A blog post on three heroes. But in particular, three protagonists within ensembles in series. They are:
- Mad Men (2007-15): Peggy Olson
- Line of Duty (2012-): Steve Arnott.
- Succession (2018-): Greg Hirsh
Why you may ask. Well, I was watching Succession and in particular, the scene at end of the stag night. SPOILERS. Although best known for Tom's confusing experience, for me it was the "Oh, of course" moment. This was when I realised who was the hero of the story. Doh! Now I've only seen Season One so could be wrong but...
There's also a side shot which again emphasises Greg at the front. Here he is, the runt of the litter, the outsider, at the front prepared to swim home if the taxi doesn't turn up. Now, of course, it should have been obvious from the start, here's our hero, his life turned upside down as he's lost his job, having to go grovelling to his cousins who either despise or ignore him. Yet we see glimpses of his mettle and his ability to learn: working hard, asking for promotions, telling Gerri about the cruise issue, copying the top pages of sensitive documents and using this to tell Kendall that he's someone to be reckoned with.
So what am I saying is that for me, Greg played by Matthew Macfadyen, is hardly recognisable as the hero. Contrast this with Steve Arnott played by Martin Compston. He's announced straight away as someone heroic as he doesn't toe the line of his dishones colleagues. Plot point: he wasn't present for the shooting so couldn't have corrobated their story anyway so I found this quite weak. But this is something I've also noticed in Succession, don't let reality/logic get in the way of telling a good story. For instance, in the last episode of Season 1, within hours of the car going into the lake, it's found, the body identified and Logan Roy has worked out Kendall's dastardly deed. Sidebar: Is Logan a nod to Wolverine I wonder?
Anyway, so in Line of Duty, Steve Arnott is clearly the hero, thrust into the world of AC-12. The Pixar mantra is that the hero's flaw should contribute to their entry into the new world. So for Steve, it's being too honest in his ordinary world where loyalty is more important than truth. For Greg, it's fondness for weed but also possibly his frustration at being given a job below his capabilities. In terms of pacing, Greg's is slow e.g. we see him sitting bored at the computer but it builds as he learns the world. For Steve, he also has to learn the new world, making mistakes. I also like the fact that Greg is always slouchy, reminding me of this clip:
So what about Mad Men, which premiered before either. Here it's Elizabeth Moss playing Peggy Olson. The surname reminiscient of the Olsons in Little House on the Prairie - a wholesome family from the country. I think this sets the template for Succession, she joins in the lowest tier - a secretary - and a female within a male-dominated workplace. She is our window on this new world. Draper provides her mentor much as Greg hopes for Logan to be but makes do with Tom. Interestingly, Greg is the only person who gets a meeting with Logan through polite persistence. Everyone else bullies somoeone or gives up. This is pretty much Peggy's strategy, making interventions where she can.
What about the structure and antagonist? They are all set mostly in workplaces and have a hierarchical structure. This is not unrelated to a familial one and this gives Succession't it's added frission. What about the antagonist? In Line of Duty, it's clear in Season 1 who their target is. I've not seen later seaasons but I know that in at least one it's a hunt for the mole. In Succession 1, there are two: the Bernie Sanders-type politician and Sandy, the rival media owner. In Mad Men, there's infighting for promotion along with the regular competition to win clients.
So what can we say in conclusion. The commonalities are clear, your hero is the newbie who makes mistakes but perserves to make it up the ladder. They also don't need to be on screen all the time. In fact, by hiding them somewhat it can enhance their separation and minimise their status. This does seem risky as we're told our hero should lead the action. I wonder if the format of TV with more time for story, allows this to work. Certainly, Game of Thrones didn't seem to suffer from multiple protagonists and the point of view moving about.
The fact that they are not always present, gives room for others, in particular the mentor figure. In Succession, I think Tom is a false mentor, asking him to perform criminal acts. In Mad Men, it's mostly a Draper (mentor) with Peggy show although the other characters are significant. In Line of Duty, it's definitely Steve's show along with Kate and their mentor, Adrian Dunbar, being uplifted as the series progressed. In Succession, it's much more an ensemble piece but with Logan as the heavyweight around which all the others orbit, with Greg closing in.
So, if you're writing a pilot for a long-running series, get your newbie in place, give them the dirty jobs, keep them under your thumb but make sure they get a reward at the end.