From writing and directing feature films, Kari Skogland has become one of the most sought-after television directors in the US, with credits including Boardwalk Empire, The Walking Dead, The Americans, House of Cards, Vikings and The Handmaid’s Tale.
Speaking to DQ, Skogland reveals a passion for history that led to working on shows such as The Borgias and History miniseries Sons of Liberty.
With a penchant for action, stunts and explosions, she describes her desire for scale and scope when choosing her next project and her directing process when she joins or sets up a new show.
Skogland also shares her thoughts on the trend for feature directors moving to television.
With 70 episodes now under his belt, series creator and writer Michael Hirst tells DQ how the world of Vikings continues to grow each season.
While the popularity of writers rooms outside the US grows apace, Michael Hirst is bucking the trend. As the creator of historical drama Vikings, the British writer has penned all 70 episodes of the series across five seasons since it first launched in 2013.
Filmed in Ireland, the show centres on Ragnar (played by Travis Fimmel, above), a restless young warrior and family man who longs to find and conquer new lands across the sea and claim the spoils as his own.
“It’s been a joy,” he says of the series, which is making its UK free TV debut this Sunday, February 26, on A+E Networks-owned Blaze. The second half of season four debuts on History UK in April. “It’s a great privilege to work in Ireland with the crew we have and our heads of department who I think are just geniuses.
“When we started season one, we had one boat. We had one studio stage with the great hall and probably one other building; and outside on the backlot we had a bit of [the village of] Kattegat and about five or six buildings. Now, Kattegat goes on forever, for acres and acres, we have God-knows-how-many boats and we’ve used thousand of extras. It’s just grown – it’s been a hell of a journey.”
Vikings aside, Hirst is best known for other historical series such as The Tudors and Camelot, and big-screen outings including Elizabeth (1998). Following that film, he paired up with producer Working Title Films to develop a film about Alfred the Great, the English monarch who successfully defeated an attempted Viking conquest.
It was the first time the writer had encountered the Nordic warriors and he quickly became fascinated by them. The movie never materialised but, years later, MGM asked if he was interested in turning Kurt Douglas’s 1958 film Vikings into a TV series. “Of course I was,” he says.
Later on, during the pitch to US cable channel History, which subsequently commissioned the series, Hirst was asked how he would market the show to viewers. “I said I would take a huge billboard and put it on Sunset Boulevard and have the word ‘Vikings’ on it,” he recalls. “It’s one of those subjects and words that is universally recognised. Immediately it brings to mind what turned out to be clichés, but it conjures up these warriors. That’s been a blessing because it works across the world. It’s one of the few things that is almost universal.”
Vikings is an Ireland-Canada coproduction from Take 5 Productions and Octagon Films, with the show now airing around the world via distributor MGM.
The broadness and universality of the title could have been both a blessing and a curse for Hirst – global audiences could immediately identify with the subject matter, but how would the writer create a compelling drama from such a vast landscape of potential characters and conflict?
“I was given a blank canvas,” he admits. “We just had a title so it was up to me to give it shape. There were various Viking leaders that I discussed with Justin Pollard, my historical advisor, and what came out of those discussions was that Ragnar was really the first great Viking leader to emerge from the mists of myth and legend, so he seemed like a good place to start. I wanted to start at the beginning of the Viking age; to try and find what that actually meant.”
The focus on Ragnar was also determined by the fact he had several sons, including Ivar the Boneless and Björn Ironside, who also became famous. “It’s well known that the only thing [the real] Ragnar was afraid of was that his sons would become more famous than he was,” Hirst continues. “So I knew from the start I wasn’t just limited to my lead character. This was a family saga, this is the story of Ragnar and his sons and, of course – spoiler alert – we kill Ragnar in season four but we’ve gone from strength to strength afterwards, dramatising the consequences of his death and the exploits of his sons. So that was a good way to think about a long-running show.”
