'Crossing Lines': NBC's European Justice League

Crossing Lines - H - 2013
Tandem Communications

The new procedural, which bows with a two-hour premiere Sunday night, marks the first all-European series on a big four U.S. network.

At first glance there's nothing radical about Crossing Lines, NBC's new mid-summer crime series which has its two-hour premiere Sunday night.

Starring Donald Sutherland and Prison Break's William Fichtner and executive produced by Criminal Minds showrunner Ed Bernero, the show has  the slick feel of half a dozen primetime procedurals out there. The set-up is also familiar:  Fichtner, a disgraced New York cop, is called back to head up a crack team to hunt down the world's most brutal serial killers.

But this time, the crack team are all Europeans and the action doesn't take place in New York or Louisiana but in Paris and Prague. That's because despite its American pacing, style and lead in Fichtner, Crossing Lines is actually 100 percent European, the first-ever European made series to go out on a major U.S. network.

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There are a few Euro-shows out there on U.S. screens but until now they have been the providence of niche networks such as PBS (Downton Abbey, Sherlock) and BBC America (Ripper Street) or Netflix, which has picked up Euro shows including Ricky Gervais' dark sitcom Derek, Tom Fontana's French-German period drama Borgia and Norwegian crime comedy Lilyhammer starring Sopranos alumnus Steven van Zandt.

Crossing Lines' debut on NBC is a watershed for the kind of cross-border productions that used to be derided as “euro pudding” but which are increasingly attracting the attention of broadcasters worldwide.

“The audience is changing, the world is getting smaller and its more open to global issues, you can see that with feature films which are increasingly being set all over the world, not just in America,”  Tandem co-head Rola Bauer, an executive producer on Crossing Lines, told The Hollywood Reporter.  “Network executives are trying different things, trying to give their audiences a full palate. There's the sports, the reality shows, the domestic stories but also something else, something that might have a familiar concept and recognizable talent but is also different, more exotic.”

The production of Crossing Lines combined European and U.S. business models. The budget ($3 million an episode) came from European networks, tax breaks and pre-sales, along with the significant financial clout of French media giant StudioCanal, which bought Tandem Communications last year.

“We made (the Golden Globe nominated and Emmy-winning) mini-series The Pillars of the Earth completely independently, which made things much tighter, budget-wise,” Bauer recalls. “Having StudioCanal behind us meant with Crossing Lines we could put things together a lot more quickly, get together an American-sized budget that shows on the screen.”

The first-season Crossing Lines, a 10-episode order, is somewhere between the 22-24 episodes typical for a U.S. network show and the 6-8 episode series usually produced for European networks.

Unlike the back-lot approach to most U.S. shows, however, Crossing Lines used a largely on-location approach, shooting all across Europe, with whole units moving from the South of France to the Czech Republic and back again. And the cast is a virtual United Nations of actors, including France's Marc Lavoine and Moon Dailly, Gabriella Pession of Italy, Germany's Tom Wlaschiha and the Irish newcomer Richard Flood.

“It really is international, both in front and behind the camera you have people from Italy, Germany, France, the States, Canada, Ireland, England,” Flood told THR at the recent international TV conference MIPTV in Cannes. “It adds a interesting dynamic because all those cultures are really quite different and seeing them come together adds a certain spark.”

For Wlaschicha, known to U.S. audiences for his role as the cool assassin Jaqen H'ghar in HBO's Game of Thrones, having a U.S. style showrunner (Bernero) on set for Crossing Lines was a revelation.

“It was new for me, because we don't have this position of the showrunner in Germany,” Wlaschicha told THR. “In Germany, the script is carved in stone. If you want to change anything, even something minor,  you have to go to the director, the director has to go to the producer and the producer has to go to the TV executive. With Ed (Bernero) on set you could be really flexible on set, we could shape and change the story as we shot it.”

Perhaps the biggest difference between Crossing Lines and your typical U.S. network show, however, is its independence. However the series performs Sunday, and in its regular 10 p.m. slot going forward, its fate will ultimately be determined by the European audiences, whose networks are footing the bulk of the budget.

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“It would be great to have success with NBC, that's obvious, but that's not what will determine if we get a greenlight for the second season,” says Bauer. “It'll be our European partners. At the moment we are just in the middle of putting it (season 2) together. We've got a few more pieces left and are still waiting on the go-ahead from StudioCanal.”

Whatever the show's U.S. performance on Sunday, in Europe, things are looking good. Crossing Lines premiered on Rai2 in Italy on June 14 to an impressive 9.43 percent share, 18 percent above the network's average and well above the 8 percent share Rai had set as its ratings target. Following its NBC bow, the series will go out in France and Germany later this year.