In 2013, television is covered with a breathlessness and focus once reserved for sports. Recaps are our generation’s box scores, we trade tweets the way we once swapped baseball cards, and NBC is our version of the hapless Washington Generals. So why not take TV coverage to the next logical extension? When real sports were no longer enough, humans invented fantasy sports.1 And now it’s time to do the same with TV. It’s time to introduce Grantland’s Fantasy TV Trade Machine.
And by that I mean fantasy football. Not, you know, quidditch.
Now, to be clear, this is a work in progress. It’s not even a real machine! And as the fall season debuts we’ll be tweaking the formula behind these made-up transactions, adding more specificity and perhaps even forcing ourselves to respect the bounds of real-world contracts and finances. But, really, once Grantland editor Mark Lisanti shared this idea with me,2 I couldn’t help jumping in and playing around. The six fantasy TV trades you see below were chosen with a particular set of limitations in mind. My goal was to imagine the midpoint of the TV year the way it occurs in baseball or basketball: With the trade deadline looming, the haves begin to circle, like birds of prey, around the tastiest bits hanging off the carcasses of the have-nots. And so I’ve presented six trade targets,3 all of whom are stuck on shows that have failed in one way or another — either creatively or with the public at large (or both) — and then tried to figure out potential offers, counteroffers, and, eventually, viable trades. I attempted to be both as creative and fair-minded as possible. I wasn’t trying to fleece anyone. We’re all Billy Beanes here.
Credit must also go to my podcast partner Chris Ryan, whose fingerprints are all over many of these swaps. This Fantasy Trade Machine may be only days old and, as I said, not actually a machine, but Chris is already its Picasso.
There’s a way to do this in which networks trade offscreen talent, and possibly even entire shows — Happy Endings to NBC! Last Resort to FX! Oh, what could have been! — but I decided to limit it to actors for now.
Or at least we will be. After reading through my ideas below, why not pass along some of your own? Send potential blockbusters to GrantlandTVTrades@gmail.com and we’ll run the best of the best on the Hollywood Prospectus blog next Wednesday. Let’s team up and make TV better — even if it’s only in our minds.
The Target: Michael Shannon
To paraphrase The Wire, “we used to make stuff in this country,” and that stuff included electronics, infrastructure, and oddball actors who filled up the screen not with diamond-cut cheekbones and perfect abs but with leaky emotions and loopy intensity. Michael Shannon is an all-too-rare throwback to the ’70s, a time when bug-eyed galoots like Christopher Walken and John Cazale could be movie stars and when Gene Hackman could be a Superman villain and also be this. All of this is to say, Shannon is mostly wasted on Boardwalk Empire, particularly in recent seasons, when the apocalyptic fervor of his character, Special Agent Nelson Van Alden, has been forced to boil inside smaller and smaller kettles.
So: What other show has both the resources and the role to snag him? I’d love to see Shannon slide into The Americans as some kind of triple agent, perhaps a left-leaning professor of Russian literature whose allegiances are as varied as his reading list. Or maybe he could take a turn on Justified‘s villain-go-round as a fundamentalist preacher who cooks meth in the basement of his church? But the FX shows don’t have enough to offer HBO in return, and the majority of network shows are either too vanilla or have nearly year-long shooting schedules that would crimp Shannon’s burgeoning big-screen career. (Though, that said, he’d make a killer American Moriarty on Elementary.) Furthermore, while Shannon is no more implausible as a morally conflicted lead than his castmate Steve Buscemi, it’s hard to imagine any programmer investing heavily in Shannon’s weirdo vibes just yet. He may not like it, but when it comes to TV, it’s most likely bad guy or bust.
So let’s think about this carefully. Sometimes the best trades occur between teams that are all operating from the same position of strength. Boardwalk Empire isn’t winning any Emmys (and this year I mean that literally, but it is a solid performer). Maybe there’s a three-teamer that can help improve a trio of shows that, on the surface, don’t need much improving?
