The Problem with Pilots and How Solving it Will Make All TV Shows Better

Unlike a lot of pilots, the first episode and the first season of
BEING HUMAN did not suffer from Not Enough Planning
Syndrome.  Sadly, later seasons did. 🙁

There is a general understanding in Hollywood that TV pilots just aren’t very good.  There’s a saying in screenwriting circles that says “always start your script as deep into the story as you can.”

In Hollywood, today, the former is embraced while the latter is ignored.  At least, that’s how it seems to me. I’ve seen several first episodes of series that seem to have no idea what they’re doing.  When ever I mention this to other writers, what I usually hear back is the excuse: “Well, pilots always suck because they haven’t figured out what the story is or who the characters are.”

I wish so many of us writers weren’t so eager to defend half-ass writing.  I get that all that really matters is if people watch, but aren’t your story and characters things you should work out before you hand in your “finished” script?  And if you have a clear plan for them in mind, don’t you think that will make your pilot and any episodes that follow stronger and more likely to get an episode order?

Seriously: how can you defend the idea that it’s OK to flesh out your story and characters further into the series?  Too many shows suffer from Not Enough Planning Syndrome.  It’s so easy (though it’s also time consuming) to just sit down and answer questions about your story and about your characters.  Just make choices.  Your bosses/fellow writers will let you know if they don’t work or if they are just horrible directions to go in.  Figure out where your plot is going beyond the first episode and even beyond the first season.  The question to ask yourself is this: what is the long arc of both my story and my characters?

When Not Enough Planning Syndrome Strikes, We Are All the Victims!

BATTLESTAR GALACTICA (the remake) started off really
strong but ultimately left this viewer unsatisfied. It’s safe to
assume that most viewers felt the same as the BSG spin-off
series, CAPRICA, only lasted one season.  q

A BBC show I fell in love with years ago was BEING HUMAN.  The first season was incredibly well written.  It seemed like the writer(s) had a clear plan and really had a  sense of who these characters were and where they were headed.  If the series had never gotten another season, I’d have been disappointed, but satisfied.  Well, the show did get a second season and, sadly, it was nowhere near as good as the first.  This isn’t Bad Sequel Syndrome–this is Not Enough Planning Syndrome.  I’m just guessing here, but the creator of BEING HUMAN was probably a little surprised that he got another season ordered and didn’t want to keep the Beeb waiting.  I don’t blame him, but his second season suffered for it.  And because he didn’t sit down and work out a long arc to span the next two or three seasons right then, the rest of the show’s run really suffered for it.  It suffered so much that by the final season, they’d cycled out all the original characters.  That’s right, none of the original characters were on the show by the end of the show’s run.  That is a sign of a serious lack of planning.

Sure, the show stayed on the air for 5 seasons (5 BBC seasons, which, for this show, were no more than 8 episodes per) but who is going to want to watch it again?  Or buy the DVD or download the show from iTunes?

I see shows making this same mistake in the US.  The BATTLESTAR GALACTICA reboot series insisted in the opening titles of every episode that the enemy robots had a plan.  Well, that plan was never really explained on the series and I have a feeling, the writers never actually had that plan.  Why else were the last couple seasons so mediocre and the finale so contrived and heavy-handed?  Like BEING HUMAN, BATTLESTAR started off really strong.  But, like BEING HUMAN, they just didn’t plan well enough, or far enough, ahead.

This is why we can’t have nice things

Like BLINDSPOT, the show builds in male dominance in the first episode,
further eroding the whole point of being a super-hero and thus making
viewers less likely to stick around.  Why would anyone want to watch a show
about a super-powered alien who has to ask permission from a human man
before she kicks some ass? You can have this dynamic in the past of the
character, but in the present, it’s just stifling for the writing and the viewers
who just want SUPER-HEROES, ACTION and FUN!

This year, I’ve seen a number of pilots that made it to series despite seeming to be, very clearly, still in their development stages.  One pilot seemed to excuse it’s own lack of planning by giving all of its characters amnesia, which is weird, since the show is based on a comic book.  Maybe they’re ignoring the comic’s plot?  In several pilots I’ve seen in 2015, we’re stuck, sitting through origin stories that 1) aren’t all that original and 2) violate that second thing I mentioned above, in my first paragraph: start your script as far into the story as you can.

Can someone tell me why the pilot to the new SUPERGIRL series starts before Kara actually decides to be a super-hero?  Why is she a bumbling goofball?  Why is she still in Superman’s shadow?   Everyone watching knows who Supergirl is, there is no reason to waste time showing how or even why she decided to be a super-hero.  Better to save origin stories like hers for when the writers run out of ideas.  Besides, the origin story they give Kara establishes that she’s been directionless for years, since she’s been on Earth.  Why not have her be a competent hero from the start?  Won’t that be more likely to inspire viewers to stick around?

In BLINDSPOT the lead female character
literally has the male love-interest’s name
written on her. Talk about a lame origin
story! Let me know when she has her free
will back!  Insult is added to injury with the
casting of her love interest. This guy is a
boringly handsome tough-guy (#cliché)
with two expressions: squint and non-squint. 

