Thursday, June 28, 2007

Life on Mars Times Two

I've just finished reading the two pilot scripts for Life on Mars. One was the 2005 "Amended Pink" draft of the British original, written by co-creators Tony Jordan, Matthew Graham and Ashley Pharoah. The other was the 2007 first draft of the American remake written by David E Kelley and Stu Moss.

("Amended Pink" sounds like one of those drafts producers like to get for free, the revised second draft or the first draft polish.)

The two scripts are incredibly similar. Character names, descriptions and the entire story line of the pilot are the same in both. Many scenes are identical, but for the removal of the heavy British slang in the original, an updating for the technology (blackberries and Google Earth) and some streamlining of the story (which is quite effective for such a small touch).

Life on Mars, if you don't know, is the story of a modern day cop who somehow finds himself back in 1972. I had seen some episodes of the British original but it never grabbed me too much. The dilemma of being back in time was interesting, but I found it emotionally bleak. And emotions that I didn't think were earned. There's a lot of cops punching cops without much build up and men and women getting attracted to each other rather quickly and without reason. It seemed to me at the time.

I may or may not have sort of fast forwarded through a few episodes to try to find out if Sam got back to the future but by now, I don't even remember. I just didn't connect with the story emotionally and didn't end up committing.

But reading the script, I was much much more sucked in oddly. In fact, I read the British version first, the produced version of which I hadn't particularly enjoyed. On paper, I felt the jeopardy and was pulled along with the momentum and emotion of the story which hadn't happened when I watches it. There are a few moments which still don't ring true for me but I enjoyed the read.

The Americanized version is an even faster read, because some of the sub-plotting is gone. But what remains is very similar right down to scene structure and plenty of the dialogue.

I guess the point is very little about this premise needed changing for it to work in the American market. Or maybe that's wrong, because I read that the ABC version of the series is on hold.

Below, a two part video interview with the creators of the original series in which they tell how every broadcaster in the country turned them down, sometimes more than once.

The writers talk about creating the show.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Reaper Pilot Script

I love Reaper. I love it. It's written by Michele Fazekas and Tara Butters. What I read is an unnumbered draft dated in December and is clearly not a production draft. No scene numbers. I had to count them: 45ish (accounting for my margin of error). A fast fun read with lots of laughs setting up what looks like a very fun series.

It's a premise pilot. And a terrific one at that.

And it has a measly little three page teaser (which I personally think they should lose, because why start on a fantasy sequence inside a computer game when the first act is so great and has such a great curtain that no viewer in his right mind would change the channel).

The story that the episode tells is funny and original. The characters are precise, their dialogue sharp. There are several action sequences which manage to be simultaneously comedic and cool. And what a great premise.

Here are some stats:
66 pages
Teaser plus five acts.

Teaser: 3 pages
Act 1: 16 ¾ pages
Act 2: 7 pages
Act 3: 11 ¼ pages
Act 4: 8 ¼ pages
Act 5: 18 pages

You'll note that the act lengths are very uneven. That's because they are situated where the best curtains are.

The script is written in a nice breezy way with a fair amount of action interspersed with the dialogue. In fact, quite rare is the page without 4, 5, 6 lines of action and frequently there is a lot more. There are at least 19 pages in which there is either more action than dialogue or there are approximately equal amounts of each.

I hope to write more about this one when I've had a chance to reread it and digest it.

Act One curtain.

The script is written in a nice breezy way with a fair amount of action interspersed with the dialogue. In fact, quite rare is the page without 4, 5, 6 lines of action and frequently there is a lot more. There are at least 19 pages in which there is either more action than dialogue or there are approximately equal amounts of each.

I hope to write more about this one when I've had a chance to reread it and digest it.

Viewing Report

I'm in possession of a second episode of Jekyll. I haven't watched it yet. I'm going to save a few and them binge. Don't you find tv is better that way? You immerse yourself in a show.

I don't want to watch tv the way they dole it out: in weekly installment. Imagine trying to read a novel that way. You have seven or eight books on the go and you read one chapter of each every week. Okay, maybe I've been known to do that.

But I watched 10 hours of Friday Night Lights in three days in January and that was fabulous. And I had similar The Riches and The Tudors binged this spring (although I never finished either series, my interest seems to have dwindled). Dirt was excellent binge viewing. I don't know if I would have liked it so much if I would have had to wait. I slurped up four seasons of The Wire in a couple of months and then watched many of them over again. This is the way to watch tv, I think.

Anyway, I haven't watched the third John from Cincinnati either, but I am still willing to invest in it after episode two. Again, I'll build up a critical mass before digging back in.

I did finish watching Durham County, which was a really impressive creation written by Laurie Finstad-Knizhnik. Well done from beginning to end and proof that there's hope for us yet. (It would have been even better if I'd watched all the episodes at once, which I may yet do.)

