Damon Lindelof looks back at three seasons of The Leftovers after the HBO drama finished earlier this year.
He tells DQ about why he was drawn to Tom Perrotta’s book for a TV adaptation, how he worked with the author to create the critically acclaimed series and why the show was reset in a new location when the book’s story was exhausted by the end of the first season.
Lindelof, whose credits also include big screen blockbusters Star Trek: Into Darkness and Tomorrowland, discusses why fear and anxiety are key to his writing process and what differences he sees between working between film and television.
The writer also looks back on hit series Lost and reveals what lessons he learned from the show, which ran for six seasons on US network ABC.
Damon Lindelof, the prolific showrunner, producer and film screenwriter behind cult series The Leftovers and Lost, is the latest high-profile speaker to join the line-up at Drama Summit West, which takes place in LA on May 19.
Lindelof will front a showrunner keynote Q&A at the event, discussing the third and final season of the critically acclaimed HBO series The Leftovers, his current work and his approach to the craft. The session will be chaired by The LA Times television and entertainment writer Libby Hill.
As well as TV work on Lost with JJ Abrams, Lindelof has also served as as a writer and producer on a number of science fiction films, including Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, World War Z, Star Trek, Star Trek Into Darkness and Tomorrowland.
Elsewhere at Drama Summit West, a high-profile showrunner panel forms part of the creative line-up featuring Marti Noxon (Sharp Objects, Unreal), Ilene Chaiken (Empire, The Handmaid’s Tale), Courtney Kemp (Power), Naren Shankar (The Expanse) and John Wirth (Hap & Leonard, Hell on Wheels). This panel sees the writer-producers discuss their evolving role and how they are creating, writing, developing and producing stories in new ways to meet audience and channel demands.
Delegates will also learn about the programming priorities for the top programming chiefs at AMC, Showtime, Starz and TNT at the event and how they are working with the international market, in a cable superpanel. The programming chiefs will also discuss challenges in the market and provide a sneak peak into some of 2017’s hottest new dramas, which they have commissioned, including Twin Peaks, American Gods, The Alienist and The Son.
Streaming giant Netflix also hosts a session at the event on its global coproduction and international originals strategy. This will be fronted by Elizabeth Bradley, VP of content, and Erik Barmack, VP of international originals, respectively. They will discuss how they are using Netflix multimillion-pound content budget to boost its library with original home-grown content in the 130-plus territories it now serves, as well as work with international partners on global coproductions.
British TV executive and former BBC drama chief Ben Stephenson will take part in a Next-Generation Producers panel, discussing his latest role as head of television at JJ Abrams’ Bad Robot. He is joined by The Night Manager producer The Ink Factory’s co-CEO Stephen Cornwell, American Crime Story producer Color Force’s senior VP television Nellie Reed and Anonymous Content’s Rosalie Swedlin, who’s latest projects include Caleb Carr adaptation The Alienist and The Wife, starring Glenn Close and Christian Slater.
The panel will discuss how some of the US’s hottest independent studios and seasoned producers are developing, producing and packaging next-generation drama, defining new models akin to the feature film world, finding new stories in a saturated market and working with creatives and writers.
A special focus on the Latin American market also forms part of the event. Execs from HBO Latin America, Globo, Fox Networks Latin America and Keshet Latin America will discuss the growing ambition for drama in the region, as well as the opportunities in this dynamic market.
Business sessions on coproduction and finance and the big questions in scripted TV also form part of the day with execs from BBC Worldwide, Lionsgate, Eone Entertainment, CAA, WME, Studiocanal TV, All3Media North America and Sonar Entertainment taking part.
The day will close with a networking cocktail party between 6pm and 9pm, organised in association with CAA.
TV drama, for all its dynamism, is guilty of numerous clichés. One that pops up repeatedly is the portrayal of religious folk as friendless nut jobs, murderous psychopaths or boring killjoys.
Harlan Coben’s The Five and Sally Wainwright’s Happy Valley both placed credulous Christians with a soft spot for mass murderers at the heart of their plotlines, while the arch-villain in Steven Knight’s Peaky Blinders is a Catholic priest (superbly played by Paddy Considine) who would have made the Spanish Inquisition squirm – though to be fair to Knight, he also deploys religion very skillfully in his story through the use of former Quaker Linda.
