Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Spec pilots - premise pilots vs. "typical" episodes

This question comes from The Bitter Script Reader, via Twitter: For spec pilots, should you write the first ep, or write ep 2 instead so you can present a "typical" ep?

That's tough - because I think the answer is: both. I don't mean you should physically write two scripts; I think you should write a pilot, which is the first episode of a show, but that it should also be a kind of typical episode that gives us a sense of what future episdoes will be like. It's a really difficult task, especially if you're writing a serial drama. In a sitcom it shouldn't be that hard.

But let's say you are writing a drama about a guy who enters a new world for the first time. It's a premise pilot - a show based on something big that happens in the beginning. And obviously, you need to show us that big thing. But if you write something like this, you may get notes like, "what's the series?" or "what's episode 10?" or "what's the arc of this show?" So even if you do opt to go a very premise-y route, you should have these answers in your head, and try as hard as you can to infuse your pilot with the seeds of the rest of the show. Part of this, I think, is setting up series conflicts.

I think another strategy is to make sure you have an episodic pilot story in addition to any sort of big premise world-setting-up kinda stuff. A great example is MAD MEN, which is probably the most succcessful spec pilot ever (although, yes, it took years to get made). In the pilot we get to know all these people and the world and stuff, but we still have the episodic plot of Sterling Cooper putting together a cigarette ad campaign. This lets us know exactly how ad campaigns will be handled as episodic plots in future episodes. (It also was a nice self-reflective comment on all the smoking you'll see in the show.) Genius, eh?

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Mark said...

Yeah, "Mad Men" was a genius spec because of exactly what you said - the ad campaign intertwined with personal conflict. I just wish they'd get back to that instead of all the dull Betty/Don garbage they've shown this year. The office stuff you can't take your eyes off.

Josh said...

I've even had instructors give (IMO completely arbitrary) percentages like 30 percent premise/set-up, 70 percent episodic/typical episode. Or 40/60... or whatever.

I think the general idea is an acknowledgment that you need a certain amount of set up and audience orientation as to the premise and the characters and so on, but to answer those "what's a typical episode going to be like" questions, you really need to set up what the "of the week" story will be.

You know, what's the medical mystery House will solve. What's the case on Burn Notice? And so on and so forth.

Even in something super serialized like Lost, you could argue that the "of the week" set up in the pilot is both "what's going on with the island?" and "how will they try to get off this week?"

cind said...

One of the best pilot scripts I've read is The OC pilot. It establishes all the characters and the premise of the show, but is filled with enough intrigue that you can't wait to read what's coming in the next episode. And you can see what a typical episode will be like -- secrets, parties, character relationships going crazy. The seeds are planted for the rest of the season with Jimmy's scandal, Kirsten and Jimmy's past, Ryan and Marissa vs Marissa and Luke, Seth's pathetic crush on Summer. And you realize that these characters have enough meat on them to last a series, and that by the end of the 40 some odd pages, you've connected to them enough to want to know more.

Which kind of goes back to the first rule of writing successful television, which is creating the sorts of characters that can become a real part of people's lives.

Amanda said...

@cind - The OC is one of my favorites, too - for all the reasons you mentioned. Also, it has the episodic plot of the charity fashion show, followed by the party!

Anonymous said...

It kinda made sense and had a personal touch to it awesome..characters...story...acting of this show.there will never be any other show like the OC.i have seen all OC Season.gr8 show.

Lauren Johnson said...

I'm glad that I came across this, it's really helpful.

Lauren Johnson said...
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