After the pilot episode aired in November, I laid out my hopes that Damnation would be the spiritual successor to Deadwood. Though its execution didn’t live up to the promise of the pilot, Tony Tost’s tale of a preacher and his strikebreaker brother remains a world-building blueprint for any TV writers on how to set out your characters, your show’s themes and appropriately populate your universe.
Start with a protagonist with a tragic, sinful backstory but have them try their damnedest to become a better man. Add a closely-matched antagonist (perhaps a brother) who played their part in the same backstory. Now make that tragic backstory the reason they want to kill each other.
Drop them in your chosen location and place them at opposite ends of the fight for said location’s soul – make one lawful and the other lawless. Then light the fuse, retreat a safe distance and watch the fireworks fly!
Give your protagonist and antagonist a close confidant, perhaps a love interest to act as moral compass. Then add a web of companions (some who believe in them, some who don’t) to pull them in the right direction and push them in the wrong one when they waiver.
Add in a local conspiracy involving unscrupulous businessmen taking over the town.
Populate your protagonist and antagonist’s world with tertiary characters they fight for or against. These characters you surround them with will represent the people who must choose one side or the other. Are your characters going to fall in line with The Man and take his money or stand up for what’s right?
Are YOU going to be told what to do or are YOU going to become the master of your own destiny?
Due to their own secret pasts, make sure these side characters each have their own personal reasons for helping or hindering our two brothers:
A cowardly farmer tows the line before finding a backbone. The local journalist makes every decision because he is secretly in love in the protagonist’s wife. The African-American love interest adores the antagonist because he’s the only person who’s ever ignored the colour of her skin. Give the amoral sheriff an illegitimate child he desperately wants to make amends with for being an absent father. Have the powers that be falsely imprison friends. Have fairweather friends betray the cause.
Introduce newcomers from out of town with their own secret reasons to kill the protagonist. Grow your conspiracy until your shadowy, powerful elite reaches all the way up to greedy merchants, dodgy politicians, ruthless bankers, paid-off media, unscrupulous lawmen and eventually, the muthafuking government.
Up the ante with larger groups of agents of order and disorder arriving from nearby towns – striking farmers wanting fair pay joining our own or KKK-influenced Black Legion in the employ of the elite. Then up it again with higher stakes, bigger guns and more and more unimaginable dastardly deeds like lynchings.
Every action must tighten a noose around our characters necks; leading them towards what I like to call “inescapable inevitability.”
Let the tension simmer in a pot for six or seven episodes, each action more terrible and meaningful than the last, then bring to the boil as you turn into the final furlong. Allow every decision to take the story closer towards a massive David v Goliath shoot-out at a fortified building.
Place your protagonist in a situation where he must choose between his morals and something he loves. Then do the same with your antagonist.
Finally, allow every major character to find out the truth they believed is actually a lie. Ensure their character arc sees them reflect, change, grow as they become the opposite of who they (and the audience) thought they were. End your series with a giant cocktease for season two.
Et, voila! You’ve just written your first TV series.
Now I just gotta learn to do the same… or be damned to hell for eternity!
Of course, you’ll have to watch Damnation for any of the above to make sense, but you catch my drift.