We are, I'm sure, all knowledgeable, media-literate gentlemen and ladies of the world who have at least seen The Player so know what a pitch-meeting is. In case you don't here it is:
Now, I'm wondering exactly what the pitch was to AMC that made its commissioners think, "Yes, let's do it!" I've tried all sorts of permutations:
"I'd like to remake the Danish series Bankerot, which is about two friends who decide to set up a restaurant together."
No bite. So then the pitch progresses.
"The mafia is involved. One of the friends, the chef, has been in prison. He owes them money. The restaurant is how he's going to pay them off."
Stoney faces. After all, would you be commissioning at this point? It's already at nearly double the 25 word count, too.
Time for a plot dump. "The chef friend was coked up and burnt down the restaurant they were working for, which is why he's in jail. The other guy is a sommelier. His wife has died. His son has become selectively mute. He lost his job and so has become a travelling wine rep and hates it. He's living in a disused factory in the Bronx. He doesn't speak to his rich dad any more because his dad's an epic racist and his wife and son are black. But then he has to borrow money from him to set up the restaurant."
I'm still not seeing anyone commissioning it, are you?
So I'm therefore guessing, since we do actually have a show called Feed The Beast on our screens as a result of said pitch meeting, is that what happened was it either ended with or entirely consisted of: "I'm Clyde Phillips. I was the showrunner of Dexter when it was good. David Schwimmer from Friends will play the sommelier and I've got John Dorman from The Wire to play the dad."
Although few realised it at the time, one of the most enduring legacies of the Stephen Harper government in Canada was the Jason Priestley Full Employment Act. Passed midway during Harper's period in office, it had one basic stipulation those on the left described as 'croneyism' but those on the right regarded as essential to Canada's future economic development: the continuing, 24/7 employment of the likable but only averagely talented actor Jason Priestley by the Canadian entertainment industry.
At first, the obligations of the Act seemed relatively simple to abide by, with HBO Canada granting him four seasons of Call Me Fitz, despite it being a relatively obvious, largely unfunny twist on My Name is Earl in which a car insurance salesman is followed around by someone who claims to be his conscience. Lasting four seasons, it managed to keep Priestley sufficiently occupied that he only had time to appear in an entire season of Haven and a couple of theatrical productions.
However, HBO's decision to end Call Me Fitz on the grounds of it 'not being very good' meant that the industry was now breaking the law, prompting the Harper government to fire a warning shot across Canadian TV's bows and to cut CBC's finances significantly. The industry took note and soon responded.
As well as significant voiceover work, Priestley was soon given not one but two new series: Raising Expectations and Private Eyes. Critics argued that with the arrival of the Trudeau government, there was no need for these shows. Indeed, they were quite clearly programmes that had only been created to give Jason Priestley a job. Yet so inured was Canadian television to the extrinsic need to employ Jason Priestley that many had succumbed to Stockholm Syndrome, arguing that not only were these shows needed, they were even good - despite the fact that even a moment's thought would have shown them that Private Eyes in particular was truly awful. They really should have paid attention to that thought, because it would prove to be their wake-up call.
A combination of nostalgia for terrible 80s US private detective shows and a blatant attempt to copy the formula of Castle(or indeed any show, just as long as Priestley could remain in perpetual work - Castle just seemed to have the easiest formula to copy), Private Eyes saw Priestley implausibly playing a former ice hockey star turned scout looking after a young protege who's about to hit the big time. When the aspiring star implausibly has a heart attack on the rink, Priestley suspects foul play and begins to investigate, implausibly working alongside a private investigator (Cindy Sampson) recommended to him by his telephone engineer father (Barry Flatman).
Ultimately left without anyone to coach yet needing large amounts of money to afford his luxurious lifestyle and implausibly to be able to send his gifted blind daughter to private school, Priestley's still-implausibly named character, Matt Shade, decides implausibly that his best option is to become a business partner with Sampson in the notoriously poorly paid profession of private investigator.
Were it not for the requirements of the Act, such a laughable premise would have remained firmly on paper. Instead, it was commissioned as a 10-part series by the Global network, where almost minimum effort was put into its realisation - it was, after all, enough it be made, since the Act, quickly rushed through Parliament, had overlooked including a stipulation that required Priestley's government-mandated shows to be good.
The show's faults were so numerous, practically a new counting system was needed to list them all. There was its name - a staggeringly lazy name for a private detective show, more so given that there wasn't even the slightest sign of a double meaning to it. There was its lazy choice of theme tune, a cover of Hall and Oates already insipid 'Private Eyes' made even blander.
There was its lazy choice of co-lead, Sampson being possibly one of the worst actresses in the world, certainly of those who had never bothered leaving Canada, but who had got the job by virtue of having been available on the first day of filming.
There was its astonishingly weak dialogue, the complete lack of chemistry between its leads, the complete lack of attempts to break any formula of the private detective genre, the absence of any kind of understanding of police procedure and minimal tension.
Even the characterisation varied massively, just in the first two episodes, with Priestley being a smooth, astute, potential private investigator in the first episode, Sampson likely to put her foot in it, the two then swapping roles in the second episode for no good reason. Priestley, down on his luck at the end of episode one, is paying for expensive restaurant meals and the privilege of working with Sampson by episode two - ostensibly through having sold his championship ring on eBay.
