Tuesday, September 25, 2007

New Posts

Check out my new site for posts on Chuck and Journeyman.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

New URL!!!

Running With My Eyes Closed is moving. Starting Monday Sept 24 you'll find me at my new digs: jillgolick.com. Please update your feedreader, links and bookmarks.

Monday, September 17, 2007


The K-Ville pilot, written by creator/executive producer Jonathan Lisco, almost looks like a front-loader. But it isn't. In fact the structure of this pilot is a thing of beauty which can only truly be appreciated in its deconstruction.

The basics: K-Ville is a cop series set in post Katrina New Orleans. The first episode is a premise pilot. It has four acts and a tag.

The series focuses first and foremost on Marlin Boulet, a cop who survived Katrina. His new partner Trevor Cobb is the second main player. Surrounding them are a cast of characters who populate the police force: other cops and the tenacious but good-humoured Captain.

Like many pilots we've seen, one major story thread sets up the series premise (A) and another involves the case of the week (B). A third storyline follows Marlin's relationship with his ex-partner Charlie (C).

Act One is made up of seven sequences.

The first shows us a man nearly drowning as the water reaches almost ceiling height with barely room for him to keep his head above water. This, we will realize later is Trevor Cobb.

In the next sequence we meet police officer Marlin Boulet. Katrina is flooding New Orleans. Pandemonium, water, citizens in dire need and at the height of the craziness, Marlin's partner Charlie bails, taking the squad car.

These two sequences aren't just here by happenstance. They are moments that have changed both men. Katrina reshaped the lives of both these guys and made them who they are when we meet them two years later in sequences two and three.

Is this front loading? Did Lisco just spoon feed us the premise? No. Over the course of the episode we come to understand the toll Katrina took on Marlin. Plus this first scene ties nicely into the Charlie C-story. And finally, Lisco is saving a reveal for the final scene of the episode, which sheds new light that first Cobb scene.

So the premise bookends the episode, with scenes at the top and bottom of the show that inform our appreciation of the series premise. And lots of scenes in between that slowly reveal how Katrina reshaped Marlin.

The third sequence in act one shows us Marlin two years after Katrina in a New Orleans that is slowly coming back. Devastation is everywhere including in this man, who is now making himself a sandwich and dancing to music that is playing. But he leaps out the kitchen window to tackle a kid trying to dig up his cypress tree. He threatens the kid and then asks about his parents. The sequence is all about what Marlin has become.

And sequence four shows us what Cobb has become two years later as he stands next to a car pulling a trailer and surveys New Orleans.

The fifth sequence brings the two men together. They meet and are partnered up by their captain with the rest of the squad looking on. The sequence also introduces the mystery surrounding Cobb. Why on earth would a northern become a New Orleans cop with all the problems Katrina has brought? He'd have to be "half a nut job". Cobb cheerfully accepts the title.

The sixth and penultimate sequence of the act shows us the two lead characters at work, policing a fundraiser. Marlin is drinking, but Cobb doesn't drink on duty. As committed as Boulet is to New Orleans and his job as a cop, he is not too worried about the rules. We're beginning to get a picture of him as an anti-hero, devoted to rebuilding his city, but lax about the law. A few little tidbits are dropped to help with the crime of the week plot and then we're launched into it with gunshots.

A wild car chase with lots of bullets flying is the final sequence of the act. The bad guys escape into the casino and the curtain drops.

The second act is made up of six sequences.

First, we're at the crime scene, but not to advance the B-story. Most of the action enhances our understanding of the series' characters particularly the gaggle of secondary cop characters who each get a pithy line. Marlin once again behaves as a guy on the brink, while Cobb presents as a serious investigator. The sequence throws to the first suspect, the victim's ex. But before we cut to him, we learn that the victim is dead which heightens the stakes for Marlin.

When we find him in the second sequence of the act, he's in the midst of torturing the suspect as Cobb looks on.

The third sequence of the act is a quick B-story recap with another opportunity for the minor cop characters to suggest that they'll be players in future episodes.

Sequence four takes us into the C-story and reminds us how Katrina has altered the courses of so many lives. Ex-partner Charlie shows up, desperate to be a cop again and redeem himself in Marlin's eyes.

In the next sequence, we go home with Marlin and meet the wife and kid who abandoned him. Or did he abandon them? Either way, everyone still loves each other, but Marlin's commitment to his city is stronger than his commitment to his family.

For the final sequence of Act Two, we get back to the B-story. Boulet and Cobb work another fund raiser. This one also gets shot up. Tons and tons of bullets fly. The pair race to their car to chase the bad guys but kaBOOM! Their car explodes. It's another act-ending action sequence.

Act Three is largely B-story although the first sequence strays into A territory when Cobb reveals knowledge of the city that a northern shouldn't have. It's another reason for his new partner to wonder about him.

The third sequence of Act 3 involves Charlie, so it's partly C-story. But Charlie is bringing information about the B-story crime.

Even the romantic sequence with the wife that is interrupted by the flood is really a B-story beat. The flood is the work of the criminals they are getting too close to catching. It is also a reminder of the legacy of Katrina. The sequence brings the act to the end. A pattern seems to be forming; every one of the three acts has ended in an action sequence.

The first sequence in Act Four brings us that statement of theme we've been waiting for. The arrested casino guard tells Marlin:

Your eyes right now? They're the eyes of a soldier on
the edge of a breakdown and a man who's not going to last.

But Marlin isn't a quitter. His essence was formed in that moment at the top of the show when his partner took off on him. Marlin will never do that. He will never abandon his duty to this city. And therein lies the show (or at least most of it): a cop driven to the brink but who refuses to give up.

Now that Marlin's nature has been revealed it's time to try to unravel Trevor Cobb. So in the third sequence of the fourth act, Boulet points a gun at his partner and asks how he knows how to get to some obscure gumbo joint when he's supposed to be from the north. Cobb isn't ready to reveal, so he stares down the gun and explains he was once stationed nearby. Which raises the question, just how close to the brink is Boulet?

Boom boom boom. Sequences four, five and six wrap up the B- and C-stories and we're into the tag.

The tag consists of three sequence. The first two are typical tag scenes that wrap up storylines: Charlie will survive and the neighbours love Marlin despite his flaws because he's saving the 'hood.

The third tag sequence is the kind of scene we save for pilot tags; the ones that throw a new twist on things and (hopefully) heighten the audience's interest in coming back next time.

This scene explains the first scene of the episode and sheds some light on who Cobb really is: an escaped prisoner who killed a man to survive and escaped punishment to recreate himself under the cover of the storm.

Whether you buy the twist or not, you have to admire the craft behind it. Once again, we're forced to consider the legacy of Katrina. Both men were changed. Marlin may have been a good man, but is now tortured, on the brink and lawless because of the storm. Cobb was a criminal, but Katrina turned him into a good guy. Both men are tied to the city and committed to rebuilding it.

It's great thematic material and Lisco has used it beautifully.

If the series is going to succeed and thrive, I think it needs three things:

It needs to maintain authenticity, not just in its portrayal of New Orleans but also in its crimes and criminals. The pilot's B-story had some holes in it and wasn't quite believable for me, particularly in the area of the criminals' motivation. They seemed to be serving the plot more than acting for their own good. You can get away with this in the pilot, but next week, when we show up to watch K-Ville, we'll be looking for a crime story.

