Why 'Gracepoint' feels almost too good for network TV

A limited series stacked with top cable talent like Anna Gunn, David Tennant

  • Detectives Ellie Miller (Anna Gunn) and Emmett Carver (David Tennant) examine a piece of evidence in "Gracepoint," which debuts Thursday at 9 p.m. on Fox.
Detectives Ellie Miller (Anna Gunn) and Emmett Carver (David… ( Ed Araquel/Fox )
September 26, 2014|By David Zurawik | The Baltimore Sun

If the new Fox drama “Gracepoint” looks too good to be on network TV, that’s because it’s stacked with the kind of talent you normally see only on cable. And the work here is so good it could help change the way networks do drama in the future.

Starring in the series about life in a small Northern California coastal community after the murder of a 12-year-old boy are David Tennant (“Broadchurch”) and recent Emmy winner Anna Gunn (“Breaking Bad”). Gunn is outstanding as a police detective who has lived in the town her whole life, but only now starts to plumb the depths of lies, secrets and evil beneath the surface. If you thought she was good in “Breaking Bad,” you just might be astonished by what she does here.

The showrunners are Anya Epstein and Dan Futterman, who wrote and produced HBO’s “In Treatment.” In addition to working on that groundbreaking series with Gabriel Byrne, Futterman earned an Academy Award nomination with his script for the feature film “Capote,” while Epstein was a staff writer for “Homicide: Life on the Street.” The two, who have been married for 14 years, met in Fells Point while working on the cop drama.

So, how does Fox of all channels wind up with the kind of talent you’ll see nowhere else on network TV this side of “The Good Wife?” By breaking from the assembly-line manufacturing model of producers cranking out 22 or 23 episodes a season and actors signing on to exclusive long-term deals that can lock them up for six or seven years of that grind if the series is successful.

In making “Gracepoint,” which debuts Thursday night, as an open-ended 10-episode series, Fox is imitating the business model long used by British TV for series such as “Broadchurch,” on which it is based. Premium U.S. cable channels like HBO have also been working with this template for years, most recently with “True Detective.”

That’s how you get a Woody Harrelson or Matthew McConaughey to work in front of the TV cameras: You make it a short-term commitment and give them the latitude to take the time they feel they need to make quality television. And it’s the same in trying to land writing and producing talent such as Epstein and Futterman.

“The model here [10 episodes] absolutely played a role in me wanting to do this series,” Epstein said in a telephone interview. “It’s just so much less of a machine this way, rather than trying to pump out 22 or 23 episodes.”

And Epstein says she’ll do more network drama if it’s in nontraditional formats like “Gracepoint.”

“I would work only in this way if possible,” she said. “I find it far more preferable. And it does seem to be more and more popular. Cable has certainly been open to this for a while. But for the networks to begin to explore it is hugely exciting for me.”

In terms of format, “The more flexibility, the better,” Epstein added. “The more flexible the networks are, the more it’s going to help with creativity.”

She pointed to the example of HBO’s unusual schedule for “In Treatment,” which was adapted from an Israeli series.

“HBO took a tremendous leap when they put ‘In Treatment’ on the air,” she said. “That was a show that was completely unheard of here, and HBO aired it every night of the week the first season — as the original aired in Israel. Who would ever think to do that here? But HBO did.”

Given the success that HBO and other cable outlets have enjoyed in breaking the mold, Epstein wonders why the networks haven’t tried before to break from a format that has held for more than four decades.

“Why not make three-episode stories? Why not make yearlong stories?” she asks. “I think that every story has its own natural format. And the more they’re wiling to go with that, the better.”

The format in “Gracepoint” is the murder mystery and investigation into the death of Danny Solano (Nikolas Filipovic). Fox made seven of the 10 episodes available, so I cannot say whether the story is played out at the end of 10 hours. But Epstein says the possibility is there to continue for a second season. The original British version, written by Chris Chibnall and produced by ITV in 2013, is entering its second season.

Epstein and Futterman stick closely to the British version in the first two episodes of their adaptation. But by episode 3, the narrative starts taking new and surprising turns. Even if it didn’t depart that much from the British version, Gunn’s performance alone as Detective Ellie Miller would justify the adaptation.

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