Burn Notice (BN) made me want to go back and look at my notes on the Veronica Mars (VM) pilot written by series creator Rob Thomas. I think I’ve broken down the show at least twice and I’ve certainly watched many times. I’ve also read the script which is quite different that the produced episode and avaible on Rob Thomas’s website.
The episode of Veronica Mars I’m referring to in this post is the extended pilot that comes on the DVD of the first season. Like the broadcast version of the first episode of BN, it runs longer than a normal hour.
Compared to Burn Notice
There’s a lot of similarities between the shows these pilots set up. Most importantly, they are both shows that will feature a complete mystery every week and will tantalize you with some shocking detail about a larger season long mystery. Both shows a lot of narration and neither takes itself too seriously.
Both pilots are premise pilots.
But the screenwriters went about setting up their formats very differently. BN set up the series premise in the teaser and didn’t get to the weekly mystery B-story till mid-way through the second act. VM gets to the weekly mystery right off the bat and gives us ever so teensy a clue about the premise.
Whereas I didn’t dare give you the beat count for BN because my count was so ridiculously large that I decided it was better to ignore it. I’d like to stick with the theory that an hour has somewhere between 40 and 45 beats and ignore any sample that contradicts me. (You should know that in case you think I’m a reliable source on anything, because I’m not.)
I got 44 beats for VM. I broke it down into five story lines. Four of them are arcing lines that will play out over the season and one is the weekly mystery.
(Here’s the convention I’m using for lettering the storylines in a premise plot. The A-story is always the larger arcing storyline (A for Arc, get it?). Chances are, when you’re writing an episode of the series further on down the season, the weekly mystery will be the A-story and the arcing longer story will drop down in importance to a B- or a C-. But with a premise pilot, the arc is usually the most important story you’re telling.
I will designate the weekly or episode story — the one that’s going to give this episode it’s satisfying ending — the B-story.
The tough thing for today’s purposes is that VM had more than one arcing story. So for today, those other stories are going to be C, D and E. )
The five story lines:
A. Who killed Lily Kane? – 16 beats
B. Weevil’s war on Wallace. – 16 beats
C. Who raped Veronica Mars? – 2 beats
D. Why did Duncan Kane dump Veronica? – beats
E. Where’s Mom? – 2 beats
Char. Character moments – 6 beats
Whether C through E are really stories or mere runners or really part of the A-story is debatable, but that’s how I did it.
The episode uses a fair amount of flashback. I have indicated in brackets (fb) where it occurs. (The whole first and half the second act are actually one long flashback from the teaser, but I am not including that in my FB designation.)
Here’s my breakdown:
A, Char, B
(more after the video of the teaser)….
ACT ONE – 12 beats:
B, Char, Char, D (fb), B (fb), B, Char (fb), Char, A, B, A, A (fb)
ACT TWO – 9 beats
A, B, A (fb), A, A (fb), A, B, C (fb), B
ACT THREE – 12 beats
E, E (fb), B, B, A, Char, A, B, B, B, B, A
A, B, C (fb), B, B, B, Char, B, Char, B
There are lots of clustered story beats, particularly when it comes to the B-story.
Act One: Lots of character up front with a focus on the B-story and a burst of A at the end.
The nine beat second act is short and almost entirely devoted to the A-story, with just two little B beats to keep it alive.
Act Three is the same length as One and is mostly B-story with a little A sprinkled through. The two E beats at the beginning are very strong character moments that set up the story about Veronica’s missing mother (Logan teases Veronica and Duncan stops him and a flashback to mom leaving).
Act Four has a lot of B with a couple of character beats interspersed and A beats book ending the act.
Like BN, the act curtains aren’t moments of extraordinarily high stakes:
The act break for the Teaser comes after Veronica’s car is surrounded by a not-that-tough-looking motorcycle gang. Weevil (who we’re just meeting, remember and could, possibly be evil) asks “trouble, miss?”
The first act curtains with Veronica’s memory of her dad trying to send Celeste Kane’s husband to jail.
The second act ends with Jake coming out of the Camelot Motel as Veronica snaps pictures.
The third act is the most dramatic of them all: Veronica discovers that the car from outside the Camelot Motel is registered to her mother.
And then the big moment of jeopardy at the end of the show that is designed to pull you back next week: Veronica arrives back at the motel room, but her mother isn’t there.
Why It Works
Of course what happens between the curtains — a missing mother, a dead cheerleader, a rape — is so juicy, you don’t need the high stakes curtains.
Plus Rob has taken the time to build a great cast of characters that are well drawn from word go, especially the title character and he devotes plenty of episode time to develop them and let you get to know them.