The idea of using traditional thriller tropes in a TV show can be a tricky one. Unlike action movies, in which the story is typically used to string together elaborately choreographed fight scenes long enough for the hero to limp off into the sunset, with a series, the action has to be balanced out with the larger story, while the consequences of any shootouts or sword fights will ripple through the narrative long after the smoke clears.
But utilizing action on the small screen can heighten and subvert the storytelling and help elevate the medium. While there are obvious big-budget contenders, including HBO’s “Game of Thrones” and AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” others, such as BBC America’s “Killing Eve,” AMC’s “Into the Badlands” and Netflix’s “Ozark,” all utilize action-thriller elements as a method to amplify their storytelling, rather than overshadow it.
“Action can be like porn, in that you just skip through the drama to get to the action,” says Miles Millar, co-showrunner of the post-apocalyptic epic “Into the Badlands.” “For us, action’s only meaningful if you care about the characters.”
While the series concluded its three-season run in May, the action sequences were crucial to its narrative. Set in a distant, war-torn future in which guns no longer exist, it used elaborate combat sequences influenced by Hong Kong martial-arts cinema. But, for all its stylized choreography, there always needed to be a reason for a fight to occur in the first place.
“The fighting had to move both the character and the plot forward,” says co-showrunner Alfred Gough. “The first thing we’d ask in the writers’ room is, ‘Why are we fighting?’ It couldn’t be just, ‘We’re going to stop and have a fight.’ The fights are like musical numbers. They need to be plot-movers and show-stoppers and really carry our story forward and have a unique concept.”
Jed Mercurio, the showrunner behind BBC and Netflix’s political thriller “Bodyguard,” has a similar approach, despite the series’ very different premise. “Bodyguard” kicked off its six-episode run last August in the U.K. before debuting in the U.S. in October, and takes place in the much more grounded world of present-day counter-terrorism. So its action had to remain fundamental to the narrative, as well as its main character, the PTSD-plagued protection officer David Budd, played by “Game of Thrones” alum Richard Madden.
“We wanted to portray this type of character, the protection officer, as someone who was very adept in an action sequence,” Mercurio says. “It was really about constructing action sequences that gave him choices to make and moved his character journey forward.”
Along with serving the show’s larger narrative, the action scenes in “Bodyguard” also needed to feel of the world to keep even the biggest moments grounded.
“It was more going for the tone of realism, the sense that the action has to play out on the plausible level,” Mercurio says. He wanted to avoid “the kind of comic-book violence and action that you see in a lot of movies at the present time.”
That sentiment is shared by Chris Mundy, showrunner of the Netflix crime drama “Ozark,” which premiered its second season in August.
Even before production on the first season began, Mundy and executive producer, director and star Jason Bateman discussed their plan to use traditional action tropes within the confines of their story.
“We didn’t want things to be hyper-real. We didn’t want them to be exaggerated, both in language, but also in violence and things like that,” Mundy says.
“We didn’t want to play it overly heightened because it would just be a different kind of show than we wanted to do. What we really talked about is [that] it needed to feel real for everybody involved on screen so that it could be effective, even when we were doing crazy things.”
Even before the tone of the action was established, it was important for Mundy and Bateman to find the right pacing to allow for its storytelling to unfold naturally.
“We needed to work that out before we figured out how much action we did, how much we didn’t, how talky we were, how
visceral we were,” Mundy says. “It definitely took some time. I would say we were four or five episodes into Season 1 before we figured out what the recipe was for us.”
Despite the premise and tone of each individual series, thriller elements are proving to raise the dramatic tension overall.
“As we go into each action sequence, we have an understanding of where the characters are and what’s at stake for them,” says Mercurio. “So as we go through the action sequence, we’re invested in the outcome for the characters.”