Dennis Broe reports from the Series Mania festival, previews some of the new series due to hit our screens, and surveys trends in the ever-concentrating, hugely profitable industry of digital media
There certainly was mania, with over 60 series being screened, three days of industry panels, and with masterclasses (extended interviews) with Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s writer and Sharp Objects showrunner Marti Noxon and Uma Thurman presenting her new show Chambers, all at the Series Mania festival in Lille in Northern France last week. Series Mania has now become the leading international television gathering in the world and is staking a claim on being for television what the Cannes Festival is for film.
There was mania, but there was also anxiety as those in the European television industry readied themselves for the coming onslaught of the American streaming services which they greeted alternately as partners who would expand their options for producing series, or as moneymakers invading their market and against whom they could not compete.
The streaming services (Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and the coming NBC Universal, Disney/Fox and Time Warner-AT&T as well as Apple and Facebook) have been challenged in various ways by governments, associations and unions. While the conference was underway the European Union passed a directive increasing the power of copyright holders affecting mainly print media, but perhaps applicable to television as well, which could aid local producers.
The directive was announced and celebrated by Pascal Rodard, Director of the French Society of Authors and Composers in a panel titled “Towards a New Balance Between Creators and Platforms.” Director Kaat Beels, of the Netflix series Beau Sejour, described a Danish work action against Netflix in which creative personnel were championing their right to be paid residuals from the streaming services, which tend to pay upfront and then build libraries as the main asset, which last in perpetuity and increase the value of the service – but the creators receive no more payments.
Howard Rodman, a former president of the American Writer’s Guild West, explained that the Guild had lost the right to residuals in the 1980s and 1990s on VHS/DVD sales and had subsequently staged one of the most important strikes in the history of telecommunications in 2008 when, after a 100-day walkout, Hollywood writers won the right to negotiate residuals with the streaming platforms. That power grew in 2017 when a threated strike forced the owners to increase residual rights by 15 percent.
Ominously, outside the festival the news was of profit accumulation being pushed within an ever narrowing concentration of players in moves to flatten the content of the streaming services in more of a big-tent approach, to attract wider audiences which would make these companies more like the networks of old. With cable services declining (subscribers in the US having gone from a peak of 100 million to 90 million today) the coming streaming services will grow more powerful. Last week, AT&T essentially forced out the heads of HBO and the Turner Networks and replaced them by an executive formerly from NBC, signaling that the coming AT&T/Time Warner service will move HBO and Turner from boutique audiences to more of a one-size-fits-all model.
The size and profit level of the existing services, particularly Netflix, is also daunting for European producers. In Britain, in order to compete, the BBC and ITV have formed a streaming service titled Britbox. However, the total funds available for production is around $184 million which is not small unless it is compared to the $13 billion Netflix spent last year. Both Amazon and Netflix promised increasing attention to telling local European stories but this drive toward what is becoming a streaming service buzzword – diversity – comes in the wake of a European law requiring that at least 30 percent of the product available on the streaming services come from European countries.
Perhaps the last word came from a European distributor who said that because of their global reach and budget, the streaming services were starting to treat European markets much like American television networks treated them in the 1980s and 1990s when their product was dominant on European screens.
Elsewhere Marti Noxon, who cut her feminist writing teeth on Buffy The Vampire Slayer, talked candidly about her career and her life and about the importance of putting imperfection on the TV screen. Her latest series is Sharp Objects, with Amy Adams as an alcoholic reporter who returns to her small hometown in Missouri to solve what might be the serial murder of young girls. Noxon described her own bout with alcohol, including an evening when she staggered out of an LA bar and passed out in her car in downtown LA without locking the doors, a scene that is replayed in the series.
Uma Thurman, however, was coy and tight-lipped about her life. At one point when asked if the working environment for women in studios was changing on account of Me Too, she dropped her guarded attitude for a moment and said that frankly the attitude had to change, that the environment couldn’t get any worse. But she quickly amended that to say more blandly that things were getting better. Her Netflix series Chambers premiering in late April, does though indicate a degree of self-awareness, presenting her tight-lipped, proper, Anglo-bourgeois mother as the terrifying villain of the series.
Opener of the festival was The Red Line, one small step for Serial TV but one giant leap for its highly conservative network CBS. The series, set around the Red Line metro in Chicago which crosses several race and class boundaries concerns a black-white gay couple and their black daughter. Noah Wylie of Emergency stars as a high school teacher left with grief that he is for a while unable to express after his husband is shot and killed by the Chicago police. The best thing about the series, and the radical element for the older audiences on CBS, is the way it normalizes a gay school teacher making him compassionate and sensitive.
The series claims to present a cross-section of the city but actually there is really only about two degrees of separation between its characters and it does not explore in real depth, as did say Steve McQueen’s Widows, the history of class antagonism in that city. It adopts the “everyone has their reasons” cop-out in exploring the lives of the city’s white police force, while ignoring the structural reasons for the long history of race and class tensions in the city. It doesn’t help that the most charismatic and interesting character, the Afro-American gay husband, is killed in the opening sequence; but the series may get a boost with the recent election of Chicago’s first black, female, openly gay mayor.
NBC checked in with Manifest, about a plane that is lost for five years. When it lands its members both sport unnatural powers and spout religious mumbo-jumbo about the miracle that is happening to them, a sign perhaps of the presence of the conservative owner of NBC Comcast. The plane somehow breached five years in time while actually in network time 15 years have elapsed between this series and its forebear Lost. Minus the heavily religious overlay, the series unfolds as an interesting mystery.
