Tag Archives: ABC Studios

Uptown girl

Stumptown showrunner Jason Richman takes DQ inside the making of the ABC series, recalling how the original graphic novel was adapted for television and revealing how Marvel star Cobie Smulders was cast as lead character Dex Parios.

While Cobie Smulders is used to surrounding herself with superheroes as SHIELD agent Maria Hill in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, her latest TV character isn’t quite so exceptional.

But that’s what makes Dex Parios, the central character of US drama Stumptown, all the more appealing, according to showrunner Jason Richman.

Dex is a former army veteran turned private investigator whose brash style and disregard for the rules lead her into trouble. Struggling with PTSD after an explosion killed her childhood sweetheart in Afghanistan, burdened by heavy gambling debts and dealing with the responsibility of taking care of her younger brother, Dex teams up with her friend and ex-felon Grey (Jake Johnson) to take on cases the police are unwilling to pursue in Portland, Oregon.

Jason Richman

Season one of the series, which is based on a graphic novel, ran for 18 episodes in the US on the ABC network, narrowly crossing the finishing line before productions were suspended across the country as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Produced by ABC Studios, it is set to debut on UKTV network Alibi this Wednesday following a deal with distributor Disney Media Distribution.

Richman, who has previously worked on shows such as Mercy Street and Detroit 1-8-7, says the series is a “breath of fresh air” when it comes to US crime dramas, thanks to its female central character and Dex’s relationship with Grey.

“What’s different about this show is deceptively simple,” he tells DQ from his home in LA. “Most of these shows, they’re always centred on a man and the woman’s got all the brains and he gets all the credit, or it’s a conceptual spin on a partnership like that.

“What’s really great about this character, and what I kind of gravitated to, was Dex doesn’t realise she’s good at what she does and feels like a bit of a fraud at first, waiting to be found out. It might be the only thing she’s qualified to do at the end of the day. So in that way, there’s just a lot of deceptively simple attributes to the show that have not been expressed in American detective television.”

Richman hadn’t heard of the Stumptown graphic novel, published in 2009 and named after the nickname given to Portland, until a fellow producer sent it to him. By page three, he was grabbed by the story and, in particular, the character of Dex.

“She just challenged me in so many interesting ways. And even the raw, naked humanity of the character, I found very interesting,” he explains. “She didn’t have a superpower. As a matter of fact, she made so many mistakes but always seemed to fail forward. And that became the premise of the character. I added some characters, I added some attributes to her world and blew it up a little bit [for television]. It wasn’t really set up to be a TV show as a graphic novel, but it was a great jumping-off point.

Cobie Smulders as Dex Parios

“The graphic novels had a bunch of different cases; they weren’t really set up to work for a TV hour like we were going to do them. That element had to be worked on a little bit. I made some of the relationships stronger, I changed gender for some of the characters, but I tried to hold on to as much as I could in reverence to the work and also because there are good-quality, really interesting characters there. I’m very gratified that Greg Rucka, who co-created the graphic novel, was so pleased with the outcome, which is always nice to hear.”

Central to the success of the show has been Marvel and How I Met Your Mother star Smulders in the lead role as Dex, a character struggling with the trauma of her past but  often displaying a funny side too.

“In the casting process, it was really hard to find somebody who could do all the levels [of Dex’s character],” Richman says. “We found people who could do some of them, and different people could do different levels. It was very difficult to find somebody who could do them all. The pilot script went out and Cobie responded and she came in and we cast her right away.

New Girl’s Jake Johnson also stars

“It became very clear, almost instantaneously, that she’s just the perfect person to play this part. You rarely experience this. She just elevated everything, took it off the page and brought her own spin to it. She has just great instincts, and the character has become as much as hers as it is mine.

“And because Cobie is very funny, very creative and very inventive, and has a keen awareness of where the boundaries of this character are, she can come to me and say, ‘This isn’t feeling right’ or, ‘I’d like to do this.’ We have a discussion about it, then we often come to a solution, and this has been a really great evolution between us.”