There are three reasons for TV’s reliance on this trope. The first is the growing belief in secular societies that anyone who sincerely adheres to a monotheistic creationist stance is naïve at best, delusional at worst. This Richard Dawkins-inspired view of the world is then used to create caricature believers.
The second is that the image of a badass in a dog collar still seems to enthrall writers and audiences. Sometimes, this is because it addresses the duplicity of evil masquerading as good. At other times, it is because it can act as the catalyst for a story about divine retribution.
And the third is that ordinary believers – the kind who help in soup kitchens and save starving people – don’t make great TV. When not being used to cause mayhem or spout evangelical inanities, people of faith are anal, oppositional forces to main characters in TV drama who are typically much more morally ambivalent.
Whatever the creative rationale for the TV industry’s portrayal of contemporary religion, it continues to have a big influence on content – as we can see from the following scripted series. And to be fair to the TV sector, it doesn’t always do a bad job.
Preacher: This new 10-part AMC production is based on a comic book series by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon. Adapted for TV by Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen and Sam Caitlin, it tells the story of a small-town preacher who becomes possessed by an alien entity. He then sets off on a mission to find God, accompanied by an Irish vampire. This is an example of the badass preacher trope that stretches all the way back to Clint Eastwood in Pale Rider.
Greenleaf: Launching on June 21, Greenleaf is an Oprah Winfrey-backed production for the Oprah Winfrey Network. It follows the unscrupulous world of the Greenleaf family, which runs a Memphis megachurch with predominantly African-American members. The series was created by Craig Wright, who is known for his work on series like Six Feet Under and Lost. Wright has a Masters in Divinity from the United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cites, so it will be interesting to see how he handles this subject matter. Oprah is already fending off critics of the show’s controversial subject matter, which is expected to cover dubious tax arrangements, marital infidelity, sexual abuse cover-ups and the extraordinary wealth of some megachurch ministers. In a recent interview, she said: “I am not going to do anything that disrespects the church. I am sitting where I am today because of the black church.”
Hand of God: An Amazon series starring Ron Perlman, Hand of God is the story of a corrupt judge who suffers a breakdown and believes God is compelling him onto a path of vigilante justice. Created by Ben Watkins, it received a second season order in December 2015 despite modest reviews and feedback. This one is a kind of hybrid delusional/kick-ass Christian setup.
Midwinter of the Spirit: Based on the books by Phil Rickman, Midwinter of the Spirit is a three-part drama that first aired on ITV Encore. Adapted by Stephen Volk, it’s actually not a bad portrayal of a Christian central character. It tells the story of a divorced female priest who works as an exorcist while struggling to bring up her increasingly rebellious teenage daughter. Anna Maxwell Martin does a nice job as the protagonist.
The Walking Dead: Such a good series for so many reasons, The Walking Dead (created by Robert Kirkman, with Scott M Gimple the showrunner) has explored the notion of faith very well in the shape of Father Gabriel Stokes, who has managed to retain his faith despite the unfortunate emergence of a zombie apocalypse. His human failings are apparent in the early series but are not really used as a way of attacking the notion of faith-based philosophies. He finds a way to develop human strength without relinquishing his faith.
Rides Upon the Storm: From Borgen creator Adam Price (pictured), this promises to be an insightful exploration of faith in modern society. Centred on a Protestant priest, “it’s a show that uses personal faith as the motivation of the action,” says Price. “I’ve always been interested in and puzzled by religion. It has had such a terrifying impact on the politics of the world in the last 15 years that I wanted to make a show that tries to understand it. I’ve always found that things that puzzle you can serve as the topic of compelling stories. For me, it is about satisfying curiosity.”
The Path: A Hulu series starring Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad), The Path follows a man who is part of a cult that follows a fictional religion called Meyerism. It focuses on his crisis of faith and the cult’s increasingly paranoid relationship with its members and the world. The recently renewed show is written by a team headed by Jessica Goldberg, who also created it.
The Exorcist: A TV adaptation of the iconic movie, The Exorcist was picked up as a series by Fox on May 10. The pilot, written by Jeremy Slater, was described as “a serialised psychological thriller following two very different men tackling one family’s case of horrifying demonic possession, and confronting the face of true evil.” If this is anything like the film then the priests won’t come out of this too badly, subject to the usual human frailties.