Hirst was also able to add greater depth to Ragnar’s character when research uncovered the fact that this particular Viking believed he was a descendent of the Norse God Odin, who is associated with battles and war but also poetry and knowledge.
“So Ragnar, my hero, would take after his ancestor and he wouldn’t be travelling abroad or raiding for plunder,” Hirst declares. “He would be motivated by curiosity. We then had a central character who could be extremely sympathetic while still being a Viking.”
Research plays a key role in the show, though Hirst admits that much is unknown about the real Vikings, owing to the fact they didn’t document their own history. Therefore, most of what is known is taken from accounts from their enemies – but the writer says his series is partly an attempt to reconfigure attitudes towards Vikings and shift views away from the clichés and stereotypes.
As a result, everything in the show, from storylines to characters, comes from research. “Then, of course, I have to make drama,” Hirst says. “But I never take the characters or the story far away from the facts I know. Everything can relate back to the storylines that I know are historically real, if one believes the historical accounts.
“There’s no such thing as historical accuracy, at least not in drama, but I try to be as authentic and truthful and plausible as possible.”
Hirst’s duties on Vikings are not just limited to being the creator and writer. He’s also an exec producer and is, in effect, the showrunner, though one who enjoys the collaborative nature of television.
“TV drama is collaborative or it’s nothing,” he admits. “I hate hearing stories of showrunners who try to micromanage shows and who eventually prevent other very creative people from offering suggestions and changing scripts and things. I’m very open to these people’s suggestions and I encourage the creativity of as many people who want to contribute. It’s a richer and more rewarding experience as a result.”
That collaboration also extends to the cast who, after five seasons playing their respective characters, are as invested in Vikings as Hirst. The writer says he wants his cast to feel engaged in the creative process and welcomes their thoughts and comments.
“In season one, everyone’s finding their way and they tend to accept the script more,” he says. “But I would say that scripts in TV and movies are just working documents. It’s not like a play or a novel – it’s not real, it’s just a guide to what’s going to be shot. There’s an amazing thing when you’re in production, you’ve written a scene and the set’s been dressed. The actors come on set and rehearse their lines, then when you look through the camera lens, everything’s different.”
Hirst credits part of the show’s success to its now-departed leading man Fimmel, who he describes as “just magnificent.” He adds: “I envy viewers who are beginning this journey and watching Travis’s evolution as Ragnar. It’s just a stunning performance for many seasons and episodes, it’s a remarkable achievement. Lagertha, his wife (played by Katheryn Winnick), is now as well known as Ragnar. History is a male-skewed channel but it’s got a huge female audience for Vikings and it’s largely because of Lagertha, this shield maiden, this warrior. Someone said to me there’s no one else like her on US TV – she’s a wife, a mother and she kicks ass.”
As you might expect from a show about a band of ninth century warriors, there’s a more than a touch of violence in Vikings, but Hirst stresses that he made a point not to be gratuitous when it comes to the fight sequences.
“Of course it is violent but what we try to be is innovative and interesting in all the fights and battle sequences,” he argues. “I don’t think there’s a show as good as Vikings on TV for showing battles and combat. It’s partly because we focus totally on the individuals, on the characters, so the audience is invested in the life and death of the characters. We don’t have all these visual-effects armies of identical warriors rushing around everywhere. We’ve been really clever about that and been praised for the way we do our battle sequences.”
From its modest origins in season one to the vastness of the 20-episode fifth season, which visits Iceland and the Mediterranean and is due to launch in the US this year, Vikings continues to grow in scale every year. With Hirst confident there will be at least one more 20-episode season to come, there’s no telling where Vikings will land next.
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…
Games of Thrones and The People vs OJ Simpson picked up a lot of Emmy nominations this week – but can they convert them into awards?
The 2016 Emmy Award nominees were announced this week. All told, nearly 50 scripted series (excluding comedies) picked up at least one nomination, although only a handful are likely to convert those nominations into awards when the winners are announced on September 16 at the Microsoft Theater in LA.
