Could we see a 'quality' Kiwi show?

Last updated 09:12 31/05/2012

Paul Casserly might have been on to something, you know. A couple of months ago, he wrote a rather gushing review of Soho - the quality channel on Sky and home to most of the best shows on television, including Game of Thrones, Mad Men, Girls, and Veep - in which he claimed it was "fast becoming the best channel in the history of television".

20120531But that wasn't the part of his review that stuck out to me; while I agree with his assessment of SoHo, I was struck by something he mentioned toward the end of his review:

"What we won't see on Soho, I suspect, are any NZ programmes. I feel for local drama producers whose work is often, unfairly, compared to these high budget and high concept shows. In New Zealand we make entire series or even movies for the amount of money that these shows blow on an episode or just to cover the catering ... That said, it's only a matter of time before someone here pulls off something that's in this league. If not we'll have to call a moratorium on using the phrase, 'punching above our weight'."

While it wasn't the point of his piece, I was left asking myself the question: why couldn't a Kiwi television production company make something at the level of a show such as The Killing or Magic City? I think it could definitely be done, even factoring in the limitations on finances and resources that can trouble local productions.

I was thinking about this again last night during Australian-made gang drama Bikie Wars: Brothers in Arms, the years "most anticipated" new show, which started on TV3. While the show itself was okay - it was good-looking but highly derivative; think what would happen if you threw Sons of Anarchy and Underbelly into a mixer - I couldn't help but think that we have the talent in this country to pull something like this off. We've done it in small doses (the Sunday Theatre season is a good example) but not over the course of a whole season of a show.

Now, I'm obviously not an experienced television writer, director or producer. My only production experience is a short film I made with a friend and a single entry in the 48 Hours competition.

But I can share what I would do if you asked me to try to put together a show that would be at least as good as Bikie Wars, and maybe as good as The Killing (or even quality non-Soho dramas like Justified, The Walking Dead or Sons of Anarchy). Here are a few things I would try to do first:

Find an interesting story. The first - and arguably biggest - hurdle for making a show like this would be designing an interesting story and writing the hell out of it. The Underbelly franchise solved this problem by using real stories as the basis for their shows, so that could be a good place to start. The kind of quality shows I'm thinking of have a high degree of realism (which most Kiwi shows don't have) and using a familiar story would help elevate the perception that something is real. As for talented writers, we've got plenty of those; the gang behind The Almighty Johnsons, This Is Not My Life and Nothing Trivial would be more than up to the task. Time is really the most important factor here, I think. And around 4000 draft scripts.

Attract a name director with a commanding style. This Is Not My Life tried this with Robert Sarkies, the director of Scarfies and Out of the Blue - the latter of which might be one of the greatest films ever to come out of this country - and it paid dividends to the final product. When you think about shows like Justified or The Killing, they all have a unique visual style, and maintaining consistency in the director's chair is key to achieving that.

Avoid casting any well-known faces in main roles. With all due respect to the icons of Kiwi television, recognisable faces bring all their previous roles along with them, and that can be distracting when you're trying to get into a new show; even the slightest little distraction can take you out of the immersive world being created by a show.

Don't produce any more than eight episodes. Short episode runs are a pain for viewers, but surely it can mean that resources aren't spread so thinly across an entire production. At least, I'm assuming that is one of the benefits of shooting only six or eight episodes as opposed to 13 or more. It seems as though it should be.

I don't have first-hand experience of how hard it must be to create a quality show from scratch - and I'm not saying that shows we're producing in this country aren't great because they are great, but in a different way. Also, it's worth remembering that our great television producers would absolutely have thought about everything I'm writing, and can probably tell us why I'm completely wrong.*

But if a show followed the above few steps, I think it would have a chance to be really great. Heck, SoHo might even air it one day. I know I'd watch it.

What do you think: could a local production company make a show that would fit in alongside some of those quality shows I mentioned? What else do you think they would need to do to succeed in that goal?

(*) I can't say this enough: I'm not trying to tell anyone how to do their jobs - I love the job they're doing right now. These are just a few things I was thinking about while pondering whether a NZ-made show would fit in on SoHo.

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45 comments
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nrg   #1   09:23 am May 31 2012

Your first mistake is assuming that Sky have any interest in screening NZ content other than sport.

J   #2   09:24 am May 31 2012

While I agree with you, I would feel highly ripped off if a NZ production, which assumedly recieved NZ on Air funding was shown on a subscription channel such as SoHo.

