TV Showrunning

In the US TV industry, the writers have all the power. They run the shows, answering directly to the studios and networks. Not so much in the UK where the writer is kicked to one side and cut out of most decision making.

All that is changing with the rise of the streamers. Netflix, Amazon Prime, Peacock and the rest all want writers at the heart of their new shows. Because they’re buying a creative vision and they know the best person to fix problems or move everything forward is the creative visionary, right?

This weekend I attended the Introduction to Showrunning Seminar organised by the Writers Guild. The one the WGA runs in LA is attended by every writer getting their hands on a show for network, cable and streaming, but this is the first time one has been run in the UK.

Learned a massive amount. Some great speakers who knew the ins and outs of this hugely demanding, but equally rewarding job. The writer manages everything, from scripts to casting to hiring directors and DPs to the final edit.

The audience was packed with every TV writer you’ve ever heard of, which gives you some idea of how important showrunning is viewed.

And I can’t express how good it was to hear writers talking about taking control.

TV Work

Generally I don’t talk about all the TV work I’m doing. When you’re creating new series, there are usually long periods of ditch-digging with the team, sweating, bouncing ideas around and drafting and re-drafting pilot scripts as conceptions change. And even then it doesn’t always come together.

But, as several people have asked, I’m currently in development with seven returning series for UK and international streaming broadcasters, across a range of genres.

More when I’m contractually allowed to speak about any of them.

Best TV Drama 2018

Time for my annual round-up of the best TV of the year.  And I’ve watched a lot for work and pleasure over the last eleven and a bit months. The flood of great shows hasn’t abated, in fact it seems to be increasing.  That’s not going to stop.  Several new streaming services are launching in 2019, including Apple’s and Disney’s.

If you watch only ten shows this year, you could make it the ones in this list. But honestly, so many only just missed the cut, and in the end it came down to margin calls.  And it’s the same at the top end of the list where I went back and forth several times, and would probably come up with a slightly different ranking tomorrow.

I’ll be counting down with one a day, so check back to see what got my viewing and screenwriting juices flowing during 2018.

10. Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina (Netflix)

A Buffy the Vampire Slayer for the modern generation? The big win here is the design of an immersive world that’s like being dipped in a big vat of Halloween. Sabrina’s house, the school, the forest, the pumpkin fields and lonely roads, everything here has a hyper-intense feel that pulls you into a place where the creepy is normal.  The tone is all over the place – and that’s one of the reasons I like it.  Gory, disturbing, playful, but thankfully nowhere near as over-cooked teen drama as its stablemate Riverdale.  Couple that with some great character actors playing it large – Lucy Davis, Michelle Gomez, Miranda Otto and Richard Coyle – and you’ve got a frightening funhouse of a series. Yes, some of the mid-season writing is a bit patchy, but stick with it.  The Midwinter special drops soon.

9. The Good Fight (CBS All Access)

A series with something important to say about the state of the world, and of today’s America.  As a spin-off of the well-crafted but not wave-making The Good Wife, not a lot was expected from The Good Fight.  Indeed, on the surface, this looks like a traditional legal show.

But from the very first scene of the first episode, it set out its stall that this is a critique of Trump and all he stands for, of the vulgarity and the profit-first coarseness that characterises current times.  It’s a series about the huge divide in society, and the inequalities thrown up by a 1% inured to suffering.  The credits come in halfway through the first episode with a reversal that pulls the rug out from under your feet.  And then you can see where The Good Fight is going.

And yet it’s not preachy.  It tells it’s tales with verve and a popular style, with strong characters and a light, yes, traditional, touch where necessary.

8. Homecoming (Amazon Prime)

Another massive critical hit from Prime, after The Magnificent Mrs Maisel, and deserving of all the praise heaped on it, and its star Julia Roberts.  Paranoia runs deep in this series – and paranoia is possibly the key response to the 21st century – as Roberts oversees a facility for military veterans wanting to adjust to the civilian world.  It’s told via different competing timelines, and tackles issues like memory and personality.

