Narcos co-creator Chris Brancato (pictured above) has spent 20 years as a showrunner, overseeing season one of the Netflix series plus shows including NBC’s Hannibal and ABC’s Of Kings and Prophets. Here he discusses the role that has attained iconic status in television drama.
‘Showrunner’ is a word that’s come into vogue in the past 10 years, greatly helped by JJ Abrams – a phenomenally brilliant television writer-producer who became very successful with Lost before moving on to an enormous career as a feature film director. And that’s not a big surprise to me, because the job of a showrunner is nearly the exact equivalent of being a feature-film director.
The DNA of a showrunner begins with being a writer, but it is also about having the ability to do one of a bunch of different things, not necessarily all with equal skill.
The first is to write good, producible scripts – ‘shooting drafts.’ What separates the men from the boys and the women from the girls is the ability to deliver drafts that are actually shootable, meaning they are coherent and producible to the show’s budget. You would be amazed at how many writers in Hollywood deliver drafts that are not shooting drafts; that if produced would either be wildly over budget or, even worse, somewhat incoherent or flat.
So, you’re a writer, but there’s an additional aspect to being a showrunner that is desirable: you are also potentially a show creator. It’s one thing to mimic a show that’s already been created – producing good drafts using characters that have been brought to life by actors and being able to study footage of the show in order to replicate it – but it’s another skill set entirely to be able to pitch and sell a brand new show.
In my experience with outstanding scriptwriters, when it comes to coming up with a fresh idea that turns people’s heads, they can’t do it. There’s a common gripe at the agencies that their writers have no ideas – which has given birth to an entire class of non-writing producers who develop ideas or get story rights and then pair with a writer to sell a project.
So, you’re a writer, you’re a creator – and then you must be a re-writer. You need to be able to read scripts and, rather than just offer a general assessment, make a specific assessment – for example, ‘The dialogue is stilted, real people don’t talk this way,’ ‘I expected it; I knew that was going to happen,’ or ‘It’s trying to be funny but it isn’t.’
Not only do you need to make that assessment as a writer, you need to know how to fix it. There’s nothing more irritating than solely hearing what’s wrong with a script. I don’t want to hear what’s wrong with it, I want to hear what’s wrong with it and how to fix it.
So, you’re writing shooting drafts, one after another, you’re coming up with whole shows on your own and you’re an analyser, a re-writer. That’s a tall order for any human being. And it’s only one-third of the job.
The second third is your role as director. Out of any position in the entertainment business, I have the highest respect for television directors. Feature directors have 60 days to shoot two hours; TV directors have eight days to shoot one. The shows you see as a result of those relatively short schedules are remarkably coherent and you’ll often see incredible artistry from that very short period of time. Yet in the US system, TV directors get treated like writers, which is to say they get very little respect because they’re interchangeable.
What a director has in the feature system is a vision for the movie – they know what it should look like. Well, that’s part of the role of the showrunner too. The showrunner must have a vision for the show, a vision they communicate not only through their writing but also verbally to every single person who works on it.
Finally, a showrunner must also be a producer – and a therapist, a priest, a doctor, a lawyer… But the producer part has to do with management. You must manage a crew of up to 400 people. If you’re doing the job well, you are giving everybody on the show a sense of dignity and purpose in what they’re doing. You all want the same thing – a great show – and as far as I’m concerned, whether you’re delivering coffee on set or you’re the showrunner, there are two ways to do the job: well and badly. And I have respect for anybody who does the job well and irritation with anyone who does it badly.
Part of being a producer-showrunner is being able to communicate, to make the entire group of people who are engaged in this singular effort to make a great TV show understand your vision, to properly translate what you’ve written on the page onto the screen as best you can.
It involves not shutting yourself behind closed doors all day long, even though that’s often the refuge you seek. It’s being open to suggestion. It’s managing extremely different and often difficult personalities. It’s settling disputes. I’ve had fights between writers in my writers rooms, I’ve had actors who refuse to go on set for one reason or another, or haven’t shown up because they’re out partying and you need to go to those actors, most of whom are frightened individuals, and convey to them that you respect what they do, that you understand how hard it is and that this is what you meant when you wrote a scene in a particular way.
If an actor can smell any fear you may have over getting something done, they will rip you to shreds. So I do my best to never show fear. Never let anybody see you sweat.
I remember speaking to a network executive over the phone once and being asked how a job was going. I said: “Shit, man, it’s really hard. We had the hurricane that blew down the set, and that actor’s not getting along with that other actor and then the script…” and I realised as I was talking that they didn’t want to hear it. I was hired to solve every single one of the problems I had just whiningly listed. My job is not to complain about how hard the job is; my job is to say, ‘It’s all good. Everything’s going to be fine.’ That is what they want; they don’t want to be burdened with your problems.
So if you do not sweat or do not let them see you sweat, you will become known as a problem solver and as someone who can be parachuted into a US$50m-70m project to handle it, to wrangle it, to fix it.
Never get angry, either – anger is fear. I’ve been in this business for almost 30 years, as a showrunner for more than 20, and I’ve never failed to make a programme I was working on. It always gets made – never once was there just a blank spot on your TV set for an hour. So if you keep that in mind, you will be able to conquer the fear and not get angry.
The other thing to remember is that small decisions are the refuge of the terrified showrunner. ‘The curtain is supposed to be turquoise, this is navy. What’s going on?’ – I’ve heard that kind of thing from showrunners many times. Focusing on the most minute, unimportant detail means they’re afraid to tackle the important details, such as the quality of the scripts and the acting. With good scripts, you’ve got a chance for a good show; but if they’re bad, you’ve got no chance. The acting, meanwhile, has to be superior at all levels. You cannot afford a bad actor in your show – nothing ruins a programme more than a bad actor or a bad script. So don’t seek refuge in the unimportant decisions – prioritise.