Secondly, I wouldn't mind a toning down of the gun play. The big exciting act-ending action sequences keep the pilot moving and exciting. And New Orleans was once the murder capital of the U.S. but still, they fired a tom of bullets in that pilot. It wasn't credible in my opinion.

Finally, I think they need to keep these characters deeply troubled. There's always a temptation to redeem characters and make them heroic, but this series needs anti-heroes so I hope Lisco will keep the flame under them cranked.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Front Loaded Pilots

My objection to a lot of the pilots we're going to watch over the next few weeks is that many of them front load their series premise. You'll see soon enough; shows in which there's a voice over to tell you how things came to be this way or the teaser is a vignette that sets up the series premise.

Can you remember all the way back to the Beverly Hillbillies and the theme song that set up the series premise? This is a very old-fashioned storytelling technique.

I think the most successful pilots of the new season don't front load the premise. Instead, they slowly reveal it through the episode. The characters and their world emerge bit by bit with twists and surprises along the way. Most of the pilots I've chosen to discuss over the next couple of months do that. Many of the ones I'm not going to write about are front-loaders.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Time to Watch Some New Shows

I've made a few decisions about the new season and which pilots I'm going to breakdown. I'm going to start with K-Ville. It airs Monday Sept 17, 2007 at 9 pm on E! and Fox if you want to catch it before I post.

Mondays may be a problem night for me, because I also like Chuck, Journeyman and Aliens in America which are all also Monday night shows. Chuck and Journeyman both premier September 24th -- Chuck at 8 on Citytv and NBC and Journeyman at 10 on Global and NBC. I'll post shortly afterwards.

Luckily, Aliens in America doesn't premier till October 1 at 8:30 on SUNTV and CW, so that gives me some time to prepare a post.

I will probably also give you some thoughts on Pushing Daises which airs on Tuesday October 2 on CTV and Wec Oct 3 also at 8 on ABC (what a surprise, no simulcast).

I wrote about the Dirty Sexy Money pilot script, so I may go back and compare script and produced pilot sometime after that airs on CTV. Again, no simulcast here, so DSM has its ABC debut at 10 on Sept 26 and its CTV debut on Sept 30 at 10.

I may hit one or two of the others depending on mood and time, but the above is the current plan. So fluff up those pillows, grab the remote and settle in for some serious viewing.

(Btw, I’m not trying to be geocentric -- I just don't know what the air dates for these shows are outside North America. If you do, leave a comment.)

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Things For You To Do While I'm Previewing the New Season

I am getting prepped for the fall launch. That means watching as many pilots as I can get my hands on (thank you to my new best friends at CanWest Global who have supplied me with screeners) and figuring out which ones I'm prepared to watch 4 or 5 more times, so I can post about them.

While I'm doing that, Matthew Weiner of Mad Men thinks you should be writing your pilot. Okay, that's a bit of a stretch but Michael Patrick Sullivan at Red Right Hand met him at Sublime Prime Time and reports as follows:

  • Weiner's advice on pitching pilots (if you're not some established showrunner or big name writer): Don't pitch it. Write it. "Ideas are a dime a dozen...don't just be a guy with an idea, sit in a chair and write it...that makes you a guy with a..(miming the holding of a script)...a property. Sheryl Zohn said it a bit better. "It makes you a writer."
Check out the whole post here.

If you don't feel like writing, Geek Tonic has a post with links to pilots available for free viewing from Amazon Unbox. His links include Bionic Woman, Life and Journeyman. Also Chuck which I discuss after it airs September 24th. I haven't tried this yet but I suspect it won't work outside the US. Let me know.

If you don't feel like writing or watching, you can always friend me on Facebook.

Monday, September 10, 2007

The Shield

This post is dedicated to my agent, Glenn, who love The Shield and always points to it as an example of a great television pilot. And I agree.

I'm all about first acts these days, so most of my comments will be about the first act structure and scene construction. (Which leads to a fair amount of character talk).

The first episode of The Shield is a typisode pilot, a rare sighting here at Running. The show launches us right into the world where we meet the characters mid-life. You want to know what an average episode of The Shield is like? This is a pretty good example.

You could argue that the murder that takes place at the end of the episode is an inciting incident for what follows and therefore this is a premise pilot. But that would be stretching it. The series isn't heavily arced and although Terry's murder does play later in the season, it's not a huge storyline. I'd guess that Creator/Writer Shawn Ryan put the murder in more to show us what Vic Mackey is made of than to set up the rest of the series.

Shawn Ryan, btw, teamed up with David Mamet to give us The Unit. And he has a hand in the Women's Murder Club one of the new fall series (but from what I've seen, it's not too strong a hand).

The tease of this pilot is great. It sets up the entire series premise by intercutting between two storylines and includes good measures of both comedy and action.

On the one hand, we've got Captain David Aceveda addressing the press and telling them how community policing is the right way to clean up his 'hood. On the other hand we've got Vic Mackey and his Strike Team chasing down a perp. (A story)

By the end of the teaser, we've had a picture painted for us of two men very much at odds over how policing methods. One is straight and narrow, law and order, by the book but with a taste for the press and a certain ambition. The other is a ruthless, lawless man of action, with a sense of humour, a sense of well-being and a sense of invulnerability. A clash between these two men seems inevitable.

The first act is made up of six sequences.

The first finds Claudette and Dutch at a murder scene and ends when they realize that the victim's young daughter is missing. (B-story)

The second sequence features a confrontation between the Captain and Vic over allegations that Mackey attacked a suspect with a pair of pliers. Mackey seems to come out on top. (A-story)

In the third sequence we return to Dutch and Claudette. They banter about personal matters before reporting to the Captain about the case and their next steps. (B-story)

The fourth is a Danny sequence. Dutch follows her into the kitchen and tries to arrange a date with her, but Vic comes in and teases Dutch till he leaves. Then Mackey hits on Danny and their on-going relationship is revealed. This sequence sets up the antagonism between Vic and Dutch and also the Dutch-Danny-Vic triangle. (C-story)

Next comes a short sequence of Terry watching Vic for the car. We know that Terry is an outsider and not privy to Vic's real business. (A-story)

And then to the park, for the final sequence of the act which gives us a nice end of act turn. The Captain enlists Terry's help in an undercover operation to bring down Mackey. Terry agrees for a price, but also suggests that the Captain's motives aren't pure. He knows that Aceveda is planning to use this for political gain. (A-story)

By the end of the act, there are a lot of balls in the air. The feud between Mackey and Aceveda is well established and the one between Mackey and Dutch is taking off. We're a few beats into the murder-kidnapping case and Claudette's irritation with Dutch's style is starting to show. Finally we know that Dutch has a crush on Danny and that will be complicated by her on-again off-again relationship with Vic.

There's a lot of character development throughout this act. To understand it better let's take a closer look at the two sequences in the Dutch-Claudette murder-kidnapping storyline.

Dutch is one of my favourite characters in The Shield. He's so repulsive in this episode but at the same time, you kind of feel for the guy because he's inept and wants badly to be good at his job and liked by people. He comes out of the box with a big personality, commenting on the murder victim's "rack", spouting FBI profiler mumbo-jumbo and setting his sites on Danny.

By contrast, Claudette is much lower key, but full of character nonetheless.

The first sequence is made up of four scenes: Dutch and Claudette at the murder scene. Dutch is commenting on the naked victim. Interestingly there is almost no police work done or mentioned in the scene.

