The fem factor
The US is the centre of attention again this week, with scripted shows being launched, renewed or cancelled on a daily basis.
If there’s one interesting trend emerging it’s the desire among US networks to find a kickass female lead – someone who can combine the allure of Xena: Warrior Princess with the moral rectitude of Wonder Woman and the brainpower of Borgen.
CBS, for example, has given the go-ahead for Supergirl, a new series from Warner Brothers TV to be executive produced by Greg Berlanti. Starring Melissa Benoist (Glee), it tells the story of Superman’s cousin and her decision to embrace her superpowers (which unfortunately don’t extend to enhanced fashion sense). Clearly intended to attract a female audience, it is also part of the network’s strategy to reach out to much younger viewers.
Over at ABC, meanwhile, the decision has just been taken to give a second season to Agent Carter, a spin-off from the Captain America movie franchise that centres on formidable female agent Peggy Carter. There were serious doubts about whether the show would be renewed due to its modest ratings, high cost (it’s a period drama) and the fact that sister series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is coming back after a season’s break. However, the fact that Agent Carter has received a positive critical response, coupled with the fem factor, has proved decisive.
ABC Family has another female-centred fantasy coming through in the shape of Shadowhunters, based on book series The Mortal Instruments by Cassandra Clare. Vaguely reminiscent of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Shadowhunters follows 18-year-old Clary Fray, a human-angel hybrid who hunts down demons. This week, ABC announced that the lead will be played by Katherine McNamara (New Year’s Eve).
The emphasis on female-led shows isn’t only evident in the realm of fantasy. An NBC renewal attracting attention this year is The Mysteries of Laura, a police procedural comedy drama in which a female detective attempts to juggle her day job with single motherhood. The first series was panned by critics but rated well enough during 2014/2015 to secure a 13-episode renewal.
Leaving the female-led issue to one side, there are a number of interesting aspects to Laura’s renewal. Firstly, it is based on a Spanish show, proving that foreign formats can work on US network TV. Secondly, it was the only one of NBC’s 2014/2015 drama launches that got renewed, underlining what a ruthless market the US is (and how off the mark NBC was with its commissions last year).
It’s also interesting to note that two of the show’s executive producers are Greg Berlanti and Aaron Kaplan. Why does this matter? Because Berlanti will have six shows on TV next season and Kaplan seven. The clear message is that both know what it takes to make network drama tick.
After the recent revival of interest in sci-fi visionary Philip K Dick (The Man in the High Castle. Minority Report and much more), it’s the turn of Aldous Huxley’s iconic novel Brave New World to be dusted down and reimagined for the TV screen. Set in a world where mind-altering drugs, free sex and rampant consumerism are the order of the day (no, not 21st century LA), and people are genetically engineered in hatcheries, the TV version of the book will be produced by Syfy and Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Television.
Announcing the project, Dave Howe, president of Syfy & Chiller, said: “Brave New World is one of the most influential genre classics of all time. Its provocative vision of a future gone awry remains as powerful and as timeless as ever.” Les Bohem (Dante’s Peak) will write the screenplay and executive produce.
Sci-fi fans will also be delirious to learn that BBC America and Canadian network Space have renewed Orphan Black for a fourth season. Produced by Temple Street Productions, the show stars Tatiana Maslany as a woman with several cloned identities. The show has proved to be something of a cult hit, generating high levels of social engagement and time-shifted viewing. With a total of 40 episodes (including the new run), it’s also becoming a key property for BBC Worldwide’s international distribution efforts.
In terms of the new dynamics of the TV business, there’s a lot of interest this week in the fate of The Mindy Project, a romantic comedy that has aired for three seasons on Fox in the US. Fox cancelled the show on May 6, but there are reports that Hulu is interested in reviving it with a two-season order from coproducers Universal Television and 3 Arts Entertainment. Reminiscent of the Amazon deal that saved Ripper Street, it’s an indication of the growing significance of SVoD platforms.
There are also a few indications that channel chiefs are seeking to manage the cost of drama more carefully. A+E’s decision to simulcast Roots and War & Peace across three of its networks is an example of this. So is Discovery’s desire to spread the cost of drama across its global family of channels. We’re also seeing more mid-sized US cable channels jumping on board European dramas as partners, rather than taking a commissioning position.
Sundance, for example, picked up Deutschland 1983, while Pivot took a position in Fortitude. This week, building on this point, Esquire US acquired Tandem Productions’ thriller Spotless (an English-language series that has aired in France on Canal+).
Esquire is calling the Spotless acquisition an original series, adopting a form of language Netflix has been using to great effect. This is a model we’re likely to see more of as broadcasters try to make sense of the high cost of marquee scripted programming.
In a week dominated by the US, one international story stands out – the BBC’s decision to cancel Jimmy McGovern’s Banished. Commenting, the BBC said: “There are no current plans for Banished to return. We are very proud of the series and hugely grateful to all those who worked so hard on it. However, the BBC2 drama budget only allows for a limited number of returning dramas a year, which means we have to make hard choices.”