The showrunner system evolved in the US because of those 22-episode orders that fitted the network system. If there hadn’t been such long seasons, writers never would have been able to assume that level of power. It was only because we had the networks by the balls with those 22 episodes that we were able to demand that power and grasp it – and it became institutionalised. Now the job of a showrunner has been popularised and even cultised by people like Abrams, Matthew Weiner (Mad Men) and Shawn Ryan (The Shield).
Ultimately, a show is four things – script development, pre-production, production and post-production – and they are all going on at exactly the same time when you’re making your show. Any one of those four separate categories could take every hour of your day, seven days a week, but they’re all going on at once, and that’s why you need to prioritise. That’s the task of the showrunner – manage those four different things at once, don’t get a cocaine problem and try to stay married!
Chris Brancato was speaking at the 2016 European TV Drama Series Lab, organised by the Erich Pommer Institut and MediaXchange.
Kevin Lygo, director of television at UK broadcaster ITV, used a Bafta event this week to call for more “happy, life-affirming drama.”
He’s not the first senior figure in the industry to make this plea. Last year at the C21 Drama Summit, StudioCanal’s Rola Bauer also argued that the industry was focusing too much of its creative energy on scripted series with a bleak worldview.
To some extent, the emphasis on dark storytelling can be explained by the audience’s continued fascination with crime drama. But in recent years it has been amplified by the emergence of horror, fantasy, superhero and hard-boiled period dramas as stalwarts of the scripted genre.
More than eve, graphic, emotionally upsetting violence has become a core constituent of TV drama – especially in pay TV and SVoD. And for now it seems to be proving popular with international audiences.
Take AMC’s zombie drama The Walking Dead, which returned to schedules at the weekend. Episode one of season seven, written by Scott M Gimple and directed by Greg Nicotero, was about as bleak as TV viewing can get, with arch-villain Negan beating one of the show’s best-loved characters to death with a baseball bat embedded with barbed wire.
The episode attracted a lot of criticism from people who felt the show had finally gone too far. But at time of writing it doesn’t look like The Walking Dead has suffered in terms of ratings. Around 17 million people watched the show on AMC in the US and a further 1.43 million watched it on Fox in the UK. The latter was Fox’s best-rated show in its 14-year history.
Nicotero’s explanation of the episode’s uncompromising brutality was as follows: “It’s graphic and it’s horrible. We wanted to push it a little bit. When we shot the season five premiere, we had everybody at the trough and we went down the line and you saw these guys being murdered and drained of blood. That was purely a mechanism just to show how bad the people in Terminus really were. With Negan, you only have to see that once or twice to know this guy means business.
“The haunting remnants of that episode are similar to how I felt when I read the comic book and I experienced that sense of loss and the futility of trying to step in. [Andrew Lincoln’s lead character] Rick Grimes is powerless to stop this and that’s something we’ve never seen on the show. I think the violence and brutality are a part of the helplessness. Seeing our hero completely crushed in front of us is more disturbing than the actual violence for me.”
The audience’s appetite for violence is also evident in numerous other shows, as outlined below. So the big question is, how much further can the TV industry go in this direction? Will viewers get fed up with violent drama and start demanding the upbeat shows Lygo would like to see? Or will writers and directors keep finding new ways to turn our stomachs?
Game of Thrones: The Walking Dead’s status as the most violent show on TV is challenged by David Benioff and DB Weiss’s adaptation of George RR Martin’s fantasy novel series. Rape, mutilation, torture and massacres have been regular themes through the HBO series. But while the more outrageous scenes have their critics, the audience has stayed supremely strong throughout. Echoing TWD’s most recent episode, arguably the most shocking scene was when Gregor Clegane crushed The Red Viper’s skull with his bare hands during a gruesome duel. There’s something about seeing a person’s head smashed in that is particularly disturbing – and it’s an increasingly common image.
Hannibal: Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal makes the original Silence of the Lambs movie look like a spin-off of Shaun the Sheep. Of the many grotesque sequences in the NBC series, one of the most gut-wrenching is when serial killer and cannibal Hannibal Lecter gives Mason Verger the drug PCP and then tells him to peel off his own face with a piece of broken mirror. In a state of drug-induced euphoria, Mason complies, and afterwards feeds the pieces to his dogs, except for his nose, which he himself eats. And that’s only the beginning… Hannibal was cancelled after three seasons but attracted an extremely loyal audience throughout its run.
Sons of Anarchy: Kurt Sutter’s acclaimed biker gang drama was another painful piece of television to watch, though it didn’t stop the show becoming a runaway hit for FX. For some, the worst moment was when the villainous Damon Pope burned another man’s daughter alive and forced him to watch (season five). For others, it was the brutal murder of Opie Winston, who had his head bashed in with a lead pipe by a group of prisoners, egged on by a bunch of prison wardens (season five). Sutter returned to graphic violence in his next show The Bastard Executioner, though this one only lasted a season. Questioned by the press about the use of violence in this show, he said: “My mandate, as it was on Sons of Anarchy, is the same for this – the violence, as absurd as it could be on Sons, it always came from an organic place and it was never done in a vacuum. To every violent act, there were ramifications. That’s sort of my same mandate here. There are ways to portray that violence that don’t make it openly gratuitous, so I sort have the same mandate with this show.”
American Horror Story: With a name like that, you’d feel shortchanged if Ryan Murphy’s AHS anthology series didn’t scare the bejesus out of you. But there are some especially excruciating images in this successful FX drama. In AHS: Hotel, one of the most disturbing scenes sees a drug addict check into a hotel room, whereupon he is raped by a creature covered in wax-like skin wearing a disturbing looking dildo. Murphy has attempted to explain the scene as a commentary on the hell of addiction. However, even with this story rationalisation it’s pretty warped stuff. Sexual brutalisation ranks alongside head-smashing as one of the TV industry’s preferred ways of horrifying its audience.
