This Sunday Downton Abbey goes up against Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, Homeland, Mad Men and House of Cards to try to win its first Emmy as Outstanding Drama Series. It’s probably not going to happen, I’m guessing – thought it is now the most-nominated non-U.S. show in Emmy history, and was voted the 43rd best-written series of all time in the recent Writers Guild of America survey.
What most interests me about this show — which I’ve only recently discovered and binge-watched up through Season 3, Episode 2, to date (please don’t tell me what happens after that!) — is how it so masterfully demonstrates two qualities that I am obsessed with, when it comes to good writing and good serialized TV writing, especially.
1. It makes us care about the people. God, does it make us care! To me, this is a writer’s most important responsibility and challenge – to get the audience to emotionally invest in its characters, so that it any given story, they can experience it “as” a particular person. The traditional way to achieve this is to (a) make characters sympathetic or likable in some way, and/or (b) give them problems so big, relatable and important to them, that you can’t help but feel for them as they face them. You put yourself in their shoes, to some extent, and begin to feel what they feel as they deal with the difficulties, frustrations and crises of their lives.
How Downton Abbey handles the “likability” question is really fascinating to me. They have a handful of characters who can tend to play the “bad guy” role from episode to episode, but even with them, the show also generally finds ways to highlight their humanity from time to time, and makes you sympathize with what they’re going through. And that’s what strikes me most about this show: the humanity. It has so much heart, in presenting these really decent people who mostly try to do the right thing. It might be elevated soap opera, at its heart, but rather than only going for shock value with over-the-top plot developments brought about by evil scheming, it seems more interested in making us fall in love with virtually every character.
Julian Fellowes, the show’s creator and writer of every episode, has a way of turning his series regulars from hugely sympathetic to slightly less sympathetic from episode to episode, so one might play foil to another character we care about at one moment, then assume center stage as the person we’re connecting to most in the next. One of the most powerful examples of this, to me (SPOILER ALERT) was the moment in Season One when Lady Mary and Lady Edith both sabotaged each others’ love relationships within moments of each other. We balance feeling shocked at how each could hurt her own sister so purposefully with caring deeply about each of them as they suffer from it.
Somehow, we consistently get why each of their huge cast of characters feels the way they do, and we generally can’t dismiss anyone (with a few minor exceptions) as truly unredeemable, or the source of all the problems. Rather, the problems come from the complicated situations and agendas that the various people carry, which inevitably lead to personal conflicts — where we can understand and feel for multiple sides in the conflict.
It’s a stark example of how a successful series needs a robust ensemble of people who can “get stories” in any given episode. It usually doesn’t work to only have one or two such characters on a series, because eventually you run out of stories. This doesn’t seem like it will every be a problem on Downton Abbey, due to the size of the ensemble, and the compelling ongoing conflicts each member of it has.
This leads me to my other point:
(2) Despite the highly serialized nature of the series as a whole, each episode focuses on stories with a strong beginning, middle and end – which lead to clear climaxes and resolutions within that episode.
This is a common issue I see with original series ideas from writers who envision one long story playing out over multiple episodes and seasons. They often don’t put enough thought or attention into how a typical episode might work – how many “stories” it might have, and for which characters, and how such stories tend to begin, complicate, climax and resolve within an episode.
It’s my contention that even in the most serialized of shows, if you analyze any particular episode, you’ll note that the writers managed to still tell a somewhat “closed-ended” story (usually more than one story, for more than one character), where a “Catalyst” of some sort rocks their status quo in the early going, setting them up with a goal of some sort for that episode, which they set about trying to achieve from scene to scene. Usually their attempts to reach this fail and lead to complications, and a rising sense of urgency, importance and difficulty, throughout the episode. Ultimately some sort of “final battle” eventually resolves the issue.
If you really pick apart most good Downton episodes (like all great serialized shows), I think you’ll find this structure is there. They might have many stories in each episode, some of which only get the minimum of three scenes (setting up the problem, complicating it in some way, then resolving it) – but each one tends to have that clear “beginning, middle and end” within the episode, despite often being part of a larger serialized storyline that will lead to other “stories” in future episodes. In other words, some big problem (like Mary loving Matthew while he’s engaged to someone else) will take many episodes to resolve, but in any given episode, there might be a “story” related to that problem that has a clear beginning, middle and end.
For writers grappling with original series ideas, this is the biggest piece of advice I would give – focus on how a typical episode works, and how it would have stories which play out entirely within an episode (even if they are part of larger serialized arcs, as well). Oh — and really try to make us care about the people! 🙂
I also recommend my "Ten Key Principles Successful Writers Understand", and my series of audio downloads. And if you'd like me to read something you're working on, check out my consulting page.