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CANNES — Playing Official Competition at Canneseries, “Studio Tarara’ protagonist Ricki Boelsens, late 40s but with a hugely lived-in face, looks at himself in the mirror. There’s a poster of him as a young man starring in King Lear. Now he’s just checked out of hospital after a drink and cocaine bender at a party on studio comedy sketch show “Studio Tarara.” He can hardly remember his lines.

So is he the dead person who jumped or was pushed off the studio roof prompting the grainy bluish-noir nighttime scenes of shocked studio employees which begins every episode of the show?

Details of the victim’s identity are teased to the audience in Flemish series “Studio Tatara,” along with  Ricki’s descent into hell as he’s replaced on the show by another actor, part of a more general spiral of self-destruction. Ricky’s addicted to alcohol and drugs – (“just cocaine, not the hard drugs,” he says) – fellow-comedian Sandra to sex. In the most painful scenes in “Studio Tarara’s” early stretches, Jean, the seemingly sensitive single father who gradually upstages Ricki, is revealed as a power abusing sexual pervert, offering a pretty wardrobe mistress a part in a new film in return for sex. Set in 1993, “Studio Tarara” is a multi-layered portrait of a hard drinking, sex-sluiced entertainment world now crashed and burned and denounced by its victims of its toxic masculinity.

Produced by Shelter/Toreador. Proximus and Medialaan-owned Flemish commercial channel VTM, “Studio Tarara” marks an early fiction series from Tim Van Aelst who has won non-scripted or comedy Intl. Emmy Awards in 2018 (“Did You Get the Message”?), 2014 (“What If?”) and 2011 (“Benidorm Bastards”). It also represents the move into scripted entertainment of Be-Entertainment, headed by former Talpa Global sales director Gepke Nederlof, and set up in 2017 as a non-fiction format company. Variety chatted to Van Aelst before the show’s international premiere at Canneseries.

Having been highly successful in non-fiction, winning three Intl. Emmy Awards just this decade, why the move into scripted drama? 

First of all, between Emmy 2 and Emmy 3, we created a sitcom called ‘Safety First’. This was a huge hit in Belgium, followed by a theatrical film. Making a feature length movie made me fall in love with the writing process. When I realized my favorite shows are things like “Narcos,” “Big Little Lies” and “Ozark,” I just knew I had to create a “big” drama series.

”Studio Tarara” begins with a mix of drama – the behind-the-scenes lives of the comedians and crew – and comedy – the sketches –  and a murder mystery. But then by Ep. 2 it begins to drive deeper into character, with Ricki’s crash and burn, and themes: Sexual abuse, power-play, unequal pay for women. Surely the challenge was to keep all the balls in the air… 

It was a constant challenge to address these themes in a balanced way, so we had to get back to the core over and over again. This show is essentially about power and control, manifesting themselves as sexual abuse or gender discrimination. But we really wanted to write about all the different perspectives between men and women. How come Ricky (the male star) gets to be drunk and late all the time without getting fired ? Wouldn’t it be different if he was a woman? David and I are both men, but our writing reflects changing times when it comes to power relations between men and women. We believe that women deserve a bigger part in drama series to establish change. When I ask my son: “Who do you want to be: The Hulk or Wonder Woman?”, he will definitely pick The Hulk. Boys are raised to empathize more with a green monster, than with a woman… this is absurd, and it needs to change.

Belgium Noir exploded onto the scene with shows like “Hotel Beau Séjour.” Do you see yourself as part of a broader building Belgian or Flemish TV scene?

For a long time we were lagging behind and we felt very insecure. Those days are gone. We are able to compete with the best, especially when it comes to writing, directing and acting. If we spoke English instead of Dutch, shows like “Hotel Beau Séjour,” “The Twelve” and “Studio Tarara” would have been shown all over the world. Our concepts are fresh and the themes we discuss are bold. Just as an example: “Studio Tarara” is the first show in the world that shows in detail how men like Harvey Weinstein got away with almost anything. Those scenes are raw and shocking, because, unfortunately, they are reality.

Where did you get the inspiration for the show?

After creating comedy shows for almost 10 years, I got the idea for writing a drama series about the flip side of the business. The tragic clown. Some of the comedians and funny actors that I worked with were total wrecks as soon as they exited the stage or when the cameras stopped rolling. The conflict that emerges from playing sketches and struggling with demons at the same time has always been very fascinating to me.

How did the screenplay evolve? Was there a simple core and then you realized you could drill down deeper.

Exactly. We started from this basic idea: Behind the scenes comedy actors lose themselves in a spiral of self-destruction. But the effects of their behavior had so much impact on their surroundings that the other characters (the crew members behind the scenes) needed their own story. This gave us a great opportunity: What if one of our characters committed suicide ? The idea for a police investigation came after that. Putting together the puzzle was challenging, but also very fun to do.

Setting the show in 1993 allows you to show how much the world has moved on.  Do you feel any nostalgia at all for the period?

I was listening to Nirvana cassettes, I hated UB40 but I loved watching “Cheers,” “Seinfeld” and “The Simpsons” on VHS. Bill Clinton gave us the idea that world was doing O.K. and once a week we were allowed to play a computer game. But I will never forget 1993, because that year, I fell in love for the first time.