From All3Media to Zig Zag, a growing number of UK indies are finding success in the US. Peter White and Balihar Khalsa ask them what it takes to get a show off the ground
The explosion in original cable programming in the US has been a huge boon for British producers, particularly in the non-scripted world.
There are now more than 70 broadcasters that commission original programming in the US. Companies reaping the rewards include Raw TV, which has exploded with its Gold Rush franchise for Discovery, and Shed Media’s US arm, which has found success with The Real Housewives Of New York City.
Original cable is investing in scripted: in 2002, there were 28 dramas on premium and basic cable, and six comedies. Last year, this rose to 77 dramas and 48 comedies. More than 34 dramas and 19 comedies have already been commissioned this year.
Many indies are already getting their scripted ideas away. Sam Mendes’ Neal Street Productions is producing horror drama Penny Dreadful for Showtime and Grand Hotel for FX; Andy Harries’ Left Bank Pictures recently scored a US remake of Mad Dogs; and Ecosse Films remade Mistresses for ABC and produced $50m (£32m) drama Camelot for Starz.
As the broadcast networks unveil their latest programming slates at the annual Upfronts events in New York (closely followed by the LA Screenings), Broadcast asks some of the most successful UK indies currently working in the US what it takes to make it big there.
Key personnel Stephen Lambert (chairman); Eli Holzman (president)
Key shows The Million Second Quiz (NBC); Undercover Boss (CBS)
All3Media America launched at the start of the year after the company fully acquired and rebranded Studio Lambert – still best known in the US for Undercover Boss.
All3Media has an office in Los Angeles and a unique set-up: each of its indies has its own creative development exec who pitches to the US networks, but as soon as an idea is sold, it is contracted to a central All3Media America team, which gives it the advantage of scale.
“One challenge in the US is that every deal is its own deal; we can build up rights’ precedents with buyers so we get the same terms every time,” says chairman Stephen Lambert. “It combines the benefit of creative diversity with the singularity of production scale.”
As a result, All3M can fight for ancillary rights more effectively, he adds.
However, Lambert says that even without secondary rights, producers can make a good living due to the size of traditional orders.
“If successful, broadcasters order a lot of episodes, at least 13 or 22 at a time. Even if you’re making a smaller percentage margin, you’re making it on bigger volume and a bigger license fee.”
On top of all the major networks, Lambert points to up to 30 potential cable buyers hungry for ideas.
Cable is crying out for interesting characters for docusoaps, he says – All3M America produces series including political docusoap Majority Rules for AMC – while the networks are looking for international formats.
All3M America recently scored one of its biggest broadcast orders with NBC’s The Million Second Quiz. The series – a gameshow/reality hybrid – will air every day for a fortnight later this year. “It’s a big, big show for us. There haven’t been many shows where the network has committed to airing every night for two weeks. It’s an exciting gamble,” says Lambert.
Though it’s ended up on a US network, the show was originally developed in the UK. “We started talking to British broadcasters but NBC liked it so much they said they wanted to go first and asked us to stop talking to anyone else.”
Key Personnel Danny Fenton (chief executive); Matt Gould (executive vice-president, US)
Key show Exit (Syfy)
Zig Zag has had an interesting few years in the US. Following its acquisition by French media group Banijay,
Danny Fenton’s indie was forced to close down its successful US division to accommodate the company’s purchase of Keeping Up With The Kardashians producer Bunim Murray. “Before we got married [to Banijay], one third of our business came from the US,” Fenton says. “Post-wedding, part of the deal was that we were the western front. And then we found out they were sleeping with someone else.” That someone being entertainment producer Bunim Murray.
Subsequently, Zig Zag re-established its US division with the hire of former Discovery and TLC executive Matt Gould. Today, 50% of its turnover comes from the US.
One of its key shows is Exit, a format based on a Japanese gameshow that Zig Zag recently sold to Syfy. Fenton says the show, in which contestants attempt to escape from locked rooms with various traps, was bought in the room by the NBC
Universal-owned cable broadcaster. “When US broadcasters want something, they can make a decision very quickly,” he says.
Fenton adds that the lack of uniform terms of trade, which makes it more difficult to keep hold of lucrative international rights, isn’t a disaster because production fees are generally much higher.
The company, which is represented by CAA, has got shows away with a broad range of broadcasters including A&E, Discovery and Nat Geo, which recently ordered five-part survival doc series Apocalypse 101.
