Monday, October 01, 2012

The Great Debate -- no, not THAT one

I'm talking about the more important “Should you write a premise pilot?” dilemma?  Last week I discussed the pros and cons of premise pilots vs. typical episode-pilots.
Bill Taub submitted a comment that’s worth re-posting and discussing. First off, Bill Taub is a terrific writer. His credits range from comedies like BARNEY MILLER and NEWHART to dramas like HILL STREET BLUES and DALLAS. He teaches a pilot writing class at UCLA that I cannot recommend highly enough. If you want to learn how to write a pilot, this is your guy. 

What follows is an email debate between us based on my post and his reaction.   He's in purple and I'm in black. 

Here’s what Bill originally wrote:

Dear Ken -- we both go back a long way -- but I sincerely hope my UCLA Spec Pilot Writing Class which starts in a month doesn't read this. I am a strong advocate of the prototypical episode pilot and think many series fail because they were bought off of premise pilots. Without going too far back into the archives, let's start with last week -- REVOLUTION premiered -- the set up was in the first sequence then it jumped to 15 years later, which is where the series lies. I can tell much more clearly whether I'm going to like the series or not from this approach.

LAST RESORT aired tonight (Thursday) -- and is a premise pilot. I have much less of an idea what the series is.

THE NEW NORMAL looked like a premise pilot because it ended with the leads deciding to have a baby through a surrogate. One would have thought it would end with the baby being born. But no, I don't know how long it's going to take them but they're going through the whole complicated process -- for all I know it'll take them nine months or longer -- so the premise pilot was really a typical episode.

A perfect example of what I don't like about premise pilots was a couple seasons back there was a series called 'OUTSOURCED' -- the premise pilot was about this guy being downsized out of a job and ultimately ending with him having to go to India and work as the fish out of water at a telemarketing firm. The premise pilot ended and I had no idea what the series was going to be -- neither did a lot of other folks.

As one who runs a Spec Pilot workshop I have suggested what I call the hybrid -- the premise is built into the pilot script taking up as little time as possible -- no more than twenty percent -- and the rest of the time is a typical episode. And the set-up doesn't have to come at the beginning -- it can be flashbacks or whatever throughout the pilot.

As I tell my students, the premise pilot is going to come down to a one minute montage behind opening credits -- so, if you absolutely have to, write that montage -- then write a typical episode. Figuring out what the series is going to be is a lot harder to me than writing the set-up. This way somebody reading just the spec pilot will know the broad strokes of the set-up and also be able to envision a typical episode.

I could go on -- but this might be better as a discussion.

Thanks though for arguing the other side -- it's helped me become focus even more clearly on my approach!


You make some excellent points and I don’t disagree. Ideally, a typical episode is best and gives a better idea of what the series will be like every week. If you have a pilot idea where that works, great. Do it. You don’t have to read on. Go get a snack.

But if your pilot is difficult to easily and quickly explain, to do a lot of exposition or flashbacks or a compressed montage can get cumbersome. Especially for inexperienced pilot writers.

And my feeling about spec pilots is this:

It’s first and foremost a writing sample. 

The chances of actually selling your pilot are very remote. I’m just being realistic. But if your pilot shows you off to have a fresh voice, an interesting vision, a flair for comedy – whatever your strength – then it’s a success regardless of whether it follows HOW I MET YOUR MET YOUR MOTHER once PARTNERS is mercifully cancelled.

Consider the reader (i.e. the person you need to impress). I always assume she has a stack of pilots. (In this case, I’m also assuming it’s a she but it can just as easily be a he.) She’s barraged with concepts, and settings, and every script has multiple characters. It’s hard enough to keep them straight. And there’s an Alex in every one and half are girls. (There’s also a Kevin. In one he’s the dad, in another he’s the best friend, in another he’s the ex – you get the idea.)

I advise young writers to make your pilot as clear as possible and as easy for the reader as possible. Starting a show as a typical episode but then through backstory, asking the reader to catch up to the premise, often makes it a harder read.

Bill offers a great solution if the pilot will accommodate it – the “hybrid” -- a very quick prologue to set up the premise and then segue into a typical episode.  If you can do that, head for the snack bar. 

But remember, in the first three pages of a spec pilot the writer has to set up the situation, introduce you to characters, establish their relationships, start a story, create a tone, and be dazzlingly funny. That’s a lot to do under ideal circumstances. Now add cleverly weaving in the premise via some device or form of exposition. The project might just collapse under its own weight.

