Could we see a 'quality' Kiwi show?

21:12, May 30 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".

But 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.

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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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