And I caught the pilot episode of The Flight of the Conchords, playing on HBO and here in Canada on TMN (catch it on demand). HBO describes the series on their website:

Flight of the Conchords follows the trials and tribulations of a two man, digi-folk band from New Zealand as they try to make a name for themselves in their adopted home of New York City.

Not a setup pilot by the way. It almost starts in the middle of a sentence.

The series is created by James Bobin, Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie with the pilot written by James Bobin and Jemaine Clement. James Bobin, by the way, wrote on the Ali G show and helped to create the character of Borat. There are some comedy chops behind this series.

What makes the show unusual is that the characters break into music video every now and then. The lyrics made me laugh out loud quite a few times, so I'm including a sample.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Setup Pilot Versus Typical Episode

Jaime J Weinman, in his blog TV Guidance, recently discussed what I'm doing here and then dove-tailed into a broader discussion of "premise" or "setup" pilot versus the "typical episode" premise. He makes good arguments on both sides from a viewer's perspective.

But if you're a Canadian screenwriter trying to get a show on the air, take it from me: forget the premise pilot. Start your first script further down the line. Jump in. Write the show as it's going to be in the other twelve episodes of the first season..

My reasoning has less to do with the satisfaction of writing it or the entertainment of the audience. It's just practical. You have a premise for a series, you have to test it out. A set up pilot does not help you (or the development execs) understand how your characters are going to act week to week, episode to episode. You aren't testing out the premise as a story telling vehicle, you're just setting up a story telling vehicle.

From a writing point of view, this isn't easy. It's hard to launch yourself into this world you're creating and start telling typical stories. As a writer, it's almost instinctual to start by thinking about how your characters got here, building a world around them, getting to know your characters, exploring how they interact.

You have to know this stuff, you have to take the time to imagine those first moments. Be there in them. Write them down. Maybe even outline the show that a premise pilot would be, living through the beats. Definitely hear your characters speak, listen to how they speak, when, why. But that's character development work. Put it in your bible.

Then push yourself to write something that's more typical of the series.

But not an ordinary episode either.

Write the best episode for the series that you can think of. The one that is most exciting, emotional and surprising. And the one that has the elements to show off your best writing skills.

There's another very practical reason not to do a setup episodes, that Weinman mentions and which I've lived through more than once. If you produce an episode that sets up the world, you're going to have to air it first. Even when you shoot the first episode second or third in the production order (so that the crew and actors are a little more experienced with the show) it may very well be a dog. Odds are twelve to one that it won't be the best episode you have in the can when your air date rolls around. But if it's a premise pilot, it's going on air first. And all those viewers who are going to tune in to catch the new show because of all the publicity surrounding the launch aren't going to see your best. They'll be seeing the setup. And you've lost an important chance.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Three by Sorkin

I'm almost done with Teasers (for a while at least) but before I move on I thought I might compare Aaron Sorkin's approach to the opening moments of three different shows: Sports Night, West Wing and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.

Sports Night was a half hour series so you can't compare it to any of the other pilot teasers I've discussed thus far. The pilot opens with a quick little traditional sit com teaser of just a minute and a half in length. Entitled "The Quality of Mercy" and written by Bill Wrubel and Aaron Sorkin, the episode launches us right into the premise with the Sports Night show live on the air and Dan and Casey delivering their fast-paced banter. When the show goes to commercial, we visit the control room characters for more witty banter about…well, nothing really. And then we go to main titles and credits.

This is not a setup pilot. It could be any episode in the series. Sure it has some stuff about how the characters got to be on Sports Night, but you could have written this episode at any point in the course of the series and had the same (or more) impact. The purpose of this teaser isn't to introduce the story lines for the episode or to let you know who the characters are. Instead, the purpose of this minute and a half seems to be to bring you into the world and give you your first taste of Sorkin's smart dialogue.

Here are some Sports Night scripts, including a draft of the pilot.

A lot of people loved Sports Night. But not as many as loved West Wing.

West Wing came out of the box with style. The pre-titles teaser takes us sequentially through the series' main characters (or at least the characters who Sorkin thought would be the focus of the series back when he was writing the pilot). We start with a scene featuring Sam which serves to tell us a bit about his character and introduce the episode's main storyline (will Josh get fired). Then come a series of short scenes which mostly explore character: Leo finds a mistake in the New York Times crossword puzzle, CJ flirts and ends up falling off the treadmill, Josh sleeps at his desk and Toby rails against airline stupidity. These scenes are held together by the thinnest of plot devices: a story about the president falling off his bike (which will take about four more beats to complete). In each of the scenes, these characters refer to potus. And we're asking ourselves, what are they talking about? The answer comes in the final scene of the teaser, which establishes another of the episodes' sub-plots (Sam slept with a hooker): they've all been talking about the President of the United States. (Music swells, cut to those patriotism inspiring main title shots of the White House.)

