The Emmys show what it takes to make great TV drama go global

The Fargo production team hold the Emmy for outstanding miniseries during the 66th annual Primetime Emmy Awards in Los Angeles. EPA/ Paul Buck

The American TV drama Fargo (2014-) was today awarded the gong for outstanding miniseries at the 2014 Emmy Awards and top-shelf TV productions are basking in the recognition, with a few shows – Fargo, True Detective, Breaking Bad, House of Cards, The Good Wife – dominating the nominations and awards. Do these wins herald a new era for top-quality television worldwide and, if so, what lessons can Australian TV producers learn?

Fargo is one of a number of US TV productions that seems to stand head and shoulders above its international competition – and they are being recognised at the Emmys. Aaron Paul won the Emmy for best supporting actor in Breaking Bad (2008-13). Julianna Marguilies’ performance in The Good Wife (2009-) scored her the Emmy for best actress in a drama.

Based on the Coen brothers film of the same name, Fargo features big-name actors including Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Freeman and Alison Tolman – and tremendously high production values. Fans love it: user ratings on the website IMDB have awarded the series a score of 9.1 out of 10.

Woody Harrelson was nominated for Best Actor in a Drama Series for his role in True Detective. EPA/ Paul Buck

Fargo has great writers too. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Thornton signed on to the project “because it was so well written”. An Oscar winner, Thornton can pick and choose from feature film roles, but obviously relishes the creative freedoms that quality TV can bring. Fargo didn’t make the cut for nominees for the category of outstanding writing. That award was won by Moira Walley-Beckett for her work on Breaking Bad.

Like Thornton, the stars of True Detective (2014-), Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, are both acclaimed film actors (and both received Emmy nominations). It was previously impossible to tie down actors of this calibre for a ten-episode TV run. Something has changed.

Just as good as the cinema

Chris Oliver-Taylor, managing director of Matchbox Pictures in Australia, was reported as saying at the Edinburgh International TV Festival over the weekend that television drama must now compete with cinema in depth and quality of the story.

He pointed to the number of Australian TV programs being remade in the US such as Please Like Me (2013-), The Slap (2011-), and Wilfred (2011) as evidence of that trend. Good stories get told again and again.

He added that Australian TV producers need to work internationally in order to secure finance. Quality TV needs international distribution – and stories need to resonate with international audiences.

In this regard there is still a chasm between the very top international drama – think True Detective, Fargo, The Good Wife in the US; The Returned from France; The Fall and Broadchurch from the UK; Borgen and The Killing from Scandinavia – and our quality TV such as Anzac Girls, currently screening on ABC TV. As Screen Hub editor David Tiley suggested, ANZACs is dividing critical audiences even as it rates well in Australia, with between 700,000 and a million viewers per week. The challenge is selling stories like these to an international audience.

The case of The Slap

Book cover of The Slap by Australian author Christos Tsiolkas. Wikimedia Commons

Oliver-Taylor’s company Matchbox Pictures produced The Slap, possibly our greatest recent critical and commercial television production.

Indeed I heard him do the maths at a Melbourne forum where he explained how the series sold to the US, the UK and 56 other territories as well as Australia. He pointed out that quality TV financing has improved in Australia with the introduction of the Producer Offset, where producers can claim 20% of the budget of a TV series back from the government. That’s a smaller chunk than feature film producers receive – but still a significant piece of change.

The important thing about the production of The Slap, according to Oliver-Taylor, was that it went into profit. This is not always the case. Corners weren’t cut: The Slap was a piece of quality television that producers, directors, writers, cast and crew could all be proud of. And hopefully more success stories will emerge.

Matchbox has some quality drama coming up such as Devil’s Playground (2014) and Deadline Gallipoli (2015). The ABC has high hopes for The Secret River (2014), co-written by Jan Sardi and Mac Gudgeon from Kate Grenville’s book of the same name. Still, it is a challenge for any Australian production to resonate with both local and international audiences.

But significantly, when the Danish drama Borgen (2010-) was first made, the DR network thought that only Norway and Sweden would buy a show about Danish coalition politics, and only then out of solidarity, according to the show’s creator Adam Price. It has been sold to 75 countries around the world. It has never been remade in the US, unlike other Scandinavian shows like The Bridge (2011-) (remade in the US and as The Tunnel in the UK), and The Killing (2007-12).

The Slap is being remade in the US for NBC, which owns Matchbox Pictures, and Tony Ayres is slated as one of the executive producers. Other US remakes include Rake (2010) from Essential Media and Hoodlum’s Secrets and Lies (2003-).

Who knows – perhaps in years to come we’ll see some stories that originated in Australia up for Emmy awards.