‘Succession’ and 9 More TV Dramas That Are Intense Without Life-or-Death Stakes
One way to almost guarantee interest in a dramatic TV show is to give it life-or-death stakes. If there’s a sense that no character is safe, and anyone of any importance could die at any moment, there’s inherent suspense. As such, many TV dramas revolve around war, crime, survival, or action/adventure, and it’s easy to see how much discussion came about because of character deaths in popular, death-heavy shows like The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones.
However, constant death – or the looming threat of it – is not the only way to make a dramatic TV show compelling week-to-week, season-to-season. Some dramas manage to be engaging, suspenseful, or even tense without having constant life-or-death stakes, and featuring characters who generally feel out of The Grim Reaper’s reach. The following shows aren’t necessarily death-free, but they tend to find drama in ways that don’t involve frequently endangering characters, showing that a sizable bodycount isn’t needed to make a TV drama series compelling.
10 ‘Succession’ (2018-2023)
Succession is ending with its fourth season in 2023, but judging by the way it’s progressed so far, it’s extremely unlikely things will end in a bloodbath. It may take inspiration from Shakespeare’s King Lear, given it was a show that began with the question of how to divide up a dynasty, but a similarly violent ending will probably be avoided.
Instead of violence and physical conflict, Succession sees its characters engaged in constant verbal battles. The stakes are huge, given characters constantly stand to gain – or sometimes lose – billions of dollars, but it’s rare for someone’s physical well-being to be at risk. Characters’ personal wealth and professional reputations, on the other hand? They’re constantly in jeopardy, making Succession a surprisingly intense show at times.
9 ‘Mad Men’ (2007-2015)
It may have been created by Matthew Weiner, who rose to prominence by being a writer on The Sopranos, but Mad Men was a very different show to HBO’s smash-hit gangster series. Sure, both followed flawed, complex male protagonists who have to balance their professional and family lives, but the stakes felt different in each.
The Sopranos was notoriously filled with death, but Mad Men isn’t concerned with organized crime, and so much of its drama is instead centered around family and professional struggles. If someone died, it was usually sudden, given characters rarely felt like they were at risk of harm. It was still a fantastic, character-focused show, and more than compelling thanks to its interesting cast and depiction of life – inside and outside the office – during the 1960s.
8 ‘Six Feet Under’ (2001-2005)
Admittedly, there was a ton of death in Six Feet Under. Its powerful opening episode began with the main characters losing someone close to them, and its iconic finale memorably showed the way death comes to everyone eventually. In between, there’s usually one death per episode, given the main characters work at a funeral home, but it’s almost always the death of a one-off character.
Six Feet Under normalizes death to the point where it’s so inevitable that it ceases to feel as though it’s causing tension. Add to that, the main characters themselves are rarely in physical danger (besides perhaps the infamously intense season 4 episode, “That’s My Dog,” where David is terrorized by an unsettling hitchhiker).
7 ‘The Newsroom’ (2012-2014)
It’s not surprising from The Newsroom’s title that it’s a series likely to be without much traditional action or thrills. It is indeed about a (fictional) newsroom, and focuses on an ensemble cast of characters who work within such a high-intensity work environment and struggle with all the challenges that come with it.
Thanks to Aaron Sorkin’s well-known fast-paced dialogue, The Newsroom manages to feel zippy and exciting through character interactions alone. It’s also an engaging look behind the scenes at the sort of team dynamics those outside the industry are likely unfamiliar with, doing for newsrooms what Sorkin’s previous series, The West Wing, did for The Oval Office.
6 ‘The Bear’ (2022)
If The Bear teaches viewers one thing, it’s that working in a kitchen at a restaurant is brutally tough and frequently intense. There are physical hazards, sure, but even if you’re never physically hurt, there are so many other things that are likely to make work in such an environment unnerving.
From workers clashing, to customer complaints, to the fact that running a small business is financially stressful, The Bear manages to get plenty of drama out of its seemingly simple premise. It’s notorious for being a stomach-churning, anxiety-provoking show, and that it can get so much tension out of a fairly ordinary setting is remarkable.
5 ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ (2020)
The Queen’s Gambit was a Netflix miniseries that gained a huge amount of attention upon its release. It follows a woman who became a chess expert at a young age, and goes on to compete at a professional level at a young age, all the while battling her personal demons.
It’s a show that at first glance seems to be about chess, which isn’t exactly the most cinematic of games out there. Still, it was enough to hook viewers, and of course ended up being about more than just playing chess, given it also explored Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy) as a character in-depth.
4 ‘The Leftovers’ (2014-2017)
At the beginning of The Leftovers, a wide-scale and mysterious tragedy occurs. Two percent of the world’s population suddenly disappears, and with no indication of where they’ve gone or whether they might still be alive, the leftover 98% are left behind to wonder what happened, and how to move on with life after the disappearance of so many.
Maybe those who disappeared died, or maybe they didn’t. The show isn’t so much about answering the mystery, and instead focuses on those who are still on Earth. It’s a gripping and often emotional show that explores grief, loneliness, and the difficulty of finding purpose in life, and does so without the sorts of action/adventure/horror elements often present in (somewhat) comparable post-apocalyptic shows.
3 ‘Scenes from a Marriage’ (2021)
Based on the Swedish miniseries of the same name, Scenes from a Marriage is ultimately about the slow, drawn-out process of going through a divorce. A husband and wife, both in middle age, realize they want to separate, and so begins a miniseries that’s mostly about them discussing their feelings and issues with each other, as well as what will happen in their lives going forward.
It’s all very dialogue-driven, but the verbal sparring can prove just as intense as any physical battle might in a more action-packed show. It helps that the miniseries has great source material, as well as two great actors – Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac – both of whom can always give reliably emotional, passionate performances.
2 ‘M*A*S*H’ (1972-1983)
Across 11 seasons and approximately 250 episodes, there’s only really one main character death in M*A*S*H. It’s a huge and impactful one, but it’s somewhat surprising that a show about medical staff, set in an Army hospital during the Korean War, has the vast majority of its characters make it out of the conflict alive.
However, it also makes sense, given the characters are rarely in actual combat, and instead generally get patients flown to them for surgery and treatment. Those patients and other minor characters have a fairly high mortality rate, but when it comes to the main characters, the drama comes from the show exploring their psychological well-being and the taxing nature of their high-pressure job. M*A*S*H was also very funny when it needed to be, but it was serious enough (particularly in later seasons and in the finale) to be just as effective as a drama as it was a comedy.
1 ‘The West Wing’ (1999-2006)
Before The Newsroom, Aaron Sorkin created The West Wing, and wrote an alarmingly high number of episodes during its first four seasons. It was a drama series that followed the various staff who worked for a fictional U.S. President, Josiah Bartlet, with some time on the show also spent on Bartlet himself as a character.
It’s a behind-the-scenes look at the world of politicians, albeit a fictionalized one that overall presents an idealistic look at politics and the way it could function. It’s not all smooth sailing, with plenty of personal conflict between certain characters and tension surrounding whether they’ll achieve their various goals or not, but it’s a show where death – or the threat of it – is overall pretty uncommon, especially for its main characters.
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