An explosion of 'event series' on TV

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Roma Downey and Mark Burnett’s 12-hour “A.D.” — with (from left) Morgan Watkins, Vincent Regan, and Will Thorp — is a sequel to “The Bible,” starting with Jesus’ resurrection. JOE ALBLAS / LightWorkers Media / NBC

Television is about to go Old Testament on your, ah, eyes.

Thank the husband-and-wife team of Roma Downey and Mark Burnett. She's the Irish actress who played cherubic Monica on Touched by an Angel. He's the English TV mogul who has brought us everything from Survivor to The Voice.

Together, they produced The Bible, a 10-part sandals-and-sand epic that debuted in 2013, with 13.1 million viewers, on the History Channel.

The networks saw those numbers and wanted biblical sagas of their own. So it is that Downey and Burnett brought forth the season's grandest spectacles.

Their first offering is The Dovekeepers, a four-hour adaptation of Alice Hoffman's bestseller (beginning March 31) on CBS.

Cote de Pablo, in her first major role since leaving NCIS, Rachel Brosnahan (House of Cards), and Kathryn Prescott play women in the desert citadel of Masada while under Roman siege in 70 C.E.

The novel was told through four women, but the character of Revka, an anguished widow, wasn't sexy enough for prime time and was dropped from the narrative.

Less than a week later, starting Easter Sunday, NBC will counter with Downey and Burnett's A.D., a 12-hour sequel to the Greatest Story Ever Told. TV's The Bible ended with the Crucifixion. A.D. picks up three days later with Jesus rising from his tomb.

  Just a few years ago, both projects would have been classified as miniseries. But the format has been rebranded. Now these two and many of TV's most ambitious upcoming projects are tagged "event series."

What is that, you may ask? Event series are close-ended stories generally told over 10 installments or less. They're big-ticket packages that channels can heavily promote.

"We use the 'event' label to make people take notice," says Robert Greenblatt, NBC entertainment chairman. " 'Miniseries' doesn't register with people. It's archaic. We want to make things feel bigger."

NBC is currently running The Slap, a sophisticated eight-part limited series with a prestige ensemble that includes Peter Sarsgaard, Uma Thurman, Zachary Quinto, Brian Cox, and Thandie Newton.

That's part of the appeal of event series. They can attract more distinguished casts because they don't demand the same lengthy commitments from actors that traditional series do.

It explains HBO's coup in getting Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson for the acclaimed True Detective. Even for stars of their magnitude, an eight-episode production isn't onerous. The Emmy-winning Fargo on FX attracted Billy Bob Thornton and Martin Freeman with the same type of enticement: 10 episodes and done.

The abbreviated schedule allows a project such as Fortitude on Pivot to secure a distinguished cast that includes Stanley Tucci, Michael Gambon, and Christopher Eccleston.

The shorter format is also perceived as an inducement to today's jaded VOD viewers.

"There are so many shows available now," says Greenblatt, "that people get fatigued. If you say it's 'an eight-episode event' there's a sense of 'Maybe I can commit to that.'"

Ironically, the tighter canvas encourages TV to load up on paint, to make more imaginative, dramatic statements. In network boardrooms, event series are often referred to as "high-concept projects."

BET enters the arena on Wednesday with The Book of Negroes, the channel's "first event miniseries." The six-part adaptation of Lawrence Hill's slavery novel stars Aunjanue Ellis, Cuba Gooding Jr., and Louis Gossett Jr.

And we're just entering the event horizon. A number of these monumental projects will premiere in the next month. USA has Dig (March 5), an intriguing blend of mysticism, apocalypse, and international intrigue that unfolds over 10 episodes. It stars Jason Isaacs, Anne Heche, Lauren Ambrose and Richard E. Grant (recently seen trying to ravish Cora Grantham on Downton Abbey).

A&E is rolling out The Returned (March 9), a remake of the popular French series, Les Revenants, about the ripples in a mountain town when locals who died years before start showing up as if nothing happened. Carlton Cuse (Lost) produced the 10-part American version, which stars Jeremy Sisto, Michelle Forbes, Sandrine Holt, Mark Pellegrino, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Agnes Bruckner.

Not to be outdone, ABC has two event series. Secrets & Lies (March 1) is a 10-parter based on an Australian show. Ryan Phillippe plays a family man suspected of killing a neighbor's son; Juliette Lewis is a detective on his trail.

Felicity Huffman, Timothy Hutton, Regina King, and Penelope Ann Miller star in American Crime (March 5), a gritty drama about the repercussions from a deadly home invasion. (Because the story takes 11 episodes, American Crime is not technically an event series.)

Further down the road, there's Wayward Pines on Fox (May 14), a 10-part thriller from filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan. Matt Dillon, Carla Gugino, Juliette Lewis (again), Melissa Leo, and Toby Jones star as residents - willing or not - in a strange Idaho village.

Why the proliferation? "It's just another way to engage our viewers," says Stacy Mandelberg, vice president of Limited Series and Event Programming at CBS. "It's not a procedural. It's not a soap opera. They look, feel, and smell different than our regular series."

Be aware that television always reserves the right to revive any of these self-contained one-time-only projects if they resonate with a large enough contingent of viewers.

Even A.D., which would logically seem to have exhausted its source material. "It's not meant to be one season and gone," says NBC's Greenblatt, whose network is also developing a limited reboot of the hit series Heroes. "We've already been talking about the next season for A.D."

Television's favorite new format may be a little too amorphous to identify definitively. But we do know what to call an event series that oxymoronically gets a second life: That's an anthology series.

 


FOR MORE REFINED TASTES

Sure, most of the TV treats described on this page are decidedly pulpy. But you literary types needn't despair. You're about to get your own event series: Wolf Hall on PBS and Jonathan Strange & Mr Norell on BBC America.


dhiltbrand@phillynews.com

215-854-4875 @daveondemand_tv