a new genre for an AMC series, but also one that has been largely absent from television for 15 years,” said Joel Stillerman, president of original programming for AMC and SundanceTV. “The team behind Into the Badlands, led by showrunners Al Gough and Miles Millar, is comprised of some of the best martial artists and martial arts filmmakers in the world, and they have crafted a show that over-delivers against two big goals we set for the show: to create a compelling character drama and to introduce the highest calibre of martial arts filmmaking to a weekly, ongoing series.”

Other interesting developments include National Geographic Channel’s announcement that it has ordered a pilot script from Tom Fontana and Barry Levinson for Last Men Out. Based on a book by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin, the series will look at the rearguard actions of a band of marines during the final days of the Vietnam War. Fontana, whose credits include Copper and Borgia, will write and executive produce the pilot through Levinson/Fontana Co – the production company he formed with Levinson.

If all of the above sounds too violent for your tastes, then US cable channel The CW has revealed plans for an adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s 19th century classic Little Women, to be written by Alexis Jolly and produced by Solar Drive Productions in association CBS TV Studios.

The 1994 movie version of Little Women
The 1994 movie version of Little Women

However, anyone familiar with the 1994 movie version of the book that starred Winona Ryder, Claire Danes and Kirsten Dunst may be in for a surprise. Press reports claim The CW is planning a “hyper-stylised adaptation” of the novel in which “disparate half-sisters Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy band together in order to survive the dystopic streets of Philadelphia and unravel a conspiracy that stretches far beyond anything they have ever imagined – all while trying not to kill each other in the process.”

Last year, cable channel E! entered the scripted market for the first time with The Royals, a series based around the public and private lives of a fictitious British Royal Family. Now it has announced plans for a second project, with the working title Hollywood Teen Medium. Following the life of 19-year-old Tyler Henry, the series explores the world of a “self-proclaimed clairvoyant medium as he balances his unique abilities with trying to be a regular teenager. Formerly of a small-town, Tyler has become one of Hollywood’s top mediums, bringing messages from the heavens and profound visions to today’s hottest stars.”

With a greenlight for eight one-hour episodes, Hollywood Teen Medium “adds a new layer of mystery and intrigue to the glitz and glamour of Hollywood that our audience is so passionate about,” said Jeff Olde, executive VP for original programming and development at E!.

Black Sails has been given a fourth season before its third has started airing
Black Sails has been given a fourth season before its third has started airing

This week has also seen a fair amount of activity in terms of series renewals. The big news at Starz is a fourth season of Black Sails, which stars Toby Stephens as Captain Flint.

The first two seasons of Black Sails averaged 4.5 million multi-platform viewers per episode and the series is distributed in 175 countries worldwide. A greenlight for the fourth season comes despite the fact that the 10-episode third season doesn’t air on Starz until 2016. As mentioned previously, Starz has also cancelled Da Vinci’s Demons.

Amid a slew of announcements over the last week, Netflix said the fourth season of Longmire will air on September 10 (available to audiences in the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand). Based on the novels by bestselling author Craig Johnson, Longmire is a crime drama that centres on a Wyoming county sheriff who returns to work after his wife’s death.

The show is interesting because the first three seasons aired on A&E, which then cancelled it. Producer Warner Horizon TV then touted the show around, at which point Netflix stepped in and saved it.

Netflix came to Longmire's rescue after it was cancelled by A&E
Netflix came to Longmire’s rescue after it was cancelled by A&E

Finally, Channel 4 has announced a second season of its hit sci-fi drama Humans, produced by Kudos from a Scandinavian drama by Matador. It is coproduced with AMC.

The decision was announced just prior to the finale of the first run this Sunday. Commenting on the decision, C4 head of drama Piers Wenger said the drama “marks a key moment for C4 as we expand our remit for bold and original drama into the international copro space.”

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Diederick Santer

Diederick Santer, the MD of drama production company Lovely Day, chooses three scenes from contemporary dramas that have inspired him over the past few years.

Happy-Valley[2]Happy Valley
A big drama highlight for me in recent years has been Sally Wainwright’s series Happy Valley. I admired everything about this show – the tone, the look, the casting and Sally’s hugely original and ambitious storytelling. James Norton was filming his leading role in our series Grantchester while Happy Valley transmitted in the UK, and the parts he played in each could not be more different. In Grantchester he’s a charming vicar; in Happy Valley he’s a violent and disturbed ex-con.

