June 20, 2007 Jill

I’m almost done with Teasers (for a while at least) but before I move on I thought I might compare Aaron Sorkin’s approach to the opening moments of three different shows: Sports Night, West Wing and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.

Sports Night was a half hour series so you can’t compare it to any of the other pilot teasers I’ve discussed thus far. The pilot opens with a quick little traditional sit com teaser of just a minute and a half in length. Entitled “The Quality of Mercy” and written by Bill Wrubel and Aaron Sorkin, the episode launches us right into the premise with the Sports Night show live on the air and Dan and Casey delivering their fast-paced banter. When the show goes to commercial, we visit the control room characters for more witty banter about”well, nothing really. And then we go to main titles and credits.

This is not a setup pilot. It could be any episode in the series. Sure it has some stuff about how the characters got to be on Sports Night, but you could have written this episode at any point in the course of the series and had the same (or more) impact. The purpose of this teaser isn’t to introduce the story lines for the episode or to let you know who the characters are. Instead, the purpose of this minute and a half seems to be to bring you into the world and give you your first taste of Sorkin’s smart dialogue.

Here are some Sports Night scripts, including a draft of the pilot.

A lot of people loved Sports Night. But not as many as loved West Wing.

West Wing came out of the box with style. The pre-titles teaser takes us sequentially through the series’ main characters (or at least the characters who Sorkin thought would be the focus of the series back when he was writing the pilot). We start with a scene featuring Sam which serves to tell us a bit about his character and introduce the episode’s main storyline (will Josh get fired). Then come a series of short scenes which mostly explore character: Leo finds a mistake in the New York Times crossword puzzle, CJ flirts and ends up falling off the treadmill, Josh sleeps at his desk and Toby rails against airline stupidity. These scenes are held together by the thinnest of plot devices: a story about the president falling off his bike (which will take about four more beats to complete). In each of the scenes, these characters refer to potus. And we’re asking ourselves, what are they talking about? The answer comes in the final scene of the teaser, which establishes another of the episodes’ sub-plots (Sam slept with a hooker): they’ve all been talking about the President of the United States. (Music swells, cut to those patriotism inspiring main title shots of the White House.)

The opening for Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip is very different. The leads, Danny and Matt, aren’t even in it. They don’t appear for a while. Instead, this Teaser serves to set up the series premise. It’s set at the show behind the show just as it goes live to air. As you recall, the show runner goes crazy (like that could ever happen) and the way is cleared for Danny and Matt to return. It’s a fourteen page teaser in the script (back then called Studio 7) and it’s filled with Sorkin’s brilliant snappy dialogue. What we learn about is the world of this fictional tv series and the forces that control it (sponsors, network execs and censors).

While the West Wing and Sports Night pilots drags us into typical episode of their respective series and show us just what the next zillion episodes will be like, at the Studio 60 pilot we are left wondering what the heck he’s going to do next week. I think it may have taken Sorkin a while to figure it out too.

Comments (4)

  1. The Film Diva

    I’m loving the blog and the breakdowns. I’ll definitely link to you! Keep it coming! I’d heard that the show openers (teasers, act ones, what have you) were getting longer in response to pressure to keep folks from channel flipping. Can’t remember where I picked that up, but I have a few friends in Current TV so I’ll ask around and report back.

  2. Jill Golick

    Keep me posted on what you find out, but I’m sure you’re right. It’s got to be a competition issue. It is so easy to turn to something else, but the longer you hold the viewers, the deeper you pull them into the story and the more you make them care about your characters, the more likely you’ll be able to keep them around…maybe for the whole episode, maybe for the whole run. There’s a lot riding on those first few minutes.

  3. m

    Maybe there’s something I’m not aware of, but Quality of Mercy isn’t the Sports Night pilot.

    The episode “Pilot” though, is mostly a premise pilot except in that it introduces Jeremy as the new guy, putting him through his job interview, but that doesn’t even happen until act two.

    As far as the discussion of teasers, everything you said still holds up. They’re on the air, the control room banter. As most SN episodes seem to go.

  4. Jill Golick

    Yeah, you may be right about Sports Night, I remember an episode that introduces Jeremy. I’ll go back and look at the discs and see what I’ve done.

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