Monday, December 30, 2013

The Ultimate TV Pilot Checklist: Mad Men

Cocky Don Draper is an advertising copy writer in 1960 trying to find a way to sell cigarettes now that it’s well known that they cause cancer. Shy Peggy is his new secretary, getting trained in by worldly secretary Joan, who is secretly having an affair with Don’s boss Roger. Don must work with slimy account executive Pete, and his equally slimy sidekicks Harry, Ken and Paul. In the pilot, Don nails the pitch, asks his mistress to marry him, then goes back to his wife. Peggy finds out that she’s to be sexually harassed, gets birth control, then agrees to sleep with Pete.
The Pitch: Does this concept excite everyone who hears about it?
Does the concept satisfy the urges that get people to love and recommend this type of series?
 Not really.  It was unlike anything ever seen, and had to build an audience based almost solely on good reviews and word-of-mouth.
Does the series establish its own unique point of view on its setting?
 No.  We enter the story from a different angle every week.
Is there a central relationship we haven’t seen in a series before?
 Yes, competing ad men.  Secretaries as friends.
Does the ongoing concept of the series contain a fundamental (and possibly fun) ironic contradiction?
 Yes, we’re rooting for characters that we know are doomed, enjoy their transgression and also enjoy being horrified by them.
Does the concept meet the content expectations of one particular intended network, venue, or audience?
 Yes, it invented the template for AMC: smart, morally ambiguous, boldly shot, concerned with unintended consequences.
Even if the setting is unpleasant, is there something about this premise that is inherently appealing? (Something that will make the audience say, “Yes, I will be able to root for some aspect of this situation to recur episode after episode.”)
 Yes, we don’t like Don much, but we cheer for his opposition to Pete.  We root for Peggy more.  We’re not convinced that we’re going to like the ad writing, but we love the sex.
Series Fundamentals: Will this concept generate a strong ongoing series?
Is there one character (or sometimes two, in separate storylines) that the audience will choose to be their primary hero (although these heroes should probably be surrounded by an ensemble that can more than hold their own)?
 Two heroes: Don and Peggy
If this is a TV series, is the hero role strong enough to get an actor to abandon a movie career, come to work in TV for the first time, and sign a five-year contract before shooting the pilot? (And even if not for TV, is the hero role still that strong, simply for narrative purposes?)
 Maybe it could have, but Weiner did the near-impossible: he convinced a network to hire two virtually unknown American actors for the leads, who are both insanely good.
Is the show set in an unsafe space?
 Very much so: They prey on each other and there are none of our office workplace protections.
Is this a setting that will bring (or has brought) different economic classes together?
 Yes, the agency is an uncomfortable mix of poor secretaries, self-made-men and silver-spoon-men.
Will trouble walk in the door on a regular basis?
 Sort of: A different client every week, but that won’t always be the source of the trouble.  Sometimes the trouble will be as simple as some memory from the past that wells up to bother one of the characters.
Will the heroes be forced to engage in both physical and cerebral activity on a regular basis?
 Sort of.  They aren’t required to be physical, but their machismo keeps getting them up on their feet.
Are there big stakes that will persist episode after episode?
 Sort of.  We won’t always care about the pitch, some weeks we’re just worried about their souls, or their victims,
Will the ongoing situation produce goals or mini-goals that can be satisfactorily resolved on a regular basis?
 Yes: sell the pitch.
The Pilot: Will this pilot episode be marketable and generate word of mouth?
Does the pilot contain all of the entertainment value inherent in the premise (rather than just setting everything up and promising that the fun will start next week)?
Yes, lots of drinking and sex, money is made, morality is compromised, eras are contrasted, etc.
Does the pilot feature an image we haven’t seen before (that can be used to promote the show)?
 Yes, great clothes, smoking men, painted 1960s ads.
Is there something bold, weird, and never-before-seen about this concept and/or pilot? 
 Yes, the people are meaner, colder, and more lost, the historical irony is foregrounded, the period recreation is shockingly good.
Is there a “HOLY CRAP!” scene somewhere along the way in the pilot (to create word of mouth)?
 Sort of with Pete and the stripper, Peggy letting Pete in.
Does the pilot build up potential energy that will power future episodes (secrets that will come out, potential romances, etc.)?
