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.