C. A party scene.
A long-arc prestige drama usually requires a sprawling world of characters that’s large enough to sustain years of intertwining story lines. But how to introduce them all? Almost every great drama pilot has a party in the premiere—whether a birthday party (The Sopranos, Breaking Bad), funeral wake (Six Feet Under), countdown-to-Prohibition blowout (Boardwalk Empire), or royal feast (Game of Thrones). It puts characters in the same room and establishes the existing relationships, demonstrating the complex verisimilitude of the show’s world.
D. A huge explosion.
Nobody’s going to know that you have an impressive budget if you don’t flaunt it early. So blow up something big in the pilot. Like a warehouse (Sons of Anarchy), restaurant (The Sopranos), airplane (Lost), or church (Justified).
E. A demonstration of our hero’s superpower.
Remember Don’s genius Lucky Strike pitch (“It’s Toasted”)? Or how Carrie spotted Brody’s finger-tapping terrorist code? Or when Jack performed surgery on a fellow Flight 815 passenger? Each pilot moment established that the character was the smartest person onscreen. Audiences can’t help but aspire to that expertise, even if the script is rigged.
Hit the books.
Scatter literary references like birdseed. If the show is great, fans and recappers will spend endless hours searching for hidden meanings, regardless of whether such meanings exist or your references cohere. And if an episode is iffy, overt symbolism will distract and give your show the patina of smarts. Why not name your prison “Emerald City” and call the show Oz? Why not cite Dante’s Inferno on Mad Men, along with The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and Frank O’Hara’s poetry? What does Leaves of Grass have to do with Breaking Bad? Probably not much more than Tom Sawyer or Animal Farm had to do with Lost.
Let nobody be safe.
Killing main characters will keep your audience on its toes and telegraph your intention to take dramatic risks. And when you’re planning that big shocking death scene, try to schedule it for a season’s penultimate episode, to take some pressure off the finale. Rest in peace, Lane Pryce (Mad Men), Ned Stark (Game of Thrones), Mike Ehrmantraut (Breaking Bad), Donna Lerner (Sons of Anarchy), and Stringer Bell and Wallace (The Wire), all of whom met their ends in penultimate episodes.
Don’t forget the comedy.
Follow the previous dozen rules and things will get bleak pretty fast. Be sure to give some occasional comic relief. Saul Goodman, Badger, and Skinny Pete help to lighten the mood on the otherwise pitch-black Breaking Bad. Mad Men needs Roger’s quips and Harry’s buffoonery. And even The Wire had its own comic catchphrase: Senator Clay Davis’s “Sheee-it.”