Set your show at the end of an era.
Let your protagonist embody some historical shift by thrusting him right into it: Prohibition-era Atlantic City (Boardwalk Empire), sixties Madison Avenue (Mad Men), post-Edwardian England (Downton Abbey), the Reconstruction-era West (Hell on Wheels). This gives the series a finite shelf life (typically six seasons) and a sense that the world is changing, not like some timeless, Simpsons-like Springfield, where there are no consequences because everything always stays the same.
Give the hero a mentor or a protégé.
Almost every great prestige drama uses TV’s long-form potential to dramatize generational shifts. Whether on Madison Avenue (where Don Draper squares off against Peggy Olson) or at the CIA (where Carrie Mathison clashes with Saul Berenson), this conflict is key. There should either be an older, authority-figure mentor whom the protégé can buck up against (or who can be killed and later avenged), or a younger character who threatens the anti-hero’s sense of power and makes him feel obsolete.
Add a nemesis with problems of his own.
So you’ve got a brilliant anti-hero—now write a villain who’s just as complex, potentially even more monstrous, and with motivations that are equally plausible. Think nasty opponents like Mad Men’s Pete Campbell, Sons of Anarchy’s Clay Morrow, and Boardwalk Empire’s Nelson van Alden. Or half-decent guys like Breaking Bad’s Hank Schraeder or The Americans’ Stan Beeman. The best villains, like Stringer Bell and Justified’s Boyd Crowder, often become fan favorites.
Then write a bottle episode.
Narrative sprawl is great, but some of the best episodes in recent dramatic television have been minimalist two-handers: Mad Men’s “The Suitcase,” which pitted protégée Peggy Olson against mentor Don Draper. Or the Jesse Pinkman–versus–Walter White face-offs in Breaking Bad’s meth-lab episode “Fly.” These episodes distill the long story arcs of larger series into simpler generational clashes.
Put a drug at the center.
The illicit-substance trade is one of TV’s most durable metaphors for American capitalism, and many prestige dramas revolve around a drug, whether it’s alcohol (Boardwalk Empire), crystal meth (Breaking Bad), or crack (The Wire). This allows for sketchy supporting characters, outlandish violence, and heartbreaking, “butterfly effect” consequences for everybody along the distribution chain.
Cable dramas need to distinguish themselves from broadcast fare, and sex is an easy way to do it. On basic cable, push the boundaries of what’s allowed (Roger Sterling’s blow job, witnessed by Sally Draper, on Mad Men). On premium cable, the sky’s the limit: At minimum, include plenty of gratuitous nudity (Game of Thrones’ wenches; The Sopranos’ Bada Bing Club, Boardwalk Empire’s Paz de la Huerta), then let your imagination run free. Everything from polygamy (Big Love) to sexual torture (Joffrey on Game of Thrones) to regenerating vampire hymens (True Blood) is fair game.
Parcel out the violence.
As Hitchcock knew, suspense is in the anticipation of violence rather than the gore. Stage a murder in every episode, and you’ll end up with just another CSI-style cop show. In long-form TV, suspense should build over many consecutive episodes. On Breaking Bad, for instance, Gus Fring is an unrepentant sadist—but he rarely acts. When he does, slashing Victor’s throat with a box cutter, it’s utterly shocking. To show violence’s lasting consequences, try chopping off a body part (Ned’s head and Jaime Lannister’s hand on Game of Thrones, Robert Quarles’s arm on Justified, and Mad Men’s mowed foot).
Every serious drama pilot must have at least two of these things:
A. A health scare.
The easiest way to make viewers forget they’re rooting for mobsters or serial killers is to stage a medical emergency early on: In the Sopranos pilot, Tony collapses following what he thinks is a heart attack. On Sons of Anarchy, Jax’s baby has emergency surgery. On Justified, paramedics rush to save Boyd after he’s shot in the chest. On Breaking Bad, Walt is diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. On Dexter, Rita’s son, Cody, gets sick. On Boardwalk Empire, Margaret Schroeder miscarries.
B. A corpse disposal.
So many series premieres feature such scenes that it’s down-right eerie: On The Americans, the Jenningses soak a body in acid. Dexter disposes of a child molester’s corpse in the woods. On Boardwalk Empire, Eli dumps Hans’s corpse at sea. On The Sopranos, Christopher buries Emil. Hiding or disposing of a body (and not just killing somebody and running away) establishes the rules of your show’s universe: Actions have consequences, and loose ends must be tied—only to become unraveled later, when characters’ sins come back to haunt them.