A few little things screenwriters can learn from the golden age of tv

“This is the golden age for television,” said my friend Steve.  I debated him on that declaration, citing the 1950s: Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Lucille Ball, et al., until we could agree with a revised version of his proclamation:

“This is a new golden age for long-form storytelling.”

And, heck yes, we hold this truth to be quite self-evident.

Homeland, The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire, The Sopranos, True Blood, Californication, Dexter, Mad Men, Carnivale, Deadwood, Rome even…

…any one episode of these great cable series would clobber most entire series of shows that came before it, which, to be fair, were mostly bland, mostly insanely episodic, and mostly on the safe, highly-sanitized platform of network television.

But these shows aren’t just good; they’re great.  And there’s a ton of them, right now.  I pity the fool without HBO, basic cable, or at least a good BitTorrent client.

So as screenwriters, if we want in on this new golden age of long-form storytelling – if we want to land a gig writing for these amazing shows, or for the next amazing show, or even for our own feature films, we’ve got to understand what about the screenwriting makes these shows work.

So what’s so great about all these shows? Let’s dig in. First of all:

The Walking Dead isn’t about the zombies

AMC’s The Walking Dead, for those of you living in caves, is about a zombie apocalypse.  But wait, let me back up.

Because it’s not about a zombie apocalypse.

It’s about the group of human survivors banding together and fighting to stay alive. Yes, fighting zombies, but more importantly:  fighting themselves.

The zombies are never far, and always menacing, and always in huge numbers, but the real struggles are stuff like: Did my wife cheat on me?  Do we need to become brutal to stay alive, or can we hang on to our humanity?  Should I lock my zombie daughter in the barn in hopes of a cure?

Why The Walking Dead is a huge success is because it places these real characters into a very unreal situation, and doesn’t let the unreal situation become the star.

Homeland‘s villain(s) are people you can actually empathize with


On Showtime’s Homeland, the CIA is hunting a ruthless terrorist named Abu Nazir, who we lump into the mix with our own 9/11 baggage: Bin Laden, Al Qaeda, etc. And it’s a heady brew of baggage, if you’re like me or anyone else who’s had their eyes open during this last insane decade.

But where the series 24 often portrayed its heavy terrorists as one-sided monsters, Homeland’s writers take a different tack with their villain, Al-Nassir, by giving him reasons for doing what he’s doing.

Not rub-my-hands-evilly-and-threaten-to-destroy-the-world reasons like every other villain out there, but believable reasons; reasons we ourselves find ourselves understanding, if only a little.

But the greatest trick these writers pull off?

Making us sympathize with arguably the true villain, Brody.

What starts as a “Hey look over here.  This guy Abu Nazir’s the bad guy,” gradually turns into “Oh sh*t, Brody’s gonna go through with this,” transforming him into the main villain before our eyes while at the same time feeling for Brody, despite his terrorist intentions.

And how do they do that?


By having Brody grow close to Abu Nazir’s son, and then blowing the kid up in a US drone strike.

We liked that kid.  We are pissed he got blowed up.

Therefore, we can understand, a little, why Brody’s doing what he’s doing.

The Sopranos characters go to Baja Fresh

HBO’s The Sopranos, which ended with much controversy and discussion over how things were left, is a case study in letting the screenplay utilize the long-form, series format so we can really get to know our characters and the space they’re occupying.

In a 2 hour film, we’re lucky to understand just the bare bones of a strong protagonist:  He wants X, because of Y, and he’s a good person because of Z.

But with 86 episodes over the course of six seasons, not only do you get to know your protagonist, you get to know him intimately, which, while may be quite common in comics, serials, and literature, is a very rare thing in filmed entertainment.

What’s more, The Sopranos kept it real.

And sometimes, or indeed most of the time, real is very slow, and often meandering from plotline to plotline.

The makers of the show certainly had the option of packing each of the 86 episodes with over-the-top mob violence, but they chose not to. Because the way they made us connect with Tony and the rest of the gang was by keeping them in our world.

And humans love a good story, but it has to be reachable.

“Hey, you want me to go get some Bah-Jah Frech?” ask Pauly Walnuts at some point. Give us the mob hits and you’ve got a show.  Give us the mob hits and the Baja Fresh, and we’re putty in your hand, because it’s then our world, our real world, we’re looking at. And we humans love it more because we connect.

Boardwalk Empire‘s boring 10-year-old vs. Al Capone

While it’s okay to meander like The Sopranos, sometimes you need to know when to wrap it up.

On HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) runs a 1920s prohibition racket, jam-packed with characters such as Al Capone, Meyer Lansky, and Lucky Luciano.

So why in the hell am I spending 10 minutes out of an episode watching Nucky’s adopted 10-year-old kid obsess over his pyromania?  Or his estranged wife stealthily ordering diaphragms from her doctor pal?

Not all who wander are lost, but for all that Boardwalk Empire does right, in taking advantage of the long-form storytelling paradigm, it goes terribly wrong at times by focusing on pyro kids when we have such rich, awesome characters as the cutthroat bootlegger Chalky White and the self-asphyxiating psychopath gangster Gyp Rosetti.

When an audience watches your show, within the first one or two episodes, you’re extending your hand to them, in a deal.

You’re saying “Here’s what my show is about.  Here are the core characters; here’s why you should be interested in them.”

In theater, and in filmed entertainment, there’s a dramatic concept called “using the space.”  That is, taking advantage of the theater you’re in, or the location you’re at.

In long-form storytelling, the audience is entrusting you to use that space wisely. Meander if it helps your story connect with the audience, but meander too much from that initial handshake you made with your audience, and you’re sunk.

6 thoughts on “A few little things screenwriters can learn from the golden age of tv”

  1. Excellent article, really couldn’t agree more about Boardwalk – for the most part I think it’s great, but it’s like watching a show riddled with too many advert breaks when you have to put up with scenes about Schroeder and her kids that are too dull to care about. It was fair of them to try and put in a domestic/female perspective on the otherwise male-dominated world of bootleggers, but they’ve failed to come up with an interesting (or any way significant) story for it. A good example of a show that does it right is Deadwood, where the female side-plots are a lot more substantial – for a start, the actions of Alma Garrett, Joanie Stubbs and Trixie actually have an impact on the main storyline, unlike Mrs Schroeder and her inconsequential pottering about.

    • So true! You hit it on the head with the word: inconsequential. Margaret Schroeder isn’t *terribly* written, but she’s definitely not doing much, other than casting disapproving looks at the wayward Nucky every now and then. When she had some sort of positive gravity on Nuck, it made Nuck a bit more interesting, but now that he’s gone full gangster, she’s sadly vestigal. Perhaps recent events on the show (WHAT WAS IN THE BOX) may bump her more towards the dark side (?)

  2. I couldn’t disagree more with your contradicting thoughts on Boardwalk Empire. Firstly, it isn’t primarily a show about gangsters, but about a period in history. Each character’s story and arc gives the other time to breathe and helps to communicate that, for the most part, no one character commands sole attention.

  3. Yes, I think we all agree that Boardwalk meanders a bit, yet it’s the one show we all want to comment on. Perhaps because the parts that it does get right are amazing and keep us locked in from week to week. Great acting, great cinematography, great production design, well timed violence and it’s an interesting time period. I’ve been reading into the real lives of these characters and I’m even more fascinated. (However, the characters in Atlantic City are fictional, based loosely on different personalities from that time).


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