Creators mine dark psychology for hits
The proliferation of complicated protagonists on the smallscreen has led many to insist we’re in a golden age of television. But how did these characters come to life?
Michael Hirst, who writes every episode of Showtime’s “The Tudors,” a series centered on the young Henry VIII, returned to the vast library he assembled to write the movie “Elizabeth” (1998).
“I got all those books out again, about 30 basic texts,” Hirst says. “But I also read the poetry and listen to the music of the time. Often, I’m just looking for quirky details that don’t mean much to a historian, but to a dramatist they’re meat and drink.”
Ironically, Hirst may have done his job too well. His Henry is so vibrant — and so sexily compelling in Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ portrayal — that viewers may be forgiven wondering how much is based in fact.
Hirst offers a sharp retort. “Just because people don’t believe it doesn’t mean it’s not true,” he insists. “As a rule, the more extreme it is, the more likely it’s true.”
If the manipulative and dogged Henry has a distaff equivalent in the modern world, it could easily be Patty Hewes, the scheming — ostensibly principled — lawyer who’s the eye of the storm on FX’s “Damages.” As played by Glenn Close, she’s a fearsome creature, one creators Todd and Glenn Kessler and Daniel Zelman had to combine resources to invent.
“She’s smarter than any one of us,” Glenn Kessler says. “She’s a step ahead of everybody.”
They created Hewes to explore power dynamics in a fresh way. “We had seen men depicted in this fashion,” Glenn Kessler continues. “But there hadn’t been a similar treatment for women. So we alighted on high-stakes litigation.”
In so doing, the trio relied on personal experience. “We’ve known people like her,” Todd Kessler says. “She’s very much a product of all three of our lives.”
Yet one valuable piece of the Hewes puzzle arrived accidentally, according to Zelman. “We came across an article about this personality test,” he recalls. “It turned out that criminals and high-powered CEOs scored similarly. That was a big inspiration for the series — that the very people who thrive in our society share traits with those near the edge.”
No character on TV these days stands nearer to the edge than Benjamin Linus of ABC’s “Lost.” Though the show remains the very personal domain of co-creators Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof, even they have drawn on history occasionally. For Ben’s introduction at the start of the second season of “Lost,” Lindelof offers a real-life “what if” as the inspiration.
“What if the British captured Napoleon and didn’t know they had him because he disguised himself as a simple sailor?” he asks. “That’s what we had in mind here.”
What they didn’t envision was that Michael Emerson, who plays Ben, would possess such staying power. “We thought he’d have a three-episode arc, and then we wouldn’t see him again,” Cuse recollects. “But Michael was so damn compelling that we wrote eight episodes in year two and then made him a series regular. He overwhelmed us with his malevolent charisma.”
Comedy only recently embraced complicated protagonists, but examples in the genre are as vivid as any — just think Alec Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy in NBC’s “30 Rock,” Steve Carell’s Michael Scott in the Peacock’s “The Office” and Neil Patrick Harris’ Barney Stinson in “How I Met Your Mother” (CBS).
For Barney, the politically incorrect blowhard who serves as the sitcom’s catalyst, creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas turned to their own post-collegiate days, when they were writing for David Letterman in New York.
“Barney’s invented,” Thomas says, “but the initial spark came from two guys we knew. One was a drinking buddy who used to say, ‘Boys, I’m gonna teach you how to live.’ Barney says that now. It’s always stuff that’s going to cost you a lot of money and possibly shorten your life expectancy. But it made us laugh in real life, and we thought it might make other people laugh, too.”