One of the most garish series of the festival was Showtime’s, which is CBS’s sinister cable side, Black Monday about the events leading to the 1987 stock market crash. The pilot is co-directed by Seth Rogan whose protégé Adam McKay directed The Big Short, all of which raises the expectations that the series will be an exposé of Wall Street. Nothing of the kind though. Instead it simply wallows in money and its largely black cast headed by Don Cheadle makes it simply the minority version of the other Showtime hit Billions. Both series amount to “wealth porn” in an era in which inequality, especially for black workers, continues to grow.
The real exposé came in the form of a Norwegian series Exit, based on a fictionalized version of actual interviews with four financial magnates in banking, hedge-fund management, and investing. The financial violence they inflict on the society is mirrored by each of the four engaging in actual violence in the episode that centers on them including knifing a sex worker, beating senseless an annoying guest at a party, and kickboxing a passerby after a drunken spree. The lead character’s violence though is psychological, making his wife believe that she is the reason they can’t have kids by concealing his vasectomy. Exit was named best series in the Panorama, or Global, section of the festival by a student jury. The show is a tough-minded anti-Billions which no doubt benefitted from the student jury and it is unlikely that a more “mature” – meaning comfortably bourgeois – jury would have awarded the prize to this hard-hitting show.
Another top series was HBO Asia’s Folklore, created by Singapore director Eric Khoo, who claimed at the screening that “Everyone in Asia believes in ghosts.” Folklore is a horror anthology with each episode in the Asian language of its origin. The first episode from Indonesian director Joko Anwar, titled “A Mother’s Love”, is a kind of Babadook exploration of an itinerant mother’s cloying affection, while also situating her haunting within the context of the street poverty of Jakarta.
In the second episode, directed by Khoo, the series hits its stride as a Singapore developer conceals the finding of the body of a victimized young girl because it will reflect badly on the construction complex, and then pays the price as the girl rises and haunts the site. This episode was very good on the migrant Chinese and Malay workers in Singapore, themselves victimized by the developer as was the young girl. An antidote to the remaking of Singapore into a Hollywood shopping complex ala Rodeo Drive that was Crazy Rich Asians.
Funniest and most satirical series of the festival was British actor and co-series creator Stephen Mangan’s Hang Ups, a remake of Lisa Kudrow’s Web Therapy, that sparkles not only with Mangan’s deadpan and hilarious reactions as an online therapist – this veteran of the Showtime series Episodes really is the modern Bob Newhart – but also with the wit to suggest that even instant therapy in the online era may no longer be possible, because personality has been evacuated. In the era of instant attention and gratification there is no ego for a therapist to work with – as exemplified by one client who is only using the supposed insights in the therapy session to increase her online followers.
Eerie in a different way is the horror series Chambers, which resuscitates the oldest horror story possible – stitching the parts of someone onto another, and then having that person take on or be threatened by the donor’s personality. This is the theme of the German Expressionist Hands of Orlac, the ’30s Hollwood Mad Love with Peter Lorre and Eric Red's Body Parts. The previous versions though, tended to have the upper-class artist threated by a lower-class criminal. Here that situation is reversed and the reversal adds a completely new dimension to the tale. An African-American/Native-American high school girl is given the heart of another female student from a wealthy suburban Arizona family. She and the uncle who raised her are then in various ways threatened by the New-Agey, Sinona-type, parents of the donor and most creepily by Uma Thurman’s perfect but nefarious upper-class wife with a closet full of secrets. Keeping the focus though on the young girl’s struggle against the class enemy that now inhabits her makes this a series to remember.
Just awful was the big budget Chimerica, from the usually reliable British Channel 4. The muddle-headed, trivial, and simplistic conceit of the series is that China lost its chance at democracy at Tiananmen Square in 1989, and the US is losing its democracy under Trump. China retains socialist characteristics and collectivist tendencies within an autocracy, while in the US the oligarchy is replacing a democracy in decline long before Trump finished it off.
The series, which validates the supposed ethics of an objective journalism – a laugh in itself given the recent CNN/New York Times debacle over Russiagate – concerns the efforts of a discredited photojournalist to find a witness at Tiananmen called The Tank Man, who stood up to the Chinese army’s rousting of the square. When they find him, his colleague claims breathlessly that what she can’t wait to ask him is, “what he was carrying in his bags,” a perspective that exactly characterizes the trivialization and distortion of the truth by Western media that this show seems entirely unaware of.
Equally confused is the big budget splashy Netflix French series Osmosis, about a brother and sister team of entrepreneur and programmer who claim to match their clients with their soulmate. The series focuses on how this match supposedly will fix the troubles of the modern world as one young test subject hung-up on porn believes finding his mate will cure his addiction.
Capitalism often proposes that psychological problems caused by the increasing tensions of growing inequality can be fixed with a pill, but here the fix involves big data’s claim to have mapped the world’s personalities. The series though obscures the massive surveillance that is needed to build such a database as Netflix equally obscures its own surveillance of its customers, which has been used to construct projects like this one.
Dennis Broe's latest book is Diary of a Digital Plague Year: Coronavirus, Serial TV and The Rise of The Streaming Services. He is also the author of Birth of the Binge: Serial TV and The End of Leisure. His TV series blog is Bro on The Global Television Beat. His radio commentary can be heard on his show Breaking Glass on Art District Radio in Paris and on Arts Express on the Pacifica Network in the U.S. He is the author of two novels: Left of Eden, about the Hollywood blacklist and A Hello to Arms, about the postwar buildup of the weapons industry. He is currently teaching in the Masters' Program at the Ecole Superieure de Journalisme. He is an arts critic and correspondent for the Morning Star and for Crime Time, People’s World and Culture Matters, where he is an Associate Editor.