Genre Boxing: CBS’ Madam Secretary and Battle Creek

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At their core, Madam Secretary—the first new CBS series of the series, debuting on Sunday night—and Battle Creek fit into fairly standard genre boxes.

Madam Secretary is a workplace drama that happens to be set in the State Department, while Battle Creek is a police procedural that happens to be set in a small city instead of a big one. Those inflections are important, certainly, but neither show indicates a significant departure from the generic center.

This is typical of CBS dramas: even The Good Wife, the broadcast drama most often mentioned in conversations about the battle against cable, relies heavily on both workplace drama and legal procedural to plot its episodic and serial storylines. But Madam Secretary and Battle Creek are not as similar to each other when we consider what efforts have been taken beyond those generic centers, where Madam Secretary is much more invested in the lure of the serial in mapping out its story.

Without going too deep into spoilers, Madam Secretary isn’t about Elizabeth McCord being appointed to the position of Secretary of State under normal circumstances; the previous Secretary of State has died, which means she’s inheriting the staff and all of the drama that comes with it. Some of this is workplace awkwardness: Elizabeth did not hire these people, and is an unseasoned politician. However, some of this is also the fact the Secretary of State died under mysterious circumstances, laying the groundwork for a larger conspiracy storyline reverberating throughout the season.

When I asked showrunner Barbara Hall about this, she said “I thought it might be an extra conflict or challenge for her to step into a situation where the person she’s replacing might have actually been involved in something that’s untoward and that the tentacles of that may affect her for a long time. So it’s just another element that it’s hard enough for her to step into this job, but know she’s stepped into it and she’s got unravel some seeds that were planted before she got there.”

She also admitted that some of this instinct came from her previous job working in cable. Madam Secretary already has three elements at play: the day-to-day workplace drama, the family drama about McCord’s husband and two teenage children (who will all be adjusting to political life), and the political drama about the global politics the Secretary of State must face. The show—which is a sturdy procedural with strong perofrmances—doesn’t feel like it really needs a fourth element, but Hall admits that she “had just worked on Homeland the year before, and I had gotten accustomed to getting into these international stories and finding there’s always an extra element when you start lifting up these rocks and looking under what’s going on in terms of the national diplomacy.” Hall also revealed plans to delve into McCord’s past with the CIA, another remnant of her time on Homeland, and something that a more basic version of this show wouldn’t explore.

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These are also elements that aren’t present on Battle Creek, by comparison. In this case, although creator Vince Gilligan—who is stepping aside to let showrunner David Shore take over—is known for his heavily serialized work on Breaking Bad, this script is over a decade old, and it bears the marks of its age in its lack of serial pretensions. It’s a simple setup, about a local detective and a newly-arrived FBI agent who butt heads as they confront the criminal element in Battle Creek, Michigan. And that’s really the show, honestly. There are shades of dark pasts for both Agnew (Dean Winters) and Chamberlain (Josh Duhamel), but the pilot doesn’t lean too heavily on them. There’s simply an ongoing conflict between their philosophies, which will play out as they need to work together to ensure they can do their job and keep Battle Creek safe.

It’s as classic a police procedural as you’re going to see. The setting is its biggest point of differentiation, with everything else focused on execution as opposed to a groundbreaking new premise, a deep mythology, or another “additive” to set the show apart. Speaking to the series’ willingness to engage with comedy, producer David Shore argues “the humor…comes from the fact that it is different from other cop shows. It is the center of a small town. We want to tell small town versions of big-city stories…We want to play with what you’ve seen on TV—you think you know what’s coming, and then we do it completely differently because it’s Battle Creek.” And yet this difference isn’t articulated in the pilot beyond subtle character beats, at least compared to Madam Secretary’s insistence that there’s more to this story than meets the eye with its mythology. It’s one of the reasons why Battle Creek—despite being a “better” show than Stalker or Scorpion (the latter of which I think is solid)—probably isn’t on the fall schedule: whereas Madam Secretary is an obvious thematic fit with The Good Wife, Battle Creek isn’t an obvious fit for anything, even if it could conceivably fit with a large number of shows on CBS’ lineup. It bears the mark of the fact it was developed over a decade ago, and the fact that it seemed even then to be conspicuously constructed as a throwback to a simpler kind of cop show.

It’s a sign of confidence that CBS would launch in the fall with Madam Secretary, but it’s equally a sign of confidence that Battle Creek made an appearance at Summer Press Tour as a key lynchpin of CBS’ 2014-15 lineup despite having no airdate. CBS is leaving a lot of drama to midseason this year, but we live in an era where that’s not necessarily a bad sign.

Madam Secretary debuts at 8:30/7:30c/8:00p on Sunday September 21, while Battle Creek debuts sometime in early 2015.

