Alex Freedman: Welcome to Paper Team, a podcast about intelligent writing and becoming a TV writer. I’m Alex Freedman, @TVCalling.
Nick Watson: I’m Nick Watson, @_njwatson.
Alex: And today we’re gonna talk about six of our favorite TV pilots, both comedy and drama, and doing a deep dive into what they do well, why they spawn incredibly successful shows and what you can learn from them for your own TV writing.
Paper Scraps: Glowing feedback from competitions
Nick: Welcome back to our Paper Scraps segment, which is what we’ve officially decided to dub our little hot take segment. But first, before get into anything, we have been promising to release this episode with our friend Lily Cabello. It’s run into some holdups, just still waiting for some approvals, so we’re hoping to get that out to you soon. And you may have also noticed that we were missing another episode. There were some issue there, but again hopefully we will have it up in the near future. Don’t worry, we’ll still keep bringing you more content.
Alex: The Lily episode only scored 28 points and couldn’t even get through customs or something. You know there’s like a test now, whether you speak English or…
Nick: Oh, the citizenship thing? I thought you were talking about his ratings weren’t good enough and it got canceled before it made it to air.
Alex: No, I’m talking about the Paper Team citizenship test.
Nick: Oh, yeah, of course, of course.
Alex: And it only got like 28 out of 30 points, so…
Nick: Damn… Didn’t have an Olympic gold medal or a Nobel prize, so it couldn’t make the cut.
Alex: It couldn’t make the cut. Now, on to our main Paper Scraps content. So we received this email by Kevin and Kevin says, “Hi, I recently listened to the Paper Team episode on contests and I have a question. I entered the Blue Cat Contest this year and just got the initial feedback. It is extremely glowing, so much so that I’m a bit suspicious. After some Google-ing, I got a little background on the script reader process at Blue Cat and the script reader process in general and I am wondering, how seriously I should take the feedback. I mean, it feels nice to have such a glowing feedback and all, but I don’t know how good I should really feel about it, if it is just some random person who gives out nice feedback. Any thoughts? Thanks, Kevin.”
Alex: Well, Kevin, first off, congrats on getting positive feedback on a script. Regardless of the expertise of a reader, if a total stranger compliments you on your writing, I still think you can be appreciative of those compliments, especially since they’re not some family member or friend, who doesn’t care about hurting your feelings. Now, regarding the value of that feedback itself, that’s entirely up to what you’re looking for, as well as who is giving that feedback to you. The truth is that for most competitions, the initial readers won’t be veteran industry experts with years of production experience. They’ll probably be assistants who are paid on a per script basis and are giving you their own thoughts on the material. And for some lower key competitions, those readers may not even be in the industry. They may be just be film school students looking for an extra paycheck or just general script readers.
Alex: That is why I think the value of feedback is in the eye of the beholder. Outside of criticism based on the production or structure of a script, for example, are there enough acts or pages in this one-hour network TV drama, there just isn’t an objective metric to judge the quality of a script. And if you are at the stage where you’re submitting to competitions, then hopefully this isn’t your first real feedback and you’ve been getting notes throughout the process. If this is actually the first time you’re looking to getting feedback, I would recommend taking a listen to our Feedback/Reading Onion episode for a deeper dive on getting that kind of feedback.
Nick: That’s a good point. I think if you compare it to feedback you’re getting from your friends and from your writers’ group and from other people, you’re pretty quickly gonna be able to see whether it’s in line with that and whether certain… That’s the best way to analyze your feedback is to see what points keep coming up over and over again from different people who haven’t talked to each other about it, and that way you can kind of judge that.
Nick: I do think there’s a certain element of truth to your concern there in that from what I know, some screen writing competition readers are encouraged to be positive in their feedback, but only in the way that they’re encouraged to be constructive. And most readers are encouraged to be constructive. It doesn’t really help anyone if you shoot down someone’s thing completely and leave them with nothing to go back and work on. So it certainly does incentivize people who submit to competitions to hear something nice as well as something they can improve. But again, all feedback should probably be that way. Speaking from my experience, as someone who has been a script reader, it’s kinda hard to find something nice to say about something that completely lacks merit, you will be struggling to come up with some generic platitude. So I think that if someone is really glowing, they’re not just speaking out of their behind. I think that there are genuinely things that they like about your script and that they are complimenting you on, and you should take to heart. And hopefully they have also given you some things that maybe didn’t work as well and you can improve on.
Alex: And there definitely is a difference between getting feedback in the sense of, “Oh, this is just a great script,” and getting specific feedback like, “Oh, the crime that you are solving in this episode is really compelling.” And I think if you do get the feedback where they do mention specific elements in your script in a positive way, then I think it is legitimate feedback. But if it is maybe some generic compliment about the overall script without getting into details, then you may question the validity of that statement. But the bottom line is this, I feel like validation is always good, if only to get validation. It is the first step to knowing that your script may actually be good. You should feel awesome about the positivity and then move to the next step. Maybe it is submitting to more competitions, or maybe it is showing it to industry contacts; either way you gotta take the win and then continue the hustle.
1 – Introduction to the six TV pilots
Alex: Now, let’s talk about pilots. And before we get into it, we wanted to mention why we selected the pilots that we did. So first off, this is obviously not an exhaustive list of the greatest pilots ever, otherwise it would take five hours. The other thing is, we wanted to specifically do a deep dive in pilot episodes that we haven’t really discussed before on the podcasts, which means we’re not gonna to be talking about Six Feet Under or Lost or Breaking Bad or West Wing or The Simpsons. These are also not pilots that are TV movies, something like Battlestar Galactica, even though the episode 33 is technically the pilot, it really isn’t, because there’s a mini-series before it. We also try to find pilots that are representative of different aspects of TV writing, either through genre or network. So, Nick, what are the pilots we will be talking about in this episode?
Nick: Well, the first one is Third Rock From The Sun. Now, Third Rock is a multi-cam comedy that ran for six seasons on NBC from 1996 to 2001. The structure of it on the page is there’s a teaser, two acts and a tag. Overall, it’s a pretty hard reset episodic kind of show, as a lot of multi-cams are, although there are serialized relationship arcs between some of the characters and their love interests, and also each episode is kind of focused episodically on a different quirk of being human. The tone of it is very zany and farcical; it’s about aliens, so it’s not really grounded in reality. It is about a group of aliens who are sent to Earth, which they call a third rate planet, disguised as a family to study us and learn about how humans and their society works. And they kinda report back to this big giant head in space.
Alex: Who happens to be played by William Shatner, which I think is very accurate. The first drama pilot we’ll be talking about is gonna be Alias, which is a one hour-spy drama which ran on ABC for five seasons between 2001 and 2006. If you’re not familiar with the concept of Alias, the show is a serialized drama about Sydney Bristow, who works as a double agent for the CIA and also poses as an operative of SD-6, which is a criminal and espionage organization. And the structure of the show is that it is heavily serialized with an ongoing mythology. As for the pilot itself, it is just a straight four act structure.
Nick: And the next comedy is one that a lot of people know and love, Community. It’s a single-cam comedy that ran for five seasons on NBC from 2009 to 2014, and then one season on Yahoo Screen, the streaming service.[chuckle]
Alex: Does this still exist?
Nick: I don’t think so. From 2014 to 2015, so it did make six seasons. I don’t know about the movie, we’ll see.
Nick: In terms of that, it is a very zany, light kind of tone, it’s a bunch of losers, there’s lots of parody, satire, self-aware meta-jokes, occasional moments of heart, and they do have some heightened reality episodes, things like the paintball, zombies, puppets etcetera. It’s very episodic, with some season arcs, again there’s romantic relationship arcs. Each episode is kinda named after a new class or a lesson, like Remedial Chaos Theory, Basic Email Security, History 101, Intro to Knots. It’s about a bunch of losers at a community college who have to band together to kinda make it out of there. And the pilot structure is a cold open and three acts.