The opening for Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip is very different. The leads, Danny and Matt, aren't even in it. They don't appear for a while. Instead, this Teaser serves to set up the series premise. It's set at the show behind the show just as it goes live to air. As you recall, the show runner goes crazy (like that could ever happen) and the way is cleared for Danny and Matt to return. It's a fourteen page teaser in the script (back then called Studio 7) and it's filled with Sorkin's brilliant snappy dialogue. What we learn about is the world of this fictional tv series and the forces that control it (sponsors, network execs and censors).

While the West Wing and Sports Night pilots drags us into typical episode of their respective series and show us just what the next zillion episodes will be like, at the Studio 60 pilot we are left wondering what the heck he's going to do next week. I think it may have taken Sorkin a while to figure it out too.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

A Tour of Teasers

Let's take a quick tour through the opening acts of some of the pilots that aired thus far this year.Traveler is a summer replacement series with a pilot written by David Diglio. It opened with the main titled followed by ten minutes of drama before the first commercial break. These ten minutes are used to set up the series premise. There's some character development along the way, but the main purpose of this act is to establish the continuing mystery which will drive the series. The show launches you straight into the action: two men running through Manhattan -- from something. Then the story flashes back a few days and moves forward full circle to let you know why they were running. Or at least partly why, but then the series about them continuing to run and continuing to try discover why it is they are doing so. It's quite a clever opening and very hooky.

Dirt, on the other hand, devotes three minutes and 20-odd seconds to a pre-titles teaser that is all about character. Dirt is the Courtney Cox vehicle about a tabloid editor. The pilot was written by Matthew Carnahan. The short sequence that opens the series features no regular characters but Cox's Lucy and doesn't really hint at the episodic plot or any of the season arcs, other than the fact that Lucy is hated and people may or may not want to kill her.

The pilot for Friday Night Lights, written by Peter Berg based on a novel by H.G. Bissinger, opens with seven minutes of drama before we get to the titles. We meet many of the main characters, their problems and the dynamics of some of their relationships to each other. The premise of the series is established and there's a little sex and a little violence thrown in as well. By the time you get to those titles, you're pretty deep into the world.

The Riches pilot was really strong in my opinion, but I didn't like the Teaser. I felt it verged on a shark jump, but then the episodes which follow also seem to get awfully close to that border. After the Teaser, the episode twists and turns and changes with every act and I think that makes it very successful as a viewing experience. Where I think the Teaser goes wrong is that it works so hard to establish character and give Eddie Izzard a forum to be Eddie Izzard that it stretches credibility. And the opening five minutes and 45 seconds are all about character, mostly Eddie's as the lead Wayne Malloy. And when we go to the titles, we really have no idea what the episode to follow is going to be about. Izzard, by the way, shares a story credit with Dmitry Lipkin, who takes the solo teleplay credit.

, written by Robert Murphy, which premiered earlier this week on Showtime, has a short little pre-titles Teaser that does nothing to establish the characters of the four blind folded people riding in a van. Nor does it tell us much about the episodic story to come. What it does do is give us the series premise and a taste of back story. Actually it didn't add much information to the series' poster and it didn't make me want to keep viewing.

And then there's Jekyll, written by Steven Moffat, my new hero. The pre-titles teaser runs nearly four minutes. It introduces us to two of the main characters, one of whom is looking at this story world with fresh eyes, just like we, the viewers, are. And what we learn about is a third character who isn't present. There is a promise of horror that we simply can't believe. In fact when the Teaser ends, we feel that the writer is building up to something he's not going to deliver on. But like The Riches, this is a pilot episode that twists and turns and changes and throws you for a lot of loops.

For me, the most successful opening acts were long, entertaining and gave me a sense of what was to come. I like a teaser that has lots of character and draws you into the story to come. For me, FNL and Traveler both did that well, but on the other hand, The Riches and Jekyll were both able to redeem themselves with what was to come.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Do You Really Want to Know?

Will Dixon asks:
Can you elaborate? Are they still teasers anymore or just Act One's with a sexy beginning? And where is the title sequence falling in that opening chunk...pre first image? Or after 18 pages/minutes?

Can I elaborate? I was afraid to, lest you think my obsession with these details a little over the top, but now that you ask…

I can't address the location of the title sequence in these pilot scripts, since I have yet to see the produced versions (but I will and I will keep you posted on that front). However in terms of how nine hour-long pilot scripts are laid out I can give you more detail.

