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Integrating The Idea: The Starz & AMC Winter 2010 TCA Press Tour – Feature

Cable intregation is always intropolated by those with the most cause. The key is maintaining a certain conflagration of material without flooding the market. The cable landscape continues to widen with the permutation of new entries into the crowded landscape, some old and some new with Starz and AMC leading the pack.

Starz, with the inclusion of former HBO head Chris Albrecht, continues to up its ante to become a major player in the pay cable space, taking chances necessary to ensure its ensuing success.

Albrecht admits that he has come into this new situation while it is all in process but definitively calls it “a rewarding opportunity”. He agrees that “necessary alchemy” is needed to create a “winning formula”. He says that people always used to ask him when the turning point was at HBO in terms of its success. The reality, he says, was when people were calling him to do projects and not the other way around. He is hoping that will be the same standard in time at Starz. He wants to be the outlay where people will want to come pitch to them.

He says the plan before he joined Starz in terms of the direction of the network was to have an hour of programming 52 weeks a year. He believes though that series are an integrally important part of what they need to do, more than specials or anything else. He brings the parallel that when he started at HBO, it was just the four broadcast networks and them. The integrated Netflix deal that they have will hopefully show some financial benefit. He admits though that it was a complex deal and a controversial one at that but hopefully it will show fruition.

Peter Guber and Peter Bart, best known for their industry changing experience as heads of studio as well as their acclaimed AMC show, bring their signature comments to their new show “In The House” on Encore. Bart , for his angle, says that he hopes to maintain the level of quality they have achieved in the past. Guber mirrors this statement saying “this is not our first rodeo” augmenting their intimate knowledge of the industry. For him, it is not about the first question but the second and third which “keeps the silos burning”.

Party Down“, the comedy set in the world of event catering, comes back with verve into the second season. John Enborn, one of the exec producers (who also contributes to alot of the writing), says that co-producer Paul Rudd really helped land them some casting “gets” this season. He seems particularly fond of them doing the 50th Birthday Party of Steve Guttenberg in the style of “Eyes Wide Shut”. Megan Mullally, who is gaining traction on “Parks & Recreation”  as well,  jumps in with the fact that “my character accidently snorts cocaine” during their adventures. Not one to be undone, Adam Scott, the series lead, makes the point that, now as a producer on the show, he has the means to fire himself. His character, in its evolution, has a lot of balls in the air but is trying to keep his life together. His crowning achievement though was being able to wear shorts in an episode stating “I fought for it!”.

Gravity” is a new entry in the Starz lexicon taking the interesting approach of an outpatient group for suicide survivors made up of an eccentric group of individuals. Eric Schaeffer, known for his films such as “If Lucy Fell”, serves as creator of the series. For him, the draw was that, he says, everybody identifies with a dark side in their lives whether it is “eating too much…spending too much…fucking too much”. He says that in terms of what makes a certain story works is a mystery but that his intention is to make “Gravity” a wide and inclusive show but also to balance and not “send up” this heavy subject matter.

Starz’s ace out of the gate looks to be “Spartacus: Blood & Sand“, a sandals epic that doesn’t spare on the sex and violence. Starring Andy Whitefield as the title character with a support cast that includes Lucy Lawless (“Xena”) and John Hannah (“The Mummy”), the delicious irony infuses the idea. Lawless says “the fighting and technology” in making the show “is foreign to me” but says “eventually you get used to it”. For her character, who is the wife of the owner of a gladiator school, “the slaves become an extension of their right hand”. In terms of the nudity required, since certain customs were a way of life in Roman times, she says “the first two times I was terribly nervous” but says she “could not hope for a better partner than John [Hannah]”. She did say “there had to be a protocol” and that “there is never skin-on-skin contact”. Hannah, for his part, says that the sex scenes are as physically composed as one would expect. He calls it “a bit embarrassing” but says “to get coy about such things would be a tragedy”.

Creator/Exec Producer Steven S. DeKnight, formerly an exec on “Angel” and “Smallville”, says that in terms of casting their title character. they did an extensive search. Whitfield came in and audition and “just felt like the part”. In terms of the physicality, he jokes: “Who doesn’t likes sex?” saying that “back in Roman times, it was a different thought” because it “was the Pre-Christian elements” and more “about the sensuality of the human experience”. He calls the scenes “very well shot” and “not pornographic in any way”. The scenes, he says, “come from power” because it all about “power, love and loss”. He follows that saying that “sex and violence goes together like blood and chocolate”. The violence, he admits, is more operatic and the blood is more stylized. His final thought rests in that “without getting into detail, there is alot of bits and pieces that people don’t know”.

Executive Producer Rob Tappert, who is also married to series co-star Lucy Lawless in addition to being an exec formerly on “Xena” and “The Evil Dead” films for co-producer Sam Raimi, says that “you have to change to keep up with the times”. He explains that “the audience will now accept a more stylized world” which contributed to the “reason to do this series”.

