Tag Archives: Tyrant

No Halt for AMC’s PC period drama

Halt and Catch Fire has averaged around 520,000 viewers per episode
Halt and Catch Fire has averaged around 520,000 viewers per episode

AMC has just greenlit a third season of scripted series Halt and Catch Fire. Created by Christopher Cantwell and Christopher Rogers, the show is a recent period drama that looks at the origins of the personal computer revolution in the early 1980s.

On the face of it, the recommission is a surprise, given the show’s low ratings. Season two’s same-day ratings averaged around 520,000 across a run of 10 episodes. Even when three days’ worth of time-shifted viewing is added in (Live + 3), the show still only managed to attract around 900,000 – making it the lowest-rating original drama on the network.

To put this in perspective, The Walking Dead and Fear The Walking Dead (FTWD) bring audiences in excess of 10 million to AMC. Low Winter Sun, cancelled last year, was running at around 1.2 million – and had a much better response from the 18-49 demographic than Halt.

So why would a savvy network like AMC renew a show that doesn’t seem to be delivering the goods in ratings terms? Well, there are a number of possible explanations. The first is that critics started warming to the show in season two, regarding it as a step up from the first run. So it’s possible AMC views the show as a sleeper – the kind of drama that might suddenly break through into the public consciousness in season three, encouraging new viewers to go back and watch from the start.

Into the Badlands will debut on AMC next month
Into the Badlands will debut on AMC next month

The second is that AMC might have taken a positive view on the profile of the audience. It’s possible Halt and Catch Fire particularly appeals to AMC influencers and evangelists – the kind of hardcore fans who will recommend the channel to friends. As such, the drama may have a value over and above its raw numbers.

Another factor worth noting is that AMC is a subscription-based channel, not an ad-only channel like the big four US broadcast networks. While AMC does make money from ads (and it’s possible advertisers might like Halt), it doesn’t need to make snap decisions about shows – especially at a time when The Walking Dead, FTWD and Better Call Saul are all doing so well for the channel. Somewhere, deep in AMC’s research department, someone may have taken the view that the profile of Halt and Catch Fire is having an additive effect on the overall schedule.

Linked to this point is the positive impact the show could be having on the AMC brand. As the channel showed with Mad Men, which wasn’t a huge ratings success, there is a brand benefit in being seen as a channel that supports quality shows – especially if that support translates into awards. It gives channels the kind of ‘home of quality’ feel that public broadcasters like the BBC and DR in Denmark possess, and that can be a business benefit.

Channels also need to take a view on the overall shape of their slate at any given time. With Mad Men and Hell on Wheels both coming to a close, AMC is probably reluctant to go on a cancellation spree. Turn and Humans were also renewed after delivering modest ratings, so the channel may be waiting to see which of the three manages to raise its game in ratings terms. Alternatively, it may be waiting to see how new shows like Into the Badlands and Preacher perform. If those series do well, then the pressure to axe at least one show will probably grow.

Tyrant has been given a third season on FX
Tyrant has been given a third season on FX

It’s also important to think about the global economics of the AMC business these days. Halt and Catch Fire is a wholly owned show, which means AMC has a vested interest in it doing well. It can use the show on its international network AMC Global and it can sell it to international third parties or to Netflix. In other words, there are several other ways to extract value from the show that have nothing to do with the average audience for season two.

And finally, there is a point to be made about building relationships with talent. While the showrunner on Halt’s first two series, Jonathan Lisco, has left to work on another project, this has opened the door for Cantwell and Rogers to take control of the show they created and co-write. They are clearly delighted to be making a new series for AMC – so it’s just possible their next show may be the one that does the business for the channel. Or maybe other writing talent will look at the recommission and decide AMC is the kind of network they want to take their show to.

In summary, there are reasons why networks sometimes choose to keep ploughing ahead with low-rating shows. Ratings are still the best way to analyse and assess a show’s performance, but in this increasingly complex media market we shouldn’t be too surprised if networks back shows that look destined for the chop. And it makes the job of guessing that much more interesting.

