National Geographic drama The Long Road Home recalls the real story of April 4, 2004, when a group of US soldiers on a peacekeeping mission in Iraq were ambushed by insurgents, leading to a harrowing rescue and resulting in the deaths of several soldiers on what would become known as Black Sunday.
The ensemble cast includes Michael Kelly, Jeremy Sisto, Jason Ritter, Noel Fisher, Patrick Schwarzenegger, Kate Bosworth, Sarah Wayne Callies and EJ Bonilla.
In this DQTV interview, creator and showrunner Mikko Alanne recalls how he was inspired by Martha Raddatz’s factual book about the events. He talks about balancing the stories of the soldiers with those of the families they left behind in the US, and the responsibility he carried by dramatising a true story.
Alanne also discusses blending narrative and documentary filmmaking techniques in The Long Road Home and the support provided by Nat Geo.
The Long Road Home is produced by Phoenix Pictures for National Geographic and distributed by Fox Networks Group Content Distribution.
Procedural series were once the bread and butter of US broadcast networks. But international buyers are finding them harder to come by amid the appetite for increasingly serialised storytelling. DQ examines the future of the story-of-the-week format.
For more than a decade, the Monte Carlo Television Festival has recognised the most watched television dramas in the world with its International Audience Award. Last year’s winner was NCIS, which drew 47.1 million viewers worldwide in the previous 12 months.
Since the gong was first handed out in 2006, NCIS has won three times, while CSI: Crime Scene Investigation has scooped the prize on seven occasions. The Mentalist and House also each have a win to their name.
Notice anything they have in common? They’re all US procedurals – story-of-the-week series that follow a team of crack sleuths as they bid to solve a different crime each week. Or in the case of 2009 winner House, an unlikely doctor and his unconventional medical approach, with new patients being admitted into his care in every episode.
The award is proof that US procedurals continue to be popular around the world, even if they’re not as loved as they once were at home. Because while international broadcasters have been crying out for a new influx of these traditional series, the format has been taking on a decidedly serialised evolution over the past few years. Such is the demand overseas that Germany’s RTL and TF1 in France went so far as to commission their own US procedural, hostage drama Gone, in partnership with NBCUniversal.
“I feel like they’re on life support,” Adam Pettle, showrunner of legal drama Burden of Truth, says of procedurals. “They still attract probably an older audience, while broadcasters are always trying to find a younger demographic, which is the Netflix generation where television is consumed in a very different way and people bulk-watch TV.”
Yet series such as Blue Bloods, Law & Order: SVU, NCIS (renewed for its upcoming 16th season) and its multiple spin-offs, and the ever-expanding Chicago franchise on NBC are just some of the episodic series still pulling in millions of viewers each week, not to mention the older series still drawing eyeballs in repeats and syndication.
Lloyd Segan, showrunner of detective procedural Private Eyes for Canada’s Global and ION TV in the US, describes case-of-the-week dramas as “comfort food” for viewers. “I can come home and put my feet up and watch a show where the characters are family,” he explains. “The storyline has a beginning, middle and end and I feel comfortable not having to worry about mythologies or binge-watching a series.”
With shooting on season three underway, Segan says Private Eyes – which sees Jason Priestley and Cindy Sampson team up as private investigators – is “completely procedural.” He continues: “The serialised aspects are the relationships between the main characters but the stories themselves are straight procedural. You could probably programme them in any order you wish. You don’t need a recap. The shows play to themselves. It’s a fantastic, delicious feast for audiences all over the world to enjoy.”
One showrunner who knows more about procedurals than most is Peter Lenkov, who is currently running CBS series MacGyver and Hawaii Five-0 (pictured top) and is also behind a pilot remake of Magnum PI for the same network.
“CBS still treads in that pool, they still do those kind of shows and they still do them successfully,” Lenkov says. “I know every season they still develop several traditional procedural series and they try to mix it up with how you get into those worlds and who those characters are.”
However, he adds that the network has been embracing greater serialisation in its case-of-the-week series, supporting character arcs and stories running across multiple episodes.
“That was frowned upon years ago, but is something that the studio and network really welcomes now,” Lenkov says. “My experience there over the last 10 to 15 years has been how much they have embraced serialised arcs within the traditional procedural format.”