 Yes, who is this wife?  Does she know about all the affairs?
Even if this is episodic, is there a major twist or escalation at the end (though sometimes this twist will only be new to, or only revealed to, the audience) that will kick future episodes up a notch?
 Yes, although it’s only a reveal to us: this promiscuous monster has a family.
Believe: Do we recognize the hero (or co-heroes) as human?
Does the hero have a moment of humanity early on? (A funny, or kind, or oddball, or out-of-character, or comically vain, or unique-but-universal “I thought I was the only one who did that!” moment?)
 Don, fair: stands up to busboy’s boss, funny: story about Old Gold weevils, Peggy: we identify with her first-day nervousness, empathize with her humiliation.  She doesn’t do much to make us like her, but really all she has to do is not be as horrible as everybody else (even the busboy!)
Does the hero have a well-defined public identity?
 Don: Yes, the best and coolest guy there, the lothario. Peggy: Yes, the innocent new girl.
Does that ironically contrast with a hidden interior self?
 Don: Yes, he’s miserable, wants to run away, re-marry. Peggy: Yes, she ambitious and open to sexual advances.
Does the hero have three rules he or she lives by (either stated or implied)?
 Don: Be the best, “live like there’s no tomorrow”, dominate others, Peggy: Be good, take whatever opportunity comes,  “I always try to be honest.” “I really am a very responsible person”
Does the hero have a consistent metaphor family (drawn from his or her job, background, or developmental state)?
Don: a mix of immaturity: “I don’t want to go to school tomorrow” “He doesn’t know I’m sleeping in here, does he?” and paternalism, “Sorry about Mr. Campbell, here.  He left his manners back at the fraternity house”, Peggy: Secretarial school
Does the hero have a default personality trait?
 Don: Arrogant, Peggy: Humble
Does the hero have a default argument tactic?
 Don: Let’s you talk, then lays down his judgment and leaves, Peggy: Avoids conflict
Care: Do we feel for the hero (or co-heroes)?
Does the hero have a great flaw that is the flip side of his or her great strength?
 Don: pathological liar, callous, Peggy: overly humble, bad taste in men
Does the hero feel that this flaw cannot be resolved until it’s time to abandon the world of the show?
 Yes, Don feels like has to be both for the job, and he’ll be proven right. Peggy feels the same, but she’ll be proven wrong)
Does the flaw resonate with the theme and/or setting of the show?
 Yes, this is a show about Don’s life, advertising’s lies, and America’s lies.
Invest: Can we trust the hero (or co-heroes) to tackle this challenge?
Does the hero have a great strength that is the flip side of his or her great flaw?
 Don: great writer, super-macho, Peggy: Honesty, ambition
Is the hero good at his or her job (or family role, if that’s his or her primary role)?
 Don: Yes, good at ad job, Peggy: Yes, determined to be good at secretary job
Is the hero surrounded by people who sorely lack his or her most valuable quality?
 Don: Yes, he’s more blunt, smarter and a better writer. Peggy: Yes, she much more likable than the other secretaries.
Is the hero curious?
 Don: Yes, talks to waiters, etc., Peggy: Yes, tries to dope the place out, etc.
Is the hero generally resourceful?
 Don: Somewhat, he will be in later episodes, but he’s floundering in this pilot, Peggy: Not really.
Does the hero use unique skills to solve problems (rather than doing what anybody else on the show would do)?
 Don: Yes, uses his experience, Peggy: uses the skills she just learned.
Powerful: Is each member of the ensemble able to hold his or her own?
If this is a network TV series, are there at least two more roles that are strong enough to get TV veterans to sign their own five-year contracts? (And even if not for TV, are the characters still that strong, simply for narrative purposes?)
 Yes, John Slattery signed on for the boss and Vincent Kartheiser signed on for Pete.
Are all of the other regular roles strong enough on the page in this first episode to attract great actors? (ditto)
 Yes.  The cast members are all excellent.
Does each member of the ensemble have a distinct and defensible point of view?
Is each character defined primarily by actions and attitudes, not by his or her backstory?
 Yes.  Only Pete’s backstory is important at the pilot, but it’s not introduced in his first scene.