The short answer is there is a lot of variation:

Five of the scripts are divided into six acts:
Reaper, New Amsterdam and K-Ville each have a teaser followed by acts one to five, while The Darlings (a.k.a. Dirty, Sexy, Money) and Pushing Daisies avoid the word Teaser and label the acts one through six.

Four of the scripts are divided into five acts:
Life on Mars and Viva Laughlin call the first of those acts a Teaser but Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and Babylon Fields call the first act Act One.

The scripts range in length from Life on Mars' wacky 50 pages to 66 for Reaper, but most hovering around the 60 mark.

You can read more about character dramas Viva Laughlin, a drama by Robert Lowry, here and Dirty, Sexy Money by Craig Wright, here.

It looks like K-Ville, written by Jonathan Lisco, is a straight up gritty crime show.

Did I mention that the paranormal is big this coming season? Pushing Daisies, written by Bryan Fuller, Reaper, written Tara Butters and Michele Fazekas, The Sarah Connor Chronicles, written by Josh Friedman, Babylon Fields, by Michael Atkinson and Gerald Cuesta, New Amsterdam written by Allan Loeb and Christian Taylor and Life on Mars written by David E. Kelley (who can get away with a 50 page script) and Stu Moss all have sci fi, horror or fantasy elements.

And while we're on the subject of horror pilots, go out and find a screener of the pilot of the new British series Jekyll written by Steven Moffat. I'm telling you now, you need to see it. Hurry up. What are you waiting for?

Find this. Watch it. Amazing!

Don't Let 'Em Go

I have a bunch of scripts for the pilots that got picked up by the US nets for the fall. I'm still working my way through the reading. But leafing through I've noticed a trend toward the beefy opening act.

Sometimes the script labels this section Teaser, sometimes Act One, but by and large they are long. Short is eight pages. But most are upwards of 10. 12, 13, 14 pages seems to be the norm for a Teaser/Act One. A couple of the scripts have 17, 18 page openings. Only one of the nearly dozen scripts has an anemic, traditional 3 page teaser.

If you've got an audience to tune in, why let them go? Keep them watching as long as possible before giving them a break in the action.

Act One of the pilot script for Pushing Daisies is 18 pages long.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Fucking Bollocking Twat Fuck

The airing of a pilot is your big chance to hook in an audience for your series. In the week or so before broadcast, the show has had it's launch publicity and tonight's the night people are going to check it out. And by the time the titles or the first commercial break rolls around, the viewers are going to decide whether to stick around for the rest of the episode or change channels. And if they change channels now, the chances of getting them back ever are pretty slim. A lot rides on those opening minutes. So how do you make 'em count?

One of my favourite series of 2007 thus far is the British series Skins. The opening scenes of the pilot, entitled "Tony" and written by Bryan Elsley, are absolutely fabulous.

The show opens with a 30 second title sequence that is all shots of characters and ends with the series title "Skins".

The first shot of the first episode is close on eyes which pop open, awake, as the camera slowly pulls out to reveal a teenage boy in bed as church bells ring in the distance. His alarm goes off and he flicks on some music as he springs into action, doing his dips, chin ups and bicep curls in only his tight white underpants, his face expressionless. His first smile appears as he surveys his image in the mirror.

That sequence takes 37 seconds and it's all about character.

A teenage girl looking bedraggled in her smudged makeup and short skirt walks up the street.

In his bedroom, our teenage boy's watch alarm sounds. He stations himself at the bedroom window and looks out. In the window across the street, a woman allows her white robe to drop to the floor, revealing her naked back. She glances out the window; she knows our boy is watching.

On the street, the girl glances up at the woman's window and then at his. She stops, arms crossed, staring up at his window. Is she a pissed off girlfriend?

No, actually. She waves, trying to distract him as the naked woman turns in his direction providing a good front view. Below the young girl finally attracts his attention.

The boy turns to his stereo, cranking the volume higher, higher, higher still, smiling with satisfaction in the direction of his bedroom door, behind which we can barely make out a male voice: "Tony! Tony!"

Tony, the teenage boy, signals to the girl below and she lunges for the front door. An irate looking 40-something male wearing nothing but red boxers storms into Tony's room, yelling to be heard over the music.

"Sorry," says Tony, pretending to fiddle with the remote, "the volume's busted."

"Every fucking morning!" spurts his furious father. Meanwhile the young hottie is sneaking up the stairs, into her bedroom, peeling off her clubbing clothes and slipping into her demure English school girl uniform.We're not done yet.

Tony is now sitting on the toilet reading Sartre's Nausea as his father knocks on the bathroom door begging to be let in. Tony smiles mildly as he flushes, brushes and goes out the window, leaving the bathroom door locked and his father pounding and cursing on the other side.

Tony's Father
You fucking bollocking twat fuck. How come I'm
never allowed to use my own sodding bathroom?

