How You Can Make A Hit TV Show

Our guide to the 13 elements that make prestige dramas work – plus, an idea for a series all of our own.

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1. Begin with a difficult man 

The best drama is all about men. More specifically, masculinity in crisis. Here, being a man is all about virility, defeating enemies, providing for your family, success and fatherhood. As long as a hero protects his family, he can get away with actual murder: The Sopranos, Breaking Bad. He can go to war and remain noble, believing he’s on the right side of history: 24, Game of Thrones, Battlestar Galactica, Homeland. He can womanise, but still be a decent guy: Mad Men, The Wire. He can be deprived of everything and still keep it together: The Walking Dead, Lost. His masculinity may be the root of his anxieties, but these will also save him in the end. 

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Esquire show: Our man is Max Lee, an Oscar-winning film director. Handsome but arrogant, he thinks he’s untouchable. But someone close to him is plotting to bring down his empire.

 

2. Build him a world 

Having a man in conflict is the main thrust, but the plots require more. When the details of these characters’ daily lives — even the food they eat — are believable, we will buy any scenario. 

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Esquire show: Max’s world: the Hollywood studios of the rich, famous and corrupt in the Eighties. 

 

3. Add a mystery 

Who killed Laura Palmer? What is the island? Who is Don Draper? An upfront mystery gives a narrative arc to your show. You can eke out clues and drop in red herrings so long as they are solved.

Esquire show: Max’s sexy but unfaithful wife, the film star Lana Lee, has been shot dead. Max is a suspect but others have motives, too.

 

4. Give him a secret

Tony Soprano is a Mafioso, and is cheating on his wife. Walter White creates an alter ego as the best meth dealer in town to provide for his family. Will they get caught? Our hero’s secret gives the narrative dramatic tension. 

Esquire show: The direction that won Max Lee an Oscar? It wasn’t his...

 

5. Love shouldn't be easy 

Jack and Kate (Lost); Nate and Brenda (Six Feet Under); Hannah and Adam (Girls) — there’s never any guarantee that the couple will find happiness and that keeps us interested. Add a professional element (The Americans) and romance goes up in flames.

Esquire show: The only woman who truly loves Max is his half-sister, Violet.

 

6. Kill off characters 

The best TV subverts our expectations of the genre. We expect Ned Stark to overthrow the Lannisters or Stringer Bell to survive a turf war. When protagonists are killed off, we’re shocked because we have become so accustomed to certain narrative trajectories, but also because we have come to love the characters. We grieve, and that is the mark of a truly great character: we care. This also shows us that the story is going somewhere unexpected. If Ned can die, what the hell will happen next? That’s it. We’re hooked.  

Esquire show: Suffice it to say, no one is safe

 

7. Go surreal 

From dream sequences (The Sopranos) to drug highs (Mad Men), and characters from beyond the grave (Six Feet Under), altered states allow writers to go where characters cannot go in their everyday lives to show their fears and desires.

Esquire show: We cut to scenes from the actors’ films, presenting them in scenarios from many genres that bizarrely reflect their current mood.

 

8. Be brainy 

The Wire: a show on the sociology of a city, you say? Game on, we say.

Esquire show: In season one’s first half, each episode follows a character on the same day, up until Lana’s murder is discovered, retelling events from different angles. In the second half, it’s the same technique — with the second victim.

 

9. Get some real women 

The shows may be all about men, but the women ought to be complex, multifaceted, realistic characters in their own right. They are allowed to be as sexual, intelligent or devious as their male counterparts. The “difficult man” of Homeland is arguably Carrie Mathison. Daughters challenge fathers: Dana knows Brody’s secret; Sally Draper exposes her dad as a fraud.

Esquire show: Lana: the siren with a secret past. Violet: who fights to prove Max’s innocence. Mandy: the up-and-coming starlet who steps into Lana’s shoes. 

 

10. Sex sells


 

11. Give it an explosion 

How do you explain or remind viewers of plot points without it seeming forced? Game of Thrones’ Ros was invented expressly for this purpose.

Esquire show: The characters appear on the TV news, answering questions put to them by the media, highlighting Hollywood’s obsession with fame, and keeping us up to speed with facts.

 

12. Be downbeat 

Homeland doesn’t make you feel safe. Walter White is increasingly unsavoury. Great shows aren’t afraid to be bleak.

Esquire show: It’s Hollywood. Dreams are crushed. Careers fail. Broken people litter the streets while the dead are idolised and immortal.

 

13.  Have an endgame 

When David Benioff and DB Weiss pitched Game of Thrones as a TV show to writer George RR Martin, they won him over by answering the question, “Who is Jon Snow’s mother?” Martin is yet to write the final book, but these guys are already thinking endgame. 

Esquire show: As if we’re going to tell you that.