Alex: And the next two drama pilots we’ll be talking about are, first, Homicide, which is a one-hour police procedural which actually ran on NBC, also, for seven seasons between ’93 and ’99. And Homicide is a procedural about the work of a fictional version of the homicide unit in the Baltimore Police Department. And the show is pretty episodic, with loose serialization about a season homicide, which we’ll talk about later in the episode. As for the pilot structure, it is a teaser and four acts. And the last drama pilot we’ll be talking about is The OC which is one…[vocalization]
Alex: I think it’s copyrighted, Nick, stop singing.
Nick: Oh, whoops.[chuckle]
Alex: The O.C. is a one-hour primetime soap that ran on Fox for four seasons between 2003 and 2007, and the premise is simple: The show is about a troubled teen, Ryan Atwood, who is adopted by a wealthy family and has to adapt as an outsider to the high class world of Newport Beach. And as it is a soap, it is pretty serialized with some episodic tendencies, and the pilot was, again, a straight four act structure.
Nick: And the last comedy we’ll be covering is Scrubs. It was a single-cam comedy that ran for nine seasons. Seasons one to seven were on NBC. I realize all the pilots I’ve chosen were on NBC, but…[chuckle]
Nick: They were the kings of comedy, and that was from 2001 to 2008. And then they actually did another two seasons, eight and nine on ABC, from 2009 to 2010, which we do not talk about.[chuckle]
Nick: The tone is very light-hearted, you get a lot of cutaways, slapstick, pranks, there was a musical episode. But it would actually really hit deep on some emotional moments that could make you cry. They’re dealing with life and death things, because it’s about a group of medical interns who have to kinda learn the ropes of being doctors and the ropes of being people at the same time. They’re learning their hard lessons about life and friendship along the way. Structurally, it’s a case of the week kinda episodic thing, your medical cases with character and relationship arcs. The situation itself doesn’t really change much week to week, outside of in between seasons they graduate from being interns to residents, etcetera. And the pilot structure’s a cold open and two acts.
2 – Why we selected these TV pilots
Alex: Let’s talk about the pilots themselves and why we selected them. Why are they so great? What is the job of a pilot, Nick?
Nick: Typically, what you want to accomplish in a pilot is one, you set up the world and the rules and the tone; two, you establish the characters and their dynamics; and three, you’re laying out a repeatable story engine and/or plot and character arcs that will sustain the show over 100 episodes. Now, traditionally that’s meant executing both a self-contained story that resolves by the end of the episode, and setting up a much longer one to take place over a season or a whole show. It’s changing now with some things that are just entirely serialized but, whatever. And lastly, in addition to all of that you’re establishing the show’s format, that’s everything from how many acts and storylines you’re using to tell the story on the page, to narrative devices, like do you use narration, cutaways, flashbacks, etcetera.
Alex: Now, some of the pilots we selected sort of bend the rules but most of them follow those rules. And the first pilot I wanna mention is Alias. And Alias is one of the most dynamic pilot episodes in TV history. There are probably about six or seven story turns in just one hour of TV. And Sydney, the main character, goes through so many emotional turmoil during that one hour. Let’s just take a look briefly at what happens in 60 minutes. First off, Sydney accepts a marriage proposal. Then, Sydney reveals to her new fiancé that she works for SD-6, that espionage organization, and they both have a fight, that’s act one. Then she goes on an SD-6 mission angry, while the fiancé calls her to reconcile, that’s act two. Then Sydney comes home and discovers SD-6 killed her fiancé, that’s about the halfway point. Then she learns that SD-6 is trying to kill her for leaving the agency, and in the process Sydney also learns that her dad has been lying to her and works for SD-6, and SD-6 has lied to her also and is not part of the CIA, but it is actually an evil organization. That is just act three. Then Sydney decides to rejoin SD-6 and finish the mission, and finally she goes to the CIA at the very end of the episode to join them as a double agent.
Nick: A lot of those act breaks could have been the end of the episode if you wanted it to be, that’s crazy.
Alex: Oh, we’ll talk about it later in this very episode, but I do agree with you, Nick, every single plot point could’ve been its own entire episode, it’s insane. And it’s actually kind of crazy to look at how much plot that episode fits within an hour, and part of it is because every time you think you have the show figured out, it actually twists down into another road. It starts off a bit like Felicity; in fact JJA conceived Alias as a joke about Felicity being a secret agent, and then the pilot of Alias becomes a spy show and then it moves into another whole direction. So it’s a lovely pilot we’ll be talking about.
Nick: Nice. So, Third Rock From The Sun. Now, I’m just gonna preface this by saying I don’t watch many of any multi-cam sitcoms. They’re really usually not just my cup of tea. To be perfectly honest, I tend to find the humor is a little too broad, the format relies so heavily on dialog that the situation and the jokes can feel forced or undynamic. It’s like a stage play, it really takes talented writers to keep a multi-cam fresh and funny. And I think Third Rock From The Sun does that to a T. It’s probably my favorite multi-cam and it’s honestly the last one I really watched from start to finish. I was never more than a casual Friends viewer, I never got onto the How I Met Your Mother bandwagon, and I’m not gonna go near Big Bang Theory.[chuckle]
Nick: And I think Third Rock is just so intelligently written, the characters and the actors are incredibly strong. John Lithgow just makes the show as the perfect encapsulation of what people would call a “grounded high concept,” and ultimately it also explores a real theme about what it means to be human.
Alex: Yeah, I also love Third Rock, and I think it encapsulates what is great about multi-cam in my mind, or what can make a multi-cam great, and that is this idea that it’s film theater. And you brought up John Lithgow. John Lithgow is the ultimate theatrical actor, and Friends also did similar elements. But anyway, moving on to the next drama pilot that I really like, and that is The OC, and, Nick, are you gonna sing?
Nick: No, no, I’m kidding.
Alex: The OC, to be perfectly honest, is a very straightforward pilot, and the story establishes Ryan getting kicked out of his mother’s place and then taken in by Sandy, then he meets the love interest, then Seth, and kind of the city’s dynamic and the wild side of Newport and the aftermath of what goes on in that episode. I especially find The OC’s pilot interesting because of how efficient it is at conveying the dynamic of all these characters and this world, and it also makes all these people very distinctive in a limited amount of scene, which I really appreciate.
Nick: The other thing I find interesting about The OC is it was written by a very young guy straight out of college, and then got his show on the air and just created a dynasty.
Alex: It’s the ultimate write-what-you-know, because I think he channeled a lot of his own frustration of feeling like an outsider in that pilot and chose…
Nick: It’s every young writer’s fantasy to just have their show picked up straight out of college.
Alex: Right after like turning 23 or something, that’s insane.
Nick: So Scrubs. Now, Scrubs, I like it so much, just because it uses almost every storytelling device and convention in the book that you’re often warned about using, like voiceover and flashback and dream sequences, but it does them all so right. It really gives it a unique feel and tone and it adds levity to what are often serious life-or-death situations. And on that note, I don’t think any other comedy show has made me cry as much as Scrubs. This show has a real heart, you go from laughing your ass off one second to bawling the next. And the storytelling is just that good that it can turn from comedy to gut-punching drama on a dime.
Alex: Speaking of zany comedies, let’s move on to Homicide.[laughter]
Alex: Homicide was actually a ground-breaking pilot and show for a lot of reasons. On a narrative standpoint the first episode presents four different plot lines happening concurrently. And that means you have really a true ensemble of at least eight to nine characters interacting with one another and then splitting off into different investigations. One story is about Lewis and Crosetti looking into someone trying to kill people for insurance money. One story is Felton passing on a new murder case to his partner Howard, so she continues this perfect streak of solving 11 consecutive cases. Another story is Munch, Munch you may know from Law and Order, he’s starting in this show…
Nick: I had no idea he was in this show.