Star Andy Whitfield, who plays Spartacus, says that this character and his journey mirrors the character’s interaction with women balanced with the fight. He describes the preparation as “brutal” saying “the first days after I got the gig, he was in gladiator boot camp in New Zealand”. His focus, he said, became “on the next moment…the next beat”.

AMC, by comparison, has their function in full gear with the Emmy & Globe winning “Mad Men” running at full speed despite a staggered production schedule. The true gem this year extended from “Breaking Bad” and its impressive run heading into its fury ridden third season.

Emmy Winner Bryan Cranston, along with the cast and part of the creative team, newly flown in from the set in Albuquerque, says that, in terms of the story, they are reading the stories and feeling the same impact. He says that the cast talks to each other speaking of “the anticipation of what is about to happen”. He admits that he is starting to accept the complete metamorphisis of Walter saying that it is one of the most compelling things he finds about the journey. He says creator Vince Gilligan calls it “turning Mr. Chips into Scarface” which, according to that thought, will change his character completely by the end of the series in comparison to where he was in the pilot. Cranston adds that “this is the best intention for someone not to go someplace” but “it is really interesting to see the refrain”. He said he once asked a real guy how he has does it to which the man said “trust no bitches”. In terms of where the series is going, Cranston says that they were leading towards a mid-air collision but “once again the brilliance is that [the story guys] write themselves into it”. In terms of his character’s relationship to Jesse, his partner in crime, Cranston says that “Jesse is a hurt puppy who does stupid things” but that inherently “our characters have a need for each other”.

Aaron Paul, who plays Jesse, finds his character “kind of endearing” calling him “the lost kid you want to help out”. He calls the new season “one of change”. Last season, Paul says, ends with Jesse feeling 100% guilty for the death of Jane but admits that it might have been “a chemical romance”. Jesse responds by making “an executive decision” and throwing himself in rehab. Anna Gunn, who plays Walter’s wife Skyler, says that her character now has to be about balance because she “knows something”. To Gunn, “Walter seems like the everyman” and to him, “Skyler is the everywoman.” Bob Odinkirk, who plays slippery lawyer Saul Goodman this season, calls his new role “a funny slipperly character to play” especially in a series “with characters who have high stakes all the time”.

Vince Gilligan, the mastermind behind the show, calls “Breaking Bad” “definitely grounded in truth”. The key is to remember where they started but also keep it as real as possible taking into account the “ups and downs” of every character, especially Walter. He admits that Saul Goodman wasn’t going to be as big as a character as he turned out to be this season. He calls Saul Walter’s low price consigliere. With “Breaking Bad”, he says that there is a Godfather as well as a Sergio Leone influence…one specifically that reflects “unintended consequence”. This season, he sees Walt as “Dr. Frankenstein” while Jesse more and more becomes “the moral center of the show”.

Taking these two cablers into account, the diversity could not be more spread. Starz is looking to find its center trying a crossection of shows with “Spartacus” the most likely standout while AMC takes track of what it knows no overemphasizing but secure in the stride of “Breaking Bad”

Spartacus: Blood & Sand – Starz – Advance TV Review

The essence of “Spartacus” lies in the tome of pride versus death and the intent to overcome. Now the essence of how much the series “Blood & Sand” owes to the original intent or “Gladiator” or vice versa remains to be seen. There are, of course, inherent similarities but many stories of this time were. Over the arc of four episodes, the motivations of Spartacus himself remain unchanged but his life is requisitely humbled. The idea of who the Gladiators themselves are is defined in rather uncertain terms which undeniably gives them room to grow.

The choice of John Hanna (of “The Mummy”) and Lucy Lawless (recently of “Battlestar Galactica” as well as “Xena”) as central characters gives a portal into the life of a politically ascending but hopelessly middle managed couple. The way they deal with life is meant to show the norm of the day. The hardest aspect to do (especially with some of the dialogue [which is not bad but at times overstated]) is to make the angle of the series seem grounded, despite the overarching intention of blood which is splayed in a mix with John Woo and the undeniable “300”. What the Lawless and Hanna bring to the production seems to accomplish this. The violence they peddle is simply an extension of the lifestyle.

While these battles at times are interesting to behold, their initial blast seemed a little bit low rent. However upon the viewing of the subsequent episodes, the FX found a nice balance. The sexuality and nudity which at times so far has been villified in the press is very present part of the show but, in every way, seems to enhance it, not because of its egregiousness but because of its way of life presentation that was indicative of the Roman Empire. That society worked in a different way and with a different set of rules than the more conservative 21st century. The only way to capture it is on pay television where the gloves can be taken off. It is all a means to the end and speaks to the dichotomy. In fact it is all these relationships which surround the basic story of Spartacus fighting for his sanity that give the series balance. Now this is no “Rome” to be fair but it is angling for a much different audience and to that point it is adequately succeeds. Out of 5, I give “Spartacus: Blood & Sand” a 3.

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