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Girl power the dominant force at Series Mania

SERIES MANIA: Bucking accepted norms and content conventions, female-fronted shows and drama projects from surprising territories are being celebrated at Series Mania.

Helena Bonham Carter as Noele Gordon in Nolly

Traditional testosterone-fuelled, male-dominated TV shows so beloved by producers in the Western world could soon be taking a back seat, judging by the tentpole content showcased at this year’s Series Mania.

A large percentage of new TV series receiving international and world premieres at the festival in Lille feature actresses in lead roles or female-dominated ensemble casts.

Other themes emerging from the selected titles include a high proportion of projects from unexpected territories – with filmmakers from Greece, Pakistan, Benin, Uruguay and Iran all represented – plus multiple youth- and young adult (YA)-skewing dramas, as well as content that riffs on societal debates such as ethical, environmental and political issues.

The girl power trend is prevalent in two projects from the UK. Nolly is a three-part miniseries from Nicola Shindler’s Quay Street Productions and Russell T Davies (It’s a Sin, Doctor Who) for streamer ITVX. Based on real events, it stars Helena Bonham Carter as feisty, no-nonsense actress Noele Gordon, the star of British soap opera Crossroads who hit the headlines in 1981 when she was controversially sacked by her bosses.

The other UK project is Funny Woman, a 6×60’ adaptation of Nick Hornby’s novel Funny Girl. Produced for SkyShowtime by Potboiler Television and Rebel Park Productions, the 1960s period piece stars Gemma Arterton as a young woman who is inspired by the feminist movement of the era to revolutionise the world of TV sitcoms.

Meanwhile, female icons don’t come much more iconic than French sex symbol Brigitte Bardot, who is played by newcomer Julia de Nunez in Federation Studios-produced biographical drama Bardot. The 6×52’ series for France 2 details Bardot’s romance with director Roger Vadim, her movie career and how she eventually became a spokeswoman for sexual liberation.

1960s-set Funny Woman stars Gemma Arterton

Offbeat political comedy Under Control (6×30′, Ex Nihilo and Arte France for Arte) follows a woman who is having a hellish first day in her new job as minister of foreign affairs, after five Europeans are taken hostage in the Sahel region of Africa. French star Léa Drucker (War of the Worlds) plays the lead.

Spanish comedy Fleeting Lies (8×30’, El Deso and Paramount for Paramount+), meanwhile, is about the obsession with looks, image and success at a beauty tech company. Elena Anaya (Wonder Woman) plays a character who, just after being promoted to the role of CEO, is accused of industrial espionage and sacked.

In empowering, life-affirming drama Six Women (6×52’, Habanita Federation for TF1), the half-dozen titular characters, affected by cancer, embark on a hike together to summit the 4,000-metre-high Dome de la Lauze. Their jubilant ascent becomes a voyage of self-discovery and a quest to battle their inner demons.

Rounding off the girl power theme, 5×20’ LGBTQ+ romance Split (Cineteve for France.TV Slash) tells the story of a stunt performer who falls in love with the actress for whom she doubles on the set of her latest movie.

Creatives from 24 nationalities are represented among the 54 series being showcased at Series Mania. The recent market shift towards non-English-language content has already produced great programming from territories such as the Nordics, France, South Korea, Spain and Spanish-speaking Latin America. However, the Series Mania premiere selections broaden out this pan-global diversification yet further.

Fantasy drama Barzakh (Limboland)

Barzakh (Limboland), for example, is a 6×58’ fantasy drama that brings together filmmakers from India and Pakistan and is shot in Karachi and the landscapes of the Hunza Valley. Produced by Zindagi and Nuwave, it’s a mystical show about the wealthy 76-year-old head of a hotel complex in the Land of Nowhere, who invites his children to his third marriage – but events from the past could spoil the family reunion.

The only African series presented at Series Mania this year is Black Santiago Club, originating from Benin, Senegal and France. The 8×52’ musical thriller (from Keewu Productions for Canal+) focuses on a live music venue in the port city of Cotonou, Benin, where Afrobeat pioneers Black Santiago performed regularly. When a promoter aims to bulldoze the club to make way for a marina complex, a family of eccentric musicians join forces to thwart his plans.