In the writers room, Richman started by creating Dex’s character trajectory through the series, building an arc for her that spoke to her PTSD experience. At the beginning of the series, he describes her as “lost” and directionless, with the unique relationship between Dex and her brother being her only tie to any sense of a normal life.

“Then I wanted her to fall ass-backwards into this line of work,” he says of her becoming a PI. “I thought it would be much more interesting if she did something she was never planning on doing – something that she just got pushed into reluctantly. If she had her way, she wouldn’t do it at all.

“Then, over the course of the season, what she would find is that she’s actually good at it, despite her reluctance and despite herself. The whole thing gave her a sense of meaning and purpose. That’s where we starte,d and we just drew a roadmap from the beginning to the end of season one.”

Episodic cases she takes on are further used as a backdoor to explaining one element of Dex’s character, which evolved as writing on the first season progressed. “That’s the great Darwinian process of television that’s really fun,” Richman adds. “When you’re making it, you’re seeing what’s working and you’re always building upon the things that are working. It helps you tell the version of the story that’s most creatively satisfying to you, and you only discover that along the way.”

Smulders on set with director and exec producer James Griffiths

Fans of comedy sketch show Portlandia – which starred Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein and ran for eight seasons – will recognise several locations and the type of quirky, off-beat characters that populated the IFC series. Stumptown also aims to tap into the unique sensibilities of the city, with part of the pilot shot there and in Vancouver. The rest of the drama was then largely shot in LA, aside from some establishing and exterior scenes.

“It’s a little off-centre. It’s a really interesting place,” Richman says. “Portlanders are very serious about certain things. You walk into any restaurant in Portland and, whatever they do, they want to do it better than anybody. There’s also a certain type of frontier spirit. There’s a very inventive, survivor spirit, but also a great sense of humour. It’s not a place that takes itself overly seriously, which is kind of fun. There’s a very deep connection to Native American culture, and we certainly explore that in our show with a character who comes from that world.

“That’s a unique aspect of the show that doesn’t exist much on broadcast television. From a production point of view, we shoot a lot of establishing shots and a lot of exteriors in Portland. We try to infuse Portland as much as we can visually and also from the character point of view, by trying to find people who are a little off-centre in a way that feels true to the place.”

Making a series for broadcast television is always a battle against time, with seasons running to as many as 24 episodes. For any showrunner, that means juggling scriptwriting duties in the writing room with on-set production and post-production.

The 18-episode first season of the Portland set series aired on ABC

“Every show has its own ecosystem and dynamic, so you’re trying to wrap your head around that. For a show in its first season, there’s always a bit of catching up to do while you’re figuring out how to make it, because every show is different,” he says.

“The challenge is being up against the clock constantly, but we have a naturally talented crew that functions very well on this show. Then getting the scripts right is a time thing. It’s a crush every time, but that’s the game, it really is. There’s no way around it; you have a target, your show’s going on the air, you’re going to shoot something. It’s just a hustle. It’s one very long sprint.”

While he awaits word on a second season amid the ongoing production shutdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic, Richman says international viewers now tuning into Stumptown can expect a very human story wrapped inside a series that does its best to break the traditional rules of the detective genre.

“What’s so nice about Dex Parios, the heroine of this story is she’s a lot like us. She’s just constantly failing forward, and there’s something kind of refreshing about that,” he adds. “You don’t have to be a superhero. You just have to keep going at it. And that persistence and someone who doesn’t come at it with the ego of knowing that she’s right every time is refreshing.”

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Double act

From the creators and executive producers of Castle comes crime procedural Take Two, starring Rachel Bilson and Eddie Cibrian.

Bilson (Hart of Dixie) stars as Sam Swift, the former star of a hit cop series who suffers a breakdown and heads to rehab. Desperate to restart her career, she begins to shadow private investigator Eddie Valetik (Cibrian, Rosewood) to research a potential comeback role.