Fenton says Zig Zag is also close to securing its first commission with a broadcast network. “We’ve got half a dozen shows in development or close to being greenlit. There’s the perception that British producers are smarter and better storytellers in the non-scripted world. The stock of UK indies is very high.”
Key Personnel Jane Root (chief executive); Michael Jackson (director)
Key show America: The Story Of Us (History)
Nutopia was launched by former BBC2 controller and Discovery US president Jane Root in 2008 and has since produced a raft of megadocs for US cable networks, including America: The Story Of Us and Mankind: The Story of All Of Us for History, as well as Rogue Sharks and Adrift 47 Days With Sharks for Discovery’s Shark Week.
Its most recent project was The 80s: The Decade That Made Us for Nat Geo, a six-part documentary series that aired over three nights earlier this month. The series was a ratings success for the News Corp-owned network and is now being rolled out internationally. Root says she’s keen to extend its reach. “The 80s is a different kind of megadoc; it tells a story that crosses over into entertainment and politics.”
Root says US cable networks are interested in “clever pleasure” – serious documentaries with an element of entertainment. “When I was running BBC2, I was accused of dumbing down the channel with Top Gear and Jamie Oliver,” she recalls. “That’s still who I am, so it’s funny that people think I’ve turned into an Oxford professor.”
Root is currently based in Washington DC, where the majority of the US factual broadcasters are also located.
She says there’s little difference between pitching in the US and UK, but she too is impressed with the speed of decision-making in the States. “These are people who can do deals in a couple of weeks,” she says.
Nutopia is now branching out and looking to make a number of long running formats similar to its Sky Living commission, fact ent format She’s Having A Baby.
“The other area that we’re developing is these lower budget, returnable factual entertainment formats. We’re seeing more stuff like that on air and we want to do it with the same quality but less money.”
Root says Nutopia is also hoping to break into the scripted market: following the success of a number of dramatised documentaries, it has a couple of “pure drama” projects in development.
Key Personnel Alan Griffiths (chief executive); Andrew Neil (chairman)
Key show Black Ops (Discovery Military)
World Media Rights, the UK indie set up by ex-BBC News Online boss Alan Griffiths and former Sunday Times editor Andrew Neil, has developed a booming business selling high-end documentaries to US factual networks such as Discovery.
However, the company takes a different approach to many indies, developing shows internally before looking for pre-sale partners rather than commissioning broadcasters.
“We have an unusual business model,” says Griffiths. “The total budget of our shows is £150,000 per hour. We put in £50,000, then we go out and get pre-sales. I wander around the globe asking: ‘If we make it, will you buy it?’ It’s slightly more than an acquisition but less than a commission.”
Thanks to this strategy, it is able to produce more series – 44 to date, many with US partners – than it would otherwise have been able to.
Its latest hits include the 10 x 60-minute Mafia’s Greatest Hits and Black Ops, both of which were picked up by Discovery’s Military channel in the US. Griffiths says because US networks are able to accommodate large orders, such as Investigation Discovery’s 26 x 26-minute Killer Trials: Judgement Day, it is more financially viable. “Because they do long runs, it’s much more profitable.”
Griffiths says US factual channel operators such as Discovery, Nat Geo and A+E are starting to become the first choice home for projects because of the international scale of their operations. “Producers are going to take their best ideas to the big, international channels; terrestrials are not being pitched the best ideas.”
World Media Rights is now looking to produce more ancient-history docs and is aggressively developing serial killer films and war series. “The Second World War has come back in a big way,” he says.
Key personnel Dimitri Doganis (founder); Bart Layton (creative director)
Key shows Locked Up Abroad (Nat Geo); Gold Rush (Discovery)
The potential scale of the orders and the risks taken in the US are some of the most attractive elements for UK indies working there, according to Raw TV executives Bart Layton and Dimitri Doganis.
Raw TV has found success with Discovery’s Gold Rush, National Geographic series Locked Up Abroad and Syfy’s Paranormal Witness.
Doganis says the US and UK markets differ across the board, from development and pitching to marketing. “In the UK, there are a large number of producers and a smaller number of broadcasters. The journey to the US takes you from a buyers’ market to a sellers’ market.”
