2014 trends in European TV series

Want to know what made waves in the European TV series landscape this year? You’re in the right place! This trends review focuses on the new shows – the “season ones” – that outline the challenges and answer the questions about overseas production.

US model in the spotlight

It seems like the dream of European content creators is to produce “US-quality” shows, meaning they strive for the same level of world-class writing and directing. But they’re also working hard to develop shows based on the US model while giving them a unique local flavour, making their output export ready on a global scale.

In the crime genre, the Sky Italia cable channel took audiences by storm with Gomorra, a series based on journalist Roberto Saviano’s bestselling novel about the Naples mafia (director Matteo Garrone brought the book to the big screen in 2008). As a result, show rights have already been acquired in more than 30 countries, including the US (Weinstein Company). Taking back imagery iconic to US fiction despite its undeniable Italian origins, Gomorra blends Godfather-esque mafia plot lines and family themes with The Wire’s documentary realism, offering viewers a product that rivals any of its US counterparts. So much so, in fact, that the Weinstein Company is considering a remake, bringing the content full circle. Produced by an Italian TV industry particularly fond of remaking Spanish series, Gomorra is the first major production to cross the border since Romanzo Criminale (2008), another film-inspired crime series directed by Stefano Sollima (who did seven episodes of Gomorra). The question now is whether or not Italian producers can succeed in other genres knowing that Sky is the only HBO-type network in the country to offer this kind of ambitious content.

Aired on the Dutch public channel NPO2, Dutch Hope is another US-style series reminiscent of Weeds and Breaking Bad (although creator Franky Ribbens claims he got the idea for the program before showrunner Vince Gilligan’s award-winning series became a hit). Due to circumstances beyond his control, a psychiatrist reinvents himself as a drug dealer after inheriting his father’s marijuana plantation while trying to get closer to his wife and children, who all despise him.

Beyond the pitch, Dutch Hope tries to lace its characters and the situations they find themselves in with the same kind of engrossing moral ambiguity viewers enjoyed with the show’s predecessor, and succeeding at every turn. Ribbens says using the crime genre to tell this particular story lets him comment more freely on the state of The Netherlands – a society based on the hypocritical consensus that mirrors their legislation which authorizes the use of cannabis, but not its large-scale trade – than any political speech or series could.

Throwing caution to the wind, European TV producers tried their hand at sci-fi/fantasy this year, dabbling in a genre US creators are already very comfortable with (this year’s offerings include The Strain, produced by Guillermo Del Toro, and Penny Dreadful, produced by Sam Mendes). Broadcast on Danish cable channel Kanal 5, Heartless is an interesting attempt at jumping on the Twilight/True Blood bandwagon, although screenwriter Nikolaj Scherfig describes the show as, “Harry Potter with sex scenes.” The series follows a vampire-like brother and sister duo as they attend a private school that could hold the secrets to their condition and origins.

Shot in stunning feature-film caliber photography, Heartless doesn’t shy away from showing explicit sex scenes. And with rights already acquired in 40 countries (including the US for a possible remake), the efforts of show producers to innovate by steering away from thrillers the Danish – and Scandinavian – TV industries are known for (such as The Killing and Broen) are paying off in a big way.

News from the UK

The British have never had a reason to envy Americans when it comes to TV. The BBC has a longstanding tradition of producing world-class series in a variety of genres, from Jane Austen novel adaptations to Sherlock, not forgetting the unclassifiable Doctor Who. Adding to the public broadcaster’s impressive list this summer, BBC2 aired The Honourable Woman, a complex Middle East political thriller starring Maggie Gyllenhaal. Using a movie star to lead a series about a hot current events issue with strong female characters and screenwriting worthy of an Alfred Hitchcock thriller shows just how ambitious British public television producers really are. But all that may change soon, considering the TV licence fees that fund the BBC are currently at the centre of a debate looking to abolish them following criticism of the network’s excessive spending.

This year’s UK surprise is a “little” series produced by Channel 5. On the surface, Suspects could be like any number of British police investigation dramas, but the way it’s constructed – embracing its bare bones, “low budget” nature and focusing on the mostly improvised dialogue of the actors – gives it an interesting twist, one usually found in independent cinema. In a context where casting and budgets are what make series comparable to films, Suspects is definitely not the norm.

France testing out new formats

French networks Canal + and Arte are both looking to emulate US cable channel content. Canal + spent 2014 filming new shows for 2015, including international co-productions Spotless (Franco-British police comedy) and the highly-anticipated Versailles, a Simon Mirren (Criminal Minds) historical series on Louis XIV shot in English by director Jalil Lespert (Yves Saint-Laurent).

Arte spent the year trying to settle two major issues in French fiction television: successfully introducing 52-minute episodes (similar to the US format) and establishing the difference between films and series. Even though public and private channels are willing to go with the 52-minute format in a national audiovisual landscape dominated by TV movies and 90-minute shows, the switch is proving to be a hard sell. Case in point, only a handful of shows using this format lasted more than three seasons (averaging ten episodes each) in the last five years, namely Profilage (TF1), Fais pas ci, fais pas ça (France 2) and Un village français (France 3).

With its aptly-named 3 x Manon, Arte is experimenting with the “three 52-minute episode” format, airing all three episodes consecutively on the same night. Inspired by a common practice in the UK, the formula offers a number of benefits, including the possibility of creating an event around the show’s broadcast, having more time to develop plots without having to add “fillers” to the story and streamlining production costs. 3 x Manon, a violent teenager sent to a closed education centre, appealed to enough critics and viewers to warrant a second season.

Finally, Arte caused quite a stir at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, presenting a TV series that became a huge hit. P’tit Quinquin gave serious filmmaker Bruno Dumont (Humanité and Hors Satan) the opportunity to venture into comedy while safely staying within his favourite framework, consisting of Northern France, its working classes and non-professional actors. Being given carte blanche by the network for the “four 50-minute episode” series, Dumont created a dark French version of Twin Peaks that has everyone wondering, “Is this work a film (it’s shown in theatres abroad) or a series (it aired on Arte in September on two separate evenings, drawing a significant audience averaging 1.5 million viewers per night)?” Whatever the answer, the format obviously appealed to the director (who was new to TV) since he’s currently working on two projects for Arte, the second season of Quinquin and a “three 52-minute episode” series.

Léo Soesanto
Léo Soesanto is a journalist and festival programmer. He is the editorial director of Soap, a new magazine on TV series. He is also the programming director of the International Independent Film Festival of Bordeaux and programmer of the TV series section of the Rotterdam International Film Festival. He heads the feature film selection committee of the Semaine de la Critique du Festival de Cannes.
Read Bio