Lenkov also has experience on serialised series, having worked on the fourth season of Fox’s real-time thriller 24 in 2004/05. “What we realised when we did that show was, even before bingeing existed, a lot of people were bingeing episodes three or four at a time,” he recalls. “That’s something that really helped changed storytelling on TV.”
Best known for long-running ABC crime procedural Castle, husband-and-wife team Andrew W Marlowe and Terri Edda Miller will be back on the network this summer with Take Two. The series stars Rachel Bilson (The O.C.) as Sam, the former star of a hit cop series who is fresh out of rehab. Desperate to restart her career, she talks her way into shadowing rough-and-tumble private investigator Eddie (Eddie Cibrian) as part of research for a potential comeback role. She soon draws on her experience as a TV cop to help solve a high-profile case, leading them to team up for future cases.
Echoing Segan, Miller believes viewers love closed-ended stories because “sometimes you don’t have the time to watch a long serialised drama and you just want to come home and watch a story that has an ending to it. There’s also the aspect of beloved characters in those stories, and that doesn’t go out of fashion either.”
Take Two, like Castle before it, is described as a light-hearted procedural that allows its creators to place just as much focus on the characters’ relationship as the crimes they solve each week.
“Terri and I both come from features so the ability to close out a story in an episode feels very comfortable to us,” Marlowe says. “But we also like big, epic storytelling where you’re telling a novel over 15 episodes. We watch that as well. The nice thing about ‘peak TV’ is there’s room for them all. For us, it isn’t one pushing the other out of the market. It’s just an expanding international palette, to allow room for all sorts of storytelling.”
Different types of storytelling don’t just extend beyond the procedural, but also within the episodic format itself. “There are some procedurals that depend upon different mechanisms of storytelling,” Marlowe continues. “Something like CSI is much more interested in the forensic evidence than it is necessarily the character journey, whereas other procedurals are much more interested in focusing on the character journeys and what their approach to crime-solving is. Even in a procedural format, there are plenty of sub-genres there for the audience.”
Hakan Kousetta, chief operating officer for television at See-Saw Films (Top of the Lake), notes that there has been an increased focus on serialisation but says all of the main US broadcasters are still hunting for “that killer procedural.”
“It’s to do with shows having characters that are so strong that the audience connects and comes back to them week on week,” he says. “Also, these particular shows contain a puzzle at their heart, which audiences love to engage in solving. In procedurals you are rebooting a new story in the same world each week, with gradual character evolution, whereas in serialised drama you need to create both a world and a set of characters that transform from one episode to the next, while delivering complex plots that hold the series together and hopefully carry your audience through to a satisfying ending.”
Pettle admits the procedural is going through an evolution. “It does still exist but it’s on its way out,” he argues. “I don’t see a younger audience tuning into it. Maybe there’s just not enough story. It’s very linear and incredibly well crafted but I think we’re moving in a different direction. The Good Wife is a procedural format with legal cases of the week but they meld personal and procedural so effortlessly on that show.
“For me as a writer and showrunner, it’s very difficult to plug into something for eight months where you’re not digging deep and writing about real people and exploring the multiple dimensions of different characters. I don’t think I could run a show like NCIS. I wouldn’t be hired to do it. I wouldn’t stay emotionally engaged in it as a creator.”
Pettle, who is also a co-showrunner on The Detail, admits CBC would not have commissioned a serialised drama like Burden of Truth six years ago, at a time when there was more demand for traditional episodic TV. The series, which like Private Eyes and The Detail is distributed by Entertainment One, sees Kristin Kreuk play a lawyer who returns to her hometown and tackle a legal case with social issues at its core.
“There’s still that balance broadcasters want,” Pettle says. “I remember on Saving Hope, which I co-ran for two years and ran on my own for two years, from year to year when we went into CTV at the beginning of the season, it was always like, ‘We want it to be more procedural,’ or, ‘We want it to be more character-driven.’ One year they gave percentages – ‘It can be 40% procedural.’ What’s in fashion is always changing.”