Look, the bottom line is the pilot idea itself dictates everything. Some pilots require detailed premise episodes, some can be explained in two lines, and some are just self-evident. Premise pilots have their minuses (as I mentioned in my original piece), but especially for young writers – your job is just to write the best, most impressive script you can and if a premise pilot best services your particular idea, don’t shy away from it. Yes, it may not give the best indication of what subsequent episodes would be like, but the truth is there probably won’t be subsequent episodes. Sell YOU.


OKAY KEN, you inviolate slut.

I think I can hone in on our basic difference from which everything else flows. You maintain:

Look, the bottom line is the pilot idea itself dictates everything.

I don’t believe that for a minute. I think a series is all about execution. Yes, I want to start with a unique and original idea – but even if I don’t – even if I’m starting with something as ‘low concept’ as ‘Brothers and Sisters’, how I execute it can be the difference between success and failure.

The idea is going to be grasped in one episode – the execution is the template, the recipe, that will drive the series for hopefully 100 episodes. Which is more important???

I often have my students take their idea and think of executing it differently from the way they suggested, just to let them see the options they have. How the idea can change.

I could take a high concept like ‘Neighbors’ and say, okay, an unsuspecting family moves into a community of space aliens who look human. I can name several different executions of that right off the bat. From single camera sitcom, to multiple camera sitcom, to serious sci-fi, to animated.

I can take Sherlock Holmes and execute it as a period piece, a comedy, an animated series, or as CBS is now doing as a contemporary male-female procedural. And, by the way, the pilot for Elementary which aired Thursday was a prototypical episode. They were teamed up and onto a case before I could sit down.

Any idea can be executed any number of different ways. It doesn’t dictate anything. When I used to teach my episodic t.v. workshop I would give the class a set-up – f’rinstance, a guy walks in with explosives wrapped around his waist threatening to blow himself up, and I’d have them execute it as a ‘Law & Order’, a ‘House’, a ‘My Name Is Earl’ or maybe a ‘M.A.S.H.’ or ‘Cheers’ – whatever, that are distinctly different. The idea is the idea – the execution is the key.

If I were a network executive that’s what I’d want to see.
Since we’re doing spec pilot scripts rather than pitching – I give the reader/buyer the basics of the set-up then focus on execution. And, quite frankly, I believe the harder of the two tasks.

Spec pilots have become a mandatory part of a portfolio if you want to do television – which amuses me, because until “Desperate Housewives”, a spec pilot that saved a network, nobody cared about them.

And now, they’re being used not just to sell – but writers are being staffed on existing shows because of their spec pilots.

Larry David, David Kelley, Ryan Murphy, David Shore, Dan Harmon, Aaron Sorkin, Christopher Lloyd, these are a few of the writers setting the standard for unique execution.

The bottom line, for me is, it’s all about execution.

Back to you, Ken...:-)

I think we agree more than disagree. I’m totally with you that it’s all about the execution. But execution is a different topic. That’s “how well” you write your pilot, and whole courses can be devoted to that (y’know, like the one you teach). And yes, you should write the pilot you can execute the best, not the one that’s the greatest coolest idea ever. Again, it’s all about selling YOU.

That’s a great exercise you have where students take different approaches on the same concept. There are always options and that’s a lesson we writers can never re-learn enough. But all I’m saying is, in the most practical sense – consider your reader.  And in this case it's not a network executive; it's an agent or manager or producer or studio exec.  Take the approach that will make it the easiest for them to get on board and be knocked out by your script. They won’t laugh at your great jokes if they’re confused. So once you’ve considered all the options, if in your particular case a premise pilot would be the best way to showcase your project and you then I say go for it. 

Even though it’s my blog, I’d like to have Bill have the final word.

My goal is both. The greatest coolest idea ever -- executed brilliantly. I can't separate them out. When it comes to my class, I insist on an 'Episode 6' pilot. The series template/recipe. I don't deal with Premise pilots.

For the last word I'll say -- Thank you! 


Another highly respected writer checks in.  Earl Pomerantz, in his blog this morning addresses this debate.   It's well worth hopping over there to see what he has to say.  Here's Earl article.


gottacook said...