Good question, self! There certainly is:
Boardwalk Empire RECEIVES Kevin Bacon and Natalie Zea
CSI RECEIVES James Purefoy
The Following RECEIVES Ted Danson and Michael Shannon
Here’s the thing: The Following is a hit show, one that was easily renewed for a second season. But I don’t think even the most Poe-obsessed among its fans would argue that it’s a particularly good show. Perhaps the best move for Kevin Williamson and Fox would be to look to FX’s very successful American Horror Story as a model and simply use the first season’s serial killer story line as the framework for an anthology series. Besides, Kevin Bacon’s Ryan Hardy is too sinewy and grim to grow across multiple seasons, and James Purefoy’s Joe Carroll is (a) as implacable as the prison bars surrounding him, and (b) totally preposterous.
So! Let’s shake things up. Michael Shannon could craft a compelling sicko in his sleep, one that could even stand out in these psychopath-saturated times. (Bonus: The Following shoots only 15 episodes a year, leaving plenty of time for Revolutionary Road 2.) And how about Ted Danson as the new FBI man in charge of the manhunt? Danson is the rare actor able to bring the same light touch to both comedy and drama. This will come in handy because for as much as The Following wants to be darker than midnight, there’s a large part of it screaming to be campier than Liza Minnelli vamping a solo version of “Taps.” Danson proved on Damages and Bored to Death that he knows when to take silliness seriously and when not to take anything seriously at all.
And Boardwalk Empire would be improved immeasurably by the addition of Kevin Bacon as the new probie agent brought in from Philly to crack down on Atlantic City bootlegging. Not only is Bacon actually from Philadelphia — thus allowing him a chance to finally use his native pronunciation of “water ice” in a professional setting — he has long been the sort of actor who sinks his teeth into roles regardless of whether they can withstand the bite. Boardwalk should give him — and the deserving Natalie Zea — a chance to inhabit a part worthy of both his ability and his celebrity.
As for CSI, well, does that particular race car even need a driver anymore? The show has remained a ratings juggernaut through three different administrations (William Petersen, Laurence Fishburne, Sam Malone). Why not let James Purefoy out of togas and shackles and see what he can do? What’s the worst-case scenario here? There really isn’t one. CBS saves some money and loses approximately zero viewers in the process. And if for some reason Purefoy doesn’t work out, the show can always pursue our next trade target.
The Target: Damian Lewis
TV’s reigning Best Actor (at least as far as Emmy voters are concerned) is, like his character, a man without a country. Homeland stretched plausibility to the breaking point in its second season as it attempted to find a way to maintain Nicholas Brody, a would-be suicide bomber turned congressman with a worryingly tiny mouth, as a viable character. But the events of the finale (which I won’t spoil here) have made that nigh on impossible going forward. Yes, Brody remains in play for the upcoming third season and the writers seem intent on ginning up a way for him to wriggle back into Carrie’s life. But I think I speak for nearly everyone who loves the show when I ask: Why? Claire Danes and Mandy Patinkin can handle security, bipolarity, and beards on their own. And Brody works better with them as a ghost than a wild card. Besides, after stealing an Emmy that practically had Bryan Cranston’s name on it, Lewis’s value has never been higher. Let’s see if Homeland can recoup its investment and improve itself in the process.