The relentless pace – the episodes are only 30 minutes – drag you through the labyrinth.  There’s tricksy direction and graphics, as you’d expect from the director and producer Sam Esmail who made Mr Robot such an interesting and iconoclastic creation.  But the real, emotive performances hold everything together.

7. The Deuce (HBO)

A brave series, in its unflinching attention to every grimy, seedy, brutal aspect of its milieu.  In its examination of the early years of the New York porn industry, it takes you into a world you’ve never seen before, and tells you things you never knew in the process.  As you’d expect from David Simon and George Pelecanos, the flawed characters lie at the heart, raw humanity trying to survive in a time and place determined to grind them down.  Maggie Gyllenhaal is the queen of all she surveys, as both producer, and as Candy, the former streetwalker now photo-feminist demanding agency as she shapes this new industry from behind the camera.  A class act.

6. Atlanta (FX)

The genius that is Donald Glover has achieved something of TV nirvana here – a show that can be absolutely anything it wants to be.  Slice of life, romance, comedy, gritty urban survival, social comment, and, in the episode where the main character goes to buy a second-hand piano, even horror.  Sometimes it’s all of them at the same time.  In the end, the genre here is simply Donald Glover’s worldview, mercurial, wry and witty.  Everyone in the cast gives first-rate performances, and, what makes it great for me, it never fails to surprise.

5. Maniac (Netflix)

A deliriously hallucinogenic comedy-drama miniseries that occupies its own space – post-modern, with heightened performances and a look that often echoes cheap 70s SF movies.  What keeps it from being too quirky for its own good is the big heart at the core, and ultimately it’s deeply affecting.  Emma Stone and Jonah Hill play two broken people volunteering for a new treatment that supposedly will help cure their mental health issues.  This involves flinging them into drug-induced imaginary alternate lives where they can work through their neuroses.  Cary Joji Fukunaga’s direction is dreamy yet emotional, but it’s the career-best performance from Emma Stone, and Justin Theroux as a disturbed psychologist that nails this one down.

4. Billions (Showtime)

If this series maintains its trajectory, it has a good chance of being up there with The Sopranos by the end of its run.  There are similarities with the Mafioso drama – turbulent families, gangster capitalism, big egos crossing lines – but Billions ploughs its own furrow.  Its financial machinations are never dull and always subsumed beneath the character dramas, and it sparkles with an urbane wit that adds to its dynamism.  Fantastic duelling performances from Damien Lewis as hedge fund manager Bobby Axelrod and Paul Giamatti as NY attorney Chuck Rhoades provide the visceral, Shakespearean core.  But there are two stand-out supporting turns that will keep you coming back – David Costabile as Wags, Axe’s right hand man who plays louche so well you expect him to seize his pleasure in every scene; and Asia Kate Dillon as the non-binary analyst Taylor, a performance that is all about brains and repressed vulnerability.

3. Ozark (Netflix)

Season one took a while to get going, but set out its stall with its aspiration to be the new Breaking Bad. Season two takes that mission to a completely different level.  Every dilemma, every choice made, fires the characters into a new level of hell, which requires more choices and more terrible consequences.  In the end, the tension of that grim spiral becomes almost unbearable.  This tale of a middle class family among the rednecks is a culture clash drama.  But when it asks the question, who has the capacity for the most evil – the sophisticated family, the uncomplicated, uneducated backwoods folk, the monied, the violent criminal gang, even the FBI – that’s when it comes into its own.  And the answer  demanded in every episode is usually not the one you expect.  Also in this series, Laura Linney emerges as the real star as her character edges into Walter White territory, a strong, unflinching person who will do absolutely anything to ensure survival.