Elsewhere, US cable channel FX has renewed Tyrant for a third season of 10 episodes. This show, created by Gideon Raff and executive produced by Howard Gordon (the team that brought us Homeland), is a political drama loosely based on the life of Syria president Bashar al-Assad. Series two averaged around 1.2 million viewers, but seemed to be getting stronger towards the back end of the run. This view is confirmed by IMDb ratings. While the overall IMDb rating is 7.9, episodes 10, 11 and 12 of season two were all scored by fans at 9 or 9.1 – suggesting a groundswell of support.

George RR Martin's Skin Trade has previously been adapted as a comic
George RR Martin’s Skin Trade novella is being adapted for Cinemax

Another interesting story this week is that HBO sister channel Cinemax has optioned the TV rights to Game of Thrones author George RR Martin’s The Skin Trade, described as an the offbeat werewolf noir novella. Commenting on his blog, Martin said: “The deal is closed, and Cinemax has ordered the pilot script. This being Hollywood, you never know where things will end… but if they like the script, we’ll shoot a pilot, and if they like that, hey, who knows, maybe we’ll get a series on the air. Which would be very cool. Those of you who know the story of Doorways, my ill-fated ABC pilot from the early 90s, may recall that it was Skin Trade that I was actually trying to sell back in 1991, when I flew out to LA for a round of pitch meetings. So we’re a few decades late…”

Some Game of Thrones fans will no doubt be anxious that Skin Trade will distract Martin from finishing writing his masterwork. But he used his blog to assure fans that wouldn’t be the case: “While I would have loved to write the script and run the show myself, that was never really on the cards. I have this book to finish. You know the one…”

The Skin Trade pilot will be written by Kalinda Vazquez, whose credits include Prison Break and Once Upon a Time. Martin will be an executive producer.

Halle Berry in Extant
Halle Berry in Extant

Skin Trade comes under a two-year development deal Martin has with HBO. He has previously said that he is developing a Captain Cosmos series at HBO, with Michael Cassutt writing. Cassutt’s TV credits include The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone.

Finally, NBC’s new procedural series Blindspot has been rewarded for its good start with an additional nine-episode order. This means it is the first of this year’s new US shows to secure a full-season order. By contrast, Fox has reduced its initial order of 13 episodes on Minority Report to 10. While this doesn’t count as a cancellation, it means the show is the first of this year’s new US titles to know that it won’t be coming back. CBS, meanwhile, has cancelled summer series Extant, starring Halle Berry, after two seasons. Both Minority Report and Extant are Amblin TV shows.

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Hostage to fortune

Having presided over eight seasons of 24, Howard Gordon moved to Homeland and then Tyrant as war blazed across the Middle East. As the second season of the latter is prepped, Gordon talks to DQ about the pressure of creating ‘real world’ drama.

When Jack Bauer disappeared at the end of 24’s eighth series back in 2010, it was as limp an anti-climax as TV history has delivered. Barely a handful of viewers watched him go, which would have seemed staggering a couple of years before.

After debuting in 2001 as an aesthetically daring, beautifully constructed and genre redefining instant classic, the show gradually shifted from mere TV series to an avatar for an entire political belief system. There are few TV characters as profoundly controversial as Jack Bauer – perhaps Alf Garnet, although Bauer was better dressed… maybe Ali G or Borat… but even these would struggle to have their resurrection greeted with headlines as furious as: “Why We Don’t Need More 24 – The Torture Happy Jack Bauer Should Stay Retired.”

Howard Gordon
Howard Gordon

Howard Gordon – although not the show’s creator – was effectively showrunner for most of Jack’s life. Once the CTU closed down, his colleague Joel Surnow stepped back a little, pushing out The Kennedys and working on the 24 movie. Gordon – not so much. His next project was Homeland, if possible a little more timely, a little more controversial and a little more unsettling than 24. Based on Israeli series Hatufim – by Gideon Raft – the first two series toyed with extreme versions of Stockholm
Syndrome as former US hostage Nicholas Brody – played by Damian Lewis – came home from captivity.

