Sunday, March 09, 2014

The Ultimate TV Pilot Checklist: How I Met Your Mother

In the year 2030, an unseen narrator named Ted tells his teen kids about how he met their mother. Cut to 2005, where lovelorn architect Ted helps his happy roommate Marshall propose to snarky Lily, and vows to get married himself. He hits a singles bar with his caddish friend Barney, who flings him at Robin, a commitment-phobic newscaster. Ted gets a date with her, but ruins it by saying he loves her. With his friends’ help, he gets another chance with her at the end.
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?
 Yes, it’s both funny and romantic.
Does the series establish its own unique point of view on its setting?
 Very much so: Ted is telling his kids this story in the future.
Is there a central relationship we haven’t seen in a series before?
 Yes, a guy who wants commitment with a girl who doesn’t.
Does the ongoing concept of the series contain a fundamental (and possibly fun) ironic contradiction?
 Yes, a romantic comedy in which the man wants marriage and the woman just wants sex.
Does the concept meet the content expectations of one particular intended network, venue, or audience?
 Like “Cheers” this is another rare example of successful re-branding, CBS wanted to break their mold and make an NBC-style sitcom, and they succeeded. So yes, but not the network it ended up at.
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, all the characters and their goals are very appealing in the pilot, even Barney: We don’t approve of his goals, but we approve of his dedication to his craft.
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)?
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?)
 No: they had to cast a total unknown and he wound up being the weakest performer on the show.  This is probably because of the character’s weakness, which actors are notoriously reluctant to play.  A-list actors  refuse to play “the bitch role” and that very much describes Ted.  This is a shame, because it’s actually a well-written role, and a better actor (someone like Jake Johnson, of “The New Girl”), could have kicked this show up a notch.
Is the show set in an unsafe space?
 Somewhat, Ted now feels insecure both at home, because his roommate is engaged and he isn’t, and at the bar, because it’s a singles bar and he sucks at being single.
Is this a setting that will bring (or has brought) different economic classes together?
 Yes: Ted’s best-friends include a corporate executive and a kindergarten teacher.
Will trouble walk in the door on a regular basis?
 Somewhat: new women to hit on enter the bar constantly.  Barney will issue new “challenges” every week.
Will the heroes be forced to engage in both physical and cerebral activity on a regular basis?
 Not forced to, no, but they will choose to.  These characters run around town more than on any other three-camera show.
Are there big stakes that will persist episode after episode?
 Yes, will we meet the mother?
Will the ongoing situation produce goals or mini-goals that can be satisfactorily resolved on a regular basis?
 Somewhat, the show is nominally focused on one quest, but they can’t possibly break that quest down into enough mini-goals to fill 200+ episodes, so the nominal situation will have be ignored often.
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)?
Does the pilot feature an image we haven’t seen before (that can be used to promote the show)?
 Yes, the blue French horn.  A guy peacocking in a suit in a crowd where a suit doesn’t belong.
Is there something bold, weird, and never-before-seen about this concept and/or pilot? 
 Yes, the opening titles saying that it’s 2030, the whole premise, the many jump cuts and flashbacks.
Is there a “HOLY CRAP!” scene somewhere along the way in the pilot (to create word of mouth)?
 Sort of, when he says “I love you” on the first date, it was pretty startling, at the time, to see that kind of guy on TV.
Does the pilot build up potential energy that will power future episodes (secrets that will come out, potential romances, etc.)?
 Yes, will Ted ever get to kiss Robin?  Who will be the mother?  Is Marshall ready for marriage?
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, we find out that Robin is not really the mom.
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?)
 Somewhat.  We feel pity for him: he plans a proposal but it’s for someone else, his life plan could be called comically vain, I suppose.  We really love him when he hits on Robin by letter her throw her drink in his face to impress her friends.
Does the hero have a well-defined public identity?
 Yes, the sad-sack single guy.
Does that ironically contrast with a hidden interior self?
 Not really, they read him like a book.
Does the hero have three rules he or she lives by (either stated or implied)?
 Yes, he has a whole list of rules about love that he recites.
Does the hero have a consistent metaphor family (drawn from his or her job, background, or developmental state)?
 Somewhat, based on his immature naiveté, he’s always making optimistic, elaborate plans that can’t possibly work.
Does the hero have a default personality trait?
 Yes, romantic.
Does the hero have a default argument tactic?
 Yes, appealing to abstract theories, then stubbornly insisting on them in the face of evidence to the contrary.
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?
 Yes, he’s naïve and needy.