The show made even New Zealand's Brokenwood Mysteries look fast-paced, thrilling and innovative. Many put that down to the writers' true desire to be making a TV cooking or sports show, guessing that the constant references to sport and restaurant food in Private Eyes were less an attempt to give Priestley's character background, more an attempt to create a subtextual, onscreen CV for future employers. Others assumed the show was a cunningly crafted backdoor pilot for a Canadian version of The Greatest Event in Television History, so slavishly did the title sequence follow the brainless conventions of late 80s syndicated US television.
However, more disturbingly, it was soon revealed that Private Eyes was in actuality the biggest protest against the Jason Priestley Full Employment Act since its passing through Parliament, the sole aim of the show being to ridicule the Act sufficiently that it be repealed, so that Priestley would never be employed by Canadian TV ever again purely because of government whim.
The Emperor really did have no clothes - the show was intentionally bad. How could anyone ever have thought otherwise?
When making scripted television, broadcasters around the world have a choice whether to make their programmes with either local or global appeal in mind. It's a difficult tightrope to walk - make the programme too locally focused and unless you're in the US, chances are no one outside your home country will know what you're talking about so won't watch; make it too globally focused, and it'll be too homogeneous, appealing to no one rather than everyone.
After years of only managing to sell soap operas and shows involving improbably intelligent and helpful animals overseas, modern Australian television is slowly finding ways to tread this tightrope, with shows such as Rake, Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries, The Code, Serangoon Roadand The Doctor Blake Mysteries finally finding success both in Australia and abroad. But until now, Australia hasn't managed to find a way to make one of its most pressing local issues work in a globally-targeted drama (or even in a local drama, judging by the limpness of both Redfern Now and The Gods of Wheat Street). But with Cleverman it might just have done it.
The Australian Aboriginal peoples have the world's longest survival culture, with more 60,000 years of stories known as 'The Dreaming'. But more or less ever since the British landed in Australia, they've been in decline, and have been treated abysmally in many ways. Addressing the legacy of this treatment is likely to take generations.
Cleverman marries modern Australia's 'Aboriginal problem' with The Dreaming to give us something unique. Set in the near future, it plucks from the Dreaming 'the hairies', a race of people who are like humans but super-strong and have their own language. They have co-existed with but have remained unknown to humans for 80,000 years.
Mimicking the historic treatment of Aborigines since British colonisation, Cleverman has these hairies confined to 'the Zone', which has third-world-level living conditions; if they leave, they face systemic discrimination and are abused, separated from their children (the Stolen Generations) and banned from speaking their own language (the Aboriginal Gumbaynggirr language). Some choose to assimilate or hide among humans by shaving off their extra hair, speaking English and acting like humans.
So far, so District 9 and numerous other bits of sci-fi. Indeed, the first half of the first episode of Cleverman is very generic stuff and is often a bit laughable, with all the talk of hairies, 'rugs' (human insult for hairies), 'shavers' (hairies who remove their hair) and so on. There's a slightly dull problem involving two brothers (Hunter Page-Lochard and Rob Collins) and their uncle (Jack Charles), who wants to have a word with them about something, but they're too busy off doing criminal things, like running underground fight clubs for hairies or shopping illegals to the cops.
Charles also has some kind of agreement with slimey corporate mogul Iain Glenn (best known here from Game of Thrones but very big Down Under thanks to the success of RTÉ Ireland's Jack Taylor series there). He appears to want to help the hairies against the government's wishes, but more likely has his own best interests at heart.
Then, almost exactly mid-way through the episode, it flips everything round and becomes a lot more interesting. The show gets its name from the Aboriginal idea of the Cleverman, who is a conduit between the real world and the Dreaming, which is also a spiritual realm where past, present and future come together and all manner of strange beasties live. Charles is the current Cleverman but his time is ending and he's going to pass on his responsibilities to one of his two nephews. But which one…?
Once the new Cleverman is selected, we get the arrival of the supernatural in this slightly limp sci-fi analogy and everything improves considerably. The stories of the Dreaming start to feature more prominently, people start getting some very strange superpowers, the dead start coming back to life and heart-eating creatures descend from the sky.
I almost gave up on the show after its first 30 minutes, so I recommend you have patience if you're going to watch it, since it does improve in the second half. It's still not exactly faultless*, and the female roles are almost non-existent at this stage. But it will offer you something significantly different from other shows, with a uniquely Australian flavour, while still managing to speak to global audiences.
* Here's a game you can play called 'where's his dick gone?' There's a sex scene at the end, during which the man passes out. Then someone comes in to help but doesn't realise they've been having sex. And thus the game begins…
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A UK media blog focusing on the best scripted TV from around the world, with daily news, views, exclusive reviews and good conversation. There's a bit of a bias towards the latest and greatest US TV, but we also cover Scandinavian, Canadian, European and Antipodean TV, as well as UK TV ranging from new Doctor Who to old Z Cars, and BBC4 to S4C.
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I'm Rob Buckley, a freelance journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of, although you might have heard me on Radio 5 Live's Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I've edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for trade magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider and the equally short-lived Death Ray and Filmstar magazines; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it "web site for urban hedonists" The Tribe. I'm freelance now and have contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network and TV Scoop.