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How to Create a Prestige Drama

By January 22, 2021 No Comments
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The television landscape is constantly evolving, but the one trend you can count on to change with it: The Prestige Drama.

What is a “prestige drama”? Well, let’s start with “prestige television”, a phrase that started popping up in the late ’90s and early aughts with the rise of HBO’s award-winning series lineups, which included THE SOPRANOS and SEX AND THE CITY. Following their success, other networks have followed the mold and found a great deal of success. 

Prestige Dramas Define Networks

Prestige dramas became a “must” for any network looking to define their story voice and build a flagship series. The most well-known examples of this are AMC’s MAD MEN and Netflix’s HOUSE OF CARDS. AMC would find another flagship drama with BREAKING BAD a few years later, however that series did not immediately grip critics with the same praise that MAD MEN saw. In fact, it would take the writers’ strike and the series’ arrival on Netflix for audiences to get caught up on what would later be hailed as one of the greatest shows of all time. 

In the case of Netflix, the service had existed for years and was well aware that it would be blazing a path for any competitors to follow. They played it smart. Netflix utilized the data they ascertained from viewer habits to create a show they felt would have the best odds of success and the made sure to invest a lot of money into it. The result was the political thriller, HOUSE OF CARDS, starring Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright, and Kate Mara, which was based on the British series of the same name. The show was an instant watercooler hit and “binging” was born.

Other prestige dramas have risen to prominence since the success of HBO, AMC, and Netflix, including TRUE DETECTIVE (HBO), GAME OF THRONES (HBO), MR. ROBOT (USA, which redefined the network’s “characters welcome” brand), PEOPLE VS. OJ (FX), OZARK (Netflix), BILLIONS (Showtime), and many many more. 

An Esquire article once defined prestige television as “a label meant to denote quality but it’s most frequently applied to shows produced by certain networks.” In looking at examples for this piece, it was hard to disagree with this point. As more streamers have entered the marketplace, executives appear to be looking to continue making a splash with these (typically) expensive series. 

Apart from the networks, however, do you notice any similarities in any of the shows listed already? 

Traits of Prestige Drama

Over the years, shows with particular traits appear to have a better shot at being greenlit by executives:

Incredibly dark thematically

The viewers should cringe. They should seriously consider being so turned off by what’s happening in the show that they consider changing the channel, but don’t for fear of being left out of the cultural conversation. Examples include THE LEFTOVERS, AMERICAN HORROR STORY, TRUE DETECTIVE. 

Visually dark

Is it supposed to be a black screen or do you need to adjust your settings? For many years, there has been a trend of worlds that are visually dark and occasionally hard to even see what’s happening on screen. Examples include GAME OF THRONES, OZARKS, MR. ROBOT. 

High production value

Whether or not you can see what’s happening on screen, the visual style of the series should feel incredibly specific to the world and tone of the series. Examples include WATCHMEN, AMERICAN CRIME STORY, HANDMAID’S TALE.

Male Protagonist with a secret

This one has been evolving (more on that later), but much like a lot of film and television projects, these shows tend to have a male protagonist. They will also have a secret that they are hiding either over the show or at least the first season. Examples include MAD MEN, THE SOPRANOS, BREAKING BAD. 

The Definition is Evolving

If there’s one thing to remember when you’re working on your next project, it’s that what is considered “prestige” is evolving. THE SOPRANOS set a tone for shows about rich (often by illegal means) white men who are sad about their lives. It was a game-changer for television and it’s still great to go back and watch, but audiences are looking for more diversity. So don’t allow what’s come before to hold you back.

If anything, use the great prestige dramas that have come out in the past year to inspire you to continue pushing how you describe those visual worlds on the page. Explore complex protagonists whose story’s you want to tell. Play with the tone so it doesn’t have to take itself so seriously.

Great examples in the past year have been THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT, MRS. AMERICA, EUPHORIA, WATCHMEN, and many more. It’s an exciting and wild time on the television landscape, so be fearless!

Got a great idea for some Prestige TV? Launch Pad’s 2021 TV Pilot Screenwriting Competition is now open for submissions!

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