Alex: And Bolander following up on a cold case. And the last story is rookie detective Bayliss being partnered with the lone wolf detective Pembleton. And NBC executives actually wanted the script to focus on a single homicide case, but ultimately they allowed the script to be filmed with the separate subplots. And a lot of the cases on Homicide are actually based on the book of the same name by a little-known writer named David Simon, who you know…
Nick: I was gonna say, this reminds me of The Wire so much and then I’m like, “There you go.”
Alex: There you go, and stylistically Homicide is actually visually naturalistic; it almost has a documentary feeling to it, since it was shot on handheld 16mm cameras, and the episodes also had jump cuts, which for 1993 was very unusual in TV.
Nick: And sounds like the forefather of that wave of HBO drama and style.
Alex: It really is, it really is, yeah.
Nick: Alright, and for Community, Dan Harmon is heralded as a genius for his use and understanding of story and structure, especially his distillation of those concepts into his story circles philosophy, which we’ll talk about later. So of course, he knows how to structure a good pilot; now, the thing I love about Community is how simple the elements are. It’s six characters thrown together into a room, around the table, put under pressure and the story and the conflict and the comedy pretty much all comes from that. Now, Harmon actually used Breakfast Club heavily as an inspiration. There’s a little ode to John Hughes at the end, who had recently passed away at the time, and I’d also compare it to something like 12 Angry Men because of that. Now, underneath the simplicity of the plot and the archetypical nature of the characters is a much deeper level of theme and meaning. It’s not just a meaningless farce. There is a real emotional core to every character and an interconnected thematic premise to every storyline that leaves us with a meaningful conclusion, without it feeling preachy or saccharine, and I think that Community is modern sitcom writing at its finest.
Alex: Kind of why it’s this thing, Don’t You Forget About Me. But we would be getting sued probably, yeah.
Nick: Yeah. And this might get into more of this later, but there’s this age-old debate about whether something should be a premise pilot, where you’re setting up everything and that’s the end of the episode, or feel more like a typical episode that could be a season five. What are your thoughts on that, Alex?
Alex: I feel like that’s more a problem in drama than comedy. Unless I’m mistaken, most comedy pilots seem to be the typical episode, right? They have that very specific structure. And just the pilots that you mentioned, I’m sure you’ll get into it later in the episode, but Community is kind of like, “Oh, let’s go through these classes,” and it’s, “Well, let’s go through to this ploy,” in community college or whatever, and Scrubs is a day in the hospital. So that’s like a classic episode of Scrubs. Whereas I feel like something like Alias needs, by definition, to set up the premise, just because you just cannot enter that world without learning the twists and turns of what it entails.
Nick: Yeah, comedies are often using a much simpler situation, so it is possible just throw someone in and go, “Here’s a situation. Here are some archetypes you’re already familiar with. Let’s run now a typical episode and you’ll find out more about the world and the characters as we go.” Whereas often, yeah, if you do have a higher concept or a more convoluted story in a drama, you might need to spend the whole pilot establishing them.
Alex: Yeah, I feel like most drama pilots by definition are a premise pilot, unless you’re talking like a very basic procedural, and that’s just by definition. You need to set up a premise and the characters that live in it.
3 – Teasers and openers
Nick: So we’re gonna go through and break down the different parts of pilots and take a look at how each of these pilot episodes handles that. The first element we’re gonna be looking at is how pilots handle their opener, teaser, cold open, whatever you wanna call it, the introduction to the scripts.
Alex: And the Alias opening scene is a classic in medias res opener, which literally means “in the middle of things,” if you’re not familiar with that concept. We open on Sydney Bristow being interrogated forcefully by Taiwanese guards. Now, we don’t know what is happening, we don’t know who she is, we don’t even know what they’re saying because there are no subtitles happening on-screen. And the scene is kind of a cheat, because the framing device of this entire pilot is actually flash-forwards of Sydney being tortured during a mission. And it isn’t until the last act that we, the audience, understand what led her to this moment. This is a framing device that will be used and actually abused in Alias for quite a while and, in fact, if you look at shows in general now, it’s become kind of a trope to open on some action or a suspense-heavy moment where characters are in mortal danger, and then cut to “72 hours earlier”, where the characters are doing mundane activities. And it’s a fast and easy way to start in the middle of the action and get the reader hooked, but getting too long to get to that point may leave the reader feeling cheated. In theory we are more interested in seeing the spy doing spy things than being teased about the spy things and then resetting the episode days or weeks before. So it’s kind of like a cheat on that level.
Nick: Was Alias one of the first shows to really popularize that technique or it had been around for a while?
Alex: It had been around for a while in terms of mainstream dramas, but Alias, I think, was the main one to do it on a regular to a regular basis, especially because every episode would end on a cliffhanger and then the next episode would either continue that cliffhanger or cut to something even crazier, and then we would have to flashback to the end of that other episode.
Nick: Right. So it was part of the Alias format.
Nick: So with sitcoms, you often use the teaser to get the set up for the episode out in an expedient manner while also having a little self-contained kind of joke scene sketch in there. It’s usually the characters getting themselves into some new situation or problem that will go on to be explored throughout the episode. In a pilot specifically we can actually do a lot of the legwork of setting up the world and the characters, or at least the main character by the end of the teaser, and then leaving the rest of act one and two etcetera to start telling the story. We don’t really need a whole episode to set up the premise in comedy. Often it’s done in the first two or three pages.
Nick: So in Third Rock, it’s the alien family arriving on earth in the cold open. We hear some Talkback Radio about, “Have you ever seen aliens?” And people are calling in and someone calls in to report a UFO sighting and the fact that they’d seen these four aliens in a car, in a Rambler, which sounds kind of ridiculous, but then we see the family in that car on the lookout, examining their weird new human bodies. And off of a joke that’s made, they’re watching some people make out in the car next to them, and the woman shouts, “Don’t you people have a home?” And they’re like, “Oh, that’s a good idea,” and the next scene they’re moving into an apartment.
Alex: Yeah, I think Dick is like, “Ooh, look, they’re cleaning themselves, or cleaning each other,” they’re just like making out and stuff.
Nick: Yeah, we’ve established already that these people don’t know anything about this world and then they’re exploring even their own bodies.
Alex: And taking things literally is a big part of Third Rock.
Nick: Absolutely. So in Scrubs, the cold opener or teaser is literally just two pages of JD’s morning routine, getting ready for work, putting on his medical scrubs, brushing his teeth, etcetera, which can be a cliché at times, but he’s telling us in voiceover that he’s nervous about his first day. He shows up to the hospital, walks through the door into this pandemonium and his voiceover’s telling us that even after years of medical school and training, he feels like he doesn’t know anything.
Alex: The way you describe it, I am immediately reminded of the morning routine of Patrick Bateman in American Psycho. Can you imagine JD doing that?[laughter]
Nick: Lastly, in Community the cold open is the Dean, Dean Pelton of the community college, welcoming students to their first week. He says, “It’s halfway through your first week.” And then he’s kind of trying to dispel people’s negative assumptions about what community college is over this speaker, but it actually matches up to each of our characters as we meet them and ironically it confirms exactly what they are. So he’s like, “Now, people say that community college is a loser college for young people who couldn’t make the cut at a university,” and then we see Troy and Annie. And then he’s like, “Or a halfway school for unskilled 20-something dropouts,” and we see Britta. He’s like, “People call it a tax-funded self-esteem workshop for newly divorced housewives,” and we see Shirley. He’s like, “Or old people hoping to keep their minds active as they circle the drain of eternity,” and we see Pierce.
Nick: So it’s a great juxtaposition and dramatic irony of seeing these characters as he is attempting to say that the school is more than that, and it’s really not. And then so what happens in the rest of the teaser is some of the characters meet each other. Jeff is asking Abed for the time and Abed’s spilling everything about himself. Jeff asks, “Who’s that girl,” and Abed knows everything about Britta, because he knows everything about everything. And that really sets up for us Jeff’s goal of seducing or sleeping with Britta, for which he ends up setting this fake Spanish study group up, invites her to it, and that’s ultimately what ends up bringing all the characters together later in the pilot and kicking off the story.