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Season Finale: The Leftovers – “The Prodigal Son Returns”

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When I dropped in on an episode of The Leftovers at The A.V. Club earlier this season, it was cathartic: after weeks of watching but not writing about the show, it was nice to have a space to confront the series’ opaqueness.

But as I return to confront the finale, I’m wondering if I had it all wrong. On the surface, The Leftovers struck me as a series that begs us to analyze it, full to the brim with characters with uncertain motives building toward something and yet nothing at the same time. What’s the deal with Wayne? What drives the Guilty Remnant? Those questions at first seemed to bear fruit as it related to the themes of the series: even if we ignore the existential question looming over the entire series, these other questions funnel back into the meaning of the departure and accumulated considerable meaning as the season wore on.

That meaning was a smokescreen. It was a powerful one, granted, but as The Leftovers concludes I’m struck by how little separates a show that begs us to analyze it from a show that resists all analysis. Say what one will about Lost, but it wanted us to be invested in its mysteries, and even in the end sought to give purpose to our investment even if that failed to appeal to all viewers. By comparison, however, The Leftovers built a house of cards that it knew was going to burn away by the end of the season, leaving behind characters we relate to because they too were caught up in the construction. They lived through what we lived through, and must equally confront the landscape that revealed itself when the house burned to the ground. It was in those final moments that the show finally revealed its hand, and for the first time as an entire series became legible, and real, and open to the kind of analysis it had nonetheless inspired while resisting such visibility.

And the result was compelling, if also guilty of building a neater circle than it necessarily needed to.

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Cultural Interview: Anna Martemucci on Filmmaking & Choosing The Chair

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In the early episodes of Starz’s The Chair, which debuted OnDemand and on Starz Play today and makes its linear review at 11/10c, neither director making their own versions of the same script are intended to be experts. Anna Martemucci is as much of a first-time director as Shane Dawson (who I spoke with earlier this week), and so the cameras capture lost of the initial uncertainty that comes with stepping behind the camera for the first time for her film, Hollidaysburg.

At the same time, though, Martemucci is also positioned as the insider, whose existing relationship with Zachary Quinto’s production company and her Periods. Films collaboration with her husband Victor Quinaz and brother-in-law Philip Quinaz fit into more traditional models of how independent films get made. Her story is therefore less about shaking an existing professional identity in favor of a more legitimate one, as is the case with Dawson, and focuses more on her self-identification with the role of filmmaker within the context of this rather strange experiment that nonetheless offers a valuable opportunity.

I spoke with Martemucci about what made her take on this experience, how it made her reflect on her place in the industry, and how the series’ narratives fit her conception of her work and her goals as a filmmaker.

Cultural Learnings: When I spoke with Chris Moore he mentioned you had been working with him on some other projects before this came up—what made you ultimately agree to be a part of The Chair instead?

Anna Martemucci: If I remember correctly, I think I had about a month to think about it from the moment that Chris really looked me in the eye and was like “I’m serious, do you want to do this?” And I was like “Oh shit, okay.” [Laughs] I knew it would be an incredible opportunity, but I definitely took my time, and I remember telling my family on a trip—anyone I love and trusted, basically, I ran it by them, and it was funny because they all got the same kind of pained expression on their face when I said “reality show.” And they all said the same thing, which is “Don’t trust Chris Moore.” [Laughs] “He’s going to want to make a TV show and not a good movie, just remember you’re special, and blah blah blah blah blah. Don’t lose your mind and give them a good TV show and in the process ruin your life.” [Laughs]

So it was scary when people you love and trust are giving you stinkeye and being like “Maybe don’t do this,” but at the end of the day it was far too wonderful an opportunity to pass up. And I say it in the show, but I know so many people who have spent many, many years being frustrated in the business and wanting so badly to get their first movie made. And anyone, including people who aren’t trying to be directors like writers trying to get their first screenplay made, it’s not an easy business. So the fact that my creative dream had appeared, and I had the opportunity to make it come true, and the only thing I had to do was allow myself to be filmed? I was like “Well, alright.”

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Cultural Interview: Shane Dawson on YouTube, Not Cool, and The Chair

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There’s a moment in Starz’s The Chair—which debuts on Saturday at 11/10c—where one of the two directors making a version of the same script in a competition for a $250,000 prize is scouting locations at a middle school, and he’s approached by a group of young students who ask to take a picture with him. Taken out of context, it would seem strange for teenage girls to treat a director like a celebrity, but Shane Dawson is not a traditional director. His filmography largely exists on the web, on YouTube channels with upwards of 6.1 million followers, and his involvement in The Chair is about testing how YouTube creators are able to transition into a more traditional filmmaking environment.

