Since the first day we sat down to write our web series, Fear or Favour, it was clear that we were treading in extensively charted water. The courtroom drama has been done again and again and again and again. Across the last twenty years you couldn’t mention the words law or order without everyone in the room thinking of the epic series, and nowadays it would be difficult to walk down the street without bumping into someone who isn’t heading home to binge-watch the newest season of Suits on Netflix. There’s something about lawyers that just make great drama. You’d think that after years of our constant exposure to things like fraud in the courtroom, crooked judges, and fake witnesses, television audiences might get a little bored. And the truth is, they do. For all the successful, long-running series’, there are about a zillion more that never made it past their first season. The trick to writing an interesting law drama isn’t to create something entirely new: after all, the law is the law. Instead, it is to take something we’ve all seen before and to tell that story in a way that no one could have ever imagined possible.
The other day I sat down to research our web series and started watching the first season of the FX produced series Damages. To those who have never seen it before, it is a drama revolving around Ellen Parsons, a young lawyer who has just scored her first big job underneath one of the biggest attorneys in New York, Patty Hewes. Ellen’s first job is assisting Patty in a billion dollar class action lawsuit against a man named Arthur Frobisher; a man accused of fraud and destroying the lives of hundreds of his former employees.
Though I had watched other courtroom dramas before, after the first one to two minutes of this one I was absolutely and utterly hooked. I wasn’t blown off my feet by an intense courtroom battle or a lawyer in a flashy suit; I’ve seen those things before. Instead, I was caught off-guard by a simple but extremely effective story device that just worked.
The pilot opens with seemingly random images of New York City juxtaposed with somewhat cheerful sounding music. Quickly the images switch and focus on the door of an apartment building as the music fades away. The tone very swiftly moves to a much more ominous feel as we travel rapidly closer and closer into the heart of this building. Eventually the camera stops on an elevator door that dings open to reveal an extremely distraught woman in a green jacket, covered in blood. She is eventually arrested and taken in for questioning. Just as the detective who arrested her mutters “who the hell are you, sweetheart,” and as we are wondering the exact same thing, the story is slammed backwards six months into the past where we meet the Ellen Parsons who will inextricably become the woman in that bloody green coat.
And that’s all they needed.
The story could have started with Ellen being hired by Patty Hewes, leaving the climactic murder scenes as a surprise for the audience. But by doing that, they would have risked losing any one of their viewers somewhere along the way. That first scene of the pilot was a promise. It was a perfectly articulated promise from the writers to every person that happened to sit down and catch the first few minutes of their show, that things will get out of control and that no matter how dry or how slow any of the scenes or episodes following it may be, there will always be that woman covered in blood in the elevator to look forward to.
And as I moved past the first episode and deeper into the season, the effectiveness of this story technique became more developed and even more effective. As the episodes carry on, and the backstory (which is truly the main timeline) moves closer to the climactic scene from the pilot, the story of the bloody Ellen Parsons moves forward as well. And as we learn more about the characters in the past, the present scene makes more and more sense while raising more and more questions every episode. These two timelines become almost co-dependant in the sense that they each react to and inform the other. When we learn that Ellen’s boyfriend proposes with her in the past, we soon learn that the body in the bloody bathtub belongs to him and so on. These sorts of events happen constantly throughout the thirteen episode first season until the past becomes the present and all is made clear in an excruciatingly intense and insightful season finale. And it all worked, not just because the story was interesting but because it was told so well.
Although this method of storytelling is quite complex on the surface, it serves to prove a greater point related to the writer and his/her job. At its core the show is so simple. Damages follows a story that many of us have heard before. It’s the same old story in which a multi billion-dollar owner of a company, who has dabbled in fraud, dumps his shares the day before his company goes bankrupt. It turns out that the SEC tipped him off and that almost everybody just happened to be involved. Sure, the plot gets quite convoluted and as people start dying the stakes continue to heighten. But at its core, the bones of the story are nothing more than average. Instead of writing the show to the ground to a cancelled first season just like so many others, the writers instead were able to use creative, effective story techniques that break from convention in order to hook the viewer on a story that otherwise might have had them switching the channel.
The draw of law-related dramas is not the similarity of the different cases from one show to the next, it’s the familiarity they bring and the longing the audience has for a creative spin on something they’ve seen before. Our web series, Fear or Favour, is shaping up to have a nice mix of something new and something familiar. It’s a miniseries that follows a small town lawyer who finds his personal and professional lives intersecting and unravelling right before his eyes and the lengths to which he, and the others around him, will go to keep it all together. Simply put it’s a story about the line between family and work and how to decide which comes first. But like Damages and so many other successful series just like it, a good story can be made great by an even greater storyteller. And in the case of Fear or Favour, we’ve got more than just one.