There was one Showtime series that made 2017 a fundamentally different year than any other in recent memory. For Gary Levine, Showtime’s President of Programming, the return of David Lynch to television rewrote many TV rules and highlighted the ways that the network regards its series as triumphs or otherwise.
“In 2017, we had a little show called ‘Twin Peaks’ come back. As you talk about how you measure success, it’s been on so many top 10 lists. It was creatively so adventurous, so satisfying,” Levine said. “In terms of numbers, ‘Twin Peaks’ had relatively modest numbers on our linear platforms. But when it came to sign-ups and people streaming and watching on other platforms, it broke all kinds of records for us. So that was sort of the first time we saw that even within measuring audiences, there can be huge swings of where a show has more strength and can be of value to us.”
Even with that “Part 8”-sized mushroom cloud looming over a big chunk of Showtime’s calendar year, the network had plenty of developments worth considering when looking back at 2017 and forward to the coming months. Over this first week of 2018, IndieWire will be looking at a number of streaming services and premium cable networks as a way to take stock and peer into the near future. To kick things off, we explore the state of Showtime.
Overall Hits and Misses
Regardless of the measuring stick, it’s impossible to deny the cultural impact that “Twin Peaks” had on a targeted viewership as the 18-part return unfolded. Stealing some Monday morning water cooler talk even away from the “Game of Thrones” behemoth and having a renewed appreciation in the year-end storm of best-of lists, the series was the Showtime achievement of the year.
But that acclaim did come at a bit of a price for one of the bigger Showtime launches of the year.
“I’m Dying Up Here” had the disparate pieces for a successful launch. Beyond Jim Carrey’s involvement, the ’70s-set L.A. stand up dramedy had Oscar-winning cast members, period trappings, and a talented young ensemble. Despite tepid reviews and less-than-hoped ratings, Levine is confident that a reworked time slot and a slightly different focus will give audiences the chance to discover the series when it comes back for its sophomore season this year.
“One of the things we offer our talent is that we believe in shows and we give them time to find their legs. ‘Twin Peaks’ is so specific that I’m not sure we gave ‘I’m Dying Up Here’ the best launching pad. We had hoped it would be, but I’m not sure it was for that particular show,” Levine said. “So I’m anxious to give it a stronger placement in year two and see if it can establish itself because I think there’s a lot of talent on that show.”
As the TV business shifts to become a more creator-driven model, particularly in prestige circles, Showtime is trending more in that direction. With “SMILF” succeeding in its own way, “The Chi” as one of the network’s biggest bets of 2018, and the clearing of the mammoth “Twin Peaks” creative blank check, Showtime is burnishing its credentials as a place where boundary-pushing television can happen.
“There is no one Showtime kind of show. All we want are shows of quality, with authentic voices, that take risks and really belong on our network,” Levine said.
Part of that freedom is not conforming to a standard episode-length for a season.
“How long each episode is is completely up to them and what that story can sustain for that week. The number of episodes we generally decide with them. And again we have the freedom. ‘SMILF’ was eight, ‘The Chi’ is 10, ‘Billions’ is 12. It depends from show to show and it will change from season to season depending upon the storyline and other factors,” Levine said.
Aside from the plug being pulled on “White Famous,” Showtime has also firmed up its reputation as a network not quick to give up on new shows or push their long-running standbys to end. “Ray Donovan” continues ever on, “Homeland” shows no signs of slowing (even after at least one notable departure from the cast), and “Billions” looks to be joining the list of series that will stay on the network for the foreseeable future.
“I think ‘Billions’ is a terrific show and I think it’s still growing. So I really look forward to, in its third season when it comes on the air this spring, watching it continue to blossom and watching people discover it. Because we take enormous pride in it,” Levine said.
Key Programming for 2018
The network’s biggest wild card in the new year is “Our Cartoon President,” the latest animated series from EPs Stephen Colbert and “Late Show” boss Chris Licht. Colbert found himself on more comfortable footing in his late-night slot over the course of 2017, but you could argue that came more from his monologues than the segments with an animated Donald Trump.
Still, as we await just how the “Late Show” template will translate to a premium cable slot free from the normal CBS restrictions, there will be a need to differentiate the comedy from the standard, low-hanging Trump fruit. Levine is confident that the team is up to the task.