Does the hero feel that this flaw cannot be resolved until it’s time to abandon the world of the show?
 Hmm, he wants to abandon Barney’s world and join Marshall and Lily’s world, but the irony is that the only way to one seems to be through the other.
Does the flaw resonate with the theme and/or setting of the show?
 Ironically, yes: Ted’s romanticism represents a general reversal of gender expectations in singles bars.
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?
 Yes, he’s forthright and romantic.
Is the hero good at his or her job (or family role, if that’s his or her primary role)?
 It depends on how you define his primary role: he’s a successful architect, and he’s a good friend, but he’s a bad dater.
Is the hero surrounded by people who sorely lack his or her most valuable quality?
 Not really, unless you define his most valuable quality as “moderation”: he forms the middle of a spectrum between commitment (Marshall and Lily) and commitment-phobia (Barney and Robin)
Is the hero curious?
 No, not really.
Is the hero generally resourceful?
 Somewhat.  He steals the horn.
Does the hero use unique skills to solve problems (rather than doing what anybody else on the show would do)?
 Somewhat, he relies on his romantic instincts to steal the horn, but they quickly lead him wrong.  He’s pretty hapless.
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: three great TV vets signed up and would go on to dominate the show: Neil Patrick Harris, Alyson Hannigan and Jason Segal. (Four if you count Bob Saget as the narrator)
Are all of the other regular roles strong enough on the page in this first episode to attract great actors? (ditto)
 The one remaining role, Robin, did not attract a very strong actress.  She’s good but not great.
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, very much so.
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.)
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?)
 Yes, none of them seem to have any bosses.
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: the kids in the future.
Does it take some effort for the POV character to extract other characters’ backstories?
 Yes, the kids are sort-of our POV characters and they’re certainly getting very slow answers to their questions.
Are the non-3-dimensional characters impartially polarized into head, heart and gut (or various forms of 2-way or 4-way polarization)?
 The polarization is somewhat odd: Ted is head and heart, no gut, Marshall is heart, no gut or head, Lily is all three, Barney and Robin are crotch.  This would all shift around over the years.
Does each member of the ensemble have a distinct metaphor family (different from the hero’s, even if they’re in the same profession)?
 Nor really, Barney clearly has one: frat, but the others are a little indistinct at this point, though they’ll clear up later. (Marshall: Minnesota / Lawyer, Robin: Canada, Lily: Hip hop, for some reason)
Does each member of the ensemble have a different default personality trait?
 Yes. Marshall: wimpy, Lily: take charge, Robin: snarky, Barney: alpha male
Does each member of the ensemble have a different default argument tactic? 
 Yes: Marshall: gives in, Lily: brooking no opposition, Robin: skepticism, Barney: Not listening
Is there at least one prickly character who creates sparks whenever he or she appears?
PART 4: IS THE PILOT EPISODE A STRONG STAND-ALONE STORY AND GOOD TEMPLATE FOR THE ONGOING SERIES? (22/22)                                                                
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?
If this is intended for a form of commercial media, does the pilot have the right number of commercial breaks for its intended venue?
 Hmm, there are only two here.  I suspect that they broke off the tag to form another one when it aired.
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)?
 Yes: 1st: he spots Robin and implies in the VO that she’s the mom, 2nd: Ted steals the horn.
Does the pilot establish the general time frame for most upcoming episodes of this series?
  It establishes that this show will jump around in time. 
Do all of the pilot’s storylines intercut believably within that time frame?
 Yes, Marshall and Lily finally drink their champagne at the same time that Ted gets rejected.
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, he’s met Robin and they’re off.
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)?
Is this episode’s plot simple enough to spend more time on character than plot?
 Somewhat.  The plot is fairly complicated.
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)?
 Yes, he has to feign interest in casual sex when he’s really obsessed with getting married.
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?
 Ted wants to stage-manage Marshall’s proposal.
Does a troubling situation (episodic pilot) or major change in the status quo (premise pilot) develop near the beginning of the episode?
 Ted realizes that he wants to get married too.
Does the hero eventually commit to dealing with this situation personally?
 At first he just lets Barney introduce him to two girls, but then he proactively tries again with one of them.
Do the hero’s efforts quickly lead to an unforeseen conflict with another person?
 The first one’s taken.
Does the hero try the easy way throughout the second quarter?
 Barney tries again and introduces Ted to Robin, and things seem to go well.
Does this culminate in a major midpoint setback or escalation of the problem (whether or not there’s a commercial break)?
 He fails to get a kiss at the end of their date.