Vikings: Period dramas on TV used to be sedate stuff – carriages, elaborate hats, dancing and the occasional shiny cutlass. But series like Starz’s Spartacus and History’s Vikings have reinvented the genre. The latter, created by Michael Hirst, is a big hit for the A+E-owned channel. Not surprisingly, given the subject, Vikings has regular recourse to violence. One example was the slow-motion scene when lead character Ragnar Lothbrok ritually carved open his enemy Jarl Borg from behind. This style of death is called the Blood Eagle, because the victim’s lungs are pulled out through his back and laid across his shoulders like wings.
The Strain: Created by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan, based on their own novels, this FX vampire drama has some truly grotesque moments. One of the most famous is when an infected worm forces its way into the eyeball of the hero’s wife. The image was so revolting that an ad campaign featuring the image had to be pulled after complaints. Just as gruesome was the sight of vampire elders feeding off a human prisoner in season two, a scene that also carried sado-masochistic overtones. The show will end after its fourth season, but it’s a meandering narrative rather than uncompromising violence that caused this.
Daredevil: Superhero series and movies have started to deploy more graphic violence in the pursuit of audience. The Netflix/Marvel show Daredevil (created by Drew Goddard, based on the Stan Lee/Bill Everett creation) is a case in point. Although it has received a lot of critical acclaim, the show doesn’t pull its punches when it comes to graphic violent imagery. Bad guy Kingpin (Vincent D’Onofrio) is especially disturbing, beating someone to death and decapitating him on his first appearance in the show. In season two, the violence is increased with the arrival of The Punisher (pictured). Time Magazine is critical of the way the show has gone, arguing that: “Daredevil just wants to dole out fun doses of extreme gore on the path to an endpoint on a business plan.”
Boardwalk Empire: HBO’s acclaimed mobster series is another drama that attracted criticism for its portrayal of violence. Again, you can’t make a mobster movie without breaking heads, but there is a legitimate question over whether the portrayal of violence was a) accurate and b) necessary. Showrunner Terence Winter’s response to questions about violence was to say: “Murder is ugly, it looks like what it looks like.” Like many of his peers, Winter justifies the shows violence by saying it is used in context. “We’re not gratuitous,” he said in an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald. “We’ve never said, ‘We need a murder here or how can we make this scene more bloody?’” But “[One of the murders] is as graphic as it gets and I don’t know why we would want to sugarcoat that. I don’t want to make it look antiseptic or like a video game where they are no consequences.”
The Following: Fox’s 2013 series stars James Purefoy as a brilliant, psychotic serial killer who communicates with other serial killers and activates a cult of believers following his every command. The show was created by Kevin Williamson, who built his reputation with movie franchises like Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer before turning his attention to TV. Gory in the extreme, the show was labelled “a showcase for gratuitous carnage and cruelty that might best be described as pornographic” by The Washington Times. Chasing Purefoy’s serial killer is a cop played by Kevin Bacon, who gave this assessment of the show: “We were trying to make a thriller that scares people and keeps them on the edge of their seats. It was brutal, but the people who watched it seemed to not have a problem.” The series lasted three seasons.
Oz: HBO’s Oz is a reminder that violence isn’t new to our screens. Launched in 1997, the show was set in a maximum-security prison facility populated by the kind of people you hope never see parole. In 2001, The Guardian’s review of season four said: “The previous three seasons of Oz have featured poisoning, lynching, burning, shooting, beating, eye-gouging and crucifixion. The actors admit they find it tough-going sometimes. ‘I have difficulty watching some scenes,’ says [actor] Edie Falco. At times even writer Tom Fontana finds it all too much. He claims that he closed his eyes while penning some scenes because, ‘I didn’t want to see myself writing the words I had to produce.’” The Guardian’s conclusion, however, was that the ultra-violent show was “never gratuitous” and that its primary goal was to shine a light on “political cynicism and a morally bankrupt penal system.”
The US leads the way in terms of the depiction of violence on the small screen, but the rest of the world has been catching on. Series like Gomorrah (Italy), Braquo (France), Underbelly (Australia), Valley of the Wolves (Turkey), Epitafios (Argentina) and The Bridge (Sweden/Denmark) have all had some tough-to-watch moments. Ironically, given Lygo’s concerns, so have ITV’s recent dramas – notably Marcella and Paranoid. In the latter, the show opens with a graphic sequence in which a mother is stabbed to death in a playground in front of her child. The Radio Times ran an interesting comment piece on the message that dramas like this are sending out about to women about the threat of violence. However, the real message of today’s TV dramas is that nobody is safe to go out anymore…
The scripted TV business received another boost this week with the news that YouTube has moved into original scripted programming for the first time.
Unveiling a slate of six shows across a range of genres, it revealed that its paid-for service YouTube Red has ordered a TV adaptation of Step Up, the popular street dance movie franchise that featured Channing Tatum.
The series, to be made by Lionsgate TV, will follow dancers in a contemporary performing arts school. Tatum and Jenna Dewan Tatum, who starred in the original movie, will executive produce.
So far, the US$10-per-month service has focused on shows starring top YouTubers such as Felix Kjellberg, aka PewDiePie. However, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki has given a strong indication that scripted content will play an increasingly big part in her plans.
Unveiling the slate, which also included a scripted comedy called Rhett & Link’s Buddy System, she said original series and movies are one of the leading drivers of YouTube Red subscriptions, “with viewership that rivals similar cable shows.” Interestingly, more than half of people watching Red originals are doing so via mobile phones – suggesting there may be a future for vertical video.
