After the pilot episode aired in November, I laid out my hopes that Damnation season 1 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 budding TV writers on how to introduce your characters, set out your show’s themes and perfectly populate your universe.
USE DAMNATION SEASON 1 AS YOUR WORLD-BUILDING BLUEPRINT
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 (i.e. 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, harsh location and place them at opposite ends of the fight for said location’s soul – make one lawful and the other lawless, à la Kane and Abel. Then light the fuse, retreat a safe distance and watch the fireworks fly!
Put your protagonist through hell. Dig a pit and fill it with spikes and snakes and boiling oil and injuries and loss and betrayal. Then have them fall in again and again.
Give your protagonist and antagonist each a close confidant, perhaps a love interest to act as a 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 a dash of local conspiracy; the best usually involve unscrupulous businessmen taking over the town. Damnation season 1 does this masterfully. Pepper your protagonist and antagonist’s world with tertiary characters they fight for, with, 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 blood 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? The age-old story. The external forces represent your lead characters internal struggle.
Make sure these side characters each have their own personal reasons (due to their own secret backstories) 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 with 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. Make that beautiful African-American girl the illegitimate child of the town’s amoral sheriff – a man who desperately wants to make amends with for being an absent father. Have the powers that be falsely imprison friends. Have fair-weather friends betray the good fight.
To expand the scale of your universe, “zoom” your lens out: Introduce newcomers from the nearby city, each 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 muthafuckin’ government.
Up the ante with larger groups of agents of order and disorder arriving from surrounding towns – in Damnation season 1, these were striking farmers wanting fair pay. They can join our cause or fall in with the KKK-influenced Black Legion in the employ of the elite. Then up the ante again with higher stakes, bigger guns and exponentially unimaginable dastardly deeds. In Damnation season 1’s case; 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 approach the final furlong. Allow every decision to take the story closer towards a titanic 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.
And choose whose side your story ends on. If you give your protagonist what they want, that’s the end of the story.
If you give your antagonist what they want, well… you might just secure a second season.
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! Using Damnation Season 1 as your blueprint, 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 Season 1 for any of the above to make sense, but you catch my drift.