To date, all of Raw’s commissions have been with cable broadcasters. “The balance between US networks and cable channels is changing. The networks are much more interested in cable shows because they are losing share to them,” Doganis says.
“There is a huge difference between the terms of trade and standard agreements in the US,” Layton adds.
“There are benefits from doing business in the US, but it is much tougher from a rights point of view. One of the really exciting things about America is that they want to do big, longer-running series. It is not unusual for there to be an order of 20 hours or more – in the UK, that is incredibly rare. You may not get the same rights position, but in terms of scale, it is on a very different level, and that is very attractive.”
Layton and Doganis are building on their experiences to date and are discussing opportunities with networks for female-skewing content in particular. Programmes such as Discovery’s Amish Mafia and A&E’s Duck Dynasty indicate a trend towards blurring the lines between genres.
“I am not sure whether we would have shows like that before,” says Doganis. “It is scripted or reconstructed reality – a new genre for which there is an increasing appetite. It will be interesting to see how far that goes before there is a turn back to authentic factual programmes – there seems to be less concern about what is scripted or semi-scripted now.”
Key personnel Douglas Rae (chief executive); Robert Bernstein (head of drama)
Key shows Mistresses (ABC); Camelot (Starz)
Ecosse Films is one of the few UK drama indies that have managed to penetrate the US network system, after prod ucing ABC’s remake of British drama series Mistresses.
The company worked with ABC Studios to develop the Alyssa Milano fronted version of the series, which airs next month. It also produced period drama Camelot for Starz. The $50m series, a new take on Thomas Malory’s 15th century book that aired on Channel 4, was written by Broadchurch writer Chris Chibnall and starred Joseph Fiennes, Jamie Campbell Bower and Eva Green.
“There’s the old adage that the British are coming, but I think the point is that the British are here,” says Douglas Rae.
The company, which is also producing The Great Fire Of London for ITV and Fleming (w/t) for Sky Atlantic, has a number of high-profile projects in development. It is working with Guy Ritchie and Harry Potter producer Lionel Wigram on The Few, a series set during the Battle of Britain, The Dying Light, a four-part dystopian serial adapted from the novel by Henry Porter, and Taboo, a series about a Californian forensic investigator who moves to Dublin to hunt down a notorious serial killer.
Rae says that all of its television projects have a global audience in mind and it is currently looking to secure US and international partners.
For this, casting is key. “It’s hugely important, because of the scale and ambition that one takes on. You need to have one eye on casting,” he says. “You just have to look at the slate of American shows with British leads, from House to Homeland, which is very encouraging.” Next week, we get the lowdown from the US studios.
National Geographic has released a clip for their upcoming series The 80s: The Decade The Made Us, which is set to premiere in the UK on Sunday May 12th at 8pm.
The ’80s: The Decade That Made Us, which premiered in the United States to over 1 million viewers, takes a look at the history of our modern world that spawned political, technological, cultural and social revolutions that began in the United States and went on to dominate the world. We worked out, worked harder, played harder and consumed more — because the 1980s was the decade when we went forward to the future. Hailed by the LA Times as “great fun … and almost unbelievably thought-provoking,” this cultural programming event is about a decade of people, decisions and inventions that changed our future, told from the perspective of the unknowing history makers who lived these iconic moments.
National Geographic will air the latest factual series from Jane Root’s prodco Nutopia, The ’80s: The Decade that Made Us, in the UK next month, following a successful US debut.
The series will premiere in the UK on Sunday May 12 at 20.00 and looks at the cultural and scientific innovations that changed the world during the 1980s.
The six-hour series premiered in the US across three nights starting on Sunday April 14 at 20.00, attracting almost one million viewers. The figures for the Sunday night premiere were Nat Geo’s highest since the first episode of Killing Lincoln aired earlier this year.
Jane Root and Peter Lovering executive produce for Nutopia with Brooke Runnette filling the role for Nat Geo.
SHOWS:The 80’s: The Decade That Made Us
COMPANIES:National Geographic, Nutopia
April 13 was a very special anniversary for fans of primetime soaps. It was on that day, 30 years ago, that the catfight to end all TV catfights unfolded in a lily pond.