So who’s working the phones? I bet Game of Thrones could make an attractive offer built around a package of expiring contracts (Richard Madden, Oona Chaplin, and the rights to their unborn Stark baby?) and Lewis could be slotted in anywhere from King’s Landing to North of the Wall because, you know, he’s English. (This also makes Thrones an attractive trade partner with Homeland going forward because, between Lewis, Rupert Friend, and David Harewood, someone at Showtime is a crazy Anglophile.) Ultimately, I don’t think CSI has the prospects necessary to make the deal work. The same is true for NCIS: Los Angeles and Castle, even though I’d love to see Stana Katic and Linda Hunt transferred to the CIA. I think the only way Homeland does a deal for its colead is if it can secure bench depth, not an equivalent star. Luckily, there happens to be a very deep show that is one elite player away from getting back to the top of the league …
Downton Abbey RECEIVES Damian Lewis
Homeland RECEIVES Michelle Dockery, Brendan Coyle, and Rob James-Collier
Here’s the thing about Damian Lewis: On Homeland he’s all grim and gritty, but in person he’s always prancing about like he’s on horseback — even without a horse. Downton Abbey is sinking deeper and deeper into soapy sameness and, with the departure of Dan Stevens, it’s now missing its hunk. Lewis could effortlessly step in as yet another long-lost Crawley cousin and heir to Downton. (Bonus: He looks great in a tux.) Only with Mary now dispatched as well, the dynamic that fueled the first two seasons could be flipped on its head: The Earl of Grantham and his new successor must scour the countryside looking for a worthy bride. It’s like Joe Millionaire with tea cozies! (Further complicating matters: You just know Lady Edith has a thing for gingers.)
Meanwhile, three talented Brits will get the chance to toss aside topcoats, tails, and their native accents to join the cast of Homeland. The luminous Michelle Dockery has experience playing a spy from the (highly underrated!) movie Hanna and would make a sleek and worthy frenemy for a lone wolf like Carrie. As for Brendan Coyle (Bates) and Rob James-Collier (Thomas), they must both be sick to death of being stepped on as footmen. I’d love to see Coyle scuff up Bates’s saintly patience as an ex-MI5 contract assassin. And with the Brylcreem banished to the back of the medicine cabinet, James-Collier would make a killer spy — or a killer killer. Would he be a love interest for Claire Danes or the similarly slick Rupert Friend? Who knows! After all, heading into a risky third season, Homeland needs options a lot more than Carrie needs her meds.
The Target: Olivia Munn
The Newsroom, Aaron Sorkin’s DIY guide to improving television news, was meant to float like a balloon but instead has morphed into a cloud of noxious, self-regarding gas. Yet Olivia Munn has somehow risen above the odor to silence the doubters. Over one and a half seasons she’s proven herself to be both a skilled comedian and a steady reciter of Sorkinspeak, a highly specific double-time language that has tripped up actors with twice her résumé. As is the case anytime an attractive performer breaks out of a large ensemble, other shows with more to offer have begun behaving like vultures.
For example, I have to think that New Girl has come calling to offer Munn more screen time after her well-received Season 2 arc as Nick’s stripper GF. Ever since Happy Endings was canceled and Damon Wayans Jr. became a free agent, I bet the New Girl producers have been back-channeling word all over town that the talented Lamorne Morris is available. But while I’d love to see Winston producing a blowhard like Will McAvoy (instead of a blowhard like this), I don’t think HBO bites. As Studio 60 proved, Sorkin does “funny” but he doesn’t do funny-funny. This also deep-sixes another fantasy trade in which Munn goes to The Mindy Project, a show that could use a strong female foil for its lead, in exchange for Ike Barinholtz. I honestly think his clowny nurse, Morgan, would work better on The Newsroom, but that may be because I enjoy allowing bulls to enter china shops.
I could also see any of Cinemax’s dramas making a play for Munn, but she’s eager to leave her Maxim days behind, so shirt-optional hours like Banshee and Strike Back are out. Steven Soderbergh got a great Munn performance (and, uh, a very Cinemax-y one) in Magic Mike, but his new Cinemax series, The Knick, is a year away from debuting and doesn’t have much to offer in return outside of its untouchable star, Clive Owen. So how do you keep Munn classy while getting something highbrow in return?
