The Importance of Setting and Theme in creating TV Drama Series

Back in April this year, I was listening to an international group of students pitch their ideas for TV drama series. And what I noticed was that the American students gave equal weight to setting and theme, plus characters and the British students relied only on theme and character to generate stories. These were ideas for contemporary series.  And I wondered if this was a cultural difference.

I think I particularly noticed this because earlier on we had been talking about the BBC 1 show Ordinary Lies which is set in a car showroom, somewhere in England. The car showroom provided two things: it was a location where ordinary people worked and it contained a cross section of the population. But it could have been a supermarket or even an office block.

Ordinary Lies, created and written by Danny Brocklehurst for BBC 1, was about lying, the lies people tell to survive and the consequences that result. It was an anthology of single stories, unified by location, theme and a single mystery strand about an absent husband which was serialised across all eight episodes. I loved the characters and their stories but the location made little impact on me at all.

With this show in the mind, plus the students pitches, I started wondering, do we in the UK underestimate the importance of the setting when creating shows? Do we use it to its full potential? And two of my favourite US shows came to mind, Six Feet Under and Mad Men.

If you take away the setting of the funeral parlour in Six Feet Under, you have a drama about a family who have to deal with their lives and grief after the patriarch dies. What makes this show more interesting and gives it its USP is setting their stories around running the funeral parlour and the theme of what death and grief mean to the living.

Many fans of Mad Men fell in love with the exquisite period setting and costumes plus the characters. But the choice of the ad agency setting was crucial to the success of this show. It was about the American Dream and the impact of the 1960s on we live our lives now. How was the Dream sold to us? Via advertising and so an ad agency is the perfect setting to explore this.

After the unexpected success of Mad Men many copycat shows were hastily made. One reason why shows like Pan Am, The Playboy Club and even The Hour didn’t succeed in the same way was because they didn’t understand the relationship of the series setting to the theme or concept of the show. Having an interesting setting alone isn’t enough if the show isn’t about anything beyond the setting.

Of course there are excellent British shows which also use their location to equal dramatic effect. Happy Valley (BBC1) by Sally Wainwright is a great example. West Yorkshire, renowned for its beautiful landscape and the home of the Brontes, has a romantic appeal to the visitor. But the stories of kidnapping, rape, drug dealing and crime resonated in stark contrast to the romantic location. And this made it stand out from a show about crime and drug dealing in an urban setting.

So to conclude, setting and what a show is about both need to have an equal weight when creating a new drama series. An interesting setting on its own its not enough. And the meaning of your theme can be enhanced by the right setting to give a show its unique voice.

Show titles: another US/British difference

Thinking about recent British shows for this post, I noticed something else. We do love shows with a location setting in the title. Downton Abbey, Broadchurch, Whitechapel, Happy Valley, Ripper Street. In contrast, I can’t think of many US shows which do this beyond Nashville, which refers to country music as much as the setting. It probably means nothing but I thought it fun to point out.

This bog was originally published by Tanya onw her won blogsite.  To reda more fo her ideas and commenst  go to

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