Downton Abbey. Once Upon a Time. Nashville. These three shows are taking storytelling to some pretty grand heights. Granted, Downton has been shoddy this season, which is a shame, because the spectacular first season was so well done, it has been hard to watch how far it has come down in the world. The thing is, the reason Downton is faltering is the same reason Once Upon a Time and Nashville are consistently delivering the goods. That is, it has stopped doing what OUAT and Nashville are doing so well.
I am convinced that before a single page was written for OUAT and Nashville, the characters were fully fleshed out, including their complex relationships with one another. In Nashville, you could see the diagramming that goes on. To take just one example, Deacon is the alcoholic ex of superstar Rayna James, father of one of her daughters, first love, and tortured musical genius. He becomes the lead guitarist, lover, and mentor/father figure of up-and-coming Juliette Barnes, the predatory yet vulnerable country superstar…
In OUAT, there was the fun of figuring out each fairytale character and their analog in the real world. The story lines have been puzzles that the reader gets to deconstruct and solve. Half the fun is figuring out who is who in each world. It’s gotten a little wonky here and there, but the overall mechanism works, because the writers all know the back story they are doling out in delicious bites throughout the season. Every fan has a moment when they realize — OMG, that’s X from that fairy tale! (My favorite were the fairies — you just know in the writers room someone blurted out that the fairies are the nuns and everyone cackled with glee.)
Where Downton Abbey falls short is that the first season was clearly a fit of genius from one mind — and then the production crew didn’t know what to do with these people. They didn’t know anything about them, so the storylines became more and more preposterous. The best example of this is Lady Edith — poor girl doesn’t know from moment to moment if she is a backstabbing witch, a wholly competent nurse, a willing adulteress, an independent woman, a lovesick girl…and now she’s a suffragette and political thinker, as if the cause of suffrage is only taken up by wealthy spinsters who have nothing better to do.
I’ve always been a pantser, but after seeing the meticulous character and plot work that has gone into these shows I’ve started to reconsider. Yes, outlining is hard, but after seeing what these shows can do, when it’s clear that nothing was written until the characters and setting were developed, makes me think the writing will go a lot more smoothly. One of the things that has always made me hesitant about outlining is that I worry that it won’t leave room for serendipity. Now I’m beginning to think that there’s still an opening for the epiphany — it just comes in the proposal or the outline.
None of these shows are perfect. They are, however, stellar examples of some wonderful storytelling. And that’s what it’s all about, no matter the medium.