2. Sharp Objects (HBO)

A near-perfect adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s chilling debut novel.  Director Jean-Marc Vallee uses the tics that made Big Little Lies such a success – flashes of images that are sometimes memories, sometimes notions, sometimes fantasies, that together create a dreamy atmosphere that echoes the languorous southern setting.  The pacing is deliberately measured, allowing the slow accretion of detail and character that brings the story to life. Which makes the ending so effective – after that oneiric approach the final scene and the post-credits sequence comes like a baseball bat to the face, smashing home the shattering horror of what has taken place.  Great performance too by Amy Adams as the alcoholic emotionally-troubled reporter returning to her disturbed family to investigate dark goings-on in the community.

1. The Haunting of Hill House (Netflix)

From the outset, this remarkable drama transcends its horror roots and becomes something universal.  The scares aren’t the point here, though there are several very effective ones.  This is a story about grief, addiction, depression and the very personal psychological suffering that is part of the human condition.  If that makes it sound heavy or preachy, it’s not at all – the supernatural is used as a powerful metaphor and that keeps everything moving.  But it is possibly the saddest thing you will see on TV.  Some of the episodes, and the characters, are heartbreaking.  The creator Mike Flanagan has made something enduring because he doesn’t pander to the viewer.  Questions are left hanging until Flanagan is ready to give his answers.  Duelling timelines are rolled out and the viewer is left to piece together which character is which and what’s going on.  There’s some brilliant dexterity behind the camera, with several long, prowling takes around the haunted house(s), and excellent work in front of the camera, particularly from Victoria Pedretti, Kate Siegel and Elizabeth Reaser.  This is a complete and satisfying novel, and there doesn’t need to be another series. But there will be, and I trust Flanagan to do something equally interesting.

And that’s it.  Honourable mentions to Narcos Mexico, Killing Eve, Unreal, 13 Reasons Why, Better Call Saul and Westworld, all of which could easily have made the cut.

And a special award to House of Cards for so spectacularly losing the plot.  The denouement was the worst for any highly-rated show in this new golden age of TV, so bad in fact that it effectively destroyed all that had come before.  It outlined a few basic writing issues.  If a character has been shaped to be supporting, you can’t simply elevate them to lead.  And this was always a novel about Francis Underwood, told in chapters.  His story was left hanging, and no amount of running around and dramatic posturing can make it feel fulfilled. Should have ended it with season 5.

Finally a big vat of the sourest grapes is being hauled by Deliveroo to the home of director Steve McQueen who insisted the golden age of TV was now over…minutes after HBO turned down his pitch for a new TV series.  On the evidence of these ten shows he couldn’t be more wrong.

When Is A Ghost Not A Ghost?

The Haunting of Hill House, which dropped on Netflix shortly before Halloween, is an amazing achievement, and not because of the scary elements (of which there are many).

Matching the show’s duelling timelines – now and then – it’s gone back to the past, to the age of The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby, when horror was made for grown-ups, with deep themes and symbolism, where the supernatural was a metaphor for real-world concerns.

And after so many years of dumb, funfair ride horror, it was so refreshing to discover something that had real depth.

What is The Haunting of Hill House about?  Not ghosts, not really.  They sweep by on the surface, terrifying and driving the plot, but it’s what they really mean that is truly horrifying.

A be-hatted spectral figure whose face can never be seen, always a few steps behind you – that’s a scary image.  But as a symbol of addiction, that honestly makes the blood run cold.  Depression, mental illness, family breakdown, childhood trauma, these are the ghosts that really haunt Hill House – and that is why the series is so affecting.  Emotional – sad, uplifting – rather than just creepy.

It talks about the human, not the supernatural.

I could go on at length about Mike Flanagan’s tour-de-force.  It’s a show that people will be talking about for ages, because of that meaning and depth married to a chilling tale.

Some complain about the ending.  I think it’s perfect for a series that is a drama about people.  It’s all a matter of perception, which is one of the themes The Haunting of Hill House plays with so effectively.

And it has an attention to detail in its construction that you rarely see in a tale in this genre (which these days producers cynically think is there for a not particularly discerning audience).  The layering of the mystery, the resonances that leap back and forth across the entire series, the excellent performances (particularly from the three female leads who knock it out of the park in their individual story episodes), these are things you usually find in TV dramas aimed at, well, discerning viewers.