Happy Valley explores, among other things, violence and, as such, has to depict it. But I’ve rarely seen the consequences of violence, and in particular violence against women, played out so fully on TV. Yes, there are disturbing moments, but the audience and characters then have to live through the consequences of those moments.

“I think they’ve killed me,” whispers young PC Kirsten McAskill into her radio as Tommy Lee Royce repeatedly reverses a yellow Mini over her in episode three. It’s a moment we and the other characters didn’t see coming. It changes everything for everyone – it galvanises sergeant Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire) into action and reveals to us the full extent of Tommy’s violent and dangerous nature.

The-Walking-Dead-s3-2The Walking Dead
I love this series! Like Happy Valley it is hugely violent, but in a more comic-book way (which is unsurprising given its origin).

Charismatic British actor David Morrissey plays The Governor, or ‘Brian’ as he calls himself at the beginning of season four. By this point, we’ve seen the extent of his violent insanity, but now he finds himself in a situation where simple qualities like being a good father figure and a loving partner seem to fulfil him more than the scheming megalomania of season three.

Who is he? ‘The Governor’ or ‘Brian’? The question is posed at the start of episode seven, when it’s time for him to make a choice between peaceful and loving family life or leading a violent and self-serving army.

This conflicted man is quietly hanging up washing while playing chess with a little girl. “It’s your turn, Brian,” she says. He stares into the distance. “I’m a-thinking,” he replies. We pull back and see that the washing line is hung between a caravan and a tank. Domestic duty or war? Which will he choose? It’s a simple, dialogue-light scene, but the choice he must make is eloquently articulated.

UtopiaUtopia
I was delighted to see Utopia return last year, written by Dennis Kelly and produced by Kudos, Lovely Day’s parent company. I’d enjoyed the complex conspiracy madness of the first series, the awesome cast of characters and arresting visuals. But how could they build on this for series two? How could they transcend series one without repeating themselves?

Well, entirely counterintuitively, series two begins almost four decades earlier, with weird and saturated Italian news footage from 1979, and then quickly introduces us to the little girl version of Jessica Hyde, a key character from series one. She’s sat on a bench at night in a square in Rome, with her dad, the enigmatic Philip Carvel, much mentioned but never before seen.

The disorientation continues when Carvel is led away, witnesses an Italian taxi driver have his head blown off and is then blackmailed. It’s head-spinning for Carvel, and more so for us. And as if this were not enough, the entire episode remains in 1979 and we see none of the regular cast.

I admire the ambition of the writer, the producer and the broadcaster (Channel 4) to create this bold and assured opening. It marked out Utopia as totally original and fearless.

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Graphic detail

When Greg Berlanti was a kid, he would often have his head in a comic book, reading the latest adventures of Green Arrow or The Flash.

Today, he is part of the team that has brought both characters to life as the stars of their own live action dramas on US network The CW. Arrow begins its third season this fall, while The Flash makes its debut.

“I thought Arrow would make for a great show, in part because it was realistic and in my mind had a gritty tone and a Jason Bourne-type feel,” says Berlanti. “A lot of times TV shows fail, but this one worked.”

The success of Arrow and other adaptations is now a factor behind the charge to acquire rights to comic books and graphic novels, which are being snapped up by television executives hungry to bring new characters and the fantastical worlds they inhabit to the small screen.

Network television in the US will air five series based on graphic novels and comics this fall – three making their debuts – while zombie drama The Walking Dead heads into its fifth season on cable network AMC. Further adaptations are lined up for midseason, with dozens more in development.

Of course, comic books and graphic novels are not a new source of television inspiration. Batman and The Incredible Hulk appeared in the 1960s and 1970s, while Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman presented Clark Kent to a new generation in the 1990s. They also provide a near constant source of material for animated series, largely aimed at younger viewers.

But is this resurgence of superheroes on the small screen a lasting attempt by television studios’ attempts to grab a share of the huge profits being made by their big screen siblings, or is it just a Flash-in-the-pan?

The Walking Dead print (1) (web)
Graphic novel The Walking Dead, on which the series was based.

