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Serialised franchising: Hollywood’s sequel/prequel fad has come to TV

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Are prequels like Hannibal and semi-sequels like Agents of SHIELD almost guaranteed success on the small screen?

It is truth universally acknowledged that sequels make a shit load of money. The good, the bad, the cold and unloved projects that millions of people will pay to see (hi, Transformers 3) are generally greenlit whilst other original projects, perhaps without superheroes and explosions, get shelved as the riskier choice. All because Hollywood has ingeniously deduced that sequels sell.

Hollywood has deduced that sequels sell – it’s how Joss Whedon has expanded the Marvel universe to the small screen

So where does this leave us in the land of television? A spin-off series to a particularly successful movie is always a good place to start, and Joss Whedon’s Avengers Assemble television series Agents of SHIELD premiered just last week. But let’s face it, not every movie screenwriter fancies sitting down to expand their universe via the silver screen. It seems that the only reason Joss has managed to do it is because, at the moment, his name is associated with that of unicorns and gold dust for giving us Robert Downey Jr and Tom Hiddleston in the same movie and, as a result, the man can do no wrong.

Aside from spin-offs, it’s pretty evident that sequels belong to the movies – I’d be hard pushed to think of a direct sequel of a movie presented as a television show. Although some television originals have proved a massive success (Breaking Bad, Sons of Anarchy), others have failed dismally despite their promising material (Awake, Firefly). So what is the answer? What ensures interest for TV shows without them locking onto recent Hollywood successes?

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This year, prequels to two highly successful classics – Hannibal and Bates Motel, based on The Silence of the Lambs and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, respectively – premiered, and presented us with a new brand of television. The shows draw parallels in terms of macabre content, strong casting, positive critical reception and, most importantly, strong audience figures. It is television that is compelling yet satisfying, as you already have an ingrained knowledge of the show’s outcomes, with their original material very much part of our culture (a stabbing knife to screeching music; the lapping of Hannibal’s tongue…urgh).

Hannibal and Bates Motel work because you already have an ingrained knowledge of the show’s outcomes

And so although you know the inevitable conclusion whilst watching these shows, this doesn’t stifle the feeling of dread at the inevitable as the events unfold. The prequels have been done right, which brings me to my next point: Although Bates Motel and Hannibal have been substantially successful, another prequel brought out in 2013 flopped. The Carrie Diaries, which chronicled the life of a young Carrie Bradshaw pre-Sex and the City, was aimed at teens about the high school life of everyone’s favourite city girl. However, the show was cancelled after its first series due to low audience ratings and scathing reviews.

What does this say to us about the success of these other prequel shows? Is it our fascination with villainy that compels us to watch? It seems like the natural next step would be to introduce other prequels to classic films, particularly those concerning iconic characters. Hannibal Lecter and Norman Bates are legendary, and as characters with such complexity, a television show exploring their lives before they were caught and/or became messed up beyond all recognition is a fantastic idea. As such, it wouldn’t remotely surprise me if television soon exploded with Freddy Krueger, The Joker and Doctor Evil spin-offs sporting “Before the legend, there was the man” taglines.

Featured image: ABC

Inset image: NBC

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