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The TV series lab

Books - The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale is one of the most powerful examples of literature inspiring a TV series - and then being swallowed up by the series itself. Only in a positive way, let's be clear. The classic novel of the same name written in 1985 by Margaret Atwood, one of Canada’s greatest writers, is the basis of the series produced by Hulu about a dystopian society called Gilead, in which many of the women are forced to act as breeders to serve a violent patriarchy. Rather than watch the adaptation of her book from a distance, as most writers prefer, Atwood became personally involved to ensure that the soul of her work was not betrayed. She worked as consulting producer during the project's development. And then did something never seen before. While the series starring Elisabeth Moss was winning every prize available (it now has 14 Emmy Awards) and the plot was extended beyond the end of Atwood’s novel (it is currently in its third season), the author decided to write a sequel to the original book. The Testaments, which continues the story of Offred and the other handmaids and came out in bookshops on the same day worldwide (10 September 2019), was the most eagerly awaited book of the year. Only one question remains: would the sequel have existed at all if a highly successful TV series hadn’t relaunched the original on an international scale?

Storytelling - Atlanta

Donald Glover once had a different name. As far as anyone knew, Donald Glover was Childish Gambino, and that nom de plume might have ended there. He was one of the most – or even the most – innovative and acclaimed rappers around, but evidently that wasn’t enough. Not for him. So he decided to reinvent himself on multiple fronts, broadening his already wide scope of activities but without placing any barriers between one role and another, between one discipline and another. You only need to look at his entry in Wikipedia, for what it's worth: Donald McKinley Glover Jr. is an American actor, comedian, writer, producer, director, musician and DJ. The definitive boost, among a niche audience that is constantly growing, came with Atlanta, produced by FX, a comedy-drama series he created, starred in, wrote and directed. Glover is no longer just Childish Gambino,or mcDJ, the name he uses when spinning records. In his world there no longer exists a musical language or a cinematographic-television language. Everything is thrown in, with Glover as the medium that holds it together, creating a form of storytelling to fit his idea of a story, whether this unfolds through rap or a classic coming of age TV series. Glover – or Childish, call him what you will – should, at this point, create a new slogan on Facebook and the various social media: “Showrunner for himself”. Whether it’s music or a TV series is of little importance: he, and nobody but he, is the story we want to follow.

Vision - Chernobyl

In recent decades, music videos have spawned some of the greatest filmmakers in the world of cinema. Suffice it to say that, from Michel Gondry to Spike Jonze, the 2000s were defined by the eyes of the MTV generation. Now this evolution is no longer in the direction of the big screen but the small screen – in the shape of TV series. A case in point is Johan Renck, an eclectic Swede with credits to his name in music (under the pseudonym of Stakka Bo) and photography. He started out as a director in the world of advertising and, as we were saying, music videos. The many artists he has worked with include Madonna, Kylie Minogue, New Order, Robbie Williams and also the final and definitive incarnation of David Bowie: his work was behind the videos for Blackstar and Lazarus, tracks with which the White Duke bade us farewell forever. Films seemed like a natural transition. Renck’s first effort was Downloading Nancy (2008), but without much success. And his next jump was into TV series. Having directed some episodes of big-name series like Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead, his first real solo work as a director arrived this year. And it's the most prizewinning mini-series of the season. Chernobyl, conceived in a collaboration between HBO and Sky Atlantic, is an example of how what you might call an “outsider’s” lens can be used in TV to create something more cinematic than most of today's films. As well as an Emmy for best mini-series, Renck also won the statuette for best director, beating movie-trained colleagues such as the veteran Stephen Frears and Ava DuVernay. You might say video killed the cinema stars.

