Sophie Petzal Gets Personal with Acorn TV’s Blood

Creator and writer Sophie Petzal (Riviera, The Last Kingdom) and executive producer Jonathan Fisher (Midsomer Murders, Inspector Lewis) talk to TV Drama about how the idea for Blood came about, the keys to crafting a unique and compelling crime drama and the coup of landing Adrian Dunbar for the series lead role.

Starring Line of Duty’s Dunbar as Jim Hogan, a well-respected doctor in a small Irish town, the Acorn TV original drama Blood centers on him and his relationships with his three adult children. Season one of the series followed the aftermath of Jim’s wife’s purportedly accidental death and his daughter Cat’s (Carolina Main) suspicion that it may not have been an accident—and that her father may have been involved. When the series returns for its second season next week, a year will have passed since the truth of her mother’s death was uncovered, and Jim has returned home in an effort to make amends and help heal the family’s wounds. Before much headway can be made, however, Jim’s daughter Fiona (Gràinne Keenan) gets into an accident that exposes a shocking development that sets into motion a new family crisis.

***Image***When Petzal was approached to create a drama that was set and shot in Ireland, she decided to try to tell a more personal sort of story, drawing on the dynamics she saw within her own extended family. “My mom is Irish, she’s from Dublin, she’s from a big Irish-Catholic family, and I grew up listening to all of these stories,” says Petzal. “What I found fascinating was how different [all the children] viewed their relationships with their parents. I’ve been thinking about that for most of my life, how two children can grow up in the same household and have a completely different impression of their father. Or how they all remember a story that they all experienced and have completely separate memories of it.”

Using this phenomenon to center Blood’s drama, Petzal created a different spin on the crime genre that takes the crime-solving out of the police headquarters and into the family home. “We wanted to develop a crime drama, but we wanted to shift the balance slightly from others in the genre,” says Fisher. “What feels unique about Blood is rather than being a police-led procedural, the investigator is the daughter in the family. She’s actively investigating her father and whether or not he’s guilty of murdering her mother.”

Key to the series’ premise is maintaining the uncertainty of Jim’s guilt, providing audiences with enough conflicting material to give credence to both the possibility of his innocence and the legitimacy of Cat’s suspicions. To make both scenarios plausible in the eyes of viewers, Petzal offered different perspectives, showing events through both Jim’s and Cat’s eyes. She also allowed the plot to provide moments that undermined what could have seemed like too neat a narrative.

“We wanted to make sure that we had enough arguments for both sides so that it wasn’t too lopsided,” says Petzal. “We wanted a real moment where Cat’s the one who makes a terrible mistake. In the writing of it, I was conscious that it would be too easy if it was all about Jim’s mistakes, and therefore, you never really raised the specter of Cat being too unreliable.”

According to Petzal, the actors’ performances have just as much to do with keeping audiences guessing as anything else, with Dunbar making Jim and his intentions duly inscrutable. The creator knew from the very early stages of putting the series together that Dunbar could bring exactly what she needed for the lead role, which would anchor the story that she wanted to tell. But she wasn’t sure the top-tier talent and household name was in reach.

“In the very first conception of this idea, we were calling that character Adrian,” reveals Petzal. “For us, it was just a joke at first. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could get Adrian Dunbar? I’m thrilled that he responded to the script and wanted to play the role. That was a huge win for us. He’s been absolutely instrumental to the success of the project.”

Fisher adds, “He brings so much charisma to the screen, but particularly, he plays that ambiguity really well, which we always knew was going to be so important for this character. Ideally, you want [viewers] one moment to be totally convinced that he’s guilty of murdering his wife, and then ten minutes later, something happens in his performance and in the story where you suddenly doubt your opinion.”

On par with finding the perfect Jim for Blood was finding the right tone, which for Petzal had to include a bit of pulp and a dose of true-to-life humor. It’s about pushing the boundaries of what an audience will accept right up to the limit, letting the twists and turns border on the ridiculous without going that one step too far. “For me, what makes some of those thrillers successful—Broadchurch, Line of Duty, Bodyguard, in recent memory—there’s always just a hint of pulpiness,” she says. “The place to be emotionally authentic and grounded in the realistic is in the characterization and the dialogue. The place to be a little bit out there and a little bit pulpy is in how you plot it.”

As for the humor, Petzal believes that it adds a layer of authenticity to the proceedings, as in real life, even the bleakest of times will have their unexpected moments of comedy. “When you’re developing something like this, and you’re talking to people about stuff like this, everyone has a story about a terrible time in their lives and a funny thing that happened during it,” says Petzal. “If I watch a show, I have to laugh with the characters to love them. If they’re all too serious and too boring and too miserable, then I don’t really care about what happens to them.”

These real, three-dimensional characters in Blood are but one product of Petzal’s brilliance as a creator, according to Fisher. “One of the major strengths of her writing is combining the twists and turns with the minutiae of family life, and with that comes the dark humor as well,” he says. “The tone is kind of inherent in the quality of Sophie’s writing and the characterization of the family unit.”

Petzal had a plan for what would take hold of the Hogan family in season two before going into production on the first season of Blood, wanting to combine the familiarity of season one and its central characters with the freshness of a new impetus and mystery to drive the story onward. “We knew that in season one we were telling a self-contained story that had an endpoint and a sense of resolution,” says Petzal. “We were very keen that in the second season that we didn’t just drag it out and re-analyze the events of the first. We wanted a new mystery that was going to engage the viewers as much as it did in the first season.”

While an idea for season three isn’t yet gestating, Fisher has no doubt that there is more story that can unspool from the series’ captivating protagonist. “What’s exciting is the general thought that the character of Jim is constantly evolving,” he says. “In season one, there was a huge element of the unknown, but by the end of the season, I think the viewers completely understood him. We go into the second season kind of from his perspective. He’s essentially the character in season two who is working out what’s going on around him. I see no reason why that character can’t continue to evolve and grow.”

Blood is produced by West Road Pictures in association with Element Pictures and all3media international. The first two episodes of the series’ second season are slated to premiere in the U.S. and Canada on Acorn TV on Monday, March 9, with one episode to drop every Monday through April 6.