Monday, February 12, 2007

CSI: Crime Scene Investigation - Pilot

And now for something completely different…

As much as I love and admire The Wire, it’s not a useful model for most of us. So let’s go now to the opposite end of the spectrum and look at a much watched and completely accessible hour long drama: CSI.

The pilot (which has no name other than "pilot") was written by Anthony Zuiker. I have watched it five or six times now. It is actually the first of a two parter, but we’re going to only look at the first hour now. And you’ll notice it lays down more neatly into acts.

You can read the beat by beat breakdown here.

Although CSI doesn’t feel like a fast paced show, it uses 48 beats in this pilot which is a lot. At least eight of those beats are there mostly to establish the series premise and build the characters of the leads. The remaining beats drive quite a few interwoven stories which form the A, B, C and D stories.

The pilot breaks down into a tease and four acts. The fourth act is long long long at 16 beats. Normally episodes of CSI are the expected tease, four acts and a tag with the tease and tag using 2 beats each and the acts ranging between 7 and 11 beats each – about 40 beats in all. And although the pilot has the squad looking into at least three different cases (the suicide that’s a homicide, the home invasion and the trick roll) as well as following Holly through her first day with includes other cases, a regular episode of the series only features two cases.

What I’m calling the B-story here is the first plot line up. We follow Grissom through his investigation of the suicide that’s really a murder. The plot is only 7 beats. Presumably we start with this minor storyline because it allows a hyped up tease with gunshots and a bloody crime scene. Something to hook you into the series. But after the tease, this plot is pretty much ignored until act 3 where there are a cluster of beats. And the storyline doesn’t truly resolve; the murder is never found, but Grissom brings relief to the family when he informs them that it wasn’t a suicide but a murder (but of course they knew that at the tease curtain when they told him that that wasn’t the victim’s voice on the tape recorded suicide note.)

The A-story is Holly’s first day on the job. It takes 14 beats, dominating act 1 and being the cliff hanger that closes the show. This story plays out quite strongly in every act and involves three of the regulars emotionally (Grissom, Catherine and Warwick). The instinct with pilots is to start at some kind of beginning – the formation of a unit, a first day of school (Veronica Mars), the first game of the season (Friday Night Lights), etc. In this case, the unit is well-established but a minor character is introduced and it is her first day on the job. The audience learns about the world through her. Unfortunately for Holly, she’s dead at the end of the episode.

The C-story is all about Warwick and his home invasion case. It’s a big one with 12 or 13 beats depending on how you look at it. It wraps up with a murderer under arrest.

Finally, the D-story, Nick’s trick roll case is 8 or 9 beats long by my reckoning. It is intro’ed in Act 1, but we never come back to it till Act 2 where we get two more beats. Then another one in three and it really heats up in Act 4.

By Act:
Tease: A, Character, A, A
Act 1: B, B, Character, Char/Premise, C/D, Character, Char/Premise, C, B, B, B
Act 2: D, B, C, B, C, B, D, B, C, C
Act 3: A, B, C, D, C, A, A
Act 4: D, D, D, A, Character, C, C, B, C, Character, C, Character, C, B, D, B

We can see that the beats for some stories appear in clusters and others weave through the entire episode. The A story occurs almost entirely in the Tease and Act 3, while D is focused in Act 4.

It’s amazing that as jam-packed with plotlines as the episode is, there’s still lots of room for scenes that are entirely about the series premise and the characters. And don’t forget, there are also little science scenes and four flashback scenes which help us to understand the theories about what happened and what really did happen. Plus a scene that lasts a full 60 seconds which is just someone looking over a running shoe. It’s quite amazing for a show that feels relaxed in its pacing.

The pilot has four re-enactment/flashbacks and about 9 moments devoted to science, many of them accompanied by some sort of special effect. Regular first season episodes keep up this pace.