Tony climbs down to street level, pauses to smile at the now-dressed woman from across the street and lets himself into the house.

In the kitchen, Mom is making eggs. His sister, now every inch the innocent school girl, nibbles toast. Dad, still ranting about getting into the bathroom, steps into the kitchen and stops dead when he sees Tony.

The lock is broken again, Tony claims mildly, as his father stares at him with mounting hatred.

By this time, you couldn't pay me to turn off this show. And the interesting thing about this opening is that none of it has anything to do with what follows. Tony's parents and sister don't have any significance in the series until a much later episode. This one has more to do with Tony's scheme to get Sid -- who we haven't even met yet -- laid.

Who's stupid enough to fuck Sid?


She's still in hospital.

No, she's not. They let her out. She's just not allowed to handle knives.

Instead of establishing story, the writer has opted to devote the first three and three quarter minutes of the pilot to setting up character. And he has done so beautifully.

What would you do if everything's so fucked up and you just don't know what to do?

I stop eating till they take me to hospital.

(Btw, I couldn't find a picture of Bryan Elsley. If anyone can link me up to one, I'd love to add it in.)

Skins - Tony

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

John From Cincinnati Part 1

I don't get it. Yet. But I'm willing to invest some time and effort because after all this is David Milch.

Half a dozen scenes into my first viewing of the pilot for John from Cincinnati, written by David Milch and Kem Nunn, I put down my pen and paper and decided to just try to absorb the show. And it's going to take me quite a few more viewings to truly make sense of it structurally, thematically, storywise.

If this were an episode of a show on a conventional network, I believe the first six scenes would be the teaser. But this HBO and there are no commercial breaks to guide my breakdown. These first few scenes amazingly well-crafted. You meet most of the main players, learn a great deal about the storylines and themes that will presumably run through the series and never feel like you're getting back story. I hope to break down the whole show, but until I do, here are my thoughts on the opening sequence.

John from Cincinnati begins with the titles. Once they are out of the way, it's strictly story without interruption till the closing credits

The opening shot is the headlights of an SUV as it moves through low scrubby hills toward us. Linc (Luke Perry) gets out and walks toward the beach. In the distance we see Mitch Yost (Bruce Greenwood) surfing. Linc continues down the beach, John (Austin Nichols) appears behind him and utters the first line of dialogue for the entire series: "The end is near." Something tells me we've just been alerted to a major theme.

"Hey man, my brother," replies Linc, pointing out a number of people running past in the distance, "those illegals act like it's another day at the beach." What does this tell us? That we're near the Mexican border, yes. But I suspect the line and the immigrants are present to put us in the mind of the word "aliens" and maybe we're supposed to associate said word with John.

Mitch, done surfing, comes up the beach, board under his arm. (Is this the moment to mention Bruce Greenwood's six pack? He definitely looks every inch the aging surfer dude.)

John starts heading toward Mitch. Linc is amazed that he knows him. John replies that "Mitch Yost should get back in the game." And repeats almost the same words in a slightly different order to Mitch. Mitch and Linc think the game John is referring to is competitive surfing. We know better. Linc has already cottoned on to the fact that John is unusual because he's making finger circles at his temple to let Mitch know that John is a whack job.

We're just a minute and a half into the episode, but the question has already been raised, is John an alien or insane? So it's time for the writers give us some information about Mitch. That comes with his first lines. To John: "You should mind your own business." And to Linc, before Linc has said a word to Mitch, "Go fuck yourself." (The first "fuck" of the series, by the way, with many many to follow in this episode, at least. Milch hasn't lost any affection for the F-word since the demise of Deadwood.)

As Mitch walks away, Linc turns to John. Just in case John isn't crazy, he warns him to "stay away from the kid", threatening him with harm if he interferes with the deal in progress.

Scene one is two minutes long and we already know a lot. There's a mystery guy (John) who might be crazy or who might be from some place other than earth. We know Mitch is a bitter former surfer and that he and Linc have a history. And we know there's a kid and deal in the making.

Scene two is less deft and information packed. Cissy Yost (Rebecca De Mornay) standing on a pier watching Shaun Yost (Greyson Fletcher) surfing. He must be the kid in question. She calls to a girl running toward the water with her board to tell Shaun to stop by the store later, offering the girl a free bottle of wax for delivering the message. So, Cissy owns a store, presumably a surfing store since she carries a kind of wax that would interest a girl with a surf board. Cissy heads off and a mystery blonde woman moves into her spot to watch Shaun as he waits for the next waves.

Now we go back to the beach. Mitch is heading for his car with Linc at his side making his pitch. Mitch finds a syringe on the ground, picks it up, looks at it with disgust. It could be Butchie's. Mitch simultaneously blames and forgives Linc for Butchie's drug problems with this clever line: "Now he's proven to the world he can fuckup just fine without a sponsor." Several things fall into place: Linc represents sponsors and the source of the tension (or at least part of the tension) between Mitch and Linc is Butchie's drug use.