Lifestyle - Stranger Things

Once upon a time it was the great fashion designers who “dressed” the movies: just think of “King” Giorgio Armani and his suits worn by Richard Gere in American Gigolo and Kevin Costner in The Untouchables. Today it’s TV series that invent fashion, in an equal and opposite process. Stranger Things is the most notable case in point. While reconstructing the 1980s aesthetic that provides the backdrop to its nostalgic-paranormal tale, the producers have been able to update those style canons and bring them alive again for today. In turn, they have created a small earthquake among brands aimed at the younger audience who have elevated the Netflix series into a cult. In their millions they have copied the mood evoked by the clothes of Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown, who has become a leading fashion icon for modern teenagers) and companions. From the fluorescent print shirt by Hot Topic directly inspired by the look of the little “alien”, to Levi's jackets and caps with lettering and prints strongly evoking the clothes of the main characters, through to Nike hooded sweatshirts emblazoned with the words “Hawkins Phys. Ed” (Hawkins is the name of the town in which the series is set) and even classic Havaianas flip-flops, with an image of the so-called Upside Down (alternate dimension) to be placed – literally – under your feet. Younger fans have been clamouring en-masse for the wave of ad hoc merchandising which represents a fully-fledged evolution: these days we no longer see the churning out of useless TV show-inspired gadgets but the birth of a new fashion.

Sound - ZeroZeroZero

Music is the art form that most easily crosses barriers. Above all when exploited by the movies and TV. That was the experience of Mogwai, a Scottish rock band formed in 1995 and led by Stuart Braithwaite and Dominic Aitchison, whose music ended up being featured in innumerable soundtracks. The first TV series to realise the group’s potential was – believe it or not – Sex and the City. From which point came the idea to go it alone, taking over the sound of entire productions, no longer just as guests but as creators of the musical backdrop. Their first “solo” work in the world of TV series was in Les Revenants, the French production that redefined the standards of artistic sci-fi. But the most interesting collaboration is happening right now. And it is, at least partly, “made in Italy”. It was Mogwai who conceived the soundtrack for ZeroZeroZero, a TV project born of the documentary-style book by Roberto Saviano (Gomorrah), directed by Stefano Sollima (Sicario: Day of the Soldado) and produced for Sky Atlantic with US and Italian capital. The international map is the stage: at its centre, the “cocaine trail” that extends across the continents. Mogwai fit perfectly into this global setting, being songwriters who have always made music that crosses boundaries and genres and can be adapted to every story and place – evanescent and present at the same time. It’s no longer a soundtrack but a sound that, when combined with the ideas of a showrunner, can “clothe” a production. Producing a TV series these days involves all this as well.

Fashion - La Casa de Papel

Can a red-hooded jumpsuit transform the collective imagination? Yes, and much more besides. It can also redefine the world of fashion and its relationship with the new audio-visual media. The Spanish TV series La Casa de Papel, also known as Money Heist, originally acquired and now directly produced by Netflix, is a TV phenomenon: the most popular foreign language series on Netflix ever, it has also added inspiration to political movements. The robbers of the Royal Mint of Spain in Madrid, wearing red suits and Salvador Dalí masks, have been emulated by protestors from Lebanon to Puerto Rico. They’re all adopting the look worn by Tokyo (Úrsula Corberó) – the most iconographic of leading characters – and her robber comrades who are also code-named after cities, to signal their rejection of the system. The fashion world couldn’t fail to take notice. And, with lightning speed, has integrated into its collections the same look that viewers of the Álex Pina-created series had already brought to the streets. An example is the launch this year, to coincide with the start of the third season, of a Diesel collection that ranges from unmistakably red sweatshirts and jackets to classic T-shirts bearing the names of key figures from the series. Tokyo, Rio, Nairobi, Berlin, The Professor: all that’s left is to choose our favourites, both on the screen and in the wardrobe. That’s how it works today.

Politics - When They See Us

If there’s one person who has been able to break through every boundary, at every moment of her life and career, then it's Oprah Winfrey. To start with she is, of course, America’s greatest talk show host, but does that label tell the whole story? Not at all. She’s an entrepreneur, publisher, philanthropist, creator of the most famous Book Club on the planet, actress (with an Oscar nomination for a non-starring role in The Color Purple by Steven Spielberg in 1985) and producer (her second Academy Awards nomination came with Selma, one of the candidates for best film in 2015). And the list could go on. The connecting thread is always one and one alone: politics. Anything that Oprah touches immediately becomes a political act. Her campaign aimed at the United States and the world continued this year with When They See Us, a Netflix mini-series nominated for 16 Emmys and directed by Ava DuVernay (also the director of Selma), which recounts one of the worst-ever cases of legal malpractice in which a group of African American teenagers were unjustly accused of rape, ruining their lives overnight. Winfrey is the producer (with, among others, Robert De Niro: another name that defies boundaries) and inspirational driving force behind the series. Every form of expression is allowed in order to remain “President” of the US media world.