Though Eddie resents babysitting Sam, she uses her acting skills to prove herself surprisingly valuable.

In this DQTV video, Miller and Marlowe talk about how the series mixes a case-of-the-week structure with lightly serialised elements that allow viewers to learn more about the central pair.

They also reveal the international route Take Two took to win a commission and discuss why procedurals are still in fashion despite the rise of serialised storytelling.

In addition, cast members Aliyah O’Brien (Detective Christine Rollins) and Xavier de Guzman (Roberto ‘Berto’ Vasquez) offer their take on their characters and the appeal of the series.

Take Two is produced by Tandem Productions and MilMar Pictures in coproduction with ABC Studios for ABC in the US, Germany’s VOX and France 2. It is distributed by StudioCanal.

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West spies Korea opportunities

The Idolm@ster is based on a game franchise
The Idolm@ster is based on a game franchise

Netflix has made Korea a priority in its quest for global SVoD domination – and now arch-rival Amazon Prime Video is following suit.

Last week, it was revealed that Amazon had boarded The Idolm@ster, a Korean TV series for 2017 that is based on a popular Japanese game franchise from Bandai Namco.

First mooted in spring 2016, the live-action series is about a group of aspiring female singers trying to establish their music careers. As such, it sits at the crossroads of two Asian obsessions – K-Pop and television drama. The TV drama is a no-brainer given the success of the franchise across various platforms. Since launching in 2005 as an arcade game, The Idolm@ster has inspired animation and manga versions, as well as live concerts and hit singles. It has also been adapted for digital platforms including smartphones.

The series will stream exclusively on Amazon Prime Video from early 2017 and will be localised into several languages, including Japanese and English.

James Farrell, head of content at Amazon’s Asia Pacific Prime Video, called Idolm@aster “the perfect combination of Japanese idol culture and Korean drama power. The idols include K-Pop sirens, as well as Japanese and other international singers, and we’re confident fans and viewers alike all over the world will become addicted to watching their careers bloom.”

The news continues a growing trend for global companies to exploit the Korean drama phenomenon. Recently we reported on the fact that NBC Universal participated in the financing of Moon Lovers. And this week South Korean media group CJ E&M has formed a partnership with Warner Bros-owned streamer DramaFever to coproduce local dramas for the international market. Under the terms of the alliance, called Studio Dragon, the partners will produce two original series over next three years.

“Studio Dragon is determined to become Asia’s number-one drama studio. To achieve that goal, we plan to work with industry leaders to provide unrivalled content for audiences,” said Jinnie Choi, president of Studio Dragon.

Killjoys focuses on a trio of bounty hunters
Killjoys focuses on a trio of bounty hunters

Away from Korea, US channel Syfy has announced that sci-fi series Killjoys and Dark Matter will both be returning for third seasons. Killjoys, which follows a trio of interplanetary bounty hunters, is produced by Temple Street Productions, the Toronto-based firm behind Orphan Black. The show also airs on the Space channel in Canada. In line with the Syfy announcement, Space revealed that it too would be on board the third season of the show.

In terms of audience ratings on Syfy, Killjoys attracts around 650,000 viewers per episode, which makes it a mid-ranking performer on the network. It’s a similar story for Dark Matter, which comes in at around 690,000 per episode. Interestingly, this positioning and ratings differential is broadly reflected by IMDb rankings, which come in at 7.1 and 7.4 respectively for the two shows.

Syfy has struggled to secure a bona fide hit series in recent times and is shifting towards series with built-in brand recognition. This week, it debuted Van Helsing, a reimaging of vampire mythology in which the central character has been switched from male to female (similar to Wynnona Earp).

There was also news this week about Syfy’s planned Superman prequel. Called Krypton, it is set two generations before the destruction of Superman’s home planet. The show is based on a pilot by David S Goyer and will feature British actress Georgina Campbell.

