Monday, April 26, 2010

Break It Down - The Good Wife pilot script

So, why am I breaking down a pilot script for a show that is almost finished with its first season? A few reasons.

1) It's been a long time since I've done a "Break It Down," and it seemed like it was time to get back to it.
2) The show is good.
3) Related to #2 -- we're about to jump into speccing it.
4) We don't have scripts from any other episodes to look at, so breaking this down is as close as we can get to deconstructing the show... at least from an actual script.

Without further ado:

Episode 101 - The Good Wife

Short Description

Starting with "one of those press conferences," The Good Wife tells the story of a politician's wife who becomes a lawyer to support her family after her Chicago D.A. husband resigns in a sex scandal.

Story Threads

A-story - Alicia's court case of the week
B-story - Alicia and Peter
C-story - Life at the law firm
D-story - Family stuff

If the way I label those stories sounds generic, it's mostly because, by and large, that seems to be the structure of every episode of this show -- though sometimes there is ONLY "Alicia and Peter" or "Family stuff," not both. However, despite the generic labels, the specifics of each of the stories is anything but.

Length and Breakdown

Teaser - 16 pages, 10 scenes
Act I - 13 pages, 10 scenes
Act II - 15 pages, 11 scenes
Act III - 10 pages, 6 scenes
Act IV - 10 pages, 7 scenes

44 scenes in 64 pages. Relatively typical structure, albeit with a LONG teaser... but in this case the teaser works much like a first act, starting with the inciting incident for Alicia -- her husband's betrayal -- and taking her through her first day at work, getting a trial, and the first stressful day of that trial. Way more packed than your typical teaser. The rest of the show is more in line with shows of this sort, with each act more or less getting shorter and scenes coming at a more rapid-fire pace. Or at least rapid fire for a court show.

The scenes are organized as follows:

A-story - Alicia's court case of the week (31 beats/scenes)
B-story - Alicia and Peter (8 beats/scenes)
C-story - Life at the law firm (11 beats/scenes)
D-story - Family stuff (6 beats/scenes)

Not surprisingly, the case of the week gets the lion's share of story time. B and C get interesting in this one, though. I stand by calling "Alicia and Peter" the B story here, because his scandal casts a giant cloud over everything and infects every part of her life. Those 8 beats could just as easily have been 15, but I tried to only pull out the moments that were unequivocally about Peter or about Peter and Alicia's relationship. The "Law firm" stuff, too, gets a bit tricky, bleeding into the case of the week and sometimes involving Peter and/or Alicia's family. Again, I tried to only count those beats that seemed to very clearly be about office life/politics. "Family stuff" is pretty straightforward.

Teaser - B, C/D, C/A, C, C, A, A, D/A, C/A
Act I - A/C, A, B, A, A, A, A, D/C, B, B/A
Act II - A, A, A, A, D, D, B, A, A, A, A
Act III - A, B, C/A, A, A, A
Act IV - A/C, B/A, A, B/A, A, A, D/C/B

(Note: where beats include a / mark, this means that the scene has elements of both stories. In the scene/beat count above, every appearance of A, B, C and so on is counted as one full beat rather than a half, even if there is a slash mark.)

56 story beats. In 44 scenes. The A-story is the one that gets to live on its own the most, and it more or less takes over the story from Act II through most of Act IV. The B-,C-, and D-stories mostly pop up as elements in the A-story or in a scene where they share the spotlight with each other, just like the final scene, which has beats for B, C, and D together. Basically, the message is that the case of the week is God, and if the others want to stick around they need to huddle together and tell their stories efficiently. Lucky for us the writers are good at doing just that, because those B, C, and D stories are the reason to watch this extremely well done show.


Anonymous said...

It's not complex to make decisions when you know what your values are.

mejazzz said...


I live in France and really enjoy the series. Could someone explain to a layman how the writing of episodes work? Is it a pool of writers that get together and move the story around, on the lines of the original script? Are they backed up by American judiciary experts? If this is the case, how many writers actually get the work done for this series?
Thanks for your enlightenment.

mejazzz said...

Could someone explain how the writing of the episodes take place?
Is there a pool of writers carrying out the original idea of the script writers,or is the job done by the two original script writers,in this case?

I'm asking because I'm amazed at the precision and the quality of the episodes, both in terms of character consistency and judiciary accuracy.

Thanks for your help.

Michel (From France)

A bientôt.

Josh said...

Michel --

TV shows hire writing staffs that work together to write the episodes. Generally speaking the writer or writers who created the show are part of that staff. What "work together" means is different for every show. Sometimes staffs just come up with general ideas for the season together and do the rest separately -- getting everything approved by a head writer or showrunner, of course. Sometimes they work together much more closely on the writing of each individual episode.

mejazzz said...

Thanks Josh for this thorough answer.

I guess this team writing for "The Good Wife" must have pretty savvy people on board!

I'd love to know if the feeds for the episode are suggested by law people. The law suits, the investigations and political tactics, and so on, seem so true to life.

The series is brilliant educational material on US civilization, law and political issues.

The King couple, who wrote the original script, don't strike me as being part of the political or Law and Justice arena.
That's why I'm so impressed by their work.

Is the "butterfly" leitmotiv supposedly found in the setting, here and there, a joke I didn't get or is it for real? (I read about it in the NY Times,I think)

French TV series seem so amateur in comparison, I wish our TV script writers would deliver such quality.

Maybe they should spend a little training period in the States,lol.