The one thing I would suggest for a successful series is that they have a compelling storyline, but do not rush through it, take your time and let the story tell itself rather than have it force fed over half a dozen episodes ... Fringe is a great example of this, I thought Game of thrones would be similar, but they are leaving more and more of the books behind as it goes - The Battle of Blackwater Bay was a shadow of the books battle.

Dobbyn   #3   09:34 am May 31 2012

I wonder if we're to self-deprecating when it comes to home-grown TV, we like to laugh at ourselves, we don't like to take our own efforts too seriously, and we subconsciously try and recognise the scenes or actors in homegrown TV like it is some game of fame-by-association.

Currently, our TV gives us this; Nothing Trivial is full of retirees from Shortland Street, I had to drive my sister past Cheryl West's house for her to PXT her mates in Stokes Valley, and nobody takes The Almighty Johnsons seriously. Is it the accents?

I agree with the comment about short episode runs, and relate more to the British drama style over the American, where the British don't try to milk the cow dry and labour the plot twists; Edge of Darkness, State of Play and to a lesser degree, The Shadowline are brilliant for telling a story simply and well.

So, I guess I've proven all the author's points here, but with a question - If we did all these thiings, hired a top-shelf producer/writer, had a good drama with unknown actors in settings we didn't recognise, and got a series into SoHo, would we watch it ourselves? We may have to keep the episode run short, through sheer practicality.

jessa myn   #4   09:45 am May 31 2012

cast all unknowns for a start. the tired old cliched actors in this country smear and devalue every good role they're given. no one wants to see the guy who's been in outrageous fortune, mighty johnsons, shortland st, whale rider, every other nz movie/short film/tv commercial ever made.

honkytonkpopcorn   #5   10:04 am May 31 2012

would the Flight Of The Conchords TV series have been as awesome if it was made in NZ?

the one and only correct answer is NO. even though Bret & Jemaine are talented funny guys it would've sucked, like every other NZ-made scripted show ever.

Robbo   #6   10:17 am May 31 2012

We are better positioned to make relatively high production value television here than ever before - albeit for US production companies - but even if we had the story and the actors I can't see it ever being financially feasible to make a SoHo type show primarily for the NZ market (with an eye to international syndication). Too expensive, too small an audience and therefore too risky.

Putting aside the small concerns of quality writing and having a decent story, actors are another huge issue. We don't have many good ones. The quality of even the bit-part actors on these high quality US/British shows is several cuts above most of what we churn out. There are some reasonable performances here and there but the overall product is generally fairly woeful, I think it is fair to say. Decent actors grow from the rich mulch of thousands of desperate failures working in the food service industry and we just don't have a compost heap of sufficient magnitude. Take John Hamm, wasn't that guy on the verge of giving up before landing the Draper role? Do we have any actors of that calibre? And there are probably a dozen actors on Mad men of equal or superior ability to him.

Niri Tacen   #7   10:17 am May 31 2012

@J #2 - Careful, that episode hasn't screened here yet. (It will screen this week). Interesting that you pick that episode as a shadow of the book version, especially since the script for that one (episode 9, "Blackwater") was written by George R R Martin himself.

I guess that's what comes of trying to condense an epic battle into 45 minutes of screen time and still show the other story threads.

As for a good NZ show - I think we can do it. We have Weta, now internationally acknowledged as a good effects house. We have good source material - I think the Maurice Gee's O series could be adapted for TV.

What we probably lack is enough directors (that is, good directors who are used to working with special effects), and enough acting talent. The problem with a country of 5 million (of which about a million aren't home at the moment) is that the talent pool is a bit small. We'd probably have to import.

CJM   #8   10:21 am May 31 2012

I think you have got the economics of the business wrong. You should not think about what it costs to make a successful show, but you need to add in the cost of making all the unsuccessful shows before you find one that works.

The US spends huge amounts of new shows, doing pilots for what are seen as the most promising ideas. The vast bulk are never shown or developed further. Some may have more money spent doing more pilots. A few of those may be developed into a series. And most of these will then be canned in their first season leaving episodes unshown.

For every great new show that ends up on Soho, there are a huge number that died along the way.

Now if you can work out a better way of picking the winners without spending money on the many many losers along the way, it is time for a career change...

Jim   #9   10:39 am May 31 2012

Any NZ Production worthy of Soho will probably have been largely funded by NZ On Air. User pays and pays and pays and pays.....

Rock Star at Large   #10   10:46 am May 31 2012

Not surprising given the trash that is NZ media and productions. The GC sums it all up really. It's not the lack of dollars it is the lack of common sense and a sense that America-nization of TV actually will yield a bigger audience.


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