The pilot has a number of sexual and violent references to hype it up. There’s the trick roll story line in which a prostitute’s breasts figure quite prominently so to speak. The flashbacks suggest quite strongly that the victim’s face was mashed into them (and he seemed to enjoy it). There’s a scene in which a young girl has to point out what body parts the molester touched and her dolly has a band aid on its crotch. Grissom hits a dummy head with a golf club and blood splatters everywhere. There’s an autopsy with some gruesome cutting and a scene with a lot of corpses in the morgue. One of the lab techs wishes that Grissom would pin her up against a wall. All of these and a few others, send the message that this is going to be a series with a lot of jolts.

One final thing we should touch on are the act breaks. Usually you expect strong cliffhanger curtains, is that what we get here? The tease ends on what we’re calling the A-story and the discovery that it’s not a suicide, but a murder. That moment has to hold your interest for a long time, because we aint coming back to that particular story for another two acts. Act 1 has a soft character curtain. It’s a B-story beat. Holly’s just been scared silly by dead bodies at the morgue and Grissom makes a joke by calling them assholes. End of Act. Act 2 ends with the examination of the running shoe and Warwick’s conclusion that the husband is lying. At the end of Act 3 we’re back on the long lost A-story. Grissom concludes that the killer knows his way around forensics. This is a false cliffhanger if ever I heard one, since we never revisit this question in Act 4. And the episode ends on the team learning that Holly is dead and Warwick is in trouble. We go to black on Grissom’s concerned face. In all these aren’t the hard edgy curtains we expect from mystery series.

Over all, I’m surprised by how many story balls this episode is able to keep in the air, how much time it takes to develop character and the series premise and by how soft the curtains are. The pilot is definitely quite different than a normal episode, offering more stories, more beats, more violent and sexual references and fewer act breaks.

And that is how one of the most successful of the recent tv franchises launched.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

The Wire - Episode 1: “The Target”

Story by: David Simon & Ed Burns
Teleplay by: David Simon

The first shot is a thin blood trail on pavement.

Detective Jimmy McNulty and an informant discuss the victim’s name: Snot Boogie. The scene seems to be mostly about McNulty’s bemused attitude toward the job. There is no outrage or excitement around the fact that this guy has been shot, it’s just McNulty’s banter with the guy who knew the dead guy. The scene ends with the words “This is America, man.”
The murder and the informant seem to have very little to do with what follow so I can only conclude that this scene is more about character and theme than the story. I figure that they needed something exciting to pull you into the series: a murder. Because the real story starts after the titles.


When it’s not your turn.”

Every episode begins with a quotation from a character that you’ll hear later in the episode. This is the kind of thing that you can set up in a pilot script and then can have incredible trouble keeping up later on. But The Wire’s pulled it off beautifully every time. Later, Jimmy McNulty will chide his homicide partner Bunk for answering the phone and in so doing catching a homicide case that should have gone to some other detective. That’s what happens when you care when it’s not your turn to care. Of course, the whole episode, the whole first season in fact, is about what results from Jimmy McNulty caring when it’s not his turn.

After titles and quote, we come back to Jimmy, he’s walking through the courthouse with Bunk. Before they part, he warns Bunk not to answer the phone. If he’d only he’d take his own advice. But no. (C-story = Bunk’s decomp)

McNulty heads into a courtroom and sets everything that follows into motion. This is your proverbial inciting incident. McNulty cares when it’s not his turn and goes to watch D’Angelo Barksdale’s trial. It’s not his case, but there he is, laying eyes on Stringer Bell, lanky, smooth and self-confident, also watching D’s trial. The first witness, a male security guard, IDs D’Angelo as the shooter, but the second, a female security guard, maintains quite forcefully that D didn’t do it and she made a mistake when she first identified him. It’s damaging testimony. The scene gives us our first looks at Judge Phelan and a bunch of the Barksdale crew: Stringer and D, Wee Bay, Stinkum and Sarvino. The last three are there to keep up the intimidation on the witnesses. McNulty leans over and compliments Stringer as he leaves the courtroom, serving notice that he’s on to him. (A & B-story – A=formation of the police unit; B=world of the Barksdales and how D ends up in the Pit)Jimmy looks in on the detective who’s case has just been blown in court and tells him that the Barksdale kid just got off. The detective can’t believe it. (Character)