The Good Wife RECEIVES Olivia Munn, Thomas Sadoski, and Dev Patel‘s expiring contract
The Newsroom RECEIVES Alan Cumming
Here’s how I think this would go down: The Good Wife would call Sorkin to inquire about Emily Mortimer, a wonderful actress who deserves better than a life spent walking into chairs and mooning over an asshole. But the Will-Mac dynamic fuels Sorkin’s screwball sensibility, so it’d be a quick “no.” But the two sides would keep talking and eventually hash out the win-win deal above. Munn would get to go to a smart show with a bigger audience and a chance to play a sexy and cerebral character similar to Sloan Sabbith, though, presumably, with a better name. Sadoski and Patel seem like throw-ins, but they’re not: The Good Wife does right by New York stage actors, and the wry Sadoski would fit right in playing, what, Christine Baranski’s wayward son? And Patel should get a chance to find a supporting spot at Lockhart/Gardner. If not, no harm, no foul. It’s just more time to hunt Bigfoot!
The surprise upshot here is the idea of Cumming slicing through The Newsroom‘s sanctimony like a razor blade through organic, non-GMO butter. A recurring problem in Sorkin’s work is that he essentially hates conflict. Don’t get me wrong, he loves the idea of conflict. His scripts are littered with hayseeds dropped from the pockets of countless straw men. He’s a sucker for an endless parade of tough-talking villains designed for the sole purpose of being stomped by the superior intellects and vocabularies of crusading Sorkin Heroes. Cumming doesn’t play games like that. Seeing him stroll into the ACN studios as Mac’s ex or a new corporate overlord — scratch that, this is Sorkin — as Mac’s ex AND Will’s new corporate overlord could give The Newsroom that spark of non-recycled drama it’s been lacking. At the very least, it’d get me to watch again.
The Target: Andre Braugher
Andre Braugher is a legend. His Frank Pembleton was TV’s OG Difficult Man, a fascinating and towering character that preceded the Golden Age but was no less glorious. So while Last Resort was actually pretty good and the upcoming Brooklyn Nine-Nine is actually pretty funny, they both seem kind of … pedestrian for a talent like Braugher. No offense to the god Liev Schreiber, but it’s a guy like Andre Braugher for whom cable networks ought to be falling over themselves to create prestige vehicles to showcase.
So I’m not saying Braugher isn’t going to shine playing opposite Andy Samberg — and lord knows, the guy deserves a network paycheck! — I’m just also not not saying it. You have to think savvy producers on shows like Boardwalk Empire and maybe even TNT’s upcoming Mob City have placed a call or two to see if Braugher is available for a change of address. But there’s no way Fox is letting him go before his new show even premieres without getting fair value. And while there are few people who are Braugher’s equal in terms of pure, volcanic intensity, there is a veteran spark plug out there who just might benefit from a fresh start.
Justified RECEIVES Andre Braugher
Brooklyn Nine-Nine RECEIVES Walton Goggins
Justified fans — and they are legion — worship at the altar of Walton Goggins. He’s a bug-eyed goofball with classical chops and a crackling air of unpredictability that follows him everywhere he strides. Which is precisely what would make him an off-kilter and on-the-money choice to be Andy Samberg’s new boss on Brooklyn. The only thing scarier than Andre Braugher’s blue steel would be the hyena-esque laugh of a guy like Goggins — a loose cannon who is definitely vibing on his own private, potentially terrifying joke.
As for Boyd Crowder, well, he was meant to die in Justified‘s pilot until Graham Yost rightly realized that Boyd would be a better thorn in Timothy Olyphant’s side from above ground than buried 6 feet beneath it. But look, TV shows, like species, must adapt or die. After four seasons, one shooting, and an extended, epic love triangle, maybe it’s time to try something new, especially on a show that’s been chasing the demonic highs of Margo Martindale’s Mags Bennett since Season 2.
