“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.