In a viewing world in which 487 scripted series hit the airwaves last year, cutting through the white noise with an original, high-concept premise can be a tall order. Yet, once audiences are hooked, the real challenge isn’t garnering attention, it’s retaining it — especially heading into one of the most competitive award seasons yet.
Five of last year’s seven drama series nominees were new entries, proving viewer appetite for fresh blood. Now contenders again, sophomore series such as “The Crown,” “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “This Is Us,” in addition to other long-running dramas including “Homeland,” “The Americans,” “Empire” and “Orange Is the New Black,” were under pressure to make their storytelling feel fresh all over again.
One way shows have expounded their creative parameters is through the expansion of worlds and characters. Encouraged by the positive reactions to its first-season standalone episodes, “This Is Us” unrolled several character-specific offerings in season two, including a three-part event during November sweeps. Each of the three episodes focused on one of the Pearson children and his or her individual struggles. “The Handmaid’s Tale” blew open the world of Gilead, introducing the Econopeople and following Alexis Bledel’s Emily into the radioactive work camp known as the Colonies. And for its part, “The Crown” took a deep dive into Matt Smith’s Prince Philip, offering up nuggets about his childhood and tumultuous past.
“History is all about perspectives; a thousand histories can be written about any single moment. As long as you’re always finding an interesting perspective, any event — even an event known inside out — can have a different aspect,” says “The Crown” showrunner Peter Morgan. “On top of that, I like to find events people don’t know. It’s amazing how reductive and lazy most of our historical thinking is. Very quickly, within a space of 10 or 15 years, a decade has been simplified. The 1960s become the lunar landing or the assassination of JFK. The minute they become just a handful of things they stop becoming a multitude of other interesting things.”
Setting a series up to have the ability to jump back and forth in time also allows the more interesting plot points to surface. “This Is Us” set that tone in its decades-traversing pilot, and then twisted itself again in the second season by introducing a flash-forward that aged lead actor Sterling K. Brown.
“There’s also creative challenges in that you can’t dig in on one chapter of a person’s life — you have to dig into their entire life and fill in the stuff that happens in between the time periods too. It’s a lot of work,” says “This Is Us” creator Dan Fogelman.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” continued to rely on its flashbacks in order to showcase who its characters were pre-Gilead, while “The Crown” has used them to either give new context to a known character or as a device to juxtapose alternate truths. Breaking that linear storytelling model, although nothing new, has proved instrumental in fleshing out some of these characters and arcs.
“In the first season it wasn’t Offred and it wasn’t June — it was the distance between June to Offred that was fascinating. The flashbacks illuminate the person lost, what they were like before they were squashed,” says “The Handmaid’s Tale” showrunner Bruce Miller.
“You have to do that in order to tell the story of what happens after. The more you show them in the real world with their normal problems, viewers will think, ‘Boy I should really pay attention to the things around me because who knows what can happen.’”
In all cases the producers agree it’s important to map out any given season in advance in order to hit the major beats and not back the story into a corner. It’s a method “The Americans” showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields seem to have mastered following their second season, when they stayed back to plot out the first half of season three while the rest of their writers broke for hiatus. It’s a tradition they continued up until this year’s contender, their sixth and final season.
Coincidentally, despite critical acclaim from the outset, “The Americans” wasn’t nominated in the drama series category until its fourth season.
“That calm [of early scripts] translated into a real creative dividend. Of course it’s better for production to know what’s coming up because they can plan and do their best work, but also for us because we could rewrite,” Fields says. “When you can rewrite them all and you’re telling a long, ongoing story, pieces just get honed to a finer place.”
“It’s about quality control,” Fogelman adds, noting that an 18-episode order is plenty for him — even on network television. “I don’t want to do more episodes and I honestly don’t want to overstay our welcome either just because the show is successful. We have a plan and a way we want to tell the story and rather than going, ‘Oh we have all these characters, let’s do more,’ sometimes restricting yourself and challenging yourself to get the best material into a set number of hours is really important.”
Whether creatives fill those hours with cliffhangers, time jumps, new characters or a quicker pace, at the end of the day Morgan maintains it’s all about sticking to your gut and remembering the show you set out to create in the first place.
“Every drama finds its own vocabulary of storytelling and each is as valid as the next, in the same way as every painting takes a palette and works within that set palette,” he says. “It’s the same with storytelling. You commit to a certain set of rules and a certain vocabulary and you tell an audience, ‘This is how I’m going to tell a story, these are the devices I will use and this is the language I’m speaking in.’ The audience will accept that. Where it becomes problematic is if you start throwing too many devices at it or you break your rules of storytelling. Audiences are very sensitive to that; they’ll pick up on it and reject it.”