In the second beat, Dutch follows Danny outside and does what for Dutch qualifies as flirting. In doing so, he gives us some information about the crime, but dressed up as big shot FBI profiler talk.

In the third scene, Dutch meets the sister of the murder victim. She falls on her knees in grief before him and the assorted cops watching snicker because she's in blow job position. But Dutch -- who moments ago was talking about a dead woman's breasts -- is humanized in this moment because he doesn't know how to react. He's embarrassed and upset for this woman and he doesn't like what the other cops are thinking. It's a very intense emotional beat.

And then comes a great turn that flips Dutch and us-as-viewers into a new emotional space: we learn that the victim has a daughter. In the fourth scene of this sequence, Dutch reports the news to Claudette, who has already figured this out because she's holding the daughter's photo. Now the question is, where is the little girl? With the killer?

The second Dutch-Claudette sequence starts with a line from Claudette which I love as a scene starter:

I stopped listening to you five minutes ago.

She and Dutch are at a hot dog stand and he's still talking his profiler-speak which is annoying Claudette.

In the second beat, they head inside passing Danny and Dutch's potential relationship with her becomes the subject of the conversation.

When they get inside the squad room, Captain Aceveda turns up and they give him a report on the crime. They give us the following new information about the crime: the father of the missing girl is a crackhead and Dutch thinks he's the killer and kidnapper and a known criminal visited the victim yesterday.

We see none of the police legwork that was expended to acquire this information. Until we get to the interrogation room, we see little actual policing. Ryan uses his screen time for character development. Even in the interrogation room, it's more about the police officers, their methods and what that says about them as people, than it is about the crimes and criminals.

The pilot episode of The Shield is meditation on character. The pilot and first act show us how Ryan manages to keep the thread of the criminal investigation alive with a minimal screen time. His supersizing of character development is what hooks us into the series in these early moments.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Murderati on Series Pitching in L.A.

Murderati has a fun two-part post about the pitching process in LA.

Included is a checklist of things required before you can even get the meeting:

Item 1 – You must have a place of residence in Southern California. You may be able to swing a NY residence, but if you are truly starting out, it’s SoCal or nothing. X has covered this. Look it up, people.

Item 2 – You must have an agent. A legitimate agent. “Bob’s Talent & Pet Agency” in Pacoima is not legit. Your cousin acting as your agent is not legit. Some guy you met online who claims to be a manager is not legit… unless he can show you at least three working clients. Having 17 unemployed clients does not count. Besides, managers are for actors, or people who can’t get real agents. I know exactly one working screenwriter who has a manager (along with an agent), and that writer hates the manager. You don’t need to be with Endeavor (though it helps), but you must have an agent that is capable of having their calls returned.

Item 3 – You must have NO LESS than two samples of your writing. And I mean samples of one-hour episodic television writing. Three is really how many you should have, but you can get away with two if both are brilliant. Nowadays they should be original specs – meaning, they should be pilot episodes of some idea of your own. It used to be you needed specs of shows currently on the air (hit shows), but that’s more about getting a staff job, and we’re talking about how series are created. Oh, and it’s a good idea that neither of your samples are the show you are trying to sell. They can be, but it’s a slippery slope.

Item 4 – You must have the ability to check your ego. It’s okay to have an ego, but you must be able to sit across from an idiot who is telling you what’s wrong with the thing you wrote and, while you know with every fiber of your being that what is being said is complete horsepucky, you must be able to nod your head and say, “That’s interesting. I’ll take a look at that.” If you cannot do this, sell your SoCal residence, fire your agent, and burn your two specs. You will not make it.

He also talks about how you feel after the meeting with the studio"

You walk out of every pitch meeting thinking you hit a homerun. Thinking that they’re gonna be on the phone with your agents before you have your parking validated. As you take the elevator down to the parking garage, you’re trying to decide if you’ll buy property in Sun Valley or Martha’s Vineyard, once season five airs and your backend starts kicking in.
The second part of the piece -- on the network pitch -- is here.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Kay Reindl at Seriocity has some really interesting things to say about pitching shows. She talks about how pitching works in LA and what some of her own meetings have been like. She goes on to talk about the components of the pitch, which are of course, the components of the series.

It's a great piece and you should read all of it, but here are a couple of excerpts. Reindl on the premise:

this should be clean and easy to grok. You shouldn't have to spend more than thirty seconds pitching your premise. And the rest of your pitch should only expand on that premise.
The characters:
they must rock. As simple as that. They need to make sense for the premise. An example would be the X-Files. Mulder's the believer. Scully's the skeptic. She's sent to keep an eye on him, but winds up having his back. Simple, right? Iconic, even. And they fit the premise. Your characters should feel like individuals. You should know their backstories, what got them into this predicament, why the show is about THEM, and how they react to what's happening to them. Arcs for characters are an excellent idea. Tell the executives where you want to take these characters. Know their voices, and incorporate them into the pitch.
Reindl on the engine:
this will be referred to as the franchise. What that really means is, what happens every week?
And on the world:
this is especially important when you're pitching a show that doesn't take place in our mundane, everyday existence. Pitching a genre show? KNOW YOUR WORLD. And the rules for your show. Does your show have a visual style? Know what that is.
These same elements are at the core of a great pilot script. The more you know about them, the better your pilot and your series will ultimately be.

PVR Watch

Shawna at Shouting into the Wind has a list pilots and air dates for September and October. Get ready for some serious tv time in the next couple of months.

Monday, September 3, 2007

My Dirty Little Secret

I've been a little light on the postings lately, for a variety of reasons.

One of the reasons is that there weren't that many new pilots on television in August and I've been in the mood for fresh pilots as opposed to archival. Plus looking ahead to September and October, I'm going to have my work cut out for me.

And then there's the end of summer thing -- rushing out to enjoy the last dregs before it's gone. Plus school's starting any minute and there are new shoes to buy, after school activities to sign up for and the whole sending lunch every day thing to dread.

But none of those are the real reason I slowed down.

I've been posting less, because I've been writing like a fiend. I had a big burst of energy on the pilot I've been developing. And when I finished my draft a week or so ago, I wanted a break from all things pilot.

I'm pretty pleased with my script. I've been working this concept for a long time. And this is actually the third pilot I've written. But this one slipped out the most easily and has by far the most energy and fun of the three.

Just before this draft, I did some major surgery on the premise and then I cranked up the character to eleven.

My original premise had CSI elements, a single character lead surrounded by a team of regulars and two mysteries in every episode. It's still got the two mysteries and some science, but I've gone from single lead to more of a buddy picture. I've lightened it up considerably, de-emphasized the mystery and added action and lots of humour.

While I’m happy with the draft, I'm by no means done. I particularly want to work on strengthening the first act and by that I mean making it more hooky. So you may note in these pages a new attention to first acts.

Here are a few stats from my script:

It's four acts and tag (I envision the series title before the first act) in 60 pages. The first act is 12 pages long, the second 15, the third 13, the fourth 16 and the tag is 4 pages. The first and second act curtains drop on B-story which is one of the two mystery of the week plots. The third, fourth and episode curtains turn on the A-story.

But here's my big dirty secret: it's a premise pilot. The two lead characters meet for the first time and we see the team form.

I know I know I know. I'm the one who says do not ever write a premise pilot for the Canadian market.