The Leftovers: HBO’s acclaimed series is widely acknowledged to be a serious exploration of religion. Based on the book by Tom Perrotta, it explores what happens when 2% of the world’s population suddenly disappears. Christopher Eccleston excels as a minister who tries to reconcile the event with his own belief system. Not surprisingly, various cults arise in the aftermath of the event including a sinister group called The Guilty Remnant. Perrotta created the TV series alongside Damon Lindelof.
Vikings: What is Vikings doing in here, you may ask? Well, there is a general unease among Christians about the way they are portrayed in Michael Hirst’s History channel series. The complaint is well summarised by the Catholic Herald, which explores the way in which audiences seem to prefer bad behaviour to moral rectitude. Somewhere in here there is a more general point about crisis of confidence in all institutions.
Like office workers using up their holiday entitlement before the end of the year, TV channels are rushing to greenlight scripted shows before they shut up shop for the holiday season.
Among those celebrating this festive bounty is UK producer Neal Street Productions, which has just been given the greenlight by the BBC to produce a sixth season of period drama Call the Midwife. The new order comes despite the fact season five has yet to air.
Neal Street executive producer Pippa Harris said: “I am delighted the BBC has decided to commission season six of Call the Midwife even before we have gone on air with season five. It really demonstrates their commitment to and passion for the show. The success of Call the Midwife is down to the incredible writing skills of Heidi Thomas and the talent and dedication of our wonderful cast and crew. I hope the audience will enjoy watching season five, which I firmly believe is our strongest yet.”
In the US, meanwhile, protests in front of HBO’s offices seem to have paid off, with the premium pay TV channel announcing that it has ordered a third season of critically acclaimed drama The Leftovers.
Fans of the show were so desperate for a renewal that they took to the streets to make their feelings felt – and it seems the channel has listened: “It is with great enthusiasm that we welcome back Damon Lindelof, Tom Perrotta (the creators) and the extraordinary talent behind The Leftovers for its third and final season,” said HBO programming head Michael Lombardo. “This show has proven to be one of the most distinctive HBO series, and we are extremely proud of its originality, which has resulted in such a passionate following by our HBO viewers. We admire and fully support Damon’s artistic vision and respect his decision to bring the show to its conclusion next season.”
As Lombardo’s comments make clear, next year will be the final season of The Leftovers. This is a neat way of giving the fanbase what they want and allowing the show’s creators to achieve closure, while tacitly acknowledging the fact that the show has not done that well in the ratings.
“On behalf of our incredible crew and superb cast, we are all tremendously grateful that HBO is giving us an opportunity to conclude the show on our own terms,” said Lindelof in a statement. “An opportunity like this one rarely comes along, and we have every intention of living up to it.”
Over in Canada, public broadcaster CBC has greenlit a four-part miniseries from producer Shaftesbury and Sharon Mustos. Based on Ann-Marie MacDonald’s novel Fall On Your Knees, the story follows four sisters in the early 1900s.
Moving from Nova Scotia via the battlefields of the First World War to the emerging jazz scene of Harlem in New York City, the show is described as the riveting tale of a family beset by hidden desires, terrible secrets, intolerance and repression.
Mustos said: “I am proud to bring this much-loved, acclaimed novel to the screen in partnership with Shaftesbury. Celebrating the quiet heroism of women in the face of heartbreak, adversity and the sweeping changes of the early 20th century, it is a remarkable story.”
Published in 1996, Fall On Your Knees has been translated into more than 20 languages and will be adapted by Adriana Maggs.
Meanwhile, it’s not quite a renewal but NBC in the US has given a hefty vote of confidence to freshman medical drama Chicago Med, which has been awarded five extra episodes. Part of a Chicago trilogy of TV shows from Dick Wolf, the first four episodes of Med’s first season have averaged 8.9 million viewers in live + same-day ratings. With the new instalments, the total order for season one is up to 18 episodes.
Still with the US networks, Fox has ordered Shots Fired, a drama that will be written and executive produced by Gina Prince-Bythewood and Reggie Rock Bythewood. The show, set to air in 2016, looks at the tensions that arise when a black police officer shoots an unarmed white teen in a small town in Tennessee.