Let’s talk about Mike Flanagan’s amazing direction in the ‘single-take’ (really five takes) episode six.  Or that attention to detail in the clockwork story construction. Ponder for a moment the discarded ‘sinister’ ending and why that choice was made.

But mostly praise the decision to reclaim horror for all those people who prefer a little meat on old bones.

Netflix To Let Viewers Pick How Movies End

One of the things you quickly learn as a writer is that viewers and readers never really want what they think they want. They desire what they could never have predicted. That’s why you never listen to ‘fans’ when you’re putting something together for a general audience.

I love Netflix. They’re great disruptors, and they’re driving the modern age of TV and film viewing. Now they’re planning to let viewers choose endings to movies and TV episodes, like a choose-your-own-adventure game.

I think this is a misunderstanding of both human psychology, and how storytelling works.

I’ve had meetings where I’ve been briefed on many new ways of telling visual tales, from VR, to AR, to this. One thing’s for sure – everything is going to change.

But the principles remain the same.

TV Project Updates

Thought it was about time to let people know something (*nothing*) about the TV projects I have in the works. In the TV world, just about everything operates beneath the surface.  Contracts prevent anyone talking about a series until it has definitely been greenlit by a broadcaster, and, usually, the broadcaster has made the first announcement. Which is absolutely right.

So, as vague as I can get away with:

Project Spitfire is with a major producer, with a director and (well-known) star attached. Waiting for the nod to move on to the next stage, which is imminent.

Project Hurricane has a well-known executive producer and has a completed and locked down pilot script.  Waiting to get this under a broadcaster’s nose.

Project B52 is in the early stages of development with a well-known producer and is awaiting notes.

(Don’t read anything into the project titles.)

Meanwhile, I’m moving ahead rapidly on the next novel for Penguin Random House, following on from Dark Age, which will be published in a couple of weeks.

Check out an old post about how you need to juggle projects in multiple media if you want to make a go of being a writer in the current age: The 21st Century Writer.

The Future Of TV

When I’m not writing novels under my pseudonym James Wilde, most of my current work under my own name is screenwriting for TV, developing shows for both the UK and the US. I have several currently in different stages of development (more on these projects soon).

The nature of the industry is changing so fast you can almost feel the land moving under your feet.  Terrestrial broadcasters – the BBC, ITV, NBC, ABC – are in steep decline.  They’re fighting to get eyes on screens and talent to make their shows.  Streaming providers are winning.  Netflix, Prime, soon Disney and Apple, with a whole lot more in the pipeline.

It’s a great time to be a screenwriter.

Netflix has just taken over a massive new building on the lot of Sunset Bronson Studios on Sunset Boulevard.  If you want to get a sense of how they’re changing things up, this piece in Wired is a great read.

On January 7, 2018, Netflix had its biggest ever day of streaming, with users collectively watching 350 million hours of TV shows and movies. (Netflix puts this down in part to an increase in viewers around holiday periods.) It’s planning on spending $8bn on its video content in 2018; by comparison, Fox spent the same amount in 2017 on non-sports content.

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Why I Stopped Watching The Walking Dead

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(Some minor spoilers here for the season seven premiere of The Walking Dead – no names, but some context.)

Halloween is just around the corner and like the coming of the Jack o’Lanterns a new season of The Walking Dead has launched.

AMC’s zombie apocalypse show has been a ratings juggernaut and a huge money-spinner.  I’ve watched it from the start because I like intelligent horror that has something to say about the world around us.  When the trappings of society are stripped away, humans become the real monsters and the survivors the real walking dead, well, that seemed like an interesting discussion to have.

The season premiere that aired in the US on Sunday and in the UK on Monday will be my last.