And you know why: you don't want to be forced to air any particular episode first. You want to take best advantage of your launch publicity by showing first time viewers the best episode you've got in the can. And a premise pilot limits you to showing only that episode first.

But I'm not there yet. I'm still selling the series. Using only a script.

And I think this premise pilot is my best hope for selling the franchise which brings together two unlikely people. And you kind of need to know how they got brought together before you settle down to enjoy their interaction.

So there it is. I have preached against the premise pilot for years now and I've gone and written one. It just goes to show, you should never listen to me.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

K-Ville On Demand

The pilot episode of K-Ville is up on Fox's website for you to see. Unless you can find some way around the geographic restrictions, you can't watch it from outside the United States.

I enjoyed it. I've only watched it once, so I don't have a lot to report. I can tell you that it's thick with character and has an action scene in most if not all acts.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Saving Grace - The Opening

"Bring It On Earl", the pilot episode of Saving Grace, written by Nancy Miller, aired last night on Showcase. Last time I posted about it, I talked about the character of Grace Hanadarko. Turns out Grace's character is a theme tonight too.

Instead of breaking down the whole episode, I'm going to focus on the way the show opens right up to the first act curtain. We'll also get into a little scene structure.

Episode structure
This premist pilot follows a pattern we know. We've seen more or less the same shape in Veronica Mars, Burn Notice and Blood Ties. Mystery of the week plus the story that sets the series arc in motion.

In the arcing story (A), Grace meets an angel named Earl who has been sent by God to save Grace. By comparison to the B dyoty, the A story is filled with emotional jolts and interesting story turns.

The mystery of the week (B), on the other hand, has almost no emotional content despite the fact that it's about a kidnapped child. We don't meet the victim or her franctic parents, Grace isn't in the interview room with the suspect nor do we hear what Grace's friend the coach has to say about him. It does have a nice long action sequence in the first act.

The third thread that runs strongly through this pilot is Grace's character (C ). In pilots, we often see scenes devoted entirely to character that don't drive the story forward at all. This isn't what's going on here. With the exception of the very first scene of the teaser, there isn't a single scene that's just there to inform us about Grace. Instead, the scenes that are strongly about Grace also have story beats, often from both of the other story lines.

That is the notable thing about Miller's scenes, all the story threads seem to be woven into them at once.

Take the four minute teaser. Miller introduces both storylines and gives us a great dose of Grace's character.

The show opens with Grace banging her married partner (C) . Next, between popping pills, boozing, burping and flashing the geezer next door (C ), Grace turns on the the tv and gets the first bits of information about the crime she's going to investigate (B).

The curtain introduces the A story; the man watching her is reflected in a car window, he has angel wings.

Act One
The act is made up of five sequences. Investigation, nephew, bar, manslaughter, Earl.

Almost every scene, touches on the three main threads of the episode: Grace's character (C ), the mystery of the week (B) and the whole God question (A).

In the first few scenes of the first sequence, the action services the B story. Grace meets fellow cops at the stockyards to flush out the suspect. The dialogue is all about Grace's character (C) . Then someone points out that one of the cows being auctioned-off have markings that look just like Jesus, which of course keeps God squarely in our minds (A).

Now put a pause on all the story stuff for a moment. At the 7 minute mark, Grace decks a lecherous cowboy and her partners engage in a good ol' chase scene that lasts to 7:45.

But Miller buttons it with Grace being Grace, hooting and hollering as she watches her partners get all muddy (C ).

The nephew sequence which follows services Grace's character (C ). Or does it move the mystery along (B)? We go in on the phone conversation with partner Ham, who updates her on the case and ends with Grace arranging to meet up with an ex-boyfriend who may know the suspect. In between, we learn that Grace just might be redeemable, but that she's certainly out of control when she takes her nephew and the girl he likes on the joy ride (C ). In other words, B beats bookend a C scene.

The bar scene continues the discussion about the case (B), but segues momentarily into a question of ethics (A) and then back to the case, even though Grace is very drunk(C).

From then on, it's all A story.

The Curtain
The final sequence opens with action; Grace driving drunk, hitting a guy and then realizing he's dead.

You could go out there. That would be a respectable curtain.

But Miller takes us further into her story with another jolt; Grace says "God help me" and the angel, Earl appears to say God sent him. Another respectable curtain.

But no…

Earl spreads his wings and transports Grace to a mountain top. It's a spectacular shot and a funny original scene that takes two sudden, emotional turns -- when Earl wraps Grace in his arms and she loves it and then again when he wants to know whether she's ready to turn her life over to God and then suddenly she's jolted back to into the darkness at the side of the highway.

That's one jam packed first act, that leaves you holding your breath for Act Two.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Saving Grace - Tonight on Showcase

Showcase is airing the pilot of Saving Grace tonight, Monday August 27th at 10 p.m. If you're in Canada and haven't seen the show, watch it.

I've already written about it once, here, but I'm going to post about it again tomorrow. I'll focus on the structure of the first act and on how some of the scenes are put together and there's lots to learn.

So watch it and come back tomorrow (but I'll be posting late in the day because I'm on the road tomorrow).

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Blood Ties

Blood Ties aired in Canada at long last: mystery, monsters and one very hot vampire who appears shirtless a lot of the time. Excellent.
Blood Price, the pilot episode written by series creator Peter Mohan, is actually two one-hour episodes even though they aired together on Monday night. I know it's two one-hours because there's a three minute forty-one second scene at the 42:27 minute mark. That would be the teaser of the second episode. It's my habit to only break down one-hours, so if you'll forgive me, I'm going to ignore the second hour and focus my attention on the first.

The show features a short pre-title teaser followed by four acts that time out as follows:

Teaser: 3:08
Act One: 12:39
Act Two: 7:43
Act Three 9:07
Act Four 9:50

First shot: Toronto skyline at night shot from across the water.

This is a premise pilot that sets up the relationship between Vicky Nelson, private investigator and Henry Fitzroy, vampire. We also learn about Vicky's complicated relationship with her former policing partner, Mike Celluci.

The other main story line in the pilot is the mystery of the week.

In some ways this a familiar form. As in Veronica Mars and Burn Notice, the pilot is divided between a mystery of the week that buttons up nicely and gives us that satisfying episodic feel and the series' story which will continue and compels us to watch week after week.

But Mohan has an interesting twist on how he approaches both sides of the equation.

On the mystery side, Mohan follows not only the investigation but also the villain. In many mystery series, we see the crimes only from the detective's p.o.v. Starting right in the second scene of the teaser, we meet Norman, the villain (he's one of the villains anyway and the guy who calls the evil demon into action). This is great for cranking up the stakes and this storyline provides the scenes for every act breaks except the final curtain on Act Four.

On the premise side of the story, Vicky is introduced to us in the first scene of the teaser. As a result we see her as the central figure in the series and since she's a former cop turned private detective, we quite naturally follow her into the mystery. And since her ex-partner-ex-beau is the cop investigating the same crime his involvement is also organic.

But the third player -- Henry the vampire -- is a little trickier to pull into the story. Mohan introduces him in the third scene of act one. Like Vicky, his first scene is purely for character purposes and only in his second scene does he learn of the crime that he too begins to investigate. He's investigating because the crime looks like it was committed by a vampire and he's afraid that he'll be blamed.