David Madden, president of entertainment at Fox Broadcasting Company, said: “Gina and Reggie have crafted a profoundly moving portrayal of a timely and sensitive issue that pervades our culture at this very moment. This is not only an important story to tell, but also an explosive mystery-thriller, and we couldn’t be in better hands both with the creative team behind this and Sanaa Lathan leading the cast.” Lathan plays an expert investigator who digs into the case, alongside a special prosecutor sent to the town by the Department of Justice.
One of the most hotly anticipated series of the new year is Fox’s six-part reboot of The X-Files, which debuts on January 24. The show has now been picked up by Channel 5 in the UK.
“Securing the UK premiere of the hugely anticipated return of The X-Files is a major coup for the channel and will create one of the TV events of 2016,” said Ben Frow, director of programmes at C5. “This acquisition underlines our ambition to deliver a diverse slate of brilliant, must-see programming on Channel 5.”
With Downton Abbey over, the key participants are now out there looking for their next job. Last week, we reported that season five and six producer Chris Croucher is now working on ITV drama The Halcyon, while creator Julian Fellowes has been crafting his version of Anthony Trollope’s Dr Thorne.
Meanwhile, US cable channel TNT has announced that it is going to series with Good Behaviour, the story of a thief and con artist that will star Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary in Downton). It’s not clear if Dockery will have to use an American accent in her new role, but if you’re wondering whether she can, watch this appearance on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.
With Downton done, there are reports that the show’s production company Carnival has won a second-season commission from BBC2 for The Last Kingdom, which has just finished its first season. There has been no official confirmation yet but executive producer Gareth Neame has already sketched out the plot and character development for a follow-up. The show is based on a series of novels by Bernard Cornwell, whose work also gave rise to the long-running Sharpe franchise (set during the Napoleonic Wars).
Switching briefly to corporate news, this week has seen suggestions that SVoD platform Netflix is gearing up to launch in the Middle East next year, while rival streamer Amazon has started offering its users access to cable channels such as Showtime and Starz.
Under a new scheme entitled the Streaming Partners Programme, Amazon Prime members can pick and choose SVoD versions of famous TV channels – a move that may well push the pay TV subscribers further towards cord-cutting. Showtime and Starz will be available for US$8.99 per month, with the promise that the latest episodes of series will be available simultaneous with broadcast.
“The way people watch TV is changing, and customers need an easier way to subscribe to and enjoy multiple streaming subscriptions,” said Michael Paull, VP of digital video at Amazon. “With the Streaming Partners Programme, we’re making it easy for video providers to reach highly engaged Prime members, many of whom are already frequent streamers, and we’re making it easier for viewers to watch their favourite shows and channels.”
David Nevins, president of Showtime Networks, said: “By marrying Showtime with the powerhouse retail capabilities of Amazon, we greatly expand our footprint, making sure our service is available to new subscribers whenever and however they want to watch us.”
Starz CEO Chris Albrecht added: “Starz is excited to offer subscriptions to our premium hit shows like Outlander and Power, as well as our thousands of movies, to Amazon Prime customers.”
Anyone in the TV drama business will know just how hard it is to keep up with all the new scripted titles coming onto the global market. In my case, it took me until season four to find Breaking Bad and season three to start watching Downton Abbey – and even then I fell asleep during the first episode and didn’t start watching again for a few months.
I was a year late discovering Happy Valley and have yet to get past episode one of True Detective. And I’m a person who only watches drama, movies and Arsenal FC.
At C21 Media’s International Drama Summit last week, I learnt there is another show I have been missing out on – HBO’s The Leftovers.
Browsing through DQ’s pre-event coverage of the summit, I was struck by just how many TV executives singled it out as one of their top scripted series of the year. This echoes Variety TV critic Maureen Ryan, who recently said: “The best surprise of 2015 might be how good, actually, how great, The Leftovers has become.”
For those in the same boat as me, The Leftovers is based on a bestselling novel by Tom Perrotta. The series takes place three years after a global event called the ‘Sudden Departure,’ during which 140 million people (2% of the world’s population) inexplicably disappear. As a result, a number of religious cults spring up, the most prominent of which is called the Guilty Remnant.
