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.