Linc wants to know if Mitch is going to Huntington to watch his grandson surf. Mitch didn't know the kid was planning to compete, but he won't let him and he won't let Linc "get your fangs in his neck like you did to Butchie." That's when Linc pulls out the DVD that Shaun sent him. The words "Sponsor Me" are scrawled across the front. Linc says, it's going to happen whether Mitch wants it or not. Shaun wants to get signed, he's the real deal and he's a Yost.

Linc's parting words: "Trust the devil you know, Mitch." And now, we know about Linc, he's the devil -- a mundane, nice guy sort of devil or at least the incarnation of commercialism in the surfing world; the guy who signs you. No wonder he drives the big black truck.

Now it's time to meet a few other characters. Outside a very run down motel, Meyer (Willie Garson) is handing up a sold sign as Ramon (Luis Guzman) watches. Meyer doesn't think the new owner is a very pleasant person.

We meet Butchie through his off-screen cry of "mother-fucker" before we see him. It seems Meyer's got him stashed rent free in this derelict motel because Meyer is a huge fan ("Butchie Yost revolutionized surfing, Ramon. He changed the entire idea of it.") Ramon thinks Butchie should be gone before the new owner shows up.

Butchie meanwhile is trying to push his beat up Volkswagen van. Meyer and Ramon attempt to corner him to discuss his moving out but Butchie ducks into his motel room claiming that he needs to take a "horrendous dump."

While Meyer pleads Butchie's case to Ramon, Ramon leads Meyer over to a huge pile of trash. He wants the lawyer's help in cleaning it up before the new owner arrives. Me thinks these two are the cleanup crew.

Meanwhile, inside his filthy motel room, Butchie Yost shoots up.

Back at the beach, Mitch stows his board in his car and takes out a big jug of fresh water. He pours the water over his head to wash away the salt. And then something strange happens. He lifts off. He looks down at his feet. They are a few inches above the ground. There he is, next to his old paneled station wagon, hanging in mid-air.

And that is where I would have put the act break to end a great tease. We're six and half minutes in and we've met some incredibly memorable characters and gotten a lot of back story effortlessly. We've got a pretty good idea that the show is not going to fit nicely into any genre. And I for one, was ready to commit to the full hour.

Monday, June 11, 2007

The Sopranos Finale

I know. It's a blog about pilots, but how can I resist a finale now and then? So here's my breakdown of the twenty-first episode of the sixth season of the Sopranos, written by David Chase.

Because The Sopranos is produced for HBO and airs there without commercial breaks, it's not easy to discern act breaks and curtains. Nor are they important to the structure. Maybe that's why when I watch an episode of The Sopranos I never feel the structure. I always have the sense Chase is doing something very different than the rest of us. That's why breaking down the last episode was so informative for me.

The way I read it, there were many storylines through the episode: A. The situation with Phil, B. A.J. and his depression, C. the extended family (Bobby's death, Janice's future, Uncle Junior), D. Paulie, E. Meadow and her future and finally the thing we all wanted to know about, F. Tony's future. Maybe these aren't the plotlines as they saw them in the writer's room, certainly lumping all the extended family scenes (Bobby's funeral, Janice scenes and Junior scenes) into one group and calling them a sub-plot is pushing it, as is naming a sub-plot "the future". And you could easily argue that A.J.'s story is really the A, but in the absence of the writer to explain his thinking, you're stuck with my guesses.

Beat by beat:

• We open with Tony waking in the bed where we left him at the end of the last episode, assault weapon on hand. (A-story)
• With Paulie at his side, Tony tries to solve his problem by appealing to the FBI for help. (A, D)
• Tony visits Carmella and the kids at the house where they are staying. (B, E)
• Bobby's funeral - almost a mundane community event in its normalcy, A.J.'s continuing problems and where Paulie is at. (F, B, D)

• Back at the hide-out, Tony is avoiding going to see Syl. (A)
• Phil gives orders to his men by phone. (A)
• Tony talks to Janice about her future. (C)
• The FBI tips off Tony that Phil is making his call from a gas station pay phone. (A)
• Tony's men start cruising by gas stations looking for phones. (A)
• A.J. blows up his SUV. (B)

• Tony reams out A.J., the family is at odds. (B)
• An FBI wire tap picks up Tony trying to set up a meeting to end the Phil situation. (A, F)
• Carmine, Tony et al sit down. (A)
• The family moves home. (A)
• Paulie doesn't like that cat. (D)
• Looking for gas stations with phones. (A)
• Janice visits Uncle Junior. (C)
• Junior's pal pressures Tony to visit his uncle. (C)
• A.J. tells his shrink that the car fire "cleansed" him. (B)

