USA Network is taking a chance on mid-America, ordering a pilot for a period drama set in Iowa in the 1930s. Damnation comes from Longmire writer Tony Tost, and tells the story of Seth Davenport, a new arrival masquerading as a preacher in hopes of starting an insurrection against “the status quo”, as Deadline reports. (No real explanation on whether that status quo is good or bad for the average man.) Davenport fails to realize that a wealthy industrialist has brought in a strikebreaker to stop any uprising. And, as it happens, there’s already history between these two rivals.
This is the first script USA has picked up from a new deal that brings cohesion to NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment’s scripted programming. Under the new structure scripts are pitched to one office where execs decide which NBCUniversal Cable channel they fit with – Syfy, USA, E!, and Bravo. It also marks a continuing turn in USA’s programming, away from glossy suit-dramas like Royal Pains, Burn Notice, White Collar, and In Plain Sight to genre drama like Mr. Robot and Colony. It aligns with their new tagline “We the Bold.”
Tost’s road to this, his first original script pickup, could be a story out of a movie itself. Raised in a small mining town in Washington state where the biggest employer was a pickle factory, he dreamt of being a writer and, occasionally, a screenwriter. He returned to his birthplace the Ozarks to attend college, studying poetry and theater, then earned an MFA in poetry at the University of Arkansas. In a genre that’s often overlooked he found success, earning a Walt Whitman award for one of his early poetry books, and a PhD from Duke. But in academia he was haunted by his history.
“On my first day as a PhD student, I was at a meet and greet and one of the professors asked me what college I had come from. When I told him I had graduated from a school called College of the Ozarks, he literally turned around and walked away and never talked to me again,” Tost told Creative Screenwriting Magazine.
Wanting to stretch his creative wings Tost landed a deal for a nonfiction book about Johnny Cash called American Recordings. It whet his appetite to leave academia and coincided with a visit with U of A friend Nic Pizzolatto – a novelist who would go on to write True Detective. At Pizzolatto’s urging Tost began submitting original screenplays and quickly landed an agent who got him a meeting with Longmire’s producers. They didn’t sneer at his background, they wanted his knowledge of blue-collar small-town life for their Wyoming-set drama.
Tost says it took him time to learn the craft specific to screenwriting – building mystery, characters, dialogue, without resorting to cynicism – along with working in a writer’s room. He stuck with it though and now he’s executive producing his own series alongside James Mangold (Walk the Line), Guymon Casady (Game of Thrones), and Daniel Rappaport.
This pilot order is a nice vote of confidence. USA Network passed on pilot’s this year from Heroes‘ Tim Kring, and Game of Thrones director Miguel Sapochnik.
NBCUniversal executives are hoping Damnation will tap into some of the cultural and political worry our country is feeling as they see it reflected by characters balancing life between the Great Depression and the run up to WWII. Bill McGoldrick, VP of the content group said, “Tony’s script captures a period of American History with many of the same conflicts that we are still facing today. We are thrilled to collaborate with Universal Cable Productions, James Mangold and Entertainment 360 on this powerful and ambitious historical drama.”