Saturday 20 April 2019

Outside the box

Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

Might there have been a certain Luddite terror behind Netflix's comparatively poor showing at the recent Emmys? The streaming network's landmark series 'House of Cards' was nominated in nine categories and was expected to lay down a marker for the future of television by sweeping the board.

Instead, it won just one award – best director for David Fincher – as the Emmy voters retrenched nervously and showered gongs on old favourites such as 'Modern Family' and 'Breaking Bad'. During a rather gloomy ceremony that spent much of its time lamenting the passing of actors such as James Gandolfini and Cory Monteith, there was no shortage of puzzling surprises.

Robin Wright had been nominated in the best actress category for her portrayal of a Lady Macbeth-style politician's wife in 'House of Cards', but lost out to Claire Danes, who I thought was a bit overripe during the last season of 'Homeland'.

Then there was the perhaps sentimental decision to present the Outstanding Drama award to 'Breaking Bad', the much-loved AMC drama that finished in such dramatic fashion a few days back.

But surely the biggest surprise of the night was Jeff Daniels winning the Best Actor award instead of Kevin Spacey. Daniels is a fine and versatile character actor, and is very good as TV news anchor Will McAvoy in Aaron Sorkin's rather wordy drama 'The Newsroom'. But Spacey lent a positively Shakespearean grandeur to his portrayal of scheming and ruthless Washington politician Frank Underwood in 'House of Cards', and might have had a better chance of winning if his show had been made by a conventional channel.

The future for network television is terrifying, as people rely less and less on set schedules and pick and choose online, but pretending that it isn't happening is not going to help anyone.

Meanwhile, a bizarre sighting on a New York street last week demonstrated just how hard the old networks are working to combat the threat of dedicated cable channels and those dastardly internet streamers.

The headless man in an American Revolution-era costume seen staggering about in Times Square was not the victim of a horrible crime but an actor hired to promote Fox's new drama 'Sleepy Hollow', a slick modern take on the classic Washington Irving ghost story.

To promote their new comedy 'Brooklyn Nine-Nine', which stars Andy Samberg as a slacker NYPD patrolman, Fox took over the Jay Street subway station and handed out free coffee and doughnuts to lucky passers-by.

ABC went to equally impressive lengths to attract attention to its show 'The Goldbergs', a family sitcom set in the 1980s, by sending in the post 1980s memorabilia to people whose name happens to be Goldberg.

All of that might sound desperate, but the autumn TV show release race has become insanely competitive in recent years. Twelve new shows were premiered on mainstream US channels in the last week alone, and 28 in total will be released over the next month. With those odds, new series have to jump up and down and hope they get noticed before disappointing ratings see them get cancelled mid-run.

And if the publicity stunts and endless TV promos don't work, there's always the faint hope that social media will save you. In 2012, ABC's political thriller 'Scandal' was on its last legs after a poor opening when ratings suddenly soared mid-season after it became a hot topic on Twitter.

Sky will be hoping there's a similar buzz about its new-season dramas, which were unveiled in London last week. The Sky network has devoted more and more resources to original programming in recent years, and is starting to earn both critical acclaim and modestly increased ratings. Its new shows range from the impressive to the plain daft, and top of the pile is 'The Tunnel', an ambitious reimagining of Danish drama 'The Bridge', which kicks off on Sky Atlantic this month.

In the Danish show, a female politician's body was found cut in half in the middle of the Oresund sea bridge that links Denmark and Sweden, making it a cross-jurisdictional investigation. In 'The Tunnel', the body is that of a French politician, who's left in the Channel Tunnel at the precise point where France and England meet.

This brings a wryly humorous British detective (Stephen Dillane) and an icy French policewoman (Clemence Poesy) together to track a grandiose serial killer who indents his increasingly gruesome crimes to highlight the moral bankruptcy of western society. Apart from being a crime drama, 'The Tunnel' is very funny and plays constantly on the cultural differences and mutual incomprehension of the British and the French. It's worth a look.

If it's campness and sex you're after, you may prefer to tune into Sky Living's 'Dracula', which markets itself as "'Dangerous Liaisons' with fangs". Jonathan Rhys Meyers plays the Count, who arrives in Victorian London posing as an American entrepreneur who worships at the altar of modern science.

He's really in town to avenge himself on ancient enemies, but meanwhile uses his oily charms to woo the pants off a bevy of society beauties, one of whom reminds him curiously of his dead wife.

The promo I saw looked pretty ripe, but 'Dracula's' production values are undeniably impressive, and if it pulls off its racy agenda then it could score well in the ratings. It starts this month, as does 'Strike Back', Sky One's popular action drama series that returns for a fourth season.

'Strike Back' tells the story of a covert MI6 unit that races around the world averting terror threats and other impending disasters, and, in this series, Philip Winchester and Sullivan Stapleton are joined by Robson Green, Dougray Scott and Martin Clunes as they endeavour to bring down a singularly unpleasant Iranian terrorist.

There are train crashes, fist fights, fast cars and lots of guns. It's a boy thing.

But Sky is making serious dramas as well as silly ones. Jon Hamm and Daniel Radcliffe will return to Sky Arts in November with a second series of 'A Young Doctor's Notebook', a daring comic drama set in pre-revolutionary Russia and based on the stories of Mikhail Bulgakov. I thought the first series was outstanding, and the second looks just as good.

After Christmas, Dominic Cooper will star in the eagerly awaited biopic of Ian Fleming. Meanwhile, a new series of one-off original dramas begins shortly on Sky Living. 'Drama Matters' will bring together an impressive team of writers and actors to tell contemporary stories with a twist.

The series opens with the promising- looking 'Psychopath Next Door', an intriguing black comedy starring Anna Friel as a psychotherapist who also happens to be a sociopath, and gives her patients disastrously unhelpful advice.

Irish Independent

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