Thursday, March 26, 2009


Creating a television pilot is one of the most interesting -- and deceptively daunting -- writing tasks I can imagine. Or maybe that should be "deceptively easy." Basically, I'm trying to say that it's harder than it looks.

At first glance, a pilot simply seems like a feature screenplay that's half as long. You're doing the same thing, right? Set up the characters and the world - check. Tell an engaging story and plot (they're different, damnit) - check.

But in a pilot there's more. Your ending must also be a clear beginning. You have to show (or at least hint at) The Franchise. The week-to-week. Episode 6.

Wait, what?

As I've previously mentioned, right now Jul and I are smack dab in the middle of our own little pilot season. We just more or less finished the first draft of our comedic action pilot last week/last night (we keep having "oh, yeah, we forgot that" moments that require us to add, subtract, and rethink things) and are about to transition into writing our historic drama pilot over the next few weeks (already we're doing crazy things like "research" and "reading" and "learning").

Writing both of these back-to-back has given me an interesting perspective on pilot structure and the different types of pilots out there, as described by the instructor in the pilot course we're currently taking. He lists three kinds of pilots:

1. Premise pilots -- which take up most if not all of the entire first episode setting up the world and the characters, and basically getting things into the places where they will be for the remainder of the series. Kings -- or any number of sci-fi/fantasy shows -- are a great example of this.

2. Prototypical pilots -- which drop you into the middle of a story without any real set up and follow the basic structure of a typical episode of your series. Also known as "Episode 6." My favorite example of this is West Wing, but that's an interesting study because it's also very much in the style of the show -- any episode of the show -- to drop you into a situation with no idea what's going on and slowly dole out answers while you watch. That's just the way they do things in Sorkin-land.

3. Hybrid pilots -- 1+2 = 3. Spend about a quarter of your script setting things up and then use the rest of the pages to tell a typical story in the world you've created. Good recent examples of this model are Pushing Daisies and Castle. (Although Daisies is interesting because every episode was kind of like a hybrid pilot -- the flashbacks at the beginning of each episode restate the premise of the show.) I was going to include Chuck on this list until I realized that the first episode largely deals with Casey and Sarah fighting each other -- over him -- and then coming together at the end to form the team that will then work together for the rest of the series. Which makes me think it falls more under the premise category.

I bring all this up because we've been struggling to make our current pilot as much of a hybrid as possible, and it's made me start to wonder if certain kinds of shows are predisposed to having premise pilots. Our idea, though largely rooted in fairly immediately gettable stories and surroundings, has one big sci-fi/fantasy conceit, which seems to necessitate some set up. In contrast, I think our upcoming historic drama pilot might very easily fit into the hybrid -- or even prototypical -- mold. But does that really mean that certain types of shows have to have premise pilots?

Thinking about sci-fi/fantasy shows in general, I'm hard-pressed to think of many whose pilots don't work this way. The pilots for Fringe, Kings, Firefly, Buffy, Lost, Sarah Connor Chronicles, Battlestar -- all premise pilots, right? Unless I'm not understanding something...

And one of the few non-premise pilots in recent memory -- Dollhouse -- felt baffling and lifeless as what I would term a hybrid because it just dropped you into the middle of the action without taking much time to set up the rather complicated premise. Even Pushing Daisies, which I mentioned above as a hybrid example, could arguably be considered a premise pilot because, like Chuck, the component parts are not in place until the end. The whole first act or so sets up how Ned brings Chuck back and she joins in the investigation into her own death.

According to what we've been hearing, the Pushing Daisies or Chuck-style structure isn't enough of a hybrid. A true hybrid would have things in place by the end of the teaser. Or, since Daisies didn't have a teaser, maybe halfway through the first act? Or not, I don't know. Maybe they get a pass because of the lack of teaser, despite the fact that their first act is quite long...

At this point, I think we're hoping for somewhere halfway between premise and hybrid pilot -- a Prembrid, if you will (Hymise just sounds dirty).

Because as important as I think it is to make your pilot a true example of what the show's structure will look like on a week-to-week basis, it seems far more important to tell a good story that orients your audience properly into the world you've created.

Then again, what do I know?

How have you guys approached writing your pilots?


Republibot 3.0 said...

I've never written a pilot because I'm a nobody who simply watches while other people do. However, an idea that's always interested me is a variation of the "Episode six" idea.

The variation is this: You start off with episode six, *but* you actually really did film the first five episodes. You keep 'em in the can, no one will ever see 'em, but you refer back to them frequently and show flashbacks and what have you.

This gives the actors a better handle on their characters, it feels a bit more 'connected' and 'real' than the made-to-order flashbacks of things that we never saw before in other shows, and years after the show is gone and DVD sales are waning, you can get a mad spike in your tertiary marketing scheme by releasing "The Intentionally Lost Episodes."

Downsides: Myriad. It's simply not the way TV does things, it's expensive, it would necessitate a first season of 27 episodes rather than 22, and those first 5 would have to be fairly interconnected and relevant in order to give the cast some reason to keep dwelling on them for a year or two.

So it'll never happen - and might be better served by a TV Movie pilot we don't let people see - rather than 5 episodes. But it's still kind of an interesting concept. To me, anyway.

Josh said...

It is an interesting idea. I guess the equivalent in writing terms is knowing a lot of backstory for your characters and possibly even writing that out... maybe as episodes.

Though I still think you have the issue of orienting your audience and what exactly that takes. How little can you get away with? Perhaps more if you yourself (or in your scenario, the actors) know the characters and have a certain comfort with the concept and stories that can only come through DOING, but...

Well, I come back to Dollhouse, because that is a show where Joss wrote AND FILMED a completely different pilot than the one that aired. Completely different. And they've KIND OF used your suggestion about flashbacks (albeit it in a different way) by culling out bits and pieces of that original pilot and using them as needed in the 6 episodes that have aired so far.

And the aired pilot -- the "episode 6" pilot -- to me, it DID NOT WORK. At best, it was okay, if a bit bland. At worst, it was confusing, made me feel no real connection to the characters -- partially BECAUSE of that lack of set up -- and sort of boring.

And now I've just written the longest comment ever. On my own blog.

Republibot 3.0 said...

Welcome to my world. The comments over on Republibot are often nearly as long as the entries when discussion gets going.

So the original pilot really was completely different? I was under the impression that it was a more standard pilot-reworking, where they recast a part or two, cut a few scenes that aren't working, insert a couple new one, and then Frankenstein the new and old stuff together in the editing bay. That's not the case here? Interesting.

If they're using stock footage from the original pilot as flashback stuff like they did in Gilligan's Island and The Brady I'm not sure what that footage would be in the episodes we've seen. Only the DeWitt/Echo signs up to be a doll scene would seem to fit, but obviously I could be missing a lot.

So do you know how the first pilot differed from the second?

Josh said...

Join the TV Writers Yahoo! group. I'm almost positive someone there posted the original pilot script.

Republibot 3.0 said...

Thanks! I'll do that now...