By mid-way through Act One, we have two story lines that are independent investigations of the third story which features the crime unfolding. That puts all three on a collision course. There's Norman and his demon committing evil acts. Vicky in a reluctant partnership with Celluci investigating. And Henry the vampire, investigating the same crimes on his own.

Mohan nimbly holds the collision off until the closing moments of the fourth act when Henry drives the demon away and then Vicky attacks Henry to bring down the final curtain of the episode.

It's a cool and original structure.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Here's to God and Football and Living Large in Texas

I never imagined I would like Friday Night Lights. A show about high school football in Texas?! I resisted until January of this year and once I'd seen the pilot, written by Peter Berg, I was hooked. I proceeded to binge on the series, watching the first 10 episodes in three days (three excellent days, might I add).

Watching the show -- for me at least -- is like traveling to some exotic destination. The entire world is foreign to me: teenage boys holding hands and dropping to one knee to pray, the football mania of the small town of Dillon and the incredible mental preparation that goes into building a football player.

I thought a lot about sports psychology while I was watching the first season of FNL. Writing is no less demanding on the psyche. Writing is a lonely affair and you need to believe in yourself and your abilities each day as you sit down at your keyboard to do battle with your story and your own fears.

So today, I'm borrowing some motivational words of wisdom spoken by Coach Eric Taylor in the pilot episode of FNL to fuel us through the day's writing.

Clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose.

You've earned this: the right to win.
You put that in your head.

Give all of us gathered here tonight the strength to remember that life is so very fragile. We are all vulnerable and we will all at some point in our lives fall. We will all fall. We must carry this in our hearts…that what we have is special. That it can be taken from us and that when it is taken from us we will be tested. We will be tested to our very souls. We will now all be tested. It is these times, it is this pain that allows us to look inside ourselves.

And finally from a drunken Tim Riggins to his teammates the night before the game:

Let's touch God this time, boys.

Monday, August 13, 2007


Californication written by Tom Kapinos (who ran Dawson's Creek in its fourth season) aired. You've seen it. Maybe you liked it. I know I did.

Let's look under the hood.

It is more a typical-episode pilot than a premise pilot. Hank bumbles through what seems to be his normal routine. But it is the beginning of an arced series. Maybe the meeting with Mia will set off a major storyline and then we can look back at this episode and say it was a premise pilot because he met Mia and that set up everything that followed. I'm filing this under typisode.

The episode is nearly 33 minutes with titles and credits and no commercial breaks which makes it longer than a half hour, by almost ten minutes but shorter than an hour by another ten.

The pretitles teaser is five minutes long and although it runs without commercials, we can feel an act break at 12:35 and another around 26:30, followed by a four minute third act.

The episode is held together by three story threads: Hank's relationship with his ex and daughter (A), his obsession with his novel and the movie based on it (B) and his sexual exploits (C). They are all intertwined and the plot/subplot breakdown doesn't do much for this show.

But it really is more organic to look at the episode as a series of vignettes, almost all of which with women. There are fourteen of these sequences (which don't really conform to the A,B,C breakdown I've imposed on them in brackets):

Teaser: the nun (C), the married woman (C)
Act 1: Karen (the ex) and Becca (the daughter) (A), the director's wife (B), Karen and Becca (A), a guy in a movie theatre (B), Mia in the bookstore (B/C)
Act 2: Karen and Becca's teacher (A), Hank's agent (B), Meredith the blind date (B meets C), the nameless bar girl (C), Karen and Becca (A)
Act 3: Karen and Mia (A meets C), Hank alone (A)

Act One is really mostly about his obsession with his novel-turned-movie. The naked woman his daughter finds in his bed is the movie's director. He goes to see the movie then he goes to see the novel in the bookstore.

Act Two tops and tails with beats about Becca acting out; the teacher's concern and her parents bursting into a party to carry her out. In between, Hank acts out, mouthing off to his blind date.

The opening and closing scenes bookend the story. At the top of the show he tells the nun:

I'm having what you might call a crisis of faith.
Put simply, I can't write.

In the final scene, his fingers twitch above the keyboard. On the screen, we see the letters appear F… U… C… K…

Opening shot
The show begins with the opening strains of "You Can't Always Get What You Want" playing over black. We fade in on a long lush drive, sprinklers going on either side and Porsch driving up it towards an impressive church. Or is it a cathedral?

Opening line
Hank address Jesus on the cross: "'Kay, big guy. You and me."

The Hooks
The show has a lot of sex scenes and outrageous moments:

Hank drops a cigarette in holy water.
A nun gives him a blow job, in front of Jesus. No nudity.
Hank and married woman talk about cunilingus. Nudity.
Hank's daughter comments on the hairless vagina.
Director's wife gets dresses. Nudity.
Mia rides Hank and punches him. Nudity.
Nameless girl in the bar rides Hank then offers herself up on her hands and knees. Nudity.
Hank finds out he slept with a sixteen year old.

Third Act Statement of Theme
At about the twenty minute mark, Hank is in conversation with his agent who points out Hank's prediliction for unavailable women. Hank tells "I'm disgusted with my life and myself but I'm not unhappy about that." Is this a statement of theme? Maybe.

Memorable Lines
There's no hair on her vagina. Do you think she's okay?
Something tells me it's not going to suck itself, Hank.

So not only are you a cadavarous lay, you have bad
taste in movies.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Pilot Structure Part 2

Here are three more techniques to keep in mind:

Sub-plot Free First Acts

A teaser or first act of a pilot can follow a single story line without introducing a single subplot. The teaser of the CSI pilot is almost all about one of the mysteries of the week. The seven minute teaser for Burn Notice, on the other hand, never strays from setting up the series premise. The mystery of the week didn't show up till halfway through the first act. The Skins teaser is all about Tony's character.

Story Clumps
Storylines often come in clumbs of 3, 4 or 5 beats in a row. The Wire has strings of five A-beats followed by three Bs that allow you to follow the consequences of an action. Act Three of the Veronica Mars pilot devotes half its beat to the Wallace-Weevil storyline. Half of Act Two of Jekyll is through Jackman's eyes, the other half through Hyde's.

Plots that Come
in Late
A pilot can also introduce quite an important story line very late in the game. Think of Bubbles' entrance in the Wire. His storylines run through all four seasons of the Wire and he's an important player all through the first season, but he doesn't show up in the pilot until late in the third act. But then a rich little story develops around him, his young white side-kick and some bad counterfeit money. In CSI, Nick's D-story about the trick roll trickles in with four flimsy beats in the first three acts and the meat of the story coming in the four beats in the fourth act.

Pilot Structure Trends

These are the structural trends emerging from the pilots I've read and watched:

Open long.
A lot of teases are running very long. Or scripts are eschewing teases altogether and leading off with titles followed by a long act one. Once you get the viewer tuned in, why give them a commercial and let them escape. Hang onto them as long as possible without giving them a break.

Act lengths aren't even.
There's usually at least one very short (9 page, for example) act. Sometimes, I see symmetry between the first and second halves of the show with acts 1 and 3 almost exactly the same length and acts 2 and 4 the same lengths. I never see all four acts equal.

State your theme in the third act.
Very often the series theme is spelled out in dialogue just as the conflict is rising to its apex in the third act. Isaac Ho pointed this out in a post on Script Enabler. I've found it too. It usually falls at the thirty minute mark which would be around page 40 in a 60 page script.

