Familiar and fresh

By Andy Fry
September 30, 2015

The Writers Room
Quantico has earned praise for its diverse cast
Quantico has earned praise for the diversity of its lead characters

A lot of scripted TV has a derivative feel about it – but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. When people sit down to watch something, they generally want to know roughly what they are going to get, in the same way they gravitate towards the same brands and restaurants.

That’s why, even in this ‘golden age’ age of risk-taking drama, so many shows are based on pre-existing properties or work within well-understood genres or situations (cop, hospital, romance, period and so on).

But the audience’s preference for the familiar only goes so far. Once viewers are within a story world, they expect to be surprised and delighted. If a drama turns out to be a poor copy of a previous show then they will desert in their droves. This explains why so many scripted series fall off a cliff between episodes one and two – because they have been rumbled.

One writer who seems pretty adept at balancing the familiar with the fresh is Josh Safran. After working on The CW’s hit series Gossip Girl and NBC’s short-lived Smash, he has now achieved a strong start with Quantico, a fast-paced thriller that debuted on September 27 on ABC in the US.

Airing in a 22.00 slot, the show attracted 7.1 million viewers and a 1.9 rating among adults aged 18-49. This audience was 36% up on its lead-in and well ahead of the CSI finale on CBS. In addition, it was much higher than Revenge’s performance in the same slot last year. In fact, ABC says the show is the strongest ‘regular programming’ performer in this slot since May 2012 (i.e. not a special event such as a live sports match).

Quantico writer Josh Safran
Quantico writer Josh Safran

Quantico is about a group of young trainees learning to become FBI agents. It turns out that one of them is a terrorist planning a major attack – but we don’t know who.

So far, so familiar. In the run up to the show’s launch, it was described as “a garden variety whodunnit” and a cross between Homeland and a Shonda Rhimes drama.

What helps Safran’s show stand out from the crowd, however, is a clear decision to avoid obvious character stereotypes. The trainees, for example, are ethnically diverse, with a central role handed to Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra, who plays Alex Parrish. There is also a leading position for black actress Aunjanue Ellis, who acts as mentor to the new recruits.

Forbes Magazine was especially impressed by the show’s start, pointing out numerous examples of how the female characters assert their independence and demonstrate their capabilities. “The best and most refreshing parts of this programme are the strong females leads,” it said. “Quantico highlights the fact that female leads can have more to their plotlines than love, pregnancy or rape. And it shows that when better roles are written for women, the programme benefits as well.”

It’s early days, of course, and some of Quantico’s reviewers were a bit more skeptical. But as long as the show can maintain momentum with its terrorist whodunnit plot, it will probably come out as one of this year’s top-performing new series – which would be good news for international broadcaster such as CTV Canada and UKTV that have already acquired it.

The Enfield Haunting is heading for A&E Network
The Enfield Haunting, starring Timothy Spall (centre), is set to air on A&E Network

As for Safran, he is also working on an updated version of the Fame, which first appeared as a 1980 movie before becoming a hit TV series and then being revived as a movie again in 2009. Destined for Lifetime in the US, the new Fame is being written and executive produced by Safran for MGM TV. Other exec producers include Nigel Lythgoe, Chad Gutstein and Charles Segars.

On paper, its looks like a dead cert hit (for the reasons stated at the start of this column). But it will actually be quite a challenge for Safran. Just how do you revive such a show in a world that has been exposed to Glee, wall-to-wall TV talent shows and YouTube? This is a situation where the ability to blend the familiar with the fresh will prove decisive.

Another writer entitled to feel pleased with himself this week is London-based Joshua St Johnston, whose three-part miniseries The Enfield Haunting is to air on A&E Network in the US from October 9, following its acquisition from eOne.

Adapted from Guy Lyon Playfair’s book This House is Haunted, The Enfield Haunting is a dramatisation of the terrifying real-life events that took place in a London home during 1977. Starring Timothy Spall, Matthew Macfadyen and Juliet Stevenson, it first aired to critical acclaim on Sky Living in the UK.

A&E will be hoping for a stronger performance from The Enfield Haunting than fellow supernatural show The Returned (pictured)
A&E will be hoping for a stronger performance from The Enfield Haunting than it achieved with fellow supernatural show The Returned (pictured)

St Johnston’s first TV writing credit came way back in 1996, when he penned an episode of UK doctor drama Peak Practice. After a period where he focused more on producing, St Johnston wrote a couple of TV movies in the middle of the last decade, including the Ray Winstone-starring Sweeney Todd. After writing a short film for the Cultural Olympiad in 2012, he scripted the poorly reviewed musical film Walking on Sunshine.

However, with Eleven Film-produced The Enfield Haunting he certainly seems to have found his métier.

Represented by Harriet Pennington Leigh at Troika Talent, St Johnston is now developing new TV series with Clerkenwell Films and Eleven Film and working on a movie with Christopher Sweeney entitled Good Boy, Hung. He is also reported to be working on a TV series with Artists Studio called Deviant. As a footnote, it’s interesting to see A&E going back into the paranormal realm so soon after its failure with The Returned – it’s obviously a genre in which it sees plenty of mileage.

Other writers who can look forward to a period of full employment include Graham Roland, who is attached to a new Paramount TV production based on author Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan character. The show, which has Carlton Cuse (Lost) attached as showrunner, is heading to Amazon, according to Deadline.

Stephen Kronish
Stephen Kronish

Roland’s major credits to date include Prison Break, Lost and the US version of The Returned, the latter two of which he worked on with Cuse. He was also involved in Fox’s sci-fi/crime drama Almost Human, which only lasted for one season in 2014 before cancellation.

Elsewhere, showrunner Stephen Kronish is working with Televisa US on its upcoming remake of Gran Hotel. An industry veteran whose credits stretch all the way back to Alfred Hitchcock Presents in 1985, Kronish has had some big hits in the last decade with 24 and The Kennedys. He has also recently finished writing the TV movie Manson’s Lost Girls and the moderately well-received Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe.

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