Tina Fey, Sam Esmail and 19 More TV Scribes Share Their Secrets to Making a Show "Binge-Worthy"

1:00 PM 6/17/2016

by Craig Tomashoff

"It doesn’t have to be an in-your-face Afterschool Special type of thing," says 'Broad City' co-creator and star Abbi Jacobson as she and other writers for top shows (including 'Homeland,' 'Veep' and 'Mr. Robot') divulge the formulas and luck that fuel their success.

Tina Fey and Ellie Kemper on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Season Two
Eric Liebowitz/Netflix

  • Courtney Kemp Agboh

    "We're a little old-fashioned. We build to cliffhangers and look at the show in terms of: What's the highest velocity we can achieve? How fast can we go? How many bits can we put in each episode where viewers ask, 'Did they really do that?' We build to those 'Oh shizzle!' moments, where you can't believe these crazy people did what they just did.

    Starz requires us to do a full-arc pitch at the start of each season so we really have to know what it is we're heading for. Every season has a theme and once we figure that out, we go through how it touches every character. Our season two theme was about going from survival to corruption in life. When people need to survive, they become corrupt. We took that and went from there, just asking, given that idea, what would be the next emotionally illogical thing a person would do?

    I always tell my staff that we don't write what the audience wants. We write what audiences will enjoy — which they seem to. We live-tweet with viewers as the show is happening so we can be actively involved in their experience. It's like a whole other job, but we do it because our audience wants that access."

  • Peter Gould

    "One of the things we're so proud of is that we've been able to make this a visual show. We can have stories that are a little ambiguous because they're not explained verbally. In that way, we have faith in the intelligence of our viewers. We don't try to stop and explain everything going on. And we reward them with little things nobody but them will notice. Like if you take the first letters of each title from last season, it spells out, 'Fring's back.' We thought it was so insanely clever — and of course our fans figured it out as soon as they had enough letters, proving to us that whatever we're doing, they're really paying attention.

    Everyone from our writers to our producers to our prop people knows that everything we do adds to the whole of the show. Nothing can be thrown away or taken for granted. A good example is the World's Best Lawyer mug that Kim [Rhea Seehorn] gives Jimmy [Bob Odenkirk] early on in the season. She wrote '2nd Best' on it, and it was a wonderful romantic moment. So when we show him holding it later, you know it means he's thinking of her. It fits right into the slot in his old Suzuki, but not in the new Mercedes he gets when he starts working for a big firm. We knew we liked that detail, even though we never planned it out to the nth degree. So it was great to go back to it at the end of the season, when Jimmy ended up smashing the cup holder so his mug will fit."

  • Tina Fey

    "We don't sit down and think, 'How can we be the noisiest show out there?' At the same time, making a single-camera comedy is so much work that you really have to go for it. When we originally developed this show for NBC, we were told to think of it more like a cable show. That helped a lot because it allowed us to think, 'Maybe it's OK to try this,' even though at first we weren't even sure if you could make a comedy about a woman raised in a cult.

    What I believe works well for us is this blend between me and [fellow executive producer] Robert Carlock. The high joke density and the speed of the show comes from him. Some of the core things of the show, like the characters' relationships, come from me. I like to ask, 'What's the human heart of the story? What in the world do we want to take on?'

    Our second episode last season was a good example where Titus [Tituss Burgess] begins his relationship with Mikey [Mike Carlsen]. We tried to blend a little of things people haven't seen before in TV relationships. Kimmy [Ellie Kemper] having a big fight with her mom [Lisa Kudrow] on the roller coaster was also great because here were two women talking not only about their relationship, but rape culture and other interesting topics. We've been surprised by how many young women have liked the show."

  • Kenya Barris

    "The most important thing you can have is a voice. That's true of every show that has success. And that voice has to translate into specificity and honesty. That doesn't mean it has to be a personal story. You write from whatever story you write from, as long as it comes from an honest place.

    As for me, I am a neurotic — Woody Allen would be my archetype. I am fueled by fear. I've never been a guy who says, 'People are going to love this!' I just put my best foot forward and hope it's well-received.

    For example, there was the episode 'Hope' from the second season. Every time there was a table read or edit session, I got really nervous about how people would perceive it. But it was also a career high for me because I don't feel like comedy gets the chance to start the kind of conversation we wanted to start. We have to be comedic, but hiding something behind that humor was what made this the most rewarding. I hate to sound highfalutin, but we call this art, and the purpose of art is to start a conversation. We're not trying to preach and teach, just be funny and get people talking. I've had people come up to me in airports and restaurants to tell me that's what happened for them after some of our episodes. We focus on just getting to roller-coaster moments, where you know there's going to be a dip that'll make you feel funny and scared, but if you stay in your seat and enjoy it, everything will work out fine."