Acting - Big Little Lies

There are great names of cinema who switch their attention to the TV format without anyone much noticing. And then there’s Meryl Streep. When “the greatest living actress” (by now she deserves the copyright) joins the cast of a major TV series, it becomes real news. There had already been a precedent: Streep starred in Angels in America directed by Mike Nicholls, a miniseries produced by HBO back in 2003 based on a play by Tony Kushner, but which in effect was like a long film. The era of the TV series as we now know it had just begun. It was the start of the cross-genre “contamination” which has now become common practice for authors, directors, actors and producers. And then Streep, by her own openly-expressed wish as she tells us now, joined other illustrious stars of the cinema such as Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern in Big Little Lies. The TV series redefined storytelling from a woman’s perspective and created a new model of female entrepreneurship: a group of women took a novel by a successful female author (the Australian Liane Moriarty), produced it for TV (again HBO) and turned it into a paradigm of modern storytelling. That a star like Streep wished to jump on the winners’ bandwagon seems today to be a totally natural move. The great thing is that she prepared herself assiduously, in the same way that she’s always done for her great movie roles: creating a look, an accent, a character. Is there an Emmy on the way next year?

Directing - The Irishman

The debate is in full swing: is it right for the Big Screen to let itself be seduced by the siren calls of streaming? The factions are clearly identifiable and essentially led by two Hollywood giants. In one corner is Steven Spielberg, who has set himself openly against Netflix (and against the Oscar awarded to Alfonso Cuarón's masterpiece, Roma): movie-going in traditional cinemas must be protected. In the other corner is Martin Scorsese, who has allowed Netflix to produce his most ambitious film: The Irishman, one of the tours de force of the season. The Irishman will also be shown in cinemas, but most viewers will watch it on their computers and smartphones. That the great Marty is a fan of modernity comes as no surprise. Perhaps it’s because he’s always been accustomed to breaking through barriers, regardless of which channels are used to watch his films. Or TV series. The series that he’s still most associated with is Vinyl, produced (together with Mick Jagger) for HBO. It lasted only one season but retains its iconic status for rock fanatics (and not only). Scorsese leads the cohort of great directors producing or directing TV series of all types: from Spike Lee (She's Gotta Have It, on Netflix) to David Fincher (Mindhunter, again on Netflix), though to Ridley Scott (whose most recent series is Taboo, for BBC One). Ironically, they also include Spielberg who has produced a number of series for TV: from the classic Band of Brothers to the upcoming Halo. Has he forgotten that today’s screens have become even smaller?

Coolness - Peaky Blinders

To describe Peaky Blinders, the production created by Steven Knight for the BBC (available worldwide on Netflix), simply as a cult would do it an injustice. The gangsters who ruled the streets of Birmingham, England, in the early 1900s have become such an inspiration for their look that they are now the definition of coolness. One of the most passionate fans of the series is star footballer David Beckham. Not content with just being an unofficial ambassador for the show, this year he launched a clothing collection inspired by the outfits worn by Thomas Shelby (played by Cillian Murphy) and his fellow gangsters. “I'm a big fan of Peaky Blinders. Our brand loves its unique style and has done everything to maintain that authenticity,” Beckham told The Guardian. The brand Beckham co-owns is Kent & Curwen, while the range is called Garrison Tailors – with a nod to the The Garrison pub where Shelby and his gang meet in the series. All labels carry the words “By order of the Peaky Blinders”. The collection includes a series of classically British garments: jackets, waistcoats, tweed suits and the ubiquitous peaked caps which, from being a working class accessory, have become a must-have for neo-dandies. Beckham, who has acquired a love of fashion design from his wife Victoria (another person who defies boundaries), provides the perfect image for the range: a modern gentleman with the air of a rogue from a bygone age.

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