Thursday, September 29, 2011

A Tale of Two Pilots

So I watched two CBS pilots this week and they made for a great lesson in the difference between having a great concept and having a great execution.

The fall pilot I was most looking forward to was “Person of Interest.” It was created by Jonathan Nolan, (co-author of most of his brother Chris’s movies), it co-stars the always brilliant Michael Emerson (whom I’ve been a fan of since “The Practice”, for which he won an Emmy long before he worked his magic on “Lost”) and Jim Caviezel (who I hadn’t seen much of, but was good in The Thin Red Line)

More importantly, it had a great premise: A reclusive billionaire, tapping into cameras all over the city, develops a algorithm that can predict patterns of behavior, identifying people who will become involved in violent crimes before those crimes happen, so he recruits a former CIA agent to help him intervene. Creepy and fun!

But it may have been the worse pilot I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen a lot of terrible pilots). Not one scene, not one line of dialogue worked. It was a 100% disaster. Emerson’s fine, but all he does is deliver exposition. He’s a plot device, not a character. Caveizel, on the other hand, is absolutely extraordinary: so sullen, so lifeless, so bland… was he whacked out on painkillers when they made this? Did he refuse to star until they put a gun to his head, then stumbled through it under duress? Baffling.

But it hardly matters, given the quality of the script. Yes, Caviezel knows who will be involved in crimes, but he doesn’t intervene proactively. Instead, he follows the person around, waits for the crime to happen, then shoots the evildoers dead and dumps their bodies in the meadowlands. That’s his brilliant modus operandi.

But surely the story will slowly expand and become more interesting, right? Not if they can help it: Emerson fully explains the origin and methodology of his process, then explicitly says, over and over throughout the pilot, that this same procedure will be repeated, in exactly the same way, week after week. He even introduces the pilot’s person of interest by saying: “This week I’m focused on her.” Get it, folks at home? We’re promising that there will be a new, self-contained case every week! No loose ends, we promise! Ugh.If “Person of Interest” showed what happens when you have a great premise with terrible execution, then “A Gifted Man” shows what happens when you have a terrible premise with great execution. Here’s the idea: an asshole neurosurgeon gets weekly visits from the sweet-natured ghost of his ex-wife, who tries to teach him to be a better person. Ouch! Painful!

But this is the best pilot of the year so far. Everybody involved, creator Suzannah Grant, director Jonathan Demme, and stars Patrick Wilson and Jennifer Ehle, are movie people who are new to network TV and haven’t grown complacent about their new medium yet. The characters are vivid and believable. The story is compelling and thought-provoking. The emotions are hard-earned and raw.

Why did one pilot turn out so well and the other so badly? When I was watching “Person of Interest”, I kept complaining to Betsy that it was too “CBS-y”. In other words: the dialogue was too on-the-nose, the emotional moments lacked subtext, and it was too much of a procedural. I got the distinct impression that the original script might have been interesting, but they made the mistake of selling it to CBS, who buried them in notes that utterly violated the premise until the whole thing became a flavorless lump.

I’ve gotten pretty good at singling out which dialogue was written by the creator and which lines were inserted by the network execs (“This week I’m focused on her”), but “A Gifted Man” didn’t seem to have any of those lines.* Why not? Because they sold their pilot to the right network. The concept was so purely-CBS that the network was able to simply trust the very talented creators to execute it as they saw fit. This round peg slid so smoothly into its round hole that no hammering was necessary, so it never got bent out of shape.

* Okay, just one, Wilson is talking to a tennis pro and says something like “Anyone who feels the need to be the best, whether they’re a tennis pro or a surgeon, knows….” That insert about the surgeon was almost certainly added by a network exec who was afraid that we wouldn’t know he was also talking about himself. Still, most pilot have about twenty of those clunky insertions.


j.s. said...

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that I really disagree about PERSON OF INTEREST.

You've written before that shows like CSI and NCIS lack dramatic irony. Whoever said they aspired to it in the first place?

It seems like you want P.O.I. to be more like a serious, serialized cable drama, something I don't think anybody (creator Jonathan Nolan, producer J.J. Abrams, CBS itself) thought they were making.

And even though the show clearly announces its procedural nature, I don't think that's all it has going for it. There is strong potential built into the concept for an X-Files like mythology arc throughout the first season and the series as a whole. These stories would be about the backstories of both protagonists, how the system was built, who else has the technology now, and the ever-expanding reach of what the Washington Post has called Top Secret America.

And for a mere CBS-y procedural, really, this show already has the ability to say more about our present paranoid national security state than anything else I've seen from popular genre fiction in any medium since 9-11.

Not to mention the freshness at the heart of the genre concept: To have a detective/mystery/thriller story which will always play out more like a puzzle story, because on any given episode we'll never know who's playing what part -- good guy, bad guy, etc. -- until it's nearly too late.

I've heard that this show tested better than any pilot in recent CBS history. And for once I can agree with whatever everyday people were pressing the "like" button throughout their focus groups.

Matt Bird said...

Eh... Everything you're saying is exactly what I thought when I heard about the concept, but I didn't see any of that moral ambiguity in the actual pilot.

And the concept that the machine spits out a serial number of someone who might a victim or might be a victimizer really guts the "stop the crimes before they happen" aspect. Each week, won't Caviezel just have to follow the p.o.i. around until something happens?