  • David Mandel

    "I'm fortunate that I got handed the show when it was in its fifth season and people were already watching it. I got to come in viewing the show like a fan would, because that's what I was. Still, even maintaining the quality of a show that has a following is incredibly hard. There's 500 shows out there right now, but I'm not so sure there's 500 unique ideas. So, as obvious as it sounds, the one thing a comedy show can do to break through is just be the funniest show it can be without worrying what people are going to think.

    I don't think it hurts that we also have a truckload of the best improv actors. And Julia Louis-Dreyfus — that's what helps get eyes on the screen. But it's another thing to hold them there. We tried to use the fifth season for taking some little chances, coming up with something different yet a continuation of Veep at the same time. You wouldn't kill a mom in your second season, but in your fifth? It's possible. I knew from the moment we did the episode where Selina's mom dies that it was going to be something special, something dark in a different way than we usually are. I didn't want that episode jam-packed full of story. This was a chance to dig ever so slightly into Selina's backstory."

  • Sarah Treem

    "First and foremost, we try to create people we as writers would care about if we met them in the real world. We invest our energy in them and trust that we represent some sort of demographic out there. Then what I try to do is get us to keep pushing and doubling down on what some might call character flaws. I think of them more as character conflicts. Everyone is divided into opposing poles — devil and angel, virgin and whore — so we keep pingponging between, going further and further with that. And viewers feel invested in these people who are doing something they wouldn't dare do themselves, even though they can relate to them.

    One thing that was interesting about this past season was the moment in episode nine when Noah [Dominic West] sees his daughter in a hot tub. We constructed the character's entire arc for the season around that moment because that moment is about as horrifying as it can possibly get for him. By that point, he'd spent the whole season going from a guy who wanted things in life to be OK, to being a guy who is OK with the bad choices that got him in a bad situation. And then he's fantasizing about a woman in a hot tub who turns out to be his daughter?

    As each previous episode came out, you'd think he's gone as far down as he could possibly go. Then the hot tub moment happens. And that allowed us to start bringing him back to life in the last episodes of the season."

  • David Hollander

    "A lot of what we write toward are the most critical emotional moments that our cast can experience. Whether comedic or dramatic or violent or sexual or shameful or graceful, we just dive in. That was the aesthetic from the moment the show was created. We work hard at creating well-made plots, but we know that plots are no longer the thing that makes people come to watch TV. It's important to find extreme ways to manifest emotion and behavior and find what's needed for your characters.

    Ray Donovan is an extraordinarily emotional show. We're noir-y and pulpy and fantastical. We love to satirize Hollywood, expose the deepest, darkest secrets people have. We're unafraid of anything, whether it's glory holes or some new, insane sexual escapade. I think our audience is a little strange in a good way, so they can enjoy seeing these people doing strange things. None of us are here for any reason other than bringing them 12 or 13 Sunday nights in the summer that they can enjoy the hell out of. There's a coolness to it all that people like, and, God forbid, maybe there's some enlightenment in there somewhere, too."

  • Julian Fellowes

    "One of the most important things that I do is get my wife to read every script I write first and then ask her to tell me when it gets boring. Which, by the way, she never hesitates to do. As a writer, I want to get that authentic and immediate reaction. I write shows I want to see, so it's great when you see people enjoying your work.

    Visually, of course, we have characters living in an iconic house with beautiful rooms. So Downton Abbey became a beautiful series to look at. I'm sure that a lot of our success was also because the story took place in a period where people lived by rules about the clothes and manners and so on. There was a kind of security in everyone knowing what's what. Our world now seems rather chaotic. There's nostalgia about living in an ordered world.

    I realize we’ve become something special, judging by the great many moving letters we've received over the years. The one that moved me the most came after Anna's [Joanne Froggatt] rape. Our characters were brought up in an era with a slight tendency to blame the victim, and I wanted to do a rape story where there was no blame attached. Anna had just been nice, and that was her reward. We received a lot of letters from women who'd been assaulted, but I'll never forget one that said, 'I had slightly blamed myself for being raped, but as I watched that episode, I was finally able to realize I hadn’t done anything wrong.' "

  • John Logan

    "The only thing you can do in any medium — movies, stage, TV — is write passionately about what is true. Never look at the marketplace. I particularly love genre material that treats its fans with respect. Which is where Penny Dreadful came from. The essence of the human condition is recognizing the demons and angels in our nature, and I wanted to create a central character, Vanessa Ives [Eva Green], who was forced to do this in a very literal way.

