We live in a golden age of television shows. From big-budget epics like Game of Thrones to modestly produced sleeper hits like Arrested Development, some of the greatest television shows of all time have come out in the past 20 years. With quality more akin to movies than conventional TV shows, these programs defy many previously existing tropes and establish some new ones of their own—but what exactly makes a modern TV show good? What makes one show more likely to succeed than another?
What makes a great TV series “great”?
There’s no perfect formula for success, but there are 10 factors that can give a show the staying power and impact it needs to keep audiences hooked:
1. A focus on a season-long plotline or story.
Older and less successful TV shows focused on plots on a per-episode basis. In contrast, modern hits like House of Cards have a tighter focus on a single plotline, making them almost like movies spread out over a season.
2. Iconic imagery.
Can you imagine Breaking Bad without that dilapidated RV at the center of it? There’s no reason they shouldn’t have been able to afford a much nicer RV, but its state of degradation lent charm and an iconic image to the show.
Repeating too many themes, situations, or ideas can leave users feeling exhausted. However, just the right amount of repetition can leave them begging for more. Take Dexter as an example; the central idea is that Dexter is a serial killer evading notice and capture. Though his evasion dragged on too long for some fans, the repetition of that danger is one thing that kept people watching.
4. Attention to detail.
Shows like Mad Men draw their power from focusing on little things in the scene—things the average user might not notice, but add a level of accuracy, consistency, and quality to the piece.
5. Rewards for attentive fans.
Easter eggs are common features in cult hit shows like Doctor Who, but the greater rewards are important callbacks to earlier episodes, like the running jokes and overlapping character arcs in Arrested Development.
Great shows don’t give you the same thing every episode—they give you a little bit more every time you watch. It could be a slow build of suspense like in Bloodline or increased tension like in The Wire, as long as there’s some kind of build.
7. Believable, relatable characters.
Poorly written stock characters can’t lead a TV show to success. Only characters that could plausibly exist in real life – who real people can care about – can do that.
8. A distinctive style.
Just like a corporation needs a brand, a great TV show needs an identity. That means a distinctive tone, atmosphere, and visual and acoustic design of a series that can’t be replicated by another series.
9. Dangerous situations.
By “dangerous,” we don’t necessarily mean running away from explosions—we mean that the main characters are in jeopardy of having their plans foiled and their lives ruined, one way or another. It’s what hooks us.
10. A secret.
Great TV shows never give you everything up front—they tease out their secrets, like LOST’s indications that the island was more than it seemed, or the question of who killed Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks.
Look at every fantastic TV show of the last 20 years, and chances are it will display most—if not all—of these factors. Recognize these factors early if you want to jump on a budding show before it explodes in popularity, or figure out why another show hasn’t seen as much success.
Again, not everything in the world of filmmaking and TV can be reduced to factors that are this simple -or everyone would be able to make a hit TV show – but they are strong indicators of a show’s potential performance.