Alex: So the Dean character is basically reading characters’ descriptions to the audience.[laughter]
Nick: More or less, in a really clever way. It’s a brilliant way that Dan Harmon set all that up.
Alex: That’s amazing. Now the Homicide’s opener, on the other hand, is one of the most mundane opening scene. It is literally just two characters looking for clues in a dark alley, talking about their job and life. And Paul Attanasio, who is the writer and creator of Homicide, specifically did not want an opening scene clarifying that these characters were detectives looking for clues, and therefore exposing the premise of the show, which is probably the number one thing you’re advised to not do when running a pilot. You want to make that opening scene memorable and symbolic of the show. Right, Nick?
Nick: And clear about what it is, yeah.
Alex: Exactly. So why does it work in Homicide? Well, it’s actually very representative of the show itself, but it’s not easy to get first hand. The opening for The Wire does something similar, you just have to stick with it until the story kicks in. Now, The OC’s opener is actually less of a teaser than it is the beginning of a movie, I feel like. It doesn’t really present anything you would associate with the show, it doesn’t set up Newport Beach, it doesn’t set up the Cohens, it doesn’t set up Chrismukkah or some surfer dudes. What it does is show us, the audience, the lead character’s origin story. It’s Ryan stealing cars in Tino with his brother. And it’s actually the inciting incident for what is going to start the show. Again, if you look at the pilot to The OC, it’s almost like a mini movie. If not for that final scene echoing the first, where Sandy tries to drive Ryan back home only to find the place abandoned and then driving him back to Newport, it would just end with Ryan coming back home after a bunch of adventures. And so the real point of that opening scene is introducing us to the lead character and nothing else.
4 – Character introductions, ensemble dynamics and dialogue
Nick: The next section we’re gonna take a look at are introducing the characters in the ensemble and the dynamics between them, maybe a little bit on the dialogue, as well. So in Community, the character intros written in the script after the names are actually very simple, they’re kind of archetypes that are told largely through their costume choices. So you got Annie, 18, tightly wound sweater vest; Troy, 18, leather jacket, all-American; Pierce, 50s, prescription sunglasses, turtleneck, sport jacket. Dan Harmon doesn’t really delve into their psyche or their, what people sometimes call “unknowables” in the character intros, because we were already given that ironic meta-commentary earlier that we talked about through Dean Pelton’s speech about what kind of students go to this place.
Alex: We also talked about it in the character Paper Team episode and you studied this very example in terms of the character description. It’s a really interesting sample of sort of like a physical description of these characters, but you get a sense of who they are just by what they are wearing, which I think is an interesting approach.
Alex: But when it comes to the script, Alias doesn’t give much description to the characters. It’s all about what they are going through in those scenes. So, for example, let’s go to the opening lines of the Alias pilot script.
Nick: “Over black, we hear a rapid erratic heart beat. Instinctively we react to this, the scariest sound in the world. It’s the sound of fear, close up of a woman’s face. In slow motion, she’s scared to death, eyes wide, looking right at us, her dyed red hair and ethereal aura, because she is under water, being held under water. We study the fear in her eyes. More than fear, actually, it’s shock, shock at the certainty that she is about to die. This is Sydney Bristow, 26. And unless things turn around real soon, the world’s about to lose a hero.”
Nick: I want a hero.[laughter]
Alex: As you can hear, our immediate focus in this episode is on Sydney’s heightened emotional state. She’s being tortured and we get to see, hear and feel it ourselves in the writing, or at least visually through just watching the episode. And then it flashes back to the main starting point of her story.
Nick: That’s a really clever thing that JJ’s done there is by making the main focus of it the audience’s empathy for someone. You don’t need to know anything about her, other than how she looks or whatever causes the situation she is in, and the facts you’re immediately on her side like, “Oh, no, don’t die. How are you gonna get out?” That kind of thing.
Alex: Exactly. And then it flashes back to the beginning of the episode, the beginning of her story. So I think that’s what I mean by feeling cheated as you want to see her escape. But it’s compelling enough that you’re gonna stick through it, but in the hands of someone less talented, perhaps, the reader may do something, throw script across the room, be like, “I wanna read how she escapes, not… ”
Nick: Flashback to Gelson’s grocery store. She looks at mushrooms.
Alex: It’s pretty much what it is. [chuckle] It’s flashback to her and her classroom finishing an essay, so quite the distinction here. Now, The OC’s kind of the same way as Alias, in the sense of characters don’t really have any description besides age and overall appearance. Ryan is introduced, as mentioned before, while he is stealing a car with his brother. Ryan is very reluctant to do it, but is strong armed into it. And we later meet Sandy as she helps Ryan out of prison, as his public defender. In other words, we’re meeting characters through what they are doing. It’s another example of how you should be meeting characters in a script. And the character with the most description is actually Marissa Cooper, and it’s all about her physicality, but that is because we’re looking or watching her creepily, might I add, or I guess it’s not creepy, it’s meant to be, I guess semi, meet cute, Fox, prime time, soap version of it. But specifically, it’s all about how Ryan perceives her. And in the script it actually says, “Ryan has never seen a girl like this before.” So Josh Schwartz is putting us in the shoes of Ryan as he looks at Marissa.
Nick: Yeah, Scrubs is a little bit like that too, ’cause it’s all through JD’s point of view, but we’ll get into that later. With Third Rock, the interesting thing that I find is that multi-cams, or at least this one, often lack character description on the page. Sometimes they’ll have actually an insert page with a cast list and a quick line about the character, maybe it’s their age, profession, etcetera, much like you would have in a stage play. And this is because multi-cams are essentially filmed stage plays, and that’s the format that they were adapted from, maybe mixed with a little bit of radio play. But what that means is, your audience doesn’t get a sense of who these characters are on the page by how they look or what the writer has to say about them or comment. So all that you have to show people who these characters are, is the way you characterize them through their dialogue and their interactions with the other cast members, as well as the way that they behave and the situation that they’re currently in.
Nick: Now, often in multi-cam and sitcom in general, as we spoke about, we rely on these archetypes and assumptions and expectations and the audience’s prior understandings. In Third Rock, we know that they’re all aliens, and so the audience has certain expectations about what aliens are and what they are like, from everything else we have consumed in the media. And the operating assumption here is that everything is new to them because they are new to the world. They don’t understand our species, they don’t understand the world and the fact that they’ve been sent here to learn exactly that. And by setting up that incredibly simple premise, all of the characters now also have active goals, and they have obstacles to that goal and it’s a really fun juxtaposition of character and situation from page one.
Nick: Again, we often talk about how a cast of characters is built in an ensemble and what point of view or angle or dynamic each of them offer. Well, in Third Rock, each character is an exploration of a different strata of humanity, as well as a different archetypical member of a family or a sitcom family. So Tommy is able to reflect on what it means to be a teenager with all these strange feelings and hormones, and also what it’s like to be the youngest kid in a family, even though as an alien, he’s older than all of them. Sally is there to speak to the experience of being a woman on Earth in our society, juxtaposed by the fact that she’s kind of the most masculine and dominant and “unladylike” of all them underneath. And Dick is a reflection of the role of a father in society and also an older, more knowledgeable man. He’s a university professor, while ironically knowing absolutely nothing ’cause he’s an alien who just landed on this planet, and so he has to make it up and BS he goes along.