A few years ago, winning an Emmy would have been seen as a nice endorsement of a show but little more. These days, however, it has taken on added significance for a couple of reasons.
The first is that the quality of TV drama has risen so rapidly. Winning an Emmy now really is an impressive achievement, and in some categories is not really that different to winning an Oscar. The second is that it is increasingly difficult to gauge the success of a show purely on the basis of its ratings (in the case of SVoD shows, there are no ratings).
So racking up Emmys is a way of alerting the industry to the quality of a show, something that probably converts into business at Mipcom, the first major programming market to follow the Emmy ceremony.
So which shows caught the eye in this year’s nominations? Well, it’s no real surprise to see HBO’s Game of Thrones is out in front with 23 nominations. Such is the quality and ambition of the show that the only thing likely to stop it winning awards this year is that it secured a record-breaking 12 Emmys last year, from 24 nominations.
Awards judges, sometimes deliberately, sometimes subconsciously, have a tendency to steer away from previous winners to make sure that everyone gets a fair share of acclaim.
At this stage, the biggest threat to HBO’s hit series comes from the FX camp, with The People vs OJ Simpson: American Crime Story securing 22 nominations and Fargo securing 18.
Netflix’s House of Cards secured 13 nominations but the biggest snub of the year went to the subscription VoD platform’s other flagship show Orange Is The New Black, with just one nomination.
The Night Manager was a huge hit on BBC1 in the UK but a modest performer on AMC in the US. However, the Emmys have rectified that situation slightly by granting the show 12 nominations.
After these shows, there is a huddle of titles securing multiple nominations, including Downton Abbey (10); All The Way and American Horror Story: Hotel (both eight); Better Call Saul and Roots (both seven); Mr Robot, Penny Dreadful and Sherlock: The Abominable Bride (all six); The Americans and Ray Donovan (both five); American Crime, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, The Good Wife, Homeland, The Knick and The Man in the High Castle (all four); and Empire, Gotham, Luther, Masters of Sex, Narcos and Vikings (all three).
Of course, some categories are more prestigious than others. So it’s interesting to note that USA Network’s Mr Robot made its way on to both the Outstanding Drama series category and the Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series category (Sam Esmail).
The same is true for The Americans, which has been nominated for Emmys before but not usually in the most prestigious categories. Perhaps this is a sign that 2016 is the show’s year to come out on top. Worth noting also is that it is another FX series – evidence of a cable channel firing on all cylinders creatively.
The Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series category throws up another couple of interesting points. One is that it has included Marti Noxon and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro’s UnREAL, which airs on Lifetime.
This is quite an achievement given that the show didn’t really feature anywhere else in the Emmys list. The other is that two of the nominations are for writers of shows that are ending: Julian Fellowes’ Downton Abbey and Robert and Michelle King’s The Good Wife. That might be enough to swing votes their way.
The Outstanding Limited Series category is a face-off between American Crime, Fargo, The Night Manager, The People vs OJ Simpson and Roots. Once again we can see a decent level of diversity here both in front of and behind the camera. American Crime’s inclusion is a welcome nod for an ABC series that has been welcomed by critics but not done too well in the ratings.
As is evident from the above listings, the only serious non-US competition for Emmys comes from the Brits. The Night Manager and Downton Abbey are the UK’s frontrunners to win Emmys, but there were also decent showings from Penny Dreadful, Luther and Sherlock: The Abominable Bride.
With War & Peace picking up a music nomination, the BBC secured a total of 22, which is more than most. It’s also worth noting that Showtime’s US adaptation of Shameless picked up two comedy nominations.
Looking more broadly at the scripted comedy categories, there were three top performers: HBO’s Veep with 17 noms, HBO’s Silicon Valley with 11 and Amazon’s Transparent with 10. Overall, the Emmys were pretty good for the major SVoD platforms, with established shows like House of Cards and Transparent the strongest performers.