Do all of the characters consciously and unconsciously prioritize their own wants, rather than the wants of others? (Good characters don’t serve good, evil characters don’t serve evil.)
 Oh yes, very, very much so.  Good and evil are not in this show’s vocabulary.
Do most of the main characters have some form of decision-making power? (And is the characters’ boss or bosses also part of the cast, so that major decisions will not be made by non-regulars?)
 Not enough: As so often happens, they didn’t want the main boss to be a character, but they had to add him (Robert Morse) and keep upping his role as the season went on.
Balanced: Do the members of the ensemble balance each other out?
Whether this is a premise or episodic pilot, is there one point-of-view who needs this world explained (who may or may not be the hero)?
 Yes: Peggy
Does it take some effort for the POV character to extract other characters’ backstories?
 Peggy isn’t asking any questions yet.  Certainly it will take mighty efforts for anyone to extract Don’s backstory.
Are the non-3-dimensional characters impartially polarized into head, heart and gut (or various forms of 2-way or 4-way polarization)?
 Don and Peggy are 2-way polarized: the cocky liar victimizer vs. the humble truth-teller victim.  Everyone else is gut at this point, but eventually the others will polarize.
Does each member of the ensemble have a distinct metaphor family (different from the hero’s, even if they’re in the same profession)?
Not all, not yet, but we get glimpses: Joan: Cosmo “those darling little ankles, I’d find a way to make them sing!” Pete: Money: “Adding money and education doesn't take the rude edge out of people.”
Does each member of the ensemble have a different default personality trait?
 Most of them, Pete: smarm, Roger: smugly jocular, Joan: smart-sex-kitten.  The other half the cast will be better defined later.
Does each member of the ensemble have a different default argument tactic? 
 Again, some: Pete: conspiratorial, Roger: blithe bullshitting, Joan: humiliation
Is there at least one prickly character who creates sparks whenever he or she appears?
Yes, Pete, for now.
PART 4: IS THE PILOT EPISODE A STRONG STAND-ALONE STORY AND GOOD TEMPLATE FOR THE ONGOING SERIES? (19/22)                                                                
Template: Does this match and/or establish the standard format of this type of series
Does the pilot have (or establish) the average length for its format?
 Mostly, it was written for HBO, but they were able to get it down to 48 minutes and then ran it with limited commercial interruptions.
If this is intended for a form of commercial media, does the pilot have the right number of commercial breaks for its intended venue?
 Mostly, they essentially skip the first break, making it a four act pilot, when it would later be a five-act show.
If this is intended for commercial TV, does every act end on a cliffhanger or escalation, especially the middle one (and, if not intended for commercial TV, does it still have escalations happening in roughly the same places, simply for narrative purposes)?
 Not really, the act breaks had to be shoe-horned in and they’re somewhat awkward and lacking in suspense.  In fact, they’re still awkward on the show today.  Weiner either won’t or can’t create traditional act breaks.
Does the pilot establish the general time frame for most upcoming episodes of this series?
 Yes, we cover 24 hours and Don and Peggy both take part in the final confrontation (over Pete stealing the research) and then they both end that day with shocking (to us) bedfellows.
Do all of the pilot’s storylines intercut believably within that time frame?
If this is a premise pilot, is the basic premise established by the midpoint, leaving time for a foreshortened typical episode story in the second half?
Yes, it’s only a premise pilot for Peggy, and her situation is quickly established.
Pilot Story Fundamentals: Does the pilot episode have a strong story?
Does the pilot provide at least one satisfactory stand-alone story (even if that story is just the accomplishment of a mini-goal)?
 Yes, Don makes the sale.
Is this episode’s plot simple enough to spend more time on character than plot?
 Yes, as always with this show, there’s on a thin wisp of plot.
Is the pilot’s challenge something that is not just hard for the hero to do (an obstacle) but hard for the hero to want to do (a conflict)?
 Don: no. It’s hard to do, but not hard to want to do.  Peggy: yes.  She’s a good girl but she finds out that she’s expected to prostitute herself.
First Half: Is the problem established in a way that reflects human nature?
Does the hero start out with a short-term goal for this episode?
 Don already has his main challenge: a cigarette pitch.  Peggy just wants to survive.
Does a troubling situation (episodic pilot) or major change in the status quo (premise pilot) develop near the beginning of the episode?