Alex: And Harry is just an idiot.[laughter]
Nick: Yes, he doesn’t know how to open his eyes.[chuckle]
Alex: One of the reasons why I love Third Rock, actually, is because the jokes reveal a character. There are some kind of cheap moments in that pilot, especially regarding sex and gender norms, but it still makes sense within the context of what the characters are doing or what they’re talking about, or who they are as people. And even in a vacuum with no character description, you still get a sense of who they are. And you consider the initial exchange between Dick and Dr. Albright. Albright is like, “Dr. Solomon, we should get along. I’m very intelligent. You have an impressive resume.” And Dick replies, “Well, I am the high commander.” And then Albright responds, “I must admit when I first met you, I was attracted to your flamboyant nature and big head.” Dick responds, “Thanks, because I almost went with a smaller one.” Again, Dick takes things Albright says literally, because he doesn’t know any better and it gives us exposition about him, and their kind of like alien situation, with him being high commander and everything. So it’s an organic way of doing exposition.
Alex: Compare that to the dialogue in Homicide, which is very naturalistic. In fact, a lot of the scenes are just detectives casually talking among each other during lunch or around the office. And here’s what Tom Fontana had to say about that, he says, “That really made the show different from other shows because we had the room to have conversations that seemingly did not story-wise connect anything, but they did reveal a lot about the characters.” In fact, it’s very similar to the movie Diner, if you’ve seen it. Some people may compare it to Tarantino, even though Tarantino came after Homicide. And speaking of revealing characters through action, in Homicide we really get to learn about the characters by how they investigate and do their job. The breakout star of the show and probably the pilot itself is Andre Braugher’s character Pembleton, and he combines this brash, intense exterior to an attention to detail that few people have in the show. In one of his first scenes, we actually see him trying to open every single police car in a garage after he takes a car key without the parking space noted on the key fob. And his partner decries his action, “We’re wasting time, let’s just grab another key,” blah blah blah, but Pembleton continues trying to open the next car and the next one after that and so on because, “What if the key is for the next car?”
Alex: The other interesting thing about Pembleton is that he doesn’t appear until 15 minutes into the pilot, even though there’s this aura that has been created by the other characters talking about him before he appears. But unlike other shows that may try to do the same tactic, Pembleton is part of an ensemble cast, so it does make sense to introduce him later, so we familiarize ourselves with other characters beforehand. And then obviously he gets partnered with the new kid on the block, which launches probably the most iconic relationship of the show.
Nick: Yeah, if he was the single protagonist in all of that, it wouldn’t make sense to not meet him for 15 minutes, but because he’s part of the crew it works.
Nick: So in Scrubs, we actually don’t meet any characters other than JD, our protagonist, until we’re out of the teaser and into the first act. Now, the teaser is only three pages, two pages, so it’s not a big deal. But the fun and unique thing about Scrubs is that it uses those devices we talked about, like freeze frames and flashbacks and dream sequences, to introduce and heighten elements of character introductions, because everything is being told from that point of view of JD and his overactive childish imagination. For example, when we meet his best friend Turk, we freeze frame on him and we get a voiceover about their history together and we see flashbacks of them graduating college with mullets and all that kind of thing.[chuckle]
Nick: When the love interest, Elliot, is introduced, time literally slows down as she walks into the room and lets down her hair when they’re trying to find out if she’s interning for surgery, what Turk is doing, or medical with JD And it turns out it’s medical. The camera looks at Turk and we hear a dying Pacman noise to show that he lost.
Alex: Well, in fact, Nick is actually cosplaying as JD in college and he’s wearing a mullet right now.
Nick: Does that mean you’re cosplaying as…
Nick: It’s guy love between two guys. Another great thing about Scrubs is that character dynamics are set up really well. We come to meet many of the other medical staff through JD kind of bumbling his way through his first day at the hospital, without an understanding of the real social and power structures that everyone else there is already clued into, and he’s the only one who doesn’t know that stuff. So when he meets the nurse, Carla, he soon realizes he should be careful about how he treats her because she really has more power than him, even though nurses are paid less and they have a less prestigious job, but simply by the virtue of the fact that the doctors need them to do all their grunt work and these nurses will band together and make your life a living hell if you don’t respect them, he learns that he shouldn’t mess with her. JD even has to tread carefully around the janitor, who kind of has it out for him for no real reason. And this is a running gag throughout the show. So, it really represents who this character is in the totem pole, that the janitor is almost above him in power. So when JD meets Dr. Cox, who’s the attending physician who supervises them or is senior to them. Now, Dr. Cox gives off the appearance of not caring about patients and he just kinda steamrolls through his job and gets everything out of the way and moves on.
Nick: And JD makes the mistake of saying that Cox is being insensitive to a patient. But really, he comes to realize later that Dr. Cox cares more than anyone about these patients, and he’s actually an incredible doctor. He just has to put on this tough exterior ’cause it’s really the only way he gets through the day and the years of these patients coming, and going, and living, and dying in front of him. So again, it’s a misunderstanding of who this character is and and how he should be treating him and interacting with him. Same with Dr. Kelso, the Chief of Medicine, who has this kind of like friendly, old man, patriarch kind of appearance but is actually like the meanest dude in the world. He’s almost the opposite of Dr. Cox in that way. Dr. Cox appears mean but is actually a nice guy deep down, Kelso will appear like the loveliest guy in the world and then just turn into an asshole. So JD realizes that by sucking up to Dr. Kelso, who most people don’t really like because of that two-faced nature, he risks being ostracized by everyone else at the hospital for being Kelso’s pet.
Alex: Was it ever confirmed that the janitor is a figment of JD’s imagination?
Nick: I don’t know if they ever made an official comment on that, it’s definitely talked about.
Alex: Interesting. Now, another point I did wanna mention about pilots is this idea of the timing for when you wanna introduce characters, whether it’s the first act, or a third act, or what have you. And specifically Alias, The OC and Homicide introduced characters in my mind at the perfect time, because it is there to set up something else that pays off later. For example, on Alias we’re not introduced to Will Tippin; if you’re not familiar with Alias, that is Bradley Cooper’s character. Yes, Bradley Cooper is in Alias. So we’re not introduced to Bradley Cooper’s character just to fit that obligatory jealous best friend character trope in this relationship drama that is obviously part of it in the macro sense, but it actually serves the plot in the pilot, so Sydney has someone to go to when the mm-hmm hits the fan in the second half of the story. And we actually also spend a good chunk of the first half of the pilot on Sydney’s relationship with Danny, because the story addresses the ramifications of him dying in the second half of the pilot. It could be a cheap trick to just kill off Danny in the first episode, but it still feels earned because we built that relationship up. And the same can be said for small characters. Think of why Sydney changes her hair from being a brunette to her iconic, fiery, red color.
Alex: Will Tippin’s sister, Amy, who originally wears the color on the pilot, is briefly shown during a funeral reception scene, and the audience is then left to connect the dots that Sydney was using Amy’s look to hide in plain sight later in the episode. Now, some other pilot would probably have had Sydney outright complimenting Amy on her hair in a previous scene just to really point that out. Now, with all that said, Alias does something none of the other five pilots we’ve been talking about do. And actually something that most people recommend you do not do, and that is introducing a major character in the end of a pilot. In the last five minutes of the Alias pilot, Sydney goes to the CIA to work undercover as a double agent, and that is when we are introduced to Sydney’s point agent at the CIA, Michael Vaughn. Viewers of Alias will obviously know that Michael Vaughn is not only a lead character, but probably one of the most important characters in the entire show besides Sydney, her dad, and Arvin Sloane, who is the villain. In fact, Michael becomes Sydney’s main love interest. Yet it doesn’t feel like a massive issue that he is introduced at the end of the pilot because it is only then, at that point in time, that we’ve fully entered that world and that premise.
Alex: It may take 70 minutes to get there, but it still did not undermine the premise of the show itself, because the real premise of Sydney being a double agent is only revealed then. And it’s not just about working for SD-6, it’s also being a CIA agent. Now, the usual issue with introducing a character or a major plot line at the very end of the pilot is that it does not build on what you’ve already established over the past 40-plus pages, but instead completely negates that hour of TV, which is just not the case here.