When NBC passed on the pilot script for The Walking Dead, the show spent four years in the wilderness looking for a new home. It was only in 2010 when AMC committed to the series, rather than sending it into development limbo, that it was given a platform to become one of the highest rated US dramas.

David Alpert, an executive producer on The Walking Dead, says: “There was a degree of scepticism as to the merit of the artform of comic books and over time, as the success of the Marvel and DC Comics movies has increased alongside independent comic book movies like Men in Black and Road to Perdition, it started to make an impression on people that comic books are as vital an art form as any other.”

He agrees that comic book adaptations are hot properties in television. The New Zealand-based firm is developing an animated version of Image Comics’ Rat Queens but has live action series in development.

“They’re high concept, they’re world-building, they’re noisy,” he explains. “That’s what everybody wants. And graphic novels and comic books tend to be a good source of that kind of material.”

Universal Cable Productions (UCP), the production company behind Syfy’s Defiance and Suits on USA Network, currently has four comic book and graphic novel adaptations in development, alongside an untitled project from Iron Man writer Warren Ellis and The Walking Dead executive producer Gale Ann Hurd’s Valhalla Entertainment.

And Dawn Olmstead, UCP’s executive VP of development, admits she has been shopping for IP since she joined the NBC Universal-owned studio earlier this year.

“I’ve only been there for five months and have been on a graphic novel and comic buying spree,” she says. “If you look at what’s happening in television right now, big distinctive ideas and worlds are really interesting, not only for network presidents but for audiences.

“In today’s market where there are a million shows coming at people, a world that’s distinctive and has a fresh imagination brings with it the opportunity to stand out. People have been doing it for a long time in comics and graphic novels, and we’re just finding that they’re really translatable, not just into movies but also into TV.”

Night Mary
Night Mary

UCP’s slate includes IDW Publishing’s Night Mary, a horror story about a 17-year-old girl who is trained to enter the dreams of patients at her father’s sleep disorder clinic, and Image Comics’ Pax Romana, in which the Vatican discovers the secret of time travel and hopes to change the future by sending soldiers and modern weaponry back to Rome in 312AD.

Olmstead says: “Which projects we choose comes down to gut reaction. Often we don’t know what we’re looking for until it comes across our desks, or we hear it in a room.

“Everybody now has control over what they put on their television and they can search for what they want. We use a gut litmus test – can you imagine searching for that show?

“Then the character has to be great. You’re really going to get to know Walter White in Breaking Bad because you’re going to spend a lot of time with him, and we really look for characters that can hold up to that test.”

Constantine
Constantine

One of the biggest winners from this surge in live action adaptations is DC Comics, through its DC Entertainment division, which will have four series on US network television this fall. Freshman series Constantine, based on the Hellblazer comics, lands on NBC, Batman prequel Gotham is heading to Fox, and The Flash is joining Arrow on The CW.

Geoff Johns, chief creative officer at DC Entertainment, says: “Shows like Grey’s Anatomy are great, but audiences don’t want to dress up like those characters. People don’t have action figures of those characters. The comic book genre hits you and becomes part of your lifestyle.

“When you go to Comic-Con and see 7,000 people cramming in to watch the premiere of Gotham, The Flash, or Constantine, you realise how much people love this stuff. They just want to see it done with care and love, by people who are as fanatical about it as they are.That’s the key.”

Writer and executive producer Berlanti had been reading the adventures of Green Arrow since he was a kid, so when he signed a production deal with DC’s parent Warner Bros Entertainment, he knew the story of a vigilante facing up against the villains running his home city was perfect for television.

A pilot was ordered in the 2011/12 development season by The CW, which later commissioned a full season.

For Berlanti, however, there was one comic book character he had always wanted to bring to life – the light to Arrow’s darkness – and after introducing the character in season two of Arrow, The Flash now has its own spin-off series.

“I wouldn’t have done The Flash two or three years ago,” says Berlanti, who executive produces both shows through his Berlanti Productions label. “The visual effects departments in TV didn’t have the capacity at the time to deliver the visual effects that would accompany a character like this,” he says of Barry Allen, who gains the ability of super-speed when a lightning bolt causes chemicals to spill over him.

Recreating The Flash’s super-speed also posed problems for Johns, who describes the finished effects as “pretty phenomenal”.