Still in the world of streamers, SVoD behemoth Netflix announced that it is backing a true crime drama based on Margaret Atwood’s novel Alias Grace.
The novel follows Grace Marks, a poor Irish immigrant and domestic servant living in Canada who, along with stablehand James McDermott, was convicted in 1843 of murdering her employers. The six-part miniseries will be written and produced by Sarah Polley and will air on Canadian public broadcaster CBC in Canada. Netflix will stream it worldwide.
Also this week, JJ Abrams’ production company Bad Robot has linked up with US talkshow host Tavis Smiley on a miniseries about the death of music icon Michael Jackson.
The series is based on Smiley’s book Before You Judge Me: The Triumph and Tragedy of Michael Jackson’s Last Days. Abrams and Smiley are also working on a TV version of the Smiley’s 2014 book Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s Final Year.
Elsewhere, it has been a busy week for ITV’s pay TV channel ITV Encore, which has announced a series renewal and a miniseries commission. The renewal is for Rainmark Films’ well-received period drama The Frankenstein Chronicles, which stars Sean Bean and was created by Benjamin Ross and Barry Langford.
Billed as a “thrilling and terrifying reimaging of the Frankenstein story,” the first season followed detective John Marlott, a veteran of the Battle of Waterloo who was battling his own demons and is haunted by the loss of his wife and child. In pursuit of a chilling and diabolical killer, Marlott’s investigation took him into the most exalted rooms and darkest corners of Georgian London, a world of body snatchers, anatomists and scientists whose interests came together in the market for dead bodies.
The new series has been commissioned for ITV by controller of drama Victoria Fea and commissioning editor Sarah Conroy. Production is set to begin in Northern Ireland in January 2017.
“We are thrilled to be working once more with Sean Bean in the role of John Marlott, who is a returning hero like no other,” said executive producer Tracey Scoffield. “With the continued support of ITV and (the show’s distributor) Endemol Shine International we want to be more ambitious than ever.”
ITV also announced a new two-hour crime thriller for ITV Encore entitled Dark Heart. In this production, Tom Riley (Da Vinci’s Demon, Monroe) plays Will Wagstaffe, a workaholic detective leading the investigation into the deaths of two unconvicted paedophiles.
The two-hour drama, set in London, is written by acclaimed writer Chris Lang (Unforgotten, A Mother’s Son) and based on the novel Suffer the Children by Adam Creed.
Dark Heart is an ITV Studios production for ITV Encore. It is executive produced by Lang, Kate Bartlett (Jericho, Vera) and Michael Dawson (Vera, Holby City). The producer is Chris Clough (The Missing, Stan Lee’s Lucky Man) and the director is Colin Teague (Jekyll & Hyde, Da Vinci’s Demons).
ITV Studios’ Bartlett said: “Chris Lang has written a truly compelling and atmospheric script. Adam Creed created a fascinating character in Will Wagstaffe with so many layers, and Chris has brilliantly brought him to screen. We’re thrilled Tom Riley is playing him.”
Still on the subject of novel adaptations, there are reports this week that Endemol Shine-owned drama label Kudos has picked up the rights to Robert Harris’s best-selling Ancient Rome-based Cicero Trilogy, which comprises the novels Imperium, Lustrum and Dictator. No broadcaster is attached and Kudos is yet to decide on the format of the adaptation, but the project is likely to attract interest given the calibre of those involved.
In a busy week for new production announcements, pan-European satellite broadcaster Sky and Germany’s Bavaria Film announced that they are developing a €25m (US$27.5m) TV series based on the classic wartime submariner novels Das Boot and Die Festung by Lothar-Günther Buchheim. The series is being set up as a sequel to the 1981 film version of Buchmein’s novels.
Set in 1942 during the Second World War, the eight-hour series will focus mainly on the German point of view as submarine warfare became increasingly ferocious. Tony Saint (Margaret Thatcher: The Long Walk to Finchley, The Interceptor) and Johannes W Betz (The Tunnel, The Spiegel Affair) have been signed up as head writers, while Oliver Vogel and Moritz Polter are attached as executive producers.
Christian Franckenstein, CEO of Bavaria Film, said: “The 1981 film Das Boot is unique, and we are approaching our work with the greatest of respect for this masterpiece. We want to build on the strong brand of Das Boot, telling the story in a contemporary manner by making use of every filmmaking and storytelling technique available to us.”
Still in Germany, UFA Fiction has just unveiled plans to make a film biopic based on the lives of magicians Siegfried and Roy, two of the few truly global celebrities Germany has ever produced.
The film, which will likely be extended into a miniseries for television, will be directed by Philipp Stölzl (Winnetou, Young Goethe in Love, North Face) and scripted by Jan Berger.
Nico Hofmann, UFA producer and co-CEO, commented: “The prospect of working with Siegfried and Roy is the fulfilment of a long-held dream. It’s not only the story of two Germans who became world famous but a plunge into the world of magic and illusion. The lifework of Siegfried and Roy derives from an almost inexhaustible store of energy and creativity. This is the story of two men who set new, never repeated standards in the tough world of show business.”
Siegfried Fischbacher and Roy Uwe Horn met on a cruise ship in 1960, where they developed their first joint show, driven by their shared passion for the art of magic and illusion. They had their international breakthrough in 1966 at a charity show in Monte Carlo. From 1990, they had their own show at the Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas featuring white tigers, which became their trademark. The spectacular Siegfried and Roy Show was one of the most elaborate stage shows ever. On October 3, 2003, however, the artists’ unique career was brought to an abrupt halt when Roy was critically injured by his favourite tiger, Montecore.