Another way to look at (as our host writes) "They won’t laugh at your great jokes if they’re confused": The first episode of Mary Tyler Moore teaches me that if you're really funny, you can even get away with a double premise pilot (i.e., Mary moves into a new apartment and meets Rhoda and Phyllis; Mary interviews for her new job). Of course even in those days there were many shows that never had a premise pilot - it took Star Trek, for example, until the 2009 movie to show the story of how the crew got together, despite two different pilots having been required to sell the series in the 1960s - but I can't imagine how MTM would have gotten off to such a strong start without one.

KB said...

Maybe MTM (and and Cheers and Taxi and WKRP) are good examples of premise pilots that worked because 1)they were funny and 2) they didn't feel "premise-y." All the elements were in place for a regular episode and we saw them. But "Outsourced" (for example) spent a lot of time with people and settings (and hence, joke rhythms and timing) that we'd never see again. It would have been better to see the main character already IN India, maybe on a temporary assignment, and then getting the bad news over the phone that he'll be there permanently.

Chris said...

Friday question: if you write for cable, do you still have to do act breaks if they don't run commercial breaks?

Roger Owen Green said...

Yes, agree with KB: "I HATE spunk" is still funny, even though I barely know Mary Richards and know Lou Grant even less well.

Cory said...

I watched The Last Resort because of Shawn Ryan. Period. But, as I watched it, I wondered just how they could make this a TV series. I could see a movie or a mini-series, but an on-going, open ended show? What do you do after you find out who tried to start a war?

I see more and more series that start like that, so I guess my question is: Why are networks going with more and more dramas that seem to have a limited shelf life?

Anonymous said...

Thing about the LAST RESORT pilot is this: I may not have a clear idea where the show is going but I *want* to know. The strength of the pilot earned my trust and has me saying, "I want to see how they can sustain this."

Unless something changes my mind, I'll be watching my last episode of REVOLUTION tonight. I just don't care. Everything about it feels like "I've seen this before" (which I think harkens back to the question of execution. And I don't care about the characters.

Both LAST RESORT and REVOLUTION started with a bang, getting to the action fast. But I feel I know the characters in LAST RESORT better. Not much, but enough that I'm invested. Not so with REVOLUTION. The "where did the power go" mystery is interesting but I don't think I can wade through generic dystopia to get to the answer. I'm much more interested in LAST RESORT's conspiracy and watching that unfold.

Mitchell Hundred said...

At work the other day, it occurred to me that the reason why they made Watson a woman in Elementary might have been because the network wanted to avoid all the homoerotic subtext.

I have a weird brain.

ScottyB said...

I think the short opening to each episode of 'My Name Is Earl' in the first season or so bridged the whole thing. Yes, there was the pilot which set up the reason the show existed in the first place, but the "You know the kind of guy who does nothing but bad things and then wonders why his life sucks? Well, that was me ... My name is Earl" explained the whole premise so even if you missed the pilot or didn't notice the show for a season or so, you could keep up and enjoy it since pretty much everyone gets the notion of karma.

ScottyB said...

Here's a Friday Question for Ken: What shows top your list of good sitcoms (other than 'Almost Perfect') that you think could have become reallyreallyreally good sitcoms but died premature deaths after maybe one season? What endeared them to you? I'm talking about *good* ones that weren't great, but were a really good cut above the rest of the dreck that was out at the time.

I bring this up because the 1980s sitcoms "Open All Night" (ABC) and "Down Home" (NBC) have stuck in my head all these years, so they must've been pretty darn amusing to me for some reason. But still and all, they disappeared pretty quickly like a fart in the wind and not a single person I know remembers them.

David Baruffi said...

I think if you're gonna do a pilot that sets up the situation, you really have to nail it. People have been doing that lately, and it does work sometimes, but I think one of cool things about starting with a typical episode, is this idea of discovery. Think of the pilot of "The West Wing," it didn't with the President getting elected, it started it in the middle. In general, it was a typical benign episode, but it introduced us to all the characters, and set up the world that they live. It also shows confidence, that by starting in the middle, you have a great confident premise. That everything in this world, is correct, as they know, and we are the newcomers learning about it. "The Golden Girls" is another good example. They easily could've started with the episode where all the girls move in together, but they didn't. They started with three of them, and then Rose moved in. Well, how did those three end up living together? We learn that later in a flashback, which I think is more interesting to do anyway, but accept the premise accept the bit.