Perrotta is also co-creator of the series, though a lot of the writing is done by Damon Lindelof, who is credited as a co-writer on every episode of the first two seasons except one. Prior to The Leftovers, Lindelof’s major TV credit was ABC’s iconic series Lost, which he co-created. Subsequently, he devoted more of his time to movies, writing the screenplays to Cowboys & Aliens, Prometheus, Star Trek Into Darkness, and Tomorrowland.
Season two of The Leftovers ended this week, and there has not yet been any word from HBO on whether it will be renewed. This is because, despite all the critical acclaim and a cult following, it hasn’t been rating very well.
Lindelof would like to do another season, but is realistic enough to realise that the show’s viewing figures might not allow that. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, he said: “Anybody who says to you that they don’t want more viewers is a much more confident individual than I am. I do subscribe to the idea that the more people watching the show, the better the show is. The more critical acclaim, the better the show is. I’m just not the person who’s like, ‘Hey, if I like it then f– all of y’all.’ Television in particular is a medium that is designed to go out to the masses, and I would like a lot of people (to watch my show).”
Another sci-fi writer in the news this week is J Michael Straczynski, creator of Babylon 5 and co-creator of Sense8. Straczynski has been handed the exciting role of adapting Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy of novels for US cable network Spike.
Robinson’s award-winning books, which were written between 1993 and 1996, tell the story of humanity’s colonisation of the red planet, starting with the early settlers. Adapted into 21 languages, the books have been acclaimed for their strong scientific foundation, which keeps the story rooted in some kind of reality.
Spike made its ambitions in scripted TV clear earlier this year when it aired Ancient Egypt miniseries Tut. But this is the first time in a decade it has greenlit a full series. With Straczynski at the helm as writer, executive producer and showrunner, it is the kind of project that could develop into an ongoing franchise.
“The heart and soul of Red Mars is about humanity,” said Spike executive VP of original series Sharon Levy. “This group of strangers must find a way to live together and survive under the most daunting conditions mankind has ever faced to become the first living generation of Martians. They will be each other’s greatest source of strength – and, if they can’t coexist, the reason for failure.”
Also on board is Skydance Television, whose president Marcy Ross added: “We are thrilled to join forces with Spike to bring Kim Stanley Robinson’s dynamic world of the Mars trilogy to television audiences for the first time ever, particularly in the brilliant creative voice of science-fiction legend J Michael Straczynski.”
Author Robinson will be a consultant on the new series, which goes into production next summer for a January 2017 debut.
Humanity’s battle for survival is a big theme in TV drama at present, which is probably the result of various background factors such as the unstable geopolitical environment, the fear of pandemics, the rapid rise of AI, the growing refugee crisis and the failure of countries to get to grips with climate change.
As well as the shows named above, we’ve seen Neil Cross secure a commission for Hard Sun while Syfy is just about to air Matthew Graham’s adaptation of Arthur C Clarke’s Childhood’s End (December 14-16).
Writer Regina Moriarty is also in the process of adapting Jane Rogers novel The Testament of Jessie Lamb as a three-parter. Developed with Carnival Films, Rogers’ novel imagines a near-future world in which a virus is killing pregnant mothers. Scientists fight to save the unborn children by placing the mothers in a chemically induced coma, but a breakthrough in immunising frozen embryos could hold the key to the human race’s survival.
The keen-eyed among you will have noted that three of the above projects are based on novels. Another novel adaptation breaking to the surface this week is Now You See Her, a legal drama based on a book by James Patterson. Ordered by CBS, the TV version will be written by Siobhan Byrne O’Connor, whose writing credits include Blue Bloods, Law & Order, Third Watch and Monk. Blue Bloods, also on CBS, has been running for six seasons.
Patterson is a popular source among TV networks. CBS thriller series Zoo is also based on his work, while there has been talk of USA Network adapting his Women’s Murder Club novels. Like movie-to-TV adaptations and TV series reboots, novel adaptations act as a comfort blanket for broadcasters that are nervous about the high-cost and risk attached in wholly original production.
As a footnote to this, it’s interesting to note that Syfy’s decision to greenlight Red Mars follows the breakout success of feature film The Martian, starring Matt Damon. The two projects are unrelated but there’s clearly some security to be had in backing subject matter than has already won itself an audience.