Winona Ryder in Stranger Things
Winona Ryder in Stranger Things

Last week, we discussed the success of 1980s-set thriller Stranger Things on Netflix and suggested it would only be a matter of time before a second series was greenlit.

In fact, a second season was announced the next day. Created by Matt and Ross Duffer and starring Winona Ryder, season two will debut in 2017 and will consist of nine episodes, one more than season one’s eight episodes.

We’ve also looked at Marvel’s expansion recently. The latest news on this front is that Marvel and ABC Studios are plotting a new series called New Warriors. Although a cable/SVoD home is yet to be found for the show, the plan is for it to be a comedy about a superhero squad made up of teenagers. This will follow a recent trend in the superhero genre towards irreverent franchises including Guardians of the Galaxy, Deadpool and Suicide Squad.

In terms of shows that won’t see a greenlight, the big news of the week is that AMC won’t be bringing back its restaurant drama Feed the Beast. Despite having a cast headed by David Schwimmer and Jim Sturgess, the show attracted pretty modest ratings.

In a statement, AMC said: “We have great respect and admiration for the entire team associated with Feed the Beast and our studio partner, Lionsgate. Unfortunately, the show simply didn’t achieve the results needed to move forward with a second season.”

Jim Sturgess (left) and David Schwimmer in Feed the Beast
Jim Sturgess (left) and David Schwimmer in Feed the Beast

In number terms, season one of the show averaged around 447,000, making it the second lowest-rating scripted show on the network. Interestingly, the show it beat, Halt and Catch Fire, has been renewed through to season three.

However, AMC clearly decided it couldn’t carry two scripted series on such low ratings. This presents a slight conundrum for AMC, which is that it is heavily reliant on dystopian fantasy/horror series (The Walking Dead, Fear The Walking Dead, Into the Badlands, Preacher) and could do with establishing a different editorial beachhead to appeal to a new audience subset.

Finally, DQ’s sister publication C21 is reporting that Spanish producer Boomerang TV has opened a new scripted production division in Chile. The arm will produce dramas for Chilean broadcasters and follows the arrival of Boomerang in the country in 2014. Veteran Latino producer and former Chilevisión drama chief Vicente David Sabatini becomes fiction director, while Cecilia Stoltze, formerly at TVN, has been named general producer.

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City slicker

Having got her big break on Sex and the City, Amy B Harris is now showrunning Wicked City for ABC – but the two shows couldn’t be more different. She tells DQ about fulfilling her appetite for something a bit darker.

With credits including Sex and the City (SATC) and The Carrie Diaries, Amy B Harris admits she might not be the obvious choice to run a show about serial killers in 1980s Hollywood. But it’s her experience writing character dramas and series about relationships that she hopes will keep viewers tuning into new ABC crime drama Wicked City when it debuts this October.

Harris: 'Networks, studios and streaming platforms are finding ways to make money with shows that are specific and particular. That’s really exciting'
Harris: ‘Networks, studios and streaming platforms are finding ways to make money with shows that are specific and particular. That’s really exciting’

The show, which debuts tonight, follows a Bonnie-and-Clyde-like serial killer couple who are rampaging along the Sunset Strip and the police officers charged with tracking them down. It stars Ed Westwick, Erika Christensen, Taissa Farmiga, Gabriel Luna, Jeremy Sisto and Evan Ross.

Created by Steven Baigelman, it is produced by ABC Studios and Mandeville Television and distributed by Disney Media Distribution.

Harris joined the limited series as showrunner in June – after the pilot had been picked up to series – as part of her new overall deal with ABC Studios, and says studio bosses were surprised when she expressed her desire to come on board. “They sent me a bunch of shows to watch and I told them I loved Wicked City and would love to meet on it,” Harris recalls. “They said, ‘Is it not too dark for you?’ but I told them it was right up my alley – perhaps revealing too much of the inner workings of my brain!