Alongside all of the above production activity, it has also been a busy week for distributors. ITV’s Maigret has been sold by distributor BBC Worldwide to broadcasters including Channel One in Russia, NRK in Norway, TVNZ in New Zealand, RTÉ in Ireland, Finland’s YLE and Prima TV in the Czech Republic. Simultaneously, StudioCanal has sold Section Zéro to Channel One Russia.
AMC’s international network AMC Global, meanwhile, today announced that it has acquired the upcoming anthology drama series The Terror, an adaption of the bestselling novel by Dan Simmons. Scott Free, Emjag Productions and Entertainment 360 are producing the 10-episode drama, which will premiere globally within minutes of its broadcast on AMC in the US.
Written for TV by David Kajganich, the series is set in 1847, when a Royal Naval expedition crew searching for the Northwest Passage is attacked by a mysterious predator that stalks the ships and their crew in a desperate game of survival.
“We’re very excited to bring this gripping dramatic story to AMC Global,” commented Harold Gronenthal, exec VP of programming and operations for AMC and Sundance Channel Global. “With a distinctive combination of science fiction and historical non-fiction, The Terror will complement AMC Global series as Fear the Walking Dead, Humans and Into the Badlands.”
Finally, there are reports this week that showrunner Bryan Fuller is still hoping to revive serial killer drama Hannibal. The show was cancelled by NBC after three seasons but Fuller said there might be room for a revival in late 2017 – once he has dealt with the small matter of a Star Trek reboot for CBS and Starz’ American Gods.
Small-screen producers are going further than ever in their efforts to send shivers down viewers’ spines, with more horror now heading to TV than ever before. DQ finds out more from those at the forefront of this terrifying trend.
If you thought it was safe to climb out from behind your sofa, you might want to think again.
From The Outer Limits and Tales from the Crypt to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, True Blood and Being Human, horror has never been far from television screens.
Now a new breed of dramas are landing on the small screen with ambitions to leave viewers on the edge of their seats – or hiding behind them. But what’s behind this new wave of small-screen terror, and why do audiences keep coming back for more?
In the UK, horror can be found as far back as 1953 in the guise of The Quatermass Experiment, a BBC drama set in the near future against the backdrop of the British space programme. Told in six parts, the story followed the first manned flight into space – but when the rocket returns to Earth, two astronauts are missing and the third is behaving strangely. It then transpires an alien life form contaminated the mission, and scientists led by Professor Bernard Quatermass must stop the alien from destroying the planet.
A decade later in the US, shows such as The Twilight Zone and Boris Karloff’s Thriller brought terrifying stories to life during the early 1960s.
Dr Stacey Abbott, a reader in film and television studies at the University of Roehampton in London and author of TV Horror: Investigating the Dark Side of the Small Screen, says many early horror series were dressed up as science fiction: “While working in tropes of alien invasions, they were also about the horrors of things from outer space invading Earth and the fear the movement towards space exploration was creating. People thought it was very exciting but it was also a potential threat.
“In TV, horror often gets couched as science fiction because sci-fi seems more acceptable and the horror bits are buried. TV is hybrid – there’s no TV series that falls into just one genre category. It’s always drawing upon different genres, but horror often gets hidden beneath other genres to make it more acceptable.”
One modern example is The X-Files, which is returning for a 10th season on Fox in January 2016 after a 14-year absence. Creator Chris Carter’s interest lay in TV horror but he sold the show as science fiction and got it on the air, says Abbott. “Watch an episode like Home, which is about cannibalism and incest, and it’s really indebted to horror. It’s still considered one the scariest episodes,” she adds.
In the 1970s, the rise of cinematic horror led networks to look to the movies to fill late-night slots, while anthology series became commonplace in the 1980s, with examples such as Friday the 13th: The Series (which ran for three seasons from 1987) and Freddie’s Nightmare (two seasons from 1988). Both shows were spin-offs of big-screen movie franchises, and US network The CW is currently developing a reboot of the former.
Horror re-emerged again in the 1990s in the wake of Twin Peaks, David Lynch’s mystery drama that dipped its toes into the genre through its unsettling tone and supernatural elements.
“I would definitely count Twin Peaks as TV horror in many respects, and that impacts on shows like The X-Files, which impacts on Buffy. Something like Buffy is a good example of a show that presents itself as a teen drama but draws upon horror tropes and regularly parodies the genre,” says Abbott.
“Buffy was part of the first wave of modern horror series,” says Marti Noxon (UnREAL, Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce), who began her career on The WB network series and its spin-off, Angel. “There were other sci-fi and fantasy shows that were starting to get traction around that time and, of course, there’s a long history with things like The Twilight Zone.”
Created by Joss Whedon (The Avengers) and based on the 1992 movie of the same name, Buffy starred Sarah Michelle Gellar as the titular heroine, the latest in a long line of ‘slayers,’ who battled demons while navigating the pitfalls of high school. Noxon says Buffy’s cult status meant Whedon and his team were given a lot of room to write the show they wanted, without network interference: “It was pretty heady in terms of the experience I had working with Joss – he was a mentor and inspiration to me – but I didn’t know until the show was over that we were in this very privileged position, as we’d pretty much been making TV for ourselves.”
Buffy’s adventures always began as character stories first and foremost, Noxon explains, with horror built into the narrative. The show was also where she learned about ‘Trojan horses’ – the art of writing an exciting and entertaining scene that doubled as a metaphor for a life lesson or moral.
“All the Buffy writers would say the same thing – you start with character first, and the conversations in the room always started with the story we wanted to tell, and we built the horror story around that,” she explains. “We weren’t being very opaque about it – you could see most of the monsters were metaphors in vampire costumes. Joss taught me all about the Trojan horse – making something very entertaining and fun while speaking about something else. People don’t always know they’re eating their vegetables but they are.”