“That was something that was really important,” he says. “If you don’t believe he can move fast, it’s not going to work.”

But why does Johns think comic books and graphic novels are suddenly hot property?

Blockbuster movies, he says, are a big factor, but he goes further when he says television “is probably the closest to comic books in terms of storytelling that I know”.

He adds: “The Flash is built like a comic book, complete with cliff-hangers and subplots. Gotham is more of an urban saga you’re following, a police procedural that feels more like a comic book. When I was a kid, comics were not cool, but they’re more popular than they’ve ever been.”

“Network television in particular is going to have to do more of this kind of stuff, to create both good stories but big, juicy landscapes for people to enjoy because we live in a world where there are 400 channels, you’ve got access to every film and TV show of all time, and they have to compete.”

One network still dipping its toes into the waters of original scripted series is Netflix, the digital platform that has quickly become one of the biggest players in the industry with hits including House of Cards and Orange is the New Black. Its burgeoning reputation was further enhanced when it partnered with Marvel Television to commission four new series featuring Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist, and a miniseries called The Defenders. The first series, Daredevil, will be released in 2015.

And they will join ABC series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D and midseason entry Agent Carter in Marvel’s expanding line-up.

Jeph Loeb, head of Marvel Television, says the Netflix projects are “separate stories but one large tapestry”, akin to Marvel’s film strategy that saw Iron Man, Hulk, Captain America and Thor later team up as The Avengers.

“This wasn’t something we forced together,” he explains. “It wasn’t like we picked four random characters and just put them together. They already had their own kind of world; they’re what we refer to as street level heroes. You get to really explore the world that doesn’t quite have the lustre or sparkle that you get from the Marvel movies, or for that matter Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. or Agent Carter. Our ABC shows do not feel like our Netflix shows because they’re from a different part of the Marvel universe.”

Loeb won’t be drawn on whether the Netflix series represent ‘phase one’ of Marvel’s assault on television, in a similar vein to the decade-long blueprint it has mapped out for its cinematic adventures. “But it seems to work well for the movies, doesn’t it,” he adds.

Another comics publisher getting into the TV business is IDW, which launched IDW Entertainment under the control of president David Ozer in October 2013.

Former Starz and Sonar Entertainment executive Ozer and IDW CEO Ted Adams have identified 10 properties to package as television adaptations, including Night Mary with UCP; Pantheon, a story set in the near future where the only gods worshipped are money and power, developed with The Shield actor Michael Chiklis; and V Wars, a vampire drama adapted by Dexter’s Tim Schlattmann. Circle of Confusion, which executive produces The Walking Dead, is overseeing development.

Adams revealed a “frustrating” experience seeing another of its comics, Locke & Key, fail to land a series order with Fox was the catalyst for IDW to build its own television division and, significantly, retain control of the adaptation process.

Another key marker was networks’ increasing openness to straight-to-series orders, which appeal to Adams.

He says: “There’s definitely something in the air. When we launched this, we didn’t know there was the huge number of shows based on comics that are going to be on air this year.

“Everybody’s looking for great ideas. Although our stories come from comic books initially, they’re not stereotypical superhero comic books. It’s just great genre storytelling. The networks want the same things for their shows as I want for my books, which is to be able to tell a great story, find interesting characters and create a world that gets people interested.”

So once they’ve won a commission, how do producers and writers begin adapting comic books and graphic novels for television? “Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it’s hard,” says Olmstead. “Sometimes they’ve written something that’s adaptable in both scale and episodic journey. But sometimes they tend to put out really big ideas about society that’s hard to translate in dialogue and in scenes.”

“There’s always pressure to get it right, but it’s a good kind of pressure,” says Johns, who has written comic stories for characters including Green Lantern, Superman and The Flash. “If you were doing a biographical movie of Abraham Lincoln, you’re going to research the guy’s life, the world around him, what he did, what he accomplished, and the people around him.

“There are visual cues you want to keep because that’s the iconic feel of the characters. But the key point is the emotional content of the character – John Constantine’s emotional centre, his virility, his anti-hero status, or The Flash’s optimistic outlook and the joy of being a superhero. Every one of these characters has an emotional core you want to stay true to because that’s what is going to resonate the most.”