Nick: Yeah, I could see a network executive somewhere being like, “Well, can’t we introduce him at the start and then we just don’t know who he is?” And then like, “No, this is built upon this twist and reveals,” and this is a necessary one and I guess you just have to trust that your audience is gonna wanna tune in for the rest of the the season to find out more about this character and who he is.
Alex: Exactly. It could be a case to be made of him being introduced maybe as replacing the flash-forward element in the episode, but again, I think you’re losing that sense of action and tension that is so prevalent in Alias, so it would undermine the whole plot.
5 – World and exposition
Nick: Moving on to the next section that’s important in your pilot is the world and the exposition about that world. Again, on Third Rock From The Sun, I think the great thing about it is that you don’t really need to set up the world, because it’s just our world. Everything is already familiar to the audience. It’s the characters who are new and different. They are the aliens for whom everything is brand new. That’s a great kind of cheat, by using the audience’s pre-existing knowledge and still having a high concept without needing to do a ton of exposition to establish it. The details of what kind of aliens they are, where they’re from, etcetera, is almost irrelevant and it’s never gone much into outside of a thin mythology about them reporting back to this giant head in space and Dick being a high commander, all that kind of thing. It’s funny, the mythology itself is so irreverent it’s almost making fun of the concept of sci-fi shows that get bogged down in the endless rules and details.
Alex: Yeah. I think one of the other fun things about Third Rock, and the pilot especially, is it doesn’t spend hours where the character is sort of learning the very basic of what it is to be human. Dick doesn’t enter a room and flip a switch being like, “What is this? Electricity? What is this concept?” They know some basic elements of being human or being in this world. Now, if you compare it to the original, I think, Third Rock pilot, if you read it, it’s actually online. I recommend people check it out, the one dated from 1994, I believe. Anyway, in that version, the whole sort of plot of the pilot is centered around them learning the basics of being human, which is not at all what the current pilot is about. That brings us to the very concept of premise of being a fish out of water. On Third Rock, they’re aliens out of, I guess, water. What would be the…
Nick: Space water.
Alex: Space water. Now, Homicide and The OC also have the same dynamic. The new detective on the block, Tim Bayliss, is kind of our connecting thread between the four major detective storylines. And in the first act especially we’re literally walked through the precinct by Gee, another character, as he introduces to Tim, and us, each section of the precinct. “This is the fish bowl, this is the board,” etcetera. And a similar exposition ploy is used with Ryan in The OC, with Seth being the friend character introducing Ryan to the different people and the environment he will be living in. But Alias is a bit different. The premise of Alias itself is almost hidden from us. Initially we get those kind of Felicity moments with Sydney and her fiance. And then Sydney goes to Credit Dauphine, and this is where she is slightly ahead of us, because Sydney knows at this point obviously that Credit Dauphine is a cover for SD-6 and she’s an agent, and we the audience do not know that at that point. Now, as I pointed out earlier, Alias likes to misdirect the kind of show it wants to be, and it’s at that point that it switches to spy mode.
Alex: When it comes to the world of spying itself, Alias relies a lot on foreknowledge of the tropes. For example, Marshall, the obligatory tech genius who creates cool tech for the spies, walks us through his toys for the mission as soon as the mission is being introduced. In fact, that same scene is when we meet Marshall, so it also doubles as a character introduction. And then this show quickly gets to its various points. She’s a spy, here’s a mission and then they do the mission. Let’s do the action, baby. Now, the reveal that SD-6 is actually an evil agency doesn’t come until Sydney herself learns about it from her father. And it’s kind of all organic within the story. She triggers SD-6’s wrath, which leads to her father exposing himself to save her, which leads to him explaining that SD-6 is evil. The exposition is more about the intricacies between everyone’s relationships rather than what an intelligence agency does, which is kind of like 101 knowledge at this point.
Nick: Yeah, and on a similar kind of note to that, with Scrubs the audience is already really familiar with what a hospital is and how it runs, if nothing else just from the other medical shows we’ve seen on TV, and so Scrubs is able to exploit those medical genre conventions and assumptions for a comedic purpose. But the benefit of using familiar settings, like a hospital or a police precinct, is that it allows you to spend more time and focus on the cast of characters within that setting, and establishing how they are new and unique and interesting as an ensemble, rather than worrying about the details of the setting or the world itself.
Nick: And in Community, also on that spectrum of the audience already understanding what a school is and does, most people have been to high school or university, even if not an actual adult community college. But in itself it’s a slightly heightened world where, due to its underfunded and incompetent nature, certain liberties can be taken with the realism or whatever for the sake of comedy. And Dan Harmon loves to make pop culture references and play with assumptions. For example, in the pilot, there’s an elderly African American lady who works in the cafeteria. And at one point Jeff turns to her and asks for advice and she’s like, “Huh?” And he’s like, “Oh sorry. I was raised on TV. I think every black woman over 50 is a cosmic mentor with free advice.” And she kind of rebukes him for that.
Nick: And then later on, when Jeff is getting himself into trouble with Britta, she appears in the library shelving books and comments, “What a tangled web we weave.” And he’s confused and she’s like, “I have many jobs in many places.” And Jeff’s jaw drops, seemingly confirming that she is mystical god-like figure and then she rolls her eyes and says, “I’m not magical, I’m just underpaid, you racist jackass.” [chuckle] So again we also discover the football coach runs both the sports and the theater departments. And in fact the very first thing we see and hear in the pilot script is these Cambridge bells, that kind of thing that evokes this feeling of a high learning university, very classy, chiming as the students flood into the school, and then it’s revealed to be coming from this beat up boom box, held by the incompetent dean who struggles to make an announcement because Busta Rhymes is accidentally coming out of the boom box when he’s trying to talk. [chuckle] Dan Harmon establishes this unique world, of this run down community college, even within that broader archetype of a generic school setting and format.
6 – Pilot structure vs. series representation
Nick: As we talked about before, with this idea of premise pilots versus an episode that’s representative of what the show is every week, we’re gonna take a look at these pilots again through the lens of how the pilot is structured as a pilot, versus how it then goes on as a series.
Alex: I’ll talk about the series of Alias as a whole in a minute, but first let’s discuss that very packed pilot. Despite the fact that it is a packed pilot, Alias is a slower build than you might think. It actually takes 20-30 minutes before you really see the lead character, Sydney, kick some ass and do some spy porn. And before that, as mentioned, it’s about setting up the relationships and those dynamics. In other words, what will be at stake or lost in the second half of the pilot. It may sound strange to say, but if you look at what happens narratively in that pilot, it’s almost like a full season arc condensed into one hour. I think we mentioned it earlier in this episode. You have the fiancé learning the truth about Sydney, then SD-6 kills Sydney’s love interest, Sydney learns her father works for SD-6, Sydney discovers SD-6 is actually evil, Sydney joins the CIA to work as double agent.
Alex: Any one of these plot lines could be entire episodes, but they are only five to 10 minutes in an episode. And yet, despite all of that, it doesn’t feel crammed, because each moment builds on another one. Jack Bristow, Sydney’s dad, is introduced in a weird cut-away flashback moment between him and Sydney’s fiancé. That conversation serves to point out his strange relationship with Sydney and his non-involvement with her life until he comes back at the end of the act three, when it is revealed that he also works for SD-6, like his daughter. And we also spend a lot of screen time building up SD-6, to have it crumble around Sydney later in the episode or actually the show, literally. And the same thing for her relationship with Danny, all of it serves for a bigger purpose.
Nick: Yeah, it sounds like if each of these different twists and turns was its own story thread in some way, it would not be as effective as simply building on cause and effect from each point that came before it.
Alex: Exactly. It would just be like treading water at that point, really.
