Home and dry?

By Andy Fry
November 6, 2015

Hit & Miss
Homeland, starring Claire Danes, is currently in its fifth season
Homeland, starring Claire Danes, is currently in its fifth season on Showtime

This time last year (November 10, 2014 to be exact), US premium pay TV network Showtime greenlit a fifth season of Homeland, the political thriller adapted from Israeli series Hatufim (Prisoners of War).

That season is currently five episodes into a planned run of 12. So the big question this week is whether Showtime will commission a sixth season – or if it will decide instead to call an end to the show.

Homeland, which stars Claire Danes, has been a big hit for the channel, in terms of both audience ratings and critical acclaim. But there are signs it is starting to flag. After reaching audiences of around two million during seasons two and three, the beginnings of a decline were evident in season four, which averaged around 1.6 million over the course of the season.

For the current season, the average is 1.4 million – with one episode dropping as low as 1.1 million. Something similar is happening in the UK, where the show is currently airing on Channel 4. Here, the first three episodes of the new season have recorded ratings of 2.2 million, 1.6 million and 900,000 respectively (according to BARB figures).

Nevertheless, it would be a brave call to close down the show at this stage. Despite the slide in ratings, season five has been getting good reviews from critics. And the ratings, while low by Homeland’s standards, are still pretty good compared with other Showtime dramas. Only Shameless does better than Homeland, while titles such as The Affair and Masters of Sex lag far behind.

Homeland is an adaptation of Hatufim (Prisoners of War)
Homeland is an adaptation of Israeli drama Hatufim (Prisoners of War)

Ratings are important to Showtime, but not in the same way they are for an ad-funded network. Just as significant is what a show says to the subscriber base about the channel’s creative ambition.

For this reason, social media and focus groups will play into the decision about Homeland. Is there, for example, a hardcore audience that will howl with rage if the show is cancelled? Or is there a feeling that it’s time to move on? How do fans feel about the show’s change in direction, with the central character now working for a security firm in Berlin as opposed to working as a CIA employee (as she did in seasons one to four)?

A lot will depend, also, on what Danes wants to do next, and whether showrunners Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa feel there is more life in the formula. It’s also worth keeping in mind that espionage shows are hot right now, so it might be counterintuitive to shut down Homeland at the precise moment that broadcasters around the world are looking for this content.

On balance, it would be a surprise if the show ended now. Showtime’s track record indicates it is happy to go up to seven or eight seasons if it thinks a series is worthy of support (see Dexter, Nurse Jackie and Californication).

One interesting thing to look out for, though, is whether Showtime sticks to last year’s timing and announces a new season of Homeland next week. If it doesn’t, social media tongues will start wagging – though this doesn’t necessarily mean a cancellation is on the way. Showtime may decide to hold back on a firm decision for another month to see how the back end of the current run shapes up in the ratings.

Some viewers were taken aback by the level of violence and horror in ITV's Jekyll and Hyde
Some viewers were taken aback by the level of violence and horror in ITV’s Jekyll and Hyde

Elsewhere, an interesting story is developing in the UK around commercial broadcaster ITV’s fantasy drama Jekyll and Hyde. The show, written by Charlie Higson, is a reimagination of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel. It places the central character, Robert Jekyll, at the heart of a battle between a secret government organisation and a league of monsters called Tenebrae.

ITV commissioned the series for early evenings on Sunday in the hope of catching a young audience (echoing the approach that the BBC takes on Saturdays with Doctor Who). But Jekyll and Hyde has received a large number of complaints (800 at last count) from people who say it shouldn’t be aired before the 21.00 watershed because of the levels of violence and horror.

ITV has said it has no intention of moving the show, so the issue is now being considered by UK media regulator Ofcom, which said: “We are opening an investigation into whether the programme complied with our rules on appropriate scheduling and violent content before the watershed.”

Ironically, the 10-part drama might not suffer too badly if it is required to move to a later slot. Ratings from the first episode show that 66% of the audience was aged over 45, suggesting it could transition to post-watershed quite easily (though of course that would leave ITV with a teatime slot to fill).

Violence aside, the show is a well-acted, entertaining romp that doesn’t stretch the intellect of its viewers too much. A debut audience of 3.4 million was better than the slot average of 2.7 million but not spectacular. It’s going to take four or five episodes to find out whether the audience is willing to embrace Higson’s escapade.

There’s just a chance that the ratings will slide to such an extent that the show is not renewed, in which case ITV can avoid the embarrassment of having to relocate it in its schedule.

Early reviews for Into the Badlands have been mixed
Early reviews for AMC’s new series Into the Badlands have been mixed

Returning to the US, another new show about to hit the screens is AMC’s martial arts drama Into the Badlands, starring Daniel Wu. AMC looks a bit over-reliant on its Walking Dead franchise right now, so it will be hoping to create another hit series before we all finally get bored with zombies.

The first pre-transmission reviews of the show make this one difficult to call. While there is general agreement that the fight scenes are superbly choreographed and executed, there’s a split on whether the narrative and the characters stand up to scrutiny.

Slant Magazine was generally negative, concluding that “the series feels narratively uncertain, stuck between the simple pleasures of genre staples and the sadly unfulfilled aspiration toward a more imaginative, substantive work of stylised fantasy”.

Deadline is more upbeat, commenting that Into the Badlands is “a journey well worth taking” with a story “intriguingly based on the 16th century tale Journey to the West.”

Here’s the trailer to help you form your own opinion, but be warned – it wouldn’t be appropriate for ITV teatime viewing.

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