 Don has no ideas, gets roped into Mencken’s pitch as well. Peggy is in over her head.
Does the hero eventually commit to dealing with this situation personally?
 Yes, Don finds out Roger is counting on him on Lucky Strike, agrees to help on Menken’s, Peggy commits to following all of Joan’s shocking advice.
Do the hero’s efforts quickly lead to an unforeseen conflict with another person?
 Don finds it hard to work with Pete, Peggy gets humiliated by the doctor and others.
Does the hero try the easy way throughout the second quarter?
 Don creates a half-ass Mencken’s campaign, drinks before Lucky Strike meeting instead of coming up with anything, Peggy tries to make everybody happy.
Does this culminate in a major midpoint setback or escalation of the problem (whether or not there’s a commercial break)?
 Mencken’s meeting ends in disaster.  Peggy recoils from Pete.
Second Half: Is the mini-goal resolved as the ongoing trouble escalates?
Does the hero try the hard way from this point on?
 Don pulls Lucky out at the last minute, makes up with Rachel Menken, Peggy realizes she’ll have to put out, hits on Don.
By halfway through, are character decisions driving the plot, rather than external plot complications?
Are the stakes increased as the pace increases and the motivation escalates?
 Not really.  This show never really escalates.  It’s just as likely to ramp down.
Does a further setback force the hero to adopt a wider view of the problem?
 Peggy is rebuffed and criticized by Don, Don meets his match in Rachel Menken.
After that setback, does the hero finally commit to pursuing a corrected goal?
 Don goes home to his wife.  Peggy reconsiders her options.
Before the final quarter of the story begins, (if not long before) has the hero switched to being proactive, instead of reactive?
 Yes for Don, reaching out to Rachel, and then his family.  Peggy remains reactive, but she becomes more responsive.
After the climax, does either the hero, the point of view character or a guest star have a personal revelation and/or life change, possibly revealed through reversible behavior?
 Yes, Peggy engages in life-creation with Pete, who she rebuffed earlier in the day.  Don does what he should have done the night before: go home.
PART 5: IS EACH SCENE THE BEST IT CAN BE? (20/23) Peggy wakes up Don because Pete is there.  Pete hits on Peggy and they discuss the campaigns. 
The Set-Up: Does this scene begin with the essential elements it needs?
Were tense and/or hopeful (and usually false) expectations for this interaction established beforehand?
 Yes, we saw Don fall asleep in his office and wondered if there would be consequences, Peggy was warned a lot about Don.
Does the scene eliminate small talk and repeated beats by cutting out the beginning (or possibly even the middle)?
 Somewhat, when Peggy wakes Don up she’s already been interacting with Pete.
Is this an intimidating setting that keeps characters active?
 Somewhat for Don, your office isn’t a good place to sleep.  Moreso for Peggy and Pete, who are intimidated by Don.
Is one of the scene partners not planning to have this conversation (and quite possibly has something better to do)?
 Yes, she has to wake Don up, and he’d rather stay asleep.
Is there at least one non-plot element complicating the scene?
 Not really.
Does the scene establish its own mini-ticking-clock (if only through subconscious anticipation)?
 Yes, “it’s time for your 11 o’clock meeting, Mr. Draper.
The Conflict: Do the conflicts play out in a lively manner?
Does this scene both advance the plot and reveal character?
 It’s both equally.
Are one or more characters in the scene emotionally affected by this interaction or action as the scene progresses?
Yes, she’s humiliated.
Does the audience have (or develop) a rooting interest in this scene (which may sometimes shift)?
 Yes, we’re on Peggy’s side at first, as our POV character, then we switch to Don as she wilts and he stands up for her.
Are two agendas genuinely clashing (rather than merely two personalities)?
 Yes, Pete wants Peggy, Don wants Pete to shut up.
Does the scene have both a surface conflict and a suppressed conflict (one of which is the primary conflict in this scene)?
 Surface conflict: Pete wants to sleep with Don’s secretary, suppressed: Pete wants Don’s job.
Is the suppressed conflict (which may or may not come to the surface) implied through subtext (and/or called out by the other character)?
 Yes, Peggy as the job: runs his eyes up her body, says “I’m working my way up.” He’s referring to her body and his hoped-for career.  It’s really Don he’s leering at.