The other reason I like this is because, when you do a premise episode and set up the entire series, you don't have to create one world, you have to create two, and a major and well-done change to set up this new one. The obvious idea is a death, like "Six Feet Under," did, or a show that nobody ever talks about in terms of great pilots, "The Wonder Years". You don't have to have seen that pilot, to love that show, 'cause the world itself was so strong, but it did set-up that entire series, brilliantly. First, one stasis world, and then, a whole different one, and it because the original was so well-established, even in one episode, that the change in the world, worked, and made the show that much more interesting, with this added subtext. You gotta do that perfectly though, 'cause if the original world isn't completely correct, than the other world doesn't work. That was my problem with "The New Normal" actually, she leaves one world, that wasn't that interesting, and then the new stasis for her universe, was only mildly more interesting, and the thing she was getting away from came with her. The "Go On" pilot, which started in the middle, a month after Matthew Perry's wife's death, that was quite well done. Him in denial, him accepting his accepting his gried begrudgingly. There's that change, but the character changed, not the situation. More interesting, and if nothing else, you've got a great character. Character you can work with and change all the time. Situations, you gotta nail, first time out, and to do right, can make a great show, but do it wrong, and bye-bye show.

DJ said...

Considering Holmes's asexual nature (except, perhaps, for The Woman), I'm not sure that's the case. I think it's more a case of them wanting to avoid a lawsuit from the BBC and it's Sherlock.

Which also makes for some interesting conversations between Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller. It's not the first time they've played the same character; they both received acclaim as co-stars in a West End production of Frankenstein, where they would swap roles (Frankenstein and the Creature) for each performance.

William C Bonner said...

I really like that you are talking about how to introduce new shows at a time when new shows are being introduced to the audience. It also helps when you list specific shows in relation to the classifications you are using.

I watched both Last Resort and Revolution.

I was ready to give up on revolution after the first episode, partly because I just don't care about the characters, and partly because the beautiful people with their machine made clothes is just too much for me to integrate with having had no power for 15 years. I watched a second episode to see if the pilot would be different from the rest of the show, but it felt the same.

Last Resort had some oddities to it as well, but I'm interested in finding out where it's going. It kept my attention, as opposed to wanting to grab the phone/ipad/laptop and see what else was going on.

I've gotten used to shows that I like having short lives, so figure that I should not worry that I'll be investing time in a show that's only going to be cancelled. If I like the show, I'm not actually wasting my time.

Steve said...

A slight detour here but the premiere episode of Season 2 of Homeland got me to thinking about the challenge of keeping momentum going in an established premise. Part of the appeal in Season 1 was being fed information that contributed to the suspense of the story and the mystery of the characters (and watching Clare Danes' character slowly unravel before our eyes). There was a wonderful build to the story. By necessity, Season 2 starts off at high speed. (It's like in Jurassic Park, the movie builds suspense until the reveal of the creatures. In Part 2, the creatures are attacking right away.) A story arc lasting one season worked well for Damages and The Wire and allowed a sort of reset at the start of each season to create a new environment to draw us in all over again.

Cody said...

Can you do these more often with other people you know who are also writers/directors/producers? I'm learning more from reading your blog than I did 5 years in film school.

mdv1959 said...

I guarantee this debate was more interesting and informative than anything we're going to hear on Wednesday.

You should do these debates podcasts or YouTube videos periodically.

Storm said...

I guess for me as a viewer, whether or not it's a "premise pilot" depends on how heavy the premise is. For instance, a comedy where someone is The New Kid really doesn't need to do much more for me than use The New Kid to introduce the cast/setting to me (i.e., "WKRP"). But if it's a really premisey drama, like "666 Park Place" (hey, don't judge me; I LOVE Terry O'Quinn and haunted house stories!), then for Bowie's sake, EXPLAIN TO ME what's going on! If it had just started with "Hey, this building is a crazy haunted portal to Hell, just watch and figure it out for yourself", and not given me exposition through the arrival of The New Couple, I'd have been all "Huh? Wuh? Zuh?" Which I still kinda am, but I am engaged enough with the story to come back next week. The Vulcan (He Who Is My Husband) and I couldn't be bothered to even give "Revolution" a try; being "steampunk" since before it had a name, my husband and I said "Wait, does NBC NOT know that once upon a time, things ran on *steam*?" Ugh, why DOES that network keep trying to do sci-fi? They screwed me over hard enough on "Heroes", and I'll never forgive them for what they did to "Bionic Woman". Jeez.

Cheers, thanks a lot,


Storm said...