Second Half: Is the mini-goal resolved as the ongoing trouble escalates?
Does the hero try the hard way from this point on?
 Yes, he decides to surprise her at home with the French horn.
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?
 Yes, he ups the stakes by showing up at her door.
Does a further setback force the hero to adopt a wider view of the problem?
 Yes, he accidentally says that he loves her.
After that setback, does the hero finally commit to pursuing a corrected goal?
 Yes, he decides to stop pretending that he doesn’t want to get married.
Before the final quarter of the story begins, (if not long before) has the hero switched to being proactive, instead of reactive?
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, he realizes that he no longer wants to be single and swears that he will soon find a wife.
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, he’s told Barney that he has a complex plan, but then Barney tosses him in.
Does the scene eliminate small talk and repeated beats by cutting out the beginning (or possibly even the middle)?
 Yes, it cuts away to Marshall and Lily then back to Robin and Ted when the small talk is over.
Is this an intimidating setting that keeps characters active?
 Yes, they’re in a meat market.
Is one of the scene partners not planning to have this conversation (and quite possibly has something better to do)?
 Yes, she was just getting a drink and she’s supposed to be cheering up her friend.
Is there at least one non-plot element complicating the scene?
 Yes, her “monkey playing the ukulele” story, her friend getting dumped by Daniel.
Does the scene establish its own mini-ticking-clock (if only through subconscious anticipation)?
 Yes, her friends are waiting for her to return and glaring at her.
The Conflict: Do the conflicts play out in a lively manner?
Does this scene both advance the plot and reveal character?
 Very much so for both.
Are one or more characters in the scene emotionally affected by this interaction or action as the scene progresses?
 Ted begins to fall in love.
Does the audience have (or develop) a rooting interest in this scene (which may sometimes shift)?
 Yes, we hope he’ll pick her up.
Are two agendas genuinely clashing (rather than merely two personalities)?
 Yes, she wants to get back, he wants a date.
Does the scene have both a surface conflict and a suppressed conflict (one of which is the primary conflict in this scene)?
 Not really, they’re pretty much one and the same.
Is the suppressed conflict (which may or may not come to the surface) implied through subtext (and/or called out by the other character)?
Are the characters cagy (or in denial) about their own feelings?
 Yes, he doesn’t tell her how into her he is (yet).
Do characters use verbal tricks and traps to get what they want, not just direct confrontation?
 Yes, he ironically overcomes her resistance by inviting her to throw a drink in his face.
Is there re-blocking, including literal push and pull between the scene partners (often resulting in just one touch)?
 Yes, the exchange of the card and the drink.
Are objects given or taken, representing larger values?
 Yes, her card, the drink.
If this is a big scene, is it broken down into a series of mini-goals?
 It’s a small scene.
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?
 Yes, she agrees to a date.
Does the outcome of the scene ironically reverse (and/or ironically fulfill) the original intention?
 Yes, he gets her number by getting a drink thrown in his face.
Are previously-asked questions answered?
 Yes, who’s that girl?
Are new questions posed that will be left unanswered for now?
 Yes, how will it go?
Is the audience left with a growing hope and/or fear for what might happen next? (Not just in the next scene, but generally)
 Yes, we have high hopes for the date.
Does the scene cut out early, on a question (possibly to be answered instantly by the circumstances of the next scene)?
 No, it goes to the end.
Empathetic: Is the dialogue true to human nature?
Does the writing demonstrate empathy for all of the characters?
 Yes, very much so.  Five very different characters are well-drawn and hold their own.
Does each of the characters, including the hero, have a limited perspective?
Are the characters resistant to openly admitting their feelings (to others and even to themselves)?
 Yes, except for when Ted accidentally reveals his feelings too early, but that’s the exception that proves the rule.
Do the characters avoid saying things they wouldn’t say?
Do the characters listen poorly?
 Yes. Barney refuses to hear that he’s not Ted’s best friend, or really any objections to anything.
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)?
 Not really, this is pretty clearly a show written by L.A.-based writers (true, they had recently re-located from New York, but there’s very little real New York syntax here.)
Does the dialogue capture the jargon of the profession and/or setting?
 Very much so: “Suit up!”
Does the dialogue capture the tradecraft of the profession being portrayed?
 Very much so: “Have you met Ted?”  As Barney comes to take over the show, it will become a fascinating look at the mechanics of how lotharios ply their trade.
Heightened: Is the dialogue more pointed and dynamic than real talk?
Is the dialogue more concise than real talk?
Does the dialogue have more personality than real talk?
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)?