Go for character.
A pilot script can be rich in scenes that are only present to develop character and don't drive the story forward in any other way. Written well, they don't stop the action. Instead, they up the viewer's commitment to the series.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Do You Really Have to Save Her?

I was excited that two recent pilots --Damages and Saving Grace -- feature female anti-heroes. What's more they're both of a certain age.

In an era with so many not-so-nice men (House, Tony Soprano, Vic Mackey, Tommy Gavin), it's great to finally see some shows built around edgy female characters.

I talked about Damages' Kate Hewes in a previous post. She's ruthless, powerful and unapologetic. Plus she has great clothes and hair.

Grace Hanadarko of Saving Grace, a series written and created by Nancy Miller and airing on TNT, has over-processed hair, an unquenchable sexual appetite and no qualms about sleeping with her married partner. She swears like a sailor, drives a beat-up Porsche and she carries a gun. Plus she has a mean right hook which she puts to good use when someone slimy hits on her (if they're not slimy, her clothes come right off).

(If you don't have TNT, you might be able to watch the pilot on their website, but you'll need Windows. I couldn't test it out because I have a Mac.)

Grace, played by Holly Hunter, is naked and in the middle of a sexual encounter when we first meet her.

Moments later (moments well spent, by the way, swilling Jack Daniels, smoking and burping), she's watching tv. The distraught father of a kidnapped child say that he knows the lord will bring his daughter home. Grace practically snort, "and then eliminate war and hunger." She's cynical too.

I was immediately madly in love with her. The character is a cop and watched her solve mysteries and abuse herself for as many seasons as they were willing to make the show.

Unfortunately, the show has a twist: an angel. Okay, he chews tobacco. But he's still an angel. And he wants to save Grace. Hence the title of the show.

(I was going to put a clip from Youtube here, but they all feature the angel and the redemption story line when what I wanted to show you is Grace acting badly, so I had to pass.)

I'm totally bummed out. We finally get a show built around a foul mouthed, sexually-in-control, remorseless woman and along comes the rep of some God who's not fond of boozing, cussing and fornication to clean her up.

What's that about?

I don't know. Maybe it'll all twist into John from Cincinnati territory. Maybe it'll turn out to be some quirky view of religion that won't offend me. Maybe it's going to turn out to be an important work that explores serious themes in a deep and meaningful way.

But come on.

Finally, a really fabulous bad girl with no regrets comes along. Do I really have to see her find religion? I wanted to watch her descent into hell.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

I'm Sad To Report

I finished watching Jekyll.

What can I say? The ending was a disappointment.

It starts so great. And it held me fast for four episodes.

But by episode five, I was asking "what?! what show is this?"

It's funny. In the pilot I loved the abrupt turns that kept taking you into new territory. I thought I knew what kind of show I was watching and then bang! I'd be somewhere else completely.

But when it started taking those sharp turns in episode 5? I didn't like it so much.

I did like the way the show twisted you around so that Hyde became the good guy. I'm always a fan of a show that changes your perspective on a character that way -- you start out hating them and then something is revealed that puts you on their side. And Moffat did that well.

Not only that, but the evolution of my feelings for Hyde was natural. It flowed right out of the first moment he appeared in the pilot when I wanted to like him. And by episode 5, Moffat gave me reason to.

But all the underpinnings of who Jackman is and where he came from and how he became Hyde, that just didn't ring true for me.

I think you should still watch the series, because there's lots of enjoyment to be had and lots of craft to admire and learn from. But be warned:

Great setup. Mediocre payoff.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Eek! A Security Leak

Apparently, some pilots got leaked to the Internet.

TV Week reports that the list includes Bionic Woman, Pushing Daisies, Reaper, The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Cavemen, Chuck and Lipstick Jungle.

Add Aliens in America...

...and Cane.

I guess Californication doesn't count because it's not network, but it's there too. And I suspect there may be more to come.

Good or bad thing?

Bill comes down pro.

The networks? I'm guessing con.

Moi? It's reality. Who needs to qualify it?

I'm only going to comment on the ones I really like in this space and only after the official air dates. But I will give you a head's up, so you can watch them before you read the post.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

PVR Alert

Californication premiers Monday August 13th at 10:30 pm on Showtime with a "typical episode" pilot written by Tom Kapinos.

Ignore all the promo video on YouTube, etc. Watch the episode fresh.

We'll talk the 14th.

Sunday, July 29, 2007


Just a few words about Damages, a new series on FX. The pilot was written by series creators and showrunners Todd A Kessler & Glenn Kessler & Denial Zelman.

I'm still being treated for the scratch marks on head from watching Mad Men and the Damages characters offer a sharp contrast. Interestingly, Todd A Kessler, one of the Damages creator/writers is a former Sopranos writer like Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner.

Before continuing to read, let me warn you that spoilers lie ahead. I can't talk about shows in the way I want to without giving away important plot points. Even my haiku breakdown of Viva Laughlin gave away a lot. So from here on, let it be known, I'm going to give stuff away. If you care, go read the script or see the show before you read.

Damages is built around the character of high stakes litigator Patty Hewes (Glenn Close). Hewes comes out of the box as ruthless and ballsy. Her character is immediately recognizeable to us as viewers and unlike Mad Men's characters, behaves in a way we can predict. There are a couple of twists along the way, but we're not left asking wtf? Instead, we smile and accept her behavour, seeing that she is more extreme than we expected, but the behaviour fits the pattern we expect from the character.

In the first sequence that introduces her, Patty uses a combination of trickery, rhetoric and emotion to force the other lawyer in a case to cave to her will. When he realizes that she's tricked him to the tune of $150,000,000, he responds by saying that if she were a man, he'd "kick the living dog shit out of" her. Patty responds:

If you were a man, I'd be worried.

(Watch for the line in the video below. Close's delivery is perfect.)

There is one false move along the way, a scene that bugged me and nagged at me all through my viewing of the pilot.

Ellen Parsons, the young lawyer turns down her interview with Hewes to go to her sister's wedding. Patty turns up at the wedding to Ellen's disbelief. And then ends up hiring her as a result of their little ladies room chat.

I didn't buy Patty's reason for turning up at the wedding ("Because, kiddo, you're the first person to turn me down"). And I didn't buy her sentimentality in hiring the ingenue.

It wasn't a "huh?" moment like the character turns in Mad Men. It just didn't feel like something Patty would do. Why the heart-warming second act moment from the hard as nails anti-hero?

The answer came at the end of the episode. It wasn't a soft moment from Patty, it was a highly calculated move by a master maniulator. It wasn't out of character at all. We know Patty's manipulative from the teaser. And by the end of the episode, we learn how truly manipulative she is. The act of going to the wedding was just another one of her manipulations.

The action fits perfectly into the character as we come to expect her to behave.

The characters of Mad Men challenge us as viewers by refusing to act in ways allow us to understand them. They take us by surprise and leaving us unsettled. The Patty Hewes character surprises us too. By how far she's willing to go. But though I may not have predicted her behaviour, it perfectly fulfills my expectations for the character.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Mad Men - Preview

Advertizing is based on one thing. Happiness.

Mad Men

I'm predisposed to love this show.

People I like tell me it's great.

Plus, my dad was an ad man in the 50s and 60s. He wasn't a Madison Avenue type. His office was on Peel Street in Montreal. He worked his way up from copywriter through the executive ranks until he was running the Canadian branch of a big American agency. So we saw some fringes of the world that the series is about and lived through the Canadian version of the same scene.