Yes, Krystal (Linda Evans) vs. Alexis (Joan Collins), the two “Dynasty” divas who had battled each other before, threw down in the greatest TV catfight ever, in an episode called “The Threat.” Plotting Alexis had just been disowned by her daughter Fallon, who, at the same time, had gotten closer to her stepmom, Krystal. Jealous Alexis began taunting Krystal about the baby she’d failed to adopt, and after calling Alexis a bee-yotch, Krystal lunged at her rival and sent both of them tumbling into the pond.
“The lily pond — it’s so funny, because it was so shallow,” Evans tells Yahoo! TV. “They had us fight on our knees, so that it looked more dangerous. We had knee pads on, and we just navigated the whole thing. Of course, I love to do stunts, because Barbara Stanwyck and I did them [on 'The Big Valley'], and it was a bonding thing for us. But Joan absolutely hates those kinds of things — fighting, physical fighting. She’s more of a verbal, love to tell you how things are person, and I’m more of a physical person. It worked a little better for me than it did for Joan.”
The catfights — which, as the show went on, would involve other characters — became such a hallmark of the series that bars would hold catfight nights, playing a compilation of the throwdowns on a loop, Evans says.
The lily pond fight, which the star says took a whole day to film, remains one of the most famous TV moments of the ’80s, with Krystal and Alexis rolling around, slapping, and punching each other in a gorgeous little lily pond, while both, of course, were fully attired in trademark “Dynasty” dresses, hair, makeup, and heels.
Evans, one of the famous faces who recalls her favorite moments of the 1980s in National Geographic Channel’s “The ’80s: The Decade That Made Us” miniseries, definitely counts wearing those “Dynasty” fashions among her favorite memories of the time.
“I would walk [around] Beverly Hills in the few moments that we would have off, and anything that I saw that I liked — Valentino, Christian Dior, Donna Karan, Ralph Lauren — I would go, ‘Can you send that to the studio, and that to the studio, [and] that to the studio?’” Evans says. “And the next day, I would walk in, and there they’d all be on a rack. Or Nolan Miller would come in and say, ‘If you don’t like any of those for the scene, what would you like? Tell me what kind of look you want. I’ll sketch something for you.’ Then he’d bring me fabric and furs and things. It was extraordinary.
“I remember as a kid having paper dolls that I loved. I would draw clothes for them and color them and cut them out and put them on. I thought, ‘This is the best thing in the world.’”
Bloomingdale’s sold a line of “Dynasty” fashions that included $10,000 fur coats and $1,000 dresses, modeled after the looks Krystal and Alexis wore on the ABC nighttime soap each week, and Evans also had a hand in creating a perfume — Forever Krystal — inspired by her character.
“They said, ‘We want you to be involved in creating a perfume for your character.’ They flew out a man from New York called ‘The Nose,’” she says. “The Nose, because he knew all these amazing scents, and he had thousands and thousands of different scents that we spent all day just smelling. I would choose everything I liked, then he came back months later, and he had put some of those together, and I would smell those. Then he would go back and then months later, he would come back. It was extraordinary to create with someone your own smell that you loved. It was phenomenal.”
The show’s fashion and pop culture influence aside, “Dynasty” was also one of the first TV dramas to center around not one, but two, not-20-something women as its stars, the actress points out.
“Aaron Spelling hired two women that were older. I was 40 when we did the show,” says Evans, who was half of another tough, smart, female duo when she played Stanwyck’s daughter on “The Big Valley.”
“Joan was older than I was. At that time on television, women were in their 20s. Aaron had the foresight to see that we, as women, could be older and could dress, and look, and act, and be powerful, and that was great. That was one of the best things that he did. I thanked him until the day he died for that, for having the vision to say that women who were not necessarily young could be in that place and be role models for other women.”
Evans looks back at her character and the show so fondly, in fact, that she doesn’t rule out a return to the Carrington fold.
“It wouldn’t be a reunion,” the Golden Globe winner and Emmy nominee says. “Probably, it would have to be a TV show like ‘Dallas,’ which has come back to viewers. It would depend on the show, and how they would present it. When you do something that’s like ‘Dynasty,’ you want to be certain that they hold the essence of what you’ve done. If they were able to re-create something very powerful and very important, of course I’d be interested.”
And does she think the years would have seen the Krystal-and-Alexis rivalry mellow?
“I think that it would be much more interesting if they’re still butting heads,” Evans laughs. “They wrote the show quite well, because they showed two different sides of women. I think that was very good for the show and very good for drama. It became part of what drew people to the show — the fact that we were so different, and that each one of us had a way of living our lives that appealed to different audiences. So I think it would be much more interesting if we kept up our little rivalry.”