    There's a personal connection that people have made with the show, which is what I love. One of the best examples was the episode last season with Eva and Patti LuPone, where we explained how Vanessa Ives became the woman she is. In that episode, she realized she had to be herself and not hide in a dark corner anymore.

    But it was really the story of me coming out as a gay man when I was young, accepting something that had made me feel ashamed. I learned you always have to be yourself, and I give Showtime credit for understanding that, allowing this unusual show with unusual episodes to connect with viewers."

  • Joe Weisberg & Joel Fields

    Fields: "It's impossible to set out with the goal of creating something audiences will become obsessed with. The conversation we had in our first season was more about how intimidating the television landscape was and how we wanted to do something ambitious and ultimately interesting to at least us. That's the standard we could understand."

    Weisberg: "This most recent season was different for us, though, because it probably had less spy craft and big-time thrills. We relied more on smaller moments with the characters. But that's the heart of the show, which I hope keeps people wanting to come back every week. This season, people say they're enjoying it more. We actually love reading the blogs and Twitter posts because we're usually looking at things from inside the bubble of working on the show. It's great to see all the subtle nuances that we use land with people."

    Fields: "It's always exciting to explore a world that's new for viewers, but the most exciting thing is to do it in a way that's universal. Sure, most of them don't put on disguises and have fake relationships. We go to an extreme on the show, but I think it reflects the struggles people go through."

    Weisberg: "We're happiest when someone tells us, 'We were in exactly the same situation. OK, so we didn't kill someone and bury the body, but we did have to deal with calling the dentist for an emergency appointment while my husband had to get himself there!' I think that shows the viewers trust us."

  • Ron Moore

    "When I first started in television, there was lots of pressure to make characters more likable and less dark. We had to spoon-feed the audience a lot more. So I did a lot of self-censoring. This new TV environment has changed all that. It's now about, 'How can this show make noise?' Now I'm not afraid to be different and weird. It's serendipity that I'm allowed to use my instincts to create Outlander. This is a show that takes place in two time periods, neither of which is ours. It has a female lead. We take sudden, hard turns of fate and choice.

    We're telling a unique story in a unique way. Everyone has seen so many stories that have the same three-act structure. We know it backward and forward. So when you are given something new like Outlander, you think, 'Wait a minute! These are not like characters I've seen before.' There's a sense of leaning forward into something. You have no comfort in knowing where this thing is going, and I think that is what draws an audience in.

    I give the credit for this new landscape to the DVR. You could bank episodes to watch in a run if you wanted. The networks used to be terrified that if you didn't see episode three, you wouldn't understand episode four. With the DVR, we watch television in a new way."

  • Sam Esmail

    "My vision of Mr. Robot was never this thing you see now. When I started on the pilot, I was writing about the obscure world of hacking with an unusual male character. I didn't want to seem preachy, but I did want to be entertaining and say something about modern society.

    To create the show, I used all the influence of shows I grew up loving and watching and that aren't made anymore. I watched a lot of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone on Nick at Nite, and they were like these great short films every week. What can I say? I was a nerdy 14-year-old kid who'd have Kubrick film festivals all night long. When I was 5 or 6, I was watching all the Scorsese movies and The French Connection, and we don't see enough of those sort of films anymore. And I really miss the paranoid thriller genre.

    One of my worries in terms of getting people to watch Mr. Robot, though, was that this world it exists in might seem too obscure. I really struggled with the idea that one person with a keyboard can cause so much damage. I didn't think people would understand it, but we lucked out in that way. The Sony hack was so public, it was as if everyone for the first time really understood the stakes of hacking and it wasn't just a fantasy. Every episode we did, I felt like I got away with murder. Then even hackers themselves started tweeting about the show, saying they thought it was accurate — I felt like I'd done my job. Maybe the show won't succeed, but at least I've made something that was authentic."

  • Alex Gansa

    "There are a lot of theories about what makes a show binge-worthy. My feeling is that a lot of it is just serendipity. I'm sure the premise of the show is somehow involved. Whoever the lead actors are matters. I know there are a lot of viewers who come for our actors. They are compulsively watchable and unpredictable. However, we also explore the world of today on Homeland, so there's a relevancy to it.

    Before each season, we take a field trip to Washington, D.C., and sit down with current and former intelligence officers and journalists. We get a front-row seat on the events transpiring out there and bring that to viewers. Then, we try to be risk-takers, whether it was the death of Brody [Damian Lewis] in season three or Carrie [Claire Danes] having an affair with a 17-year-old in season four. None of this alienates the audience and, in fact, it has the opposite effect. The real value of the show really hit us last season when we flew to Berlin to film the subway sequence for the finale. The horrible attack had just happened in Paris, perpetrated by Islamic State followers, and here we were telling the same story set in Berlin. Being underground with make-believe weapons really made us all question what message we should be putting out there."

