Netflix has been in the news a lot this week. There has, for example, been furious speculation about the future of Sense8, a 12-part sci-fi drama that quickly established itself as a hit series for the subscription VoD platform.
Launched on June 5, it has attracted audiences and acclaim in key markets such as the US, France and Germany. With positive reviews on both Netflix itself and IMDb, it has also quickly become a target for the non-Netflix pirate audience.
The story of eight strangers from different parts of the world who suddenly become emotionally and mentally linked, Sense8 was created and written by Andy and Lana Wachowski and J Michael Straczynski. It attempts to deal with subjects that the writers believe sci-fi shows avoid or don’t do justice to, such as politics, identity, sexuality, gender and religion.
Straczynski had an opportunity to discuss the show at this week’s meeting of the Television Critics Association in California. Speaking on a panel, Straczynski made it clear the Sense8 team will continue the show if they get the greenlight from Netflix.
“We’re still awaiting word,” he said. “We’re cautiously optimistic, but it’s Netflix’s call. The way the Wachowskis and I tend to work, we are long-thinking people. We look down the road and say to ourselves, ‘Where is this going to go?’
“Season one is like an origin story, while season two has some particular arc and we figure it out from there. But to spoil that here would not be best for the surprise at the end.”
One thing that stands out in the show is its graphic content. Explaining its inclusion, Straczynski said: “We wanted to do a show for adults and grown-ups. There’s a tendency for science fiction to be seen as something other than for adults. It tends to be about the device, the gadget, the mission and not about the journey.”
Straczynski has a long and varied track record in TV writing, which goes all the way back to He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, of which he wrote nine episodes. After stints on The New Twilight Zone, Murder She Wrote and Walker Texas Ranger, his big breakthrough project was sci-fi series Babylon 5, which ran for five seasons. Straczynski wrote 92 episodes out of a total 110 for the 23rd century-set space opera, before going on to create a spin-off called Crusade and another series called Jeremiah.
The trajectory for the Wachowskis has been quite different. After the success of their Matrix movie franchise, the brother/sister team has had a couple of feature film disappointments in the shape of Jupiter Ascending and Cloud Atlas. So the success of Sense8 has led some observers to ask whether their offbeat approach might be better suited to longform TV series. The answer to that seems to be that they’ll work across both formats.
One interesting theme that emerges from Sense8 is the issue of transgender identity. Lana Wachowski is a transgender woman and there is also a central transgender character in the show, Nomi – played by trans actress Jamie Clayton.
Clayton, who was on the TCA panel, praised the way the Wachowskis and Straczynski devised her character. She said: “There has never been a trans character in a movie or on a show before that didn’t revolve around his or her transition. Nomi is the first… no one cares because, at the end of the day, we shouldn’t care that she’s trans.”
Alongside all the Sense8 speculation, the pre-launch publicity for Narcos, another Netflix series, also kicked off at the TCA event. Produced for Netflix by Gaumont International Television, Narcos is a 10-part series that explores the 1980s drug war between the US administration and Colombian cartel kingpin Pablo Escobar. It will begin streaming on Netflix on Friday August 28.
Narcos was created by Chris Brancato, Eric Newman, Carlo Bernard and Jose Padilha, who initially intended it to be a film but found that the wealth of material favoured a TV series.
Explaining the project, Padilha said: “The series follows how (Escobar) became powerful, his political ambitions and bigger-than-life stories. Cocaine was cheap to produce, highly addictive and had incredible profit margins. No one knew what they had until it hit America.”
Newman’s involvement in the project is another good indication of the huge film-to-TV swing the industry is witnessing. After making his name as a producer of films such as Children of Men, The Thing, In Time and Robocop, his last two projects have been the TV series Hemlock Grove and Narcos. Padilha, who is from Brazil originally, counts Elite Squad among his recent credits.
Also this week, Netflix confirmed that the third season of Norwegian-American series Lilyhammer will be its last. The show, which centres on a US gangster trying to start a new life in Norway, was a landmark moment in scripted business.
It was one of the first shows that really put Netflix on the map and also kick-started a trend towards shows that are comfortable hopping between different languages. The star and co-writer of the show is Steven Van Zandt, who seemed disappointed by the cancellation.
He wrote on Twitter: “#Lilyhammer RIP. Not my decision. Let’s just say for now the business got too complicated. Very proud of our 24 shows. New ideas on the way.”
While Lilyhammer (which was also a breakout hit for Norwegian broadcaster NRK) is often thought of as being Van Zandt’s creation, the original idea was actually conceived by the husband-and-wife team of Anne Bjørnstad and Eilif Skodvin, who pitched it to Van Zandt while he was in Bergen producing a rock band. After a further meeting in New York a deal was done.
Among other Netflix announcements this week was the news that the streamer has greenlit a Spanish-language series that will air in 2016.
“Netflix is committed to the creation of high-quality, Spanish-language original series for Mexico, US, Latin America and the world,” said chief content officer Ted Sarandos. “We are thrilled to be working with one of Latin America’s biggest and most talented stars Kate del Castillo on Ingobernable.”
In Ingobernable, del Castillo will play Irene Urzua, the wife of Mexico’s president. A woman with a strong personality, conviction and clear ideas, Urzua is capable of “creating a president, leaving a president and killing a president,” said Netflix in a press statement.
The 20-part series will be produced in Mexico by Argos and directed by Jose Luis Garcia Agraz and Pedro Pablo Ibarra. No details were provided on who is writing the show.
Netflix is also due to premiere Gaz Alazraki and Mike Lam’s Spanish-language series Club de Cuervos on August 7.