One TV arena Evans, who won a celebrity version of Gordon Ramsay’s “Hell’s Kitchen” on British TV in 2009, does rule out: starring in another reality TV series.
“I’d have to say no to that. Only because reality TV … it’s one thing to do a cooking show, which was primetime in London, because it was surrounding food, which I love. It’s hard to ruin that, although they can create drama out of anything today,” Evans says. “But the requirements for a good reality show are too intense. I’m not fond of that much drama, even though we had it on ‘Dynasty.’ Today, they take it over the top. That’s not really of any interest to me.”
“The ’80s: The Decade That Changed Us” miniseries concludes Tuesday, 4/16 at 9 PM on the National Geographic Channel.
After an intense first round of judging for the upcoming 2013 Realscreen Awards – formerly known as the Realscreen Factual Entertainment Awards – we can now reveal the shortlisted programs advancing to the second, final round of judging.
The awards, which recognize the best in reality, documentary and factual entertainment programming from around the world, will be presented during a ceremony held at the Fairmont Miramar in Santa Monica on June 5, in conjunction with the upcoming Realscreen West conference, which takes place June 5 and 6.
BEST NON-FICTION: HISTORY/BIOGRAPHICAL
Mankind: The Story of All of Us
Produced by: Nutopia for History
Network: History (U.S.)
MLK: The Assassination Tapes
Produced by: 1895 Films
Network: Smithsonian Channel (U.S.)
The Men Who Built America
Produced by: Stephen David Entertainment in association with History
Network: History (U.S.)
We share an impulse to find joy in infant behavior. But taken to extremes, such pleasures can become infantile. That, in a nutshell, is both the appeal and the pitfall of the new game show “Bet On Your Baby” (8 p.m., ABC, TV-PG).
Like the old “Newlywed Game,” where the recently hitched won money and prizes based on correct answers to slightly naughty questions about their spouses, “Bet” asks proud parents to wager on the behavior of their barely toddling children. Can junior be coerced into spinning in a circle seven times in 20 seconds? Are you willing to lose money if he doesn’t?
Actress/comedian Melissa Peterman (“Reba”) is the host of this human variation on Animal Planet’s “Too Cute” (9 p.m. Saturday, TV-G). Folks who value the adorable above all will find this irresistible. Those who quibble at robbing children of their dignity and exhibiting them for cash will be appalled.
— In a perfect world, we’d get to comedian Louis C.K.’s thoughts on shows like “Bet On Your Baby.” The star of “Louie” on FX returns to the stage in the hourlong special “Louis C.K.: Oh My God” (10 p.m. Saturday, HBO), where he expands on thoughts far from cute. C.K. sets the tone in the opening seconds of his consistently funny, if downbeat, performance. When greeted with a warm bath of applause from his Phoenix audience, he tells them he appreciates it, but does not agree with their sentiments. He goes on to compliment his fans on the handsomeness of the arena, then qualifies that by saying that it’s the only interesting building “for miles around.” That, in a nutshell, is the essence of this deeply neurotic and introspective grump, whose bracing, dyspeptic honesty has made his show on FX the best comedy on television — if not the future of comedy on television.
— An impetuous cop teams up with a politically savvy district attorney to take down a professional creep in the made-for-television drama “Stalkers” (8 p.m. Saturday, Lifetime), starring Drea de Matteo (“The Sopranos”) and Mena Suvari (“American Beauty”).
— Rob Lowe narrates “The 80s: The Decade That Made Us” (8 p.m. Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, National Geographic), a six-part flashback to a formative period. The commentary surrounding the recent death of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher reminds us of some of the stark choices of the period, a time when leaders in both the United Kingdom and the United States began to enthusiastically extol the virtues of market forces and downplay or demonize the more distributive government actions of previous decades.
“80s” blends history with nostalgia, dredging up memories of Pac-Man and glasnost in nearly equal measure, emphasizing the changes in technology and the marketplace that still reverberate. “80s” also looks at other events and phenomena that defined the times: AIDS, hip-hop music, exotic televangelists and crack cocaine among them.