Meet Kima in her car with a witness and the walkie with other detectives on a stakeout. She gives the word. (Character)

Meet Carver and Herc as they take down the perp. Men of action. Herc finds a great big gun in the car. Then Kima comes over and finds a second gun, reminds Herc there are always TWO guns. Kima’s an ace cop. Herc’s a goof. Carver? Somewhere in the middle. (Character)

Back to the courtroom. Phelan gives his judgment as McNulty watches: D is not guilty. (A & B-story)

McNulty heads down a corridor in the courthouse. Someone’s calling his name. The judge wants to talk to him. (A-story)

In chambers, Phelan and Jimmy are old friends, familiar with each other. Jimmy gives us the lowdown on the Barksdale gang: they own the towers, the low rises, the corners and have for a year. They are responsible for a lot of bodies and this is the third case they’ve beaten by intimidating witnesses. Last time, it was Jimmy they beat. Phelan’s pissed that it happened in his courtroom, he’s a new judge and interested in flexing his power. (A-story)

Back at the cop shop Herc and Carver tell us they’re the kind of cops who go out and bust heads. Flex some muscle and show the drug dealers who’s boss. Meanwhile, Kima struggles with paperwork. (Character)

McNulty meets up with Bunk on an investigation. There’s a decomposing corpse. McNulty chastised Bunk for picking up the phone and refuses to help. He heads back to his desk while Bunk prays that the “decomp” in not a murder. (C-story)

Meet Lt Daniels and Major Rawls. Rawls is giving Daniels shit about Avon Barksdale. (Here comes the shit rolling down hill…) Rawl is feeling pressure from Phelan. (A-story)

Daniels hands the case to Kima. Her report is due to tomorrow. When Daniels admits they don’t even have a date of birth on Avon, Kima realizes how tough a case this will be. (A-story)

Meet McNulty’s Sgt. Landsman who sends Jimmy off to see the Major. (A-story)

Rawls gives McNulty the double finger (one for his Irish ass and the other for his eye). Talk about stakes. McNulty’s boss is vowing undying hatred for him and all he did was answering the judge’s questions when asked. But that’s what you get for caring when it’s not your turn. (A-story)

Quick cut of Kima up late typing. (A-story)

Then over to D and Wee Bay in the car, D talking about what happened in court. Wee Bay stops the car and on the sidewalk makes D repeat the rule. “No talking in the car.” It’s an interesting juxtaposition, Rawls with his double fingers up and Wee Bay, in his quiet intense way asking D to just say it. It’s our first hint that maybe the drug dealers and the cops have to deal with similar issues (getting soldiers to keep their mouths shut), but their methods for doing it are different. (B-story)

At the strip club, we meet Avon Barksdale, clearly Stringer’s boss. Stringer tells Avon about McNulty. (B-story)

Avon has a moment alone with Dee. He’s quiet and understated with Dee but very clear in his message: D has to do things differently, be smarter. Again the contrast is striking. Avon seems so civilized and polished compared to the red faced Major and his dealings with Jimmy. Rawls has pledged undying hatred, while Avon pulls his nephew D into a hug and says “it’s love man, it’s family”. (B-story)

McNulty is typing the report on the Barksdale crew when Bunk returns. Bunk’s case isn’t a homicide. Sergeant Landsman is in early, pissed off at McNulty for stirring up shit, he’s certain McNulty’s going to land up sent to the Western. McNulty makes his second big mistake of the episode and lets slip what he’d hate most: to end up on the boats. Landsman predicts that where he’ll be pretty soon, pulling the midnight shift. From demotion talk among the cops we cut to(A-story):

D arriving early for work at the towers, but Stringer’s waiting for him. D’s been demoted to the “Pit: -- the low rises. (Stringer offers the promise that he can work his way back up.) And yes, his uncle Avon knows. (B-story)