The pilot episode of Mad Men is entitled Smoke Gets In Your Eyes and was written by series creator Matthew Weiner. You remember his writing credit from The Sopranos.

It is not a premise pilot. It doesn't set up the world. Although it's Peggy's first day at the firm, it doesn't show us the world through her eyes. The main characters are just going about their ordinary business and we have no problem jumping right into the story with them.

The stakes aren't high and there isn't a whole lot of forward momentum in the story. The curtains aren't big turn arounds or cliff hangers.

It's a character study. An exploration of a world and a theme.

The show has fabulous art direction and it looks fantastic.

Plus the writing is incredibly skilled. Weiner is particularly adept with his theme. He recreates the 60s flawlessly and his characters are unusually complex. My only complaint is that I failed to find an emotional connection with the characters.

But the fact that they left me cold might just be an expression of theme.

Advertizing boils it all down to a digestible message.

Which is kind of like what we as television writers sometimes do with our characters. We simplify them, reduce them to a few adjectives or a simple world view. Their clearly defined needs guide their actions. The audience understands why they do what they do and can even predict their next move. Or at the very least, recognize it as logical.

The characters of Mad Men are not predictable or logical.

Check out DMc's post. The character turns left him scratching his head.

Don Draper, the ad man who fronts the cast of characters, asks Midge, the smart, independent and sexually available career woman to marry him. He likes smart women, we conclude.

Then he dises Miss Menkin, the smart, independent and possibly sexually available business woman saying "I'm not going to sit here and let a woman talk to me this way." We must have been wrong. Don hates smart women.

Later, Draper goes home to his sexually available babe of a wife and a child he adores.


He's a devoted husband and father?! But he asked Midge to marry him.

The character is a bundle of contradictions. You don't know what he's going to do next.

He refuses to be simplified into a neat, digestible message.

He's messy and complicated and conflicted. Like real people.

Like the world.

Not simple and digestible. Not "healthier" or "toasted" or "finger licking good" like advertizers would have us believe.

This is Matthew Weiner weaving theme deftly into every element of his show.

What is his theme? I thought of Isaac Ho's theory that theme is expressly stated in a pilot's third act at approximately the 30 minute mark. So I went back to the 30 minute mark.

It's the scene at the Lucky Strike pitch meeting. Draper has been struggling with the campaign throughout the episode and here is the big pitch meeting. Draper's dry. He's got nothing. Pete, the upstart kid who's after his job, is at least in there throwing out ideas even they do fall flat. The client gets up to leave. Suddenly Draper has an idea. He pitches a slogan, the client is intrigued but unsure.

Then, at 32:11, he has this speech:

Advertizing is based on one thing. Happiness. And you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It's freedom from fear. It's a billboard that screams with reassurance that whatever you're doing it's okay. You are okay.

Weiner thinks we are not okay. His characters are not happy or free from fear, but they are desperately clinging to the hope that they are okay.

Advertizing is based on one thing. Happiness.

Look at the opening titles sequence -- the first thing you see in this teaserless pilot. An executive walks into his office, puts down his briefcase, his window is open.

Suddenly, he is falling and falling and falling down the side of the skyscraper. Advertizing images are reflected in the windows as he falls toward certain death.

Did he jump? Was he pushed? Is he dreaming?

He doesn't hit the ground. He's sitting comfortably -- king of the world -- in his big executive chair.

(My dad had a chair just like that, by the way. And his office on Peel, looked an awful lot like Draper's.)

This isn't a show about happiness. It's about how advertizing's framing of our world makes us unhappy. It's about illusion and image and deception. And how nothing is as simple as advertizing.

Not Weiner's characters nor the relationships between them.

Other characters are as illusive as Draper.

I had no idea what Peggy the secretary was thinking as she settled into her new job. She's passive in most of the scenes. When the kid is crude in her presence, she says nothing. Joan, who runs the secretarial pool, tells her to put a paper bag over herself, examine naked self in the mirror and be brutally honest. And she says, "I always try to be honest." Then she goes out and gets herself a prescription for the Pill.

Huh? Where's the pattern? Who is she? Why isn't Weiner simplifying her for me so I can digest her nice and easily? Oh shit, I think he wants me to think.

The relationships also refused to lay down neatly into expected patterns.

Don chews Pete for mistreating Peggy, warning him that if he acts like that no one will like him. A scene or two later Pete admits that Don is right about him and asks him to be his mentor.

In any other pilot, there would be a handshake and a bonding of the characters we're going to follow for the series.

Instead, Don refuses to shake and as Pete heads down the hall he mutters "fuck you" under his breath.

Boss and secretary don't have a heart-warming, we're-going-to-be-a-family-for-the-run-of-the-series moment either. Don both chews her out and rebuffs her sexual advances.

This isn't neat commercial story telling. This is complicated, messy and unexpected. The antithesis of the reductionism of advertizing. And the most of formulaic of network television shows.

I think part of what attracts Denis and others to this show is the resonance of theme through it.

It's about something.

And the thing it's about is interesting and very relevant to our lives right now.

Weiner has something to say. And this pilot makes me want to keep listening.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Time + Emotion - Jekyll Part 2

I finished reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and am now back to tv. I have decided to wait for the final episode of Jekyll before watching ep 5. I'm looking forward to the mini-binge and dreading saying good-bye to the show.

Meanwhile, so much is building up that I may have to give up sleep to keep up (thanks for the tip, Bill). But before I comment on Mad Men (omg, Denis, I can't wait) and John from Cincinnati (Will is keeping the discussion warm), I have to finish with the pilot of Jekyll.

I wanted to discuss the rising tension in the pilot, but my first post on it got way too long. So here's what I found when I broke it down:

Time is an essential part of how tension is built in this show. Not surprisingly then, the first shot of the series is of a ticking clock. It doesn't create tension for us yet, but it will when we form an emotional connection with Tom Jackman, the series lead. In Jeckyll, time plus emotion equals tension.

The tease and first act are fairly flat in terms of jeopardy, but by the end of the first act, we've begun to feel something for Jackman. So Hyde's impending appearance (time) in front of Jackman's wife (emotion) creates an exciting act break.

Then the tension drops again for the top of act two.

Two sequences into the act, we learn that Hyde is due in twenty minutes. Still Jackman is determined to pursue a clue in the mystery of who is following him. This leads us into a long mid-act sequence of tension that keeps turning. Each turn seems to crank the stakes a little higher.

And when the knife is literally at Jackman's throat and we feel like things can't get any worse, Hyde appears. The heat keeps rising.

The sequence which follows is long, funny, tense and violent. The tension here is the product of a couple of marriages of opposites. Toward Hyde himself, I feel both a revulsion and fascination. He is funny and good-looking, but vicious and the nemesis of Jackman with whom I've finally bonded. And then there's the situation. We want this bullying kid dealt the blow he deserves but we know that wanting that is wrong. We sit at the edge of our seats anticipating that violence.

And after it comes, after this long long mid-second act sequence of high tension, Moffat brings us relief in the form of a drink at the local pub, a good-looking woman and some comedy.

Even though, he plays the rest of the act and most of the following one for comedy, the sense of danger boils beneath the surface. There have been too many surprises. We've felt contradictory emotions, rooted for evil (however quietly) and learned to like Jackman. So here we are on edge and still, the third act curtain is a surprise as it cranks the stakes way way up.

