June 24, 2007 Jill

Jaime J Weinman, in his blog TV Guidance, recently discussed what I’m doing here and then dove-tailed into a broader discussion of “premise” or “setup” pilot versus the “typical episode” premise. He makes good arguments on both sides from a viewer’s perspective.

But if you’re a Canadian screenwriter trying to get a show on the air, take it from me: forget the premise pilot. Start your first script further down the line. Jump in. Write the show as it’s going to be in the other twelve episodes of the first season..

My reasoning has less to do with the satisfaction of writing it or the entertainment of the audience. It’s just practical. You have a premise for a series, you have to test it out. A set up pilot does not help you (or the development execs) understand how your characters are going to act week to week, episode to episode. You aren’t testing out the premise as a story telling vehicle, you’re just setting up a story telling vehicle.

From a writing point of view, this isn’t easy. It’s hard to launch yourself into this world you’re creating and start telling typical stories. As a writer, it’s almost instinctual to start by thinking about how your characters got here, building a world around them, getting to know your characters, exploring how they interact.

You have to know this stuff, you have to take the time to imagine those first moments. Be there in them. Write them down. Maybe even outline the show that a premise pilot would be, living through the beats. Definitely hear your characters speak, listen to how they speak, when, why. But that’s character development work. Put it in your bible.

Then push yourself to write something that’s more typical of the series.

But not an ordinary episode either.

Write the best episode for the series that you can think of. The one that is most exciting, emotional and surprising. And the one that has the elements to show off your best writing skills.

There’s another very practical reason not to do a setup episodes, that Weinman mentions and which I’ve lived through more than once. If you produce an episode that sets up the world, you’re going to have to air it first. Even when you shoot the first episode second or third in the production order (so that the crew and actors are a little more experienced with the show) it may very well be a dog. Odds are twelve to one that it won’t be the best episode you have in the can when your air date rolls around. But if it’s a premise pilot, it’s going on air first. And all those viewers who are going to tune in to catch the new show because of all the publicity surrounding the launch aren’t going to see your best. They’ll be seeing the setup. And you’ve lost an important chance.

Comments (7)

  1. Elver

    When Joss Whedon was creating Firefly, he created the pilot first, but the network wanted a normal episode as well. So they wrote the “Train Job” episode.

    However, since the pilot was a bit slow, the network decided to air the “Train Job” first.

    I remember watching the very first episode when it aired and thinking “What the *bleep*? This universe has no set-up. It’s lame.” And I didn’t watch any more of it until the show had been canceled and the DVD came out, which had the real pilot as the first episode. And after watching the (really awesome) pilot I was pleasantly surprised. Overall, Firefly turned out to be a great show.

    I guess the moral of the story is that pilots don’t always go on air first and the network can always decide to screw things up for you.

  2. Jill Golick

    Many things can happen, but in Canada there are no burned scripts for a show in production. If you write it, you produce it. And if you produce it you air it. And if it’s a setup pilot you air it first.

    When I say “don’t write a setup pilot”, I say it to Canadian writers developing series for Canadian broadcaster.

  3. Jennica

    Re: Firefly. I immediately thought of it, too, reading this post. I had a similar experience. And the pilot was not only great… it was a two-hour pilot! SO much setup was lost by airing The Train Job first.

    I think the problem with saying ‘skip the setup’ is when we’re talking about a show that’s heavy on season arc. You couldn’t skip the setup for a 24, or a Prison Break, or a Lost (though those shows did a good job of making sure the pilots had the elements of a typical episode).

    I actually think there’s some middle ground between setup pilot and premise pilot. I’ve been working on a 1/2 hour comedy pilot (which does have some interest from Cdn prod cos, though I’m not counting my chickens) and it’s a line I’ve been trying to walk… but I think it’s doable. When I think of sitcom pilots like, say, Friends or Newsradio– those pilots set-up the show, but also felt like typical episodes (given the character dynamics, kind of plot, and subplots happening). Most importantly, the conflict in those pilots was the same kind of conflict you’d see in a typical ep.

    Lots to think about, here. Thanks for blogging, Jill!

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