Pettle’s The Detail co-showrunner Ley Lukins also believes serialised storytelling has come to the forefront thanks to the introduction of Netflix, Amazon and other streaming services. “But I do believe there’s still a heavy appetite for case-of-the-week, episodic dramas,” she says. “Grey’s Anatomy is a great example of a show that has both serialised and case-of-the-week content within it. And even with something like Law & Order would still draw an audience today. But to me, and from the conversations I’ve had with people, there’s more of an expectation these days that there is a serialised element to the case of the week. If you marry the professional and the personal well, you can serve both audiences quite well.”
In the case of The Detail, which is based on British crime drama Scott & Bailey, it was US broadcaster ION Television, rather than its Canadian network CTV, that sought more procedural elements in the series. “It’s not to say we didn’t have character and that character wasn’t a major part of it, but it was definitely their wish to have a more case-of-the-week type of series because it does well for them,” Lukins says.
Hybrids such as Blindspot and The Blacklist, which marry deep mythologies with new cases each week, were heavily influenced by serialised US cable dramas, the success of which led broadcast networks to “find their own language” and remain competitive, Marlowe notes.
“There were lots of interesting experiments out there to see what the audience would respond to,” he says. “But what sustains is good storytelling and good characters. If people are engaged in the storytelling and the characters, whether it’s serialised, closed-ended or a hybrid, the audience will show up for it.”
The resurgence of procedurals, coupled with television’s never-ending infatuation with recycling old hits, means shows such as Magnum PI and Cagney & Lacey have been piloted this development season. “What you see right now is a confluence of familiar formats that people know are tried and true but also bringing in the element of IP,” says Marlowe, who believes the biggest challenge facing creators is how to break through the noise. “Some recognisable IP certainly helps.”
Lenkov says he simply prefers the challenge of mapping out 22 stories a season. “I just like the puzzle aspect of building a plot each week,” he says. “I find that a lot of fun as a writer.”
But when they’re boiled down to their bare bones, procedural series are built on the simple concept of good versus evil, he adds. “If you look at the live numbers of a lot of CBS procedurals, they do really well. It shows you there’s an audience there that still likes that format. When eight million people tune in to watch a show live, that tells you a lot of people still like the genre. They still like the crime procedural. I think it’s alive and well.”
René Balcer, best known for Law & Order and, more recently, Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders, certainly believes there is still a place for procedural television. As for what such shows might look like in the future, that is less clear. “One can argue that the success of the just-the-facts procedurals of the 1950s, such as Dragnet, was a reaction to the subjective character-driven film noir detective films of the 1940s like The Big Sleep. Audiences liked them because they were new and different. Character-driven procedurals like Hill Street Blues were a reaction to the Dragnets and Adam-12s. And, like audiences, creative content-makers get bored with the status quo, so expect the pendulum to keep swinging.”
However, Mikko Alanne, showrunner of National Geographic’s The Long Road Home, begs to differ. “In broadcast, due to the weekly format, there will likely remain room for them, but I definitely feel audiences are increasingly gravitating toward more character-driven serialised stories,” he says.
With season two of Burden of Truth in development, Pettle says there will be another single case at the show’s heart, which will focus on sharing information and protecting people’s privacy. But, interestingly, he adds there will be more episodic elements.
“It will be a more high-octane season,” he says. “Season one was all in a small town and this season will be split between the city and a small town. There will be more stories – it will still centre around a serialised case but there will be more story and a faster pace.”
Lukins concludes: “I don’t believe procedurals will ever go out of style. In a lot of ways, in shows that might not be considered procedurals per se, there is a case-of-the-week element, it’s just maybe not a cop case or a medical case. But there’s a pattern to be found in anything. And so procedurals may change in terms of how they’re delivered but I do think the formula of the procedural is here to stay.”
As broadcasters around the world continue to seek procedurals for their schedules, it’s hard to argue with Lukin’s assertion. But with today’s showrunners preferring to delve into personality over plot, what shape they may take in future is less clear.
Best known as the scheming Doug Stamper in House of Cards, Michael Kelly heads into battle for his latest role. He tells DQ about how he was inspired to play a real life war hero in National Geographic’s The Long Road Home.
He’s not the first actor to play a real person on screen, but you’d be hard pushed to find someone who felt as much pressure to do justice to his role as Michael Kelly.
The House of Cards star takes the lead in National Geographic miniseries The Long Road Home, which tells the story of Black Sunday, when a small platoon of soldiers from the 1st Cavalry Division were ferociously ambushed in Sadr City, Baghdad, in April 2004. Eight Americans were killed and more than 65 seriously wounded.