Nick: Yeah. So going to Community, I’m gonna take a look at the structure of this pilot for a second. The major story thread running through the pilot is that Jeff is trying to get the answers to the tests from his old friend, who is a faculty member at the school. And Jeff thinks he can just skate through and take shortcuts and get by, like he’s always done, by BS’ing his way through cases as a lawyer with no law degree, which is why he’s been sent back to community college, ’cause he’s a very persuasive guy and he’s got a silver tongue. But at the same time Jeff sets up this phony Spanish study group, even though he doesn’t even know Spanish, as an excuse to spend time with Britta and try to seduce her. But this is foiled when Abed, who doesn’t really get social nuance, shows up and has actually invited a bunch of people to study with him, who all then become an ensemble. And that’s the end of act one, that’s a complication to really both of Jeff’s plans. And then in act two, the group gets to know each other in this Breakfast-style Club kind of homage, but due to their earlier interactions and also some off-screen history, things are already tense between a lot of them, in the same way that Breakfast Club is.
Nick: Jeff leans into this and tries to sabotage the study group and make them all fight so they don’t actually have to do any work or maybe find out that he doesn’t know Spanish, and kind of hoping that it all falls apart so he and Britta can just get up and leave and go to dinner. Meanwhile, he’s still trying to get test answers that will solve all of his problems, so he doesn’t have to keep up this facade of the study group. So the answers are proving harder to get than he thought from this professor, and the group then descends into chaos over each other’s differences. So Jeff just tries to convince Britta to get up and leave and go to dinner with him now that it’s all kind of gone to hell, only to find out that she actually really cares about this group and wants him to go in and save it. And that’s the end of act two, another complication to again both of Jeff’s plan. And then so in act three Jeff comes back in, he saves the day and restores order with his rallying inspirational speech that really helps them all understand each other and appreciate each other’s differences. Not only that, but it dispels the assumptions that they have made about each other and that the audience has made about these archetypes, the jock, the nerd, the single mother. Again, Breakfast Club.
Nick: So thinking that he has solved that problem, he tries to get Britta to come with him to dinner again, but now she thinks this is a perfect time for everyone to actually sit down and study, now that they’ve gotten that out of the way. At his wit’s end, Jeff says that he doesn’t need to study because he has the answers to all the tests, he’s finally gotten them from the professor. And they question him about this and he reveals that he doesn’t even wanna be there, he just wants to get his degree and go back to being a lawyer and he thinks this whole thing is a waste of time. They realize how manipulative he was being and then he kind of insults the members of the group and storms out, only to find when he looks in the folder that the answers the professor gave him were blank sheets of paper and this guy was just trying to teach him a lesson about needing to actually do the work, like he’s never done before.
Nick: Jeff runs into the group outside later and kind of in a moment of defeat and realizes that he was wrong and he needs their help, and they actually appreciate the nice things that he said about them earlier and the perspective that he had to offer. So they forgive him and they accept him back and now they have a real study group. So Jeff has gone from being selfish and independent to realizing the value of connecting with other people and working together to help each other, even if they might seem like a bunch of losers from the outside.
Alex: Aww. It’s interesting to look at all these pilots, where I feel like it’s an A story that snowballs into something bigger and bigger, and that’s kind of what a good pilot usually does, is you really focus on this one character going through their journey and living in that world and obstacles happen.
Nick: Obstacles happen. So you need to know that for your pilot.
Alex: The OC pilot also follows a major thread, which is Ryan discovering Newport, including the Cohens and Marissa, and there are actually threads of a B story and runner with the secondary characters, but our main journey is taken through Ryan’s eyes. Most of the first season follows a very similar structure, actually, with Ryan going through new emotions every episode, like Ryan gets a job, Ryan attends the city ball, Ryan visits Tino with Marissa, and so on. But the structure of Homicide and its pilot are noteworthy for a couple of reasons. First, it’s kind of the closest one we have here to a true ensemble pilot/show, which means each of the four storylines is given equal weight in the episode. Some of the cases are even resolved an entire act or two before the end of that episode. There’s only 40 minutes of airtime, so you only have a few scenes to cover each investigation; the rest is devoted to character discussions. That format will actually be continued for the rest of the series, albeit with a through line of a seasonal case.
Alex: Speaking of, much like Alias ending on a new thread, the pilot of Homicide also concludes on a new case, rookie detective Bayliss getting assigned his first major homicide, and that case will serve as a major recurring story for the season. Kind of a smaller version of the seasonal case you may see in macro procedurals like The Killing or Broadchurch. So again the pilot is there to set up the former life of the show and then tease the rest of the series.
Nick: Taking a look at how Third Rock sets up the way that the show will work, as I mentioned before, through the premise of the show alone, it’s aliens here to learn and experience as much as they can about humans, all the characters have those active goals, they have the obstacle to the goal, which is being an alien and not understanding, and there’s that fun juxtaposition of their characters in this situation from page one. You don’t need to go into much detail of setting that up; as soon as you understand what the show’s about, you understand the elements that make it work. So the engine’s pretty clear and it drives much of the humor in the show, because it comes from their attempts to learn, but ultimately misunderstanding and misappropriating things. There’s a lot of puns on words. Dr. Albright is talking to Dick about parking in her parking space and so she says, “For future reference, I have a red Volvo,” and he says, “Please, Dr. Albright, we barely know each other.”[laughter]
Nick: There’s miscommunications. Or commentary on the absurdity of aspects of human society or behavior or things like that that seem strange when viewed through the lens of an outsider. Like Alex said before, humans kissing is seen to be cleaning each other, or the simple fact of having three holes in your face is weird about it, when you think about it too closely.
Alex: But there’s also something to be said about the pilot serving as the first piece of a larger puzzle, be it narrative motifs or introducing recurring elements of the show. Do you feel like Third Rock did that?
Nick: Yeah, I think that the ending of the pilot of Third Rock does a good job of establishing those couple of, what you might call, loose threads that are gonna be continued throughout the rest of the series. So there’s a decision made at the end of the pilot to stay and study humans more as they are “obviously more complex” than they first thought. Now, this was obviously meant to be a shorter mission but now they’re in it for the long haul. That’s that kind of being locked into a situation, in the same way that Jeff is now locked in in Community because he doesn’t have that easy out. You’re really past that point of no return. The funny thing is it’s actually not because they wanna study humans more, it’s because Dick is now infatuated with his coworker, Dr. Albright, and it’s not about noble scientific pursuit after all. So there’s the character and story arc being established there to carry on throughout the series. Even that just episodically you go back to that same engine of there’s always some weird new aspect of humanity to explore; you know, anything we do in life can be studied and analyzed through that lens of an outsider, from relationships to sports to school to our physical forms and our human bodily functions.
Alex: Wait, humans are obviously more complex, that means we went from a pilot order to a six season.[laughter]
Alex: There’s our six seasons of exploration at least.
Nick: What about Alias? Is that representative of what every other episode of Alias was?
Alex: Yes and no. On one hand you do have the same fast-paced mission elements permeating the rest of the series, but they’re all under the guise of Sydney working as a double agent which, as I mentioned, isn’t something introduced until the end of the pilot. And then you also have the structure itself of an Alias episode, which was famous for its massive cliffhangers. But when you look at the setup for an Alias episode, the new mission would actually not start at the beginning of an episode, but instead in the last act, act four of the episode, and the mission then starts to go haywire and then we cut to the Alias logo and the closing credits. Then the following episode would continue where things were left off and finish that mission in the first few acts. Meanwhile, the pilot of Alias is actually 70 minutes long, which is clearly an unusual length for a network drama episode. Although for once I think that length is warranted since it has so much ground to cover.
Nick: For sure. And with Community, funnily enough for a comedy pod, I would say that Community is slightly more on the scale of a premise pilot as far as comedy goes. The pilot story is really, the characters meet, the study group is created, we establish the dynamics between them and we lock Jeff into that predicament in the world; like I said, now there’s no easy way out, he’ll actually have to learn how to work together and solve problems. Obviously, that exact same thing doesn’t happen every episode, the characters don’t meet for the first time every episode, they don’t form a study group for the first time every episode, which is why I’m saying it’s almost more of a premise pilot than just opening on all of them already in a study group together having known each other for years tackling some class problem.
