Tonight is the Suits season finale, wrapping up its third season as the best show on television. One of the biggest reasons it has that title is the writing. Series creator Aaron Korsh and his staff are teaching a master class on how to write TV every Thursday night. Here are five writing lessons that we’ve learned from watching Suits – and be sure you tune in tonight to learn even more about how television should be done.
Lesson No. 1: Don’t BS your audience. It’s so hard to really get sucked into TV drama anymore, because most shows don’t actually follow through on the threats they make. The main cast won’t break up, because if they did, there wouldn’t be a show. That character isn’t really going to get killed off (unless you’re on The Good Wife), because if they were, the Internet would’ve probably spoiled it weeks ago. That problem you’re worried about is most likely going to get resolved in 42 minutes, or if not, it’ll be forgotten about next week. That’s not the case if you’re watching Suits. The show threatened to fire Donna and then actually fired Donna. True, she came back, but she was gone for awhile, and when she came back, it was earned. Now it’s threatening us with Mike being caught and it looks like Mike is actually busted. A show is so much more suspenseful when you know that any obstacle in the way actually means something.
Lesson No. 2: Continuity is your friend. We haven’t seen a series stick to its continuity like this in a long time, and don’t think any show’s ever used it to its advantage as well as Suits does. So many shows retcon previous facts about their characters to fit the episode of the week, or just produce something that sounds cool and justify it later. Suits, on the other hand, has been remarkably consistent – and has made active use of its history books. The character Jonathan Sitwell, who recently offered Mike a job, was part of the Hessington Oil storyline earlier this season. We’ve also seen the return of other characters like Harvey’s now-girlfriend Dana Scott and Clifford Danner, the young man who was wrongfully convicted when Harvey was with the DA’s Office. These returns, mentions to past events – it’s rewarding for the long-term viewer, and it makes the Suits universe feel like a real world, rather than a show where parts are discarded when their use is outlived.
Lesson No. 3: Let wit and swagger come naturally. Everybody wants to write that character that’s capable of snarky one-liners or who is the coolest kid at the party. The problem is that rarely are those characters actually that funny or that cool. What Suits knows is that its characters’ wit and confidence can’t just be assumed; it develops through how they carry themselves and how they interact with the other characters. There’s no doubt that Harvey Specter is the biggest badass in the room, but it’s not because the show is doing everything it can to make him that way. It’s because great lines are written for him, and because Gabriel Macht delivers those lines perfectly and carries himself with an amazing presence.
Lesson No. 4: Prove whatever you say about your characters. Speaking of character development, another major mistake is for a series to tell us that the hero of the story is the best there is at what he does, or something like that, and just assume that it’s supposed to be true because they said so. That doesn’t fly with us. If you’re going to tell us Harvey is the best closer in New York City, or that Mike Ross is something special, you’d better prove it, and they have time and time again. This hasn’t always been true (we’re still not sold on Dana by a long shot), but for the most part – to paraphrase former Chicago Bears head coach Lovie Smith – these characters are who we were told they were.
Lesson No. 5: Not every show needs a mythology. The idea of having an ongoing plot or mystery of some sort has been in vogue for awhile now, and particularly on USA shows (there was even one in the second season of Fairly Legal), but Suits proves that this is not something every great series needs. There’s been the ongoing thread of Mike’s lack of a law degree being exposed, but that’s reaching the end of its life, and we’re not worried. That was never the core of the show; it was the catalyst that allowed for the show to exist. Unless Mike gets thrown in jail tonight, this show could come back in Season 4 with everyone knowing he’s not a real lawyer, and it would still be a great show because we don’t watch to see if he’s going to be found out. We watch for the talented actors, the complex characters, and the brilliant writing that enables both those things, and that’s still going to be true whether Mike has a secret to keep or not.
Suits airs its season finale tonight at 9 PM ET/PT on USA.