The series, which launches in the US tonight, is based on Martha Raddatz’s non-fiction account of the events, adapted by showrunner and executive producer Mikko Alanne. Kelly plays Lt Col Gary Volesky (now Gen Volesky), the incoming battalion commander who was in his first hours of assuming authority over Sadr City as the battle broke out.
“It’s so fucking stressful,” he admits of playing someone who is still alive, still in active military service and “respected by his men like no one I’d ever seen before. So I felt a serious weight on my shoulders to do it as best I could. The more I learned about Gary and the more I heard about Gary from his men, the pressure became greater and greater.”
That pressure weighed more heavily once Kelly met a group of soldiers who had fought with Volesky. “They just looked me up and down with disdain and said, ‘Some tall shoes to fill, buddy. You better be ready.’ I was like, ‘Guys, it’s fucking hard enough. Give me a break.’
“So the pressure grew and grew but, when I met him, I wanted to capture the essence of who he is and why he was a true leader among his men. That was my true goal; I just wanted to capture that guy. I did the best I could. He was incredible.”
Kelly first met Volensky at the Fort Hood military base in Texas, the home of the 1st Calvary Division and where The Long Road Home was filmed, with a training field transformed into the Sadr City set. The actor and the real Volesky walked and talked together for a while until the general was told his car was waiting.
“He put his arm on my shoulder and was like, ‘Come on,’” The actor recalls. “He walked me over to this field and said, ‘What do you want to know? You’ve got to have some questions.’ I was able to ask him some things that I wanted to know. It was great, man. Having met him, I got it. I had him on a pedestal in my mind and when I met him, it got even higher. I understood very quickly what all of those men who served under him meant when they said those were big shoes to fill. I knew it, but then you meet him and you really know.”
Kelly had just finished a six-month House of Cards shoot when was offered the chance to play Volesky, moving his family’s spring break vacation to ensure he was available for filming. And his sense of responsibility to play the role the best he could was shared by the rest of the cast, among them EJ Bonilla, Noel Fisher and Jeremy Sisto.
Living together on the base, the cast also bonded during a pre-production training camp, which saw them on set wearing military gear, carrying rifles and learning how to clear buildings.
“We all loved it,” Kelly says. “Everyone felt the same way– let’s get this right. Because it’s a true story and because we lost men over there, let’s tell it the best we can. And Nat Geo gave us that platform and the US Army gave us that platform. Martha Raddatz gave us that platform. Having everything at your disposal to do the best job you can… if you don’t, you’re kind of a dick. You’re a real ass.”
Filming The Long Road Home was “insane,” Kelly adds, recalling one scene where he is in a Humvee rolling through Sadr City, passing a burning automobile and being fired upon by enemy fighters hidden among the rooftops. “Another time, my Humvee got stuck and the insurgents were coming at us,” he says. “There were bed frames and a car and all these things the insurgents had put in the street to try and block our passage, and this Bradley [armoured vehicle] rolls by and just ploughs through all this shit and it’s on fire. Shit just goes flying – it was crazy.”
Thirteen years on from the real situation portrayed in the show, Kelly believes now is the right time to tell the story of The Long Road Home, with events far enough in the distance that they are no longer fresh but recent enough to invite reflection upon what happened. “It’s also a good reminder, at least with our story, of the true consequences and casualties of war,” he says, noting the way the series – distributed internationally by Fox Networks Group Content Distribution – not only focuses on the traumas experienced by those on the battlefield but also examines the reverberations felt at home.
“When you see the mum and dad who are never going to see their kid again, or the wife who’s never going to see her husband again, or the unborn child who’s never going to meet their dad – that’s why this series is so special, because you’re on the base with the families and then it cuts right to a guy lighting up shit out of a Humvee. I think that’s what I loved so much about this one.”
Kelly is speaking to DQ during last month’s Mipcom, two weeks before a string of sexual misconduct allegations were made against House of Cards star Kevin Spacey. Netflix subsequently announced the forthcoming sixth season of the political drama would be its last, before suspending production entirely the very next day and then severing all ties with Spacey. The series won’t be back with its former star.