Alex: It’s like Groundhog Community.[chuckle]
Nick: Yeah, exactly, whereas, once you get kicked into the episodes later in the season after that, each episode does tend to use that device of the A story being some problem arising for the study group, usually related to a class, like an assignment, and them on all working on how to resolve it together, each in their own unique, flawed way. And at the same time one of the characters usually has a personal or interpersonal problem, which will be the B story, and then they try to work through that and how it reflects or intersects with the theme of what that whole group class problem is. And then some of the other characters might work together with that character to help them resolve the personal problem and that might give them the answer to the class problem, all that kind of thing, it all ties up neatly in a little bow. Now, as we spoke about before, Dan Harmon actually lays his fundamental structural story engine out very clearly on the Channel 101 website, coining the term “story circles,” which is the notion that episodes of TV follow this hero’s journeyesque structure of change but not really change, disequilibrium back to equilibrium.
Nick: And it goes like this, there’s eight stages. One, a character is in a zone of comfort. Two, but they want something. Three, they enter an unfamiliar situation. Four, they adapt to it. Five, they get what they wanted. Six, but they pay a heavy price for it. Seven, they return to their familiar situation, Eight, having changed. Now, that’s something that Dan definitely uses in all of his shows, Community, Rick and Morty, that kind of thing. I think it is broadly applicable to most sitcoms, at least. How do you feel that kind of maps over drama in general terms, Alex?
Alex: While you were reading those I was thinking of maybe Alias, but, again, those shows are so fast-paced, especially when it comes to serialized dramas. It’s really hard to go back to that status quo, even if it’s something like Breaking Bad, where you could argue every episode Walter White goes through some complex scheme to get something, and then he goes back to, “Oh, crap, I still have cancer.”
Nick: But for a spy mission I could see someone being at the home base, they get a mission, which is them wanting something. They go off on this mission, the unfamiliar situation. They adapt, they succeed at the mission, but it comes at a price. Then they come back to the base, and they’ve learned or changed a little bit. I could see that kind of roughly mapping over, but like you said, I do think there is more of a bigger change or a continuing thread that doesn’t just restore equilibrium again.
Alex: I think the question is, “How much change are we talking about?” Is it just a formula that resets every week or is it something that’s gonna considerably change down the line? You talk about Alias, but Alias is famous for having this kind of central episode in the second season, which I think I mentioned in another Paper Team episode, where they completely upended the very concept of that show. This is a major spoiler, but in the middle of the second season, they destroy SD-6 and the show stops being about Sydney undercover for the CIA. It becomes a completely different show. I think, sure, within the span of maybe a dozen episodes a season, you could conceivably have the same structure, but ultimately you do need that evolution to keep the viewers interested in that serialized element.
Nick: Maybe it applies more to traditional procedurals or maybe just like, Archer is a spy show and a comedy.
Alex: Going back to the pilots that we were talking about, Homicide and The OC are probably closer to that traditional formula of episodes. Again, it’s kind of like the case of the week, of Newport on The OC, is just about the new quirks of that city and that town, but you do have additional elements that are introduced every time. Maybe if it’s a classic sort of procedural or soap, perhaps, I think those are elements where you can repeat the same basic core principle. Look at Game of Thrones. How can you really go back into the story circle when every episode changes the game?
Nick: Totally. I don’t think it applies to everything, and I think, like always, these kind of tools are useful to maybe analyze and guide, but they should never be taken as prescriptive.
Alex: Yeah, it’s always a good jumping-off point, especially if you’re stuck or if you’re trying to think, “Oh, what’s act two, act three?” Those are interesting elements. But going back to Homicide, Alias and The OC for a moment, there are also other elements that a pilot that tries to introduce beyond just the structure of an episode. You can talk about mythology and stylistic elements that echo throughout the rest of the show. I’ve already touched on the visual style of Homicide. The show also has this white board, where detectives keep the names of their open cases in red and their closed cases in black. The colors being changed punctuates sort of the episode, of the acts, as the cases evolved. In fact, the names used were, I think, NBC executives or people, so that’s kind of morbid, but…
Nick: Oh, wow. That’s vaguely threating, almost.[laughter]
Alex: And, in Alias, you have the first steps of the Rambaldi mythology being introduced in the pilot, including the Mueller device, which will have iconic significance in a few episodes of the show.
Next Week On
Nick: Well, that brings us to the end of our episode, analyzing these pilots. As always, thank you so much for taking the time to listen.
Alex: You can get all of the show notes for this episode at paperteam.co/54.
Nick: If you’d like to leave us some reviews, we can analyze them as well and see whether their structure was good. You can do that at paperteam.co/itunes, and that will help us out in a big way.
Alex: And speaking of reviews, we’ve got a couple of them.
Nick: This one is called Character Dialogue by Brown and Coco, and they say, “Especially appreciate your frankness about when writers go too far with their exposition, I.e. Game of Thrones. Also agree Aaron Sorkin is a great writer, but can be self-absorbed. It’s a lessons for writers to be aware when developing and maintaining their style.”
Alex: Very relevant to this episode. And our latest review is by Ling Wang, and it’s titled For Every Aspiring TV Writer. He or she says, “Yep. Like anyone checking out this podcast and its host themselves, I’m an aspiring TV writer. Right now I’m not in LA, so I’m consuming every resource available to me at a distance. Let’s get one thing out of the way. Alex is from Paris. Nick is from Melbourne, so yes, they have light accents. Get over it. Their advice is too good to pass up because they need better diction. I found tvcalling.com about a year ago after seeing Alex’s spec list for 2016, and continued perusing the website in between finishing my bachelor’s degree. Now that I’m finished and prepping to an eventual move, I’ve started taking everything more seriously.
Alex: And that is where Alex and Nick’s value is found. They are doing exactly what I expect to be doing when I go to SoCal, hustling, their word, to get a TV writing job. They are your writing group. They are your network. They’ve compiled their own knowledge and that of others, in podcast forms, so that people like me, who are not in LA, can get prepared as much as possible. There are other great TV writing podcasts, but Paper Team is the one done by people still working to get their foot in the industry, just like I will be. And, they have great advice on both the craft and business of TV writing. So, again, maybe they need to enunciate a little better, but don’t ignore this podcast for such a pithy reason. They know what they’re talking about, and it is solid information.”
Nick: Yeah, now, mate, sure, I reckon.[laughter]
Alex: Yes, I do agree very much on that.[laughter]
Nick: Anyway. Yes, thank you. We really appreciate that. That’s definitely our goal, there. And, speaking of thanks, thanks again to our sponsor, the Tracking Boards 2017 Launch Pad Feature Competition. Paper Team listeners can use the code PAPERTEAM at the checkout to save $15 off their entry, remember that’s all one word, all caps. And you can learn more about all of the Launch Pad’s current competitions and exclusive partners by visiting tvlaunchpad.com.
Alex: And, as always, I’m on Twitter @TVCalling.
Nick: And I’m @_njwatson.
Alex: If you have any feedback, thoughts, opinion, you can send them to [email protected]. And next week, I think we have a Lily episode? I’m just kidding.[laughter]
Nick: Every week, from now on will be the Lily episode until it happens.
Alex: What are we doing next week, Nick?
Nick: Well, I’m sure a lot of people wonder what happens next, after you win a TV writing competition. So, we are gonna be talking to three winners or highly placers in the Tracking Board Launch Pad competitions, whether it’s pilots or features, and see how that kind of, as we said, kick started their career and what they did from there. So we’re really excited to bring that to you.
Alex: Highly placer. Is that something you put on your resume?[laughter]
Nick: Yeah, I’m a highly placer.
Alex: See y’all highly placers next week.
Nick: See you then.