Are the characters cagy (or in denial) about their own feelings?
 Peggy clams up and takes it, but Don and Pete are both pretty direct.
Do characters use verbal tricks and traps to get what they want, not just direct confrontation?
 Not really, they’re pretty blunt.
Is there re-blocking, including literal push and pull between the scene partners (often resulting in just one touch)?
 Yes, lots. Peggy is intimidated by him, but she has to wake him up by touching him before he ever looks at her.
Are objects given or taken, representing larger values?
 Peggy gives him a water and two aspirin, turning her into his mom, which he very much needs.
If this is a big scene, is it broken down into a series of mini-goals?
 Yes: Peggy wants to wake Don up, Don wants not to get caught sleeping, Pete wants to fetch Don, Pete wants to hit on Peggy.
The Outcome: Does this scene change the story going forward?
As a result of this scene, does at least one of the scene partners end up doing something that he or she didn’t intend to do when the scene began?
 Don wakes up and heads to the meeting, Pete’s pursuit of Peggy is shut down for now.
Does the outcome of the scene ironically reverse (and/or ironically fulfill) the original intention?
 Not really.
Are previously-asked questions answered?
 Yes, we finds out about Peggy’s past.
Are new questions posed that will be left unanswered for now?
 Yes, will Pete succeed with Peggy?
Is the audience left with a growing hope and/or fear for what might happen next? (Not just in the next scene, but generally)
We’re worried for Peggy, with good reason.
Does the scene cut out early, on a question (possibly to be answered instantly by the circumstances of the next scene)?
 It cuts out early on Don’s apology to Peggy
Empathetic: Is the dialogue true to human nature?
Does the writing demonstrate empathy for all of the characters?
 Not really yet.  Harry, Ken and Paul are all quite vague and unpleasant at this point.
Does each of the characters, including the hero, have a limited perspective?
Extremely so.
Are the characters resistant to openly admitting their feelings (to others and even to themselves)?
 Very much so.
Do the characters avoid saying things they wouldn’t say?
 Very much so.  Nobody stands up for themselves and says “that’s not right!”  They all know the deal.
Do the characters listen poorly?
 Very much so.
Do the characters interrupt each other more often than not?
Specific: Is the dialogue specific to this world and each personality?
Does the dialogue capture the culturally-specific syntax of the characters (without necessarily attempting to replicate non-standard pronunciation)?
Does the dialogue capture the jargon of the profession and/or setting?
 Very much so.
Does the dialogue capture the tradecraft of the profession being portrayed?
 Very much so.
Heightened: Is the dialogue more pointed and dynamic than real talk?
Is the dialogue more concise than real talk?
 Yes.  Everything is very pithy.
Does the dialogue have more personality than real talk?
 Yes. Don points at his drink and says to the waiter: “Do this again.”
Is there a minimum of commas in the dialogue (the lines are not prefaced with Yes, No, Well, Look, or the other character’s name)?
 Yes, very few names are spoken.
Do non-professor characters speak without dependent clauses, conditionals, or parallel construction?
 The characters are writers so they can get away with it a little bit: I can’t deny that this is a great line: “Besides, you have to let them know what kind of guy you are. Then they'll know what kind of girl to be.”
Is there one gutpunch scene, where the subtext falls away and the characters really lay into each other?
 Somewhat: the drink scene with Don and Rachel: she breaks through, but he only flinches for a second.
Genre and Mood: Does the series tap into pre-established expectations?
Does the series fit within one genre (or compatible sub-genres)?
 Not really.  It’s a sometimes uncomfortable mix of drama, comedy, procedural, soap, etc. 
Are unrealistic genre-specific elements a big metaphor for a more common experience (not how life really is, but how life really feels)?
 Somewhat: we’ll eventually come to see that it’s a metaphor for American re-creation, and our ability to create fake narratives that overpower our reality.
Separate from the genre, does the pilot establish an overall mood for the series?
 Yes: cool-but in a hostile way, smart, sexy,
If there are multiple storylines, do they establish the spectrum of moods available within that overall mood?
 Yes: the Mencken’s storyline is more comic, at least for Don, and the cigarette storyline is more serious.  Peggy also has the serious (the doctor) and the comic (the switchboard)
Is there a moment early on that establishes the type and level of jeopardy?