Upstairs, Major Rawls and Major Valchek meet in the elevator. Both are pissed at McNulty, who Rawls says is dead to him. (A-story)

Dee takes his first look at the pit. Tells Bodie and Wallace that he killed a nigger. (B-story)

Valchek gives Daniels the Barksdale file. (A-story)

Meet Bubbles and Johnny – addicts – making counterfeit money. Bubs is teaching the kid the ropes. Bubbles will be a series regular, appearing in all four seasons. His runner in this episode is only a four beats, but significant because it again shows us that this is a world turned upside down. Bubbles the drug addict is the only really decent person we meet. He cares about young Johnny and has nothing personal to gain from the friendship. (D-story – or maybe it’s a runner: how Bubbles ends up siding with the police)

D at work in the pit, learning the ropes, teaching his new crew a new way of “serving” customers. They discover that Wallace has been burned with counterfeit money. (B&D story)

Bubbles and Johnny are shooting up. Bubs tells Johnny he’s green and that he’s trying to give him some game. Johnny says he’s ready, he wants to make the buy next time. Bubs knows he’s not ready. (D-story)

Daniels goes in to see the Deputy of Operations, Ervin Burrell. Burrell explains the rules for the Barksdale case. No long surveillance etc. Just buy and bust to satisfy Phelan. (A-story)

McNulty visits a friend at the FBI. Special Agent Fitzhugh says that the FBI is abandoning drugs for terrorism. Jimmy witnesses a state of the art wire in action. (A-story)

Johnny runs the scam, fucks up and gets caught. The Pit crew catch him and wait for D. The crew understands chain of command, D’s in charge and they won’t act without his say so. D gives his tacit consent and they start kicking the shit out of Johnny. D doesn’t seem to have a taste for violence. (D-story)

Daniels gathers his team to explain how the Barksdale investigation will go down. He and McNulty get in a fight because McNulty knows that buy and bust won’t bring down Barksdale. Daniels reminds McNulty about the importance of chain of command. State’s Attorney Rhonda Pearlman tells them to get their act together. The antagonism and mutual distrust between Daniels and McNulty is set. (A-story)

As they drink at a bar, McNulty and Bunk discuss the terms of Jimmy’s divorce. Bunk notes that everyone is always mad at Jimmy. Jimmy knows he’s fucked. (Character and theme)

Meanwhile at the strip club, Stringer in his civilized way chews D out for not being hard enough on Johnny. D meets Shardene, a stripper. He’s interested, but not tonight. (Character and theme)

Kima goes home to her girlfriend and starts in on her homework for school. Kima is trying to better herself. (Character)

Bunk and Jimmy are still drinking. They are hammered now and near a train track. As Jimmy takes a leak on the tracks and a train bears down on him, he announces he’s going to investigate the Barksdale case the way it should be done. (A-story)

Bubbles is at the hospital when Kima arrives in answer to his call. Johnny lies in a bed, clearly very badly hurt from the beating. Bubbles is ready to squeal on the guys who did it. (A and D come together)

In the homicide office, Landsman assigns Bunk a new case. (A-story)

A crowd surrounds the murder scene when Bunk arrives. D is in that crowd. Bunk rolls the body to see the face. It’s the guard who testified against D. D recognizes him and walks away quickly. He doesn’t like the violence or what’s happened. (A & B come together)

So ends the episode.

A lot of story and a lot of characters set up. Note that beats from the same story thread are often clustered: several As in a row, almost all the Ds come together at the end. When we flip back and forth between A & B, it’s to juxtapose the two very different organizations (the crude world of the cops where caring is the wrong thing to do and the slick Barksdales who very much want their people to care and be careful). Even in this very complex story, the beats are grouped together to make the stories if not exactly accessible, more accessible. This pilot introduces lots and lots of characters. Some day we’ll come back to this series and look at character intros, but for now let’s just admire the brilliance of the structure and dream of the day when we can write a series a like this one.