The Almighty Johnsons resurrect

JAMES CROOT
Last updated 05:00 02/07/2013
Almighty Johnsons
COMING BACK: The Almighty Johnsons

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The Norse god of resurrection has come to the party.

Last September, it looked like The Almighty Johnsons had run its course after just two seasons. After a shift to Wednesday nights and the introduction of more fantastical elements, ratings of this tale of a family of reincarnated Norse gods slid to the point where word was that TV3 ' wasn't keen to renew it.

However, whether it was by the hand of Baldur or the modern witchcraft of social media, a month later everything was on again, on the condition that the show be steered back into more mainstream waters.

As part of that process, veteran director Mark Beesley (Outrageous Fortune, The Insider's Guide to Happiness), who helmed the first season's opening and closing episodes, was brought in as producer.

Speaking at the home of the Johnsons, South Pacific Pictures' Henderson-based head office, Beesley admits that the show incrementally strayed from the path last season.

"While the show has always been clear to its followers, if you dipped in late in season 2, there was so much mythology and things going on it was hard to pick it up and enjoy it.

"The realities of commercial television in New Zealand are that we have to appeal to a broad audience. We don't have the luxury of being able to make cult television.

"My job this year has been to make it clear to everyone - viewers, the network - that this is a show about our world and being a man in 2013 trying to find love and happiness. It's about brothers, not gods."

As well as dragging the show back into the real world and playing character before mythology, Beesley has also enlisted some experienced, but fresh to the 'Johnsons, directing talent like Michael Hurst (Spartacus) and Mike Smith (Underbelly) and changed the show's look.

"We're shooting in a more naturalistic style, but also using a more cinematic camera system.

"My approach is shoot a drama, but cut for comedy. So viewers can expect a lot of laughs, but no clowning. I really think the human heart of the show is very empowering this season."

Despite praising all the actors for their work ethic, Beesley singles out Dean O'Gorman (Anders) for special attention.

"He has never done better work and that character alone is worth the price of admission. He says the things that men might think but can't express. I'm sure Dean's career internationally will blossom post-Hobbit, but he may not find a role as good as Anders."

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The man chiefly responsible for Anders, in conjunction with his writing partner in crime, Rachel Lang, is James Griffin. It was he who, when asked to come up with a male-orientated dramedy, delved into his family's Scandinavian heritage.

"What if the Norse gods had come here as a part of a kind of witness-protection programme?" is how he likes to put the original Johnsons' conceit.

The biggest challenge of writing the show has been walking that fine line where it stops sounding real, he says.

However, he takes issue with those who think the show is preposterous.

"Barking-mad shows with a creative stance to reality have always been around. Because I'm an old fart, I grew up with Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie and Randall and Hopkirk Deceased."

Aware of the need to take the show back to its more humanistic roots, Griffin says the focus this season is firmly on Axl (Emmett Skilton) and his journey towards becoming the true Odin - or not.

Unfortunately, that means the Maori deities have been jettisoned (although Griffin admits he would love to do a spinoff series about three of them driving around in a van in the style of Scooby Doo) and the Johnsons will be retreating back into their mortal incarnations.

"Last season's huge cliffhanger has ramifications throughout this series and it affects the relationships between the brothers. They got so close to achieving what they were seeking, but kind of failed quite spectacularly. So there is a sense of regrouping, but of course you can't deny your true nature for very long."

As far as Beesley is concerned, he's got nothing but praise for Griffin and his team of writers.

"They know how to reflect back an audience and write characters they will love."

Creating a popular one-hour comedy-drama is something that even the best writers in the United States haven't been able to consistently crack, he says.

"You think of shows like The United States of Tara, Nurse Jackie and The Big C, they are all half-hour programmes.

"I suspect that's why Outrageous Fortune didn't transport to an American model.

"I think the reason it works here is because the comedy is a Trojan horse which gets us to trust our storytellers."

Although eager to see New Zealand on Air and networks investing in shows for more than one season at a time, as well as funding shorter-run but higher-production-valued programmes, Beesley is acutely aware that in the meantime the Johnsons' future is in the lap of the gods.

"Our plan with this season is to leave everyone, including the network and NZ On Air, wanting more. I want to do a Christmas special and see no reason why we couldn't go into another season.

"I think this show has got some originality, authenticity and something to say and is just enormous fun.

"We're here to prove that funding a third season was the right decision and that you ain't seen nothing yet."

The Almighty Johnsons, 8.30pm, Thursdays, TV3.

- The Press

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