But regardless of when the political drama returns, assuming Netflix doesn’t shelve the final season entirely, it will always be the show that launched the SVoD platform into the original series business and helped to change television – both how it’s watched and how it’s made – forever.
Kelly says “not in a million years” did anyone foresee the impact House of Cards would have when it first launched in 2013, admitting that he struggled to understand why they would launch all 13 episodes at once.
“They were like, ‘Yes, that’s how the audience wants to watch television,’” recalls the actor, who plays Doug Stamper, chief of staff for Spacey’s Frank Underwood. “[Director/executive producer] David Fincher showed me a rough cut of episode one and my manager said, ‘How was it?’ I said, ‘We’re making something special. I don’t know if anyone’s going to see it.’ It was so good. It wasn’t like television; it looked like a movie. But I didn’t know if anyone was going to see it, because what was streaming then?
“That was five years ago, now look. I never dreamt it would change so quickly. What it did was create a platform for people to make very filmic production for television – and look at everyone who’s followed suit. It’s just incredible. And National Geographic is doing it, and has done it, with Genius, which was critically acclaimed [and heading into its second season]. I can only hope this one is too. Everyone’s willing to jump in the game wholeheartedly and not half-ass it. It’s a great time to be an actor.”
The true story of a US Army unit ambushed in Iraq is dramatised in National Geographic limited series The Long Road Home. Showrunner Mikko Alanne discusses adapting Martha Raddatz’s non-fiction novel and filming at the base where the real soldiers were stationed.
When The Long Road Home debuts on National Geographic, it will be the end of Mikko Alanne’s nine-year journey to bring the story of Black Sunday to the screen. During that time, the project evolved from a three-hour movie to an eight-hour limited series that will air in 171 countries around the world and in 45 languages.
The military drama recalls the events that began on April 4, 2004, when members of the US Army’s 1st Cavalry Division were ambushed in Sadr City, Baghdad. Based on Martha Raddatz’s non-fiction account, it crosses between the soldiers fighting for their lives and their families waiting at home for news of their loved ones and fearing the worst.
It was executive producer Mike Medavoy who first sent Alanne the book, which the latter describes as “one of the most incredible, astonishing reports” he has ever read. He was particularly drawn to the equal weight given to the soldiers’ struggle in Baghdad and the plight of the families left behind at Fort Hood military base in Texas.
“It also took place a month after President Bush declared ‘mission accomplished,’ so there was a real sense that this was going to be a peacekeeping mission,” creator and showrunner Alanne explains of the real-life situation.
“Families are always anxious when [loved ones are] deployed to a war zone, but Sadr City had been virtually without incident for the first year of the occupation so was unofficially known as the safest place in Iraq. Then suddenly CNN breaks the story [of the ambush] before the army even has a chance to notify anyone on base, and it throws everyone’s life into chaos. I felt for the first time I really understood what the experience is like for the American military family, and that’s what I wanted to convey.”
Having initially pitched the story as a movie, Alanne spent time interviewing the real people involved. But once Nat Geo came on board, he found he was able to tell a far richer and more detailed story than he ever could have told on the big screen. The series follows events in real time in Iraq and on the home front, with each episode adopting the perspective of a particular soldier.
That’s not the only storytelling flourish in The Long Road Home, however, which attempts to put a wedge between itself and the slew of other military series – CBS’s SEAL Team, NBC’s The Brave and The CW’s Valor – on US television this autumn by also jumping backwards and forwards in time.
The show shifts to moments before the soldiers were deployed, one soldier’s previous tour of Kosovo and the life of the unit’s Iraqi interpreter during the first year of the US occupation, in an episode that is partly filmed in Arabic. “So even as we tell the story in real time, it has a unique structure that will illuminate what the experience is like [in a way] that no one has attempted to do before, certainly for television,” Alanne says.
The emergence of limited series in US TV by 2015 – when Nat Geo put the show into development – certainly helped to land a deal for The Long Road Home, while the showrunner believed at that time, four years after the official end of the Iraq War, the US would be ready to re-examine it. To this end, he says the series is a microcosm of the entire conflict.
“All the essential lessons, tragedy and hope are in this story of this one day,” he explains. “This day also marks the beginning of the insurgency in Southern Iraq from which comes the collapse of the Iraqi state and the birth of ISIS. It also sparked the beginning of the modern anti-war movement in America, so it was a unique event – something that really became evident more in retrospect.”