Um... that's "666 Park AVENUE". Once again, kids, I admonish you-- don't smoke and type, not when there's no Edit Feature on this sucker.


Breadbaker said...

The "Mad Men" pilot begins Peggy's career, but also follows Don from his mistress's to his own home, in one of the greatest twists at the end of an episode ever. Peggy's introduction to the firm lets you see so much of the premise of the show (how an agency works, the overarching sexism of the Sixties work place, Joan's centrality to the agency) without sticking your nose in it. The weirdness of what Don does dancing around that is yeast to that leaven. It was a great hook.

Unknown said...

Did I miss it? Did you link to Cheers Oral History?

Unknown said...

Yes I missed it in your post. Sorry! I just saw it. Sorry to spam your comment board also. So as not to be spam let me offer something to the debate.

Isn't every pilot episode introducing someone new to the world of the show no matter what? There has to some some entrance of abnormality to a normal circumstance or vice versa. Not every episode is going to have some new huge deal but every episode will explore relationships. The way to show what those relationships are is to strain them.

Mike said...

In light of Bill's comments, I reckon I won this argument and I claim my first Confirmed Levine Kill. There's a little Levine-shaped sticker on the side of my computer.

A couple of ideas for conveying improvisational comedy in your sitcom:
1) Mundane. Each episode opens with 2 minutes of the act, performed in a club.
2) More interesting. In their flat, there's a bell from a hotel reception desk. Any visitor to the flat gets to ring the bell, while the couple are performing some mundane task like cooking, and requests "In the manner of ...".

Bill Taub said...

@Mike. I've been trying to destroy Levine ever since he went to the Mariners. This was an easy shot. I even left out shows like 'Smash' which started in the middle. And somebody here mentioned '666 Park Avenue' which I hated, was a total premise pilot -- and what about all those hoped for viewers who are going to start watching with Episode Two. Oh, that's right, there won't be any. Which is the 'nuclear option' argument -- most viewers never see the premise pilot -- they join the series later -- which means they are watching a 'typical episode'...with the premise montaged at the beginning. I rarely venture into these waters but I've known Ken for years -- and sporadically follow his blog -- I can't help it, he makes me. I really was communicating with him privately which he asked if he could take public. Like I said, my class starts next week -- and I hope they never read this!!! The biggest struggle I have with them is not to write a 'premise pilot'. That's the easy part.

Unknown said...

Wow, that is tons of great information. Thanks to you both. I had to read it twice and will probably have to read it again at some point.

Unknown said...

Another Friday question for you: what were your thoughts on the Up All Night season premiere? Ava's show was cancelled and they introduced a new regular character. It was almost like a premise season premiere (ha). I assume that they're attempting to take the show in a new direction based on audience reaction or poor (but not poor enough to get cancelled) ratings? Have you ever had to deal with a situation like this?

Storm said...

@Bill Taub: I don't know, I enjoyed "666 Park Avenue" enough to come back this week and find out more about The Weirdo Building and the Weirdo That Owns It (Who May Just Be The Devil). (shrug) To each their own, the blind man said as he kissed his cow.

However, I just got around to watching the pilot for "The Neighbors", after reading Ken and others flame it on this blog, and wowzers, what a loud of space CRAP. EVERYTHING interesting or noteworthy about the Aliens and how they came to be on Earth and such was literally spelled out for me and crammed into 22 MINUTES. WTF is the next episode about?! I'm a nerdwoman that loves a good laugh (and Jami Gertz since "Square Pegs"), but I swear, I chuckled ONCE. And I laugh myself goofy when my dog farts, so I'm not THAT hard to amuse.

Cheers, thanks a lot,


Gregg B said...

Friday Question: How does a show like "Partners" get greenlit by a network? I know the creators have a track record but the premise is so close to a show from a few years ago coincidentally called "Partners" that it appears to be a ripoff. Same premise (one gets engaged), same professions (architects), etc. Seems like a red flag to me.

Hank Gillette said...

Hasn't the 60 second premise plot behind the credits already been done?

The Real McCoys, Gilligan's Island, The Beverly Hillbillies, and Green Acres told you all you needed to know to understand the program even if you had never seen it before (and even did it musically). I'm sure that there are many others that don't come to mind at the moment.

cadavra said...

Gregg: I love PARTNERS. All the great premises have been done. What matters is the execution, and they do it wonderfully. Obviously YMV.