Like Buffy, many horror series on television take inspiration from the cinema. A&E’s Bates Motel (Psycho) and Damien (The Omen) and MTV’s Teen Wolf all have big-screen predecessors.
Another is Scream, MTV’s adaptation of the franchise from the late Wes Craven that spawned four films and threw new light on horror, in part because it played up to and parodied the stereotypes associated with the genre.
The series, which has been renewed for a second season to air next year, follows a group of teenagers whose world turns upside down when a viral video serves as the catalyst for a murder that opens up a window to their town’s troubled past.
Creator/executive producer Jill Blotevogel says that in the past networks would have shied away from a horror series like Scream, fearing it wouldn’t have drawn a big enough audience. But the success of shows including AMC’s The Walking Dead have proven that any show with “great drama and great characters” can bring people in.
“You have to forget that it’s Scream and that it’s a horror movie and instead think of it as a drama where you fall in love with these characters,” Blotevogel says. “That’s the joy of extending a horror property into a series, and a lot of the networks have found the horror series that defines them. You’ve got Bates Motel, iZombie (The CW), Hannibal (recently cancelled by NBC). These are series that aren’t just horror but signature horror. They all have their unique style, and MTV was really interested in doing something like that to make a big splash.”
Botevogel’s other credits include CBS drama Harper’s Island. She says that show – about a murder spree on an island where everyone is a suspect – gave her the experience she needed to write a series where many characters would meet a gruesome fate. “We had long conversations with our studio and network about how many people we could kill and when we could kill them, because they were pretty adamant they didn’t want it to be just random kills of a crossing guard or hotel maid or someone who doesn’t matter. They wanted it to be people we cared about,” she says. “It’s been a real push-pull, a real learning experience for everyone because it’s definitely a different kind of show.
But how did Scream approach how graphic it should be? “We didn’t want to take the gore level to something that’s just gross for the sake of being gross,” admits Blotevogel, who says the team wanted to create TV that would be talked about on social networks and around the water cooler.
“As always in the US, you have standards and practices. We have guidelines that say, ‘yes you can do this,’ or ‘make sure you cut away so it’s not too graphic.’ But as we saw in the pilot, we had a pretty graphic throat-slicing and it definitely made a lot of people scream.”
If Scream faced a balancing act over its graphic content, one new drama heading to US premium cable network Starz is facing no such uncertainty. When horror flick The Evil Dead was first released in 1983, it was banned in several countries, including the UK, over its violent content, helping it to become one of the first ‘video nasties.’
And its small-screen adaptation, Ash vs Evil Dead (pictured top), which launches this Halloween, will stay true to the gory spirit of the film franchise (the original spawned two sequels and a 2013 remake). Starz MD Carmi Zlotnik says: “The premium space enables us to do everything broadcast and cable networks cannot in terms of content and allows us to do horror in its truest form – uncut and unadulterated. ‘Barrels of blood’ would not do it justice, we had no problem with blood or gore.”
The story of a group of friends who awaken demonic forces while staying in an isolated cabin is executive produced by Sam Raimi, Rob Tapert, Bruce Campbell, the original filmmakers, and showrunner Craig DiGregorio. Campbell also reprises his role as main character Ash.
The project landed at Starz through its existing relationship with Tapert, who worked on Spartacus, and the script proved to have everything the network wanted – “horror, comedy, vast amounts of blood. We call it ‘splatstick,’” says Marta Fernandez, Starz senior VP of original programming.
“If it were on network television, it would be a completely different animal. It would be watered down. We go so far with blood and gore, which is the trademark of The Evil Dead, that we would have to step that back so far for a network drama.”
While you might be able to get away with bigger scares in pay TV, that hasn’t stopped US networks jumping into horror. The X-Files is coming back to Fox; iZombie airs on The CW alongside The Vampire Diaries and its spin-off The Originals; and Dracula aired on NBC in partnership with the UK’s Sky Living in 2013.
A further example is Hannibal, another NBC entry that concluded its three-season run this summer. The series focuses on the relationship between forensic scientist Hannibal Lecter and FBI investigator Will Graham, played by Mads Mikkelsen and Hugh Dancy respectively.
Hannibal and fellow horror series Hemlock Grove (the third and final season launched on Netflix this month) were both produced by Gaumont International Television (GIT) – but former CEO Katie O’Connell Marsh, who stepped down from the company during its recent rebranding to Gaumont TV, says the company never set out intending for its first two commissions to sit so heavily in horror.
“I’m not personally into horror, but I am into really good character drama,” she says. “That’s how I look at them. Everyone comes to entertainment from their own viewpoint, and for me it’s really just great character and great exploration. There are things in Hannibal that were rough for even me to watch, but it’s beautifully rendered.”
Hannibal was picked up by NBC through writer Bryan Fuller’s links to the network, and O’Connell Marsh says there were no second thoughts about developing the series for a broadcast network, despite Lecter’s cannibalistic tendencies.
“I actually think NBC is such a great place for that. Because of the limitations, it makes the show in some ways more interesting and scarier,” she explains. “Sometimes what you imagine is behind the door is scarier than what’s actually there. In so many ways, the restraint of US broadcast television made the show that much more interesting. If we could have done whatever we wanted, maybe Hannibal wouldn’t have been as scary or provocative.
“Bryan has often said NBC’s standards and practices department were very supportive. It wasn’t like there was a battle every episode. They understood the show and what Bryan was trying to do. We skirted the line a lot of the time but they were really encouraging.”
