The last decade or so has given us banner years for premium cable drama. It started with HBO shows like The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, and Carnivale. Then it expanded to a few Showtime selections–Dexter and Californication, even as HBO continued to pile on other options. Since then, both AMC and FX have gotten into the game with Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Sons of Anarchy, and Justified. A great deal of these shows have entertained audiences endlessly. Others have taken the next step into critical acclaim. The quickest route to critical acclaim is to pay special attention to four aspects, which will ultimately play a large role in determining whether or not a show will sink or swim. They’re really obvious aspects, far easier to define than to accomplish when writing TV drama. Many shows can survive, even thrive, without excelling in these four categories, but it’s clearly not ideal.
It is absolutely imperative that TV drama have an effective hook to pull in viewers, at least initially. Possessing the other three characteristics can buy networks some time if the concept is flat, but having a weak or average concept immediately puts pressure on the show to follow through in the other categories. The concept doesn’t even have to cut a wide swath. In fact, many of the best shows abandon the potential for a wider market share by zeroing in on target markets with their concept. Dexter has evolved into something that can cross gender lines, for instance, but the initial concept–a serial killer who kills other serial killers–is something that would resonate mostly with men.
Regardless of which market is targeted with the concept, shows with bold concepts can hit the ground running. Dexter is a perfect example. Breaking Bad has a huge hook with a wild concept–Walter White, a mild-mannered high school teacher, finds out he has cancer and turns to cooking meth to provide for his family. Mad Men provides viewers with a peek at the ultra-hip world of a Madison Avenue advertising agency, coupled with a highly unique setting–the 1960’s. Both Boardwalk Empire and The Sopranos work, conceptually, because organized crime will always have a market. The makers of Game of Thrones knew that they would have a fighting chance at survival because there’s a solid core of fantasy fans who would likely become die-hard viewers, and the literary source material had already been successful (note how I didn’t call them nerds, because I’m nice like that). The same can easily be said for The Walking Dead. Zombies will never go out of style for a very specialized part of the wider market. The concept is the product networks provide that inspires viewers to pay the price of admission.
Once networks have the attention of viewers with the concept, they have to leave a positive first impression by giving them characters that they can grab on to and make an emotional investment. Walter White could be any of us, because Vince Gilligan and crew make his cancer very real to the viewer. And his series of awful decisions make all of us cringe for that very reason. A bloodthirsty serial killer would likely turn viewers off. As such, the show’s writers infused Dexter Morgan with an ethos, a code that he lives by, a life, friends, co-workers and the like. They made him real to us. Rome has a wonderful hook for history nerds, but it worked because the characters were fleshed out in ways that resonate.
A lot of characters work with audiences because of their behavior. Justified’s Raylan Givens is unflappable, and behaves in ways we wish we could. Justified is a perfect example of a show with a middling concept that’s compensated for by a very popular character. Tony Soprano provided the ultimate in anti-heroism, and viewers couldn’t look away. The behavior of the Game of Thrones core cast of characters runs the full gamut, from greedy to heroic to angry to power-mad and it’s all captivating. Every guy on the face of the earth secretly wishes he could be Don Draper from Mad Men, while women can latch on to the meaty roles given to the female characters. The Wire supplied an entire galaxy of characters that viewers could enjoy from every angle conceivable with regards to the drug trade in Baltimore. And both The Wire and Mad Men illustrate an important point. It can’t only be the protagonist that hooks viewers. They have to be supported with a flock of compelling secondary characters. It’s what keeps viewers coming back once the initial thrill of the concept has worn off.
The first two categories mean bupkis if the lines are being delivered by wooden actors and actresses, or actors who don’t particularly excel at filling certain roles. I alluded to the ability of certain characters to make their situation feel real to the audience. That’s at the core, really, and it begins and ends with the cast’s acting skills. Rome, The Wire, and Game of Thrones flooded their landscape with classically-trained actors. Viewers sit on the edge of their seats each week for Breaking Bad because Bryan Cranston makes us believe that he’s not in danger, but rather he IS the danger. The Sopranos had absolutely no problems convincing us that these actors were actually Jersey mobsters because the actors and actresses themselves were from the area, in a twist of neo-realist genius. Michael Pitt’s character on Boardwalk Empire is an easy sell because we’ve seen Pitt with the same Prohibition-era gangster haircut for years, even pre-dating his turn as Darmody. The same could be said of Steve Buscemi on Boardwalk; audiences have known of Buscemi’s strong eastern seaboard ties ever since he started making his name. If you were hoping to lure in fans of the fantasy genre, as Game of Thrones needed to do, there are few better places to start than with fantasy film veteran Sean Bean.
This is where the wheat is separated from the chaff. After networks successfully draw people in with a concept, hold onto them with strong characters, and align great actors to make everything real, there’s one final aspect. And it’s absolutely integral if a show hopes to go beyond ratings and into the mystical world of critical acclaim. For a TV drama to go to the next level, it’s imperative that it has good writing.
Plausibility of character behavior is a must. An unfortunate side effect of aiming for a bold concept is that it requires placing characters in implausible scenarios. This is where the writing is most important. With seasons comprised of 10 to 15 episodes, there is a lot of time to take these implausible scenarios and make them seem completely normal. There is a lot of opportunity to establish that a character’s behavior lies in line with who they are. Nothing drives me crazier than a show that features characters whose behavior shifts wildly, implausibly. There’s really no excuse for it. If certain knowledge or skills are required for a character to escape a certain jam, thereby resolving tension and moving the plot forward, writers need to set it up. The truly good writers will take their time, molding these behavior turns into a slow, season-long burn. Sometimes, as was the case in the most recent season of Boardwalk Empire with Jimmy Darmody and his mother, Gillian (Gretchen Mol), writers can build tension over multiple seasons before giving the audience release. That’s what good writers do. They pay attention to detail and they never betray the universe that they’ve established throughout their series. Sometimes, they pay painstaking attention to detail; the amazing crew that creates Breaking Bad is nearly perfect in this way. It’s what makes a show shift from merely a fun concept into something more extraordinary.
In fact, it’s part of a larger point. Arming their tension and resolution with realism is what makes a character arc smooth. There’s tension, there’s resolution, and then the character changes in ways that makes them deal differently with the next set of tension and resolution. And–I’m looking at you, Dexter, because you betray this rule–it should be a NEW type of tension and resolution. Otherwise, even if a character is evolving, it comes off flat at best or clunky and unbelievable at worst. Plausible character arcs are what keep a show fresh, even years into its existence.