Despite Man In The High Castle attracting four, it looks like Amazon came out just behind Netflix, which secured a smattering of nominations for its Marvel-based shows, Narcos, Bloodline and Sense8.
Cable channel AMC picked up a total of five nominations related to its Walking Dead universe and will take pleasure in the success of The Night Manager (which it aired) – but overall the network can expect a quiet year at the Emmys.
Other shows to score at least one flavour of Emmy nomination included 11.22.63, Bates Motel, Black Sails, Horace & Pete, Minority Report, Outlander and Vinyl.
The Oscars would do well to take note of the fact that the Lead Actor in a Limited Series category includes three black actors out of six, though on this occasion Idris Elba, Cuba Gooding Jr and the superb Courtney B Vance may find that Bryan Cranston’s impressive performance in HBO’s Lyndon B Johnson biopic All The Way proves hard for the Emmy judges to overlook. Black actress Kerry Washington also impressed in Confirmation and Viola Davis (How To Get Away With Murder) and Taraji P Henson (Empire) achieved nominations for Lead Actress in a Drama.
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.
The thesis that high-quality TV drama can lift the fortunes of any TV network, no matter its positioning in the market, was partly inspired by the success of Vikings on History in the US.
Launched in March 2013 as a nine-part series, the Michael Hirst-produced drama encouraged the reappraisal of a network that had become a little too reliant on reality TV series like Pawn Stars and Ice Road Truckers. The fact that History had previously been perceived as a factual-only TV channel also encouraged an array of other networks to try their hand with scripted series.
Vikings, which is positioned as an Irish/Canadian coproduction, has grown into a huge franchise for History. After following up the first season with two more batches of 10 episodes in 2014 and 2015, the channel upped its commitment to 20 episodes for season four, which is currently on air. And that isn’t the end of the story – History has just ordered a further 20 episodes for 2017.
In total, this means there will be 69 episodes of the show by the end of 2017, which is also great news for MGM TV, which handles international distribution.
To date the main headline regarding season five, aside from the number of episodes, is that Irish actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers (The Tudors) will be joining the cast. Production starts this summer.
Vikings has proved a ratings stalwart for History at a time when the channel has been busy developing other scripted ideas for its slate. Shows set to appear on History in the near future include Roots, Six, Knightfall and the acquisition War & Peace.
Meanwhile, there are reports that Sky Atlantic has commissioned indie producer Kudos to make its next big-budget drama, Tin Star. Created by Rowan Joffe, The Calgary Sun in Canada says the series is “an epic tale of deception, betrayal, murder and revenge set against the backdrop of a remote and beautiful Canadian mountain town; a perfect idyll, transformed when big business moves into the area.” The series will shoot near Calgary in late spring.
Joffe, the son of renowned director Roland Joffe, has made a name for himself in recent years with productions such as Brighton Rock, The Shooting of Thomas Hurndall and Before I Go to Sleep. As yet there are no casting details on the project.
With Empire a breakout hit for Fox and American Crime Story: The People vs OJ Simpson doing well on FX, it’s interesting to note that the depiction and treatment of African-Americans is starting to become a key focal point for the Fox family of channels.
At the mainstream end of the spectrum, Fox followed Empire with crime procedural Rosewood, while in the case of the American Crime Story franchise, FX is planning to look at the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in season two. Fox has also placed a straight-to-series order for Shots Fired, which will analyse the recent racial tensions and police shooting incidents that have spurred demonstrations and outrage across the country.
Created by Gina Prince-Bythewood and Reggie Rock Bythewood Hunt, Shots Fired looks set to be a major piece of work with a high-profile cast including Helen Hunt, Richard Dreyfuss and Stephen Moyer. It will focus on the political, commercial, legal and social repercussions of a North Carolina shooting, with Hunt playing a fictional North Carolina state governor and Dreyfuss a real-estate mogul who owns privatised prisons.
