Monday, November 22, 2004

[TV] How to Write a TV Series - The Pilot 3.6 (cont'd)

So the primary function of a pilot is to make you want to watch the show again. It does this by being as rewarding on as many different levels as possible: entertaining, engaging, raising curiosity. Let's call this "Indoctrination" [thanks Chris Gilman, for the term].

The secondary - and nearly as important - thing a pilot should do is introduce the audience to the situation the show is about. You know - this is a show about a man who's split between his family and the crime ring he runs; this is a show about a man who fights terrorism in real-time. Let's call this function, "Orientation".

How do you introduce the audience to a situation? You either create a new situation for them to watch or you throw them in the deep end of an existing story (in media res) - basically you ask if you want the viewers to have the same knowledge as the characters, or less.* Ways of doing this include: Change Status Quo (The Sopranos) or Insert a new character (Rachel arrives on Friends) or Rely on your Premise.

Status Quo changers are attention grabbing episodes. They have big plot points that may mislead you about what the tone of the show will be. See my review of The Days, below - and I found The O.C. particularly guilty of this.

Inserting a new character is almost a pilot cliche [along with setting up someone who looks like a main character and then killing them off in the first ep - The West Wing, Third Watch, Everwood, Six Feet Under]. The idea is that the "new guy" is our point of view character; we meet the rest of the cast along with them and make our judgements about how everyone fits together at the same pace they do. Obvious variations here include: the new guy is stupid and draws different conclusions to us; kill the new guy off; and make the new guy disrupt the status quo (a classic - look at The O.C. and the real pilot ep of Firefly).

In Media Res - or Rely on your Premise - pilots are rare. I'm doing that with the sit-com I'm working on. It requires a strong situation that's so interesting it hooks viewers in - and a creative decision that experiencing the final situation is more interesting than showing how the situation gets set up.

*Theoretically, you could create a situation where the audience have more knowledge than the characters (for example if you were dealing with a well-known legend like King Arthur - or more recently, the Superman mythos in Smallville). That's an extremely easy way to create an awesome amount of subtext. It also makes foreshadowing easy to see.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

One example of the audience having more knowledge than the characters is the naive or hick character - Frasier in Due South is the example that springs to mind. I'd argue that it's different from the stupid character making different discoveries, since we already "know" the stereotypes about Americans that are being displayed. But since Due South has a pretty obvious "change status quo" pilot, the point is fairly moot.

Huh. You seem to be implying there are three choices (Change, New Guy, or In Media Res), but as you note later, New Guy is usually a particular tool to use towards one of the other two - as the catalyst to change the status quo, or as a way to illustrate the ongoing situation. Am I misunderstanding something?