Accordingly, there’s more at stake for Dawson in the project than the $250,000 prize—Not Cool, his version of Dan Schoffer’s original script, is a major transition outside of YouTube, and one of the central narratives of the series is Dawson’s efforts to maintain appeal to his young fanbase while nonetheless meeting the expectations of the producers and financiers of the project. Recently featured in a Variety cover story confronting a new era of online content creation, Dawson is also among a group of YouTube creators who are expanding outside their channels in an effort to stretch themselves both creatively and financially, a test of how audiences built in the space of web video can be translated across platforms.

After speaking with Chris Moore, and before speaking to his fellow filmmaker Anna Martemucci, I spoke with Dawson about his decision to be involved with The Chair, his identity as a “YouTube star” in the context of this and other projects, and how the experience has shaped his future plans both on and off YouTube.

Cultural Learnings: In the series, you’re really held up as a representative of the new vanguard of online creators, which are further reinforced by the Variety cover story. Are you comfortable being held up in this way?

Shane Dawson: I think I’ve been around for so long—I mean, it’s only been seven years or something, but YouTube years are like dog years. [Laughs] I think it’s cool that people kind of look at me as one of the originators of online video and one of the pioneers of YouTube because I’ve worked really hard to build an audience and make content that I’m proud of. A lot of the things I was doing on YouTube nobody was doing at the time, and now everybody is doing them, and I think making movies—I know a few Youtubers have done it, and hopefully this movie does well and more YouTubers want to take a risk and make movies, and I’m excited about it.

As your comments suggest, the YouTube form has its limitations, and you naturally want to push beyond it to expand into other creative outlets. What made this the right form of expansion for you personally?

I’ve wanted to make movies ever since I was a kid. I knew that was my goal. I had wanted to make a movie for the last five years, really trying to get funding, and nothing was working out. And then Chris Moore came to me wanting to do something, and then this came up and he said “Hey, maybe this would be great.” And so the thought of having final cut, and it wasn’t my money that I had to put up, I mean—I think I signed up without even writing the script, I was like “Done! Put me in!” [Laughs]

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Cultural Interview: producer Chris Moore on designing Starz’s The Chair

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Starz’s The Chair—which debuts on September 6 at 11/10c—is both a documentary reality series and a competition, so one might be tempted to refer to it as a reality competition series. However, at its core The Chair—which chronicles two filmmakers, Shane Dawson and Anna Martemucci, as they each make their own movie based on the same script with the winner earning $250,000—is a filmmaking experiment, similar to producer Chris Moore’s earlier—and soon to be revived, without Moore—series Project Greenlight. The difference is that instead of having a competition to select the filmmakers involved, Moore hand-selected his filmmakers to create the most interesting competition for the documentary, and to develop the movies with the best chance of succeeding as low-budget independent features.

I spoke with Moore about how he went about developing the series, the decision to turn this into a formal competition (rather than just a filmmaking experiment), and how his experience with the series has evolved as the experiment continues into distribution and promotion.

Cultural Learnings: From a “casting” perspective, were you ever considering other options, or did you land on Anna and Shane fairly early?

Chris Moore, Executive Producer, The Chair: I did have a list, although I will take a little bit of issue with the term “casting.” The biggest issue with this—and when we did Project Greenlight years ago—was that we need people to want to see the movies. And The Chair was not designed to be a first-time director thing, so some of the other people on the list were experienced directors, or second- or third-time directors. And I couldn’t talk any of them into it because of the competition nature, and because of the super low-budget nature. And the hardest part of it was that I had to raise all the money independently because people were like “I get the documentary, that’s genius, and I think the idea of two directors making the same script is awesome too, I would watch it.” The thing that I couldn’t get is movie companies, because they would say to me “Dude, how are we going to get our money back on two movies? It’s hard enough getting people to go see one movie, how are they going to go see two?”

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Cultural Interview: PBS Digital Studios’ Frankenstein M.D. [Part Two]

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The relationship between Pemberley Digital and PBS Digital Studios—the two producers behind Frankenstein M.D.—makes a lot of sense to those familiar with both parties involved: both have taken their respective “projects” as creators and translated them for an online audience, taking advantage of the affordances of platforms like YouTube to create content that connects with those consuming content outside of “traditional” spaces of distribution. In this way, the idea of combining the former’s literary webseries development with the latter’s investment in creating STEM-related content on digital platforms with an adaptation of Frankenstein makes perfect sense to those following along.

At the same time, however, their inherent philosophical compatibility must nonetheless negotiate the fact those philosophies have been heading toward two different goals: whereas Pemberley Digital has been developing web franchises that can be spun off into ancillary projects like books or merchandise, PBS Digital Studios remains bounded within the logics of public television where its primary goal is serving the public interest.