In other developments, US cable channel Freeform, formerly known as ABC Family, has renewed its supernatural fantasy drama Shadowhunters. Based on book series The Mortal Instruments by Cassandra Clare, it tells the story of humans born with angelic blood who protect humanity.
NBC, meanwhile, has confirmed the fourth show in its Chicago procedural portfolio will be a legal series called Chicago Justice. The new show will be introduced to viewers during episode 21 of sister series Chicago PD, which is coming up in April.
This isn’t an especially active time of year for new drama greenlights, with the emphasis being on renewals and acquisitions. In terms of the latter, UK pay TV channel Sky Living has added Jennifer Lopez crime drama Shades of Blue and season four of country music drama Nashville to its line-up (The latter previously aired on More4). These join an existing slate of US series that includes Scandal, Elementary, The Blacklist, Grey’s Anatomy, Criminal Minds, Bones and Blindspot. Shonda Rhimes’ new show, The Catch, will also soon feature on the channel.
Distributor Hat Trick International, meanwhile, has announced a number of sales of three-part period drama Doctor Thorne. Based on the novel by Anthony Trollope, the fact this is Julian Fellowes’ first project since Downton Abbey was always expected to generate strong interest among buyers.
Channels to have jumped on board so far include VRT Belgium, DR Byen Denmark, UTV Ireland, YES Satellite Services Israel, Prime New Zealand and SVT Sweden. The show has also been licensed for the US and Canada by The Weinstein Company.
Hat Trick sales director Sarah Tong said: “Doctor Thorne received a great deal of interest from the outset and we are delighted to announce these pre-sales ahead of MipTV (the Cannes market at the start of April). The unique combination of the original Trollope story together with Julian Fellowes’ first-class adaptation and input from the production team at Hat Trick has delivered a miniseries that will no doubt become a classic. We are looking forward to screening episodes of the drama to our clients.” Next week we’ll take a closer look at some of the dramas being presented at Mip.
Finally, a cancellation story: ABC in the US has axed biblical drama Of Kings and Prophets after just two episodes. The show, which tells the story of Saul and David from the Old Testament, already had a shadow hanging over it after ABC moved it out of the autumn schedule to make a few changes. But dismal ratings in the first two episodes sealed the show’s unhappy fate.
Two interesting themes come out of this story. The first is that ABC has a major problem with Tuesday at 22.00, with a long line of shows failing to perform in the slot (including Wicked City). The second is that biblical stories don’t seem to be able to gain much traction on US network TV.
While Mark Burnett and Roma Downey’s The Bible did exceptionally well for cable network History, its sequel, AD: The Bible Continues, was aired on NBC and only lasted a single season before it too was cancelled.
AMC’s The Walking Dead is back with a bang and Better Call Saul didn’t do badly either. This week we look at some of the other big US cable shows limbering up for launch. Also, HBO’s Vinyl renewed and ITV’s Beowulf on the brink.
This is an interesting time of year for US cable drama. On the one hand, you get a number of new launches. On the other, you get established series returning after their winter break.
AMC’s zombie phenomenon The Walking Dead (TWD), for example, returned on Valentine’s Day after a two-month pause with a storming 13.7 million same-day audience – the highest-rating cable show of the week by a mile. This was down slightly on the pre-Christmas finale episode but not enough to sound any alarms.
In fact, the franchise is so strong that the second highest-rating show of the week was Talking Dead, the fan chatshow that comes immediately after each episode. With 6.4 million viewers, this franchise extension attracts a bigger audience than virtually every drama on cable. To ram home the show’s dominance, the fifth highest-rating telecast of the week was a TWD marathon, which drew in just under five million viewers.
The only other drama to make it into the cable top 25 during this week was FX’s American Crime Story: The People V. OJ Simpson, which recorded a same-day audience of 3.33 million for episode three. This is down on the previous episode but not calamitously, suggesting the show will probably settle at around the three million mark. If this is the case then it will certainly end this season as FX’s top-rated show.