“It was something I was intrigued by, and when I talked to Steven (Baigelman), a lot of what he talked about were things I’m interested in – why we crave relationships or attention, or our need to be recognised and seen by people. Sometimes that manifests with positive effects and sometimes with very dark effects.”

Unlike traditional cop dramas, Wicked City’s viewers will be informed of the killers’ identities from the start, which Harris says allows the writing team to explore the characters rather than trying to keep them hidden from view.

“Although I probably wasn’t the most obvious choice for a show about serial killers and the cops who chase them, as someone who’s written a lot of shows about relationships, I’m hopeful viewers will come and want to keep returning because they’re intrigued by the characters they’re seeing,” she says.

Wicked City follows a serial killer couple and the cops tracking them down
Wicked City follows a serial killer couple and the cops tracking them down

But while writing about relationships is something in which Harris has plenty of experience, running a series she hadn’t created herself was an entirely new prospect. Previously she had joined other people’s shows (SATC) or created her own (The Carrie Diaries). However, she is extremely positive about the experience so far, highlighting the role she has taken on to help bring Baigelman’s ideas to screen.

“There are always growing pains as you’re trying to figure out what the first season
of a show actually looks like – not just for the creator but for all the writers on the team and in production, figuring out how many days you can be on location and then on set,” she says. “We have a terrific team of people, so those natural growing pains are made a lot easier by that.”

Another exciting proposition for Harris is that Wicked City is the latest in a growing trend towards limited series on US television, benefiting viewers in that they aren’t left hanging for a resolution. Harris says this is also advantageous to writers, allowing them to “blow through story” while building towards an explosive finale.

“Our hope is we’ve created this incredibly compelling season where we know right from the get-go who our bad guys are and, in a strange way, we know that our bad guys are more complicated than just evil,” she continues. “The fun for us if we get to continue (next season) is that our police officers will continue on and follow a new case. We haven’t decided yet if we’ll know right away who our bad guys are. The audience knows now and our detectives don’t, but we haven’t figured how that will play next season.

“It gives you an opportunity to explore a variety of different ways of getting into a story, which is really fun. As terrific as it is to work on a story where you really understand the template, we can play within episodes – some with a voiceover or flashback – and because there aren’t any really rules, it’s kind of anything goes.”

Harris previously worked on Sex and the City...
Harris previously worked on Sex and the City…

Growing up with parents who were both lawyers, Harris thought her career path was laid out in front of her – college, then law school. But after her father advised her to take a break following her college graduation, Harris landed in New York, where she got a job writing for Vanity Fair.

“That’s when I started to realise that this was my passion, that I had a voice and stuff I wanted to say,” she explains. “I met really great people who were very supportive of me.”

Harris worked as an assistant to Darren Starr before he created SATC, and then became a non-writing producer on the iconic HBO series. It was during this time that showrunner Michael Patrick King became her mentor and biggest supporter.

“I started writing because he said I might be a writer,” she says of King. “He was generous and kind enough to read my work and then hire me on SATC, which was a dream first writing job. It was like being at Harvard, except they paid me. It really taught me a lot about how to be a mentor when the time came. For my first script, the night before it went to the reading table, he sat with me for four hours and punched up jokes and made sure it was perfect.

“Although I had written that script, it was just as much down to Michael helping, encouraging and supporting me that I had a successful first experience – because when you’re new, the muscles you need to do this job aren’t quite developed yet. He was unbelievably supportive through the entire process and really gave me the confidence to know I could write and work and continually improve. It was a thrilling experience that set me on my way.”

...and created prequel The Carrie Diaries
…and created prequel The Carrie Diaries

If she started at the top, Harris is still riding the wave, having added a string of hit series to her name. Her other credits include Lisa Kudrow’s The Comeback, also on HBO, and teen drama Gossip Girl. She then created SATC prequel The Carrie Diaries for The CW, where it ran for two seasons.

