IR In-The-Trenches: HELLBOY [Lionsgate Home Entertainment]

Outlaws, Espionage & The Battle For Story: The FX TCA Summer 2009 Press Tour – Feature

In comparison to Fox proper, FX has always been about darker elements and pushing what is available on basic cable. This has not been more prevalent lately than in the criminal family drama “Sons Of Anarchy”. With new elements in the way in terms of animation (“Archer”) and a new drama: “Lawman” from “Speed” writer Graham Yost, the expansion of the interesting continues.

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Archer This new animated series, with a bit of the flash structuring in its edgy demeanor, comes from the mind of Adam Reed who was the madman behind “Frisky Dingo” and “Sealab 2021” on Cartoon Network, In translating to FX, the key becomes sizing and viciously attacking the demo making them see things your way. The concept of the series is based in espionage in the style of “Mission Impossible” and “Man From U.N.C.L.E” but with a bit of heinous characterization. Archer, played by H. Jon Benjamin (who has also done voices forr “Assy McGee” and “The Venture Brothers”, both on Cartoon Network), is a hero who has mommy issues. He is sent back to the office and now has to deal with his ex, Lana, an oversexed and seemingly vindictive co-worker played by The Boondocks’ Aisha Tyler. Hijinks ensue.

Reed says he likes taking familiar genres and subverting them as much as possible. You build on the backdrop and then skew it as badly or horribly as you can. The most important relationship in the series for him is between Archer and his mom. It undermines everything. FX seemed like a good fit for it and Reed thought so after seeing “Its Always Funny In Philadelphia” which is one of his favorite shows. He says that the spying is hard to animate so they just don’t do it a lot of the time. In terms of his background, he never went to school for this. Cartoon Network was his training ground and, in his own admission, animation cuts you a lot of slack.

People can do very bad things but you have to have your characters doing even worse. It has to be completely divorced from reality. Reed also hints that Ron Perlman who is on the TCA FX Press Tour with “Sons Of Anarchy”as well talked to him at the party for Fox the night before about playing a villain on the show. Reed seems to love that.

Aisha Tyler reflects that Lana was drawn before she came to the project…but the girl was stacked, and she seemed to like it. Tyler says there has been a lot of cackling in the booth. The aspect of doing these type of animation projects is that you can say and pursue angles of dialogue that you could never get away with in live action. Beyond that though, she says that there is a beauty to the animation in “Archer” much like “The Boondocks” but in a different way.

The key is the balance between the subversive, the comedy and the through progression on the series. While this style might have worked on Adult Swim, transitioning it into a larger world and staying there requires planning and effectiveness. Time will tell. The show does not have a premiere date yet but will likely be sometime in the fall.

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Sons Of Anarchy This show came out of nowhere last year. I had rounded up a lot of episodes and, on a plane trip back from overseas, watched a lot of them back to back. Seeing the progression within, there is intense visceral nature to the show. It blends at kind of grounded darkness with elements of classical-based character dramas, most similarly to “The Godfather”. This is a show undeniably about family beyond anything else. Love is a hard thing and these these people beat it to death while still still staying the course: protect the club (in this case Sam Crow) at all costs.

Creator Kurt Sutter who is married to series co-star Katey Sagal, doesn’t pull his punches. The darkness that she has to confront in the premiere of the second season alone apparently changes a lot of things. Kurt wants to believe that the way he pushes the envelope is never gratuitous but instead grittingly real and engaging. The premiere he says creates an emotional engine for Sagal’s Jemma and creates the season’s overarching progression. Sending Jemma on a spiritual path is a tricky and ultimately a personal progression. The importance of family is paramount but, at times, you have to take creative liberties to make it work. Emotions dont happen in a vacuum and with these kind of characters. The kickback, as a result, is unbelievable.

Charlie Hunnam, who plays Jax, creates an organic and ultimately brilliant characterization of a young man caught between two worlds. The way he is able to play both viciousness, conscience, violence and love, all within a certain time is phenomenal. But this is only possible because of the cast around him. After the panel I talked one-on-one with Ron Perlman for nearly 15 minutes. He and Charlie are good friends off set and he sees something so soulful, good natured and brilliant in this kid that it is very hard when they really have to go at it which he says is even more hard edged this season. This world for Ron is uncomfortable to play and that is the challenge of it. The physicality of the this man Clay he plays, the emotional structure, the notion of leadership…all these figure into it. It is another in a string of wonderful career moves for Perlman following such iconic roles in “Hellboy” and “City Of Lost Children”. He says his fortune is blind luck and when Kurt came to him on this role, there was just a power to it. He also says that the premiere episode changes the relationship among many, especially with Jemma, his wife, played by Sagal, For him he said it is quite a ride, scary but fulfilling.

