US CABLE: The former exec producer of Dexter is producing a new drama featuring an equally ambiguous character, this time a woman. But will it work on broadcast TV? Ed Waller reports.
Melissa Rosenberg is a risk-taking screenwriter who creates somewhat controversial, morally ambiguous characters who inhabit the grey area between good and bad.
She did it with the Twilight movie franchise; she did it with Showtime drama Dexter, everyone’s favourite serial killer; and she’s doing it again with her latest project Red Widow, an eight-part adaptation of Dutch hit Penoza. Produced by ABC Studios and Endemol Studios, the US version is set to air on ABC in 2013, and is expected to push the envelope somewhat, in terms of how good guys, especially female good guys, are portrayed on broadcast TV.
As Rosenberg says: “Network television has traditionally been about good guys and bad guys. There’s a case and they solve it. This show is much more complex.”
Both the original, produced by Endemol-owned NL Film for KRO/Ned-3, and the US series follow a housewife who discovers the criminal secret life of her murdered husband, and she is forced into his world in order to protect herself and her children. In the ABC show, the female protagonist is played by Radha Mitchell (Phone Booth, Pitch Black).
“The Dutch series had more of a languid pace and was beautifully done. But I ended up condensing a number of Dutch episodes into the Red Widow pilot. It’s a different animal but still captures the story of the original series,” says Rosenberg.
Since opening her own company Tall Girls Productions, Rosenberg has tried “to create strong, complex roles for women,” she says, in an effort to match the increasing complexity of roles for men in dramas like The Shield, Sons of Anarchy, Breaking Bad and, of course, Dexter.
“Over the course of the past decade, male characters have been able to go further into the anti-hero role. Recently, it has started to happen that female characters can step into that territory too,” Rosenberg adds, perhaps thinking of the female leads in Weeds, Nurse Jackie and Homeland.
“It is now becoming more possible for women to play characters who are not simply the noble wife or the slutty mistress. They’re now able to play complex, dark, flawed characters. Traditionally, women haven’t really been given the opportunity to play characters like that.”
The storyline of Red Widow, Rosenberg continues, is “about kick-ass women. That’s what I want to write about: kick-ass women, in whatever capacity that is, whether it’s literally – physically kicking ass – or doing it in the boardroom or in the family room.”
Rosenberg is certainly drawing on her experience with Dexter, where she was head writer and subsequently exec producer between 2006 and 2009. “Dexter is an interesting model. Dexter and Red Widow share the fact that the lead characters both come from very dark pasts and those pasts tend to creep up on them. But one is a psychopath and the other is a normal woman. She’s not a serial killer but she’s doing things the average American mom would never do.”
Morally ambiguous female characters with dark pasts have certainly worked well on cable, where all the examples mentioned so far are broadcast, but will they survive the leap to mainstream broadcast TV?
Having such a protagonist is obviously risky, considering the expectations of the intended ABC demographic. Rosenberg, however, says Red Widow will appeal to both male and female viewers. “It’s interesting that Red Widow has been testing very well among men and women, almost equally. On one hand, it’s about a mother; as a family drama, it’s about a woman’s struggle to protect her family. We’re going to watch this character over the course of the series become more and more empowered, and that attracts women. Yet, there is a suspense thriller element to it. There is action, the Russian Mafia, crime and blood. That’s a combination that attracts men. So hopefully it will become appointment viewing for both men and women.”
Regarding her show’s diversion from typical network fare, Rosenberg explains: “When I saw the original Penoza, I couldn’t imagine how it could be on network television in America, it was so much more a cable show. But this is a direction [ABC president of entertainment] Paul Lee wants to go in: grounded, classy, cable-esque drama.
“Red Widow certainly has a cable feel to it, in that there’s a moral woman caught in the middle of a very immoral world. It’s not a black or white situation, there are many shades of grey. That’s the challenge as well. You have to bring the audience along with a character who is making mistakes, making wrong choices and doing morally questionable things. It’s definitely a 10 o’clock show, as we don’t want to soften the edges and 10pm gives you more permission to do that.”
The fact that ABC has picked up Red Widow for next season, not to mention Fox’s green light for The Mob Doctor, another drama about a moral woman dragged into the criminal underworld, reflects big changes in broadcast TV, says Rosenberg.
“What I’m noticing is that broadcast shows are taking more risks; they have to because cable is competing with network now. Cable always has to take those risks but broadcast audiences are now becoming more demanding. We, as writers, creators, programmers and studios, are stepping up to the plate and finally providing these characters. We’ve all wanted to do it for many, many years, so I’m glad I finally get the opportunity.”
Last season, period drama was another trend that bubbled up from cable to broadcast TV, with shows like Pan Am and Playboy Club hoping to emulate Mad Men. They were shot down by critics and unwatched by audiences, perhaps because they depicted women as simply trolley dollies and bunny girls.
Maybe broadcast audiences next season will prefer their female leads as gun-totin’ kick-ass housewives?