— HBO gives viewers a whole new season to learn to love the comedy “Veep” (10 p.m. Sunday, TV-MA). I’m not sure if it will work. “Veep” almost always amounts to less than the sum of its parts. Smartly written with a caustic sense of absurdity, “Veep” resounds with hostile zingers. Yet the same show frequently reduces Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ Vice President Selina Meyer to a lightweight simpleton better suited to sight gag humiliations than a script of this caliber. It never reaches the bilious brilliance of “In the Loop” or the effervescent silliness of “Parks and Recreation.”
Gary Cole guest-stars this season as Kent Davison, the president’s chief strategist and numbers cruncher, dubbed “the prince of pie charts” by jealous admirers. He tolerates Selina with bemused contempt, which may reflect the feelings of the audience.
— “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown” (9 p.m. Sunday, CNN) brings the host of “No Reservations” back on the road. Tonight: a trip to Myanmar. When not appearing on contrived cooking competitions, Bourdain makes for smart and engaging television. He’s intelligent and has a self-awareness about bad or boring entertainment. He also has opinions and is not afraid to share them. CNN is a little less bland just for his presence.
— NASCAR action (7 on Fox) in the NRA 500, live from Fort Worth, Texas.
— Tom’s ambitions may not be in the show’s best interests on “Smash” (9 on NBC, TV-14).
— A wayward Soviet sub puts mankind at risk on “Doctor Who” (8 on BBC America, TV-PG).
— Terrified by the cloning experiment, Sarah wants to take the money and run on “Orphan Black” (9 on BBC America, TV-MA).
— Scheduled on “48 Hours” (CBS): a murdered spouse (9 p.m.), deadly politics (10 p.m.).
— Scheduled on “The Nerdist” (10 on BBC America, TV-14): Jon Hamm, Betsy Brandt and Rory Scovel.
— Vince Vaughn hosts “Saturday Night Live” (11:30 on NBC, TV-14), featuring musical guest Miguel.
— Scheduled on “60 Minutes” (7 on CBS): Toronto Blue Jays knuckleballer R.A. Dickey; Marfa, Texas; the manhunt for Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony.
— A glance backward on “Once Upon a Time” (8 on ABC, TV-PG).
— Diane faces official scrutiny on “The Good Wife” (9 on CBS, TV-14).
— The 2013 MTV Movie Awards (9 p.m.) features Macklemore and Ryan Lewis and Selena Gomez.
— Tyrion’s burdens grow on “Game of Thrones” (9 on HBO, TV-MA).
— A bus accident fills the wards on the series premiere of “Nurse Jackie” (9 on Showtime, TV-MA).
— Marta wears a wire on “Red Widow” (10 on ABC, repeat, TV-14).
— Don quarrels with a client on “Mad Men” (10 on AMC, TV-14).
— Eddie’s deployment sparks a change in Caroline on “Army Wives” (9 on Lifetime, TV-PG).
— Ragnar’s crew rattles England’s elite on “Vikings” (10 on History Channel, TV-14).
— Vatican intrigue mounts as Pope Alexander clings to life on the season premiere of “The Borgias” (10 on Showtime, TV-MA).
A NASCAR racer (Will Ferrell) triumphs over adversity in the silly 2006 NASCAR sendup “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” (10:15 on TBS).
Yet another petty officer down on “NCIS” (8 on CBS, repeat, TV-14) … A detective is trapped in a fairy tale nightmare on “Grimm” (8 on NBC, repeat, TV-14) … “Saturday Night Live” (10 on NBC, repeat, TV-14) … Vigilante injustice on “Body of Proof” (10 on ABC, repeat, TV-14).
Swiss cheese on “The Amazing Race” (8 on CBS, TV-PG) … “The Voice” (8 on NBC, repeat, TV-PG) … Milhouse channels Brando on “The Simpsons” (8 on Fox, TV-PG) … Game show madness on “Bob’s Burgers” (8:30 on Fox, TV-PG).
Promotional materials on “All-Star Celebrity Apprentice” (9 on NBC, TV-PG) … Peter breaks out on “Family Guy” (9 on Fox, TV-14) … A Labor Day tradition on “Revenge” (9 on ABC, repeat, TV-PG) … Francine tries to excite Stan on “American Dad” (9:30 on Fox, TV-14) … Death in the fake Wild West on “The Mentalist” (10 on CBS, TV-14).
Kevin McDonough can be reached at email@example.com.