I knew I was addicted to the Marvel Cinematic Universe when I saw Steve Rogers be incredibly competent within minutes of getting his super powers.  He still grows as a person, but not from a level of incompetence.  Sure, in the beginning he’s a runt, but from frame one, his heart and mind are already Captain America.  His arc then becomes about how he deals with his powers and his role as a hero.

Meanwhile, the pilot for BLINDSPOT  begins with another amnesiac.  This one wakes up in Times Square, naked, covered in tattoos and relies on FBI agents to help her, despite her quickly discovering she is, in fact, Jason Bourne.  Oh, now that’s inspiring!  I can’t wait to see her ask her FBI handler for permission to be her bad-ass self in every episode.

Watching our heroes bumble through beginner mistakes is generally depressing and un-fun.  Waiting for the story to get to the event or idea mentioned in its title can be frustrating and perplexing (why is DARK MATTER called DARK MATTER, exactly???).  There is a reason George Lucas started with episode 4 when he started making STAR WARS movies. It was because, as we now know, episodes 1-3 just weren’t very good (not that I could not have written them so they were, but I digress).

Even if you have one of those great premises that is so wide-open that it would allow for an infinite supply of episode outlines, it still pays to plan.

Take PERSON OF INTEREST.  This is a show that has a very simple premise: guy builds a magic computer that feeds him the social security number of someone who is statistically likely to kill or be killed–it’s then our heroes’ job to save them or get them arrested.  Sounds perfect for a series, doesn’t it?  It could just be a bad/good guy of-the-week show.  But it isn’t.  It’s got a really tight story arc that has driven itself through several seasons of really good TV.  That long arc isn’t even evident in the pilot, but it is clear that they had a lot in mind in that first episode.  What’s great about that pilot is that it isn’t an origin story.  It covers how one of the show regulars comes to join the guy with the computer, but he has had a life before the pilot (a life that does come back to haunt him) and, as we eventually discover much later on in the series, he is replacing someone else.  So, the writers on PERSON OF INTEREST clearly understand that you don’t start your story at the very beginning.

I know–it seems counterintuitive, but it really does make a lot of sense.

I ignored PERSON OF INTEREST for a long time. I wrote it
off as a typical cop show with two white males with savior
complexes as the leads.  Which is what it is.  What I didn’t
know was how it would grow and evolve into a pretty well-
written show with a pretty diverse supporting cast. This
is most likely thanks to, you guessed it, planning well and
planning ahead. 

Remember THE X-FILES?  It’s first episode is an origin story, in a sense, but only in that it shows how Mulder and Scully met.  Scully was an active FBI agent before the episode begins and Mulder had been working on the X-Files for at least some amount of time.  From there, we get right into the grit of investigating unexplained phenomena.  Like PERSON OF INTEREST, the horizon seems wide open, but already, the show is laying the groundwork for the eventual long story arc that will carry us through several seasons of the show.

More recently, the folks behind ARROW have done really interesting stuff with structure.  The pilot starts with the rich guy putting on a vigilante costume and at the beginning of the story.

So, in the first episode of ARROW, the lead character is just returning from spending 5 years on an island where he mastered his abilities as an expert archer.  However, before the story gets too far in that first episode, we cut to five years earlier and see the much more immature character, before he became this stoic bad-ass he is in the present day of the story.  This isn’t so much a flashback as it is a deliberate narrative structure that manages to show us how Arrow came to be, and also gives us a more skilled version of the character so we can have fulfilled the promise of the show–quality vigilante violence.  Beyond that, the structure allows the more skilled version of the character to continue growing.  It’s really an impressive structure and I don’t know how they keep it going from episode to episode.  I’m glad more shows don’t copy it because I don’t think most shows could pull it off.  I know I’d have a hard time.

It took me a while to recognize what ARROW was doing,
structurally, but once I figured it out, I was hooked. It’s like
watching season 1 and season 6 at the same time because
half the show takes place 5 years before the other half.
Name one other show that does this.  I can’t think of any.

One thing though, the fact that the writers of ARROW can make it work and have for four seasons, pretty much guarantees that they have a plan and have pulled their point-of-view way back so they can really see that long arc.  Based on their choice to spin-off a FLASH series, a LEGENDS OF TOMORROW series, and a VIXEN animated series, I think those guys really did think things through.

Either that or they’re the most amazing story improvisers to ever work in TV.

The moral of the story is…

Plan.  Don’t think of a pilot script as just something you’ll bang out with the assumption that it will get changed a bunch before it gets shot.  You might as well make it good now.  Or, if you subscribe to the idea that you have to leave it imperfect so those asshole producers out there can “make it better,” fine.  Do what you need to in order to sell the thing, but have a plan in your head or on your hard drive, just in case.  There’s another rule in Hollywood: always have something else ready.  If you have a pilot ready, why not have that long arc ready, too?

What’s even better is that planning ahead lets you see where the best place to start your show is.  Maybe it is with the catalyst.  Maybe it’s down the road when the lead character has a new person enter their life that allows them to look at said life in a new way.  Maybe it’s even later when that person is killed in a car accident.  Regardless, a plan is a road map for your show.  It not only shows your destination, but gives you options as to the best places to depart.

Do some series end up being really good after their pilot sucked?  Sure.  But I don’t think anyone has counted the number of pilots that never made it to series.  After all, wouldn’t you be more likely to sell the show in the first place if you actually had a plan?