This year’s Emmy nominees for drama have provided viewers with plenty of themes to chew on — the strictures of social obligations on “Downton Abbey,” secrecy and security on “Homeland,” loyalty on “Breaking Bad,” vengeance and ambition throughout “Game of Thrones” — but it’s not as if the writers behind these series set out with themes in mind when plotting out what their characters will do.
“Theme is an embarrassing topic for writers,” says “Mad Men” creator/exec producer Matthew Weiner. “Because it can be done very badly, and once the audience knows what it is, they can feel both smart and superior in kind of an unfortunate way. So for me it’s, ‘What’s the story I’m trying to tell?’ If something’s on your mind, it keeps coming up in different ways. Theme is usually the last thing, in a strange way.”
“Homeland” co-creator/exec producer Howard Gordon says situation and character drive the writers on their show, and that mulling over a theme ahead of time would make the process feel like “an English assignment.”
“I think if you reverse engineer a story from theme, even thinking about it feels like an encumbrance,” Gordon says. “We’re far more concerned with finding a compelling narrative, and when you get lucky, there’s obviously a resonance between stories. There have been some accidentally excavated themes that I don’t think anyone consciously designed.”
Both Weiner and “Breaking Bad” showrunner Vince Gilligan credit previous gigs on writing staffs with teaching them how best to approach episodic storytelling. In Weiner’s case, it was working for David Chase on “The Sopranos” — “that show was filled with not explaining, not putting into words what the episode may or may not be about,” says Weiner — while Gilligan points to a stint on Michael Mann’s short-lived cop show “Robbery Homicide Division.”
Recalls Gilligan: “I would always ask him in story meetings, ‘What’s this scene about? What are we trying to get across here?’ and he would say, ‘Don’t get bogged down with themes and morals. Just pay attention to the character.’ Basically, it was, realize what the character wants and needs in this moment, let the character live, tell his or her story, and the theme will follow. And that to me was a very interesting lesson.
“You can certainly choose to say, ‘I wish to present that evil lurks in the hearts of men, and now I shall create a character who embodies that,’ but to me it feels like looking through the wrong end of the telescope.”
Gilligan adds that “Breaking Bad” protagonist Walter White “was a character who got me excited, a law-abiding citizen suddenly by force of will deciding to become a criminal, and that was not, in my mind, a theme, but a situation.”
“Boardwalk Empire” creator/exec producer Terence Winter believes that theme and character and plot feed off each other. The early writers’ room sessions for season two made it pretty clear to everyone that having people close to Nucky conspire against him brought up the notion of what constitutes a family.
“As the story developed throughout the year,” Winter says, “we got to see more of Jimmy, the Commodore and Gillian becoming a dysfunctional family; we got to meet Margaret’s actual family from Ireland; Margaret, Nucky and the kids become closer. The stories we came up with ended up lending themselves to that theme, so it was a nice back and forth.”
Over at “Downton Abbey,” with creator Julian Fellowes writing the series himself, having an overall vision for a season helps: this past year’s war-and-sacrifice backdrop, for instance. But he admits there are notions that he’s always been interested in.
“I suppose I do believe in the power of your own personality, the power of self, and you find that cropping up in quite a lot of things I do,” says Fellowes.
Ultimately, though, these writers agree that an emphasis on finding that magic balance between character development and story surprise is what gives a show its power. “Theme shouldn’t be on your mind,” says Weiner. “It should be under your mind, and hopefully it will come out, because you’re interested in it.”
Adds Gilligan, “Your first order of business is to be a showman, tell an entertaining story. And if you fail doing that, no one’s going to stick around long enough to try to glean what your theme was.”
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