One of the most important jobs a drama producer can do is read the news. Everyday there are so many bizarre and unusual stories taking place around the world that news can be a rich source of ideas and inspiration.
There are challenges, of course. Some stories are so shocking it seems indecent to write them up too quickly. But the risk of moral hesitation is that someone else will beat you to market. There’s also the possibility of wandering into a legal or PR minefield.
The best stories require producers/writers to make tough judgement calls about how to portray living or recently deceased characters. Even the most subtle manipulations of the truth can blow up into career-wrecking controversies.
One solution, of course, is to create shows that are similar to high-profile news stories but not exactly the same. This way you can capture the zeitgeist of the real-world events but create enough distance that it doesn’t look like a commentary on real figures. This, for example, is what ABC Family is doing with Guilt, a one-hour drama series about an American abroad in London who becomes the prime suspect in the murder of her roommate. No prizes for guessing the inspiration for this production.
In the UK this week, Channel 4 (C4) announced plans for a similarly conceived series called National Treasure. Produced by George Faber’s new indie The Forge, National Treasure is about a fictional high-profile comedian who is accused of committing a historical sexual crime – a subject that has been front-page news in the UK for the last couple of years. Over the course of four episodes, the show will explore how the central character, his family, manager and partner are affected by the resulting police investigation.
The show will be written by Jack Thorne, whose credits include the This is England franchise, Glue and The Last Panthers. It was commissioned by C4 head of drama Piers Wenger, who said: “It’s a powerful drama that goes beyond recent headlines, exploring the human and emotional impact when a whole life is called into question. In Jack’s hands it’s an insightful and thought-provoking exploration of memory, truth, age, doubt and how well we really know ourselves and those closest to us.”
There’s no question this is an interesting subject – and in Thorne’s hands it is likely to be a powerful piece of drama. But it does enter complicated territory, with so many sex allegations against British celebrities still subject to judicial proceedings. No wonder Faber is keen to reiterate it is a “fictional drama” that “tackles the complex relationship between celebrity, sex and power.”
As for Thorne, he’s pleased C4 is willing to keep up its reputation for tackling such subjects: “What I’ve always loved about Channel 4 is that it’s a place to discuss big ideas. National Treasure is a piece about doubt, about the smell of abuse, about how we as a society live in Yewtree times (Yewtree is the name of the UK police operation handling such allegations). Paul (the central character in the show) is a man who could be innocent or guilty. We’re going to examine him from all sides and ask that big question – how well do we know the people closest to us?”
Of course, one way of ensuring there is no possibility of any kind of legal challenge is if the central character is found to be innocent.
Over the in US, meanwhile, it is notable that there has been a bit of a swing in favour of legal dramas recently. This isn’t new territory, of course, as fans of Petrocelli, LA Law, The Practice, Ally McBeal, Law & Order and Damages will attest. But the success of How to Get Away With Murder and Suits seems to have inspired US networks to go back to the pool.
ABC, for example, is now developing The Jury, a project being executive produced by Carol Mendelsohn. The series will follow a murder trial from the perspective of individual jurors over the course of a single season. On paper it sounds like the latest in the current trend towards anthologies.
CBS is working up a legal series called Doubt. In this case, the centre of attention is a defence lawyer who gets romantically involved with one of her clients, who stands accused of killing a teenage girl. Katherine Heigl stars in this one.
Over the last week, all eyes have been on the Guardian Edinburgh International Television Festival. Historically a conflab for UK-based executives, the event is now as likely to present a few visiting dignitaries from the US TV business. So for the last few days there’s been a steady drip feed of trade press stories about what US execs are doing about diversity, how they feel about the differences of the UK TV writing model andwhy they think the BBC should be protected.
One of this year’s star turns was Michael Ellenberg, HBO’s executive VP of programming, who gave some insight into what is coming up on the premium cabler in the near future. He showed the first promotional reel of Westworld, a remake of the 1973 movie that will star Anthony Hopkins, James Marsden, Thandie Newton and Jeffrey Wright. He also said the channel is getting close to finalising Vinyl, Martin Scorsese’s hotly anticipated drama about the A&R scene in the 1970s.
Sticking with the subject of movie remakes, Amazon Studios has signed up to develop a TV series based on the 1999 sci-fi movie Galaxy Quest. For those who haven’t seen it, Galaxy Quest is an amusing film about a group of TV sci-fi actors who are abducted by aliens who think they are genuine space adventurers. In some ways it is a precursor to films like Land of the Lost and Guardians of the Galaxy. With Guardians proving to be such a huge film franchise, Amazon probably reasons that a TV version of Galaxy Quest can ride the coattails of this kind of retro-comedy sci-fi concept.
Other interesting greenlights this week include the news that ABC is backing a ballet-themed comedy drama to be written and executive produced by Liz Heldens (Mercy), with Sue Naegle also on board as an exec producer. The origin of this one is a C4 reality series that focused on 18 amateur, plus-sized dancers, many of whom were told they were too fat to dance when they were young. The scripted show is expected to have the feel of Billy Elliott, but has presumably also been made possible by the love directed towards Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) in the recent Pitch Perfect film franchise.
News out of Germany this week is that leading producer Christian Becker and Beta Film are joining forces to revive Western series Winnetou. Based on the best-selling books by Karl May, Winnetou became a series of cult movies in the 1960s. The new 3×90’ version will air on RTL in Germany while Beta will launch the production to the global market at Mipcom next month.
Finally, proof that TV is a cruel world came this week with VH1’s decision to cancel its scripted show Hindsight, despite previously having greenlit it to season two. The channel said: “Scripted series have been a successful part of VH1’s primetime line-up since 2010 and will continue to be in the future. We love Hindsight and couldn’t be more proud of the series. But in this overcrowded and rapidly changing climate, we need to carve out VH1’s distinct place in the scripted marketplace and deliver the biggest audiences possible for our series.
“As a result, we’re no longer moving forward with a second season of the show. We’re so appreciative of show creator Emily Fox, the cast and the teams and look forward to working with them again.” Reports suggest that the production team is looking for a new home for the show.
tagged in: ABC Family, Beta Film, Carole Mendelsohn, CBS, Channel 4, Christian Becker, Doubt, Galaxy Quest, Guardian Edinburgh International Television Festival, Guilt, HBO, Hindsight, Jack Thorne, National Treasure, RTL, The Jury, VH1, Winnetou