• Paulie at the now empty BaddaBing calls Tony: Carlo disappeared. (F)
• Carmella talks to Meadow's old ne'er-do-well friend, now a med student. (E)
• Meadow's boyfriend's family is over for dinner, Meadow is going to be a lawyer. (E)
• The cat likes Chrissy's photo. Tony offers Paulie a business opportunity. (D)
• Looking for Phil. (A)
• A.J. is going to join the army. (B)
• Carmella learns about A.J.'s plan. (B)
• Carmella and Tony meet with A.J.'s therapist. Tony talks about his mother's influence on him.(B)
• Meadow reveals how Tony influenced her career choice. (E)
• Phil's massively brutal yet comical demise. (A)
• Carmella and Tony offer A.J. an alternative career. (B)

• Tony's lawyer reveals that the FBI are still actively after him. (F)
• Tony visits Syl. (A)
• Paulie doesn't want the new business opportunity, but has his arm twisted. (D)
• A.J. leaves work in a BMW, happy. (B)
• The family is at peace as they decide where to go for dinner.
• Tony goes to see Uncle Junior. (C)
• And then that long, hyper vigilant ending in the diner...

Like most hours, I count somewhere between 40 and 45 beats. More than a quarter are devoted to the A-story and slightly fewer to the B. All the other subplots play out in 4-5 beats with a lot of story separating some of the beats and others coming in pairs. This is the same pattern I've seen in many hourlong series episodes.

And we can see that the main storylines arc out neatly through the episode. The Phil situation is as bad as it can get as we open. Tony works at solving it through the episode until Phil is finally killed. I read Tony's visit to Syl as the tag scene to that story line. One of Tony's henchmen mentions early in the episode that Tonyhas a lot of reasons for not visiting the hospital ("Yesterday it was his gout."), but when Syl is avenged, Tony finally goes.

Likewise, A.J.'s story arcs neatly, he's depressed and stuck in his own silly opinions, his SUV burns and he emerges reborn and ready to join the military, but then accepts his parents' offer of an alternate way out. It tags out ironically with A.J. tooling around happily in his new Beamer.

This little exercise proves to me that David Chase tells a story just like the rest of us, only better. He's got beginnings, middles and ends but the lack of commercial breaks removes the need to bring the drama to four or five crescendos that punctuate the hour. That alone brings a subtlety to the hour. And then there's Chase's brilliance as a story teller, which I dearly hope he'll share with us again soon.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Dirty Sexy Money Pilot Script

I spent the morning on another of the scripts that went to pilot and got picked up for the fall season. Dirty Sexy Money by Six Feet Under screenwriter, Craig Wright, is coming to ABC and CTV. This one is much harder to discuss without spoilers because it's very much about character, but I can give you some stats and structure.

The draft I read was labeled "network draft" and it was still titled with its rather bland original name "The Darlings". I kind of love the new name even though the pilot only really delivers on the money and hints at the dirty. We can only assume there's sex to come.

The script is 59 jam-packed pages plus title page. It with Act One (not a Teaser) and presumably the screenwriter believes that once he's got you, he should hold onto you as long as he can. The act runs a full 14 pages. Act Two is nine pages, Act Three 11, Act Four is 14 pages, Act Five is a mere six pages and Act Six is a mere five pages, perhaps qualifying it as a tease.

The act breaks are a good deal less cliffhangerish than you might expect, but they are clearly tent pole moments in the story. Act One ends with the death of the protagonist's father in flashback. Act Two ends with a flashback to the moment when he accepts the job that we already know he has. Act Three, again in flashback, drops the curtain on the job out of control. As Act Four ends, the reporter interviewing him in the present, accuses him of lying and he turns the tables by establishing that he knows she is lying too. At the end of Act Five it becomes clear that the reporter is a player in all of this in a different way and as the episode ends, the lead must decide whether to launch an investigation that will hurt the family his father spent a lifetime protecting.

There are a lot of characters to introduce and a lot of back story to present because this is going to be one of those arcing series in which many characters play out soapy storylines. The screenwriter uses a very clear structure to introduce the world, the people and the storylines that will develop over season one. The main through line has the protagonist (described economically as "pensive in a perfect suit") being interviewed by a sly reporter. We hear what he tells the reporter and flashback to an alternate version of the events. Through the flashbacks we meet everyone we need to know, first in the 1960s and 70s and then over the last few weeks.

Book ending the interview, at the top and tail of the episode are scenes that set up what we can only imagine is an important continuing storyline about the possible murder of the protagonist's father. Have I given away too much?