Series Mania’s world tour continues in the Uruguayan capital of Montevideo, where The Universe Conspires is set. Part of Series Mania’s Short Formats Competition, this 8×15’ romantic drama takes place during a gay pride march in the city and features a group of young people trying to find their way in life and love. It’s produced by Manso Films, Ouroboros Films and UN3TV for UN3.

Producer HA International’s suspense show The Actor is the first Iranian series selected in the International Competition. This 26×52’ project is about two brilliant but unemployed comedians waiting for their big break, who use their acting skills in surprising ways. However, things go awry when the two friends come to the attention of a mysterious agency.

Concluding this journey around the globe, we next land in the remote mountains of Greece, the setting for 8×55’ YA drama Milky Way (Foss Productions for Greek network Mega TV). The poetic series is a touching rite-of-passage reflection on friendship and adolescence, focusing on an aspiring dancer whose ambitions are threatened by an unwanted pregnancy.

Black Santiago Club comes from Benin, Senegal and France

In a world blighted by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic, political division and economic depression, it’s hardly surprising that contemporary filmmakers are creating content that reflects the uncertainty and paranoia that surrounds us all.

Many of the shows premiering at Series Mania this year confront important societal debates, be they related to personal ethics, politics or nature and the environment.

Set in the near future, The Fortress (Maipo Film for Viaplay) is a 7×45’ series that questions the topical issue of migration, along with the depletion of natural resources. Starring Russell Tovey (Years & Years), the show unfolds in Norway, where the government has decided to cut itself off from the rest of the world by building a gigantic wall. The nation’s population flourish in blissful isolation, but when a deadly epidemic hits, they find themselves trapped behind a barrier that was supposed to protect them.

Impending ecological disaster is at the heart of 8×45’ thriller The Swarm, a German/Belgian project from Schwarm TV Production for France Télévisions, ZDF, Rai, SRF, Viaplay and Hulu Japan. Based on Frank Schatzing’s novel Abysses, it stars Cecile de France in a creepy tale of a mysterious elemental force that uses sea creatures to declare war against humanity after years of environmental neglect and pollution. As society crumbles, a team of scientists must uncover the true nature of the attacks before it’s too late.

More personal crises are also a recurring theme at this year’s festival, with the aforementioned Milky Way tackling teen pregnancy in a conservative community. Much-anticipated Israeli drama A Body That Works, meanwhile, is an intelligent and nuanced portrait of surrogate mothers and their sponsors. Made by Kuma Studios for Israel’s Keshet 12, the 8×52’ drama stars Rotem Sala and Yehuda Levi as a childless couple embarking on an emotional journey towards parenthood.

In The Swarm, humankind faces an unknown enemy with swarm intelligence

Finally, perhaps inspired by the success of Stranger Things and The Addams Family spin-off Wednesday, both for Netflix, youth-skewing content about kids and teenagers is very much in vogue. YA fantasy The Power (10×60’), from producers Sister and Amazon Studios for Prime Video, depicts a world in which teenage girls suddenly develop the power to electrocute people at will. Set in London, Seattle, Nigeria and Moldova, the series sees a cast of up-and-coming youngsters sharing screen time with adult co-stars Toni Collette and John Leguizamo.

South Korean YA series Duty After School (10×60’), meanwhile, is adapted from a webtoon and mixes teen drama with sci-fi and military elements. Made by Dragon Studio and GTist for streamer TVING, the show follows what happens when the Korean army decides to enlist all the country’s high-school students to take up arms in the first war against extraterrestrial forces.

In the Short Formats Competition, One of the Boys is a 4×15’ romantic drama from Apple Tree Productions for Viaplay. It revolves around two teenage boys from a small town in Denmark who grow attracted to each other while taking part in a series of boys-to-men initiation challenges.

Also from Denmark, YA thriller Nordland ’99 (7×25’, by Nevis Productions for DR) focuses on a group of teenage friends who hang out and party to escape the boredom of their suburban town. But when one of them goes missing, the rest team up to solve the mystery of his disappearance.

With a packed programme of premieres encompassing content from every genre and territory imaginable, Series Mania appears to have something for everyone.