  • Mike Judge & Alec Berg

    Judge: "When we premiered, I knew it would be tough because a lot of people hate technology. Which I totally get. [Rapper] Tyler, the Creator, met with us once and said, 'I saw that billboard for Silicon Valley and thought it was going to be another movie about how f—ing hard it is to make a f—ing computer. But you guys are dope!' I know what he means. The way Hollywood approaches the tech world is as if the people in it are smarter than you. We didn't do that, which I think people appreciate."

    Berg: "Our show is fundamentally about outsiders. That's the whole conceit. They are people concerned with the technical nature of things — but not that adept at the social nature of things. And that's something most people can relate to. I do think the zeitgeist has shifted in our favor. We put up a sail and the wind has started blowing into it."

    Judge: "We're conscious of allowing the episodes to have some kind of emotional component — above and beyond anything to do with startups. Like the episode where Richard [Thomas Middleditch] hires a hotshot programmer and then feels threatened by him. You didn't need to understand the technical arguments they were having. All you needed to know was that it's this little pissant guy arguing, the classic battle between an older guy and the younger guy who thinks he knows it all."

    Berg: "We work very hard to find things in the show's world that would be universal to other worlds. I think our audience gets that we're not going to get buried in tech and not take the condescending attitude that these characters are nerds to be laughed at."

  • John Wells

    "Writers have to be prepared to let their individual voice come through and then trust the audience will hear it. The audience is very video-literate now. They've seen a lot of TV and they won't stick around if you're not telling them a new story. What we do on Shameless is try to get people laughing out loud at the same time that they are a little appalled by what they see. And then they cry. I had someone get really mad at me about this. He called and said, 'F— you! You made me laugh and cry and I'm pissed off because I can't wait for the next season to start.' That was fine with me. You want viewers to get mad at you because you put them through the emotional wringer so they can't decide what mood they're supposed to be in. We're not playing one musical note here.

    The characters in your story also have to ring true. Otherwise, the audience catches on that you're being provocative just for the sake of being provocative. It took seven years to get Shameless made because there was a general sense it wasn't representative of America. I challenged that because I have lots of family members living in that type of world. And once we started, people would come up and say, 'Frank [William H. Macy] is just like my dad.' "

  • Ilana Glazer & Abbi Jacobson

    Jacobson: "It's kind of hard to say how we do the show. At the day, we just trust what we find funny and that it will translate well. We're constantly trying to keep the show very grounded by drawing from our experiences. People can relate to the absurd, fantastical stuff we do because they're examining how they might feel in the same situation. Like when we went to the bank to cash a huge check. There's a real feeling we all get when we do that for the first time."

    Glazer: "It's unbelievable how specific voices can be on TV now, with all these streaming outlets and other platforms. That definitely helps us reach the people that we do. It feels real to them. The Hillary Clinton episode from this season was about that. We say we barely acted in it because she's an icon and we were unabashedly feeling it. It made sense these girls would be flipping out about this politician."

    Jacobson: "At the end of the day, we just say, 'Let's make the funniest show we can about young people in their 20s trying to survive and make their lives better.' And we like the idea that you can be both funny and still have something a bit deeper. It doesn't have to be an in-your-face Afterschool Special type of thing. The 'Burning Bridges' episode this season was like that. We got a lot of the girls' family in it, showing their different relationships. That allowed us to show so much growth for the characters. And have a huge Mrs. Doubtfire homage at the same time."

  • David Levien & Brian Koppelman

    Levien: "We didn't calculate how to create an audience. We were just very interested personally in what was going on with Wall Street, so we attacked the topic with all our passion. And we were fortunate coming along at a time when people had developed some understanding of the topic and how it affects mainstream lives."

    Koppelman: "We approach everything from a place of curiosity, trying to understand what really drives the people we write about. And we spent a lot of time before we started Billions talking to hedge fund billionaires and the people who worked for them. As we dived in, we wanted to locate the source of their ambition. That paid off with someone like Axe [Damian Lewis]. When he tells the story at a meeting about being fired from his job as a caddy by some rich guy, it allowed people to look at him not just as a rich guy but as a human being."

    Levien: "We wanted people to identify with Axe before other sides of his character were revealed. We were pleasantly surprised by the intensity with which people responded to him, even when the viewers' allegiances toward him shifted."

    Koppelman: "We always hoped the audience would follow along with the trajectory we were taking our two central characters on. By the second half of the first season, you couldn't just vilify Axe. You had to understand him. I think we've developed an audience by creating these difficult situations for viewers."