Some criticism has been levelled at the degree of violence in that episode.  While the series has always been gory, it’s generally been a fantasy violence, punctuated by the regular splitting of zombie heads.  But this episode stepped into a new arena of nastiness with the kind of brutality you could, in your darkest moments, imagine being inflicted on a loved one.  And the creators didn’t flinch from showing it again, and again.

And yet it wasn’t the physical violence that actually killed the series for me, as gut-churning as it was.  There was another form of brutality here.

I’m not thin-skinned.  I’m not afraid of violence, or death; I know both well.  I used to be a journalist.  I’ve seen dead bodies, murder victims, corpses brought out of fires.  I’ve watched an autopsy.  I’ve seen the wounds a gunshot makes, and an axe.  I’ve been in the centre of a riot, two actually.  I’ve watched my mother die.  And I stood beside my father a moment after his life ended.  That well of grief is hard to plumb.

That’s the point here.

This is the true failing of The Walking Dead: they disregarded the basic humanity of their viewers.

I imagine the show’s creators thought they were creating something sublime in this story.  Instead of wallowing in brutality for its own sake like the worst of the horror genre, they were going to show the true cost of violence, the humanity.  But they ended up doing the opposite in a ham-fisted attempt to make their point.

The death of a beloved character tells you everything you need to know about this world: that it is without pity, that survival is all, that some humans are nasty and venal and violent when pushed to their limits, and that others, the majority, are good and caring, that brutality is everywhere and that actions have consequences.

The death of a second beloved character, what does that tell you?  The same?  The same only louder?  What is the point – we already got that?

The gory murders of *all* the beloved characters, even if it’s only a vision in Rick’s head, does that tell you any more?  Does that provide a revelation as a reward for enduring emotional pain?  No, we understood everything we needed to know within the first five minutes.

Now it’s just torture.

But wait, there’s more.

An extended sequence where a father is put through one of the worst torments imaginable, to mutilate his own son to save the lives of others, what extra does that tell us?  That this world is *even more* pitiless, more violent?  If it’s not telling us anything new, there’s no point in it being there.

If it’s not telling us anything new, and it’s causing us emotional pain, it’s a betrayal of the viewer.  Sadism.  Causing hurt just because you can, and then walking away and thinking how clever you are that you have the power to manipulate the emotions of others.

One thing you learn as a writer is that you don’t need to show everything.  A look, the trace of a fingertip on skin, subtlety can be more devastating than every second shown in HD.  That’s because any work of fiction is a partnership: what the creators bring to it, and what the readers or viewers bring from their life experience.  And those readers and viewers are great.  They don’t need dollops of dumb because they have rich lives of love and suffering and anger and grief, and they access all those feelings with the merest hint.

They don’t need to see a beloved character’s eye hanging out, and then someone saying his eye is hanging out, and another shot of his eye hanging out.  They just need to hear the sound of the blow and they are distraught.

And just to keep labouring this point, in my homage to the creators of The Walking Dead, if you’re hungry and someone offers you a peanut butter sandwich, do you want a spread of the filling or do you want it six-inches thick?  Does using the whole jar of peanut butter, so it cloys and clags and chokes, make for a better sandwich?  Because there’s more?

It’s just a TV show.  Except it’s not.  Stories are fundamental to the human experience because they move things deep within us.  And for that reason they have to be used carefully, and thoughtfully.

I don’t advocate censorship.  The freedom to tell stories is paramount.  But I am happy to exercise my right to walk away when I feel that risks taken in that storytelling have not been borne out by the final result.

The season premiere of The Walking Dead was a callous manipulation of the true emotional lives of viewers.  It was nasty and relentless and caused unnecessary pain, a betrayal of the investment every viewer had made in it.  And that, for me, was where it ended.

The Black Lodge

Unbelievably, this was primetime TV in the US and UK back in the early nineties, seven minutes of a man standing in a room, yet still creepy and nightmarish. And now we have Downton Abbey. Sigh.

Posted because I love Lynch, and this year sees the twentieth anniversary of the movie, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, one of my favourite films.