Comic books and graphic novels also come with an extra feature – ready made artwork. Characters and costumes are brought to life without the need for conceptual artists to present a vision of the show to network executives. But is this a blessing or a curse?

Alpert says: “It’s the greatest blessing we have. I can only imagine what it’s like to go into The Killing or Homeland thinking ‘we just had an amazing season one, how do we do something different in season two?’ The fact we have 130 issues to draw from gives us a real leg-up on other shows out there.

In the pilot for The Walking Dead, Alpert says there are scenes shot frame-for-frame from the comic, which was created by Robert Kirkman.

“I remember being in downtown Atlanta as hundreds of people in zombie make-up were chewing blood-filled condoms from a fake horse’s stomach and squeezing them, exploding them, and Robert looking at them and thinking this was exactly the way he had envisioned it,” he recalls.

But it’s not just the artwork that offers an instant benefit to executives bringing their projects to market. An existing fan base that has followed and fallen in love with the paperback adventures provides an instant audience, though that in itself can pose as many risks as rewards.

Adam Fratto, executive VP at animation studio Pukeko Pictures, explains: “Comic books can become quite popular so if you have a built-in fan base, that can really help. But there’s always the fact that with any underlying material, you run the risk of alienating the fans.

“Comic book fans are smart and want to be entertained. They don’t expect it to be a slavish repetition of the books. It’s important not to get too hung up on being 100 per cent faithful. My approach is usually to use the existing material as a jumping off point, not as a blueprint.”

Despite the success of the Marvel films, Loeb says the Netflix series and those on ABC still face the same challenges as any other series. “You want to make sure you’re telling something entertaining and compelling, that the viewers are caught up in a storyline they can’t get enough of – and in particular on Netflix, when you have the opportunity to download all 13 shows at once. In so many ways, Netflix lends itself much more to the same experience that you get when you buy a stack of comics where as soon as you put the first one down you want to get the second one, third, and fourth.

“Our goal is hopefully, on that first weekend, people will download all 13 episodes of Daredevil and make a weekend out of it, and have Daredevil parties and get completely caught up in it.

“We have seven series moving forward. That’s a lot of production. We are going to be producing 56 hours of television in the next 52 weeks. Hardcore fans and brand new people are not going to be disappointed.”

With a number of US broadcasters commissioning comic book adaptations, what does this mean for international buyers?
Channel 5 in the UK is the free-to-air home of The Walking Dead, picking up season four for its sibling 5* after fan power saw it overturn its earlier decision to drop it, and it has now added Gotham for the new season.

“There’s always been a lot of TV series around comic book heroes but it’s been a bit more family friendly,” says Katie Keenan, Channel 5’s head of acquisitions. “Certainly the take on it now is a lot darker and edgier.

“What you have with The Walking Dead and Gotham is an innate fan base and when there are people who have grown up with those comics and then get to see them realised on screen, you know you’re going to draw an audience. People love to see their heroes on screen and I don’t think that’s ever going to go away.”

Outcast
Outcast

Alpert is now reteaming with Kirkman for exorcism drama Outcast, which has been developed with Cinemax and Fox International Channels. They are also plotting a Walking Dead spin-off for AMC set in the same world but featuring new characters.

“There’s always a sense that if something works, try to replicate it. So I definitely see more stuff being picked up from comics,” says Alpert. “It will be cyclical, so there will be a wave of original programming that comes along. But given the high degree of investment and the huger and desire to cut through the noise out there, it’s useful to tap into something that has a pre-awareness and a fan base.”

At UCP, Olmstead’s IP buying spree will continue “until they tell me I’m out of money”. She adds: “Comic book and graphic novelists are some of the best creators out there. They’re incredibly smart and are translating society’s problems in a really creative way, and as long as they’re doing it, I think we’ll be buying them.”

After bringing Arrow and The Flash to life, Berlanti says there’s “definitely more I would like to see” on television. “What people are starting to say about The Flash is we didn’t know one of these shows could be funny or light-hearted too,” he explains. “Our hope was to zig when other people are zagging and I think there are more opportunities like that in terms of tone or types of characters not represented in TV.”

While The Flash and Gotham have ready-made fans, The Walking Dead is proof that lesser known properties can also become television hits. The endless supply of comic book and graphic novel material is matched only by the appetite of television executives for these properties in the hope of finding the next success story.

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