Adapting Raddatz’s book for TV, Alanne’s first challenge was to condense the 60 characters that readers get to know. The early stages of scriptwriting then centred on finding natural break points for each episode, while trying to find a complementary way to pass back and forth between scenes set in Iraq and the US without disrupting the story. But the biggest challenge came when he had to find themes to pull each episode together.
“In looking at what each of these soldiers struggled with and what defined their experience as a soldier, I wanted that to be the frame for that hour,” he says about plotting the series, which is distributed by Fox Networks Group Content Distribution. One episode focuses on staff sergeant Robert Miltenberger (played by Jeremy Sisto), who had a very strong premonition he was going to die in battle.
“So when gunfire started hitting the back of his truck, he just calmly moved and gave aid to his soldiers, saved the lives of three guys and was never touched by a bullet once, even though he was certain he was going to die. So if his hour is thematically about fate, how is that same idea reflected in other characters? That was one of the organising principles I started to think about.”
Another episode focuses on stranded platoon leader Shane Aguero (EJ Bonilla), who stood out to Alanne due to his love of Dungeons & Dragons and Star Wars. “It’s just a completely different kind of portrait to what you think a young lieutenant looks like, so I always knew I wanted his point of view,” the showrunner says. “We also feature lieutenant colonel Garry Volesky (Michael Kelly), the battalion commander who led the rescue effort, and captain Troy Denomy (Jason Ritter, pictured top), who physically led the first rescue into the city, so all of these people would give us points of view from different command levels.”
Alanne says it was always his dream to be able to film the ‘home front’ scenes in Fort Hood – featuring Kate Bosworth as Denomy’s wife Gina and Sarah Wayne Callies as Volesky’s wife LeAnn – to ensure the fact-based drama was as authentic as possible. As it transpired, the entire series was shot in Fort Hood, with the production taking over one of the training sites at the military base to turn it into Sadr City.
More than 80 buildings were constructed and 35 redesigned to create the Baghdad district’s main streets, including the alley where the army unit is pinned down by insurgents. Videos and photographs taken by Raddatz and soldiers at the time were used to recreate the location, while each episode also has up to 200 visual effects to create views beyond street level.
“We were filming on the 13th anniversary [of the real events] earlier this year and, as fate had it, we were filming the goodbye scene at Cooper Field [where families say goodbye to departing soldiers],” Alanne recalls. “We invited a lot of veterans to come to filming and see the set, and for both cast and crew it was one of the most meaningful things to have the real people there, many of whom got to meet the actors portraying them. There was something poetic about the fact everyone was anxious to see filming but no one had really wanted to see battles recreated where their sons or husbands were hurt or killed.
“One of the most affecting things for me was when I came to Austin and the costume department had been empty for several weeks. Once I came back it was full of uniforms from 2004, which don’t exist anymore, so we had to make them. I remember it really struck you to see all the characters names [on the uniforms] and it was just a reminder that real people wore these uniforms. For the families seeing hundreds of soldiers in the field and having their farewell ceremony recreated, I can understand why it would feel surreal. It felt surreal to me.”
With a background as a documentary and fact-based filmmaker (The 33, Voice of Dissent), it’s no surprise Alanne brought some of those techniques to The Long Road Home. He sought out interviews with all the principal soldiers and their families as he wanted to keep dramatisation in the series to a bare minimum, save for universal truths about soldiers or elements that would give the audience a deeper understanding of the characters.
“I have always found that nothing is as fascinating to me as real life,” he admits. “I also know that when people watch films and TV shows based on true stories, they assume they’re getting the true story. We can say there’s dramatisation, but the expectation is that what you’re seeing on screen is true. That’s something I take very seriously.”
Because the series will air on National Geographic around the world from November 7, the showrunner was also keen to look at the Iraqi perspective of events, understanding where the insurgency originated from and how ordinary citizens in Sadr felt about the events portrayed.
“We wanted this to be the definitive portrait in this one day of the war,” he concludes. “When you hear the stories the soldiers tell on screen, they feel real because they are real. It’s a unique challenge to stitch together real-life stories and still make them fit a dramatic frame, but that’s always been the most exciting creative challenge for me in telling real stories.”