Enter Andre Braugher or, more specifically, Ordell Robbie. Robbie is one of Justified author Elmore Leonard’s greatest and most enduring creations, a fast-talking Detroit con man played by Samuel L. Jackson in Jackie Brown. Casting Braugher as Robbie would not only bring Leonard’s fictional worlds closer together, it would add a big-city blue streak to Justified‘s hillbilly heroism. The move would also give the show something it has lacked since Martindale left: a powerful antagonist with the heft and backstory worthy of multiple seasons. Besides, Braugher’s been stuck in Dignified Purgatory for years now. Don’t you think he wants to have some fun?
The Target: Mark Strong
Over the past few years, Brit Mark Strong has earned a rep as an actor’s actor, a chameleonic That Guy continually in the background of your favorite movies (and some of your least favorite), stealing scenes and taking names. That’s him running the crisis suite in Zero Dark Thirty and getting triple-crossed in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. That was also him in the original, 2006 British miniseries Low Winter Sun, the basis for the lousy AMC show that debuted this past week with Strong reprising his lead role. That this is Strong’s highest-profile role to date is a massive, high-profile shame.
There’s no question that Strong would be very much in demand were he to hit American TV free agency. I’m sure there’s a place for him on the battlefields of Game of Thrones or perhaps under a long hairpiece on Sons of Anarchy. Hell, he could throw on a pastel suit and in one monologue make Burn Notice about something other than sunglasses. But let’s not think small here. With a heap of great talent stuck in a crappy situation, Low Winter Sun is the Miami Marlins of television. People don’t just want Strong — they want a bunch of his castmates too. How to craft a deal that doesn’t come off as either a heist or a cynical salary dump? How can you involve Low Winter Sun in something that doesn’t merely improve other shows but that maybe — just maybe — might improve its fortunes too? Glad you asked.
House of Cards RECEIVES Mark Strong and Lauren Cohan
The Walking Dead RECEIVES Lennie James and James Ransone
Low Winter Sun RECEIVES Robin Wright and Danai Gurira
Holy blockbuster! This is a deal that radically reshapes franchises — and all for the better. Let’s walk through it step by crazy step. First up, House of Cards was hot with the Emmys, but most viewers found it engaging but chilly. Adding an actor of Strong’s caliber would help offset the loss of Season 1 MVP Corey Stoll and also present Kevin Spacey with a surprising congressional rival whom he’d be unable to Lyndon Johnson at every turn. Losing Wright would be a blow, but think about it: Frank Underwood just spent 13 episodes being essentially invincible. The only way to make him interesting in Season 2 would be to take away his armor completely. (But not the rowing machine in the basement. That can stay.)
In Cohan, Slugline gains a new, wet-behind-the-ears-yet-spunky reporter who might actually be appalled by the website’s practice of sleeping with sources. (Also, it rescues the charming Cohan from an inevitable disembowelment either at the hands of The Walking Dead‘s zombies or its fans during a testy Comic-Con appearance.)
As for The Walking Dead, well, it never should have let go of Lennie James in the first place. James is the smoldering British theater actor who made such an impression in his two appearances as Morgan, Rick Grimes’s slightly loco neighbor. Bringing Morgan back into the group of survivors would instantly give viewers something they’ve long lacked: a character worth caring about. And it would provide James with a much-needed mulligan on his career decisions, as his fire-breathing brand of capital-A Acting has proven to be far too broad for Low Winter Sun, a show without brain-sucking monsters. James Ransone, known to most and sundry as Ziggy Sobotka on The Wire, would also fit right in among the twitchy, trigger-happy humans on The Walking Dead. As an added bonus, his presence would create a much-needed showcase for his underrated abilities, hopefully leading to bigger parts in the future. Once you’ve bared your soul — and your intestines — in front of TWD‘s network-crushing audience of 12 million–plus, booking a well-paying gig on a nice, stately procedural should be easier than getting a duck drunk.
