Start with an anti-hero.
A. Make him middle-aged.
Anti-heroes between the ages of 35 and 55 can often be found leading lives of quiet desperation, tied down by two kids and a suburban home. These protagonists will encounter midlife crises, affairs, and pressure from characters both older and younger. Right now, as the economy continues to skid, a middle-aged person losing his edge isn’t a bad metaphor for a generation grappling with the fallout of the long-gone American Century. Try a guy who’s lost a bit of his mojo and who’s struggling to get it back: an avatar for boomers holding on to their golden age but aware of their mortality. (See Mad Men’s Don Draper, House of Cards’ Frank Underwood, Breaking Bad’s Walter White, Homeland’s Nicholas Brody, Justified’s Raylan Givens, The Walking Dead’s Rick Grimes, and Boardwalk Empire’s Nucky Thompson.)
B. Give him a health problem and a traumatic memory.
There’s a difference between anti-heroes and monsters: Viewers can understand and sympathize with anti-heroes, despite their awful behavior. So give yours an illness that could happen to anyone (see Tony Soprano’s panic attacks, Don Draper’s heart trouble, Nicholas Brody’s battle scars and PTSD, and Walter White’s cancer). Then flash back to his traumatic past to explain how he became such a mess (see Tony’s mom, Don’s whorehouse childhood, Brody’s eight years in captivity, and Walt’s business failures).
C. Make him great at his job.
Audiences don’t need to like an anti-hero, but they have to be impressed by him. They’ll excuse any affair or murder if a character is exceptional at something. So make him among the best in his field, be it advertising (Don Draper), meth cooking (Walter White), glad-handing (Nucky Thompson), serial killing (Dexter Morgan), or crisis management (Scandal’s Olivia Pope), and make his expertise part of the thrill of the show. He needs to be dizzyingly talented—but also not so good that he’s invincible. He needs to feel a competitive fear of legitimate rivals that drives him to more extreme actions and raises the dramatic stakes.
D. Make his business a microcosm of the American Dream.
Prestige TV needs to resonate deeper than your standard procedural about doctors, cops, or lawyers. The anti-hero’s occupation should put him in contact with a wide range of greedy and power-mad characters in a competitive, capitalistic field where there’s room to grow: drug dealer (The Wire’s Stringer Bell), mob boss (Tony Soprano), lawman (Raylan Givens), congressman (Frank Underwood). An intense, classic American workplace offers ways to ratchet up the tension and say something about bigger issues, like power, greed, and capitalism.
E. Give him a secret.
If he’s keeping something from his family—whether it’s his meth business (Walter White), affairs and stolen identity (Don Draper), an Al Qaeda plot to kill the vice-president (Nicholas Brody), or a desire to quit the KGB (The Americans’ Philip Jennings)—that gives you an easy, obvious handle on “the human heart in conflict with itself,” which Faulkner dubbed the root of all good writing. A secret also pushes the narrative: Eventually his spouse will find out and eject him from their home, upending what little stability he has left. Whatever he’s hiding, it’ll provide a launching pad into discussions about real marital problems, interior lives, public selves, and trust.
F. Make him a woman.
For nearly two decades, the dramatic anti-hero has usually been a man—but thankfully that’s changing fast. The Americans, Homeland, Scandal, Game of Thrones, and even dramas in comedy drag, like Enlightened and Girls, have given us compellingly screwed-up female protagonists who check all the necessary boxes. For example, on The Americans, suburban mom (A) Elizabeth Jennings was raped and abused earlier in life (B) and is a brilliant KGB spy in Cold War–era D.C. (C and D) who hides her secret identity from everyone except her husband (E).
Give him a family.
What links most dark, Emmy-hungry dramas—from Mad Men, The Americans, The Walking Dead, and Breaking Bad to The Tudors, Downton Abbey, and Game of Thrones—is that, at their core, they’re really just shows about families. There’s often a spouse who serves as the show’s conscience (Carmela Soprano, Skyler White, Betty and Megan Draper, Jessica Brody); a rebellious, troublemaking daughter (Meadow Soprano, Sally Draper, Dana Brody); and a negligible, clueless son (A. J. Soprano, Walt Jr., Bobby Draper, Chris Brody, Carl Grimes). To raise the stakes and magnify the sense that the anti-hero will do anything for his family, give one of his kids a disability: On Sons of Anarchy, Jax’s child is born with a heart defect, and Breaking Bad’s Walt Jr. has cerebral palsy.