 Yes, the super-cool opening club scene, Peggy in the elevator.
Framing: Does the pilot set, reset, upset and ultimately exceed its own expectations?
Are there framing devices (flashforwards, framing sequences and/or first person narration) to set the mood, pose a dramatic question, and/or pose ongoing questions?
 The closest thing we get is the title sequence, which implies that someone will jump out of a window.  I don’t know if that sequence predates the episode, but it seems to foreshadow a suicide, and has ever since, even now that an actual suicide has come and gone.   Every shot of the building in this episode is looking straight down off a ledge or straight up at the widows.  This saved money because it meant they didn’t have to dress the street, but it also feels like a call-back to the suicidal title sequence.
Is there a dramatic question posed early on, which will establish in the audience’s mind which moment will mark the end of the pilot? 
 For Don, we start with the question of what the pitch will be.  For Peggy, Harry says of her: “She might be assigned to one of us.” Which is an ironic dramatic question.
Does foreshadowing create anticipation and suspense (and refocus the audience’s attention on what’s important)?
 Don talks about the danger of himself getting fired, not of losing the account, or hurting the firm, etc.
Are set-up and pay-off used to dazzle the audience, distracting attention from plot contrivances?
 Don’s extreme irresponsibility is set up enough that we’re not surprised that he walks into the meeting with nothing, which is a somewhat dubious plot contrivance.
Is the dramatic question of the pilot episode’s plot answered near the end of the story?
 Yes, we find out who Peggy is really “assigned” to: Pete.
Pervasive: Is the theme interwoven into many aspects of the show?
Does the ensemble as a whole have a unique philosophy about how to fill their role (and competition from an allied force with a different philosophy)?
 Yes, they’re the best and their customer is never right.  We don’t meet their competition yet, but we sense that they’re the alpha dogs.
Does the pilot have a statement of philosophy and/or theme, usually either at the beginning or ¾ of the way in. (Sometimes this will be the ensemble’s statement of philosophy, sometimes this merely be the implied theme of the series itself.)
 Don gives two angry statements of philosophy in the third quarter: “we sell happiness” and “love was made up by guys like me to sell nylons”, but the first scene also counts: when the black waiter admits that he wouldn’t change (cigarette brands) even if his world ceased to exist, which is Don’s true s.o.p.
Can the show’s overall ongoing theme be stated in the form of a classic good vs. good (or evil vs. evil) dilemma?
 Good vs. good: happiness vs. honesty, pride vs. ambition, pleasure vs. responsibility
Throughout the pilot, do the characters have to choose between goods, or between evils, instead of choosing between good and evil?
 Yes. Don has to choose between doing crappy work and getting fired.  Peggy has to choose between losing her job and getting pregnant.
Are the storylines in the pilot thematically linked (preferably in an indirect, subtle way)?
 Yes, they’re both about selling your soul.
Are small details throughout the pilot tied into the theme?
 Very much so.  Don orders an “old-fashioned” in the first scene, for instance.  Every prop and piece of clothing on this show is heavy with meaning.
Will the heroes grapple with new moral gray areas in each episode?
 Yes, sell cigarettes even though they’re poison?  More similar questions will follow.
Grounded: Do the stakes ring true to the world of the audience?
Does the series’ set-up reflect the way the world works?
 Yes, everything is astutely observed.
Does the series have authentic things to say about this type of setting?
 Very much so.  It’s all about the fascinating details of this lost world.
Does the ongoing concept include twinges of real life national pain?
 Very much so: How did we get here?  Have our social transformations been worth the pain we’ve been through?  For baby-boomers: Why were our parents so distant and unhappy?
Are these issues presented in a way that avoids moral hypocrisy?
Do all of the actions in the pilot have real consequences?
 Yes, though we don’t see all of those consequences in this episode.
Untidy: Is the dilemma ultimately irresolvable?
Do the characters refuse (or fail) to synthesize the meaning of the pilot episode’s story, forcing the audience to do that?
 Yes, very much so.  Nobody ever has any idea what it all means on this show.
Does the end of the pilot leave the thematic dilemma wide open and irresolvable?
Total Score: 114/132

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