Friday, November 27, 2009

Multitasking

Pilots are hard. In a pretty small amount of pages, you have to establish the characters, establish the world, provide exposition, keep us visually entertained, give a sense of what a usual episode will be like, and in a comedy, be funny. You don't have time to devote separate scenes to each of these things; you have to do them all at once.

I recently took a look at the pilot script for FRASIER and was really impressed by how much it accomplishes in each tiny moment.

We start off by seeing Frasier answer questions on his radio show. We learn his profession, that his show is popular and locally famous, and that we'll spend time in the studio with him each episode. (I would imagine the calls he takes are probably also the thematic backbone for each show.) We also get a lot of exposition with this exchange:

FRASIER
Russell, we're nearing the end of our
hour. Let me see if I can cut to the
chase by using myself as an example.
Six months ago I was living in
Boston. My wife had left me, which
was very painful, then she came back,
which was excruciating. I thought I
could forgive her indiscretion but
there was this nagging little hint of
resentment, this minute lack of
trust, this overwhelming desire to
shove a grapefruit in her face. On
top of that, my practice had grown
stagnant and my social life consisted
of hanging around a bar night after
night. Suddenly I realized I was
clinging to a life that wasn't
working anymore. I knew I had to do
something, anything. So I put an end
to the marriage and moved back here
to my hometown of Seattle. Go Seahawks!
I took action, Russell, and you can too.
Move, change, do something. If it's a
mistake, do something else. Will you
do that, Russell? Will you? Russell?
(TURNING TO ROZ) I think we lost him.

ROZ
No, we cut to the news about thirty
seconds ago.

FRASIER TAKES OFF HIS HEADSET, GETS UP AND HEADS INTO ROZ'S
CONTROL ROOM.

FRASIER
Oh, for crying out loud. I finally
bare my soul to all of Seattle and
they're listening to "Chopper Dave's
Rush Hour Round Up?" At least the
rest of the show was good. (THEN)
It was a good show, wasn't it?

ROZ
Here. (HANDS HIM A SLIP OF PAPER)
Your brother called.

FRASIER
You know, in the trade, we call that
avoidance. Don't change the subject.
What did you think?

---

At first I thought that big block of text was cheating with all the backstory, but now I think it's kind of genius. In addition to the practical nuts and bolts structure of the show, we get all Frasier's info, we understand the big choice that resulted in the pilot (Frasier moving back to Seattle), we nod to the show was spun off (CHEERS), we undercut it all with the joke that nobody was listening, we establish Frasier's pompous attitude and penchant for psychoanalyzing people (even when they don't ask for it), we establish Roz's sarcastic attitude, and we see that Frasier really does care what Roz thinks. All in two pages.

Then at the end of the first act, Frasier's dad moves in with him:

FRASIER CROSSES TO THE KITCHEN. MARTIN LOOKS AROUND THE ROOM.

FRASIER (CONT'D)
So, do you like what I've done with
the place? Every piece was carefully
chosen. The lamp, Corbu. The chair
by Eames. The sofa is an exact
replica of the one Coco Chanel had in
her Paris atelier.

MARTIN
Nothing matches.

FRASIER
It's a style of decorating. It's
called eclectic. The theory behind
it is, if you have great pieces of
furniture, it doesn't matter if they
match. They'll go together.

MARTIN
It's your money.

MARTIN WALKS OVER TO THE WINDOW AND GAZES AT THE SKYLINE.

SFX: THE DOORBELL RINGS.

FRASIER
(INDICATING) That's the Space Needle
over there.

MARTIN
Thank you for pointing that out.
Being born and raised here, I never
would have known that.

AS NILES RE-ENTERS FROM THE OTHER ROOM, FRASIER CROSSES TO THE DOOR AND OPENS IT. IT'S A DELIVERYMAN.

DELIVERYMAN
Delivery for Martin Crane.

MARTIN
In here.

DELIVERYMAN
Coming through.

FRASIER STEPS BACK. THE DELIVERYMAN BRINGS IN A BARCALOUNGER.

FRASIER
Excuse me, excuse me. Wait a minute.

DELIVERYMAN
Where do you want it?

MARTIN
Where's the TV?

FRASIER
(INDICATING) In that credenza. Why?

MARTIN
Point it at that thing.

DELIVERYMAN
What about this chair?

NILES
Here. Let me get it out of the way.

NILES PICKS UP THE CHAIR AND MOVES IT. THE DELIVERYMAN REPLACES IT WITH MARTIN'S BARCALOUNGER.

FRASIER
Careful. That's a Wassily. (RE:
LOUNGER) Dad, dad, as dear as I'm
sure this piece is to you, I don't
think it quite goes with anything
here.

MARTIN
I know. It's eclectic.

---

This is fantastic too, since it gives us such a great sense of Frasier's and Martin's relationship, that Frasier wants to be welcoming to his father but doesn't like his style cramped, that Martin may not like art but he's no dummy. And that iconic chair is a great visual metaphor of these two very different worlds colliding.


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5 comments:

A Pi said...

That was a really good example, thanks for posting those excerpts.

I think my favorite pilot so far is the 30 Rock one, it doesn't even feel like a pilot, you know? I think that's a good thing.

odocoileus said...

F-r-a-s-i-e-r.

Dan Williams said...

All your comments are spot on, and interesting.

Another thing about the scenes to me was the emotional depth. These characters are truly alive on the page. The comedy works so well, I think, because, say, the lounger really really matters to Frasier and to his father. If they didn't care so much, it probably wouldn't be so endearing and funny.

The Bitter Script Reader said...

Great post. The Frasier pilot is one of the all-time best sitcom pilots for the very reasons you cite.

There's some conventional wisdom that pilot episodes often fall short, but back when I was working on a dramady pilot, I found there were many EXCELLENT pilots out there for good shows.

EVERWOOD and GILMORE GIRLS were two of the best pilots I've seen for character-driven shows that walk the line between comedy and drama. If you're working in this genre study these two.

If you're working on a show with a longer arc - particularly a mystery - VERONICA MARS' pilot should be required viewing. ALIAS is another good show to study.

And I once spent three whole posts on the ER pilot.

Ironically, even though Joss Whedon is one of my favorite writers, his pilots have rarely been exemplarly. Watchable, sure... but nothing I'd say is exemplarly. They're servicible at introducing his worlds, but his shows tend to shind much later.

Er. said...
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