TWD’s outlandishly strong performance makes most other cable shows look feeble by comparison. But it’s important to readjust the lens before making a judgement. For example, season two of AMC’s Breaking Bad prequel Better Call Saul has just debuted with 2.57 million. While that may not be in the same league as TWD, it is a thoroughly respectable score that comes in at a similar level to the end of season one. The only AMC shows that outperform it are TWD, its companion series Fear The Walking Dead and the martial arts fantasy Into the Badlands.
The fact that this is a launch period for shows means there are always numerous pre-launch trailers on display to whet people’s appetites. FX, for example, has been airing promos for The Americans, a period espionage drama about two KGB agents deep undercover in the US during the 1980s.
The Americans is now in season four and has been received well by pundits and hardcore cable viewers. But its audience is only borderline sustainable, having come in around the one million mark for series three. That’s down on the season two average of 1.34 million and also less than the 1.22 million average that led to a first-season cancellation for FX’s medieval adventure The Bastard Executioner. Without some kind of uplift for The Americans, it’s tough to see the show surviving for a fifth season – unless it racks up a few high-profile awards to justify its existence.
Another show that has been promoted heavily in recent weeks is History Channel’s Vikings, which returned for a fourth run yesterday. This is a key show for History, which increased the episode order from 10 for the first three seasons to 20 for this one on the back of strong ratings.
For season three, the show was attracting around two million same-day viewers, jumping to 4.3 million for Live+3 days (one of the biggest uplifts to be found in scripted cable TV). The season-three premiere on Feb 19 last year attracted 4.6 million Live+3 viewers, so that is the kind of benchmark History will be looking for to ensure its increased investment is paying off. An added bonus is that the show also does well on History in Canada.
Another key series being trailed now is BBC America’s Orphan Black, which returns to US screens on April 14 with a 10-episode run. Season three ratings of 440,000 don’t sound that high when put against the shows already mentioned, but BBC America is a smaller channel with more limited ratings expectations (The Last Kingdom, for example, was pulling in around 350,000 to 400,000 when it aired on the channel last year).
Another show that recently returned to US screens after an extended autumn/winter break was USA Network’s slick city lawyer drama Suits. In the past we’ve talked up the ratings performance of this show but there are now signs that it is finally flagging. While the first half of season five (aired during summer) was hitting similar audiences to season four (circa 2.1 to 2.3 million), the first four episodes since the show’s return have come in around 1.5 to 1.7 million. Suits is still USA Network’s top show but there will be some concern about the slide, especially given that the network committed to season six a while ago.
As we’ve said many times, the decision whether to renew a show in the pay TV space is about not just the headline ratings, but also the role the programme plays in pulling subscribers to a network and keeping them there.
HBO, for example, has just renewed its new Martin Scorsese-directed music series Vinyl for a second season after just one episode of the first season. Clearly this isn’t anything to do with the ratings, which came in at a modest 760,000. Instead, HBO will be thinking about the value of having a high-concept Scorsese drama on its playlist – not just in the US but also on own-branded or partner services around the world, such as HBO Go Nordic and Sky Atlantic.
Meanwhile, UK newspapers are starting to report that ITV’s Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands is going to be axed at the end of its first season. With seven out of 12 episodes aired, the show is currently pulling in a below-par 1.5 million viewers. ITV is not commenting on the reports as yet but is unlikely to recommission such a big-budget show with this level of audience. A cancellation will, however, be a big blow to ITV, which has already pulled the plug on Jekyll and Hyde, another foray into the fantasy adventure space. Cable network Esquire will also be disappointed, having picked up the show in the hope it might develop into a long-running franchise.
Fantasy fans won’t be worried, however, because season six of HBO’s Game of Thrones is launching on April 24. It will also air on Sky Atlantic in the UK at the same time (02.00 local time). Despite this graveyard slot on a niche pay TV channel, chances are the new Game of Thrones series will still outrate Beowulf, which just goes to show the power of the big cable brands.