O’Connell Marsh says Netflix has been equally supportive with Hemlock Grove, a show executive produced by horror aficionado Eli Roth, the man behind the ultra-gory Hostel movie franchise. Based on the book by Brian McGreevy, Hemlock Grove follows a murder mystery that revolves around the residents of a former Pennsylvania steel town that is home to a number of peculiar inhabitants – and killer creatures. “Horror isn’t the question, it’s the concept of a show,” she adds. “Underneath Hannibal is a bromance with murder and mystery. In Hemlock Grove, it’s the ultimate family drama. And the sustainability of a show is equal parts the vision and the story.”
One horror less concerned with blood and gore and more focused on the supernatural and psychological was British drama The Enfield Haunting. The three-part series, based on Guy Lyon Playfair’s non-fiction book This House is Haunted, tells the story of the phenomenon known as the Enfield Poltergeist, which supposedly terrorised a house in the north London borough in 1977. It starred Timothy Spall, Juliet Stevenson and Matthew MacFadyen and aired this year on Sky Living and A&E in the US.
“Sky was after something that would be properly scary and would move the genre on in some way,” says executive producer and Eleven Film co-founder Jamie Campbell. “Part of what appealed to Sky, and part of what the audience found appealing, was that it was based on a true story. Sky was very keen that we retained the integrity of the book and was keen for us to make it scary.”
However, Campbell believes there’s a limited appeal for horror on television: “Commissioners are apprehensive about horror because you eliminate a serious amount of the audience. But that’s quite exciting because the audience that does come to it, as Enfield showed, is committed and will invest in it.
“The sweet spot is finding something that will appeal to fans of horror but has enough going for it that people who aren’t necessarily fans of the genre will take a chance on it. And if it’s well made, they stick with it.”
Campbell also cites French supernatural drama Les Revenants (The Returned), which returned to Canal+ for a second season in September, as an original horror series that moved the genre forward. “(Producer) Haut et Court has great taste and you can see that in all aspects of the series,” he says. “What was really driving it was story, keeping you interested, and I suspect the genre came second to the story.”
Ultimately, Campbell says, there are two different ways of tackling horror. One is in keeping with the all-out path trodden by The Evil Dead, while the other is to take a more stylish approach – with Campbell again using Les Revenants as an example of the latter.
“There’s an audience that will come to horror if you do it in a slightly different way, pay more attention to story and make it a more rarefied experience but still revel in the genre. If you can do that, then it can be really interesting.”
But if any further proof were needed of horror’s current influence on TV schedules, US cable network AMC this summer launched its highly anticipated companion to zombie drama The Walking Dead, one of the biggest shows currently on air. Fear The Walking Dead complements the original by taking its fans back to the start – focusing on how LA fell to the ‘walkers.’
The show boasts many of the key creatives from The Walking Dead, including Robert Kirkman, Gale Anne Hurd, David Alpert and Greg Nicotero. Its premiere on AMC drew 10.1 million viewers, becoming the number-one series premiere in cable television history in terms of total viewers.
Showrunner Dave Erickson says that, at its roots, the series is a family drama, wrapped in the familiar trappings of the horror genre. “In Fear, we start as a family drama and we bring in the tropes from the genre,” he explains. “There’s something about horror shows that are vessels. You can impress upon them any fear, anxiety, phobia – anything that haunts you, you can make part of that world. People typically like to be scared. The adrenaline rush – that’s what causes people to watch horror films.
“They also work psychologically. They reflect societal ills, anxieties that we carry with us every day and, ultimately, they’re somewhat cathartic. Specifically with the zombie genre, there’s something very primal in killing zombies. They’re basically people who have been dehumanised, and that makes it OK to take them down.”
As with other genres, horror is used as the dressing for stories about heroes and heroines, troubled families and bloodthirsty crimes. But whatever aspect these shows take, they are all united by their ambition to scare their audience. So why do people watch them?
“People just love to be scared,” says Scream’s Blotevogel, a self-confessed horror fan. “I think people are reassured about their own lives when they see awful things happening to other people because they can put it out there and say it’s just a TV show. Everybody loves to be scared. It’s just built into our DNA. I’m so glad the genre is having a renaissance on TV and I hope it continues.”
NBC Universal cable channel USA Networks did a strange thing this week. It commissioned a second season of cyber-hacker drama Mr Robot before the first season has even begun.
It’s not unusual for channels to renew dramas after a few episodes of the first season have aired, when they have had a chance to crunch the audience data, but why did USA Networks act so precipitously?
The answer is that it had already released a sneak preview of the pilot online. Since May 27, it has been available via Xfinity On Demand, USANetwork.com, Hulu, YouTube, iTunes, Amazon Instant Video, Google Play, Vudu, Xbox Video, PlayStation Video, IMDb and Telemundo.com, to name just a few.
The result was a very impressive 2.7 million views and a positive critical response. It was on this basis that USA decided to greenlight an additional 10 episodes for 2016.
“We knew from the moment we read Sam Esmail’s provocative script, and witnessed the brilliant performances of Rami Malek and Christian Slater, that Mr Robot is a stand-out series that is unlike anything currently on television,” said USA Network president Chris McCumber, announcing the renewal.
“The overwhelmingly positive fan reaction to the pilot and the broad sampling of it reaffirms our confidence in the series, and we’re excited to see where this drama will take us for season two.”
The show, for those yet to view it, sees Malek play a computer programmer who is a cyber-security engineer by day and a vigilante hacker by night. He finds himself at a crossroads when the leader of an underground hacker group recruits him to destroy the firm he is paid to protect.
“Sam Esmail has captured and distilled our ongoing cultural conversation about identity, privacy, value and self-worth,” said Jeff Wachtel, president and chief content officer at NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment. “We are all talking about the central themes of Mr Robot – Sam has just done it in a completely original and uniquely compelling way.”
Elsewhere in the NBC Universal family, flagship free-to-air network NBC announced this week that it had cancelled Hannibal, the Silence of the Lambs spin-off that is currently in its third, and now final, season.