The stakes are money, fame and integrity. There's very little jeopardy compared to Viva Laughlin and the lead seems to be a straight up good guy who for reasons we don't entirely believe has given up a life of working for food banks and beleaguered nuns in order to keep a bunch of spoiled rich grown ups out of trouble. But there is mystery to the story, who are these people and why is our guy willing to abandon his own life to coddle them? It's the momentum of the narrative that pulled me in and kept me reading. The voice is breezy and the script is full of easily digestible moments: we know what's coming. The characters are familiar too: the political contender, Paris Hilton, the evil priest, the sexy ex and so on. This familiarity, the way the story seems to meet our expectations is part of what makes the script such an easy read. Also the characters are credible and all seem to have a depth of feeling; we might start to care about them.

There's no action and no sex (although all the women are sexy and men good-looking), but there is something compelling about the lives of the rich and famous and the potential juice of the soapy storylines that are set in motion. If we're lucky it will be a hipper, quirkier version of Dallas, if not, then it'll be Dynasty rehashed. But I will be watching and I'm looking forward to seeing how the script lifts to the screen.

Friday, June 8, 2007

Viva Laughlin Pilot Script

I just read the script for Viva Laughlin, one of the pilots picked up for the fall by CBS and Global. Great script. The script by Huff creator Robert Lowry is a good read, has fabulously well-drawn characters and lots and lots of stakes. I can't wait to watch.

I don't want to give away any of the story or character details, but I do want to get into the structure of the script.

It's 67 pages long. The tease ends a quarter of the way down page 10, which is long for a tease, but once you've got their eyes, why would you let them get away? Act One ends right right at the top of page 22, making it really an 11 page act. Act Two ends halfway down 37, so 14.5 pages. Act Three is the only meaty act at 23 pages and Act Four scrapes in at just 9 pages and then there are 6 and a quarter pages of tag.

The tease sets up a man with a dream and ends with his dream in imminent danger. In the first act it gets worse, but the curtain is a kiss between our protagonist and his wife. The second act ends with a murder, the third with our guy threatened by the devil and his dream slipping away from him. The fourth act ends with his son coming forward with at least part of the solution and the episode ends with our guy, surrounded by family, triumphant.

The show focuses primarily on the protagonist, with very few scenes that don't include him. It hints at a season arc because the murder is unresolved and our guy looks like the best suspect.

The way I read the script, our guy's big dream in danger is the A-Story. The lines involving his wife and each of his kids are the three sub-plots. You might think of the hooks into the season arc as other threads running through.

Here's my haiku-style beat sheet of the action:

Meet a man who is on top of the world and filled with optimism
Meet his family, he only wants them to be happy but they are not
He gives his son a very generous gift
That he probably can't afford
In addition to his family, he has a big big dream
There are a LOT of problems
He refuses to let them get to him
He's part con-man, part humanitarian, all dreamer
His nemesis shows up with a threat to the dream that he can't ignore

Act One
He runs through the quick fixes, but all are out of the question
The only solutions are impossible
He will not be defeated
He rallies the team
He has a plan
Meanwhile things get more complicated with his daughter
His wife loves him but knows there's a problem. He tells her part of it
Meet the Devil
Our guy's big plan is to get in bed with the Devil
At least he has the love of a good woman behind him

Act Two
Our guy makes his pitch
It's a beauty
The Devil wants in
The Devil wants it all
The Devil is going to take the whole dream away from our guy in two days (tick tick)
Our guy channels his fury at this reversal by adeptly solving the problem his daughter doesn't believe she has
Meanwhile, his wife is having a day
She's worried about him, trying to support him, but he's not at the appointed spot
He's with a woman who's coming on to him
His new plan is to enlist the help of the vixen
She's noncommital
The wife is pissed at being stood up
He spends the night getting drunk
In the morning, he finds his nemesis murdered

Act Three
The vixen accuses our guy of the murder
The police take an interest, our guy squirms
He and his wife fight about all of it
His son overhears the secrets shouted in anger
He pleads for his wife's understanding
The cops make a plan
They try to befriend the wife without success
The vixen is connected to the Devil's henchman
The Devil's henchman visits our guy to remind him that time is up and the screws are about to tighten.

Act Four
Wife tries to make nice but his son wonders if he's a murderer and his daughter slams doors and cries
He makes nice with his daughter, a little con helps her see him as an understanding father
The cops try again and soften the wife just a little
Our guy says a prayer
He can't resist a bet
His son believes in him, at least enough to provide him with a big piece of the solution

He takes the partial solution from the son and with new self-conviction takes a huge risk that could end it all
And then he takes a huger risk
And wins
Suddenly he's back in the driver's seat.
The vixen is on hold
The Devil gets his pay
The dream comes together
Surrounded by his adoring family, our guy stands triumphant.

Simplicity itself.