This is a fundamental question for any pilot: Does your pilot show the origin of this situation (called a “premise pilot”) or are we already in the middle of it, making this a rather typical episode (informally referred to a “center cut” pilot, as in “sliced from the middle of the loaf”)?
You might think that all serialized shows would begin with a “premise” pilot while episodic show wouldn’t, but it doesn’t quite work out that way. “The West Wing” was highly serialized but, rather than start out with the inauguration, we just have a normal day at the office. “Castle” on the other hand, is mostly episodic, but it starts with the formation of this team. Likewise on the comedy side: “Cheers” is mostly episodic but starts with Diane’s arrival. “Entourage” is serialized but starts on a pretty typical day for the boys.
There are three types of premise pilots:
- The whole situation begins (“The Wire”, “The Walking Dead”, “My Name is Earl”)
- Someone new joins the pre-existing team. (The Peggy storyline in “Mad Men”, “The Unit”, “Mary Tyler Moore”)
- The old team gets a new assignment that changes their direction (“The Killing”, Brody comes home in “Homeland”, The end of the Gallic Wars in “Rome”, “TGS” gets reformatted in “30 Rock”)
The temptation, of course, is to write a premise pilot, since it makes the writer’s work a lot easier. Rather than catch the reader/viewer up on the fly, you get to have a character stand around gawking and asking, “what’s that?”
One problem is that newbie characters can’t carry much of the drama, because they don’t have decision-making power. As I pointed out in this piece, one clever “in between” solution to this problem was on “CSI” where they introduced a new character, had her ask about everything, and then killed her off at the end of the pilot.
But the other problem with many premise pilots is that annoying question that TV execs love to ask and no pilot writer wants to hear: “What happens in episode five?” Or sometimes even, “What’s the first episode of season three?” If you’ve written a center-cut episode, the answer is obvious: the same stuff. In fact this might be the first episode of season three, for all they know.
With some premise pilots, this is a much harder question to answer. Especially recently, we’ve had a lot of shows that seemed unlikely to sustain themselves for multiple seasons. When done right, like on “Homeland”, this can actually be thrilling, creating a electrifying feeling of fly-by-the-seat-of-their-pants unpredictability. When done poorly, on shows like “The Nine” or “Day Break”, it’s massively annoying.
But now we’re running into a problem, because we’re starting to get into the difference between what’s good for an actual pilot and what’s good for a spec pilot… Remember what we said the first day? Spec pilots are nutty. Tomorrow we’ll look into ways to use that nuttiness to your advantage…