“‘Our Cartoon President’ is a complete send-up that really was initiated by Stephen Colbert and I think it’s just a real satirical look, using an adult animated series [to look] at what’s going on in Washington,” Levine said.
Perhaps the network’s biggest late-year original will be “Escape from Dannemora,” a Ben Stiller-directed limited series (featuring Benicio del Toro, Paul Dano, Patricia Arquette, and Bonnie Hunt) about the bizarre 2015 Clinton Correctional Facility breakout saga.
“It’s about the prison break in upstate New York a couple of years ago where those guys seduced a prison worker. Two separate guys seduced her and she ended up aiding and abetting their escape and then they were out in the woods for three weeks and were not caught. It’s an incredible story, and we got just such great talent making it. We’re very excited about that limited series,” Levine said.
2017 saw mixed success for Showtime’s British imports. The John Ridley-created series “Guerrilla,” produced in partnership with Sky, was a fine addition to the network’s programming lineup, but never stood out in a crowded 2017 limited series field. Meanwhile, “Ill Behaviour” boasted an all-star comedy cast and crew, but failed to make waves stateside.
Still, one of the series that Levine is most eager to share with audiences in 2018 is “Patrick Melrose,” a five-part series based on a series of novels by Edward St. Aubyn. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the title character, the show will span decades, tracing Melrose’s life through psychological childhood traumas all the way up through a life of upper-class decadence.
“It’s just an unbelievable character and it will be a tour de force for Benedict. And around him we have Jennifer Jason Leigh and Blythe Danner and Allison Williams and a whole bunch of really great actors from both sides of the pond,” Levine said. “I can’t wait to show the world what Benedict is gonna do with this role.”
The Awards Factor
Liev Schreiber has become something of a yearly tradition for both the Emmys and Golden Globes, but like “Homeland” and “Shameless,” the number of non-acting nods at both ceremonies have been winnowing as those series continue. Showtime received just 15 Emmy nominations in July, down from 22 in 2016, and won just one award (at the Creative Arts Emmys).
Still, the “Twin Peaks” phenomenon has a chance to continue in 2018. The comedy series nomination for “SMILF” falls right in line with the Globes’ propensity to pick freshman shows that they can be first to recognize. But as audiences catch up with Frankie Shaw’s series and with “The Chi” poised to be a prominent early-year drama, both shows are set up for strong showings as the Emmy season is on the horizon.
The Aftermath of 2017 Scandals
Showtime was not immune to the industry-wide harassment scandals of 2017. The network cut ties with Mark Halperin, the de facto co-host of the political documentary series “The Circus,” which chronicled the 2016 presidential election. With midterms right around the corner, Levine said the show “should be back.”
“Here we are at another election cycle, and I think there’s gonna be a lot of people focused on it. Our producers of ‘The Circus’ have such incredible access that they can really get behind the stories, and they certainly have proven that up until now,” Levine said.
Just as “The Circus” is eyeing a return without Halperin’s involvement, the new Showtime documentary series “The Trade” will be heading to Sundance this year, but former executive producer Morgan Spurlock’s name will no longer be on it. Showtime is still committed to the series, highlighting director Matthew Heineman’s past work on films like “Cartel Land.”
“He has an uncanny ability to get access inside not only the drug cartels, but also inside the homes of the families that are destroyed by the opioid crisis here in the States. And it’s a really revelatory and intimate look at the opioid crisis. For us [Sundance is] a great way to begin to let the world in on what we think is gonna be a really fascinating documentary series,” Levine said.
As the industry trends towards limited series, the question of what to do when those protracted runs become immensely popular is something that a number of networks are dealing with. If anything, 2018 might be Showtime’s way of staking its claim as the network most committed to preserving that distinction.
“We try not to do half-assed limited series. Either it’s an ongoing series, which we love, obviously, and it’s our bread and butter, or it’s a subject that really fits in this limited series form,” Levine said. “And the two we have on the boards for next year, ‘Patrick Melrose’ and ‘Escape at Dannemora,’ both fit that model really, really well. And I think if they do their jobs we’ll be very happy to have them for that purpose.”
2017 Primetime Ratings: 202,000 viewers (down 20 percent from 2016) — No. 80 among all TV networks
2017 Subscribers: Approximately 25 million
2017 Emmys: 15 nominations, 1 win