The Secret Behind Cult TV Shows

In the winter of 1999, HBO raised its curtain to reveal a mammoth of a man...and his ducks. His name was Tony Soprano, and television has never been the same since. With its novelistic approach to storytelling, its compassionate treatment of dark characters, and its overtly cinematic aesthetic, The Sopranos is often credited for ushering in the current Golden Age of Television we've all been reveling in.
Once a graveyard for recycled hospital dramas, cheesy soaps, and worn-out cop shows, television has undergone a major makeover. Not only is it now regarded in the same breath as movies, some believe the medium has pole vaulted its once cooler cousin to become Hollywood's real creative nucleus. Shows like The Wire, Breaking Bad, True Detective, and Game of Thrones have throttled the zeitgeist in ways few films can, and those are just four of the dozens upon dozens of small-screen hits that have emerged in the last decade.
So, what makes a show a hit? Many observers would argue there is no real blueprint, and all it takes is a great idea and even better execution. But, with so many blueprints available to us, we decided to take a closer look. Here's what we came up with. All the future Vince Gilligans, David Chases, and Nic Pizzolattos out there take note: This is the anatomy of a hit TV show.

The Internet Breaker: Cliffhangers

While the pitch-black, what-happens-next space between episodes was once a gimmick heavily relied upon by daytime soaps, today's best showrunners have elevated the cliffhanger into a true art form. The best ones — Jesse Pinkman's eyes welling up with tears as he points a gun at Gayle in Breaking Bad, or Jack's guttural "We have to go back!" in Lost — transcend the story they're part of and become embedded in our cultural fabric for generations. We've still never seen an episode of Dallas and probably never will, but please don't tell us who shot J.R.


The Sense Of Discovery: A Familiar Concept With A Twist

In 1999, HBO debuted a mob drama in which the lead character was doubling as the ruthless boss of a New Jersey crime syndicate and a family man suffering from anxiety. The Sopranos was a subversive mash-up that took a genre we we're all familiar with and flipped it on its head. If you're a young Hollywood upstart looking to get a green light, do as David Chase did: Take a concept we've all seen before and throw a wrench in it. The bigger the wrench the better.


Keeping Us Moving: Unpredictability

When Ned Stark lost his head in the first season of Game of Thrones, we knew we were watching something the likes of which we had never seen before. Not only was Stark the show's main protagonist, he was also played by the most recognizable actor in a cast made up of unknowns. Then, in one fell swoop, he was gone. Ned's death set the tone for a show in which none of the lead characters were safe, fostering a climate of unpredictability that has become one of its hallmarks. While the moment was traumatizing, it was equally thrilling because no one saw it coming. Shows like Homeland, Breaking Bad, and Boardwalk Empire have also eschewed formula in favor of shock-and-awe twists, making "spoiler" and "alert" the two most important words in the English language.


The Gut Of The Show: A Big Name

The traditional career trajectory for an actor has always been TV to film, but as the Golden Age of Television rages on, movie stars in the prime of their careers are increasingly turning to the small screen to exorcise their creative demons. While some shows like The Walking Dead don't rely on boldface names to draw viewers, others like True Detective are immediately elevated to a level of prestige usually reserved for major motion pictures. In fact, Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson's run on HBO's murky whodunnit was so well received, that some of Hollywood's biggest stars are clamoring to be involved with the sequel. Don't worry, every other show, there are plenty of movie stars to go around.


The Marketer's Dream: Intense Social Following

Gone are the days of the water-cooler rendezvous to discuss last night's OMG moments from your favorite series. Twitter is the new meeting spot, and the world is your coworker. And, instead of waiting until the morning after to freak out, the conversation unfolds in real time. In fact, a show's social-media following has become such a high indicator of its popularity, that network execs value intense online chatter almost as much as they do traditional ratings. Pretty Little Liars may not crack Nielsen's top 10, but it's consistently the most tweeted about show on television, and thus one of today's biggest hits. Sorry, did we say Pretty Little Liars? We meant #prettylittleliars.


The Heart Of The Matter: Deeply Felt Characters

Every show needs someone to root for. It doesn't really matter whether the character is a saint or a sinner. We just need them to feel real. Cardboard cutouts need not apply. Do any of us think Mad Men's Don Draper is a stand up guy? No. Is it utterly compelling to watch him devolve into a shell of his former self? Oh goodness, yes. Even on a procedural like True Detective, its lead gumshoes were more than just clue hounds. They were conflicted, damaged men in search of redemption in the darkest of corners, and we couldn't turn away.


The Darkest Thoughts: A Terrifying Villain

There are few things more compelling to watch than the perfect baddie. True Detective had The Yellow King, The Wire had Marlo Stanfield, and The Walking Dead has, well, the walking dead. But, when Breaking Bad depicted the chilling transformation of a mild-mannered chemistry teacher into a ruthless crime lord and created one of the most riveting dramas ever, our intense fascination with evil was truly revealed. That, perhaps, is the scariest part of all.


The Id Factor: Sex & Violence

Ten years ago, a Gallup poll revealed that 75% of Americans were offended by the amount of sex and violence on television. Well, we hope they don't have cable. Navigate today's TV landscape and you'll be hard-pressed to find a hit show that's not steeped in bodies either bare or bloodied. It's no coincidence that Scandal and Game of Thrones, two of the sexiest and most violent shows on TV respectively, are also two of the most talked about. And, while we'll never condone the Red Wedding, we'll never look away, either.


More from Movies

R29 Original Series