These days, of course, US hostage executions fill primetime news as the forces of the Islamic State sweep back and forth across Iraq and Syria. With an eye that’s becoming literally uncanny, Howard Gordon is there again – his new show Tyrant deals with the death of a middle eastern dictator so closely modeled on Saddam or Assad that his national flag in the pilot looks a lot like the Iraqi flag.

“Well it’s not literally the Iraqi flag, it’s a variation,” Howard explains carefully. “In fact you’ll see between the pilot and the subsequent episodes that we revised the flag, to underscore the difference. People were trying to second guess, is this Syria? Is this Iraq? Setting a show in the real Middle East but in a fictional country is a unique challenge because now, for better or worse, we’re all fairly familiar with the map. So doing that without making it something like Moon over Parador or something limply satirical is difficult. A fictional country is almost by definition a comic creation.”

And Tyrant is definitely not a comedy. The show follows Bassam Al-Fayeed, the youngest son of a brutal dictator. Bassam has been living in the US and working as a doctor for almost 20 years – an echo of colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s son Safi who studied at the LSE in London. Bassam heads home for a family wedding and stumbles into a terrifying political crisis when his father is killed in the middle of an Arab Spring revolution. Bassam is tempted to flee – but fears his brutal and unstable older brother Jamal will unleash a bloody conflict so stays to help soothe him into a peaceful transition of power. Which, needless to say, goes badly.

“It’s really the hubris of American Colonialism,” Gordon explains. “And Barry is the personification of that world. Let’s just say The Godfather is probably the most obvious influence here. Barry stays behind to help his brother run the family business and then comes to realise that his brother’s not capable of doing that. Betraying his brother is the only possible next step, so that becomes the trajectory of the show.”

Homeland
Hit drama Homeland

It’s the second collaboration between Howard and Homeland creator Raff. Gordon was filming the second series of Homeland in Israel when Raff approached him with the idea. “It was intriguing because I’m obviously fascinated by this part of the world,” he explains. “History is being made in the Middle East, and its changing by the day. So it felt like a way to open a door on that side of the world that wasn’t a terrorist based thriller but more of a family saga and a political drama.”

Given that point – that history is being written – it seems surprising so few scriptwriters are following him in to the region. “I guess it’s for the same reason the US government wants so desperately to stay away,” he gives a short laugh. “Ask President Obama right now – it’s a hornets nest. The ground is completely unstable. It is a thicket of competing tribal and religious and cultural rules standing between modernity and antiquity so it’s very challenging narratively to take such a complicated landscape. People certainly wouldn’t put a Muslim in the lead unless they were fighting terrorists.”

There may, of course, be other reasons. During one interview, Damian Lewis recalled how hair raising it could be shooting Homeland on the ground in Palestinian towns. Gordon laughs when that’s mentioned. “Take the challenges of shooting what’s halfway around the world with the time differences, language differences and the cultural differences then add things you can’t prepare for,” he grins. “We were in a Palestinian town called Bartar filming on this very long street that we hadn’t locked down. We thought the shops and street vendors had been paid to make up for whatever lost income the shooting had caused, but apparently they weren’t. So fights broke out in the street and then it swelled and turned toward the crew and we did a quick retreat, with Clare Danes jumping into a van as we left. I think somebody may have started the rumour that we were with the CIA…”

And yet he’s back – shooting Tyrant initially in Israel before the current conflict forced them over to Istanbul. “It’s hard to get the colours and the architecture and the faces anywhere else, and that’s what makes it feel real,” he explains. “We don’t want to make it feel like a back lot. But yes just when you think it couldn’t get any more difficult it finds a way to get more difficult.”

This interest in current affairs linked drama hasn’t always defined him. His CV shows a career swerve so sharp there are practically tyre marks on the paper – born in Queens, New York, he moved to LA to write for television and cut his teeth on private eye drama Spenser: For Hire.

