DAVID BIANCULLI

Founder / Editor

ERIC GOULD

Associate Editor

LINDA DONOVAN

Assistant Editor

Contributors

ALEX STRACHAN

MIKE HUGHES

KIM AKASS

MONIQUE NAZARETH

ROGER CATLIN

GARY EDGERTON

TOM BRINKMOELLER

GERALD JORDAN

NOEL HOLSTON

 
 
 
 
 
RomaFictionFest: Keeping Scripted Television Alive, Part I
July 14, 2009  | By David Bianculli
 

burying-brian.jpgTonight on the five commercial broadcast networks, there are a total of 14 hours of prime-time programming. Only four of them are scripted, and only one 30-minute program, ABC's Better Off Ted, is not a rerun. That's why last week's RomaFictionFest, in which TV writers, producers and executives from around the globe gathered to nurture the future of scripted programming, is such a big deal. If quality scripted television is an endangered species, RomaFictionFest is a renewing, encouraging greenhouse...

Basically, there are two levels to the festival. One is a nightly series of screenings, open to the public and presented on various theaters throughout Rome, showing current and upcoming scripted shows from around the world. The other is a daily series of pitch meetings, set in an auditorium and offering simultaneous translation through headphones, like a miniature United Nations.

International TV creators describe their ideas for their next projects, and seek funding or production partners from the executives in attendance. In the past two years of this festival's existence, pitches have resulted in partnerships, and partnerships in programs. The director of RomaTV Pitching, Canadian producer Pat Ferns, pushes attendees for their opinions and, when possible, for some commitments, or to schedule some meetings.

I attended as a newly invited member of the International Advisory Board, and loved it. I loved attending the screenings, both for the all-access pass my badge provided me and for the high quality of the stuff shown. I also was blown away by many of the pitch presentations over the three days, and took notes on several fledgling productions that, if and when they come to pass, surely will qualify as TV Worth Watching.

Today, I'll describe the best programs from the screenings I attended. Tomorrow, I'll describe the best pitches. Here goes...

LAW AND ORDER U.K. -- Maybe it's because I've been so consumed by my Smothers Brothers book, but I had no idea this NBC series had crossed the pond. Instead of walking the streets of New York, the inspectors and prosecutors of this international entry in the Law & Order franchise walk a different set of mean streets. The episode I saw, for example, took place in London, with the British police pursuing their leads as the Tower Bridge loomed in the background.

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Does the show translate to the United Kingdom? Perfectly, and effortlessly. Except for the fact that the attorneys and judges wear powdered wigs and red robes, it's the same show, based on adapted versions of the same scripts. Stars include Jamie Bamber (Apollo on Battlestar Galactica) and Freema Agyeman (from Doctor Who and Little Dorrit, both seen stateside), and the episode I saw was based on a third-season Law & Order script, in which a sadistic gynecologist takes advantage of his patients -- including Agyeman's assistant prosecuting attorney. TNT or BBC America, or some other cable network, should import this series immediately. I suspect all hard-core L&O fans would devour it.

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UNDERBELLY -- This Australian production, based on the history of organized crime in Melbourne, plays like a Down Under cross between Martin Scorsese's Casino and Paul Haggis' EZ Streets. We spend equal time with criminals and cops, and the fact-based plots are as twisted as the characters. It's a fast-paced, sexy, violent, funny whirlwind of a crime drama. And while it's wholly engrossing as is, news from the festival is that a deal is imminent for a new production, for American TV, overseen by just the sort of U.S. director you'd love to see tackle a story like this.

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BURYING BRIAN -- This New Zealand miniseries is a mature comedy-drama about four mature yet lovely women who bond together when one of them accidentally kills her husband. (Their picture leads this column above.) It's like Desperate Housewives, if one of the gals needed a little help from her friends to stay out of jail -- and it's every bit as sassy, and funny, as Housewives. Again, it holds up perfectly as is, but an American adaptation of this script, cast with the right four ladies, could be a big asset for Lifetime, USA, AMC or elsewhere.

DARWIN'S BRAVE NEW WORLD -- The festival makes room for documentaries (I'm not sure why, since it's called a FictionFest), and one of the best of them this year is a multipart series, an Australian/Canadian co-production, that's a docudrama stressing the reenactment elements. The draw is the detail of Darwin's life, and how, when he finally reveals the outline of his heretical theory of evolution to a scientific colleague, he nervously admits, "This is rather like confessing to a murder."

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Fabulous photography of creatures encountered during Darwin's many voyages makes this a must-see miniseries for nature lovers, and the natural drama (so to speak) of Darwin's life should satisfy any lover of period stories. This one doesn't need to be remade -- merely imported. Animal Planet and Discovery Channel are two obvious places to start.

GUANTANAMO: INSIDE THE WIRE -- This British dcumentary is a natural fit for the PBS series P.O.V., which ought to import and present it intact. In 2001, journalist Yvonne Ridley went to Pakistan, donning a burka to investigate conditions there, and was captured by the Taliban.

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For 10 days, she faced death, then was freed. Six years later, she and young British writer-producer-director David Miller got the approval to go to Guantanamo Bay -- where the oppressive media restrictions, as well as what she witnessed there, made Ridley upset, angry, frightened, sad, and other things perfect for a P.O.V. assessment of conditions at that top-secret U.S. prison facility in Cuba.

Even though what we CAN'T see is revealing, Inside the Wire does reveal a lot: about the depth and machinations of the on-site censorship, about the contents and distribution of books in the prison library, and more than one astonishing fact. For example: Musical torture was used as one of the methods to break down prisoners, and the music used was from Barney the purple dinosaur. Surely, Barney should be outlawed by the Geneva Convention. I always thought so, even here in the States...

 
 
 
 
 
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