Complications Ensue:
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Thursday, February 23, 2006

Q. [A friend of mine] is writing a tv pilot. .... His pilot is exploring a unique lifestyle .... I think the first episode still needs to have its own plot and I keep telling him that plot should in some way comment on and reveal the characters. His take on this, since it's a spec pilot (hopefully) for HBO or Showtime, is that he can do a purely character-driven epi that follows his lead through a day-in-the-life and leave a cliff-hanger emotional beat in the last act. ... It seems to me that every pilot I've ever seen (and I've also read a few pilot scripts that were picked up, but not many) the pilot sets up a unique problem for the episode which is "solved" by the end of the episode, even if that problem actually leads to a larger complication. They are like chapters in a book, pulling the thread of the character development forward with plot.
You're right. He's wrong.

One thing I've heard consistently from network execs is that they want episodes that are satisfying on their own. Complete stories told within an ep, which are part of larger stories. Think of a string of sausages. They're connected, but a sausage is a meal unto itself.

Viewer's don't, by and large, watch religiously. They miss episodes. Episodes are pre-empted. Episodes are bumped off their time slot by the Olympics, or, in LA, any car chase. The risk in writing a pure serial is viewers may get lost, and since they're not being satisfied by the individual episodes, they'll tune into a show that's easier to watch. Like Law & Order, which you can watch any time, in any order, with no loss. That's why real soap operas use dialog to remind viewers what's happened recently ("you mean Tony, the milkman, who you started sleeping with two days ago?").

I would argue that even serials on HBO and Showtime -- which depend to a greater extent on their shows being appointment television -- are written so that the individual episodes are satisfying. The episodes of Sopranos, which often plays like a soap, raise questions that they answer by the end of the ep, whether it's an interpersonal dramatic probem, or who's going to get whacked. Even 24 has episodic plots within its season arc.

But what you seem to be suggesting is that in your friend's pilot, the overall story of the series doesn't begin until the end of the pilot. That's inexcusable if true. The pilot needs to be raising questions in the very first act. Some of them can get answered in the last act. Some can wait for the season finale to get answered. Some never get answered. That's good TV. An hour of TV where the main character just ambles along having his unique lifestyle isn't TV, it's a bad art film.



If I can monopolize your time a little bit.... Should the "question" in the pilot be the bigger meta question for the series (e.g. Is this the life for me?) writ small, or should it focus on a unique plot-driven problem (like Meredith's one-night stand with McDreamy?) that leads to a complication arc in the series (although I have to admit, I can't for the life of me imagine watching GA much longer if it becomes about Meredith's search for love amidst the rubble...). Any additional time you put into an answer is appreciated!

And for this answer: Thank you, thank you, thank you for addressing this. Now I just have to find a way to tell my friend without gloating....

By Blogger Hoff, at 3:17 PM  

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