From there, he focused on fantasy – Beauty and the Beast, The X Files and the Buffy spin-off Angel. So why did he switch from the surreal to the very real? “Sometimes the turns aren’t necessarily by design, but by circumstance,” he says wryly. “I had written a pilot for Fox called Ball and Chain, a husband-and-wife superhero show based on a comic book. Joel Surnow and Robert Cochran created 24 and that wound up getting on the air instead of my comic book. I was asked to go on the show with Joe and Bob… and this was all before 9/11 so we were shooting a show which, I suspect, would have been a good show but which suddenly became so culturally resonant because of 9/11. Certainly 9/11 influenced what we did creatively with the show from that moment.”

24
Kiefer Sutherland as Jack Bauer in 24

For the next decade, effectively, he channelled the evolving story of US involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan into touchstones for the series – and they also became the lens through which the series was viewed. Gordon is more or less a liberal and his co-writer Joel Surnow is a noted Republican. As 24 became a cultural totem it was fought over as fiercely as the notion of what America should be. Storylines that seemed to condone torture came in for heavy criticism and Gordon’s liberal shoulders had to carry much of that weight.

“People presumed things that weren’t necessarily true,” he insists. “Joel’s politics and my politics really seldom became narrative markers. There might be a scene or two Joel wrote where someone from the American Civil Liberators Union might have felt they were treated unkindly. Yes, we’d argue behind the scenes. On the writing staff there were people to the right of Joel and people to the left of me and we’d spend hours arguing politics but I can’t say the show ever descended to some kind of propaganda.”

All the same, the accusations almost sent him packing. Jack Bauer came to represent something unsavoury and he found it exhausting to keep pouring creative love into the show. After Homeland he thought he was at the end of his rope on that sort of material and briefly returned to fantasy with Awake, a brutally short-lived, high-concept cop show for NBC about an LAPD officer existing in two parallel realities after a car crash. In one, his wife survives; in the other, his son lives, and he uses details from each to solve crimes in both. The show was cancelled in May 2012 after 11 episodes.

“Awake was my own personal hubris,” he admits. “I knew that it was a very challenging concept. In hindsight it may have been better served as a cable show. I think it was a gimmick that rendered both worlds inert rather than made both worlds feel more engaged.”

You also get the sense that he’s passed through the looking glass and would struggle to immerse himself as thoroughly in an entirely unreal fictional world. Right now he’s considering season two of Tyrant – which hasn’t been picked up yet, after a mixed reception in the US over the summer – but he’s doodling some ideas and how can he not look at ISIS?

“It’s an incredible sequence of events and if we do go back we can’t ignore them,” he explains. “The trick is of course to find a way to take these real world events and weave them into your story and in a way it’s not reckless I would say. That’s the challenge.”

That it’s tricky doesn’t need underlining. At the height of 24’s popularity, Joel Surnow tried to capitalise on his reputation for current events TV by launching a right-wing version of the Daily Show, the ½ Hour News Hour, for Fox News. When it failed – and failed quickly – there was talk of Hollywood’s liberal bias.

“I think Hollywood is a more liberally inclined culture,” Gordon says carefully. “Which isn’t hard when you look at where people come from. But I think artists everywhere – in all countries – tend to be liberal. They’re the ones who question authority, are probably temperamentally slightly outcast themselves and attach themselves to the underdogs and the underclass. You could say the same thing about people on Wall Street being conservative and wanting to conserve all the money that they’ve made.”

All the same, he’s still friends with Joel. He executive produced Jack Bauer’s recent resurrection in 24: Live Another Day although he wasn’t in the writers room. “Now that the dust has settled on 24 both of us recognise how much we learned from each other. It’s the most fun I’ve had in my career,” he gives a quiet smile. Which begs the question – if liberals and republicans can work together in the steam cooker of serial TV drama is there anything we can learn that would help the embattled US Congress collaborate somehow?

He pauses, thoughtfully. “Well, I don’t know about that,” he says in the end. “Things are getting so nasty in Washington. But I guess the stakes are real. At the end of the day we’re still just running a television show…”

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