“Running my own show made me realise that’s what I love doing,” she reveals. “I like having my hand in all of it. It was an amazing experience. The shows have all been different and unique but I feel I’ve learnt a lot from them all. I can’t pick a favourite.”

Yet the rise from writer to showrunner wasn’t an entirely smooth ride, with Harris describing leading a writers room for the first time as “the thing I was most afraid of.” But, again, King was her mentor, giving her confidence to differentiate between good and bad ideas and to follow her instincts.

“He was right,” she says. “So much of TV is trusting your instincts and moving forward. There’s a million ways a story could go but you have to pick the way that sparks you and drive towards it. It was scary for me at first, not knowing whether I would have the right instincts.

“The other stuff was all great – casting, looking at locations and picking the directors. That was thrilling. If you collaborate the right way with talented people, it just works. You have to be a control freak but, at the right moment, let go and trust you’ve hired great people who are going to bring their own talent to it. It’s a weird combo plate of letting go and never letting go of the reins.”

Now in charge of Wicked City, Harris says she’s keeping the same mindset and bringing together ideas from the room that follow her central vision. And when individual writers are charged with bringing a script together, she hopes they have enough room to express their own voice while following the season’s story arcs that have already been broken down to their barest bones.

She explains: “I want writers to own their episodes and feel like they have a lot to say within that episode, but I also want them to feel incredibly supported through the process. I know other people do it differently, but we break everything pretty much in the room.

“On a serialised show like this, you have to drive the story forward episode by episode. We do a lot of story arcing early so we know where we’re heading. And then once we dig into an episode and I’ve assigned it (to a writer), we talk through stories. I won’t ever break a story based on ad breaks or where I think a fun twist might happen. It all has to drive from character and then we’ll find the great moments within that.

“On SATC and The Carrie Diaries, I always broke Carrie’s story first. There’s always the A story, then it’s a debate over which character gets the B story or C story. On Wicked City, the fun of it is that – because it’s an ensemble piece and we’re following lots of different people throughout – we can really change that up. Sometimes we’ll break the procedural aspects of what the police are doing first, or sometimes the killers’ story, or a police officer’s personal story. That’s the unknown on the show that I really enjoy – figuring out which story will rise to the surface as the big story for the episode.

“Then we break each story out in its entirety and get all the beats down for each one. After that comes what I call the ‘smush’ – we merge all the stories so we see them as an entire episode and talk about it one more time. The writer goes off and does a beat sheet with their questions and concerns. Then they go to outline. My whole thing is ‘your episode is your episode,’ but if it’s not working, it’s not your fault – it means we haven’t broken it properly. If it’s working and it’s great, then you’ve done a great job finding it and we’ve done great job supporting you.”

Akin to running a multimillion-dollar company, being a showrunner can bring no end of pressure. But Harris says the volume of original drama now being produced in the US means the weight on her shoulders seems lighter, rather than feeling even greater strain from the added competition.

“Five years ago when you woke up in the morning, there was a certain number you were supposed to hit and if you didn’t hit it you knew you were going to be off the air in three episodes,” she says, citing the shift in focus away from overnight ratings as an example of how the industry is changing. “Now, if a network head likes a show and supports it, the programme stays on the air. What you find happens is they find out the ratings plus three, live plus seven, on-demand and from iTunes. Suddenly there’s this whole new way of looking at the success of a show.

“Do I wonder what it would have been like to work on M.A.S.H. and know that 27 million people watched my show? I’m sure that was thrilling. But what I love is that I feel like people are coming to shows and loving them, and getting focused on them. Now networks, studios and streaming platforms are finding ways to make money with shows that are specific and particular. That’s really exciting. We don’t totally know how it will play out, but I’m thrilled by it. I will still feel sick on the morning after the premiere waiting for the ratings because that’s who I am, but I appreciate that it is less about that now than it used to be.”

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