Charlie says that evolving Jax is the structure of the setting that the character finds himself in. He has spent times with guys who live that  style and you learn. He says that his best friend went to Sturgis in North Dakota which is one of the biggest bikers rallies in the nation and that the show is embraced by many in the biker community. In terms of the throughline, Jax is steadfast as he has been all along. His allegiance lies with the club and his future lies within the club, whatever form it may take.

The women on the show are very strong which is another aspect that very much elevates the show above others. Kurt says that there are multiple women in the writing room and that perspective is necessary, especially in such a testosterone fueled show. Maggie Siff, who plays Tara who is in love with Jax and ultimately is pulled into his life, knows how intense it can be. In mentioning a killing scene in a bedroom during the first season, she says that that was a severe edge they have to walk and sometimes cross.

Kurt told me later that they had to make adjustments to that scene to get it past the censors because after Jax kills Kohn who is the man stalking Tera, they make love but they (the writers and the production) had to make it so the bloody body of Kohn was half in the bathroom and not in the room with them. Kurt thought that this little fact, just because of the irony, was amusing

Katey says that while she and Tara still go to a head, there is more of an understanding between them in terms of love for Jax but the key is that Tara  understands one thing: always protect the club. Sagal also said the six weeks she had to exist in this new structure that her character undergoes was difficult since they have to go home to their kids (Kurt is her husband). The series is not for the faint of heart but its effectiveness speaks volumes.

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Show Runners Panel In an interesting amalgamation, FX brought together the bulk of their showrunners to discuss the status of the industry and their part within in. With the Leno debate of 10pm skewing a lot of scripted programming, basic cable is the last stand against a new order. With USA and FX taking the forefront along with AMC, the stand off is approaching, Graham Yost, whose new series “Lawman” starring Timothy Olyphant, premieres later in the fall, says that because they shot the pilot late, already 40 people in terms of writers had been put out by the NBC decision. He had had a previous series at that network which had been cancelled before the last shows aired, The episodes ended up doing OK and they thought about making more but the team had already dispersed. His philosophy is when you are doing good, think about the worst thing that you have done…and prepare for that. Kurt Sutter, who runs “Sons Of Anarchy”, again pulls no punches saying that NBC is “the one to hate right now”. He doesn’t know what is going to happen. However, in his perspective the move put a lot of people on leave which, in his opinion, “sucks”. 

Todd Kessler, who runs the Glenn Close-starrer “Damages”, says that a year from now we will have a very different conversation. It might not work out. The one thing he does cite about FX is that when they give you a 13 episode order, you get to make the 13 and not worry about ratings until after the fact. Some other networks, NBC among them, do not guarantee the full airing or even production at times. Kessler says that, by comparison, FX has been true to their word and stood by them,

Peter Tolan, who runs “Rescue Me” with Denis Leary, addresses the aspect of time shifting and DVR watching as a deterrent, pointing to the fact that a very small portion of the audience actually watches every episode of your show. He spotlights that NBC (which is now a center of discussion) was known for very elegant work. He cites “Hill Street Blues” as a prime example. He says now that there is not as much spirit as in evidence there. Personally, he doesn’t care when the audience is watching as long as they “are” watching. Tolan highlights that the business is cyclical and reality will come down. 

Shawn Ryan, who was the show runner on “The Shield” and recently took over NBC’s “Lie To Me” starring Tim Roth, speaks about the attention and hand holding at FX compared to other networks. He says that the notes are comparable to the writing on the episode. If something needs to be changed, it usually makes sense. It starts new with each show. This year he is new on “Lie To Me” and they are trying new stuff so Fox’s eyeballs are on them. His perception with the Leno 10pm quandry is the perspective of the value of a show after it has aired. He says that “Heroes” is a good example. Even though it is expensive, it has significant value overseas. When these shows work, they make a lot of money. He suggested we (the TV journalists) put NBC’s “feet to the fire” and take them to task. He says that the key is to do more development and make more successful shows. Originally in the list of important things when making a show, hiring a writer was 6th. Now with the success specifically of “CSI”, that is changing.

The future is coming. But, of course, that too, is a matter of perspective.