In a statement, NBC said: “We have been tremendously proud of Hannibal over its three seasons. (Showrunner) Bryan Fuller and his team of writers and producers, as well as our incredible actors, have brought a visual palette of storytelling that has been second to none in all of TV – broadcast or cable. We thank (producer) Gaumont and everyone involved in the show for their tireless efforts that have made Hannibal an incredible experience for audiences around the world.”
By and large, the show has been well received by critics, but its cancellation is the result of low ratings. For an ad-funded channel like NBC, no amount of glowing reviews can justify persisting with a show if it isn’t delivering enough 18-49 adult impacts.
However, the fact NBC is pulling out does not necessarily mean this is the end for Hannibal. The show was initially picked up by Sony Pictures Television (SPT) for its international cable channel AXN, with NBC coming in as a US acquisition. So if SPT and AXN decide Hannibal is worth preserving, they and producer Gaumont could go in search of a new US partner for season four.
While the show is unlikely to attract the other major networks (ABC, NBC and CBS), it might appeal to a US cable net or streaming service. Not only does it have a high quotient of murder and mayhem, it also has the kind of in-built brand equity that would help it stand out from the crowd.
Fans of the series are already campaigning for Hannibal to find a new home, with the hashtag #SaveHannibal trending on Twitter.
The obvious partner would be SVoD platform Amazon, which already holds the rights to air the first two seasons of Hannibal and has a track record in reviving axed shows – such as Ripper Street, for example.
Fuller (who is also commencing work on American Gods for Starz) would welcome a reprieve and has suggested there is a chance it might happen. He told Deadline: “I would say 50/50. Because I’ve been down this road before and there’s that brief wave of ‘Oh it could be possible’ and then it just doesn’t happen. But it feels like the way this particular show is set up there is potential for a deal to be done. I know conversations are being had. It’s just a matter if they can come to an agreement that is mutually beneficial to the studio and the distributor.”
This week also saw the long-awaited launch of True Detective season two on premium cable network HBO in the US. In ratings terms, it started well – with its audience of 3.17 million making it the top cable show on Sunday night.
The show also had a good launch on Sky Atlantic in the UK. To capitalise on pre-launch buzz, the channel elected to air the show at the same time it was on in the US – which in the UK meant a 02.00 transmission time. This gave it an audience of 131,000. It then replayed the episode at 2100 on Monday, securing a further 251,000 viewers. While the latter figure is only marginally ahead of the channel’s 2100 slot average, the combination of the above two figures is a decent 382,000.
A couple of weeks ago, we discussed the prospects of Paul Abbott’s offbeat police procedural series No Offence, which airs on the UK’s Channel 4. While the ratings declined quite quickly after a strong opening, our view was that there was enough of a spark in the set-up for it to justify a second series.
This week, C4 confirmed that the show will return for another eight-episode run in 2016 – with a story involving warring crime families. Despite the audience dropping from around 2.5 million to just over one million, C4 head of drama Piers Wenger said: “No Offence is not just unlike any other cop show on TV, it’s unlike any other show on TV. Paul and the cast have set the bar high in terms of thrills, spills and belly laughs this year.”
The renewal is good news for FremantleMedia International, which holds the distribution rights and has already sold the first season to the likes of the ABC in Australia and Denmark’s DR. However, Abbott is going to have to find a way to breathe life back into the ratings if No Offence is to last as long as Shameless.
Sticking with C4, the strong performance of the show’s new futuristic drama Humans was confirmed this week with the release of consolidated ratings data. After the initial wave of results showed the Kudos-produced robot thriller achieved a record-breaking four million viewers for its debut episode, that figure has now been recalculated to take account of time-shifted viewing. The result is an aggregate audience of approximately 6.1 million, making Humans the biggest original drama on C4 for 20 years.
As we have mentioned in previous columns, the UK’s niche channels have become a useful testing ground for non-English language drama seeking to get a foothold in the international market. C4’s sister channel More4, for example, has started airing The Saboteurs (aka The Heavy Water War), a six-part World War Two drama about Allied attempts to foil the Nazis’ plans to build an atomic bomb.
The series attracted an impressive 1.7 million viewers when it debuted on NRK in Norway. On More4, the debut episode attracted 336,000. This was well ahead of the slot average, though the fact that a third of the audience was aged over 65 probably dampened More4’s enthusiasm.
While there is an understandable temptation to focus on the ratings performance of new shows, it’s always worth keeping an eye on how schedule stalwarts are holding up. It’s interesting, for example, that the top-rated US cable show of the last week was Rizzoli & Isles, a TNT detective series based on the novels by Tess Gerritsen.
Starring Angie Harmon as police detective Jane Rizzoli and Sasha Alexander as medical examiner Dr Maura Isles, the show started its sixth season on June 16 with an audience of 4.4 million. Judging by its past performance, the show’s ratings are likely to tail off slightly after a few episodes but, with 18 episodes in the upcoming series, it’s a very reliable part of the TNT schedule.
Looking back over historical ratings, Rizzoli & Isles has been a top-five basic cable show for the last five years. In 2014, it was actually the top-rating basic cable series, with an average of 7.6 million viewers in Live+7. With its strong ratings record and an episode count just shy of 100, it’s no surprise the show also does well in international distribution. Networks that have aired it include Net 5 in Netherlands, Vox in Germany, UK network Alibi and Rete 4 in Italy.
Away from the drama scene, another noteworthy international story is the news that US sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond is being remade in Hindi for Indian entertainment channel Star Plus. Raymond is a global phenomenon, spawning local versions in Russia, Egypt, Israel and the Netherlands, and selling to numerous other territories in its original form. Steve Skrovan, a writer on the US series, is working with the show’s Indian scribes to help get the adaptation right.