And so while web content has proved a valuable tool to both producers within the contemporary web video environment, building connections with audiences from both profit and non-profit perspectives, the convergence of these two companies nonetheless requires each to adapt accordingly. Whereas unscripted YouTube content related to science and culture showcases PBS translating its interest in documentary programming into a more web-friendly format, how does one design a scripted webseries to fit into that mission? And if you’re the one designing that webseries, how do your goals for audience engagement change when views might become less important than connecting with audiences in an educational—or at least informative—way?

While the interview I posted yesterday touched on a number of these issues, and the series itself will ultimately stand as the answer to this question, I wanted to create a second part to the interview focused on this intersection of approaches to web video content. Some of these questions and answers also appear in the previous interview with executive producer Bernie Su, star Anna Lore, and PBS Digital Studios senior director Matthew Graham, but they’re presented here to isolate the relationship between the two companies and their relationship with webseries, transmedia, and the various component parts that will make up Frankenstein M.D. as it rolls out over the next few months.

Cultural Learnings: From a PBS Digital Studios perspective, this is the first time you’ve developed a fictional webseries of this kind—what drew you to Pemberley Digital as a partner for this milestone?

PBS Digital Studios senior director Matthew Graham: What was great was that they had this amazing track record, and the qualities of Lizzie Bennet and Emma Approved that we really look for: audience engagement, smart content that’s innovative and totally different from anything else you see out there, etc. It’s unique, and it appeals to the kind of person that is drawn to PBS, and a big push behind Digital Studios is reaching those 13-34 year-olds that are on YouTube and consuming lots of content. And Bernie’s a great guy. [Laughter]

During the PBS executive session [at July’s TCA Press Tour], president and CEO Paula Kerger was talking about how PBS has audiences at a young age, and then it gets them again when they’re older, but sort of loses them in the middle. So you see this specifically serving a similar function from an educational perspective for one of those generations in between?

Graham: Absolutely. I think it’s an incredibly exciting opportunity to reach these younger folks with higher-quality, educational, entertaining content. The mission’s a little different when you’re talking about very young kids: there the PBS kids team does incredible work structuring the content so that it’s age appropriate and they’re actually learning letters. Here it’s a little bit more “Sure, there is science information that the audience is consuming, but it’s a little bit more of a cultural exposure: STEM careers are cool, this is an exciting space, there’s a lot of exciting stuff happening around it.” So it’s more kind of inspiring people to think about these career directions as opposed to trying to teach them science.

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Cultural Interview: PBS Digital Studios’ Frankenstein M.D. [Part One]

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On the one hand, Frankenstein M.D. is very familiar: the third full series from Pemberley Digital following the Emmy-winning The Lizzie Bennett Diaries and followup Emma Approved, the series is a webseries adaptation of a classic novel featuring a female protagonist (in this case reimagining Victor Frankenstein as Victoria). Fans of their previous series will find both a similar sense of humor and a similar sense of purpose when the series debuts its first three episodes tomorrow, with the series settling into a familiar Tuesday-Friday pattern until its finale on Halloween.

On the other hand, though, Frankenstein M.D. is a departure in two keys ways. The first is that, by departing from Austen and arriving at Mary Shelley, Pemberley is heading into new generic territory, balancing its direct address vlog style with the well-known results of Dr. Frankenstein’s experiments. However, the second—and I would argue more substantial—difference is that they’re working with a traditional “network,” partnering with PBS Digital Studios in launching the series. In the first part of this wide-ranging interview with executive producer Bernie Su, star Anna Lore (Victoria Frankenstein), and PBS Digital Studios senior director Matthew Graham, they discuss the development of a series that one might classify as an experiment for all parties. Part Two of the interview explores the industrial side of the series’ debut in greater detail.

Cultural Learnings: From a PBS Digital Studios perspective, this is the first time you’ve developed a fictional webseries of this kind—what drew you to Pemberley Digital as a partner for this milestone?

PBS Digital Studios senior director Matthew Graham: What was great was that they had this amazing track record, and the qualities of Lizzie Bennet and Emma Approved that we really look for: audience engagement, smart content that’s innovative and totally different from anything else you see out there, etc. It’s unique, and it appeals to the kind of person that is drawn to PBS, and a big push behind Digital Studios is reaching those 13-34 year-olds that are on YouTube and consuming lots of content. And Bernie’s a great guy. [Laughter]

From your perspective, Bernie, were your discussions with PBS always centered on Frankenstein? Were there other projects considered for this partnership?

Executive Producer Bernie Su: It was “How about Frankenstein? Let’s do that!” It was literally that. It never got past it. I don’t think we even mentioned a second project. It was like “That’s great. What would be your take on that?” And then it was the idea of the modern medical student and how we can touch upon modern science and how we’re actually close scientifically to doing stuff—bringing people back to life, what is life, all that stuff—that Frankenstein does in the novel. So it made a lot of sense given that our audience has been wanting us to push toward STEM, so this was just a great opportunity that seemed like a really good match right out of the gate and it was really easy.

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