Here's a more interesting version: the computer works by means of pattern recognition, but sometimes it spots very subtle patterns that nobody understands: three random newspaper articles that seem to have nothing in common, for instance, so the government just throws away those results. Our guys pick up those scraps and try to figure out the connection before something goes wrong. That would give them something to actually investigate and come with different theories about.

As it is now, it feels like the Twilight Zone if Rod Serling stepped into frame and shot the bad guy at the end. "Ladies and gentlemen, let's watch this week's person and see what happens (then I'll step in and shoot and/or save them.)"

j.s. said...

I agree that the pilot wasn't all it should be. If there was any excessive network influence it felt more to me like they demanded that the pilot be more like a typical standalone episode of the show than anything relating to the strong potential themes inherent in the concept -- paranoia, surveillance, privacy, pre-crime/predestination.

The big mistake was making that first case too generic. It would even have been more interesting if the first case was somehow more about the Caviezel character getting caught up in a more complex crime before he joins the team.

And, no, Caviezel won't always have to wait for someone to commit a crime because he's not an officer of the law. I can imagine cases where he takes it upon himself to intervene earlier, even maybe to save people from themselves.

Your reference to pattern recognition and potential anomalies/mistakes in the system is still very much a possibility for the show. There could be all sorts of twists to the names of the people the system spits out and the reasons it names them.

The concept is so brilliant and wide-open. It's so much closer to what's actually presently possible than to Philip K. Dick. It's a very small leap from P.O.I.'s system to what's known publicaly about U.S. capabilities in data mining, social network/link analysis and identifying/tagging/tracking technology that permitted operations like the Bin Laden raid and the one that killed al-Awlaki today.

It's been a long dry spell for decent genre thrillers on TV. And I vastly prefer what I've seen so far from P.O.I. over a piece of pretentious junk like AMC's canceled RUBICON, which was supposedly so self-consciously styled after all those great '70s films like THE CONVERSATION and ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN.

Even with the somewhat disappointing pilot, P.O.I. is CBS' most interesting procedural since THE UNIT.

lthadeo said...

I like j.s.'s description of the show. I wish that was the show I've watched these past 2 weeks.

This blog does a great job focusing on what makes a story work or not (the story structures that will hold it up) and that's great theory - but diagnosing both these shows underlines the harsh reality: your scripts awfulness or awesomeness won't matter if the actor and director don't execute. They could have received 100 notes ("say it more like Ben Linus", "try to act more like Jesus Christ, Crimefighter") and none of them would have been what was most wrong here:

Caviezel is horrible.

Alternatively wooden and sleepy< I've never been more convinced that an actor wanted to walk of set in every scene. In a part that cries out for Jason Bourne and we got Jason Bored. (If this was Whitney, I'd pause to wait for laughter from the "live studio audience".)

And its not just CBS - on any network this pilot seems like a fake high concept show to me. They take their charge as making shows for the millions, so despite any high falutin' possibilities, it reads like what it is: expensive mash-up of "Numbers" (complete with awful graphics transitions) with "Hack" or "The Equalizer." But any of those shows has a more invested cast, which means the writer's voice may not matter.

"A Gifted Man" has the opposite problem for me. I'm still not sure if this will be a good show or just a good pilot. Demme's direction was so good and Wilson was so sharp, a lot of hokey turns paid off. I'm curious to see how long that show can avoid being the Ghost Whisperer 2.0 - because "make me a better person" isn't a sharp season long arc.

Also - for the record - I remain steadfast that the worst pilot this fall is the Playboy Club. At least an ineffectual procedural knows what it is. A drama that mashes together soap opera mobsters, showgirls, and American Dreams is too dreadful to have an equal.

Anonymous said...

I've waiting to see what J. J. Abrams have done with Alcatraz, (I get a bad vibe on this one). And yeah, Jim Caviezel is the anti-actor. Steven Seagal looks like Brando comparing with him.

Matt Bird said...

I watched all the trailers for the upcoming shows last spring but somehow, over the summer, I combined Person of Interest and Alcatraz into one show in my mind. I kept watching POI thinking, isn't Hurley supposed to be in this? And what does all this have to do with Alcatraz? Finally I remembered that was a totally different show.

Anonymous said...

Holy cow did AGM go off the deep end this week. A totally different show.

Anonymous said...

So Hurley didn't leave the island, right?

Oh, dude!


Greg Hatcher said...

I really wanted to use the first act of the pilot for A GIFTED MAN in my writing class as a demo. I was awed at the way they got SO MUCH information in there without hardly any of that exposition-y dialogue you are pointing out in PERSON OF INTEREST. By the time A GIFTED MAN hit the first commercial you knew exactly who everybody was and what the doctor was supposed to learn by the end of the show, but it was also very much up in the air what would happen next. I adored it.

I think it fell off a little the second week, but lots of shows do.

Matt Bird said...

Hey there, Greg Hatcher, I didn't know you read my blog! Y'all should click on Greg's name to read his excellent musings on book collecting, '70s pop culture, comics, pulps, teaching art, etc...

And yeah, that pilot was a masterpiece of smooth exposition.

Greg Hatcher said...

Shucks, not only do I read the blog, Matt, I tell my Young Authors email list to read "Storyteller's Rulebook." It's good stuff.