The six-hour, three-part documentary ‘The ’80s: The Decade That Made Us’ on National Geographic reveals just how significant those years turned out to be — leg warmers and all.
By Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times Television Critic
It’s so easy to make fun of the 1980s.
Ray-Bans, glam-rock hair, acid-washed jeans, the yuppie and Reaganomics, and all those regrettable images of women in power suits and tennis shoes. It seemed even as it was occurring an age of Culture Lite, a consumer-driven wasteland after the socially and politically transformative ’60s and ’70s.
Even the title of National Geographic’s new six-hour, three-part documentary “The ’80s: The Decade That Made Us” seems, at first glance, a bit of a joke. Really? Made us what? Proud owners of multiple pairs of leg warmers? Permanently imprinted with the lyrics to “Goody Two Shoes?”
But I’m here to tell you, as one who came of age in the 1980s, the filmmakers have a very good point. And despite some mildly unfortunate transitional graphic choices, they absolutely make it stick.
While everyone was wondering who shot J.R., the 1980s countered the counterculture with something just as significant — individualistic populism. The cellphone, the computer, the VCR and the cable news channel all came of age in the 1980s.
Not only did these new gadgets spawn all the marvels and meshugas we now lump under the term “digital technology,” they ensured the mass production of American culture itself, creating an entirely new sort of entrepreneur — the zeitgeist wrangler. Jane Fonda discovered aerobics and soon the rest of us were crunching and shopping for ankle weights.
Tony Hawk re-imagined skateboarding and soon kids were slipping how-to tapes into their VCRs and irritating park officials across the country. Steve Jobs argued that computers were the future of communication and soon everybody had one. An assassination attempt not only cemented Ronald Reagan‘s reputation for wit and resilience — it also gave birth to CNN. The invention of the Walkman may have kick-started an ethos of individualism, but it only worked because everybody was doing it too.
Based in part on David Sirota’s book “Back to Our Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live in Now,” “The ’80s” is narrated by Rob Lowe, former Brat Packer, videotape sex scandal survivor and something of an ’80s poster boy. It uses the U.S.A.’s surprising defeat of the U.S.S.R. in the men’s hockey finals of the 1980 Olympics as a jumping-off point.
Mired in unemployment, inflation and unrelenting violence in the Mideast, the United States needed a shot in the arm and the defeat of a country still seen as our arch-nemesis in a sport it long-dominated provided just that. The election of Ronald Reagan, with his optimistic nationalism and belief in the restorative power of the free market, allowed some people to make a lot of money fast, which created a climate of swagger and possibility.
“Greed is good,” said “Wall Street’s” Gordon Gekko, summing up for many the decade’s inherent flaws, but that wasn’t until 1987. The early years promised a more conjugal relationship between eras and ideologies — Ben & Jerry’s mixed premium product with hippie idealism, “Family Ties” lovingly mocked both the activism of the parents and the conservatism of the son.
Michael J. Fox, who starred in “Family Ties,” shows up a lot in the first two episodes of “The ’80s” — his “Back to the Future” films are also icons of the time. He’s also one of a panoply of “expert” interviews (and a welcome reminder that a sex/drugs/celebrity-fueled face-plant was not literally required for young performers of the time.) Other voices include David Brooks, Tom Brokaw, Barbara Ehrenreich and the late, great Larry Hagman (reason enough to watch) stitching us through time event by event.
Six hours is not enough to cover 10 years, especially if you’re going to devote endless minutes to the creation of the first Calvin Klein male underwear ad (duly noted: it was hot), but “The ’80s” manages to be great fun — forgive us, Lord, for wasting endless hours of human potential on the Rubik’s Cube — and almost unbelievably thought-provoking.
So many hours of television have been devoted to deconstructing the significance of the ’60s and ’70s that at first it’s just a relief to not have to relive Kent State. But as “The ’80s” moves on, its premise becomes more convincing. A relief, too, for those of us who will still dance in public to A-Ha’s “Take on Me” to finally put down our tools of cultural self-flagellation.
Flower power has come and gone, but the 24-hour news cycle, the workout ethic and the computer screen are here to stay. And heaven help us, leg warmers are back.
‘The 80s: The Decade That Made Us’
When: Premiered Sunday; 9 and 10 p.m. Monday and Tuesday
Rating: TV-14-DLV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for suggestive dialogue, coarse language and violence)