Do non-professor characters speak without dependent clauses, conditionals, or parallel construction?
 Yes. (although Ted will go on to be a professor)
Is there one gutpunch scene, where the subtext falls away and the characters really lay into each other?
 Yes.  Robin sets him straight and he deflates.
Genre and Mood: Does the series tap into pre-established expectations?
Does the series fit within one genre (or compatible sub-genres)?
 Romantic comedy
Are unrealistic genre-specific elements a big metaphor for a more common experience (not how life really is, but how life really feels)?
 There are no unrealistic genre-specific elements here.
Separate from the genre, does the pilot establish an overall mood for the series?
 Yes, it’s brisk and raunchy (despite the fact that this is a story he’s telling his kids!)
If there are multiple storylines, do they establish the spectrum of moods available within that overall mood?
 No, the two storylines have the same mix of zaniness and serious relationship stuff.  With only a few exceptions (like when Marshall’s dad died, or Robin found out she couldn’t have kids) this would be a show with little tonal variation.
Is there a moment early on that establishes the type and level of jeopardy?
 Yes, cutting from Marshall to Barney, we see that Ted wants to be Marshall, but is afraid of becoming Barney.
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?
 Oh my yes.  That’s the whole set-up here, and the show will have Saget jump in often to pose more questions, drop more hints and “accidentally” spill details early.  It’s a great device.
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? 
 It’s a false one: Ted implies to his kids that Robin will be their mom (they don’t know their mom’s name??), but it’s a fake out at the end.
Does foreshadowing create anticipation and suspense (and refocus the audience’s attention on what’s important)?
 Yes, very much so.
Are set-up and pay-off used to dazzle the audience, distracting attention from plot contrivances?
 Somewhat.  The contrivance that they’re all in the cab for the conclusion is set up by Barney’s earlier obsession with Ted’s love life, and by their earlier oversharing with another cab driver.
Is the dramatic question of the pilot episode’s plot answered near the end of the story?
 No, it gets stretched out…for nine years.
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 more analytical than other singles, constantly debating their complex theories.
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.)
 It ends with one: “Your olive theory?  Load of crap.”  Which translates to: “Don’t overthink love”
Can the show’s overall ongoing theme be stated in the form of a classic good vs. good (or evil vs. evil) dilemma?
 Yes: fun vs. responsibility.
Throughout the pilot, do the characters have to choose between goods, or between evils, instead of choosing between good and evil?
 Yes, Ted has to choose between lying about his emotionality so he can find love or telling the truth about it which will sabotage any relationship.
Are the storylines in the pilot thematically linked (preferably in an indirect, subtle way)?
 Yes, they’re cleverly linked by the olives: Ted finds an olive match who turns out not to be, and Marshall and Lily realize they still fit even though Marshall’s been lying about olives.
Are small details throughout the pilot tied into the theme?
 Yes, Robin covering the story about the leaper foreshadowing Ted’s leap, for instance.
Will the heroes grapple with new moral gray areas in each episode?
 Well, more like ethical grey areas, as the continually deal with the possibility that Barney is really a bad guy.
Grounded: Do the stakes ring true to the world of the audience?
Does the series’ set-up reflect the way the world works?
Does the series have authentic things to say about this type of setting?
 Yes and no.  There are lots of good specific New York details (NY1!), but there are also a lot of spectacularly wrong details (no New Yorker would check to see if a bodega had a bathroom!) betraying the fact that this was a show created by ex-New Yorkers but made in LA.
Does the ongoing concept include twinges of real life national pain?
 Not really, it’s pretty decontextualized at this point, but it’ll improve at that as time passes.
Are these issues presented in a way that avoids moral hypocrisy?
Do all of the actions in the pilot have real consequences?
 Yes, Ted’s confession.
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, Ted is given no time to process the revelation that Marshall likes olives (and all his theories may therefore be incorrect).
Does the end of the pilot leave the thematic dilemma wide open and irresolvable?
 Yes, very much so.


Emily said...

I think Ted is surrounded, sort of, by people who lack his most valuable quality. Lily and Marshall are people who found true love very quickly and without looking too hard for it; Barney is willing to try ridiculously hard to get meaningless sex, which is not particularly sympathetic. So - I think, to the extent that our sympathies lie with Ted, it's because he has high aspirations and is willing to work really hard for them, and I don't think Marshall and Lily and Barney have that to the same extent.

Matt Bird said...

That's an valid take, but I'm not sure we're supposed to admire his high aspirations. I've always seen those as more a flaw. I'll be exploring this question in more depth later today...