Now Jackman's worst fears are realized; Hyde's next target may not be some (semi-) deserving punk. This time it may be the innocents.

Most of the fourth act plays with time and toys with our emotions in order to achieve another long, agonizing sequence of tension.

But when we finally have the answers that relieve that tension, Moffat turns up the heat one last time. The dams break on Jackman's anger and we realize that the rest of the series will be a battle between the two men who inhabit the same body.

What we have is a long long section of tension in the middle of the long long second act. And then a sense of growing danger held at bay with comedy through the rest of act two right up to the third act curtain. The fourth act is one long agonizingly drawn out sequence of tension and fear until almost the end.

Thinking back, it's that long second act sequence of action and drama that bonded me to the series. The plot kept turning and the stakes kept getting higher. It was a powerful viewing experience and left me dying for the next installment.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

If Jackman Gets a Hard On, I'm It: Jekyll

Perhaps I have sufficiently conveyed to you my admiration of Jekyll. Now down to business:

The pilot episode, written by Steven Moffat, is laid out in a teaser and four acts and as Anonymous pointed out, it's the pilot for a short-lived miniseries and not for an ongoing series. For that reason it's quite different than many of the other pilots I've posted about.

No, it doesn't apply to what most Canadian writers are doing to respond to the demand (?) from our broadcasters. Our marketplace wants stand alone episodes of unarced series. Miniseries are out of fashion here.

But maybe this is what we should be doing. Maybe an intense six part series is exactly what we should be doing. It seems to me that our audience could commit to a whole six hours of programming. And it's certainly the kind of event television that would fulfill cultural mandates (if those still exist under the current government); drawing the audience into a shared experience. But never mind all that.

Even though this pilot sets up a miniseries, there are very specific lessons to take away from it and to add to my writing toolbox.

I'm going to focus on these things:
the structure, which shines a light on a new part of this world in every act,
the way the show slowly pulls us from a position of skeptical detachment into one of full emotional connection to the lead character
and, (in my next post) the way the tension builds through the episode.

I'm not going to break the whole thing down, beat by beat, but instead I'll talk more about the shape of the acts,.

The episode has a short Teaser, which I described in a previous post, followed by four acts.

What the Acts Do
Each of these five acts unveils new aspects of the world of Jekyll.

In the Teaser, we learn the rules by which Tom Jackman co-exists with the as-yet-unnamed entity who shares his body.

Act One reveals Jackman's life and the huge sacrifice he's made because of Hyde. We get a hint that the rules between them are breaking down.

Act Two shows us Jackman investigating what he calls his unprecedented condition. Half way through the act, Hyde finally makes his first startling appearance. And now we begin to learn about Hyde's life and his attitude toward Jackman.

By Act Three, we learn Jackman's back story and are introduced to a theory about Hyde's existence.

In Act Four, we learn how big the stakes really are for Jackman and it becomes clear that Hyde is going to fight him for total control of his body and his life.

The act by act turns are quite spectacular when you're watching. Not only does more and more of the world get revealed, but the show begins to reveal itself. The special effects change, increase, intensify. And you are dragged further and further from reality as the fantastic elements of the series are slowly revealed.

And your emotional relationship to the show and characters changes as well.

First Shot, First Line
The show opens on a ticking clock.

The first line comes from Jackman, referring to Hyde:

He's due at midnight. He's usually punctual.

Act Lengths and The Curtains
Tease: 4 minutes
Act One: 6 minutes
Act Two: 20 minutes
Act Three: 12 minutes
Act Four: 91/2 minutes

The Teaser ends on an image of Hyde's eyes popping open. It's an intriguing moment, rather than one of jeopardy.

Act One ends with a dip to black as Jackman's car pulls away and we are quite certain that Hyde is in the driver's seat (although we don't see him yet). Again, the curtain is more of mystery than it is of danger.

The long, long and very exciting second act ends with a startling display of Hyde's powers which prove that he is not anywhere close to a normal human being. Now we're weirded out and we can't look away, but it isn't a cliff-hanger; nothing is hanging in the balance, except what is at stake for the entire series: Jackman's life (and maybe reality as we know it).

Act Three ends with an enormous cliffhanger. Characters we've come to know may or may not be dead or injured and innocent lives may be in danger. The stakes have gotten huge.

The episode ends with Jackman declaring war on Hyde. The stakes are huge, but the events in this episode are clearly complete. We have been reminded of the continuing story threads earlier in the act, but as the curtain falls what we have before us on the screen are Jackman's intense emotions, his determination to protect what is dear to him from the other man inside his body. It is not a hard cliffhanger like the one at the end of the Burn Notice pilot or any episode of Heroes. Instead it's an ending that closes off a story but drives you toward the next beginning.

The Viewer's Emotional Thru-Line
The teaser introduces us to Dr Tom Jackman and Katherine Reimer, the psychiatric nurse he's hired as his minder. Watching the tease, we share Reimer's detached p.o.v. and feel maybe even more than a little skeptical about the drama Jackman's laying on. Even as the act ends, with the startling moment when Hyde's bloodshot eyes pop open, we don't feel any sense of danger, just clinical interest. We definitely want to see what's coming next, but our emotions haven't been sucked into it yet.

In Act One, we meet Jackman's family, see that his wife and kids love him and the agony he feels at his forced separation from them. His emotion brings in ours. By the end of the act, when he seems in physical pain as he tries to prevent Hyde from making an unscheduled appearance in front of his wife, we are sympathetic toward Jackman, even if we aren't quite sure whether his fear is warranted.

Act Two continues to build Jackman's reality and our empathy for him. Then comes the sequence when he visits the private detective and suddenly we are in Jackman's shoes with him. It's all as new and bewildering to him as it is to us. It's taken the tease plus one and half acts to get us to the point where we're seeing the world through Jackman's eyes; what a perfect time to put him in physical danger.

Boom. Hyde bursts out.

First fag of the day always hits the spot.

And Moffat toys with our emotions here. Because we hate this punk with the knife who's been bullying Jackman and want to see him put in his place. So yay for the appearance of the cavalry in the form of Hyde. And he's funny. And larger than life. And maybe, kind of appealing. But out of control. Too violent. Scary.

And what do those special effects signify? We're not quite ready to accept the implications.

And by the end of the act, the jury's still out on Hyde. He's a complicated character and we're not sure how to feel. But one thing's certain; reality has slipped away and we're in a world of unprecedented possibilities.

We're already exhausted by the time the curtain goes up on Act Three and so is Jackman. Now that Moffat has revealed to us how distant from our reality he's prepared to take us, he's ready to give us some back story. We fully appreciate why Jackman has that deer in the headlights look about him and know that his level of anxiety is justified. In fact, we begin to suspect that maybe he's not quite fearful enough. And that's when we get hit with the first truly scary act break.

Act Four is a web of filmic tension, the sweet agony of horror. Along with Jackman, we know that worst may have happened. We want to look, we don't want to look. The identification with Jackman is complete. And when he freaks out we know he's justified. And when he finally declares war on Hyde, we applaud him.

The Third Act Statement of Theme
Isaac Ho, over at the Script Enabler, tells us to look for a statement of theme in the third act and here it is about the 41 minute mark:

How often in this world does the sun rise on something completely
new? And how often do we mistake a miracle for a monster?

That's enough for today. Next time, the patterns of escalating tension through this pilot.