I may be playing at being a fake GM, but I’m not above some real talk: Low Winter Sun, as presently constituted, is DOA. It’s an Etch A Sketch version of a decade’s worth of morally ambiguous crime shows. So, how to take something familiar and turn it on its ear — but without fundamentally transforming the body that ear is attached to? By replacing Strong and James — who play (yawn) crooked cops struggling to stay afloat in the fetid swamp of modern urban America (zzz) — with Robin Wright and Danai Gurira. Sure, we’ve seen police dramas like Low Winter Sun before and antiheroes are more common on TV than Geico commercials. But women have spent the entire Golden Age of television being shut out of both clichés. Giving these two ravenous actors — and their impressive clavicles — a chance to tear into parts designed for scenery-chewing men would be both radical and fascinating. It’s long overdue that women had a chance to play bad boys.
The Target: Melissa McCarthy
Melissa McCarthy is one of the biggest movie stars in the country, able to open a multimillion-dollar movie the way you or I might open a bag of chips. She is also under contract for four more seasons of Mike & Molly, a middling Chuck Lorre sitcom that airs on Monday nights on CBS. This is a massive stroke of good fortune for a network that certainly doesn’t need the help and a huge drag for fans of McCarthy’s edgier, unshackled work on the big screen and on Saturday Night Live. This is a career hostage situation not seen on TV since the glory days of George Clooney on ER, so let’s be clear: She is not really available, even though any network would offer just about anything to land her, regardless of the role. ABC would trade Seattle Grace Hospital and the entire Bachelor rose garden. Fox would whisper the actual location of The Simpsons‘ Springfield and the actual phone number of Simon Cowell’s V-neck tailor. NBC would turn 30 Rock into a rotisserie grill that served nothing but sweet, sweet peacock meat. And those are just the broadcast nets with enough money to toss around to be taken seriously. So how crazy is what I’m proposing?
Louie RECEIVES Melissa McCarthy
Mike & Molly RECEIVES Charlie Day
CBS RECEIVES all current and future broadcasting rights to Anger Management
Crazy like an FX! John Landgraf gets a lot of attention around here for being the most creative-minded of network executives. This deal would be his masterpiece. The price for four years of Melissa McCarthy is hefty: Charlie Sheen’s Anger Management doesn’t win any awards for quality, but its sheer quantity (contractually headed for 100 episodes) makes it both a known entity and a profitable one. And Charlie Day is a rising comedy star in his own right. Handing him over to the hastily reworked Mike & … Marty (?) hamstrings It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, one of FX’s signature shows, just as it’s about to help launch a new, youth-oriented channel called FXX.
But Landgraf is thinking of the future here too. Louie, one of his network’s shining stars, is on an indefinite hiatus while Louis C.K. hangs out with his idols and scours the country for inspiration and ideas. Well, here’s an idea for him: How about using his cinematic sensibilities to do what’s never been done before and hand over an entire season of a show to a guest star? McCarthy starring in a year’s worth of Louie‘s trademark surreality would be a slam-dunk marriage of creative and commercial geniuses. It would break ground, it would melt faces, it would drown in awards.
That still leaves three years for McCarthy to become the signature face of all the FX channels. Would she want to start a prime-time sketch show for FXX and share the spotlight with Ben Falcone, her very funny husband, and the rest of her old chums from the Groundlings? Or would she want to stretch herself further and perhaps take a turn as a murderous trailer park owner on Justified or a badass biker chick on Sons of Anarchy? Or maybe all three? The old models are falling left and right, so why shouldn’t a network choose to go into business with one bright, shining star instead of a hundred faceless producers?
I’m not saying CBS would do this deal. But I am saying it would think about it. Which, when you get down to it, is the whole point of a fantasy exercise like this in the first place, right?
Have your own TV trades? E-mail your suggestions to GrantlandTVTrades@gmail.com. We’ll run the best ideas later this month.
This column has been updated to correct an error. The name of the firm in The Good Wife is Lockhart/Gardner, not Stern, Lockhard & Gardner.