“Downton Abbey” ended its Emmy-winning first season with a maid placing a bar of soap next to her lady’s bathtub, bringing about a slip, fall and a miscarriage bordering on murder.
Viewers loved and debated the over-the-top moment. And it turns out “Downton” creator Julian Fellowes was just getting started.
Season two saw a heavily bandaged con artist pretending to be the heir to the estate. (Yes, amnesia was involved.) Meanwhile, the rightful heir went off to fight in the war and returned home paralyzed, only to miraculously recover in time to share a dance with his old flame and watch his current fiancee die from the Spanish Flu. (Or was it a broken heart?)
“It’s just history coming alive,” Fellowes says, chuckling at the dramatic nature of the plot twists. “It’s the Great War. It’s the Spanish Flu. The fingers of death were everywhere. There’s extraordinary material here for storytelling.”
“Downton” isn’t the only show mining melodrama these days. The daytime soap may be almost extinct, but prestigious, primetime serial dramas are picking up the slack, going to convoluted places that would make the creators of “The Bold and the Beautiful” green with envy.
Take Walter White poisoning a child in an elaborate plot to bring down rival meth king Gus Fring on “Breaking Bad.” Or members of a cocaine cartel turning out to be CIA agents on “Sons of Anarchy.” Or Jimmy Darmody fooling around with his mother on “Boardwalk Empire.” Or the season finale of “Spartacus: Vengeance,” where four characters met their maker, not counting Spartacus’ newborn son, whom Lucretia took with her over a cliff and into the afterlife.
How do showrunners ensure that audiences will take these shocking twists seriously? Techniques vary, but there is agreement on one thing. If you have compelling characters, the audience will follow them anywhere and rarely question the particulars of the journey.
“With a serialized show, you need to have a character who becomes the franchise,” says John Shiban, who worked on “Breaking Bad” and now exec produces western railroad epic “Hell on Wheels” for AMC. “The character’s personal story and how that plays out generates the stories. You’re always walking that tightrope of believability, where audiences begin to wonder how much can happen to just one person, so you have to know how to stretch it out.”
Adds “Breaking Bad” creator Vince Gilligan: “Part of the experiment of the show has been to transform Walter White from a good guy to a bad guy. As the episodes progress, viewers might find themselves shocked at the things he does. They might no longer root for the guy. But hopefully they find him interesting enough to continue watching.”
That plan, Gilligan says, evolved over time. Other shows know where they’re going from the outset, guaranteeing, through meticulous planning, that plot turns make sense when seen in the larger picture.
“The genius of Kurt Sutter is he figured out how all seven years of ‘Sons of Anarchy’ will work at the beginning,” says the show’s fellow exec producer and principal director Paris Barclay. “Whenever I get a script, there’s an overarching architecture. Things may surprise viewers, but they were hinted at all along.”
That’s not always the case, adds Barclay, a two-time Emmy winner. He points to “Lost,” a series he directed in its wayward middle years, as an example.
“They created a box and didn’t know how to get out of it,” Barclay says. “As the box grew more elaborate, a lot of viewers became frustrated and stopped watching because they didn’t understand what was going on.”
Broadcast network dramas like “Lost” have the disadvantage of larger episode orders. It’s easier, showrunners say, to make sensational plot twists sing if you only have to stretch the story over 13 hours.
“When you’re trying to get 22 out, you’re just trying to stay above water and feed the machine,” says “Spartacus” creator Steven S. DeKnight, who worked on the Joss Whedon-helmed “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Angel.” “You get in a crunch by midseason, so you do your best on an episode and move ahead. On premium cable, you have fewer episodes, so the layering feels more organic.”
Says “Justified” creator Graham Yost: “You have your target, and you chip away at the edges and work your way in,” noting that in the show’s second season, U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) didn’t go right at crime family matriarch Mags Bennett (Margo Martindale) from the beginning. “He got drawn in deeper and deeper, took out one son after another until he was finally sitting across the table from her at the end.
“There is some difficulty in sustaining that over the course of a season,” Yost continues. “Thank God we’re only doing 13 episodes. Otherwise, I think we’d run the risk of self-parody.”